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A review of Niels Peter Lemche's The Old Testament Between Theology and History: A Critical Survey (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008)

According to Lemche, all of the biblical writers, who by Hellenistic times had become no more than a small sectarian group, are "united in the same belief in God, because they study the law of God day and night" (p. 337). But Jeremiah and Isaiah (reacting to the Assyrians and later the Babylonians over one hundred years apart) voiced very different ideas about the inviolability of Jerusalem, Hosea viewed the dynasty founded by Jehu far differently than Elijah, Job and Qohelet are anything but biblically orthodox thinkers. These radically different perspectives indicate a longer period necessary for the composition of the entire Old Testament than a compressed time frame during which all biblical authors were in agreement in the simplistic mode that Lemche imagines.

Niels Peter Lemche, The Old Testament Between Theology and History: A Critical Survey (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008): A review by Charles David Isbell, Louisiana State University

By Charles David Isbell
Louisiana State University
June 2009

Niels Peter Lemche is a major figure in current Old Testament studies. From his position as Professor at the Department for Biblical Exegesis, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, his influence on biblical scholarship has been significant. Not only has he authored numerous articles, monographs, and books,i but he has served as Editor-in-Chief of the Scandinavian Journal for the Old Testament for many years. In this latter capacity, Professor Lemche has exhibited healthy respect for a variety of scholarly opinions, often accepting for publication articles by authors with whose views he personally disagrees.ii But he is best known for his persistent criticism of the idea that biblical history, or history as it is presented by biblical authors, can be trusted as actual history. This book continues his attempts to dismantle and discredit the “historical-critical” method of Old Testament scholarship, and ranges across wide vistas of Old Testament studies, including an evaluation of historical-critical scholarship, literary criticism, form criticism, tradition history, redaction history, canon criticism, theology, Israelite history, and more.

In the initial section, “Prolegomena,” teachers of the Old Testament will discover a pithy survey of the contents of Old Testament literature that introduces students quickly and effectively to the subject matter. Likewise, the three chapters of Part I bring students up to speed on the present situation in Old Testament studies, along with a clear and largely accurate explanation of how things came to be as they are in the field. In the following section, chapters four and five offer Lemche’s assessment of the manner in which the historical-critical method that created the current situation in Old Testament studies has fallen from favor. A discussion of the identities of the biblical authors follows (chapters six-nine), and the book concludes with Lemche’s perspective on the theological consequences of the new historiography accompanied by his critique of the various works of biblical theology in the twentieth century. It is fascinating that Lemche concludes this section with a chapter titled, “The Contribution of the Copenhagen School,” particularly in light of the frequent protests previously lodged against the use of a single phrase to define scholars like Lemche, his colleague Thomas Thompson, Phillip Davies, Mario Liverani, Keith Whitelam, and others, all of whom share a disdain for the idea that the history of ancient Israel as found in biblical texts is “a normal textbook of the history of ancient Israel” (p. 382). In Lemche’s opinion, “It is not possible to reconstruct a real history that has much in common with the story told by biblical historiographers” (p. 161). His own presentation of what such a real history would look like is offered in a concluding appendix titled, “The History of Israel or the History of Palestine” (pp. 393-453)? While Lemche’s deconstruction of Old Testament “history” offers little that is not already well known to followers of the “Copenhagen School,” these opening chapters provide a useful summary for students and those unfamiliar with minimalist arguments.

Now the idea that the Bible does not offer “normal/real/actual history” is not limited to scholars of the “Copenhagen School.”iii What is unique about Lemche is the construct that he proposes as an alternative. At the outset, Lemche is critical of what he perceives to be the circular reasoning on which Old Testament scholars have relied for the past two hundred years. He is also concerned to note that the abandonment of the allegorical method by Luther and his followers was a disservice to a long tradition of biblical exegesis, noting correctly that “earlier biblical interpretation allowed for an allegorical reading as well as a literal one” (p. 265). He might have noted in addition that Luther himself fell far short of his own stated goal of “plain sense” interpretation, opting instead for a method that read the Old Testament only through the lens of the New, a tacit admission that the Old Testament actually has no meaning in its own right.

This leads to the most important statement in the entire book. “No scholarly hypothesis is independent of the person who formulates it” (p. 102), a statement with which few scholars disagree. And Lemche is quite open about revealing his own personal views as an Old Testament scholar. For him, only those biblical narratives that may be verified by an external source may be trusted. For example, “The Babylonian Chronicle proves the first conquest [of Jerusalem] … in 597 BCE, to be a historical fact” (p. 115), but because the Chronicle does not extend as late as 587, the biblical account of “the second conquest is no more than an assertion made by the authors of the biblical narrative” (p. 116). Why, one might ask, does the corroboration of one biblical record not make the second more plausible? In this one case, it does, according to Lemche: “It is more than likely that the second capture of Jerusalem really took place” (pp. 115-6), but, because it is not externally verified, this part of the biblical account does not rise to the level of certitude. In other words, a scholar may verify a biblical account with reference to an external account, but the process cannot work the other way around.

This raises an important question. Since we acknowledge that biblical history has its own slant, should we not also note that Babylonian and Assyrian sources have theirs as well? The Sennacherib invasion of 701 BCE furnishes a classic example. The biblical accounts perceive the incident to have ended as a total Judahite victory and consider the source of that victory to have been YHWH. The Assyrian account asserts that Sennacherib’s own god, Ashur, had enabled him to overwhelm numerous rebelling cities throughout the empire and boasts that Hezekiah had willingly paid an exorbitant increase in annual tribute to buy him off (a fact mentioned also in 2 Kings 18.13-16). Both accounts agree that Jerusalem was attacked, both note that Jerusalem was not conquered, and both note that the Assyrian army left before completing its siege. Both agree that tribute was paid. And both accounts perceive the incident as a victory brought about by their respective national deities.iv How is one more “true” than the other?

We find a similar situation with respect to the idea of a return from exile. Of course, Cyrus proclaims that Marduk was responsible for “naming him to become ruler of the entire world” (it was after all Marduk’s Babylonian Empire that Cyrus conquered), while Ezra attributes the success of Cyrus to his own deity, YHWH. This is exactly what we would expect. But Lemche goes farther. Because, “the Old Testament has almost no information about life in the exile” (p. 155), and because there is a dearth of information about it in Neo-Babylonian or Persian documents as well, Lemche is led to ask (p. 156), “was this exile real?” But the fact that there is little in the Old Testament about life in exile cannot then be taken as an indictment of scholars who “suppose that the information found in the Old Testament is historically sound” (p. 157), much less to deny the fact of an exile in toto.v In other words, it is one thing to view the Old Testament interpretation of the exile with skepticism, quite another to doubt that an exile even occurred. Lacking an exile, even one inadequately interpreted by the Old Testament or external Babylonian/Persian sources, how would one explain that only a minority of Jews in the world lived in Jerusalem rather than in Babylonia after 587 BCE?

Yet it is the minority status of Judahites who had remained in Jerusalem to which Lemche points as the major impetus for the composition of the Old Testament by those in Babylonia who sought political dominance in Jerusalem. This is basic to his argument that the Old Testament is, “an ideological construction created at a later [unspecified] date to legitimize the right of the Jews to Palestine in spite of the fact that they were not the only ones whose ancestors had lived in the country” (p. 156). But what external evidence is there that anyone in the Persian government ever read the Old Testament and was thereby convinced that the Jews should be granted political leadership? Where in the Torah does one find Persian vocabulary to betray the historical fact that its authors were living in the era of the Persian Empire? There are numerous Babylonian, Egyptian, and Aramaic loan words in the Torah, evidence of Israelite interaction with these kingdoms, but nothing Based on what external evidence can one argue that the story of the Old Testament portrays a group of people who deserved to be chosen by the Persian government for political leadership? According to the Old Testament, the Israelites did not originate in Palestine, but came originally from Mesopotamia as a small Abrahamic group, left to spend four centuries in Egypt, and only then came back to seize the land. Furthermore, they disappointed their own deity by flaunting the rules of society that they themselves embraced as His vassals, and according to the prophets, justly deserved their destruction. How could the Persian government be persuaded by this story to grant political leadership to such a people? How willingly would Persian authorities have accepted the idea that a foreign deity (YHWH) was responsible for their success? Or where can we turn for Persian documents that will falsify such an account? In short, the period during which Lemche wants the Old Testament to be written is precisely the era about which we know the least. If neither from external nor from internal biblical accounts do we have adequate information about the “real” history of the Persian period, simply noting the historiographical/theological bias of biblical authors does little to help us affirm or deny the meaning that they assigned to this period of their history.

According to Lemche, all of the biblical writers, who by Hellenistic times had become no more than a small sectarian group, are “united in the same belief in God, because they study the law of God day and night” (p. 337). But Jeremiah and Isaiah (reacting to the Assyrians and later the Babylonians over one hundred years apart) voiced very different ideas about the inviolability of Jerusalem, Hosea viewed the dynasty founded by Jehu far differently than Elijah, Job and Qohelet are anything but biblically orthodox thinkers. These radically different perspectives indicate a longer period necessary for the composition of the entire Old Testament than a compressed time frame during which all biblical authors were in agreement in the simplistic mode that Lemche imagines. Lemche’s own definition elsewhere—“Is this morally and ethically true?” (p. 324)—is more helpful as a way forward for biblical exegesis than his intemperate designation of all biblical writers as monolithic “Taliban” (p. 337).

Lemche is also outspoken on the issue of Old Testament theology, judging the major works of historical-critical scholars to be little more than a regurgitation of Israelite history as portrayed by the Old Testament authors themselves. And it is in his discussion of the theological importance of the Old Testament that the chief burden of Lemche is made clear. Noting that, “the New Testament authors made extensive use of the Old Testament,vii but according to historical-critical scholarship they often distorted its meaning” (p. 266), Lemche asserts that “the real tragedy of historical-critical scholarship is that it has created a gap between the Old and the New Testament that is extraordinarily difficult to bridge” (p. 265). Here one might well ask whether such scholarship has created the gap or simply acknowledged its existence. Surprisingly, Lemche revives a tired old saw to point the way forward: “The Old Testament is in the New, and the New Testament is in the Old” (pp. 269, 376).

But this formula is true only in a Christian context, as Lemche readily admits: “Christian eyes colored by New Testament sentiments will still regard Judaism as representing ‘the dead letter of the Law’” (p. 371, emphasis added). This surely violates the goal of interpreting biblical literature on its own terms. Where, one might ask, is the New Testament in the Old? In Lemche’s eyes, the answer is virtually everywhere. So the question may be asked another way. Can a non-Christian scholar, lacking NT-colored eyes, interpret the “Old” Testament in any fashion that Lemche might find acceptable? If Lemche and his peers have indeed “liberated the Old Testament from history” (p. 324), should this not mean that they have liberated it from the historiography of the New Testament as well? The NT quotations of the Old often clearly shift the ground under the feet of an earlier narrative,viii and among the many examples that one could cite (see below), the NT authors clearly show little respect for the historiography (forget real history for the moment) of the OT. It seems to this reviewer that Lemche’s concern to couple the OT and the NT together presents an insurmountable obstacle to interpreting the OT on its own terms. Still, as a Christian interpreter, Lemche clearly feels the need to view the OT and the NT as important components of a single whole.

Here we come to the crux of the matter regarding Old Testament interpretation. If historical-critical methods have acknowledged (not created!) the gap between the Old and the New, we might well ask whether this is the tragedy that Lemche perceives it to be. In a brief aside calling for greater tolerance between religious traditions (pp. 275-6), Lemche notes that Islam accepts both the Jewish and the Christian scriptures as sacred yet fails to address the fact that the Islamic rereading of both testaments is hardly a sign of respect. Islam’s position is clearly that both Jews and Christians have misinterpreted their own sacred texts, and both testaments need to be Islamicized. This can be demonstrated in numerous instances. Since in Islam a prophet could not have been a sinner, all the negative aspects of stories about David and Solomon find no place in the Qur’an. Isaac becomes Ishmael. The Moses-like prophet to come is none of the well known figures in the Jewish Bible, but an obvious reference to Muhummad. Similar examples can be multiplied.

When Islam reads the NT, it denies explicitly the sonship of Jesus, for in Islam, God is not a father and does not have a son. The paraclete to come is not the Holy Spirit of early Christianity, but Muhummad himself. And the question of whether Jesus actually died via crucifixion, absolutely basic to NT and early Christianity, is strongly doubted in Islam. How, one might wonder, is it acceptable for Islam to claim that it accepts both testaments of Judaism and Christianity, not as they are read by their own respective communities of faith (who created them), but only after submitting them to major theological and literary surgery?

Since NT surgery on OT texts functions exactly in the same manner, the same question can be asked regarding the Christian rereading of the Jewish scriptures for which Lemche is calling. If, in the eighth century BCE (or whenever Lemche dates the passage), Isaiah was indeed describing a virgin birth to take place only hundreds of years later, what possible meaning could his words have carried for his own audience in his own era? Why would anyone have venerated, studied, copied, and transmitted to subsequent generations the words of Isaiah that meant nothing to them and their world? If Hosea, using the collective noun “son,” was correct in describing an exodus from Egypt that involved all Israelites, what respect for the text is shown when Matthew simply transvalues the Hebrew collective “son” into the Greek singular, and finds a reference not to an entire group, but only to Jesus? Where is Matthew’s respect for Zechariah when he turns a single colt into two animals and has Jesus ride both of them into Jerusalem at the same time in a circus-like feat? Still, by accepting the idea of most Christian theologians that, “the New Testament is incomprehensible if left alone,” Lemche can assert that, “We only have to read the introduction to the Gospel of Matthew with its long genealogy to understand why! (pp. 373-4). Such an assertion is indeed strange to a Jewish reader, who notes in Matthew’s opening chapter the care with which the genealogy of Joseph is traced back to David, only to learn in the following paragraph that Joseph had absolutely nothing to do with the conception and birth of Jesus. Joseph may have been a Davidide, but his blood lines have nothing to do with Jesus! Finally, of course, the deity of the Old Testament does not die and does not need to be resurrected by, well God. Contrary to Lemche’s claims about the carelessness of the historical-critical method, such observations derive not from preconceived ideology, but by a careful reading of the texts themselves.

If the Old Testament and the New Testament can be unified into a composite Christian Bible only by a radical rereading of the Old Testament text itself, perhaps it is time for Christian scholarship to admit the obvious. The Old Testament as written does not lead inexorably to Christianity! Only the radical reciphering of NT authors creates such a bond, but it is a link that does not exist if one accepts the historiography of each testament of its own terms. And this is true whether one wishes to retain the essential historicity of the Old Testament or whether one agrees with Lemche that its pages contain only historiography which does not reflect real history with any degree of accuracy. Either view undermines the foundation of Christianity that is crucial to the New Testament authors and to early Christianity. And this is a fact of which Lemche is acutely aware. “Anti-Judaism is, so to speak, the raison d’être of Christianity” (p. 371). But it is not accurate to assert that “Jewish theologians have objected to this anti-Judaism, but they don’t understand the reasons for it” (p. 371). It is not difficult to understand that whenever the NT needs a crucial doctrine in order to present a cogent new faith to the world, it simply finds it in the OT, reinterprets it radically, and claims the new reading to be authentic in contradistinction to the way in which it is presented by the Old Testament authors. To substitute New Testament historiography with its radical rereading of the Old Testament for the historical-critical reconstruction of its narratives seems to be the pathway of choice for Lemche. But it is not a pathway that solves the problem that he himself articulates.

Here then we see the two aspects of disagreement Lemche has with the historical-critical method. Not only does he consider it circular and historically misleading, but he is gravely disturbed that its results rupture the link between the two testaments of Christianity. Only by substituting the historiography of the NT for that of the OT can the link be sustained. For readers who do not choose to peer through the lens of the NT as they read the OT, there is no link.

I sincerely hope that my respect for Lemche as a scholar and as a person is clear. I admire his erudition and his courage. I agree with him on many points about the concept of “history” as portrayed in biblical narrative. And I think he is correct that historical-critical scholarship calls into serious question a basic tenet of early Christianity—the link between the Old and the New Testaments. For him, that is a negative result. For me, and I suspect for other Jewish scholars, such a result is in fact positive. A hardheaded look at what the NT actually claims for itself and its followers (that “old Israel … is no more” [p. 375], that only Christians are the new and true deserving members of the divine covenant, that the death knell for legalistic Jews has been sounded, etc.) is not unwelcome. Perhaps only such a rethinking of NT [mis]use of the Hebrew Scriptures can open the way for Jewish and Christian thinkers to discuss theology in an atmosphere of mutual respect. As a Jew, it is possible for me to read the NT spin on the OT and conclude that the authors were wrong—for me! I applaud the fact that Lemche, unlike many earlier (and some current) Christian scholars, affirms Judaism as a pathway to God with its own independent integrity, and I accept willingly the idea that NT historiographical reinterpretation of the Old Testament has its own integrity as well—for Lemche! But Lemche goes too far when he claims NT historiography as “the conclusion to the narrative of the Old Testament” (p. 375). It is a conclusion, but it is clearly not the only conclusion that can be drawn.ix

The two religious traditions have unique and different methods of historiography, both of which scholars of history may criticize. Christianity’s long history of papering over these differences, which it can do only by assuming that NT historiography trumps OT historiography, has been a false pathway from the outset. Lemche is correct that only a reader who accepts the authority of a biblical text personally, as he or she reads and understands it, finds true value in the Bible.

iIncluding, among many others, Ancient Israel: A New History of Israelite Society, Biblical Seminar 5 (Sheffield: JSOT), 1988); The Israelites in History and Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998): Prelude to Israel’s Past: Background and Beginnings of Israelite History and Identity (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998);The Canaanites and Their Land: The Traditions of the Canaanites (2nd ed., JSOTSup 110: Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999); and “'Because They have Cast Away the Law of the Lord of Hosts’—Or: ‘We and the Rest of the World.’ The Authors Who ‘Wrote' the Old Testament,” SJOT 17 (2003): 268-90.

iiIncluding two by the present reviewer.

iiiThis very topic was the subject of a recent article by the present reviewer. Charles David Isbell, “‘History’ and ‘Writing’ in Biblical Literature.” Bible and Interpretation. [] 2004. In fact, it was the reviewer’s doctoral advisor, Cyrus Gordon, who demanded that his students read and digest all five volumes of Eduard Meyer’s incomparable Geschichte des Altertums, noted by Lemche (p. 125) as the work responsible for discrediting the historical methodology of modern historical critics more than one hundred years ago.

ivSennacherib was not defeated, as Lemche notes (p. 118), and Jerusalem was not taken.

vTo cite only a single example, Psalm 137 clearly presupposes a Babylonian setting. And the Babylonian Chronicle itself recounts the capture and exile of a number of Judahites.

viI have discussed this issue in “Zoroastrianism and Biblical Religion,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 34/3 (2006) 143-154.

viiWhich did not yet exist as a “canon” when they wrote, as Lemche notes correctly in chapter eleven.

viiiAs Lemche notes, for example, with respect to Paul’s complete distortion of the Hagar story in Galatians 4.21-31.

ixThe rabbinic reconstruction of the Miqra’ into early rabbinic Judaism is stark testimony to the fact that more than one reading of the Old Testament is possible.