M.B. Moore and B.E. Kelle, Biblical History and Israel's Past: The Changing Study of the Bible and History

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Moore, Megan Bishop and Brad E. Kelle, Biblical History and Israel's Past: The Changing Study of the Bible and History (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: W. B. Eerdmans, 2011). Pp. xvii + 518. Paperback. US$46.00. ISBN 9780802862600.

This book attempts to present recent changes in the understanding of biblical historiography (how the biblical writers constructed and presented their own “Israelite” history) and its relationship to a critical historical understanding of the region of Palestine during biblical times. This task is laid out in the broadest possible terms, so that every literary, archaeological, anthropological, sociological, and even theological aspect of the scholarly discussion is taken into consideration. The primary range for the survey of the modern historiographic changes is from the mid-20th century onwards, with the last few decades receiving the bulk of attention. This makes for a very challenging study, especially for the novice in biblical studies, and the study is equipped with various aids to help fill in gaps in background knowledge, as well as summaries and questions for tutorial discussion at the end of every chapter.

Following an introduction outlining the book's approach, the rest of the chapters are divided into the various periods of biblical history, beginning with the patriarchs and concluding in the post-exilic or Persian period. For each of these periods the major issues are laid out in a brief history of the scholarly debate from both the most critical “minimalist” to the corresponding “maximalist” acceptance of the Bible as a trustworthy source of historical information, as well as the conservative Christian defense of the Bible against all critical scholarship. For every period under review, the authors make abundant detailed reference to the archaeological data, its use in the scholarly debates, and the role this discipline has played in the great changes that have come about in biblical studies. This results in a large pool of documented sources, although the suggestions for further reading seem to reflect the authors' own particular preferences. The book ends with an afterword, which is directed towards the devout student who is rather bewildered by this strange new way of studying the Bible; the book even suggests that perhaps he or she can have both their theologically or ideologically oriented “biblical history” and their secular history of ancient Palestine.

This is an impressive volume put together by these two young scholars, and it is therefore hard to be too critical of their well-intentioned efforts. In some parts, such as the period of the two monarchies where the authors are clearly more at home within their own expertise, the text flows very well with little serious interruption in the historical reconstruction of this period and its relationship to the biblical text. It is here that the book best serves as a reference work, but this is also the part of biblical history that is the least controversial. Where the biblical history deals with those periods and personalities that are most tied up with Christian and Jewish faith and identity, such as the patriarchs, Moses and the exodus and wilderness period, and the reigns of David and Solomon, the lines of debate and the divisions have become very sharp and contested between “minimalists” and “maximalists.” It is here that the authors seem to be less helpful, as they mainly lay out a range of options from which the readers may pick and choose as it suits them. The ultimate criterion seems to be that of “plausibility,” which is hardly satisfactory. In this area of the early periods of biblical history, the authors also seem to be significantly weaker in the history of scholarship, closely paring the “Altians” with the “Albrightians,” when in fact there was a great deal of antagonism between the two, particularly from the side of Albright and Bright. The latter characterized Alt and Noth as “nihilists.” The authors also seem unaware of the rather strong stance that was taken against Thompson and me over our attack on the Albright position.

Furthermore, the authors, Moore and Kelle, seem to feel under obligation to report in every chapter on the conservative Christian and Jewish “push-back” against current critical scholarship. While admitting that there has been little contribution to historical study of the Bible by this group, they leave the impression that this is a small and rather recent phenomenon, but it in fact has always been there and its effect has often been negative. Many conservative scholars were attracted to the Albright camp because they felt that they could use it as a base against the more liberal and critical European scholarship, and they resisted any change for a long time. This lack of perspective also applies to the authors' remarks about biblical theology and history. They cite von Rad's theology of 1957, but they fail to mention that the Heilsgeschichte theology came under attack in the late 60s and early 70s (Brevard Childs and H. H. Schmid), and that it has not been a serious factor in theological studies since then.[1] In fact, the remarks about the subject of biblical theology and scholarship are rather superficial and hardly helpful.

This brings me to another observation. The book tries to cover so many related subjects and issues in a piecemeal fashion that it loses its focus, namely, that of critical historical study. One area that does not receive enough attention is literary criticism and its relationship to historical research. The authors are more concerned about certain forms of literary criticism such as, e.g., “feminist criticism,” which tend to focus on the world beyond the text and have little to do with historical criticism. The few perfunctory remarks about Wellhausen and the Documentary Hypothesis do not seem to be aware of how far scholarship has moved from this classical position. The most glaring omission is the lack of any discussion about the rise of biblical historiography as such. The authors are quite happy to take over terms, such as the Deuteronomistic Historian, from German scholarship without any serious remarks about whether or not historians comparable to those of ancient Greece existed in ancient Israel, and when exactly such historiography arose. This important subject in German scholarship from Hermann Gunkel and Hugo Gressmann to Gerhard von Rad's seminal articles on the Yahwist as historian in the Pentateuch (1938) and the beginnings of historical writing in ancient Israel (1944, with English translations in 1966), as well as Martin Noth's two studies on the Pentateuch and Historical Books (both accessible in English), is completely ignored.[2] The authors seem to have overlooked the fact that I have dealt at considerable length with this subject in In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (1983), esp. pp. 209–248 and in Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (1992), esp. 8–44.[3] This debate over the nature of biblical historiography is still basic to the discussion of both the Pentateuch and the historical books for historical study today.

There are also some significant issues with presentation and format. Repetition in the book is so great that the number of pages could have been significantly reduced. The principles outlined in the introduction are repeated in slightly different form in virtually every chapter to the point of tedium, with an excessive number of summaries and conclusions within and at the end of every unit. This repetition may be geared to pedagogical use, but it seriously militates against a good read. Furthermore, the book's narrative is constantly broken up in mid-sentence by great blocks of shaded material, which seem to correspond to the sidebars in popular journals. It would be much better to have these as endnotes with clear indicators in the body of the narrative at those points where such additional information would be helpful. The maps also have no clear relationship to the accompanying text and are problematic. For instance, the map of Physical Palestine (p. 97) appears to contain primarily Roman period names, mixed with earlier biblical period designations (e.g. Idumea and Edom). A similar chronological confusion appears in the map of the Assyrian Empire (p. 281) with Sumer in place of Babylonia, a serious anachronism. Likewise, the general index is inadequate for use as a reference work. While the size of the bibliography of works consulted is quite impressive, there are some rather surprising omissions. For instance, there is no reference at all to the excellent and highly acclaimed edited work of Jack M. Sasson, Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, which contains many of the finest articles on topics relevant to those discussed in this book.[4]

In conclusion, this book seems to be put together as a text for a general undergraduate introduction to Old Testament/Hebrew Bible studies, under the rubric of a biblical history course, but with everything else thrown in as well. It is particularly sensitive to those students coming from a conservative Christian background, with an effort to break them gently into a more critical study of the Bible. Some may find that a textbook such as this works for them in that environment. Others may view it as too unfocused and confusing for students new to the field of historical study.

John Van Seters, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

[1] G. von Rad, Theologie des Alten Testaments (2 vols.; Einführung in die evangelische Theologie, 1; München: Kaiser, 1958); B. S. Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970); H. H. Schmid, Altorientalische Welt in der alttestamentlichen Theologie (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1974). reference

[2] H. Gunkel, “Die Geschichtsschreibung im A.T.,” RGG 2:1112–15; H. Gressmann, “The Oldest History Writing in Israel,” in D. M. Gunn (ed.), Narrative and Novella in Samuel: Studies by Hugo Gressmann and Other Scholars 1906–23 (Sheffield: Almond, 1991), 9–58; G. von Rad, “The Beginnings of Historical Writing in Ancient Israel,” The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (New York: Oliver & Boyd, 1966), 166–204; M. Noth, The Deuteronomistic History (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1981). reference

[3] J. Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven: Yale University, 1983); idem, Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (Louisville: Westminister John Knox, 1992). reference

[4] J. M. Sasson, ed., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East (4 vols.; New York: Scribner, 1995). reference