Objections to Biblical Minimalism (Continued)

4. Dilemma or Trilemma?

“We want something entirely relevant for us. So we tend to gravitate in two directions: either we naively accept the text as it is, read it as a straightforward record of an event in the ancient past and then distance ourselves from that event; or, we dissect the story for its real “Platonic” meaning. The story behind the story. The meaning apart from the form of the story. And then we generalize this into a universal principle.”

The quote goes on, but I will stop here to address what was said thus far. A dilemma is presented, and the first option is clearly flawed since it takes a naive reading to work. It also assumes that the text is to be read in a “straightforward” manner, an assumption that scholars cannot accept because there is simply too much evidence to the contrary in ancient writing manuals and texts.

The second option is not viable either. A Platonic reading is most probably incorrect because the authors were not writing with that goal in mind for the reader. One could make the case that they were, in fact, doing this, but it would hard to formuate a convincing case for this in regard to the Bible. It should also be noted that a “Platonic” reading does not discard the form of the story, but employs it. The form is meaningful for the Platonic reader, while for the historicist the form is simply a vehicle for the “facts.” It is the historicist that is unconcerned with the form of the story. In this sense we might affirm that the Biblical authors were writing in a “Platonic” fashion, with the caveat that this does not include the same genre and literary canons. The texts are “Platonic” in that they were meant to teach and to be reflected upon, not that they were Greek or that they should be understood as philosophical treatises.

The Platonic reader looks for the story behind the story, yet they do so on the basis of the story in the text. The historicist reader looks for the facts, not the story. The historicist story behind the story is one of facts, and these facts are not ultimately found in the text but in “reality” (what is behind the text) which can only be accessed with a degree of certainty through archeology/physical texts or faith. Since archeology does not support the Bible by and large, they are left with faith alone. The stories have a real historical element behind them because the religiously faiuthful historicist believes that they do. This belief is so strong and necessary that no amount of evidence will shake it. It is like the faith of a flat-earther. Everything can either be explained, or relegated to the realm of an incomplete data set. Nothing is allowed to touch the “reality” of the flat earth, nor the historicity of the Bible.

The quote continues:

“But there is a way around this. If we understand the “story” as the most basic form of human communication and way of “knowing” [and being], it becomes much easier to understand how the Biblical narratives work. Thus, the difference between “story” and “history” is negligible, because history, no matter how we conceive of it [whether we conceive of it in terms of ancient historiography or post-Enlightenment paradigms of “history writing”], is ultimately written in the form of a story. It has a plot, characters, meaning, purpose, agendas, causes, twists, unknowns. Ultimately, it is story because it is a history of humanity. And the human-race is defined by story.”

This is a great insight into the role of stories for humanity. However, the distinction between story and history is not the salient point. Instead, the criteria for truth is what is at stake. Is a story/history false if it does not reflect “what really happened”? Or can a story be “true” without reflecting historical reality? This is the real issue: the veracity of the story and the criteria for evaluating the veracity ofd the story. For example, a storey is told. If it is understood as a parable or a morality tale it need not be evaluated by historicist criteria. If the story is understood as an historically factual account, then the story should rightfully be judged by historicist criteria. My position is that the Bible is closer to a parable than to an historically factual account. The kind of truth conveyed is in the realm of teaching about “reality,” which for the authors centered around God’s relation to humanity. It isn’t a set of stories meant to convey historically factual information that happens to deal with God and humanity. God and humanity are the focus, and the historical elements be plausible and meet the ancient criterion of verisimilitude to fit the genre of ancient histories. That less historically rigorous criterion needs to be respected, not changed, meaning that we have to apply the ancient canons of writing to the ancient texts produced by ancient writers. The historical “facts” need only be plausible to function in the conveyance of the teaching.

The quote continues:

“If this is the case, and we can no longer oppose “history” and “story”, the issue of determining whether a story conforms to what we know about “history” becomes even more unreasonable, because we are essentially comparing someone’s story to someone else’s story and giving this “someone else” more authority and primacy over this “someone’s” story.”

Exactly. History and story are not opposed, yet the the modernist (historicist) does oppose them in this way: to ascertain what really happened is the goal of historical studies, and the story cannot be trusted to convey that information. The shift in focus goes from history/story to the reality behind the history/story. That reality becomes the new “real history.” It is authentic history by the historicist’s standards. The opposition is between the old and the new notions of “history.”

“Of course, there may be reason for doing so. If I tell you a story about Abraham Lincoln, you’re not going to privilege my story about Abraham Lincoln over the story told by his secretary or head of state. There are still methods of evaluation and not every story is “created equal”. But one thing this makes clear is that we cannot oppose the concept of history to the concept of story. Ultimately every history is someone’s story. The issue is not whether we can use stories in historiography. The issue is evaluating other stories according to the stories we tell ourselves and if we are doing so reasonably and without unjustified prejudice. Because of that, we need to recognize that some of the ways in which we evaluate another’s story is because of the prejudices that are ingrained into our own story.”

Very well put, and I completely agree.

5. Archeological Falsification

“What archaeological evidence would demonstrate that God didn’t destroy the walls of Jericho?”

Archeology could falsify the role of God in the destruction only if it demonstrates that the event never happened (e.g. the city was not walled at that time, or not populated). If the destruction did occur (possibly) then the role of God would be one of causation and would not leave an archeological trace. So at best archeology can show that the role of God was possible. But does archeology show this? If it does not, and the story has to reflect what we find in archeology (reflecting “real history”), then God’s role is impossible since the event never happened as depicted in the text.

6. Basic Agreement on Postmodernism

“From my own research, I have found that this claim is often exaggerated to a great extent. It’s akin to the claim common among apologists that no finding of archaeology contradicts the Biblical stories. Both are false claims. In fact, the very statement that was made contradicts the idea of replacing a historicist [read: modernist or positivist] methodology with a postmodern one, because it recapitulates back to the historicist narrative that archaeology has [or can] disprove/prove the Bible. Thus, instead of being a critique of the modernist epistemology, it seems like it’s operating in concession to historicism but is now making the Bible an unfalsifible and untouchable document. The only use for the Bible under this view is for private faith. It is not to be used for historical studies, or any attempt at finding a coherent sequence of events for the history of ancient Israel.

To me, this is not a true postmodern understanding of the text, because a true postmodern understanding of the text would not concede that archaeology has ultimately relegated any historical truth found in the OT to be non-existent. A true postmodern understanding would first remind the modernist understanding that it needs to be critical of its own methods, presuppositions, prejudices, stories, etc. And then continue to remind it that the stories that it is investigating have their own set of methods, presuppositions and prejudices that need to be evaluated as well.”

I really don’t see the opposition between a) recapitulation historicist criteria with the aim of critiquing historicism, and b) reminding the reader that archeology and positivism (historicism) is not the ultimate arbiter of a text’s truth. I wouldn’t say “historical truth,” though, since that often is taken to mean thew historical truth behind the text rather than in the text. The postmodern take on the exodus (as I understand it) is that the account is historical rather than the event depicted in the story. The historical event is the writing of the text. The product of that event is not the exodus from Egypt, but the account of the exodus from Egypt.

“Furthermore, a postmodernist reading would warn the modernist of being too confident in its conclusions. It would remind the modernist of the limits of knowledge and discovery, reminding the modernist that “doing history” does not involve trying to find a “god’s eye view” of history, but involves trying to construct a narrative that is wary of competing stories and data, and is able to fully account for the “other” stories and their presuppositions.”

This is precisely what Lemche does.

“The postmodernist understanding would then turn from the historian and to the text itself, reminding us that the process of understanding is not as straightforward as we would like. It would then remind us that multiple perspectives of the text do exist. And a truly consistent postmodernist would remind us that the “story-form” is ultimately the most basic form of human knowledge and communication, and that we should not degrade “stories” in favor of “facts”, while at the same time recognizing that stories ultimately reflect something “real” about the world around us. This is the position known as “critical realism”, which ultimately works within the framework of postmodernism while moving beyond the postmodern framework [which often tends to be phenomenalist in its readings].”

This seems to describe both Lemche and myself, and perhaps I haven’t made that clear enough previously. It seems that we are looking at the evidence in a very similar way, and apparently we were unaware of it!

7. Late Dating of the Old Testament

“Also, what do you make of the claims that the Hebrew text wasn’t written until the 3rd or 2nd centuries? Or that the Davidic monarchy never existed? On what basis can Lemche claim such things? Clearly, one does not have to arrive at such a position just based upon an epistemological or literary philosophy alone. It seems like he has to appeal to historicist standards in order to make these very claims.”

I think that there is a bit of a Hegelian element to the Copenhagen school. The thesis of historicism is opposed by a minimalism that at the same tame is positivistic in its claims. Rather than claiming we cannot know how long before the earliest manuscripts the text was written, the minimalist claims that they were written extremely late.

A priori I don’t agree with this approach, but I do agree with the next logical step: both claims are unfalsifiable at this time. The second claim challenges the first claim and is found to be as “factual” if not moreso. This does not logically lead to the conclusion that the second claim is true, but it brings into doubt that the first claim is true. It challenges the first claim without affirming (in the end) that the second claim is “true.”

So in the end the synthesis of the two views leads to agnosticism about historical claims relating to “what really happened,” which does not lead to a relegation of the text to irrelevance but refocuses the reader on the story as presented.

I think Lemche claims that the text seems to come from the 4th c. BCE. He does so not only based on the (archeological) silence before this period, but on the basis of claims that the text reflect concerns of writers of this period. This can be doubted, of course, but the claim is not entirely based on an argument from silence and historicist criteria. It is from the textual evidence in tandem with the archeological evidence, resulting in a claim that is speculative rather than absolute.

As for the Davidic monarchy, it makes sense that

  1. the OT depicts it in a biased manner
  2. we have no solid evidence of the monarchy existing
  3. we have some evidence that indicates the monarchy could not have existed as the OT depicts it
  4. a later writer could have idealized an historic memory preserved over the centuries, or more likely, invented a history based memories that may or may not correspond to an originally historic reality

So it is not the case that we can affirm that David’s monarchy did not exist. Rather, it is that we cannot affirm that it existed, nor even consider it likely, at least by historicist standards. This is a problem only if we insist on viewing the Bible as engaged in depicting “real” history rather than stories with lessons.

So I agree that positivistic claims of minimalists need not be taken as valid. They are mistaken in making such claims, although the function of the claims can serve as a corrective to the historicist claims, resulting in a synthesis that transcends both.

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