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The Bible and history

The article concerns the historicity of the Bible; i.e. in what ways is the Bible historically accurate.

The absence of independent evidence confirming the biblical narrative cause many scholars to question the accuracy or even the veracity of the historical account. According to many historians, the Biblical patriarchs, Moses, King David, and King Solomon are little more than legendary figures, though possibly based on historical events and persons. Today there are two loosely defined schools of thought with regard to the historicity of the Bible (biblical minimalism and biblical maximalism), in addition to the traditional religious reading of the Bible.

Table of contents

Fundamentalist readings of the Bible

People in this school of thought hold that the Bible is the word of God, and is therefore inerrant and infallible. The Bible is held to be historically accurate, even down to smallest details.

Biblical minimalism

Biblical minimalists generally hold that the Bible is an imaginative fiction, and all stories within it are of a mythic character at best. None of the early stories are held to have any historical basis. In this view, all of the stories about the Biblical patriarchs are mythical, and the patriarchs never existed. Further, Biblical minimalists hold that the twelve tribes of Israel never existed, King David and King Saul never existed, and that the unified Biblical kingdoms of Israel never existed.

Some Biblical minimalists, most notably Earl Doherty, have suggested that Jesus Christ never existed, that the character is a gestalt of numerous individuals who lived and myths that were common currency during the late Hellenistic age, and that early secular references (Tacitus on Jesus, Josephus on Jesus) are not historical evidence (see Jesus Christ).

We must note that historical opinions fall on a spectrum, rather than in two tightly defined camps. Since there is a wide range of opinions regarding the historicity of the Bible, it should not be surprising that any given scholar may have views that fall anywhere between these two loosely defined camps. Therefore, many scholars have some views that might be considered minimalist, while having a few beliefs that might be considered maximalist (and vice-versa.)

Biblical maximalism

The term "maximalism" is something of a misnomer, and many people incorrectly relate this term to the fundamentalist worldview. In contrast, all Biblical maximalists disagree with fundamentalists.

Biblical maximalists accept the findings of modern historical studies and archaeology; they agree that the Bible was never intended to be used as a history textbook, and that one needs to be cautious in teasing out fact from myth. However, maximalists hold that the core stories of the Bible indeed tell us about actual historical events, and that the later books of the Bible are more historically based than the earlier books.

Archaeology tells us about historical eras and kingdoms, ways of life and commerce, beliefs and societal structures; however only in extremely rare cases does archaeological research provide information on individual families. Thus, archaeology was not expected to, and indeed has not, provided any evidence to confirm or deny the existence of the Biblical patriarchs. As such, Biblical maximalists are divided on this issue. Some hold that many or all of these patriarchs were real historical figures, but that we should not take the Bible's stories about them as historically accurate, even in broad strokes. Others hold that it is likely that some or all of these patriarchs are better classified as purely mythical creations, with only the slightest relation to any real historical persons in the distant past, much like the British legends of King Arthur.

Biblical maximalists agree that the twelve tribes of Israel did indeed exist, even though they do not necessarily believe the Biblical description of their origin. (Views of how the Israelite tribes came into being will soon be discussed here.) Biblical maximalists are in agreement that important biblical figures, such as King David and King Saul did exist, that the Biblical kingdoms of Israel also existed, and that Jesus Christ was a historical figure.

Note, however, there is a wide array of positions that one can hold within this school, and some in this school overlap with biblical minimalists.

As noted above, historical opinions fall on a spectrum, rather than in two tightly defined camps.

Criticism of biblical minimalism

Hershel Shanks[?], editor of Biblical Archaeology Review is one of the leading critics of the new school of biblical minimalism. In a letter first printed in Ha'aretz Magazine (Nov. 5, 1999) and later on the Biblical Archaeology Society website, Shanks writes that most Biblical minimalists are motivated not by history but rather by politics. Some of the leading Biblical minimalists are openly anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. At least one biblical minimalist advocates a common Palestinian conspiracy theories, i.e. that the entire Bible was deliberately faked by "the Jews" as part of an anti-Palestinian Arab attempt. (See The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History). Many people use Biblical minimalism to promote anti-Semitism.

The scholastic position of Biblical minimalism itself is not anti-Semitic. Many Jews themselves hold this view. Some criticism of this school of thought comes about because some rabbis and scholars are concerned about the way that this position is being used to justify pseudo-historical and anti-Semitic beliefs.

See also: Bible, History of ancient Israel and Judah, Documentary hypothesis, The Bible Code

Sources on Biblical maximalism versus Biblical minimalism

Biran, Avraham. "'David' Found at Dan." Biblical Archaeology Review 20:2 (1994): 26-39.

Coogan, Michael D. "Canaanites: Who Were They and Where Did They Live?" Bible Review 9:3 (1993): 44ff.

Mazar, Amihai. 1992. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000-586 B.C.E. New York: Doubleday.

Na'aman, Nadav. 1996 ."The Contribution of the Amarna Letters to the Debate on Jerusalem's Political Position in the Tenth Century B.C.E." BASOR. 304: 17-27.

Na'aman, Nadav. 1997 "Cow Town or Royal Capital: Evidence for Iron Age Jerusalem." Biblical Archaeology Review. 23, no. 4: 43-47, 67.

Shanks, Hershel. 1995. Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography. New York: Random House.

Shanks, Hershel. 1997 "Face to Face: Biblical Minimalists Meet Their Challengers." Biblical Archaeology Review. 23, no. 4: 26-42, 66.

Steiner, Margareet and Jane Cahill. "David's Jerusalem: Fiction or Reality?" Biblical Archaeology Review 24:4 (1998): 25-33, 62-63; 34-41, 63. This article presents a debate between a Biblical minimalist and a Biblical maximalist.

External links

Deconstructing the Walls of Jericho by Ze'ev Herzog - In support of Biblical minimalism (http://www.bib-arch.org/bswbBreakingIllSpecial1)

The Biblical minimalist attack on the Bible is unjustified (http://www.bib-arch.org/bswbBreakingIllSpecial2)

Archchaeologist Israel Finklestein argues in favor of some Biblical minimalist views (http://www.bib-arch.org/bswb_BAR/bswbbar2806f2)

The Debate over the Historicity and Chronology of the United Monarchy in Jerusalem (http://www.mediasense.com/athena/jerusalem.htm)



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