Friday, December 31, 2010

Competing Bible Narratives

I've been watching some DVDs on the archaeology of Israel and environs, by a teacher with solid professional credentials, both in the field and in the library.  She tells her story in a helpful and instructive manner from which I take great profit. Yet there's an issue of presentation here that strikes me as profoundly irritating.  And it's not just her; it's a rhetorical strategy that you see in a lot of "scholarly" material about the Ancient Near East, and invites some exegesis.  Let me see if I can make myself clear.

First: in wretched oversimplification, there are are two ways of telling the story of "the Bible," aka "The Old Testament."  One is to embrace the text: to accept the document itself as a, perhaps the, primary source on events in its purview, and to accept the document as the arbiter of all doubts, the ironer-out of all lacunae.  Some people profess to accept the Bible in tote, though I doubt that very many actually do so.  Others claim the Bible as a primary document, while subtly dismissing more doubtful or embarrassing portions, (sometimes sub silentio) in a kind of cafeteria doctrinalism.

There is a counter-view that approaches the issue from a wholly different perspective. This counter-view takes the Bible as thee product of a particular place and time--an historical event in its own right, if you like--designed not so much to memorialize but to create the identity of a people.

More precisely: on this view, the heavy work of producing the Bible takes place in or around the Seventh Century BC, particularly in and around the reign of Josiah, seeking to generate a narrative that will justify a single identity for all of what we now call (retrospectively) "Israel and Judah."

Operating from this point of departure, it is natural to evaluate the record of preceding centuries with a critical, if not necessarily skeptical eye.  Seen in this light, we notice a number of remarkable facts.  One, the account of the original Abraham-and-Isaac story is hopelessly anachronistic, impossible to reconcile with the time at which it was supposed to have occurred. Two, the physical evidence for a "flight out of Egypt" is at or near absolute zero.  Three, there is no really satisfactory evidence of a Jewish "invasion" into Israel (the alternate view is that the Jews were in fact a segment of the indigenous Canaanites who hived off with an identify of their own).

Further: there may be some historical evidence of a "King David," but the chances theat he was a great monarch are not so strong as the possibility that he was some kind of tribal chieftain.  As to his son Solomon, said to have ruled from sea to sea--the evidence is equivocal at best, depending largely on whether you accept some archaeological sites as relating to Solomon himself, or perhaps rather to the supposed enemies of the Jews, the evil Omrids (Ahab, Jezebel, and the rest of tht lot).

Just as with those who accept the primacy of the Bible, there isn't a single agreed account among all archaeologists, but a rough outline--along the lines that I just set forth--would win broad acceptance.  And while there are, generally speaking, two contending schools of thought, there is a highly contested no-man's land. Plenty (well--some) of the Biblicists make highly informed and sophisticated arguments that there view can be reconciled with an exact reading of the archaeological evidence.

Back to the DVDs.  Where is our lecturer on this spectrum? This is where it gets interesting. The thing is, if you listen inattentively, you'd take her for a strong Biblicist.  She quotes frequently from the Bible as an evidentiary source.  She festoons the presentation with some of those awful pictures of Biblical scenes you saw so long ago in vacation Bible school.  She unfailing refers to the ur-community on the site of modern Jerusalem as "the City of David."  The title of the series is perhaps a giveaway: it is called "The Holy Land Revealed"--one of those names that seems to punt on the first down.

But listen closely and you get a far different picture: pay attention and you can see that she is fully informed of the competing "archaeological" view, and that she almost buys into at least some of it.  Just exactly how much is hard to tell.  My guess is that at the end of the day, she is some kind of "left Biblicist."  She's far too well informed for vulgar belief.  She even takes pains to try to respond to some of the important talking points in the competing view.

The trouble is, she never lets on that there is a competing  view.  Instead, she gives her (apparent) Biblical narrative; she dances around some difficult issues; and she answers questions that she has never asked.

This strikes me as disingenuous and as far as I am concerned, highly unnecessary.  As I suppose should be obvious by now, I am much more of an "archaeologist" than a "Biblicist."  But I recognize that some of these issues are technical and I am an amateur: the technical heavy lifting is just way above my pay grade.  I'm open to careful analysis and indeed, I thought my lecturer scored some interesting points in favor of the Biblical view without ever acknowledging that she was doing so. How much better--and, I should think, easier--it would have been to lay out a more candid account of the competing positions: this is what I think, this is what the other guys argue and this is why I think they are wrong.

Just why she doesn't do this is anybody's guess.  It doesn't seem that her employer imposes a loyalty test: one of her colleagues is Bart D.  Ehrman, perhaps the best-known secularist scholar of the New Testament, almost a celebrity in the field of informed unbelief.  It might be that it's just easier her way.  She may have decided (and I suspect she would be right) that she catches far less flac this way from the committed God squad.  Indeed I've always thought that the occupation of professor for a serious scholar of ancient Israeli* history must be a pretty thankless job.  I should think the best of them have to fight day and night to be herd over the thrum of grinding axes.

And I stress it isn't just her.  I wouldn't be wasting all these bytes on just one set of DVDs.  From my perspective it is a far too frequent presentational style among expositors of ancient Israeli scholarship, and the listener is the worse for it.

*Names themselves are a problem here.  Jewish?  Palestinian?  Standard labels like "Holy Land" or  "Biblical," seem to me hopelessly to rig the bidding.  I choose "Israeli" as a back-formation from modern Israel, with no pretense that I have ironed out any of the difficulties.
Bibliographic note:  I suspect the best of the "trust-the-Bible" camp is Eliat Mazar, discoverer of what she believes to be "King David's palace" in the ur-city of Jerusalem.  The standard source for the "archeologist's narrative" would be The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman.  A more contentious view, setting the topic in the context of the larger history of  nationalist ideologies, is Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People.  The lectures by Professor Jodi Magness are available here.

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