Review of “A Biblical History of Israel”, Chapter 3

Review of Chapter 2.

It is in this chapter the trio finally begin to answer the question of how one distinguishes truth from falsehood. The trio begin by stating that they wish to demonstrate the ridiculous (in my eyes) assertion that Biblical history is just as objective, if not more, than non-Biblical history. They continue by claiming TLT’s statement “There is no more ‘ancient Israel’…This we do know” is the logical conclusion of modern Biblical studies, though most Biblical scholars would not accept this statement. The trio then make the claim that, as narrative history has made a comeback among historians, Biblical history should be given the benefit of the doubt. The trio claim the critical thinking present in the historical community is a product of a “closeted environment”. The authors speculate that this is due to present-day critical scholarship being a child of the nineteenth century. The trio blathers on about TLT’s “faith” in “testimony” and his lack of it, this idea of theirs being heavily criticized by me in the review of chapters 1 and 2. The trio alleges TLT has “privileged nonbiblical testimony epistemologically”. I do not know whether or not this is the case, but, either way, this is at best a simplified summary of what critical biblical scholars believe, and, at worst, an utter straw man created entirely by the imaginations of the authors. As another slap to the reader’s intelligence, the trio have the gall to call their maximalist Biblical History of Israel “alternative”. The authors seem to view their (ancient) method of writing Biblical History as an alternative to genuinely recent (and still very much under-written and almost entirely unread) wholly non-Biblical history of Israel. Indeed, I am not aware of any volume on the history of Iron Age Palestine that does not rely at least partially on the Bible (with the possible exception of TLT’s “Early History” and a few others I have forgotten).

The authors again quote some author in a futile attempt to establish the ridiculous notion that ancient historians could write history as critical as that modern historians can write. Refer to my review of Chapter 2 for my dismissal of this idea. Though the authors strangely admit that “[t]o tell us about Israel’s past is certainly not the only purpose of these narratives; it is arguably not even their main purpose”, they neglect to discuss, even briefly, how those other purposes may influence the Biblical authors’ attempts at history-writing. The authors also claim that “[w]hether it were one of their purposes or not, they might still succeed in doing [history-writing]”. Needless to say, people can’t accomplish what they don’t know how to do. The authors then ask the perfectly good question of why scholars have a critical distrust of large portions of the Old Testament.

The authors finally get around to the question of how one distinguishes truth from falsehood by posing what they seem to view as a stumper for critical scholars: when does one provisionally reject a Biblical claim and wait for it to be verified and when does one provisionally accept a Biblical claim and wait for it to be falsified? The answer to this question, of course, can be derived from the dictum that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. When an extraordinary claim supporting the truth of an extraordinary statement, such as that there was a real Noahic flood, is made, that extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence for its support, and, thus, should be subject to the so-called “verification principle”. Likewise, when an ordinary claim supporting the falsehood of an extraordinary statement is made, that ordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence to refute it, and, thus, should be subject to the so-called “falsification principle”. When an extraordinary claim supporting the falsehood of an ordinary statement is made, extraordinary evidence is required for that ordinary claim’s refutation. When an ordinary claim supporting the falsehood of an ordinary statement is made, however, only ordinary evidence is required for the refutation of the first. When that ordinary evidence is not provided, the first ordinary claim supporting the falsehood of the second ordinary statement is strengthened.

Of course, the definitions of “extraordinary” and “ordinary” change over time; what was an ordinary claim in one decade (e.g., a strong United Monarchy) is an extraordinary one in the next; what was an unthinkable claim in one decade (e.g., Chronicles‘ composition in the Hasmonean era) is a well-supported one in the next. But this does not change the answer to the authors’ question, rather, it qualifies it, allowing us to understand that what scholars see now may not be what scholars see later and that our present perspective is necessarily limited. But the fact it is limited does not mean it is nonexistent.

The authors, as we might expect, style themselves the true skeptics; the skeptics of the so-called “verification principle”. Yet, if I say that lemonade cures all cancers, the authors would surely not use the “falsification principle” in response to my claim. They also ask the poor question of what constitutes “verification”; needless to say, the answer is different in each case. They also point to the inevitable appearance of subjectivity of at least some historians’ judgements. Yet, the fact that subjectivity is often to be found in scholarship does not mean we can dispense with evidence. They also laugh at a consistent application of the so-called “verification principle”, failing to understand what I have written in the above two paragraphs. They also imagine that “the delusion that we possess knowledge unmediated by faith” (the authors never define “faith”, though see below) “-is indeed only possible if skepticism is directed at some testimonies about, and interpretations of, the past, and not at others” (emphasis not added). This is an astounding display of the Biblical inerrantist mind at work-it cannot imagine that others do not believe in the concept of the necessary inerrancy of at least some sources. It cannot imagine any sliding scale of textual reliability. It can only accept two judgments about a text, “inerrant” and “not inerrant”. Needless to say, historians should apply skepticism to all texts, not refuse its application for a privileged few.

The authors continue to mock a so-called consistent application of the “verification principle”. The authors imagine that it is not the failure of archaeologists to find the ruins of Joshua’s Jericho, not the lack of Late Bronze finds at et-Tell, not excavations and surveys in the Sinai, the Negev, and Transjordan, not the Tel Aviv University-led surveys of the West Bank, and not the collapse of the Albright paradigm that led to the “end of “ancient Israel””, as they put it, but, rather, “an advance in ignorance as a result of the quasi-consistent application of the verification principle”. While certainly the latter has been partially responsible for the decline of the use of Judges and I Kings for the reconstruction of the history of Iron Age Cisjordan, it is the former that was responsible for the decline of the use of Joshua and the Pentateuch for the reconstruction of the history of Late Bronze Age Cisjordan. The authors conclude this section with their statement that “there is… no reason why any text offering testimony about the past… should be bracketed out of our historical discussions until it has passed some obscure “verification test””, thus cementing themselves as totally uncritical readers of all texts, including email spam, the Daily Mail, and Lucian’s “True History”. They follow up with an irrelevant quote from Wright and an untrue one by Richardson (“no-one believes that historical judgements can be ‘proved’ after the fashion of verification in the natural sciences”, ignoring the fact human prehistory is derived by basically the same methods as non-human prehistory).

The trio then go on to more thoroughly explain their belief that the distance of a historical source from the events it describes does not have any significant influence its reliability. The authors state (not in the words I use here) what they consider to be the most influential rules of history: that historical information is lost over time and space, that bias leads people to be more prone to omit or falsify data, and that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. All these rules seem good ones to me. According to the trio, “[w]hat has changed in recent times is not the rules, but the extent to which the biblical text is seen as unsatisfactory in respect of them”. The authors correctly point out that eyewitnesses are, like secondhand reporters, interpreters of events. They also point out that while secondhand reporters may distort the “testimony” of eyewitnesses, they may also provide that “testimony” with a more proper context. They fail to emphasize, however, that information is lost over time and space. They also neglect to point out that the farther the distance between events and those events’ recording, the fewer corrections can be made to that recording. Though the authors point out that textual transmission chains may be quite secure, it is rare that a later scribe can legitimately correct a much earlier text, and, needless to say, it is common that a later scribe can botch the transcription of an earlier text, leaving even later textual critics much busier than they should be.

The authors speculate, without the tiniest bit of evidence, that the Genesis traditions could “just as possibly” have been “communicated in both written and oral forms from an early stage”. While the authors point out the OT certainly indicates that Moses was literate, they give no evidence of any literacy at either Iron I Bethel or Shiloh, where the Pentateuchal traditions were supposedly (very unlikely actually) preserved. The trio then makes the laughable, ridiculous, and jaw-dropping assertion that the Exodus tradition is an indication of humility on the part of the authors of the Bible. Humble origins, whether real or imaginary, are often used to justify achievements too meager for those of lofty origins. If one needs confirmation of this obvious truth, one need only look at the persecution fantasies of the Christian Right. Also, since when was writing that one’s ethnic group was once a powerless one that was assisted by God an indication of humility? Such a description is guaranteed to give that ethnic group the appearance of the moral high ground.

The trio uses Middle Bronze Age Hebron as an example of a “small and isolated town” with a literate class. Of course, Middle Bronze Age Hebron might have been small and isolated, but it was strongly fortified, and very likely an independent city-state. Nothing prevented unfortified Late Bronze Age Jerusalem from becoming an independent city-state with a literate class. This, of course, does not mean that places like Shiloh or Beitin had any literacy whatsoever; there is no evidence of literacy I am aware of from either of these two towns/villages in the Iron I. The authors also claim that “the evidence” does not “justify recent attempts to limit literacy to specific classes of people (such as priests, scribes, or administrators)”, citing no actual evidence to justify this bold claim. The authors continue with a series of “may have had”s, “likely”s, “there is no reason to think [something reeking of minimalism]” ‘s, “may indeed”‘s and “could have”s. All of these speculations are put into the text exclusively for the purpose of making Biblical maximalism seem more plausible to the average reader. The trio also laughably claim that a “presupposition in 2 Samuel of a distribution of Negev settlements that conforms to the archaeology of the tenth century but not of later centuries” exists, showing how detached the authors can be from reality. The authors correctly criticize those who see the Primary History as basically post-Exilic, though they do not refute those who claim the Primary History is dependent on Hellenistic works (that job shall be left to me sometime later this year).

The authors then use the flawed methodology ridiculed by me five to six paragraphs above to shield their speculations from criticism. They appear to claim that when an ordinary claim supporting the falsehood of an ordinary statement (e.g., a claim alleging Nehemiah 2 is fiction) is made, extraordinary evidence is required for its confirmation and that it is the lack of extraordinary evidence from the falsehood-supporting claim that should be decisive enough for the determination of the probable truth of the matter. Yet, this is not the case; when both the claims to the falsehood and truth of a statement are ordinary, it is ordinary evidence, not extraordinary evidence, that should be decisive enough for the determination of the probable truth of the matter.

The authors then gleefully attack the strawman that “the production of intervening texts” is “a reasonable expectation even in the case of medieval and modern history”. Absence of intervening texts is a fact of life. Absence of intervening literacy is a cause for concern, especially about details which are not a vital part of a narrative. As we know what we don’t have, we can safely skip this portion of this chapter. The authors conclude by “asserting again that any facile and general distinction between earlier and later testimony in terms of the reliability of the testimony cannot be defended”, almost completely ignoring the fact that information is lost over time and space. The authors continue to show their inerrantist colors and their propensity to not give details in their hypothetical scenarios with their statement that “[t]here is no reason to assume that a particular rendering of earlier tradition at a later date cannot be a truthful rendering, any more than there is reason to assume that an early rendering cannot be false.”. Needless to say, nobody sees modern Bedouin legends to have any bearing on the realities of Bronze Age Palestine.

After utterly failing to refute the first of what the authors claim are the most influential rules of history, the authors try their hands at the second. They imagine that the fact “[no] account of the past anywhere is free of ideology” means that no account of the past anywhere is in principle to be trusted more than other accounts. They also take a swipe at the strawman of the impossibility of the accuracy of ideological accounts. The trio quotes Ahlstrom in his statement that “Because the authors of the Bible were historiographers and used stylistic patterns to create a “dogmatic” and, as such, tendentious literature, one may question the reliability of their product”, viewing him as an exemplar of “a basic presupposition of critical historical study at least since the Enlightenment”; that “skepticism is the appropriate stance to adopt in relation to texts whose primary aim is to deliver a religious message”. Needless to say, this “presupposition” is entirely true; all that is exclusively religious is falsehood.

The trio briefly describes the view that less ideological Biblical material is more accurate, which they claim was once commonly held. Less ideological Biblical material might have greater relation to reality, but that does not indicate its accuracy. The lists of settlements in Joshua 15 are based on real town lists in Late Iron IIc Judah, but that surely does not mean they are an accurate representation of settlement patterns in the actual “time of Joshua”. The list of settlements in Nehemiah 7 is based on real town lists in Hasmonean Judea, but that surely does not mean it is an accurate representation of settlement patterns in the actual “time of Nehemiah”. The authors point out that archaeology and extrabiblical textual data have become seen as often more authoritative than the Biblical text.

The authors first repeat their statements on archaeology discussed in my review of Chapter 2. They then quote some untrue claims of Dever and Lichtenberger in support of the idea that archaeology isn’t objective. Archaeology, of course, is just as objective as geology.

The trio then discusses extrabiblical texts. They set up the man of straw that “it is claimed or implied…[extrabiblical] texts do not share the deficiencies of Old Testament narrative when it comes to the ideological, and particularly, the religious, aspect”. Though this statement is true when it comes to the specific ideological and religious aspects, it is not true in a general sense. The authors then proceed to show that “[Assyrian] literature is no less selective and ideologically loaded than the Old Testament”. Firstly, the trio demonstrates that Assyrian coverage of Levantine events is, at best, uneven, with the lion’s share of the coverage coming from the reigns of Adad-nirari II, Shalmaneser III, Tiglath-Pileser III, Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal. They also point out that many records (e.g., those relating to Shalmaneser V’s campaigns against Samaria) are in a poor state of preservation.

The trio then needlessly points out that Assyrian sources are selective. They also refer to Sargon’s lie about the date of his conquest of Samaria (it was in late 720, not 722/21 BC), but they phrase it as a lie about the very existence of his conquest, which is almost certain, it being mentioned in the earliest inscription of Sargon II. They also point out that Sennacherib’s campaigns against Que and Til-Garimmu were “edited out of later versions of that king’s annals, perhaps because the king did not himself lead them”. However, sins of omission are not of the same rank as sins of commission. Though annals were, indeed, often edited, they rarely contain lies. The trio further discusses Assyrian bias and then falsely states “no grounds exist for granting the Assyrian sources any epistemological primacy in principle in our striving for knowledge about Israel’s past”. The Assyrians were much closer to the events than the Biblical authors, who were usually writing decades after the events. Facts get lost over time. They repeat the strawman summarized in the paragraph above this one. The trio concludes by describing the Assyrians as no worse reporters than any other contemporary extrabiblical recorders of Iron Age Levantine events.

The trio repeat their ridiculous statement that no account of the past anywhere is in principle to be trusted more than other accounts. They state that the fact “extrabiblical testimony represents an order of evidence available to the historian of Israel that is different from the evidence the Bible presents” is a “myth”. They set up the strawman that some believe extrabiblical texts can be “neutral”. They also make the astounding claim that “we should not assume in advance that any testimony about the past, whatever its ideological shaping and partiality, does not speak about the past truthfully”. Whitelam’s ridicule of the trio, mentioned in the review of Chapter 1, is thus perfectly valid. I’m still not sure whether the authors almost automatically delete the Nigerian prince spam emails they get or have lost all of their money buying quack remedies.

The trio then applies concrete examples of their naivete/so-called caution. They state that Deuteronomic theology does not necessarily prevent a partial, yet true, picture of the past from “emerging in those texts for which the Deuteronomists are believed responsible”. They also state that the apologetic nature of 1 Samuel does not necessarily mean that 1 Samuel does not grant us access to the real past. These conclusions are, for the trio, fairly reasonable, though other features of the Primary History compromise some of its factuality.

The trio repeat their (correct) point that claims of intention are not necessarily reality and their (incorrect) point that historiography has not substantively changed during the 19th century. They do, however, hypothesize a curious example to support their correct point, namely that it is possible that a critical historian might have omitted essential information while an uncritical one might have preserved it. They follow this curious example with, as expected, a swipe against critical scholarship.

After utterly failing to refute the first of what the authors claim are the most influential rules of history, and not actually addressing the second, the authors go on to try their hand at the third. The authors point out that the extraordinary/ordinary nature of a claim is dependent on the context of the observer and that an observer might have never seen an event, such as (my example, not theirs) a solar eclipse, that observer considers ordinary. However, the observer mentioned in the above sentence does not need to personally see the above-mentioned eclipse to accept it as an event that actually occurred, as, even if it was considered by that observer to be an extraordinary event, if several thousand direct witnesses, several thousand astronomers, and several dozen government and scientific agencies attest to the existence of the above-mentioned eclipse, their statements combined are the extraordinary evidence needed to back up the extraordinary (to the above-mentioned observer) claim that a solar eclipse occurred. Note also what was stated above regarding the fact the definitions of “extraordinary” and “ordinary” change over time.

The authors, of course, do not realize this. They also incorrectly imagine that there are those who claim to “eschew dependence upon testimony in principle”. The trio point out that evidence is “vast, differentiated, and complicated”. This is sometimes, though not always, the case. Even “vast, differentiated, and complicated” evidence, such as that for heliocentrism or evolution, can be sorted and categorized to be presented in a manner that is comprehensible by even first-graders. It is in this section I have found that the authors define “faith” to be “belief without some evidence” while most Skeptics define it to be “belief without any evidence”.

The trio, with their inability to understand, or even formulate, the statement “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, then proceed to tell us that as the moon landing was an “extraordinary” (my word, not theirs) event, the “extraordinary nature” (my word, not theirs) of an event “cannot be the arbiter of what is possible in history” (their words, not mine), completely forgetting the “evidence” part of the formula. After all, it would not be extraordinary, in the United States c. 1925, to claim that a moon landing would be possible in the next century, as one could readily point to the rate of capital accumulation in the U.S. since the War of Southern Secession to show that America could support a moondoggle by c. 1990 at latest. As for the present, one could readily provide extraordinary evidence of the moon landing, an extraordinary claim to some inhabitants of some third-world countries, by showing those inhabitants the NASA website.

As ignoring the “extraordinary evidence” part of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” seemed to the trio to have worked out well for them in the past, they continue on promoting this possibly deliberate misunderstanding for the rest of the section dealing with this third of the most influential rules of history. They end their mockery of their university degrees that they have made in the past three sections of the book by, ironically, supporting “the inevitable consideration of all testimonies together, weighing them up on their own terms and in comparison with each other and asking how far they are each likely (or not) to be in actual relationship to the events to which they refer”. Is this not bizarrely close to the actual third of what the authors consider to be the most influential rules of history?

The authors begin their concluding section with this strange quote: “[H]istory cannot base itself on predictability… Lacking universal axioms and theorems, it can be based on testimony only.”. Is there no predictability in what the authors call “testimony”? Are there no “universal axioms and theorems” to help us use this “testimony”? This quote, needless to say, is nonsensical. The authors repeat the claims refuted in the above three thousand words and in the past two reviews of their chapters. They then “juxtapose the above quotation, therefore, with the following, with which [they] profoundly disagree:

If we have no positive grounds for thinking that a biblical account is historically useful, we cannot really adopt it as history. True, the result will be that we have less history than we might. But what little we have we can at least claim we know (in whatever sense we “know” the distant past); this, in my opinion, is better than having more history than we might, much of course we do not know at all, since it consists merely of unverifiable stories.

-This quotation is from Philip Davies of Sheffield. I find his approach to be imperfect, and prefer to use the rule “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The authors of course, declare “history is the retelling of unverifiable stories.” (emphasis not added), a statement which is sometimes, but not always, true. They also declare that all one has not already witnessed requires “faith” (see several paragraphs above) and that any “historical knowledge beyond tradition and testimony” is a “mirage” (see the review of Chapter 2 for a rebuttal to this claim). They also declare themselves to be consistent proponents of the “falsification principle”. Finally, they declare that we must either accept “testimony”, or leave the fate of history to “individualistic fantasies”.

In short, this chapter has only shown me that the authors have an amazing capacity for misrepresentation.

Also, I note that the font on the cover of A Biblical History of Israel is exactly the same as that on the cover of The Bible Unearthed.
I have also found Lester Grabbe’s review of the Biblical History, which I have found to be right on target, except for the statement “On the surface, this History is not fundamentalistic”-it is (see above). It is one of four correct reviews of the book I have found on the Internet, the others being those of Whitelam, Heard, and myself. The Biblical History isn’t a history of any kind. It’s a book of Judeo-Christian apolologetics. I like Grabbe’s “broken reed” metaphor!

Author: pithom

An atheist with an interest in the history of the ancient Near East. Author of the Against Jebel al-Lawz Wordpress blog.

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