Philip Davies on Minimalism and Mythicism

A few posts back I wrote reviews on books by Bart Ehrman and Thomas Brodie that debate the question of whether Jesus ever existed as a historical person.  I’m currently revising and expanding the scope of those posts to create a review article on the subject for an online journal.

An interesting aspect of that topic is the parallel between the debate about Jesus’s historicity and the debate about the Old Testament patriarchs’ historicity. Forty years ago it was as scandalous to assert that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were strictly literary characters as it is today to say that about Jesus.  But in the course of a few decades, such views about the patriarchs became commonplace.

There are, of course, scholars who still want to believe in the historicity of the Genesis narratives, and they have branded those who don’t agree with them as “minimalists” (i.e., those who see minimal historically accurate narrative in the Old Testament). In my research I ran across some great Internet articles by one of the so-called minimalists, Philip Davies.

Much of what Davies says about the Old Testament historicity debate applies equally to the New Testament equivalent, as he himself points out. The following quotations come from these articles:

For starters, Davies points out that the “minimalism” debate as well as its New Testament “mythicism” equivalent is ultimately driven by personal agendas more than disinterested scholarship. This can be seen from the emotional dismissive language employed by many people who decry “minimalism” or “mythicism”:

What else explains language like “dilettantes” (Rainey 1994: 47) or that minimalism is “a passing fad” (Dever 1996: 8), “trendy” (Dever 2001:25), or ‘twaddle” (Rendsburg nd)? What else leads to the claim that it is motivated by anti-Judaism, anti-Zionism, or anti-Semitism?

… surely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case, and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous.

Such attacks today against “mythicism” correspond to attacks a few decades ago on “minimalism”:

This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. The ‘amateurs’ are now all retired professors, while virtually everyone else in the field has become minimalist (if in most cases grudgingly and tacitly). So, as the saying goes, déjà vu all over again.

Today the common view among scholars even goes beyond the narrow rejection of historicity for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:

The mainstream view of critical biblical scholarship accepts that Genesis-Joshua (perhaps Judges) is substantially devoid of reliable history and that it was in the Persian period that the bulk of Hebrew Bible literature was either composed or achieved its canonical shape.

And this view was not new in the late 20th century:

“Minimalist” positions were common early in the 20th century; perhaps American scholars just need to read more German! If one takes the mid-20th century “biblical archaeology” movement as a temporary departure and not as the new direction, we can easily see how “minimalism” is resuming the older agenda (one that never disappeared, anyway) …

As far as Old Testament narrative goes, Davies questions the historicity not only of Genesis-Judges but also of Israel as a nation and David as one of its kings. What is especially interesting here is the way in which he questions their historicity:

The point at issue is not whether an Israel ever existed, but rather whether the historical ancient Israel was like the portrait in the Bible. But perhaps the distinction is for many not so important. It was, after all, the Biblical Israel that was chosen by God, given a covenant, and promised the land west of the Jordan. Are these things true of the historical people or state that went by the name of Israel? If not…? Well, let us ask “what if not” since the question has to be faced, as Ze’ev Herzog recently did in an article in Ha-Aretz.

Baruch Halpern and Steven Mackenzie each wrote books recently about David. Each one said that a David existed, but not the one described in the Bible. This position is not that far from mine, except that I don’t share their faith in our ability to separate a “historical” one from a “biblical” one. But we can continue to debate (and I am good friends with both). At least we all agree that when we speak of “David” historically we are not speaking of the biblical one.

You could frame the mythicist debate in the same terms. Ultimately what separates “mythicists” from those who dismiss them as cranks is one’s degree of faith in scholars’ ability to separate a historical Jesus from the biblical one. From the ongoing disarray in the historical Jesus field, it’s hard for me to see how a strong faith in that ability could possibly be justified.

In any case, pretty much everything Davies writes makes sense to me, which is something I can say of relatively few biblical scholars. I highly recommend the three articles listed above as well as his books to anyone interested in the question of Bible and history. Other Old Testament scholars who offer a similar perspective and who I also highly recommend include Thomas Thompson, Keith Whitelam, Niels Peter Lemche, Kurt Noll, and of course Paul Nadim Tarazi.


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