An alternative understanding of the Old Testament, involving a more skeptical understanding of the literature and the archaeological sources than with the traditionalist understanding. It deals principally with the patriarchal or monarchic periods.
Typically referred to as Biblical revisionism, it is also called Biblical minimalism, or even, by its severest critics, Biblical nihilism. Theoretically, "revisionism" can provide an alternative approach to any writing of history (e.g., the holocaust). However, the term has come to be accepted in both Jewish and Christian scholarly circles as a technical term for an alternative interpretation of Old Testament history.
Traditional Old Testament interpretation placed the patriarchal period in the Middle Bronze Age in the second millennium BCE. Archaeologists during the last quarter of the 19th and the first half of the 20th Century sought to use prevailing scientific tools to establish the veracity of the Biblical record. The assumption was that if enough data from cultures surrounding the Biblical setting could be compiled, the parallels would prove that the stories recorded in Genesis or in other portions of the Old Testament could be regarded as credible.
Led by the analysis and writings of Johns Hopkins University’s William Foxwell Albright (1891-1971), numerous other archaeologists and historians followed this approach. Cyrus Gordon, E.A. Speiser, Benjamin Mazar (Hebrew University), John Bright and James Pritchard are just a few of the well-known Jewish and Christian scholars who attempted to show that the origins of Israel in the patriarchal period could be established through careful scientific analysis.
Literary analysis undermines traditional view
This traditional approach assumed that even if the Pentatuech and Deuteronomic literature were first written in the Iron Age, they might still provide reliable information about what had transpired in an earlier Bronze Age. However, a German scholar, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), had challenged that view a generation earlier. Wellhausen claimed that the stories written in the time of the Israelite monarchy reflected interests of that era and were, therefore, secondary evidence at best for the patriarchal period.
Furthermore, he believed that an analysis of the Genesis literature showed underlying source material that betrayed various historical and theological perspectives employed by the schools responsible for the writing (JEPD theory). Although Albright and his followers tended to ignore the implications in Wellhausen’s theses, gradually Wellhausen and his followers took the field.
In the 1970s, a group of theologians and historians, using the fundamental assumptions of Wellhausen, continued to question the view employed by the traditionalists. Convinced that the archaeological evidence was too ambiguous and that the parallels between Genesis and northwestern Mesopotamia were vague or unconvincing, they posited the theory that what could not be established by direct archaeological data, as an extra-Biblical source, could not be asserted to be historical.
On that basis, an Israelite presence in Egypt was rejected, the conquest of Canaan was challenged, and the concept of a sojourning people (from Abraham in Ur through the Exodus) was abandoned. From the standpoint of revisionism, historical Israel emerged around 1200 BCE, (a time at least verifiable by the Merneptah Stele from that era which mentions putting an end to “Israel.”)
Ongoing questions for many in this group include whether the Pentateuch or Deuteronomic history was written in the pre-exilic (586 BCE) period, or the Persian (late 6th-4th centuries BCE) or even the Hellenistic (4th-2nd centuries BCE) period? Questionable to some is the existence of King David himself or certainly of a kingdom as extensive as that described in the Biblical record ("no significant capital in Jerusalem before 2nd century BCE"). Prominent in this group is Thomas L. Thompson of the University of Copenhagen, as well as John Van Seters, Philip Davies and others.
Some scholars challenge that the minimalists or revisionists are being too pessimistic or negative, exhibiting even a “post-modern” paradigm in their conclusions (e.g., “no facts can be known, only interpretations”). In some senses, these scholars could be called “neo-revisionists” because while they hardly assume the perspective of the traditionalists, they cannot abide the skepticism of the revisionists. They claim that it is irresponsible to say that one can know nothing from the archaeological evidence.
For example, they would ask, can it not be conceded that a growing population in the hill country of Judea from the 13th to the 11th centuries BCE (from 12,000 to 75,000, based on assumptions from settlement excavation) justifies the notion that people arrived from outside the area? And that large multi-generational families inhabiting the dwellings point to an organized culture? And that a lack of central authority, given an absence of official buildings, suggests that a cultus was not yet fully developed? And that no pig bones being found anywhere in the excavations evidences a kind of ethnic marker? And that some epigraphic evidence insists on a growing functional literacy? Were then these the proto-Israelites? And were they really only offshoots of the Caananites?
Such modifying, yet precisely-stated concerns, represent the viewpoints of these scholars. Their claim would be that ancient Israel is a fact, even if it its reality does not correspond in all details with some ideal theological Israel. Among the most prominent scholars in this group is William Dever (University of Arizona).
The perspectives held by these three groups are held in varying degrees by theologians and religious historians throughout the world, as well as in the Middle East. In academic settings, whether universities or theological schools, one can find representatives of all three perspectives as well as many in between.
1878: Wellhausen writes Prologomena to the History of Ancient Israel.
1940: William Foxwell Albright writes From the Stone Age to Christianity.
1974: Thomas L. Thompson writes The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives.
1975: John Van Seters writes Abraham in History and Tradition.
1997: William Dever writes Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research.