New historical criticism

While these theological programs have been making the running for some, historical work on the Old Testament has not stood still. Archeological excavation in the Middle East continues apace, and still contributes much to our knowledge of the biblical text. At the same time, however, there is an important revisionist movement at work in Old Testament studies at the moment, represented in Britain by Philip R. Davies and Keith W. Whitelam in Sheffield (see P. R. Davies 1992, Whitelam 1996), and on the Continent by Niels Peter Lemche and Thomas L. Thompson (an American) in Copenhagen (see Thompson 1999, Lemche 1998). For these writers, the historical study of ancient Israel has until very recently been far too focused on the biblical text. A classic example would be John Bright's A History of Israel (Bright 1960), studied by several generations of theological students and still in active use today. Bright draws a great deal on "external" evidence (archeology in particular), but he follows the Old Testament's own presentation of the history of Israel very closely. The impression is given that the Bible got it all more or less right: Abraham, for example, may not have done exactly what Genesis reports, but he was a real historical person who lived in roughly the period implied by the Bible. The general shape of Israel's history as the Old Testament describes it is seen as confirmed by both textual and archeological study.

All this is now up for discussion. The newer historians of Israel think that modern scholars have been far too easily taken in by the ideological bias of the biblical account, which is strongly pro-Israel and talks as though Israel was a major player on the world stage, rather than a tiny backwater. They argue indeed that "Israel" itself is a theological construction which owes more to the thought of the community after the exile (in the fifth or fourth centuries, or even later) than to any historical reality in earlier times: it is an ideal "people of God" rather than a socio-political reality that actually existed on the ground. The patriarchs are largely figures of fiction (just as Wellhausen thought!); the kings of Israel and Judah are made in the likeness of later Persian or even Hellenistic rulers; even the scale of the exile to Babylon has been grossly exaggerated in the interests of those who returned, who wanted to portray themselves as the "true" core of the nation. The history of the indigenous population of Canaan, whom Whitelam refers to provocatively as "Palestinians," has been unfairly neglected or vilified.

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