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Giving the Bible a Bashing

A review of How Scholars Create a Past by Thomas L. Thompson
Review by William Dalrymple published in The Sunday Times, London, April 4, 1999

The theological departments of our universities are not the sort of places that one normally associates with blood-curdling threats, savage feuds and colourfully intemperate language. But over the past decade a violent dispute has erupted in the ivory towers of biblical studies that has divided Old Testament scholars into two warring camps, neither of which is now on speaking terms with the other.

Thomas L. Thompson, the distinguished professor of Old Testament Studies at the University of Copenhagen, whose fascinating and controversial The Bible in History: How Scholars Create a Past (Cape 25) has been at the centre of the spat since its beginning. Indeed, he has been the target of much of the more violent polemic: after publishing his last study of the Old Testament, one of his American rivals, William Dever, denounced Thompson in print as "a nasty little man who has had a nasty little life". Since then the exchanges have become, if anything, more heated: Thompson and his British academic allies have been accused of being anti-religious and anti-Israel while their generally American opponents have in turn been dubbed blinkered Bible-bashers and arch-Zionists.

The debate (if such an enjoyably ill-tempered exchange between fiercely hostile academic enemies can be called that) revolves around the thorny issue of the historicity of the Bible, and for all the circus antics of its protagonists, at its heart the controversy does, in fact, add up to one of the most important discussions on the factuality of the Bible since the time of Darwin 150 years ago.

If nobody today−except for a few Midwestern Christian fundamentalists−believes in the literal truth of the description of creation in the Book of Genesis, scholars have traditionally been much more willing to accept the basic historicity of the Old Testament accounts of such figures as Joshua, Saul, David and Solomon. Miracles apart, the traditional scholarly view has always been that the books of the Old Testament do contain the outlines of a true story, and that many of its great heroes were real flesh-and-blood historical figures, who lived in real palaces, fought real battles, and ruled over real kingdoms. It is this set of assumptions that is now under serious scrutiny.

The core of the argument of the "Biblical Minimalists", to which Thompson's The Bible in History acts as a lucid and accessible introduction, is the idea that the Bible was never meant to be read as a history book: it is a religious text, "a theoretical and literary creation" written many centuries after the events it purports to describe, which tells in metaphor the story of mankind's relationship with God. To read it as a factual rendition of political history is to completely miss the point. After all, the earliest surviving texts of the Old Testament− the Dead Sea Scrolls−date only from the troubled Hellenistic period, a couple of centuries before Christ, when the Jews were beginning to map the boundaries of their faith and attempting to give religious meaning to their oldest legends. More important, few of the books of the Hebrew Bible seem to have reached their current form until, in some cases, a full 1000 years after the events they describe. As Thompson quite reasonably points out, the Bible's collection of stories and legendary lore about a lost distant golden age provided an ethnically and religiously diverse "ancient society with a common past", and is "very different from the critical histories" that are written today. We can no sooner assume the Old Testament's historical accuracy, he argues, than we can assume the historicity of King Arthur or King Lear.

Thompson argues that the only contemporary source for the period−archeology−gives a picture of a very different world from that described in the Old Testament: the Jerusalem of the 10th century BC, supposedly the time of King David, was more a small tribal stronghold in a landscape of scattered farms and villages than the palatial centre of a sophisticated empire depicted in the Book of Samuel and the Book of Kings. There is no evidence of vast temples or palaces surviving from the period as high culture "hardly existed... Most of what has survived is either of foreign origin or derivative... culturally, Palestine ever remained Syria's southern fringe." Yet, according to Thompson, biblical archeologists have not let the evidence of their digs stand on their own merits: they have always tried to interpret them through the filter of the Bible, and tried to adjust and upgrade the archeological record so as to fit the picture presented in the Old Testament. In this way, so the argument goes, biblical scholars have seriously distorted the history of the region and presented a largely fictional picture of its past.

The problem, of course, is that the books of the Old Testament are not just dead manuscripts that are the exclusive preserve of academics; they are living, sacred texts, held holy by Jews and Christians across the world. However much you emphasise the religious and metaphorical nature of their content, millions of people desperately wish for the story to be literally "true". Moreover, in the Middle East, the books of the Old Testament have profound political as well as religious significance. In its 1948 Proclamation of Independence, Israel referred to "the re-establishment of the Jewish state", thus basing its right to exist on the biblical precedent of the Israelite kingdom.

Since 1967, the same justification has been advanced for the Israeli colonisation of the West Bank and Golan, and many of the new Jewish settlements that were set up were deliberately built on sites identified as having been colonised by the ancient Israelites 3000 years earlier. In the same way, the Book of Samuel was used as justification for the Israeli seizure of East Jerusalem and its annexation to form Israel's "eternal and united capital". Only last month, Binyamin Netanyahu kicked off his election campaign by encouraging Jewish settlers to "return" and colonise the Palestinian village around the oldest archeological site in Jerusalem. Yet despite renaming the area "the City of David" and desperately searching for the buildings referred to in the Bible, Israeli archeologists have to date found no significant David-period remains, and most of what has been found has recently been shown to predate his assumed period by some 800 years.

So deep is the attachment that many people hold to the Bible that it would be wise for scholars to tread carefully when they seek to challenge it, for they tread not just on dreams, but the most profound yearnings of people's lives. Thompson does not always show the sensitivity he could do, and at times he overstates his case, assuming that in biblical archeology, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, when common sense would indicate that with a strong oral tradition this may well not be the case. Yet for all the polemical cast of his argument, this is a book of the greatest importance, written with passion and verve, and its case is clearly a strong one. Thompson is right to emphasise that traditional biblical scholars are guilty of giving a religious text a factual historicity it neither seeks nor deserves. His book is probably just one battle in what will prove to be a long war between rival camps of scholars. But it is a debate that will be fascinating to follow.

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