The History of Ancient Israel: A Guide for the Perplexed
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The History of Ancient Israel: A Guide for the Perplexed

Philip R. Davies

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📖 eBook - ePub

The History of Ancient Israel: A Guide for the Perplexed

Philip R. Davies

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The History of Ancient Israel: A Guide for the Perplexed provides the student with the perfect guide to why and how the history of this most contested region has been studies, and why it continues to be studied today. Philip R. Davies, one of the leading scholars of Ancient Israel in recent years, begins by examining the relevance of the study of Ancient Israel, giving an overview of the sources and issues facing historians in approaching the material. Davies then continues by looking at the various theories and hypotheses that scholars have advanced throughout the 20th century, showing how different approaches are presented and in some cases how they are both underpinned and undermined by a range of ideological perspectives. Davies also explains the rise and fall of Biblical Archaeology, the 'maximalist/minimalist' debate. After this helpful survey of past methodologies Davies introduces readers to the current trends in biblical scholarship in the present day, covering areas such as cultural memory, the impact of literary and social scientific theory, and the notion of 'invented history'. Finally, Davies considers the big question: how the various sources of knowledge can be combined to write a modern history that combines and accounts for all the data available, in a meaningful way. This new guide will be a must for students of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

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T&T Clark
In the last fifty years, the study of ancient Israel’s history has changed quite dramatically. It will be helpful at the beginning of this Guide to explain the background to these changes and set out broadly the agenda(s) directing current investigation of ancient Israelite history.
The most fundamental shift to have occurred in the last fifty years is the relationship between the texts of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, which include extensive narratives about Israel, and the evidence available at an ever more rapid rate from archaeological excavation and survey. In both areas there have been significant advances: on the one side an increasing range of insights and techniques applied to historical-critical biblical exegesis, and on the other technological and theoretical developments that enable greater sophistication in the analysis and interpretation of archaeological data. In each case there have been quite dramatic developments in the historical outlines with which scholars are currently working.
Until the advent of scientific Middle Eastern archaeology around the beginning of the twentieth century, the major scholarly arguments over ‘biblical history’ had engaged only with the biblical texts, which were traditionally accepted by most people as a definitive account of not only the people of Israel and their past, but even as an account of the creation of the world (and a prediction of its end). Yet while the evidence of the natural sciences led to an enormous controversy over the biblical stories of creation in the second half of the nineteenth century, critical arguments had been developing earlier against the reliability of the Bible as a historical source. Already in the seventeenth century Spinoza had argued that the books of Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy) had not been written by him, as traditionally maintained, but assembled over a period of time, from various sources. Various other thinkers, influenced by the Enlightenment belief in rationality and in a denial of divine revelation through scriptures (among the best known being Voltaire and Thomas Payne) derided the Bible as an authoritative historical source. But such outright scepticism left an unsatisfactory choice: myth or history? Scholarship needed to find a way between these alternatives that engaged critically with historical knowledge.
In fact, it proved possible to write a critical history that used the Bible. The culmination of this enterprise, using what is generally referred to as ‘literary-historical criticism’ was represented by the ‘New Documentary Hypothesis’ elaborated by Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) in 1885, but based on the work of several others, notably W. M. L. de Wette (1780–1849) and Karl Heinrich Graf (1815–69). This hypothesis focused on the first five or six books of the Hebrew Bible, that is, the Pentateuch or the Hexateuch, and remained a basis for historical-critical biblical scholarship well into the twentieth century. Its main contention is that these books can be assigned to a combination of four documents, and that these documents can be provided with a chronological sequence (J[ahwist], E[lohist], D[euteronomy], P[riestly], in that order); and these in turn formed the basis for a reconstruction of the development of the religion of ‘ancient Israel’.
The foundation of such a historical reconstruction is the conclusion that the lawgiving by Moses did not stand at, or near, the beginning of Israelite religion, but marked a later, ‘postexilic’ (fifth century bce) transition to Judaism. The stories in the books of Judges and Samuel, for example, did not, as de Wette and, later, Wellhausen pointed out, presuppose that the laws of Moses were acknowledged and practised by Israelites. It is important to note that this literary-historical project addressed largely the history of ‘Israelite religion’ and not political or social history or ethnography. The biblical sources taken on their own were after all not easily interrogated on such matters. Wellhausen concluded that Israel’s early religion was characterized by the ethical teaching of the prophets, and he thus depicted a rather negative decline into legalistic and ritual religion that in his view characterized Judaism. If this evaluation has now been abandoned, other important elements of this reconstruction still stand, though in many ways historical research has qualified and redefined Wellhausen’s reconstruction of the course of ‘Israelite religion’ and the early development of Judaism. A new form of religion does seem to have emerged in the fifth century in both Judah and Samaria, and probably more widely in Syria-Palestine, but our understanding of early forms of Judaism reveals, far from a monolithic and ritually obsessed religious system, an enormous variety and vigour of beliefs and practice. The notion of a ‘prophetic religion’ has also dissipated, and ‘pre-exilic’ Israelite religious beliefs now appear to have been hardly different from the pattern in the rest of Palestine. Nevertheless, Wellhausen was quite conscious of the fact that since, as de Wette had put it, and he underlined, texts tell us about the time they are written and not (necessarily) the time they claim to describe, and since he dated Deuteronomy and the Priestly ‘documents’ to well after the foundation of the monarchies, he cast doubt on the entire reliability of the Pentateuchal narratives. But he did not extend this doubt to the narratives of Joshua–Kings, which were, in part, taken to show precisely that the Mosaic laws were not in force at the time they describe. His hypothesis, then, depended on these books being accepted as a fairly accurate historical account.
Some of the revisions to this reconstruction have been due to increased attention to the biblical texts themselves, but study of early Jewish texts outside the scriptural canon, the ‘Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha’ as they are commonly termed, as well as the Dead Sea scrolls, discovered in 1947, have cast doubt on just how representative a portrait the Bible gives of Israelite and Jewish religion. But the contribution of archaeology in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East has also changed the way Israelite – in fact, we shall now have to say ‘Israelite and Judean’ – history now has to be investigated. Even before scientific excavation began to be conducted, inscriptions from neighbouring countries (Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Iran Syria, Moab) had begun to throw direct light on persons and events in the Bible. While these texts are usually discovered by means of archaeology, they are still literary texts, and cannot be treated as ‘objective’ testimony. Like the biblical narratives, and indeed like all ancient texts, they represent certain interests and ideologies. They can indeed provide verification of some events and personages, but there is always a perspective, a motive, and indeed, sometimes the demands of the literary genre, underlying an account of even a contemporary event. Indeed, it is not incorrect to regard all ancient texts, the production of which was largely under the control of monarchs and their servants, as propagandistic and thus not to be interpreted too naively. Here literary-critical rather than archaeological skills are needed by the historian.
Nowadays, archaeological survey and excavation, and the scientific analysis of artefacts, is increasingly recognized as a primary means of reconstructing ancient Palestinian history. How this corpus of knowledge should stand alongside the biblical narratives, how the two kinds of material should be combined by the historian, has provided the major theme of scholarly debate for a century. ‘Biblical archaeology’, as it was once called, came into existence with a religious, specifically Christian, agenda. Its pioneers were sponsored by organizations created to explore the Levant for material evidence of ‘biblical history’, to bring the biblical world into material existence – and, implicitly, to undermine the kind of critical historical reconstruction mentioned above which seemed to relegate much of the biblical narrative, at least relating to the origins of ‘Israel’, to the category of wishful thinking or wilful creation. The goal of these archaeologists was to counter such reconstruction, illustrating the historical reality of the biblical story by recovery of its material remains. For more than half of the twentieth century, a struggle took place, not between Bible and archaeology – which were assumed to be mutually confirmatory – but between this combination of Bible plus ‘biblical archaeology’, and biblical criticism, which also attempted to use the results of archaeology, but in order to refine its own reconstruction of the past and its understanding of the biblical texts. Numerous semi-scholarly works in the twentieth century also proclaimed that archaeology had ‘proved the Bible right’. But any search of the internet today will indeed find that according to the majority of sites, the Bible is historically true and that archaeology proves it. Neither statement is true, however much some wish it to be. Scholarly and popular views of the history of ‘ancient Israel’ are still strongly divergent.
The hottest debate between the two approaches concerned those cases where literary-historical criticism shed doubt and where archaeology might offer illumination. The Exodus, though a central episode of biblical history, has never been amenable to plausible archaeological confirmation (there are similar Egyptian accounts of such an episode in the early history of the Judeans, but these date from the fourth century bce; see Chapter 9). Debate centred, for the most part, on the so-called ‘patriarchal age’ and the lifestyle of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as reflected, so the arguments went, in ancient Near Eastern texts; and on the Israelite ‘conquest’ of Canaan, as apparently evidenced by the destruction of a number of cities, most dramatically Hazor. The most influential exponent of ‘biblical archaeology’ was the American William F. Albright, and the best-known history book to emerge from his circle is that of John Bright (1960). Later editions of this popular book nevertheless reflect Bright’s shift away from some of Albright’s conclusions. Albright himself wrote an ambitious book called From the Stone Age to Christianity (1942), which deserves attention because it illustrates how, particularly in the United States, biblical history, and especially religion, is seen by many as part of a divinely directed world history leading from Israel to Western civilization, and pre-eminently to the United States. For Albright, as for many others, ancient Israelite history was part of his own and his nation’s prehistory. And if this perception is exaggerated, it is not without some insight. Why are we interested in the history of ancient Israel, if not because in Christian culture this biblical story has been embedded in the collective religious consciousness?
Historians who rejected the approach of ‘biblical archaeology’ and persisted with literary-historical criticism attempted to interpret the results of archaeology in line with their own understanding of the biblical texts. This approach is especially associated with Albrecht Alt in Germany, and represented by the history book written by his student Martin Noth (1958). The approach here was to treat the biblical narrative as representing what ancient Israelites believed or remembered of their past, their ‘traditions’; and they attempted to reconstruct a history of these traditions. How did these ‘traditions’ relate to the documents that Wellhausen and others had identified in an earlier phase of literary-historical criticism? In his History of Pentateuchal Traditions (1948, ET 1972), Noth seemed to suggest another direction by dividing the ‘tradition’ into themes – guidance out of Egypt, guidance into the arable land, promise to the patriarchs, guidance in the wilderness and ‘revelation at Sinai’, which were originally unrelated to each other but came to be gathered together to form the basis of the Pentateuchal story in a quite early composition. Of this story, Noth claimed that it could not be considered by the historian as a history or even a prehistory of Israel, but as materials drawn from the prehistory of Israelite tribes. The history of Israel properly began, in his view, when these tribes came together into a league, an ‘amphictyony’, after their settlement in Canaan. This was, in his view, how Israel was first formed. But Noth still believed in the Pentateuchal sources, which he thought were developed as different versions of this combined tradition. Later, it was proposed (Rendtorff 1990) that the theory of an early source unifying these themes, later elaborated into the Pentateuchal source-documents theory was unnecessary: the Pentateuch could have begun with the themes, which were later combined into a single narrative – a more economical explanation.
For Noth, as for Alt, there had been no ‘conquest’ of the kind related in the book of Joshua, but something closer to the portrait of the book of Judges where individual tribes settled individually but acted cooperatively. The story of the miraculous destruction of Jericho, therefore, drew on details of a celebration of land possession in the form of a ritual procession around the ruins, and the story of the conquest of Ai was generated by the presence of a conspicuous ruin. Here we can see the first attempt to give a rational historical explanation of stories that were unhistorical, a task that has now become central to the whole enterprise of ‘ancient Israelite history’, especially under the general approach of ‘cultural memory’ (see Chapter 8), which replaces the earlier notion of ‘tradition’. Noth followed Alt’s suggestion that the Israelites came into Canaan through largely peaceful infiltration, gradually changing from nomadic or seminomadic lifestyles to a settled, agricultural one. The tribes that were to form Israel entered from outside, but in a piecemeal process in which seasonal movement in and out of the arable land gave way to permanent occupation of largely deserted areas. As will be seen, this suggestion was to be partly confirmed by archaeological survey in the 1970s.
Noth’s contemporary, Gerhard von Rad, was also a tradition-historian, but his interests were substantially theological and not historical. His suggestion was that the Pentateuchal story grew from a short basic creed, whose original form could still be found in Deut. 26.5–10:
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to Yahweh, the god of our ancestors; Yahweh heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders.
What is missing here is the lawgiving at Sinai, which, von Rad argued, was not part of the earliest tradition. In this he was able to affirm the older historical-critical view that the Mosaic Law was no part of early Israel’s religion. Von Rad also made the point, perhaps better than Noth, that the method of Albright and his students, which led to what was known as the ‘biblical theology movement’ (articulated especially by G. Ernest Wright, 1960; see von Rad 1961 for a rejoinder) prioritized the historical events as the basis of religious belief, valuing the biblical story as a testimony to the demonstration of the divine purpose in history, was theologically dangerous. It meant that any biblical texts proving to be unhistorical were left without a function and devoid of religious value. But on the contrary, as Christian scripture, it is the biblical tradition, and not the facts behind it, that should possess authority for the believer.
Here is an interesting paradox: the Albright school and the ‘biblical theology movement’ were not necessarily committed to any religious view of the Bible’s historicity. Insofar as its accounts were inspired or authoritative, they were so by virtue of their testimony to the divine purpose. The tradition-historians, however, and especially von Rad, accepted that the biblical story of Israel was scriptural and as such had to be valued as a testimony to the religious faith that defined Israel itself. Israel’s beliefs about its election by the true god were the point, and not the accuracy of its historical memory. The notion that stories define group identity, as just mentioned, plays an important role in contemporary historical research, moving the focus away from the search for verification of historical details in the stories.
For the historian does have to try to understand and evaluate biblical texts and stories that are judged unhistorical. They cannot be discarded, because these stories, and the texts that contain them, are still products of history: at some time someone wrote them, and for reasons that we are surely obliged to try and find out. Hence ‘tradition-history’, even where it concludes that traditions cannot be claimed as narrating history, is still investigating history: the history of beliefs about the past and the history of producing texts about the past. We might say that the production of the Bible is part of the social history of ‘ancient Israel’ – or rather, of more than one ancient Israel. This principle is essentially what Wellhausen himself recognized (and biblical archaeologists forgot): that texts tell us about the time they were written, rather than the time about which they seem to be writing. This principle increasingly informs the work of the modern historian of ‘ancient Israel’.
Let us now continue our review of history writing in the twentieth century. If there existed a basic disagreement over the status of the stories in Genesis to Joshua, this did not extend to the period after the settlement in Canaan. Only one major difference between Bright and Noth, the most influential mid-twentieth-century historians, on whose work more than one generation of scholars was reared, strikes the reader in the historical reconstructions of either approach. It does not seem a contentious one, but in hindsight it is significant. Bright’s History ends with the re-purification of the temple by Judas Maccabee in the second century bce, followed by a short chapter on early Judaism; Noth continues to the revolt of the Jews under bar Kosiba (bar Cochba) in the second century ce. Thus, one story ends on a joyous note, the other on a dismal one, with the words ‘thus ended the ghastly epilogue of Israel’s history’. This contrast actually sounds a curious echo of the two biblical historiographies, for while the books of Kings end with Judahites and their king exiled in Babylon, Chronicles ends with the decree of Cyrus allowing Judahites to return (and it is surely for this reason that Chronicles occupies its odd place at the end of the Hebrew canon). From this difference we can learn that writing a history of ‘ancient Israel’ entails judgements about endings and beginnings. Where does ‘ancient Israel’ stop? This depends on what the historian chooses to define as ‘Israel’ (this is addressed in Chapters 5 and 6).
But since Bright and Noth wrote, the focus of debate has moved on from the contents of the Pentateuch (essentially the nineteenth-century arena) and the patriarchs, exodus, conquest and settlement (the twentieth-century arena) to the monarchic and post-monarchic eras. The conflicts between the biblical narrative and the findings of archaeology now range across the events featuring Saul, David, Solomon and, later, Ezra and Nehemiah. The post-monarchic era, in which the provinces of Judah and Israel/Samaria continued their history of contentious neighbourliness, has also become disputed territory. Abraham and Moses were already questionable figures among the literary-historical critics: now David, the ‘united monarchy’ and the great empire stretching from Egypt to the Euphrates are being questioned. The ‘Exile’ also, and its sequel, the ‘Restoration’ have been subject to reassessment,...

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APA 6 Citation
Davies, P. (2015). The History of Ancient Israel: A Guide for the Perplexed (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work published 2015)
Chicago Citation
Davies, Philip. (2015) 2015. The History of Ancient Israel: A Guide for the Perplexed. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Harvard Citation
Davies, P. (2015) The History of Ancient Israel: A Guide for the Perplexed. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Davies, Philip. The History of Ancient Israel: A Guide for the Perplexed. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.