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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Historiography debate

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.


Blogger Ken said...

Hi James:

Thank-you for your respectful reply and engagement on this issue. My blog entry addressed a specific problem in which some scholars deny the possibility of writing a history of Israel or largely reject the use of the biblical texts as evidence for historical reconstruction. If you want an example, the easiest way to that example is simply to call up Keith Whitelam's response to my entry as published at Jim West's blog, Biblical Theology in which he avers that a history of Israel is not possible. Ironically, Dr. Whitelam once wrote about the dangers of silencing Palestinian history in The Invention of Ancient Israel; so, why then does he not see similar dangers in silencing the history of Israel?

I want to be clear, James, I respect Dr. Whitelam and scholars of the minimalist schools to which Dr. Whitelam may or may not belong depending on the issue. In my encounters with them, I have found them to be generous and hospitable people with good humour and keen minds. I do not, however, respect the rhetoric that would deny the possibility of a history of Israel or the rhetoric that draws spurious and clearly false conclusions that biblical literature dates to the Hasmonean period. I have no problems with alternative methodologies and approaches to the reconstruction of Levantine history, such as the Annales school. That is not my objection; my objection is the rhetoric.

As I mentioned in my blog entry on this subject, one of the striking things about some of those scholars who engage in such rhetoric is that their own work and conclusions undermines this rhetoric. So, not surprisingly, Dr. Whitelam challenges me to find a case when he denies the existence of ancient Israel. Similarly, Phillip Davies, Lester Grabbe, Thomas Thompson, and Ingrid Hjelm work quite frequently with the biblical texts to reconstruct their own portraits of the ideological climate in which the investion of ancient Israel took place. If the texts are so manifestly unreliable, why can Dr. Davies utilize them in his recent essay on the origins of biblical Israel to support his views about Mizpah and further explore the connections between Bethel, Jacob, and Israel? Hence, I asked the many questions I did about which parts of the history of Israel they would deny. It is genuinely unclear to me. The inconsistencies are stronger with some than with others but the inconsistencies are there nevertheless.

If this doesn't suffice to answer your question for names, I will be happy to provide further examples and actually I intend to incorporate this into a large blog entry on this topic.

November 30, 2005

Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

The final quote is so general that it can scarcely be doubted. How can 39 books uniformly be declared 'a fabrication' from beginning to end.
The common-sense (as opposed to necessarily the correct) position is that primary documents are the first place to look re history. Even where that is not true, they are still the first place to look re what was believed to have been history, which is still a kind of history (history of belief).

November 30, 2005

Blogger James Crossley said...

Thanks for that Ken.

I can't answer for the people in question of course. I do have some questions but I think I'll wait for your blog entry. But for now, a couple.

I'm just not sure how arguing that there was a kind of bare bones history of Israel which can be gathered from the Bible is inconsistent with some of the more dramatic rhetoric of the 'minimalists'.

Also, would you still imply that certain biblical studies departments are abandoning historiographical ideals? My impression is that many departments are quite varied ideologically and theologically (at least in the UK: I can't say for Norht America). If this is so would your argument be better addressed to individuals?

November 30, 2005

Blogger Ken said...

Hi James: After some thought, I have retracted the first sentence of my blog entry in which I wrote that "In many history and biblical studies departments across the world, the art of historiography is being abandoned." Although I think it reflects something I genuinely mean and believe to be true, it is problematic and perhaps characterizes too broadly. In any case, it is not vital to my argument and as it has caused some offense, I've removed it.

December 02, 2005


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