Lemche, Certainty, and the Obama Crusades Controversy

March 14, 2015

Obama hit the nail on the head when he ascribed religion-inspired violence not so much to particular religious doctrines as to “fierce certainty” — shared by some Christians as well as Islamic militants — “that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others.” Adherents of any religion who firmly hold in mind the humble thought, “I might be wrong” are likely to be more respectful of other religions.  For Christians who find that difficult because they think their religion is unique, Niels Peter Lemche’s survey of modern biblical scholarship, The Old Testament between Theology and History, may be an eye-opener.


Lemche explains that over time scholars have come to realize that from beginning to end what the Bible presents as one long history from Adam to Ezra and Nehemiah has very little actual history in our sense of that word in it.

Scholars have long recognized the creation, flood, and other narratives preceding the story of Abraham to be legendary, but since the 1970s the stories about the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) have also been recognized as fictional.

Apart from some conservative authors, no serious Old Testament scholar will nowadays accept the age of the patriarchs as a historical period. (1732*)

The story of Moses and the exodus has gone the same way.

Thus the story of the exodus is about as legendary as the patriarchal narratives. It definitely has a different topic, but when it comes to the historical content, these two biblical traditions are on the same level. (1818)

The next presumption of historicity to fall was regarding the supposed conquest of Canaan by the Israelites after the exodus.

… it still remains certain that the Israelite conquest of Canaan as related by the book of Joshua lacks every historical foundation. (1890)

The period of judges following the conquest must also be discarded. For years scholars confidently talked about the existence of a tribal confederation called the “amphictyony” and that too has passed into the realm of once-solid scholarly consensuses later abandoned.

The sad end of the hypothesis of the amphictyony showed how fragile the edifice of the scholars had been. Old Testament scholars had constructed the amphictyony rather than reconstructed it on the basis of available sources. (1925)

What about mighty David and wise Solomon?

… about the two great kings of Israel there is complete silence [in contemporary records]. Not a single inscription has been found from their time, not a single fragment of an imperial construction. Not one contemporary document from the ancient Near East mentions either of these two imperial monarchs. (1974)

From the perspective of the tenth century, David and Solomon are invisible. It is as if they never lived. (1978)

(Thomas L. Thompson’s Biblical Narrative and Palestine’s History points out that archeological evidence also leads to a similar conclusion:  “… we lack evidence of a city of the tenth century in Jerusalem and, even more importantly, evidence of any significant population in the Judean highlands.” p.147)

After David and Solomon the Old Testament tells us about a series of kings of Israel and Judah. Many of the royal names are accurate, but the stories told about them are largely fiction.

Near Eastern documents indicate that the history of Israel and Judah-at least between about 850 BCE and 587 BCE-is not totally an invention. (2072)

Perhaps the perspective is not totally wrong, but it is also possible that the perspective on the history of Israel and Judah presented by the historiographer has as little to do with history as was the case of the traditions of the earlier parts of Israel’s history. (2090)

Lemche points out that the Old Testament historiographers actually had little documentation to work with and in one instance where we can see what they had, we see that they expanded very little data into a largely fictional story.

The conclusion must be that the historiographer writing the story of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah possessed some exact information as short annalistic notes. The historiographer was hardly in possession of much additional material. It probably was of little importance to the historiographer, who was not shy about rewriting his information into legendary tales. The best example-an example that can be examined by modern historians-is the story of Sennacherib’s attack on Judah in 701 BCE. Here a short note (2 Kgs. 18:13-16) of definite historical importance has, at the hand of the historiographer, been vastly expanded into a fairy tale about God’s deliverance of his beloved city (2 Kgs. 18:17-19:37). (2224)

The same expansion of a tiny historical seed into a gigantic fictional tree may be true of the famous Babylonian exile.

The lack of information about the Babylonian exile in and outside of the Old Testament means that we know almost nothing about this exile. … At some point the scholar has to ask himself, was this exile real? … Could it be an ideological construction created at a later date to legitimize the right of the Jews to Palestine in spite of the fact that they were not the only ones whose ancestors had lived in the country? (2140)

Finally even the post-exile stories about Ezra and Nehemiah are largely just that – stories.

The consequence is that biblical authors may have invented a hero of Jewish faith by the name of Ezra who is the person who recites the Law of Moses to the people and completes an ethnic cleansing of the Jewish nation. Ezra is the true father of Judaism, although he seems to have no family and an invented genealogy. (2205)

In conclusion the entire sweep of Old Testament “history” is a collection of made-up stories wrapped around a remarkably thin framework of historical facts.

It has to be maintained that the story of ancient Israel in the Old Testament from Abraham to Ezra and Nehemiah is about a history that never happened. (2220)

… the biblical version of Israel’s history “never happened.” There was never a historical development of the kind narrated by the biblical historiographer. (2915)

Nothing indicates that the [Old Testament] historiographers were very interested in the past as it really was. (2525)

It is not possible to reconstruct the history of Israel in ancient times on the basis of the information in the Old Testament. This circumstance has not deterred scholars from writing such impossible histories. (2231)

It is clear that the Old Testament perspective of history absolutely distorts the facts. The historiographers of the Old Testament have absolutely no interest in the real history of Palestine in ancient times. (5655)

Does this matter to Christians?  It does for those whose faith depends on the New Testament stories about Jesus being “true” in the sense of reflecting historical reality. The New Testament is built firmly on the foundation of the Old Testament, and if the foundation is not about historical reality, neither is the edifice built upon it. I’ve already written elsewhere about problems with the historicity of Jesus stories, and everything Lemche reports about what scholars have found in the Old Testament adds to those problems.

The belief by Christians that the Bible as a whole reflects historical reality is what necessitates the belief that Christianity is uniquely “true” compared to other religions.  That in turn is the first step on a road to the kind of “fierce certainty” that leads at best to a condescending attitude toward other religions and at worst to ISIS-like behavior.

Lemche cites a statement by James Albright that shows what I mean. Albright was a prominent scholar who led the effort to use archeology to prove the historical reliability of the Bible. Regarding the Biblical account of how after the exodus the Israelites – at God’s command — killed off and drove out the residents of Canaan (Palestine) and took over the land, Albright assumed it was historically true and had this to say about it:

It was fortunate for the future of monotheism that the Israelites of the Conquest were a wild folk, endowed with primitive energy and ruthless will to exist, since the resulting decimation of the Canaanites prevented the complete fusion of the two kindred folk which would almost inevitably have depressed Yahwistic standards to the point where recovery was impossible. Thus the Canaanites, with their orgiastic nature worship, their cult of fertility in the form of serpent symbols and sensuous nudity, and their gross mythology, were replaced by Israel, with its pastoral simplicity and purity of life, its lofty monotheism, and its severe code of ethics. (4405)

How different is this from a Muslim who today justifies ISIS beheadings as necessary in order to promote the victory of Islam?  Does it really make a difference whether you’re approving atrocities that were done days ago or three thousand years ago?

So Obama was right: “fierce certainty” of having a lock on “the truth” makes Christianity and Christians a part of the problem no less than Islam and Muslims.  Where he missed the boat – deliberately for political reasons perhaps – is by omitting to mention that the same issue applies to Judaism and Jews and the state of Israel. 

In the article Obama and Palestine’s Forgotten Past, Old Testament scholar Keith Whitelam decries statements made by Obama while in Israel, in which the president one-sidedly supported Israeli views about biblical history, views which depend wholly on this now-discredited view of Old Testament history.

Lemche too points out the real-life consequences of misinterpreting biblical texts, in his introduction to the Albright quote cited above.  He warns that such interpretations have been used and continue to be used to inspire and justify violence in our own day:

The modern “translation” of this ideology formed the intellectual background of the Jewish return to Palestine in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, now with the sword replaced by a gun. The Arab population, whether Muslim or Christian, had to be viewed as foreign intruders without any right to the country. The Bible turned into a tool for suppressing other people and for ethnic cleansing … (4400)

*References to Lemche’s book are to location numbers in the Kindle edition.