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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Evaluating Sources

The debate on the starting-point of Israelite history—which has moved from the Patriarchs, exodus, and conquest to the early monarchy and beyond—has been a debate about how to evaluate the biblical traditions as historical sources. Coogan (1998: p. x) claims, for instance, that some dismiss the Bible as ‘a credible witness’ because the narratives were written centuries after the time they purport to describe, and without independent contemporaneous confirmation the events and characters in the Bible are thought to be suspect or purely fictional. In the face of this crisis of confidence, in order to counter what is seen by some as extreme scepticism in the treatment of the biblical text, it has become common to assert that the historian of Israel must use ‘all available evidence’. However, this has become a means of short- circuiting the discussion of the nature of the biblical traditions and their role in historical reconstruction and of asserting the priority of the biblical text. To suggest that scholars do not use all the available evidence, or to claim that they systematically avoid the biblical texts (Provan, Long, and Longman 2003: 51–4), is misleading, to say the least. As Jordanova (2000: 96) notes, ‘to call something evidence implies that the case for its relevance has been made—evidence bears witness to an issue’. There is a significant difference between sources and evidence. Since the source materials are so restricted, to biblical and extra-biblical texts and archaeological data—it is not that particular scholars ignore one class of material or another, but that they assess them differently as to their value as evidence. As Bloch (1954: 110) noted many years ago, ‘At the bottom of nearly all criticism there is the problem of comparison.’ While the biblical texts have the potential to bear on a historical problem, this has to be demonstrated. Whybray's (1966: 72) remark that the biblical text, ‘however liable to correction’, provides the foundation for a history of Israel, raises the crucial issue of the extent to which such ‘corrections’ undermine the reliance upon the text and what we can know about large parts of this history.

A volume such as The Oxford History of the Biblical World (Coogan 1998) illustrates the pitfalls of historical reconstruction when relying upon the biblical traditions. The various authors of the volume are said ‘to share that methodological conviction as well as a commitment to the historical enterprise—the reconstruction of the past based on the critical assessment of all available evidence’ (Coogan 1998: p. xi). However, the editor is forced to admit that ‘it is impossible to correlate with any certainly the events described in the first books of the Bible with known historical realities’ (Coogan 1998: p. ix). The use of all ‘available evidence’ has raised serious questions about the historicity of the biblical narratives, for this period. This is not to systematically ignore the narratives, but rather to assess them critically in light of available information. Nor does it devalue them theologically, since they are illustrations of trust and faith in the deity.

In the same volume, Pitard (1998: 36–7) admits that there are many reasons to be sceptical of the patriarchal narratives, causing the historian to proceed with great caution (Pitard 1998: 37). Although, he claims, there are fascinating hints that suggest that genuine memories have been preserved in these stories, they ‘provide modem historians with few data to reconstruct the historical, cultural, and sociological developments from which the Israelite nation arose’ (Pitard 1998: 38). The long-running debate on the starting-point of Israelite history illustrates the same problems as are inherent in attempts to reconstruct later periods. Thus, despite the positive comments about using all the available evidence and setting the biblical text at the heart of the enterprise, the historian is faced with overwhelming difficulties in reconstructing the early history of Israel when relying upon these texts. This problem is not something peculiar to so-called minimalists or revisionists, but faces anyone trying to reconstruct the history of Israel. A close analysis of histories of ancient Israel reveals that they offer comparatively little positive reconstruction in comparison to the space devoted to the problems of understanding and utilizing the biblical texts.

The historian is severely hindered by the lack of context—the inability to place the texts in chronological sequence or in their social and political context. Even documents whose provenance and date are not in question—and there are precious few of those in the Hebrew Bible—have to be treated with considerable circumspection. It is not that so- called eyewitness accounts necessarily provide better access to the past than later sources. Both have to be treated carefully: eyewitness accounts suffer from myopia, while much later accounts may have distorted the past they are trying to portray. Jordanova's (2000: 97) caveat on the utilization of written sources provides an important warning to those who wish to claim that the biblical traditions offer direct access to Israel's past. Many of our documents, particularly the Hebrew Bible, ‘pass through human agents, who select, alter, and make mistakes; they transform, translate, and they may also deceive’ (Jordanova 2000: 98). Verisimilitude is no guarantee of historical accuracy or reality: the skilled story- teller creates an ‘authentic’ universe into which the reader can enter and participate. Do the stories of David refusing to kill Saul with his own spear despite the urgings of his own troops provide evidence of historical events that should form part of any history of Israel? Do we devalue them if we read them as carefully crafted elements in a complex literary narrative which employs considerable irony to illustrate that no one should threaten YHWH's anointed?

It is also incorrect to assume that because a text is dated late (in the Persian or Hellenistic periods) it is removed as a source for the historian. Even if it does not provide direct evidence for the events it purports to describe, it may reveal the past in ways which the author of the document did not intend. For instance, Bloch (1954: 63) points out that the various accounts of the lives of saints in the Middle Ages reveal little about the people they purport to describe, but a great deal about the way of life or thought peculiar to the time in which they were written. As such, they are invaluable sources for the historian, but not in the ways in which they were intended by those who wrote them. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (1980) utilized the detailed Inquisition register of Jacques Fournier, bishop of Pamiers, later Pope Benedict XII, in a way in which the compilers of the register never intended. The register provides a very detailed account of the interrogation of the whole village of Montaillou on suspicion of adherence to Catharism, which had been proclaimed heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. Ladurie skilfully uses the register to reveal fascinating details about the previously unknown mental, emotional, and sexual world of village and peasant life in the thirteenth century. It is a classic illustration of Paul Veyne's (1971: 265) point that the historian constantly struggles against the perspective imposed by the sources.

Similarly, many of the texts in the Hebrew Bible provide important evidence of much broader processes in the history of the region: the problem of famine, the rhythms of nature, and beliefs about controlling the impersonal forces which threaten the livelihood and lives of the indigenous population. They are important historical sources, but not in the conventional way in which they have been used as part of the pursuit of political histories of the individual and the unique events which characterize histories of Israel. The great poem to time in Ecclesiastes (3:1–8) along with the Gezer calendar are important historical sources which convey the rhythmic nature of existence which dominated the patterns of life in the region. Such texts and inscriptions which have emerged from the soil of ancient Palestine provide a striking illustration of an economy dominated by the rhythms of agrarian life. It is these patterns which dominate the history of ancient Palestine, not the great men, their kingdoms and empires, which are the subject of so many history books.7 The works of Hopkins (1985) on agriculture and King and Stager (2001) on various aspects of everyday life in Palestine are good illustrations of the way in which biblical texts can be utilized to illustrate the realities of life in the Iron Age, rather than as treatments of great men and unique events. McNutt (1999) provides a comprehensive treatment of the problems in reconstructing Israelite society. The simple, basic needs of life remained paramount for the inhabitants of Palestine. The variety of its material culture, as well as its literature, particularly the Hebrew Bible, express a love of nature and beauty, a sensitivity to aesthetics, which can still be seen in the pleasures of shape and form of its pottery or the fine craft work of jewelry or weaponry which have been found at sites throughout Palestine over many centuries.

Notes:

7 The works of Hopkins (1985) on agriculture and King and Stager (2001) on various aspects of everyday life in Palestine are good illustrations of the way in which biblical texts can be utilized to illustrate the realities of life in the Iron Age, rather than as treatments of great men and unique events. McNutt (1999) provides a comprehensive treatment of the problems in reconstructing Israelite society.

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