Friday, August 8, 2014

Reading 'A Biblical History of Israel'

A Biblical History of Israel, the deceptively titled book I have just finished, does not give a straightforward and thorough presentation of Israel's history via biblical sources. Instead, the authors (Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III) actually cover ground at once more narrow and more ambitiously broad-ranging than that. Naturally, this volume appeals to anyone interested in ancient Israel or the Old Testament, but I believe a broader (or, at any rate, different) circle would find attention to it well-rewarded: those interested in the philosophical foundations and practice of history or even those simply interested in epistemology. What the book really amounts to--what it perhaps could have been more accurately titled--is A Defense of Biblical History.

Let me first say that this is a well-written book. Unlike so much academic production, these authors write with lively, evocative, and humorous prose (as I've written before). It has taken me a long time to finish it, but not because it's dry or does not hold my attention. Quite the opposite. A Biblical History of Israel has essentially been pleasure reading for me--and, as is so often the case with such books, I've been reading it off-and-on amidst many other books and projects.

Part I, which covers about the first third of the book, lays out a thorough and compelling refutation of the "scientific" premises undergirding the modern discipline of history as it was invented in the 19th-century. Even now the general public and not a few practicing historians still assume that hard, objective evidence forms the real basis of our knowledge about the past. The authors of A Biblical History pretty thoroughly demolish that assumption. Time and again they point out that what is often seen as objective evidence actually constitutes faith in testimony. That is to say, we do not so much prove that something happened through the accumulation of unbiased evidence. Instead, we place our trust in people and sources, all of which come to us in contexts and from certain perspectives--and this is no less true of non-textual archaeological evidence than of textual accounts.

In Part II, which covers the rest of the volume, the authors put this idea into practice by examining the history of Israel from the patriarchs to exile and return. They do not provide a rigorous and thorough narrative history. Instead they focus on areas of particular debate or consternation--passages in Scripture that have typically been used to argue for the unreliability of the Bible as a historical account--and examine the causes and assumptions behind those difficulties. What you end up with is a series of case studies plumbing the historical reliability of Scripture and a blueprint for reading biblical history carefully.

Certainly the thrust of the argument is in favor of biblical reliability, but it is not strictly apologetic. The authors do not attempt to answer or refute every argument. They never conclude that external evidence has absolutely proved the biblical narrative, largely because doing so involves giving into premises about external verification that they do not hold. Instead, they typically point out the limitations of all forms of evidence and the often errant presuppositions and assumptions readers bring to the text.

To take a small but representative example, one question the volume addresses is the historical plausibility of the Davidic empire described in the biblical literature. The notion of an empire created and ruled by David has often been assumed to be "an anachronistic retrojection by scribes familiar with the Persian empire." The authors acknowledge that the notion of David ruling a completely dominant and authoritarian empire "analogous to the Egyptian empire, or the Assyrian, or the Persian, or the Roman... is simply not historically credible."

But, they point out, "the Bible never ascribes an empire of that sort to David in the first place." The Bible never describes David ruling an absolute and authoritarian empire. Instead, careful attention to the biblical "description suggests a state of affairs in which David's 'empire' comprised territories over which he gained political control by various means and exercised dominion in different ways and to varying degrees." Given what we know of the period, they conclude that this more limited picture is "entirely plausible."

What we have, then, is a true irony. Contemporary scholars and readers accuse the scribes who set down biblical history of anachronistically attributing Persian imperial features to David, but what has actually happened is that, through inattention to the biblical texts themselves, these scholars have inferred Scriptural claims that do not actually exist. In other words, they have inserted their own anachronistic assumptions about what empire into the biblical narrative, and then they have blamed that narrative for importing anachronisms that could not have existed in David's time. That's irony, friends.

The careful and circumscribed conclusion the authors reach in this case exemplifies the volume as a whole. To find David's empire plausible, they point out, "is not the same as claiming that the Davidic empire has been proven, but imagining what might constitute proof is difficult in any case, once the biblical narrative is set aside." In regard to David's empire, as in so many others areas of biblical history, the question the reader has to answer is, "Do I trust biblical testimony?" The authors do not--and, naturally could never--provide proof positive that could force the reader to trust the biblical testimony. Instead, they show how distrust of biblical testimony is often a priori--that is, the distrust exists prior to and independent of evidence.

Their approach reminds me of N.T. Wright's considered response in Surprised by Hope to denial of the Resurrection: “That is fine; I respect that position [of skepticism towards the Christian account]; but I simply note that it is indeed then a matter of choice, not a matter of saying that something called scientific historiography forces us to take that route.”

Indeed, as I've often said before, history never speaks and never forces. We speak on its behalf. We draw our own conclusions. This is not, of course, to say that our conclusions are in any way arbitrary or immune to evidence, but rather that our interpretation of evidence often follows from assumptions and premises we held long before we ever considered the evidence. To recognize this reality does not free us from obligations to the truth--by no means! The real cop-out is blaming some other force ("history/science/evidence forces me to conclude that...") for your own conclusions. It is an attempt to hold a position without being responsible for it, to make an assertion without being its author. Recognizing that our controlling narratives are largely self- or societally-constructed rather than imposed by external evidence imposes upon us a far greater responsibility, and it should make us far more cautious and circumspect in our conclusions.

You don't have to trust biblical testimony, but you should recognize that your distrust is probably not historical or scientific. It's your own. So own it.