Recovering History

A BIBLICAL HISTORY OF ISRAEL. By Iain Provan, V. Phillips Long, and Tremper Longman, III, (West Minster john Knox Press, 100 Witherspoon Street Room 2047, Louisville, KY 40202-1396) 426 pp. PB $34.95.

The field of biblical history today is dominated by two approaches, both of which are skeptical about the historicity of biblical claims. The first approach regards with suspicion the historical claims of the Bible on principle because of a lack of objectivity in the texts. The second approach emphasizes the subjectivity of the historian, whose lack of objectivity renders history an unreliable source for objective knowledge. While grateful to both of these approaches for the tools they have afforded the biblical historian, Iain Provan, V. Phillips Long, and Tremper Longman, III wish to avoid their excesses, which necessarily undermine the usefulness of the biblical texts for the historian.

In A Biblical History of Israel, the authors criticize the first approach, which they call “positivism” (p. 22), for beginning with an unjustifiable skepticism toward the testimony of the biblical text and too readily opposing the ideological, theological, or artistic aims of the authors of the texts to their historicity. The second, which they term “constructionism” (p. 42), overemphasizes the subjectivity of the historian.

The book has two parts. In the first part (chapters one through five), the authors engage positivism and constructionism and propose an alternative reading of ancient sources. The second part is an application of their method to the history of Israel from the time of the patriarchs up to the beginning of the intertestamental period.

The book begins by citing the radical proclamation of contemporary biblical scholar Kenneth Whitelam of “the death of ‘biblical history’” (p. 1). For scholars like Whitelam, “suspicion of tradition should be the starting point” (p. 32). These scholars have wanted until lately to preserve the reliability of some texts of the Bible for historians. The authors point out that once a stance of suspicion is adopted no one “can agree with the other as to where suspicion should then be suspended and faith in the tradition reinvested” (p. 32). As scholars go back and forth, the number of texts considered reliable shrink, until scholars like Whitelam declare that no book in the Bible is historically reliable. The authors therefore proclaim the need to reexamine the stance of suspicion itself, which they do in chapter 2.

Historians, the authors claim, have since the nineteenth century sought to emulate the methods of natural scientists in order to arrive at a more certain knowledge of history. In this view, “the past itself might, if subject to the appropriate sort of inductive scientific analysis, reveal truths about human existence” (p. 20). According to the authors, this is a flawed approach to history. The historian relies on the testimony of others and cannot achieve the objective certainty for which the positivist historian envies the natural scientist. The authors therefore provide a different model of the historian: “faith in the testimony” of past sources (p. 37).

In chapter 3, the authors review several operating assumptions in much recent biblical scholarship that they view as unjustifiable. Many scholars have adopted the principle of verification in regard to the historicity of biblical events. According to this principle events without attestation outside the biblical testimony are unlikely to have happened. The authors regard this principle as both incoherent and inconsistently applied. The authors propose instead the principle of falsification; that is, the testimony of the biblical texts ought to be trusted unless and until there is a good reason not to do so.

Next, the authors consider three implicit rules in recent biblical scholarship that guide the scholar in choosing which testimonies are reliable and which are not: “First, eyewitness or otherwise contemporaneous accounts are to be preferred on principle to later accounts. Second, accounts that are not so ideological, or not ideological at all, in nature are to be preferred to accounts that are ideological in nature. Third and finally, accounts that fit our preconceptions about what is normal, possible, and so on, are to be preferred to accounts that do not fit such preconceptions” (p. 57).

The authors evaluate each rule in turn and find them wanting. Eyewitness or earlier accounts, they point out, are generally no more accurate than later accounts or accounts by non-eyewitnesses. “An eyewitness may have more personally at stake than a later nonparticipant in the events that are being described” (p. 297). The authors offer the example of Nehemiah, who was “deeply and personally invested in the event he narrates” (p. 297).

On the second point, the authors point out that, “No account of the past anywhere is free of ideology” (p. 62). There are three types of testimony about biblical Israel to which historians have access: biblical texts, archaeological evidence, and extrabiblical texts. It is incoherent, the authors suggest, to prefer the latter two types of testimony to that of the biblical texts because the biblical texts are tainted by ideology. First, archaeological evidence is silent and must be interpreted, which exposes archaeology to the ideology of the archaeologist (p. 63). Second, extrabiblical texts, too, were written by authors with ideologies. Thus, no testimony ought to be preferred to the biblical texts a priori, but only after an examination of individual cases.

On the third point, the authors point out that using common experience as a judge of the historicity of past events is foolish. Either the historian reduces the common experience to his own experience, or he tries to find out what the common experience of all humanity is. However, this latter approach requires him to listen to the very testimonies he is trying to judge in order to assess the common experience of all humanity. Thus, this third rule is fatally self-referential (p. 71).

In chapter 4, the authors turn to a discussion of narrative in the biblical texts. They describe approvingly an increasing emphasis on understanding the narrative form of biblical texts (p. 76). They argue that, in contradistinction to positivist readings of scripture, narrativity and historicity are not opposed. Rather, by better reading the narratives of biblical texts, “better historical reconstructions become possible” (p. 76). They claim also that, “much of the Bible makes historical truth claims, and these claims will never be rightly understood unless the literary mode of their representation is itself understood” (p. 81).

The acknowledgement that history has a narrative structure raises problems, however. Many biblical scholars argue that historians simply impose a narrative structure on history and thus construct history. If this is true, any objective historicity would at the very least be inaccessible to the historian. The authors argue against this extreme constructionism by drawing an analogy between portrait painting and historiography. Life itself, the authors contend, has a certain narrativity. Just as the portrait artist’s job is to “perceive the subject’s contours and represent them in a visual medium, so the task of the historian is to recognize the past’s contours and meaningfully connected features and to represent them in a verbal medium” (p. 84). Neither the portrait artist nor the historian is able completely to represent his subject entirely as it is in itself. At the same time, neither the artist nor the historian is totally untethered from his subject.

Structurally, chapters six through nine and chapter eleven go on to provide a cursory history of the era under consideration. Interspersed among the histories are sections in which the authors take up controversies and questions relating to the reliability of the biblical text. Adopting a stance of epistemological openness to the biblical texts, the authors consider the claims of various scholars who have cast doubts on the reliability of the biblical texts on a case by case basis.

Chapter 10 is something of an anomaly. It is a much more straightforward history of the later monarchy using the biblical texts almost exclusively. It is unclear why the authors depart from their established structure in the rest of the second part of the book. A possible interpretation of the structural change is that the authors wanted to provide a more in-depth example of how to write biblical history from a stance of epistemological openness to the biblical texts.

In all, A Biblical History of Israel is excellent. The authors provide a convincing criticism of positivism and constructionism. They successfully argue that historians must trust the testimony of historical texts. They must respect the intrinsic narrativity of life, aware of their own role in shaping the history they write, but also careful to stick close to their subjects.

There is, however, one problem with the text. The idea of testimony is insufficiently fleshed out. The authors claim, “We generally regard it as a sign of emotional or mental imbalance if people ordinarily inhabit a culture of distrust in testimony at the level of principle” (p. 48). It is true that most people adopt a principle of falsification for testimony coming from people or an institution they know already or know has a track record of trustworthiness. On the other hand, most people adopt a principle of verification for people or institutions they do not know. A more theoretical account of how to weigh various testimonies and a more nuanced account of how to determine the reliability of texts toward which most readers might have a natural skepticism would be welcome.

That being said, the book presents a sober proposal for a reorientation of biblical history that appropriates what is good in recent scholarship while avoiding its excesses. Provan, Long, and Longman’s approach to testimony and narrativity is a real assistance to those who want to do robust but responsible history.

Tom Harmon
Ave Maria University, Naples

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