Minimalism, Mythicism and Modernism

A new article by Ronald Hendel in The Bible and Interpretation addresses the subject of cultural memory in a way that is relevant to minimalists, mythicists and other modernists. The idea that we are either going to precisely reconstruct the past, or conversely decisively disprove traditional views about it, without room for doubt or error, reflect the approach of a bygone era. Here’s a sample to whet your appetite:

The minimalist/maximalist dichotomy, as far as I understand it, becomes obsolete in light of the concept of cultural memory. The truth (if I may use this word in its everyday sense) is more complicated than this dichotomy allows. The pursuit of cultural memory in biblical studies has the potential to complicate and reconfigure many dubious dichotomies in our field, including maximalism/minimalism, history/fiction, diachronic/synchronic, and perhaps even postmodern/modern.

To state the point more directly in relation to mythicism: The recognition that traditional tools and methods of historical criticism do not provide us with certainty does not demonstrate that the mythicists are right, but that they are every bit as wrong-headed as the fundamentalists on the opposite end of the spectrum. Recent scholarship has not given victory to mythicism or minimalism and defeated maximalism. It has shown rather than we need more nuanced categories which eschew both an all-or-nothing mentality and the idea that we can neatly distinguish in our sources between what is clearly historical truth and what is clearly fiction.

Take a look at Hendel’s article and then come back and discuss it here, if you are so inclined!

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  • Anonymous

    Hendel writes “I disagree with Philip [Davies]’s contention that the concept of cultural memory supports what he calls ‘the minimalist option’ in biblical studies.”  My guess is that Davies has hit the nail on the head.  I think the mythicist/historicist dichotomy suffers at least as much as any other.

  • Anonymous

    His first comment seems very appropriate to me:

    “It is our responsibility as scholars to investigate, to the degree we can, the interrelationship of history and fiction in the texts, which means, in part, exploring the “actual” historical details and events in them, and how they have been reconstituted as memorable discourse.”

    So the historical existence of a character in the texts seems perfectly open to discussion using this paradigm.

  • Tom Verenna
  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks, Tom!

  • Guest

    I was hoping to see a discussion on *this* blog.

  • Geoff Hudson

    Like Nero taking an army in 66 to invade Judea only a few years later for this to be claimed by Vespasian as his victory over the Jews.  Only Vespasian did something even more fantastic which was to claim that he defeated Galilee also.  Now this was cultural memory with a vengeance.    

    • Michael Wilson


      • Geoff Hudson

        In 66 Nero, aged 29, in his prime, left Rome, ostensibly on a tour of Greece, starting in September 66 (Seut. Nero 22.3-24). Among a large entourage, Nero had with him Augustiani said to number 5000, Vespasian together with other commanders, senators and equestrians, Ofonius Tigellinus (praetorian prefect), members of the praetorian guard and perhaps the German imperial bodyguard. Cynically, Dio (63.8.3) described the army as: ‘a multitude not only of the Augustiani, but of other persons as well, large enough, if it had been a hostile host, to have subdued both Parthians and all other nations. But they were the kind you would have expected Nero’s soldiers to be, and the arms they carried were lyres and plectra, masks and buskins.’  They were that kind of army. The cynicism tells it all. This was a large, well equipped army, about to go on some serious business with some serious weaponry, before embarking on any Greek excursion. And that business, was in Judea, starting with Masada. This was going to be a short war, led by Nero himself, seeking his own triumph.

        • Geoff Hudson

          ‘They were that kind of army’ should be ‘they were NOT that kind of army’.

  • Michael Wilson

    you think Nero was planning or did invade Judah?

    • Geoff Hudson

      I think Nero did Judea.  And Vespasian claimed it for himself.  He well understood what misclaimed victories were all about, and earlier misclaimed one for Claudius. Claudius came to Britain for a short time. When he got back to Rome, Vespasian claimed a victory for him. 

      The four years of the “coins of revolt” were four years of peace. On page 19 of Rome and Jerusalem, Martin Goodman refers to a period from 67 to 69 as one when land sales were being conducted.  If there was any hint of an imminent war, or even faction struggles, no-one would have been able to sell any land because there would have been no buyers. One would expect the buying and selling of land to be related to a period of peace. The comments quoted by Goodman from the land sale documents of the time are a celebration of a freedom already obtained.
      1.’the fourteenth of Elul, year two to the redemption of Israel in Jerusalem’2.’on the twenty-first of Tishri, year four to the redemption of Israel in Jerusalem’3.’on the …day of Marheshavan, year three to the freedom of Jerusalem’.
      The Roman army had given freedom to Israel, not just Judea, at a very early stage of the five year period of what is normally regarded as the period of the first Jewish revolt?  That freedom was from the priests that Nero had killed.    

      • Geoff Hudson

        ‘I think Nero did Judea’ should be ‘I think Nero did INVADE Judea.

  • James F. McGrath

    I’m glad you clarified what you meant to type. I find many of your suggestions unpersuasive and/or unsubstantiated, but I am pretty sure that even you would not suggest that Nero was a pioneer in the field of Judaean porn. :-)

    • Geoff Hudson

      Even Nero’s ‘pornography’ was probably within the bounds of Flavian propaganda and ‘cultural’ memory.

      In Martin Goodman’s Rome and Jerusalem, his various statements about coins and land sale documents of the four or so years normally referred to as the period of the First Revolt, I am astonished that he doesn’t recognise that those years were really a period of peace, and a period in which people did not anticipate any future war with the Romans. On page 19 of his book, Goodman has: “It is clear that the authorities in Jerusalem believed themselves to be living in an independent and distinctive Jewish state”. (Goodman doesn’t state who he thinks “the authorities” are). In relation to the coins of the so-called First Revolt, Goodman has: “The coins contain no image in any way of Rome, even in emulation or antagonistic opposition.” No sign of opposition? One might have thought these feisty rebels would have minted coins with at least some indication of defiant rebellion against Rome. But no, there is none. And then Goodman goes on to talk about land sales in expectation of a settled future. This was while Vespasian and the Roman army were supposed to be breathing down everyone’s neck. Now this does not add up.  The answer is that there was a short war under Nero, and Nero granted those who he liberated freedom to govern themselves, a freedom that was taken away by Vespasian when he came to power about four or five years later.