In recent decades historical study of the Hebrew Bible has experienced a number of interpretive shifts as a result of developments in the broader social, intellectual, and academic environment, which has led many scholars to view the narratives of the Bible as more literary construction than authentic sources for the history of Israel-Judah. At the forefront of this movement has been a collection of scholars loosely associated with Copenhagen and Sheffield, often decried as biblical minimalists, who have pioneered new perspectives on the relationship between the Bible, history, and myth and provoked greater methodological introspection and rigor in the field as a whole.
The present volume Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity (Routlege 2016) represents the latest contribution by some of the key figures in this discussion, which gathers papers on a variety of topics that attempt to address the question of the nature of the biblical literature, as well as a valuable introduction that offers a brief overview of the minimalist-maximalist debate and a concluding theological homily about the relevance of this scholarship to religious lay people.
For this review I will summarize the main argument of each paper and then offer a brief assessment:
1. With his typical eloquence, P. R. Davies offers a postmortem on the old biblical archaeology (e.g. Albright et al) and outlines some general principles on a historical approach to the Bible that integrates insights from archaeology, anthropology, and critical exegesis along with some individual case studies. His central point is that archaeological research without critical literary-historical analysis of the Bible is flawed from the start.
Davies’ contribution is a must-read, if nothing else for his broad historical perspective and penetrating criticism about how biblical scholarship got to where it is today.
2. Building on recent scholarly trends, F. Poulsen deconstructs the traditional interpretation of the exodus from Babylon as the central theme of Isa. 40-55 and highlights the metaphorical and figurative nature of the language, as exemplified in Isa 49:8-12.
The article is well argued. While understanding prophetic literature as having originated in a metaphorical framework presents challenges for interpretation, because the language cannot be correlated straightforwardly to a certain historical context, attention to metaphor opens the way to a reappraisal of the meaning and intention of this literature.
3. T. Hasselbalch offers a new approach to the problem of composite traditions by paying close attention to how constituent parts of a text function on a symbolic and social level, with a case study of 4QMMT. She draws an important distinction between representational and non-representational meanings reflected in a text, that there is often an audience within an audience, and that the particular shape of a text often serves to reinforce ideological positions and sustain cultural identity and memory.
This study has important implications for the study of various biblical traditions, but unfortunately her contribution does not go beyond a treatment of 4QMMT itself.
4. N. P. Lemche revisits his earlier thesis that the Old Testament is a Hellenistic book.
Although provocative and worth reading, I didn’t find his specific arguments that the Old Testament was produced in a diasporic context and that the history of Israel was modeled on Greek literature very convincing. The claim that the Persian period is unlikely to have been the setting for the composition of much biblical literature sits somewhat in tension with Davies’ position advanced earlier in the volume.
5. In line with Lemche, P. Wajdenbaum argues that the biblical literature is dependent on classical sources such as Homer, Herodotus, and Plato.
This presentation was less than satisfactory, for Wajdenbaum adopts a rather synchronic approach to the Pentateuch, rejecting the findings of literary-historical criticism, and speaks of parallels in generalities without demonstrating dependence per se.
6. R. Gmirkin surveys Greek and Hellenistic literary genres in biblical literature without supposed ancient Near Eastern parallels in order to advocate for the Hellenistic origin of the Hebrew Bible.
Many of the parallels that Gmirkin notes are interesting and worth studying, but unfortunately his discussion of literary influence and dependence is plagued by the same methodological issues as in Wajdenbaum. If this article is any indication, Gmirkin does not seem to have paid much attention to the widespread criticism that his previous book on Berossus and Manetho received.
7. M. Müller discusses the new scholarly assessment of the Septuagint as a distinct and independent witness to the Old Testament of early Judaism.
The ideas expressed in the article are not new or unfamiliar, but the account of the history of Septuagint scholarship would nevertheless be valuable to someone interested in a short review of the subject.
8. F. Cryer argues that the community of Qumran did not know any integral canon of the Hebrew Bible that corresponded with the later MT text.
The article is dated and was first published in 1996.
9. G. L. Doudna presents an archaeologically-informed argument that Qumran Ib and II should be distinguished from one another and that the main period of Qumran was Ib when the site was closely associated with Jericho. Because the Qumran biblical texts are pre-stablization in the form of the MT and may be dated to the end of Qumran Ib, then this implies that “the stabilization of the biblical text seems best dated late in the first century BCE or early first century CE, perhaps related to the new temple of Herod” (p. 148).
The article is among the most intriguing contributions in the volume. The reconstruction represents a real challenge to the status-quo thinking on the history of Qumran and the development of the Hebrew Bible, so it will be interesting to see how Qumran scholars respond.
10. The conclusions of J. Hogenhaven are largely in the negative: the evidence of the Qumran library yields little information about or interest in canon formation.
Again, the scholarship is not new or innovative.
11. F. A. J. Nielsen explores how missionary work and the propagation of the Bible in Greenland contributed to the creation of a unique native Christian identity.
Interesting, but of marginal relevance to the theme of the book.
12. J. West closes the volume with a sermon-like discussion that argues for the contemporary theological value and relevance of work produced by “minimalists” (T. Thompson, K. Whitelam, N. P. Lemche, P. R. Davies, and J. van Seters) for the life of the Christian church.
Although West’s presentation is idiosyncratic in some respects, one the one hand suggesting that the church should not be afraid of investigating the mythical dimension of scripture and on the other adopting a qualified position on biblical inerrancy, it is refreshing to see someone openly grappling with the theological implications of contemporary historical-critical study.
In sum, the volume Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity provides a welcome consideration of a variety of topics relating to the nature and origin of the Bible, though the quality of discussion is unfortunately very uneven and the emphasis on Greek influence and canon formation was rather confusing. I was particularly disappointed that the contributors did not devote more attention to the question, “If the Bible is not history, what is it then?” Highlights were the Introduction, Davies, Poulsen, Hasselbalch, Doudna, and West.
[Note: I received a free review copy from the publisher]