What is archaeological ‘minimalism’?

April 26, 2011


The ‘minimalist’ view is that archaeology provides little or no support for the Biblical history.[1] [2] The best known adherents are Philip Davies,[3]  Lester Grabbe,[4] Niels Lemche,[5] Thomas Thompson,[6] and Keith Whitelam.[7] However, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman are the only two prominent archaeologists associated with minimalist views.

Kenneth Kitchen

Kitchen[8] has raised numerous objections to minimalist claims, rejecting Thompson’s assertion that the Hebrew Tabernacle is a literary fiction,[9] that the Merneptah Stele is not reliable evidence for a people named ‘Israel’ in early 13th century Canaan,[10] that the Tel Dan Stele does not refer to a Hebrew ‘House of David’,[11] that the description of Solomon’s wealth is legendary,[12] and that the use of the first person perspective in the Mesha Stele indicates a post-mortem or legendary account.[13] [14] [15] Kitchen has also criticized Finkelstein and Silberman.[16] [17]

William Dever

Though far more sceptical than Kitchen, Dever[18] has nevertheless opposed minimalism vigorously. [19] [20] [21] [22]

Israel Finkelstein

Despite sympathies with some minimalist views, Finkelstein has rejected strongly the minimalist claims concerning Persian era Hebrew scribes,[23] that the ‘lists and details of royal administrative organization in the kingdom of Judah’ are fictional,[24] and that the Hebrew King David never existed.[25] [26] He has also acknowledged strong archaeological support for certain parts of the Biblical record.[27]

Amihai Mazar

With more in common with Finkelstein than the minimalists,[28] Mazar[29]  takes a moderate though critical view of the Biblical history.[30] [31]

[1] The ‘maximalist’ view is that archaeology overwhelmingly supports the Biblical history, and the moderate view is that archaeology substantially supports the Biblical history but that not all of the history can be supported directly from archaeology.

[2] ‘A recent trend in Syro-Palestinian archaeological study known as minimalism or revisionism suggests that Israel was created in the Hellenistic period.’, McCarty & Merrill, ‘Review: What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? By William G. Dever.’, Bibliotheca Sacra (161.641.115), 2004.

[3] Biblical scholar.

[4] Historian.

[5] Biblical scholar.

[6] Biblical scholar.

[7] Biblical scholar.

[8] Egyptologist, Assyriologist, and archaeologist.

[9] ‘In so doing he ignores the whole of the comparative data that show clearly that the tabernacle was a product of Egyptian technology from the overall period 3000 to 1000 D.C. (plus Se-mitic analogues, 1900-1100), and would be unable to account for such facts.’, Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’, pp. 450-451 (2005).

[10] ‘The Israel of Merenptah’s stela was, by its perfectly dear determinative, a people (= tribal) grouping, not a territory or city-state; rare statements to the contrary are perverse nonsense, especially given the very high level of scribal accuracy shown by this particular monument.’, ibid., p. 451.

[11] ‘(i) The name “David” may be unusual, but is not unparalleled. Long centuries before, it was borne by a West Semitic chief carpenter in about 1730 B.C. on an Egyptian stela formerly in the collection at Rio de Janeiro. (ii) Dwd is neither the name (which Thompson admits) nor an epithet of a deity. Others are beloved of deities (for which references are legion!), but male deities are not beloved of others, human or divine (only goddesses are beloved of their divine husbands in Egypt). (iii) Mesha’s stela is ninth, not eighth, century. (iv) On Mesha’s stela dwd(h) is not a divine epithet of YHWH or anyone else. (v) Contrary to TLT, “House of X” does  mean a dynastic founder, all over the Near East, in the first half of the first millennium B.C.; it was an Aramean usage that passed into Assyrian nomenclature, and examples are common. (vi) Again, the expression, in part of its usage, is like the British “House of Windsor”, etc. Such usages were not peculiar to Aram, Assyria, and Judah either: in Egypt, the official title given to the Twelfth Dynasty (Turin Canon) was “Kings of the House (lit. ‘Residence’) of Ithet-Tawy” = ‘the Dynasty of Ithet-Tawy”. And the Thirteenth Dynasty was duly entitled “Kings who came after the [House of] King Sehetepibre” (founder of the Twelfth Dynasty). (vii) The charge of forgery is a baseless slur against the Dan expedition, without a particle of foundation in fact.’, ibid., pp. 452-453.

[12] ‘The point of the comparisons drawn with external (and firsthand!) sources was precisely that Solomon’s wealth (even as stated in Kings) was not exceptional or “fabulous/legendary” in its wider context. He was a pauper compared with (e.g.) Osorkon I, who, less than a decade after Solomon’s death, spent sums that massively outstrip Solomon’s stated income, and gave detailed accounts. The layering that TLT objects to was customary. At Karnak in Egypt, some temple columns were grooved to fit sheet gold from top to bottom, not mere “plastering.” As a touch of throwaway wealth, one need look no further than the recently discovered burials of two Assyrian queens. Solomon had just one golden throne? One pharaoh was sent ten at a time!’, ibid., p. 454.

[13] ‘Use of the first person by a monarch does not belong exclusively to either postmortem memorial texts or to later legends about such kings. A huge army of texts shows up the falsity of his presumption.’, ibid., p. 456.

[14]For first person, not postmortem, see (e.g.) Lipit-Ishtar (247), Warad-Sin/Kudur-mabuk (251-52), Rim-Sin I (253, his third text), Hammurabi (256-57), Ammi-ditana (258-59), and Shamshi-Adad I (259), all early second millennium. In the first millennium every major Assyrian king did exactly likewise, in various editions of their annals that were anything but postmortem, from Tiglath-pileser I to Assurbanipal (cf. ANET, 274-301; CoS II,261-306; RIMA, 1-3 passim).’, ibid., p. 456.

[15]Mesha’s stela is a contemporary building plus victory text, exactly like so many other inscriptions in the ancient Near East in all places and periods; the first-person formulation is irrelevant to its status, as the foregoing examples (far from exhaustive!) show.’, ibid., p. 457.

[16] ‘His reevaluation of the realm of Omri and Ahab is refreshing but wildly exaggerated, especially in archaeological terms. As others have shown amply, the redating will not work (cf. chap. 4, sec. 3 above).’, ibid., p. 464.

[17]The Philistines of Gerar (not those of the Pentapolis!) are a very different lot from the Iron Age group of that name. The term is a probably twelfth-century one substituted for Caphtorim or the like, precisely as Dan was substituted for Laish in Gen. 14:]4.’, ibid., p. 465.

[18] Archaeologist.

[19] ‘There are some who claim that the Bible contains little or no historical information about ancient Israel. I want to combat these “minimalist” or “revisionist” views of the history of ancient Israel by showing how archaeology can and does illuminate a historical Israel in the Iron Age of ancient Palestine (roughly 1200–600 B.C.E.)’, Dever, ‘Save Us from Postmodern Malarkey’, Biblical Archaeology Review (26.02), March/April 2000.

[20]Davies does not even cite the standard handbook, Mazar’s Archaeology of the Land of the Bible,’, Dever, ‘Who Were the Early Israelites? And Where Did they Come From?’, p. 138 (2003).

[21] ‘That same year Whitelam wrote an article for the Sheffield Journal for the Study of the Old Testament on “the realignment and transformation of Late-Bronze-Iron Age Palestine.” It was so full of caricatures of modern archaeological theory and results that I felt compelled to answer it in the same journal.’, ibid., p 139.

[22] ‘Thus he [Thompson] published two years later his revisionist treatment of ancient Israel: The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel. Despite its subtitle, this work has next to nothing to do with real archaeology.’, ibid., p. 141.

[23] ‘First of all, as the biblical scholar William Schniedewind has indicated, literacy and extensive scribal activity in Jerusalem in the Persian and early-Hellenistic periods were much less influential than in the seventh century b.c.e. The assumption is inconceivable that in the fifth, or fourth, or even second centuries b.c.e., the scribes of a small, out-of-the-way temple town in the Judean mountains authored an extraordinarily long and detailed composition about the history, personalities, and events of an imaginary Iron Age “Israel” without using ancient sources.’, Finkelstein, ‘Digging for the Truth: Archaeology and the Bible’, in Schmidt (ed.), ‘The Quest for the Historical Israel’, Archaeology and Biblical Studies, number 17, p. 13 (2007).

[24] ‘The sheer number of name lists and details of royal administrative organization in the kingdom of Judah that are included in the Deuteronomistic History seems unnecessary for a purely mythic history. In any event, if they are all contrived or artificial, their coincidence with earlier realities is amazing.’, ibid., p. 13.

[25] ‘This argument suffered a major blow when the Tel Dan basalt stele was discovered in the mid-1990s.’, ibid., p. 14.

[26] ‘This was the first time that the name “David” was found in any contemporary source outside the Bible, in this case only about a century after his own supposed lifetime.’, ibid., p. 14.

[27] ‘Archaeological excavations and surveys have confirmed that many of the Bible’s geographical listings—for example, of the boundaries of the tribes and the districts of the kingdom—closely match settlement patterns and historical realities in the eighth and seventh centuries b.c.e. Equally important, the biblical scholar Baruch Halpern showed that a relatively large number of extra-biblical historical records—mainly Assyrian—verify ninth- to seventh-century b.c.e. events described in the Bible: the mention of Omri in the Mesha stele, those of Ahab and Jehu in the Shalmaneser III inscriptions, Hezekiah in the inscriptions of Sennacherib, Manasseh in the records of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, and so on. No less significant is the fact, as indicated by the linguist, Avi Hurwitz, that much of the Deuteronomistic History is written in late-monarchic Hebrew, which is different from the Hebrew of post-exilic times.’, ibid., pp. 13-14.

[28]‘ Our views differ on certain important issues, but we share more in common than we do with either of the two extreme groups described above.’, Mazar, ‘On Archaeology, Biblical History, and Biblical Archaeology’, in Schmidt (ed.), ‘The Quest for the Historical Israel’, Archaeology and Biblical Studies, number 17, p. 29 (2007).

[29] Archaeologist.

[30] ‘My own choice is to follow those who claim that the initial writing of the Torah (the Pentateuch or Tetrateuch), of the Deuteronomistic History and large parts of the prophetic and wisdom literature took place during the late monarchy (eighth to early-sixth centuries b.c.e.), while during the exilic and post-exilic periods they underwent further stages of editing, expansion, and change. Yet, I also accept the

view of many scholars that the late-monarchic authors utilized earlier materials and sources.’, ibid., p. 29.

[31] ‘Both Assyrian inscriptions and local inscriptions like the stelae of Mesha, king of Moab, and of Hazael, king of Damascus (better known as the Tel Dan inscription), confirm that the general historical framework of the Deuteronomistic narrative relating to the ninth century was based on reliable knowledge of the historical outline of that century. Our understanding of the periods preceding the ninth century is of course foggier.’, ibid., p. 30.


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