The Death of Biblical Minimalism
It is a good time to be a Christian. Information is more readily available and accessible than ever before. Whether it appears in books, in articles in print and on Web sites, or in podcasts and other media formats, Christian apologists are producing vast amounts of material in defense of the Christian Faith. In the field of archaeology alone, new discoveries are unearthed every year, adding to our body of knowledge about the biblical world. Because of new information, old theories are being continually revised and refined. In some cases, this information is completely overturning critical theories.
The May/June 2011 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review is an exciting one. On the cover, some of the topics of the issue are listed, at the top of which are the words, “The End of Biblical Minimalism.” Minimalists are those who believe that only the barest minimum of the Bible is true, and then only if it can be incontrovertibly corroborated by extrabiblical evidence. This perspective is one that is eminently skeptical of the Bible. This is not how ancient documents are generally treated, which naturally raises suspicion that the Bible is being treated with a double standard for no other reason than that it is the Word of God. Speaking a little more generously than usual, minimalist Philip Davies claims that the Bible is indispensible for the historian, even though its “stories may be false, true, or a mixture of fact and fiction” (Davies, 2008, p. 5). For those who see the biblical text as a purely manmade production, the Bible is a mixture of a few facts and mostly fiction. As senior Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein puts it,
The historical saga contained in the Bible—from Abraham’s encounter with God and his journey to Canaan, to Moses’ deliverance of the children of Israel from bondage, to the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah—was not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of the human imagination (Finkelstein and Silberman, 2001, p. 1).
The article, “The Birth and Death of Biblical Minimalism” written by archaeologist Yosef Garfinkle, traces the biblical minimalist position from its inception 30 years ago to the present time, where discoveries have undermined it to the point of it becoming untenable. He focuses on one of the hot-button issues in archaeology: the existence of the United Monarchy.
For biblical minimalists, the United Monarchy is very nearly a fiction. They believe that if David and Solomon existed, they were nothing more than petty chieftains. Hoffmeier summarizes the minimalist position this way: “[I]f David and Solomon did exist, they were simply pastorialist chieftains from the hills of Judea, and the military exploits of David and the glories of Solomon were gross exaggerations from later times” (Hoffmeier, 2008, p. 87). In other words, there were no grand palaces and no royal inscriptions. In short—no kingdom.
Garfinkle focuses on one particular archaeological site called Khirbet Qeiyafa, where he serves as co-director of the dig. In ancient times, it was a heavily fortified town on the Israelite/Philistine border in Judah. This one site, as small and out-of-the-way as it is, has done a great deal to dismantle biblical minimalism. Garfinkle states: “The argument that Judah was an agrarian society until the end of tenth century B.C.E. and that David and Solomon could not have ruled over a centralized, institutionalized kingdom before then has now been blown to smithereens by our excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa” (Garfinkle, 2011, p. 50). Discoveries at the site clearly demonstrate that a large bureaucracy was needed to construct the town. The site had massive walls, far beyond the ability of a couple of petty chieftains to construct. Also found at the site was the earliest example of Hebrew (although it is written in a different kind of script). This kind of writing could only be produced by a scribe who had been trained for government service. Since the site was in a remote location, it must have been important enough to justify sending a scribe from Jerusalem. That could only be done if there was a government of sufficient size with the resources and ability to train professional scribes. As Finkelstein himself states: “The power of the chief was limited…. The economic and military capacity of a chiefdom was severely limited” (Finkelstein and Silberman, 2006, p. 99). Khirbet Qeiyafa could not have been built, fortified, or administrated by a chieftain. It required a king.
As one of the chief proponents of the idea that the United Monarchy is largely fiction, Israel Finkelstein has developed what is called the “Low Chronology.” This approach states that whatever evidence that exists that might point to a tenth century B.C. kingdom under David and Solomon has been misinterpreted. Instead, the credit for building activity thought to have taken place during the time of the United Monarchy should go to the ninth century king Ahab instead. Though architecture can be difficult to date accurately at times, Finkelstein has yet to win many converts. With the information being unearthed at Khirbet Qeiyafa, he may even find himself losing what support he already has.
Finkelstein is commonly labeled a minimalist, although he denies that label. He does share many things in common with biblical minimalists, such as a skeptical attitude toward the Bible and a clear bias in interpreting the archaeological evidence. This goes against standard procedure among scholarship. Generally, ancient texts are given the benefit of the doubt unless sufficient reason exists to doubt their veracity. Since the Bible has a long track record of accuracy, to dismiss it out of hand shows a clear bias against it. Second, evidence should drive interpretation and lead to conclusions—not start with conclusions and interpret all the evidence to support those conclusions. Finkelstein’s skepticism points to a preconceived conclusion that seeks evidence to justify itself, which, naturally, can only be done poorly.
Radiocarbon dating provides a solid link between the ancient evidence and the biblical text. Garfinkle states: “Independent dating suggests that the kingdom of Judah rose in approximately 1000 B.C.E., as indicated by the radiometric results from Qeiyafa. The northern kingdom of Israel, on the other hand, developed around 900 B.C.E., as indicated by the radiometric dates obtained from that region. The Biblical tradition and the radiometric dating actually support each other” (Garfinkle, 2011, p. 52). [EDITOR’S NOTE: For a discussion of the weaknesses of radiocarbon and radiometric dating techniques, see DeYoung, 2005.] The radiometric dating of wood fragments and olive pits at the site indicates that the site was built in the late eleventh century and destroyed in the early tenth century. Since this is precisely the time of the reign of king David, it would appear that David ruled a well-organized kingdom.
This small site has yielded a wealth of evidence that clearly demonstrates the shortcomings of biblical minimalism, although it remains on life support thanks to the hyper-skepticism of a few noted archaeologists. Even William Dever—who is no friend to the traditional interpretation of Scripture—has fiercely opposed the minimalists, whom he calls “revisionists.” He says, “the ‘revisionists’…declare that ‘the Hebrew Bible is not about history at all,’ i.e., it is mere propaganda. For them, if some of the Bible stories are unhistorical, they all are—a rather simplistic notion” (Dever, 2001, p. 97). It is the typical case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”: the Bible is a religious book, therefore it cannot be historically accurate. Ongoing excavations argue otherwise.
There are many other discoveries besides those at Khirbet Qeiyafa that argue for the presence of a centralized government in ancient Israel at the time David ruled. The Izbet Sartah Inscription is an example of writing dating to the time of the judges (Hess, 2002, p. 86). The inscription seems to be a practice exercise used to learn the alphabet. This is particularly noteworthy, since Izbet Sartah was a small village in the hill country in the eleventh century B.C. Even in this small village, at least one scribe was practicing his alphabet. The same goes for tenth century inscriptions, such as the Tell Zayit Inscription and the Gezer Calendar, which also appear to be practice exercises used in training scribes. These examples of writing would never have appeared without considerable governmental organization.
In his book On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Kenneth Kitchen surveys the history of minimalism over the past two centuries. He notes that “our present-day minimalists are not a sudden, new phenomenon without precedent. It all began a long time ago, and the present efflorescence is merely a development of some 150/200 years that has in a way come to a head, but simply more scathing of others and more extreme in its views than were its precursors” (Kitchen, 2003, p. 449, italics in orig.). Emerging at a time when the study of the ancient Near East was in its infancy, it could only be expected that time would prove the minimalist’s assumptions false. As mountains of evidence have come to light, minimalism is looking more and more like a thing of the past. Biblical scholarship has a long track record of confounding the critics, and it isn’t stopping anytime soon.
Though much of the minimalists’ work is respected by other scholars, they are supremely guilty of allowing their biases to dictate their interpretation of the evidence. They make selective use of the facts and ignore or reinterpret evidence that disagrees with their position. Some of them grew up in fundamentalist homes, giving the impression that their interpretations are more the result of rejecting the faith of their early years rather than sound scholarship. This approach can be maintained only so long before the body of evidence will get to the point of being beyond their ability to manipulate. The archaeologist’s spade will continue to unearth more evidence season by season, year after year. It is only a matter of time before the minimalist position will become a relic enshrined in the museum of discarded ideas.
Davies, Philip R. (2008), Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History—Ancient and Modern (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press).
Dever, William G. (2001), What Did The Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
DeYoung, Don (2005), Thousands...Not Billions (Green Forest, AR: Master Books).
Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Asher Silberman (2001), The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (New York, NY: Touchstone).
Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Asher Silberman (2006), David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition (New York, NY: Free Press).
Garfinkle, Yosef (2011), “The Birth and Death of Biblical Minimalism,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 37:46-53,78, May/June.
Hess, Richard S. (2002), “Literacy in Iron Age Israel” in V. Long, D. Baker, and G. Wenham, Windows into Old Testament History: Evidence, Argument, and the Crisis of “Biblical Israel” (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), pp. 82-102.
Hoffmeier, James K (2008), The Archaeology of the Bible (Oxford: Lion Hudson).
Kitchen, Kenneth A. (2003), On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).