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. Continue reading “Review of “A Biblical History of Israel”, Chapter 3″