Historical Criticism and Textual Interpretation – Part 1/3.

Part 1: Contested Foundations of Archaeology

Related Posts:

Part 2: Archaeological Evidence – A Reality Check

Part 3: Biblical History and Textual Interpretation

One of my readers suggests I have been too simplistic when I dismissed the Documentary Hypothesis and questioned the validity of historical criticism. After all, rational discourse demands interrogation of texts. He submits that my rejection of historical criticism is erroneous as Christianity is a faith grounded in the “God Who Acts in history”. Worse still, insulating the Bible from rational historical criticism amounts to adopting a dogmatic mindset that is no different from that of the Islamists.

It is true that I reject the Documentary Hypothesis for literary and historical reasons. However, my assessment of historical criticism is more nuanced. Unlike the Islamists and other extreme fundamentalists, I make careful use of the historical method. To be sure, there is historical method and there is historical method. The historical method that I reject is that based on the Enlightenment rationality championed by Ernst Troeltsch who taught that history is a closed continuum that precludes reference to divine revelation. Human reason becomes sovereign in historical judgment with pretensions of neutrality in interpretation. Not surprisingly, critical scholars who elevate human reason above divine revelation display skepticism towards the reliability of biblical history and its truth claims. However, their claim of neutrality has been debunked by the hermeneutical critique of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.

My presuppositions for relating history and the biblical texts is one of believing criticism and post-critical hermeneutics. I seek to apply a historical method that is consistent with belief in God’s manifestation of himself through mighty acts, prophetic interpretation of the vicissitudes of the history of biblical Israel, and the final inscription of God’s Word in the Bible. Such a belief is rejected by critical scholars who then deploy a critical historical method that takes liberty with the biblical text which they do not regarded as inspired or authoritative.

Please allow me to share my journey which began in the 1970s when I was introduced to the discipline of historical criticism dealing with the problem of the synoptic gospels, the controversy surrounding form criticism and disputes about the formation of the Pentateuch. I was filled with excitement in my initial foray into the world of biblical archaeology when I read Edwin Yamauchi, The Stones and the Scriptures (IVP1972), Kenneth Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (IVP1966) and The Bible in its World: The Bible & Archaeology Today (IVP 1977), John A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology 3ed (Eerdmans 1982), and of course the basic work by the great biblical archaeologist, William Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (Pelican 1949). Their works confirmed that the Bible is not a book comprising etiological myths spun from campfire stories, but is grounded in well attested ancient history. I recall the excitement as I listened at a dinner table to David Gooding, an expert on the Septuagint explaining how the newly discovered 2000 Ebla Tablets in Syria (dated 2500 BC) confirm that the biblical picture of life in the Patriarchal (Abrahamic) Age is consistent with the milieu of society described in these tablets.  John Thompson concurs,

The names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob are quite in place in the Amorite world of the day. Our knowledge of the codes of Hammurabi and other gives us the laws, manners, and customs of Mesopotamia before 1700 BC. The picture is enriched by other insights into the laws of the Sumerians, Hittites, Assyrians and Babylonians. In particular the Nuzi documents of about 1500 BC tell of the habits of the Hurrians.

The Biblical patriarchs fit admirably into such a cultural setting. They are many resemblances to patriarchal society. It is particularly noticeable that a great many of these customs were not known in the later times, say in the tenth of in the ninth century BC. The fact that they are so many links with the world of the first part of the second millennium BC is inexplicable if the stories of the patriarchs are only inventions of later days. It would have been impossible for the Israelites of those centuries to have access to such information as we now find beneath the earth on thousands of clay tablets. The fact that the Bible customs are so close to the contemporary customs is a strong argument either of written record, as for reliable oral traditions. We are compelled to conclude that the narratives of Gen 12-50 have a solid historical basis.

Archaeology also strengthened my faith in the historical accuracy of the New Testament. Indeed, it was archaeology that trumped the unbridled speculations of the German form critics of the New Testament represented Bultmann, Dibelius and the Tubingen school which divided primitive Christianity into watertight compartments of Jewish Christianity vs Paul and Gentile Christianity. Their theory was exposed and found wanting by new archaeology data. As Albright notes, “The form-critical school founded by M. Dibelius and R. Bultmann a generation before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has continued to flourish without the slightest regard for the Dead Sea Scrolls. In other words, all radical schools in the New Testament criticism which have existed in the past or which exist today are pre-archaeological, and are, therefore since they were built in der Luft (‘in thin air’), quite antiquated today.”

I was greatly assured by the writings of the great archaeologist William Ramsay who convinced the dogmatic academia that Luke is indeed a reliable historian. In his work, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen, Ramsay describes his initial skepticism of the historical accuracy of book of Acts as he was convinced by the “ingenuity and apparent completeness of the Tubingen theory”, but as his archaeological work proceeded, “I found myself often brought into contact with the book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth”.

The eminent Egyptologist, Kenneth Kitchen’s decisive rebuttal of the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch (I may also include Umberto Cassuto’s critique) and William Ramsay’s repudiation of the Tubingen school impressed me that it is historical data that puts a check on any irresponsible theorizing by critics of the Bible. As Albright puts it succinctly, “From the standpoint of the objective historian, data cannot be disproved by criticisms of the accidental literary framework in which they occur, unless there are solid independent reasons for rejecting the historicity of an appreciable number of other data found in the same framework.” [From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process (John Hopkins Press, 1940), pp.293-294]

Finally, my confidence in the reliability of biblical history was sealed as I read John Bright, A History of Israel (for a University of London theological exam in 1979). It was clear to me that the evidence of biblical history should not be just resting on incidental archaeological findings, but that biblical history is consolidated when it is integrated with archaeological findings to present a plausible picture of life and society in ancient times.

That was how my youthful faith was nurtured in the halcyon age of Biblical archaeology. However, soon after, it was suggested by critics that the biblical scholars are premature in drawing positive conclusions from ambiguous archaeological evidence. For example, the so-called Solomon stable at Megiddo may actually be just a warehouse. Furthermore, the refined stratigraphic dating techniques used by Kathleen Kenyon cast doubt on some of the assured results as the new date for the fallen walls of Jericho differs from the traditional date of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. Soon, the reigning consensus built by William Albright and John Bright was challenged by the so-called Copenhagen minimalist school of archaeology which questioned even the reality of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and the existence of the kingdom of David.

The contestation of archaeology did not result from new discoveries, but arose when the minimalists challenged the traditional approach to archaeology as they adopted the presumption that the biblical texts should be doubted unless they are corroborated by concrete archaeological artifacts. Archaeological artifact, or the lack of it trumps over biblical texts. The absence of historical artifacts – such as the impossibility of identifying fragments of Noah’s Ark in Mount Ararat and failure or to locate the remains of the palace of David and Solomon – led the minimalists to assert that the biblical literature are really fabricated stories, historicized fiction or royal ideological tracts composed long after the ostensive historical events. The biblical texts may shed light on ancient historiography rather than describe actual history.

To be sure, the minimalist archaeologists were in turn challenged by the so-called maximalists who continued to defend the legacy of Albright. However, one wonders if faith should depend on the contested foundations of archaeology as the battle rages between the minimalist scholars (Thomas Thompson and Philip Davies) and the maximalist scholars (Kenneth Kitchen), and the so-called moderates (William Dever).

It is a truism that epistemological presuppositions influence research outcome even in such an earthy discipline like archaeology and history, but this does not suggest that the task to integrate archaeology and biblical history is a futile venture. Indeed, hope is not lost. Minimalism has not won the debate. Despite the ebb and flow of critical scholarship, I am thankful that my faith in the reliability of biblical text and history has remained intact as I look to believing historians like Kenneth Kitchen, Alan Millard, Richard Hess, Ian Provan and James Hoffmeier and T. Desmond Alexander and Duane Garrett. Their works demonstrate confidence in the viability of the project of integrating text and artifact to present a plausible picture of the history of ancient Israel. Perhaps critics should give more credence to the claim that the biblical texts are rooted in reliable history.

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For a critical engagement with the minimalist school of archaeology:

William Dever. What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel. Eerdmans, 2001.

Recommended Texts by Believing Historians
Bill Arnold & Richard Hess. Ancient Israel’s History: An Introduction to Issues and Sources. Baker 2014
Iain Provan, Philips Long & Tremper Longman. A Biblical History of Israel. Westminster 2003.
Richard Hess. Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey. Baker 2007.

Part 2: Historical Faith and Reality Check – Fragmentary Archaeological Evidence

Part 3: Biblical History & Textual Interpretation

1 thought on “Historical Criticism and Textual Interpretation – Part 1/3.”

  1. Besides Kenneth Kitchen, Alan Millard, Richard Hess, Ian Provan and James Hoffmeier and T. Desmond Alexander and Duane Garrett, there is a new argument articulated by Rabbi Joshua Berman, Senior Lecturer at the Zalman Shamir Bible Deparment of Bar-Ilan University.

    Berman points out several phrases in the Book of Exodus that parallel Egyptian Pharaohs’ imperial propaganda contained in the Kadesh poem. For instance:

    In the Kadesh poem we read: Then when my troops and chariotry saw me, that I was like Montu , my arm strong, . . . then they presented themselves one by one, to approach the camp at evening time. They found all the foreign lands, among which I had gone, lying overthrown in their blood . . . . I had made white [with their corpses] the countryside of the land of Kadesh. Then my army came to praise me, their faces [amazed/averted] at seeing what I had done.

    Exodus 14:30-31 is remarkably similar, and in two cases identical: “Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And when Israel saw the great hand which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord.” As I noted earlier, “great hand” here and “great arm” in 15:16 are used exclusively in the Hebrew Bible with regard to the exodus, a trope found elsewhere only within Egyptian propaganda, especially during the late-second-millennium New Kingdom.

    Evidence such as this suggests a relation between the Egyptian and Hebrew sources:

    I’m fully aware that similarities between two ancient texts do not automatically imply that one was inspired by the other, and also that common terms and images were the intellectual property of many cultures simultaneously. […] Thus, although few if any ancient battle accounts record an army on the march that is suddenly attacked by a massive chariot force and breaks ranks as a result, it could still be that Exodus and the Kadesh poem employ this motif independently.

    What really suggests a relation between the two texts, however, is the totality of the parallels, plus the large number of highly distinctive motifs that appear in these two works alone. No other battle account known to us either from the Hebrew Bible or from the epigraphic remains of the ancient Near East provide even half the number of shared narrative motifs exhibited here. […]

    To be plain about it, the parallels I have drawn here do not “prove” the historical accuracy of the Exodus account, certainly not in its entirety. […]

    But my own conclusion is […]: the evidence adduced here can be reasonably taken as indicating that the poem was transmitted during the period of its greatest diffusion, which is the only period when anyone in Egypt seems to have paid much attention to it: namely, during the reign of Ramesses II himself. In my view, the evidence suggests that the Exodus text preserves the memory of a moment when the earliest Israelites reached for language with which to extol the mighty virtues of God, and found the raw material in the terms and tropes of an Egyptian text well-known to them. In appropriating and “transvaluing” that material, they put forward the claim that the God of Israel had far outdone the greatest achievement of the greatest earthly potentate.

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