Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: Lester L. Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?

Review: Lester L. Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (London/NY: T&T Clark, 2007).

Grabbe begins by informing us that his book is not a history of Israel, but a prolegomena to a history of Israel. He is not attempting to write a history, but to show how Israelite historiography is, and ought to be, done. As such, Grabbe aims to lay out the book in terms of three distinct areas: Original sources, analysis, and synthesis. In essence, it seems that he desires to make a distinction between data, analysis of the data, and conclusions concerning the data that create a larger picture where his interpretation of the data coheres.

He first, however, discusses theory, something he notes most historians and archaeologists ignore, and then proceeds to discuss various disputes, which are substantial, concerning ancient Israelite history and archaeology.  After airing his grievances with name-calling amongst the Minimalist/Maximalist camps, as well as with the incessant attribution of bias to various scholars in an attempt to identify their motivation for holding such and such a view, he proceeds to lay out the principles of the historical method that he will utilize in his book.

1.       All potential sources should be considered.
2.       Preference should be given to primary sources, which he views as inscriptional and archaeological (he considers the Bible to be a secondary source due to its largely being written after the events it describes).
3.       The context of the longue durĂ©e (i.e., historical factors that occur over the course of a longer period, such as the geographic location, agricultural situations, long-term political events, etc.) must always be recognized and given an essential part in one’s interpretation .
4.       Each episode or event needs to be judged on its own merits.
5.       All reconstructions are provisional.
6.       All reconstructions have to be argued for.

Grabbe then proceeds to employ his methodology to the time of the patriarchs, and then, to the patriarchs themselves, the exodus, conquest, united monarchy, divided monarchy, etc.

In his second chapter, Grabbe notes the lack of physical evidence to validate the patriarchal narratives’ historicity within the 2d Millennium context. Although he does not put much weight into the idea that the names used are found to be names that are only attested much later, he does take note of the fact that the only mention of the patriarchs in the Bible are exilic/post-exilic, that the narratives seem to reflect a later time by their designation of people groups and domestic use of camels that are attested to be much later, and that there is no sure chronology of when the patriarchs lived, and that supposedly some of the customs of the time may have been misconstrued by the author of Genesis.
Hence, Grabbe concludes that the Bible tells us little about the 2d Millennium and we are left with archaeological data and inscriptions, which ironically, he informs us are made up of texts that are “legend with a historical core,” accounts that are “often distorted,” and military campaigns that, I would only assume, are also exaggerated and somewhat legendary.

Grabbe does note, however, that a precise chronology for the 2d Millennium is not well known. In fact, there are centuries within the 2M that consist of dark ages, where scholars know little about what occurred in particular regions, such as Assyria.

How this makes Grabbe, and others, so certain of their assessment concerning the usefulness of the biblical patriarchal narratives I’m not quite sure. None of the common objections noted above are really all that substantial.

Grabbe then proceeds in Chapter 3 to discuss archaeological theories concerning the data and concludes based upon his understanding of those theories that the exodus, settlement of Canaan, and united monarchy all may have some historical source but are in no way as epic or have occurred in the manner the Bible presents them.
Instead, the exodus may have some roots in some Asiatic slaves escaping from Egypt, the Conquest may have some roots in a partial revolt that occurred in a small sector of Canaan, where a new ethnic identity emerged, the united monarchy may have roots in some history (too much about this period is uncertain), but is not as the Bible presents it.

Finally, Grabbe comes to the divided monarchy and exile, utilizes what we have of various ancient Near Eastern reports and inscriptions, and concludes that the books that the DtrH uses as sources are very reliable. It is just all of the other stuff tacked onto them by a work that is primarily meant to serve theological and political purposes is likely legendary (especially since it is largely centered on the moral judgments and activities of prophets). The religion of Israel is also discuss in a similar vein that vibes with the rest of popular scholarship today.

The Good
Most of what is to be praised in this book is found in the opening chapter. Grabbe’s critique of most biblical scholars and historians is right on the money. He states that they do not ponder theory, but rather they just assume the presuppositions (which I take as what Grabbe means by “theory”) handed to them by their predecessors and go with it. Hence, they “just do,” rather than think about what they are doing too much. He also states that they largely function on arguments based upon ad populum to posture a position as scholarly and ad hominem to attack a position as unscholarly simply because it either speaks against or speaks in support of the biblical witness. He notes his frustration with the academy for this, and I share this frustration with him. It has become a big high school game of childish name-calling and accepting or rejecting arguments based upon whether the proponents of those arguments are in the “in-group” or “out-group.”
I appreciated Grabbe’s use of the textual data once he got to it, even though I think he’s inconsistent in his treatment of the textual data versus the material culture, the latter being handled more thoroughly and in depth, but the former being handled very generically.
I also agree with Grabbe, to a point, that the purpose of much of biblical history was not necessarily to record a bunch of facts, but rather had theological aims as its primary goal. And I would also agree that there is a historical core/skeleton to those narratives and the theological aims of what is built upon them does not negate that. Where we would disagree is that its theological aims cause the authors to fabricate historical reports concerning miracles, activity of the prophets, etc.

And although I would disagree with Grabbe’s positive view that history must be based upon probabilities and rule out anything supernatural or miraculous (what Grabbe calls “legendary”), by explicitly stating that biblical historians do this, he is honest that this is exactly what they are doing. Some try to hide this, but of course, probabilities are based upon one’s ultimate beliefs concerning reality, not on data, which must be interpreted by those ultimate beliefs. Of course, Grabbe does not seem to be aware of this, but I thought his honesty in the area was refreshing.

The Bad
Grabbe makes a common distinction found in historians of ancient Israel between primary and secondary sources in terms of their contemporaneousness to the events, but unfortunately, the way that this distinction is made within ancient Israelite historiography is not in line with what most historians outside of the field consider as primary and secondary. The principle of primary and secondary uses of sources has to do with the most ancient extant witness to the event, not the witnesses that are necessarily contemporaneous to the event. This is an important distinction that Grabbe seems to miss or with which he possibly disagrees. However, secondary sources are those sources that repeat information that is already known, and perhaps, they add to those more ancient sources. Primary sources, therefore, are not made secondary merely because they are hundreds of years from the event (an argument Grabbe, and other scholars within his school of thought, constantly makes when assessing the validity of the biblical data), since its witness may contain traditions and other earlier sources no longer known to us (see Kofoed 2005:42-48 for a further discussion).

Although Grabbe does note that most archaeologists and historians never consider theory, but rather they “just do,” he doesn’t seem to consider theory too deeply himself. He outright, and without much argument, dismisses postmodern arguments that are far more weighty than he realizes when critiquing the idea that we can know history from the modern methodologies, especially when it comes to material culture, that we use. And he dismisses anyone who believes in inerrancy as not a part of the scholarly community that is doing real scholarship because of their presuppositions. Yet, he says this on the heels of arguing for tolerance in the field of biblical historiography, precisely, because presuppositions dictate interpretations. Here, I think, Grabbe, like many scholars today, is only partially aware of the solid arguments made concerning the fact that presuppositions dictate interpretations, but is unaware just how much they dictate, as he attempts to save some unwarranted idea that there is neutral, objective ground that a scholar is capable of finding. So there is quite a bit of confusion on his part and it shows in his critique of those scholars he considers fundamentalists. This too was a bit disappointing in a book that was supposedly going to show us how we might come to our own conclusions concerning the data based upon our own presuppositions.

Another issue I had with the book is that it presents itself as a fair and balanced approach, albeit implicitly, because it purports to just lay out the data and then proceed to bring that data together through analysis and synthesis, where Grabbe then applies his own methodology to interpret the data.

But the book fails on a number of points. For one, the “data” portion of the chapters where just the facts are to be laid out is really nothing more than a plethora of opinions by various archaeologists, admitted by Grabbe to have come to their different conclusions simply because the data is ambiguous and must be interpreted by a particular archaeologist’s paradigm.
So what one receives in this part of the chapter that is supposed to deal with fact is nothing more than the current popular opinion among scholars, and yet, it is this very opinion of the data that begs the question, How do we know this? A question that Grabbe is supposedly supposed to answer but never does. The impression one gets from the introduction of the book is that Grabbe is going to tell us how to go about deciphering the evidence and training us how to come to a conclusion from it; but what we receive instead is just another history of Israel where all of that evidence has already been interpreted (by what methodologies and assumptions we are never told) for us. We are never told why one archaeologist comes to this conclusion, but another three come to three different conclusions. We’re just told that they do and then Grabbe picks the one he likes best.
From his cherry-picking what opinions with which he agrees, which is always among the current consensus of at least one of the two schools that do not think the biblical data is accurate when it comes to Israel’s pre-monarchic period (i.e., moderate or minimalist), which is considered as its unknown prehistory, he then proceeds to synthesize the data by merely saying that the biblical picture does not accord with the opinions he’s chosen to use as facts.
In truth, we are never really given much data, of which I thought the first part of these chapters would consist. Instead, there is nothing but a particular interpretation that is then taken as fact and then used to judge the validity of the biblical text. The analysis/synthesis portions of the chapters, then, are nothing but a particular interpretation of the data applied. Hence, what we get throughout the entire book is pure interpretation of the data, not raw data that stands apart from interpretation and then a rigorous look at the various trajectories one can take in his interpretation of that data based upon his assumptions. That was the book we were promised, but not the book that was delivered.

What I thought they would look like is something to where the actual data, layers, potherds, etc. were described apart from interpretation, a display of how one’s presuppositions and paradigms affect interpretation of that data, and then Grabbe’s own honest display of his own paradigm in bringing the data together with, perhaps, a display of how others might do so within their own paradigms.

The reason I expected this is because Grabbe set this up in his opening chapter, where he very clearly lays out that historiography is theory applied to select data, and as such, depends upon the presuppositions and reconstructions thereof of the interpreter. That’s why reconstructions are only provisional (point number 5 in Grabbe’s methodology, pg. 36), but one would never know this by the rest of the book that nowhere makes any of this evident. Instead, one would get the impression that what Grabbe was concluding was hardcore fact that would only be contested by fundamentalists (something he implies in a few places).

As such, I don’t think that this is a good textbook to help students understand the art of historiography. It doesn’t help anyone assess the archaeological data. It just presents different views and then tells us what Grabbe would do with them, but this isn’t really teaching us anything about the task of critical historiography.

However, I do think the book succeeds in being an introduction to the current views and climate of ancient Israelite historiography and archaeology.
I also think that its introductory remarks concerning theory are invaluable with some exceptions. It is just a shame that the somewhat thoughtful theory of historiography seems to have been forgotten in the rest of the book.

In any case, because it does provide a good introduction to current views within scholarship, and it does contain, for the most part, a good discussion of theory when it comes to doing history, I would use it in a classroom setting and merely note my objections to what the book claims to be doing otherwise.

It is important to note, along with Kofoed, that the shift in ancient Israelite archaeology and historiography has not come due to our having a flood of earth-shattering evidence today that we didn't have in the days of Alt and Albright. Instead it “is caused not so much by ground-breaking additions to the archaeological record as by a new way of interpreting roughly the same sources” (2005: 2).

So what do we know and how do we know it? I’m not sure Grabbe’s book is going to tell us that. Instead, it seems to take its place alongside a library of books on the history of Israel that unintentionally show us more about ourselves and our presuppositions than anything more or less about history itself. If Grabbe does imply an answer, it would seem to be that we know what we do today about the history of Israel because archaeologists, with all of their speculations built upon their own presuppositions, interpret it that way for us. We can’t take the biblical text, the most ancient extant witness in terms of its non-modern interpretation of the event, because of Grabbe’s abandonment, or perhaps, misunderstanding of what constitutes a primary and secondary source. So the only answer to the question concerning what we know and how we know it is by the authority of particular archaeologists in terms of how much their own assumptions about the data accord with the academy’s disposition toward supporting the biblical text as a reliable source for reconstructing Israel’s history.

Now, Grabbe does use the Bible in his evaluation of history. I want to be fair on that. However, it is only used when it either is validated by some other external textual witness or popular archaeologist’s theory or by what Grabbe himself views as plausible, displaying probabilities based upon his particular worldview, not upon those held by others (e.g., he makes the comment that any historian worth his salt would see that certain texts are legendary and not historical, but this isn’t a real argument from the data, but from his ultimate beliefs--implying that one must hold his particular ultimate beliefs and those of the academy in order to do real history).

Finally, the history of religions discussion was filled with the same types of fallacious methodologies that plagues popular scholarly discussion these days (many of which are linguistic fallacies). Again, if one assumes that modern scholarship has gotten it all right, he might love this book, but not because the book accomplished its proposed goal in helping the student reason through the data as a mindful individual of his own presuppositions and how they influence his decisions and methodology of inquiry. Yet, the amount of pure speculation, even when Grabbe outright admits (and he does so quite often throughout the book) that much of the periods we are discussing have little to no accumulation of evidence to give us a picture of what Israel really looked like in its historical development, is staggering.

As such, I was disappointed with the book, even though I was very excited about it once I read the opening comments. I was disappointed, not because Grabbe comes to different conclusions than I would, but because he doesn’t really accomplish what he sets out to accomplish in the book, which is to teach students to do history and apply that methodology to doing a history of Israel.

I would use it, but alongside texts such as Kofoed’s Text & History, Hess’s et al. Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, and some postmodern texts concerning whether history is something that is possible beyond trusting verbal witnesses of primary (read most ancient extant) texts.


  1. After tussling with issues of biblical historicity for a couple of years, I couldn't agree more with your critique of Grabbe's approach. Could it be that such scholars need to state their opinions with such certainty because otherwise their work could seem somewhat futile - i.e. just a probability to be shoved out of the way when someone interprets the data with different presuppositions?

  2. I think they have largely convinced themselves that the general picture created by their naturalistic presuppositions is true, so that they are open to seeing smaller conclusions change between different scholars but not the larger picture. So they are dogmatic when it comes to that larger picture, even when they pretend to be open to changing their views about it.

    They're also largely ignorant of epistemic issues, even though they try to incorporate what they think are insights from it into their works. In the end, they suffer from the Modernist disease of thinking that they can get an accurate picture of reality from these methodologies and then critique the historical reports concerning these events with that supposed knowledge.

    I guess, in the end, they know that no one wants to read a book that is entitled, "Ancient Israel: If We're Not Going to Take the Historical Reports as Accurate, Your Guess Is as Good as Mine." ;-)