Another Look at Biblical Minimalism

In trying to come to terms with Biblical minimalism and the new approach of historians and literary theorists, a number of misunderstandings and false steps are inevitable. These mistakes can be opportunities to learn and further develop a coherent view. I’d like to address some questions from a FB user and proficient student who may or may not be an historical figure.

1. Lemche and Postmodernism

“Also, I still think that your understanding of historicism is skewed by Lemche. Historicism is not the position that every story in the Old Testament that seems to be related to history must’ve happened [or must be demonstrable by historical methods] exactly as the text says so or else the text is disproven. At least, that’s not how I’ve seen it argued.

What is argued is the understanding that the Old Testament is a document that contains a special witness to the Hebrew past, and that part of this witness *is* to real events. This is the definition of history that is used. Not, “history that is demonstrated/proven” or “objective historiography”. Sort of like how we would view stories told or handed down generation by generation in the modern era. Yeah, they might not have that critical eye or meticulous attention to detail that characterizes ‘modern’ historians, but it is nevertheless an interesting witness to an event that would not otherwise have been recorded. ”

I found Lemche’s book to be excellent. However, I am not a student of his, nor am I “following” his methodology or ideas. I had struck upon such methodology and ideas years ago, and I have been developing them ever since. I basically agree with much of what he writes in the book, but I do so on the basis of recognizing ideas I am already familiar with. These ideas I was exposed to while completing a master’s degree at an Orthodox seminary. The ideas were coming from the professors who had

a) taught the longest

b) were the most “cutting edge” in their scholarship

c) struggled with blowing the minds of seminarians

d) were the most kind people on campus

They taught hermeneutics, OT, NT, homiletics, etc.

Both professors were very much into pushing their students into the great unknown, where the floor drops out and one is left struggling to find one’s bearings. The upshot of this is such a struggle is simply the outcome of becoming aware that we are all in an ambiguous state of becoming. Most people think of themselves as having arrived and having fairly stable supports to shore up the few lingering questions in their mind. Professors such as mine were not afraid to show that the entire edifice of understanding is, for most of us, on the verb of collapsing under its own weight. We have passed the modern period and are firmly in the mournful and bewildering postmodern predicament. Returning to modernism is not an option, as that would be a step backwards and rather naive. That bridge has been burnt, even though many (if not most) today are still crossing it.

So it should be clear that Lemche didn’t drop this bomb by himself, and this thing has been on its way for quite some time.

As for the issue of my definition of historicist criteria, I think it stands. It wasn’t invented by me, and the criteria is simple. The criteria would be softened for historical books that are less important, or more “pedestrian.” But for the Bible, whose readers claim that it is perfect and that the text itself claims to be perfect (although the details of such “perfection” is open to debate), any “mistake” in terms of historicist criteria renders the text false. It has claimed to be inspired and perfect, but it shows itself to be imperfect and therefore false. Perhaps it can be seen as basically true with a bit of falsehood added, but that status in terms of logic makes the text as a whole false. If I right an email to a friend and most of the contents are true, while some are false, the email as a whole is false.

I concede that this is not how many would like to argue the historicist viewpoint. But the reason for that is these historicists want the Bible to be true, and so they are at pains to lower the bar for truth claims so they can somehow squeeze in the flawed (in their pov) text of the Bible. Yet their criteria show that the Bible for them could never be inspired. Only parts can be inspired, since many parts of it are simply wrong.

Getting back to the quote:

“What is argued is the understanding that the Old Testament is a document that contains a special witness to the Hebrew past, and that part of this witness *is* to real events. This is the definition of history that is used. Not, ‘history that is demonstrated/proven’ or ‘objective historiography’.”

Here we have some weasel words: “special witness” is either meaningless or unhelpful, as any text is special in a certain way. How is the OT special? Archeologists would say it is special because it is unique and culturally significant. Yet most of them would not go so far as to say the OT is special because it is accurate or true.

We also need to revisit “historicity”: if an event is not demonstrated or proven (to a reasonable extent), it cannot be validly asserted, and if an historical account is not objective, it is biased and therefore false or half true at best. So perhaps you are correct, but this only shows that the argument used doesn’t employ a strict historicist criterion, but a modified set of standards that in essence renders the OT an ANE text that has value but is not true in all respects. This means that the claims to authority that the Bible holds are false claims.

And finally:

“Sort of like how we would view stories told or handed down generation by generation in the modern era. Yeah, they might not have that critical eye or meticulous attention to detail that characterizes ‘modern’ historians, but it is nevertheless an interesting witness to an event that would not otherwise have been recorded. “

I agree, but again this puts the ancient history of the Bible in the same category as myth and folklore. We don’t read folk tales and fairy tales and then go looking for archeological evidence to confirm those tales. We don’t believe that these tales are “literally” or “historically” true, but morally true (or simply entertaining). It doesn’t matter that these characters never existed, or that if they did exist they were probably very different from their depictions in folklore. That is beside the point.

So it seems that the end of this first quoted objection brings us back to the beginning: the text of the Bible is seen as folklore, not real history. There may be a core of historical truth there, but the whole is not historical and therefore not true for the historicist. The Bible fails the test for the historicist.

2. Ancient Views on Historical Reality

“Yet we’re fairly confident, as historians of first-century Judaism, that the Jews would most certainly believed that Adam had been a real person. What is meant by this? If you were to ask a random, knowledgeable, scholarly Jew from the first-century what they thought about Adam, they would respond that if you were to go back far enough in time, past all these generations of Israelites, to the first man, they would reply that this is Adam, and that he is [or was] no more or less real than you or I would be.”

The assumption from the comment above is that I think ancient Jews were not historicists: they did not think that the Biblical events “really happened.” But if one returns to my somewhat convoluted essay they will see that I affirm that the Biblical writers truly believed (afaik) that the events “really happened.” In this sense they seem to be historicists. Yet I also point out that historicism was an impossibility at that time. Historicism depends on what “really” happened, and this is an option for the curious today while it was not so in the ancient world. In the ancient world, one could hear competing stories and accounts, but there was no “fact of the matter.” To put it another way, there was no way of showing conclusively whether any event happened other than deferring to stories.

This, of course, is not the situation of today. Today we can take competing stories and rather than simply comparing them to each other we can compare them with the archeological evidence. We can look at DNA instead of relying on the testimony of ancient genealogies.

In the past, there was no way of disproving a genealogy, while today it is a simple task if one has access to the “real” evidence, the physical remains of the actors. It is as if facts have only become available in the modern era. Before this the closest thing to a fact in terms of history was a story.

So the characters were believed to be real, but it needs to be remembered that “reality” at that time was a matter of faith/trust, not proof. If any proof was available, it was in the form of stories, not DNA results or carbon dating. This puts the “historical” reality in the ancient world in the realm of literature, not “science.” It is in the realm of the humanities, a matter to be decided by the wise rather than the scientists (who didn’t really exist).

3. Regarding the use of “Adam” by Paul in the NT 

“The debate then is not whether “Adam’s historical existence” was a basic belief of Paul. The debate is over whether the historical existence of Adam [as defined by way of a fictitious anecdotal story] impacts the significance of who Adam is in the Pauline salvation-history narrative.”

Here we come to the threatening idea that Paul was using a fictional character to make his point about the gospel. If Adam never really existed, then did Jesus?

This is an interesting problem: Paul uses a figure who is mythical/historical/undefined to teach about Christ and the Church. How is this possible if Adam never existed historically? If Adam did exist historically, how is it possible for Paul to make his taking a wife a symbol of Paul’s own situation rather than an historical event at the beginning of time?

We can be thankful that Paul didn’t cite the Adam story with the aim of proving Adam’s historicity and a young Earth. His point was about teaching life, not science.

But what about the use of fictional characters to teach? Is that legitimate? This brings to mind the prayer of repentance in the Orthodox tradition.

“I have sinned in thought, word and deed. I repent my sins. You are the master and I am the servant. Accept me as the prodigal son.”

In this prayer one is literally asking God to act as he did in a clearly fictional story. The Prodigal Son was a parable, a piece of fiction invented by Jesus to teach a lesson to his listeners. Why would we ask God to accept us like he accepted a fictional character?

Jesus (according to the NT) taught with fictional stories. Let that sink in. This means that the argument that Jesus spoke of Adam, Noah, Abraham, etc. as historical people is fallacious. The characters could have been real or could have been part of a fictional narrative that is true (e.g. The Prodigal Son and many other parables).

It is high time that we take seriously the possibility that the NT is closer to a parable than a history.

4. Where the Truth Lies

“You say that “the “truth” of the story lay in the realm of meaning, not disinterested (read: unbiased) historical reporting.” You seem to be saying that the form of the story is not important in itself, but rather what *really* matters is the bits and pieces we can extract after analyzing the story and removing it from its form and structure that we found it in.”

This is not my position, but rather the position I am arguing against (historicism). Instead, for me the form and function of the story is important and the details serve that function. Isolating the details for historical analysis is the preoccupation of the historicist, not the minimalist. By removing or ignoring the form and function, one kills the story and renders the details of the story lifeless and irrelevant. The details find their significance within the stories, and not in the “reality” behind the stories. In other words, the referents for the details are in the story ultimately, not the “outside” world of historicity. The story is an organism that teaches a lesson. The details find their function in the story, not in reconstructing the “historical reality” behind the story. The authors were not interested in history per se.

I’ll end my address of questions here, but another post will follow that answers some additional issues.


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