On a few of the Hebrew bible based blogs (apologies for the lack of links but everything can probably be found on Jim West's blog) there has been a bit a debate over the nature of history. Here's what Ken Ristau had to say:
In many history and biblical studies departments across the world, the art of historiography is being abandoned. In biblical studies, an ultra-skepticism has led to stunning tendencies in the discipline. There are scholars who abdicate entirely their responsibility to utilize the biblical text as a source and so they write vacuous histories of Israel. Some of these scholars, in an ironic inconsistency, will continue to appeal to the biblical text as a springboard to a counter-narrative without any significant contrary evidence other than their own conviction that the biblical text is false. A common thread in this sort of historical reconstruction is the creation of a community of elites living in Judah, Yehud, or Judea from the sixth century BCE to the second century BCE who, in an effort to maintain their elite status, invent a (hi)story for that community, which that community then apparently accepts as its own to the point that a new cult and social identity form (even though the [hi]story is apparently only decontextualized theology/ideology with little to no historical resonance for the community of readers and hearers). I am disturbed by this sort of reconstruction because of the many unanswered questions it leaves.
This would seem to imply the so-called minimalists (Ken goes on to criticise 'the minimalists'). And who are the so-called minimalists? Well two of the usually named are found at Sheffield. Reading Ken's comments I cannot help but feel there is an implication that Sheffield comes under the criticisms (In many history and biblical studies departments across the world, the art of historiography is being abandoned. In biblical studies, an ultra-skepticism has led to stunning tendencies in the discipline. There are scholars who abdicate entirely their responsibility to utilize the biblical text as a source and so they write vacuous histories of Israel.) Just to counter this implication, it does not reflect anyone or anything I know about Sheffield. I have worked in the area of historiography for some time now and I have used a variety of insights from Hobsbawm, Thompson, Evans, Braudel and the Annales school and various others. these are pretty standard names in the discipline of history. They are also names I discovered were being utilised by various people at Sheffield working in areas of history. In fact we even had a postgraduate historiography seminar where members of staff (me included) were very keen on their work. Now, this is hardly revolutionary in history departments. Indeed some of the work of these historians has been modified, developed, even rejected by some historians. So, if we are to read Ken's comments with one eye on the danger of implying Sheffield, I would hope he would not suggest that the so-called minimalists at Sheffield are in a department where they or the department reject conventional historiographical practices.
In fact I would turn this suggestion around: when has there ever been conventional history done in biblical studies. There is a massive emphasis on proving whether or not this or that person existed or behaved as the Bible said. What about questions of historical change through (say) economic or social factors? What about questions of causal change? These have been big, big questions in history depts but play little role in the history of historical study surrounding the Bible (at least in NT studies). If this applies to both testaments then how could biblical studies depts abandon practices they never really practised? This also says something about the discipline. It is fixated on events level history. Not underlying factors but an obession with 'what the text means' and 'what really happened'. Historiography in biblical studies has barely developed. As far as I can see I'm pretty moderate as far as historians go and as far as I can see so are other people at Sheffield who practise history. Radical in terms of biblical studies perhaps but hardly in terms of historians.
Perhaps the thing that strikes me most about the minimalist schools is that I do not believe that they truly accept their own rhetoric; in fact, many of their rhetorical flourishes are undermined by the implicit and sometimes even explicit implications of their work or the implicit assumptions reflected in their work and conclusions. To me, it seems that the entire epistomological framework of minimalism and its jargon exists in opposition to a naive maximalism of religious fundamentalists and/or long discredited historical-critical reconstructions that really have little to no currency in academia today.
I would politely ask Ken if he would give some names and examples? This may not be necessary for Hebrew Bible specialists. But as I am not a Hebrew Bible specialist, it would be helpful if you could supply these for me. Again, for the same reasons of my ignorance, I would politely ask Ken for information of names and references concerning the following:
Biblical studies, however, can no longer reasonably entertain notions that the Bible is a fabrication; it is intellectually dishonest and a crime against history and the discipline of historiography.