Thursday, February 16, 2017

Biblical 'minimalists' and the historical record

Khirbet Qeiyafa

(by Daniel Peterson 2-16-17)

Biblical archaeologists seldom talk or write about “proving” the Bible true. Usually, what they’re seeking to do is to clarify biblical stories, to flesh them out, to provide a background or a context for them.

However, although it’s not typically their goal, sometimes they do prove things. Sometimes they settle disputes.

An example of this may be furnished by the claims of a small but vocal scholarly movement (originating in England and in Denmark) that is sometimes referred to as the “Copenhagen School” but that has mostly come to be called “biblical minimalism.”

Biblical minimalists, focused largely on the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, have argued that the Bible isn’t a reliable guide to ancient Israelite history and that, in fact, the concept of “Israel” itself is historically dubious. The Israelite monarchs David and Solomon, such minimalists contend, are merely fictional characters (created, perhaps, as late as the fifth century B.C.). There was, they commonly say, no kingdom of Israel in the 10th century B.C. But even if some primitive “Israelite” clan organization existed, they argue, its level of literacy was too low in those early days to allow the writing of the chronicles referred to in the Bible.

However, in recent years the minimalists seem to have been proven wrong regarding each of these claims.

In the 1993-1994 excavation season, for instance, a ninth-century B.C. inscription was located at Tel Dan (very near the northern border of both biblical and modern Israel) in which a Syrian king refers to a “king of Israel” and to “the House of David.”

In reply, minimalists allowed that maybe David had existed, after all. But, they insisted, he was probably only a local tribal chieftain, not the head of a centralized government ruling over an extended territory. It’s difficult to imagine, though, why a merely local southern Israelite chief would be mentioned by a Syrian king’s inscription far north of Jerusalem and Judea, near biblical Israel’s disputed border with Syria.

Moreover, archaeological excavations in the city of Jerusalem’s oldest sector have disclosed strong evidence that a centralized government organization existed there during the era of the biblical David and Solomon. Likewise, digs at Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley and at Khirbet Qeiyafa, to the southwest of Jerusalem, seem to confirm the rise of an Iron Age kingdom during the same period. Some minimalists have tried to dismiss the findings by claiming that Qeiyafa wasn’t Israelite but Philistine.

Unfortunately for their dismissal, though, the building styles uncovered there seem plainly Israelite, not Philistine. Similarly, while the Philistines ate non-kosher pigs and dogs, no pig or dog bones have been recovered thus far from Qeiyafa, which suggests that its residents obeyed Jewish dietary rules.

Finally, in 2008 a 10th-century ostracon or pottery fragment was found at Qeiyafa bearing a short and rather difficult inscription that seems to be either Hebrew or something very like it.

Although its interpretation and even its language have been disputed, the text on the ostracon has been interpreted by leading scholars as exhorting its readers to worship God and to treat widows, orphans, foreigners, slaves and the poor well. The inscription also refers to a king, and it may possibly allude to the recent establishment of a monarchy — demonstrating a level of literacy that would most definitely permit the writing of chronicles, just as the Bible says.

Referring to “the setbacks suffered by Old Testament minimalists” in his book “Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence” (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), which inspired this column, Craig Evans comments that “they illustrate the danger of asserting the non-existence of this or the lack of historicity of that simply on the grounds that we only possess an ancient story. We must remember that only 5 percent of the sites of the biblical world have been excavated; and most of these sites have only been partially excavated. In any case, must every ancient narrative be corroborated by archaeological discoveries? If we insisted on archaeological corroboration before trusting our literary sources, very little history — biblical or otherwise — could be written.”

A postscript on the Book of Mormon: American archaeology is much less developed than that of the ancient biblical world, which, Evans says, remains 95 percent unexcavated. Archaeologically speaking, Israel is by far the most intensively studied place on earth. For a still-important reflection on that fact, see William Hamblin's “Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon” online at


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