Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 7 (2007) - Review

Diane Banks, Writing the History of Israel (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 438; New York/London: T & T Clark, 2006). Pp. xi + 248. Cloth, US$145.00. ISBN 0-567-02662-0.

This book explores the influence of the discipline of history on the work of history writing in biblical studies since the late nineteenth century until the opening years of the twenty-first. An introduction (Chapter 1) prepares the ground for a discussion of historiography in nineteenth-century Germany and of Julius Wellhausen (Chapters 2 and 3). We progress then to a description of historiography in Germany and the United States in the first part of the twentieth century (Chapter 4), and of the work of Martin Noth and John Bright (Chapter 5). Chapter 6 concerns developments in and debate about historiography in the more recent past, and leads on to discussion in Chapter 7 of more recent work on Israel's history specifically. A conclusion follows (Chapter 8).

The argument of the book, as stated near its beginning (pp. 2-3), is that “while the influence of professional history on the work of history writing in biblical studies is clearly apparent in each of the historical periods chosen as examples, there are strong countervailing influences related to audience”; indeed, that while Wellhausen's work “set in motion the general tendency toward ever greater congruence between historiography in biblical studies and in academic departments of history,” the “influences” just mentioned hindered that project, which has only recently been revived. These “influences” are related by the author to audiences holding to the authority of the Bible, and thus (it seems) holding also the “presupposition that the Bible is a book of history or, at the very least, contains the historical record of the people of Israel to a greater or lesser degree.”

Any volume that increases our understanding of the development of the modern discipline of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies in relation to the academic trends of its time(s) is welcome, and this particular volume does fall into that category, with its many interesting observations on the history of historiography in general and the connections between this history and well-known historians of Israel like Wellhausen, Noth and Bright. Pondering such matters should lead on, among other things, to greater self-consciousness as to our own approach to the Bible and to history, and greater understanding in respect of that of others; and these are good things. It is true at the same time that all accounts of the past, including the one in this present volume, are presented from particular points of view and with particular purposes in mind, and that this must be borne in mind when we are reading them and trying to work out that which we are ready to embrace as really true, objectively speaking, and that which we are not.

Here the “story” towards which the facts of history are pointed, as it were, is a fairly well-known one, particularly in these recent times. It involves uncritical religious people, desperate to hold onto “the Bible as history” at all costs, and impeding “progress” at all turns; critical heroes who seek to change things but do not entirely succeed in the short term, only to be succeeded by others who pick up their swords and carry on the good fight; and a secular and academic kingdom that is always just around the corner, to be ushered in as soon as residual faith can at last be removed from the field. Thus in this present story, we meet (for example) Julius Wellhausen “committed to seeking truth, to the critical use of evidence, to writing history without bias” (p. 75); we are invited to consider the following half-century in which “scholars worked to salvage history in the Bible” (p. 226), and on the same page to behold the 1970's, for only then “did historiography in biblical studies begin to reclaim a position comparable in rigor to professional academic historiography.” And finally, we are invited to gaze upon the promised land: a history of ancient Israel, unconstrained by theological interests, written without reference to the Bible and, if successful, permitting us to draw conclusions about the history of the Bible “with some certainty” (pp. 233-234).

This is a deeply implausible story, from beginning to end, obscuring in its simplicity a reality that is vastly more complicated—at least, I find it so. My world is not made up quite so clearly of critical, clear-headed and secular heroes, on the one side, and obscurantist, muddled and religious villains (or idiots) on the other. The critical thinking, and the obscurantism, seems more democratically distributed. Some of those who shout most loudly about being “critical” appear to me, in fact, to be the least capable of true criticism, including self-criticism. They hold their tradition just as uncritically, in the end, as those whom they would dismiss as fundamentalists; and they are just as unlikely to reflect, as those others are, on the accuracy of their world-view or the defensibility of their epistemology, among other things. They hold these things to be self-evident (to borrow a line). The telling and re-telling of “the story”—as tedious and unconvincing as it may be to others—itself diverts the attention of the tellers away from such matters, and indeed absolves them from ever having to justify to themselves or anyone else some fairly major assumptions or assertions embedded in the story. To take one important example from the volume under discussion here: why should we believe for a moment that a history of ancient Israel, written without reference to the Bible, would permit us to draw conclusions about the history of (I believe that the author means “in”) the Bible “with some certainty”? I see no argument in this book in justification of this assertion; nor, come to that, do I see a proper argument as to why we should try in the first place to write a history of Israel without reference to the Bible. It's just what “critical people” do nowadays, I suppose, in line with the great Wellhausen (whom we all know was fundamentally right); but is it sensible? Is it justifiable? Is it even coherent? Discuss … or perhaps simply assert; perhaps simply question the “presupposition that the Bible is a book of history or, at the very least, contains the historical record of the people of Israel to a greater or lesser degree” (p. 2), without seeking to justify the opposite.

Happily, and precisely because the story that the author of this book has woven out of the facts does not arise directly from the facts themselves, but comes from elsewhere, it is not necessary to be a believer in “the story” to derive benefit from the book, which remains in substantial part an interesting read.

Iain Provan, Regent College, Vancouver