Monday, August 11, 2008

“History, Historiography, and the Bible” from A Biblical History of Israel : A Critical Review

A Biblical History of Israel

Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III recently collaborated on a five part volume intending to set forth an historical account of Israel that compliments, rather than contradicts, the biblical account. The title of this book is A Biblical History of Israel.1

This review is written in fulfillment of a course assignment which entails reading only the opening section of the book, “History, Historiography, and the Bible,” and so the scope of the review is naturally limited to only that section of the text. It should be noted that this review is written by a person with a very weak, if not non-existent, background in biblical studies. As unaware I am about the various documentary hypotheses that make up the subject matter of this book, I am even more ignorant of the key players in this discipline. I am a seminarian with a single introductory semester under my belt, and most of my experience lies in the realm of philosophy and theology. The point of all this: I’m playing my weak hand here, so whatever commentary I can offer in regards to the project of Provan et al is at best, sufficient – at worst, absurd.

The part of the book addressed here, “History, Historiography, and the Bible,” is one of the two sections written entirely and exclusively by Iain Provan, therefore this review will primarily speak of him and his work and will not really address the other two authors.


Provan begins the book citing one K.W. Whitelam, a critical scholar who has pronounced the “death” of biblical history (one can’t help but recall Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Madman”). Whitelam’s comment that “it is the historian who must set the agenda and not the theologians”2 accurately reflects a dominant attitude in the field of biblical-historical scholarship that has grown and strengthened over the past two centuries, a period which Provan (and many others) term the “Post-Enlightenment.” Provan immediately calls this claim into question and thus sets the stage for the next one hundred pages.

Essentially, “History…” is a treatise on methodology. This leaves much to be desired for those seeking actual discussion of Israelite history, but that is entirely appropriate to Provan’s aims. The neglect of reflection on the presuppositions that govern modern scholarship is at the heart of Provan’s frustration with modern scholarship.

The state of modern scholarship is such that the use of traditional biblical texts in constructing the historical socio-politico-religious entity, Israel, has been almost entirely devalued. Those who develop any sort of historical argument on the basis of these texts are treated almost unreservedly with suspicion. Whitelam, who keenly embodies this movement, attributes an implied malevolence to any historian who would develop an account of Israelite history on the basis of its own testimony (i.e., according to their Scriptures) as he feels that “[b]iblical studies as a discipline… has collaborated in a process that has dispossessed Palestinians of a land and a past.”3

Whitelam’s radical suspicion, Provan points out, stems out of three presuppositions:
  1. Biblical texts, insofar as they are accounts of the past, are “invariably the product of a small elite who possess a particular point of view.”4
  2. Biblical texts lack the empirical purity of archaeological evidence.5
  3. Histories of Israel based on biblical texts are ideologically-infused imaginations of the past.6

However, just as soon as Provan identifies these features of Whitelam’s thought, he attempts to defuse them.

To the first assumption, Provan suggests that Whitelam is guilty of the non sequitur fallacy, pointing out that it hardly follows that partiality invalidates a claim. It is indeed true that every historian writes under the influence of particular preferences and “angles on the truth.” It is not, however, true that historical accounts are therefore false on the basis that the accounts are “angled.” Rather, Provan asks, “can these [partial] accounts not inform us about the past they describe as well as the ideological concerns of the their authors?”7 A large part of Whitelam’s concern stems from the fact that Hebrew narrative is artistically narrated. The implication being that aesthetically shaped accounts of truth are thus inaccurate. But again Provan asks the repetitious “Who says?”8 This sort of argumentation is rhetorically potent, but it is worth noting (without comment) that it is really an ad hominem defense.9

In regards to archaeology, Provan points out an inconsistency in Whitelam’s work, noting that at times Whitelam employs archaeological data to demonstrate the manifest falsity of Israel’s biblical history and at other times highlighting the partiality inherent in archaeological work (which is bad).10

Provan does not so much address here the problem archaeology here (though he does elsewhere), but rather takes advantage of Whitelam’s (at least) apparent inconsistency to make the point that archaeological data is always interpretive data, just as worldview shaped as any other human discipline if not more so.

Finally, Provan addresses Whitelam’s refusal to admit biblical texts into shaping historical accounts of Israel because doing so establishes a fictitious entity forged solely by ideology. Provan believes that Whitelam’s approach obscures what is actually at stake. Whitelam fails to see that all historical accounts, whether or not they employ canonical Scriptures, are ideologically shaped. The important question is, “What sorts of ideologically informed accounts are permissible as evidence?”11

Provan’s work, then, is to take Whitelam’s suggestion that biblical history is dead and turn it on its head. Provan will agree that biblical history is or has indeed been deathly ill; but the disease, he will attempt to demonstrate, is not the traditional belief in the historical validity of the Scriptures, as “Post-Enlightenment” scholarship suggests – rather, the disease is the “Post-Enlightenment” effort to avoid partiality.

Provan continues his opening chapter, re-iterating his initial criticism through a case study of three (probably) well-known critical scholars, J.A. Soggin, J.M. Miller and J. Hayes. Soggins is criticized for arbitrarily choosing which elements of the biblical witness are historically authentic.12 Miller and Hayes attempt to employ biblical texts, to some degree, in the case that minimal redaction has (apparently) taken place, thus assuring the historian that a kernel of truth is preserved. But Provan finds this approach to be wanting as well, seeing that both approaches are reducible to Whitelam’s same errors.13 The chapter closes with Provan’s own account of the downfall of biblical history.


A general thesis of “History, Historiography, and the Bible” is that historians ought to integrate the “science” of history with philosophy and tradition. Not that historians ought to be professors of philosophy and confessional theology, but that they ought to be critically aware of the various philosophical assumptions they (often unwittingly) bring to “the text.”

New Testament and the People of GodHaving recently read N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God,14 I could not help but notice the vast similarities between Provan’s “History…” and Wright’s own discussion of historical method in the second part of his book, “Tools for the Task,” wherein he sets forth a remarkably similar “critical realism.” Wright’s treatment is more extensive and, I feel, demonstrates the same principles much more comprehensively and creatively.

It is evident that Provan is familiar with this book since he quotes it in “History…”,15 but what I find interesting is that the text is only referenced one time and for a quote valued more for its rhetorical flourish than substance. Of course, I am not accusing Provan of plagiarism, just redundancy – if not cliché. To his credit, I think he speaks with a bit less technical terminology and a bit more concisely on the matter than Wright and expands on a couple of points to which Wright merely alludes. However, most of what Provan says has been said more than a decade earlier in a book which likely (in light of Wright’s enormous popularity) will enjoy much greater circulation.

There has been an incredible amount of literature published in the past few years which serves to publicize a cultural phenomenon called “postmodernism,” the alleged critical end of the Modern Era. Provan’s piece bears all the marks of being affected by and participating in this movement. In fact, his main criticism of critical scholarship bears incredible analogy the contemporary awareness that marks the postmodern: an obsession with individuality, autonomous reason, and objectivity has blinded us to the true human experience of community, tradition, and an inescapable richness of subjectivity.

This quality of the text is double-edged. On the one hand, Provan’s discussion of “critical realism” as if it is truly a novelty may discredit his case. This would be unfortunate since I think in the midst of his critique of the evil “Post-Enlightenment” he makes some really helpful suggestions as to a way forward in redeeming biblical history. On the other hand, there is a chance that good news about the end of Modernity is actually “news” to someone in his audience who has not actually heard that we can start believing the Bible again.


Overall, A Biblical History of Israel seems to be a worthy read. Of course, having only read the first part of it, I can only speculate about the quality of the rest of the text; but if it spends the remaining pages teasing out the ideas about narrative identity and the intrinsic poetry of history, then I would be very pleased to see what Provan, Long, and Longman have constructed. However, given the breadth of the task, it seems that only a foundational, if not merely superficial, sketch of Israel’s history is possible in a work of just over three hundred pages. This is fine since preliminary studies are just as necessary as the developments of those studies.

Still, “History, Historiography, and the Bible” could have been improved upon in a couple of ways. I have mentioned already the sort of repetitious use anti-modernist rhetoric. One thing about this book which may prevent it being accepted as legitimate scholarship is its sort of over-dependence on what is now a well-known critique. One gets the feeling, from time to time, that Provan conceives of this argument as a sort of “magic bullet” that blows through every assertion of the critical modern. This fosters a sort of alienation rather than engagement of the liberal scholar. True enough he (and I am speaking generically here) has made an irrational leap in striving for “pure” history, but Provan acts as though working on poor presuppositions discounts every subsequent claim. Now, that may very well be true. And the vast amount of critical scholarship may be rubbish because of that, but Provan must demonstrate that if he is going to do what he says he intends to do which is, to communicate with a wide audience.16

I don’t believe that Provan actually does believe that which is why he comments “if we were never able to read books with profit unless we shared the presuppositions of their authors, we should read very few books with profit at all.”17 So maybe putting that belief into more explicit use would clear up a good many things and really enhance the sort of argument Provan is setting forth.

1 Provan, Iain; Long, V. Philips; and Longman III, Tremper. A Biblical History of Israel. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), pp. 1-104.
2 Ibid., p. 3.
3 Ibid., p. 6. Provan’s words.
4 Ibid., p. 6.
5 Ibid., p. 7.
6 Ibid., p. 8.
7 Ibid., p. 6.
8 Ibid., p. 6. Not a quote.
9 Whitelam (et al) is painted as the uncritical fool and is thus incorrect.
10 Ibid., p. 7.
11 Ibid., p. 8.
12 Ibid., pp. 10-15.
13 Ibid., p. 18.
14 Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992)
15 Ibid., p. 33, en75. “the post-Enlightenment club of historical scholarship”
16 Ibid., p. 103.
17 Ibid., p. 103.