1. Religion & Spirituality

Minimalists vs. Maximalists

This isn't actually a book like I would usually review, but instead a magazine. Normally conservative in its presentations, the recent edition of Biblical Archeology Review (March/April) presents two sides in an interesting and important debeate about biblical history.

On the one side are the maximalists, researchers who argue that the bible is an accurate and informative guide to the history and culture of ancient Israel. On the other side are the minimalists, recent scholars who argue that the bible is actually a record of what later generations mythologized about their history.

The minimalist side is represented by Philip Davies, who argues first and foremost that the difference between minimalists and maximalists is not as great as it might at times appear - this is because the maximalists have had to abandon a great deal of their traditional ideas about the historicity of many portions of the bible. Sometimes also called the "Copenhagen School" (also: biblical revisionists and even biblical nihilists by less sympathetic people), the minimalist position is that the stories in the bible are largely mythical in nature. Although they take place in real places and may sometimes be loosely based on real people or events, the stories themselves serve a mythical rather than historical function. They are an attempt of later generations to develop and lay claim to an identity, not an attempt at disinterested historical reporting.

Curiously, the so-called "biblical maximalists" accept that as being an accurate assessment of quite a bit of the bible, at least up until the "United Monarchy" at the time of David and Solomon, when Israel and Judah were still part of one kingdom. The general public is, unfortunately, very much unaware of this. Many assume that the Bible is much more historically accurate than even conservative scholars are usually willing to admit. That is why this particular debate is worth promoting - the more people realize just how little of the Bible is considered historical, the better they will be.

The maximalist side is represented by William G. Dever - and he does a disappointing job, I'm sorry to report. To say that he is shrill at times is almost putting it mildly. His extreme defensiveness tells me that he feels very threatened by the minimalist position, but that hardly justifies his straw-man attacks. He presents what calls a "summary" of the minimalist position, even though he admits that minimalism is not a monolithic position and admits in a footnote that the entire summary is taken from a single source and a single author. According to him, minimalism asserts that biblical narratives are a product of Judaism in the Hellenistic (4th - 2nd century BCE) era when, just two pages before, Davies describes the minimalist position as asserting that the bible more likely came from the Persian (6th - 4th century BCE) or Hellenistic era.

At another point Dever inexplicably equates myth with fiction. To be fair, minimalists sometimes refer to some biblical stories as myths and other times they refer to other stories as fictions. But Dever is unjustified in confusing the two. Myth and fiction are entirely different literary traditions, with myth serving a very specific purpose and often includes elements of historical fact in order to reach its goal. One of Dever's chief problems - and I've seen it in theologically conservative writers like Ravi Zarcharias - is that he sends a tremendous amount of time attacking unrelated issues.

Whereas Zacharias has seen fit to attack philosophical nihilism and ignore the atheism which was supposed to be the topics of his books, Devers spends quite a bit of his article attacking postmodernism without ever really establishing that biblical minimalism is a postmodernist position or that it relies upon postmodernism for its premises. Having spent quite a bit of time in academic humanities, I am familiar with postmodernism and I cannot say that I notice any in, for example, Davies article. What this means is that Devers wastes a lot of time striking out at an easy but ultimately irrelevant target and fails to offer substantive rebuttals to what Davies argues. Although Devers does a fine job in offering evidence that a culturally distinct group was developing by the 10th century BCE at the latest, he ultimately does nothing to rebut the idea that the biblical stories are themselves later cultural products set in earlier time periods.

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