Don’t Do Bible (but if you do, do it right) part 2

Don’t Do Bible (but if you do, do it right) part 2 January 20, 2015
K.A. Kitchen’s classic work covering the Third Intermediate Period in Egyptian history.

It’s true. Some conservative scholars interested in Bible will pursue ancillary degrees in Near Eastern studies in order to avoid addressing issues that directly challenge their religious faith. I was counseled to do so, and I’ve seen many conservative divinity schools and religious education programs fill their teaching positions in “Bible” with scholars who fit this mold. This explains why on occasion we encounter incredibly brilliant Near Eastern scholars making significant contributions to their specific fields while ignoring and (worse yet) belittling critical biblical scholarship.

And as I explained in part 1 of this three-part series, I believe that K.A. Kitchen meets this category, both in terms of his brilliance and in terms of his unfamiliarity with critical issues that challenge his religious approach to the Bible. Yes, of course, Kitchen’s study deals with some critical issues, but only superficially and without much depth. The field of biblical studies has existed as a critical academic pursuit for almost 200 years now, and new, exciting arguments emerge or a regular basis. No one can truly master all of this information in a single lifetime. It’s impossible. So when we factor in the pursuit of a specific ancillary focus (such as Egyptology or Assyriology) and the languages (both ancient and modern) a scholar must master if she hopes to have any really competency in her specific area, it’s no wonder that those who don’t specifically focus on Bible often show a lack of awareness concerning many of the critical issues biblical scholars are addressing. And this is one of the fundamental problems I see with religious scholars who pursue degrees in Near Eastern studies only to return to their respective communities as experts in “Bible.”

Now I would like to be more specific. I’ll turn my attention directly to Kitchen’s work cited in the previous essay, On the Reliability of the Old Testament. In my previous post, I shared that I agree with the general criticism expressed by Lemche in his review. More specifically, I believe Kitchen’s book is highly problematic for three reasons: 1. The methodology Kitchen adopts for comparative analysis fails to properly contextualize the biblical material as unique Near Eastern literature with a distinct cultural and historical setting 2. Kitchen shows a lack of awareness of the primary issues addressed by mainstream biblical scholars concerning “historicity” and the biblical text. 3. I find Kitchen’s aggressive apologetic tone unacceptable for a professional study.

The third issue is a matter I feel is extremely important, even though it does not have a direct bearing on any of his arguments. So to borrow a religious metaphor, I’m going to get on my own soapbox for a minute. Apologists like Kitchen who wish to defend a fundamentalist religious view of the Bible need to remember that many critical scholars once held some of the same positions that traditionalists espouse (and, admittedly, perhaps this is what upsets apologists most). I believe that anytime we’re dealing with religious convictions, scholars operating in the field of Religious Studies should strive to be kind and sensitive. But if apologists wish to engage in academic debate with critical scholars, it’s important that they too remember to express themselves in a kind, professional manner. I recognize that apologists often feel attacked by critical observations and feel a need, therefore, to respond with aggression, but please understand that taking this approach only reinforces the stereotype that apologists are unable to handle difficult issues. Kitchen’s work is, as they say, a classic “case in point.” Here’s the critique given by Mark Chavalas in the journal, Hebrew Studies:

Kenneth Kitchen appears to fancy himself in this work as a heroic
 scholarly warrior. He “attacks” the minimalists whom he sees as having done much to undermine the interpretation of the Old Testament as having
 historical value. He does this by his ad hominem advances, which are legion in this work…

One will be immediately aware of the polemic nature of Kitchen’s work, as he uses a barrage of adjectives to describe the minimalists and their positions (lunacy, immense ignorance, agenda-driven drivel, factually disadvantaged, dumb-cluck socio-anthropologists, ignoranti, and fantasizing sociologists). He is utterly unsympathetic to what he calls “sloppy thinking” and to those whom he believes base their theories on unproved assumptions.

A few quotes may suffice: “The basic reason for endless shilly-shallying and lack of real result [concerning the historicity of Moses] is the massive failure to seek and use external, independent controls such as have been applied here and throughout” (p. 299). “This kind of speculative theorizing is all very well as a mode of experimentation in the abstract, or as a ‘flavor of the month’ fashion, or even just as simple indulgence in academic ego massage (‘Look how clever I can be!’)” (p. 390). “To expose in full the sloppy scholarship, immense ignorance, special pleading, irrelevant postmodernist-agenda-driven drivel would need another (and very boring) book as long as Thompson’s pair combined. It is sad to see real ability wasted in this way” (pp. 457–458). Perhaps Kitchen’s book would have contributed more to the scholarly debate over the historicity and historical reliability of the Old Testament if he had written in a more dispassionate manner. [1]

I feel that tone and professionalism is essential, especially in the field of Religious Studies where the goal should be to promote understanding and respect for diversity. So I believe that this point really needed to be addressed. But now that that’s out of the way, we can return to the specific reasons why from my perspective Kitchen’s arguments themselves are highly problematic.

First, let us consider methodology. Kitchen draws upon Mesopotamian annuals and administrative records to illustrate his point that biblical books such as Kings and Chronicles stem from a reliable historical consciousness. On this point, Kitchen writes:

It was common custom for ancient kingdoms (from the third millennium onward) to keep a series of running records for hardheaded, administrative purposes, on a daily, monthly, and annual basis. Naming of years after significant events, and compiling lists of these years with their events, perhaps formed rudimentary chronicles that recorded actual facts and happenings of all kinds. Daybooks became customary, whether called such or not, in the guise of running records as in first-millennium Babylonia, or annotated lists of annual eponym officers in Assyria. From these detailed running series of “annals” a variety of writers could draw, in order to compose their own works on historical matters. Such efforts could vary from such as the Babylonian Chronicle, which gave a compact, objective digest of mainly political events (military campaigns by successive kings, etc.), to more partisan texts as in the Synchronous History (Grayson, no. 21, probably derived from a stela) asserting Assyrian military and moral ascendancy over Babylonia. Or we find “special interest” chronicles, such as the Akitu Chronicle (no. 16), whose author noted years in which the Akitu feast of Marduk was not celebrated in Babylon, along with contemporary events, and the “Religious Chronicle” (no. 17), whose author noted celebration or otherwise of temple feasts and was obsessed with wild animals straying into Babylon (and there killed), among other phenomena. So too with biblical Kings and Chronicles (p. 48).

No! Not so with biblical Kings and Chronicles! You really can’t do that!

I’m going to set aside, for a minute, the issue concerning whether or not Kitchen’s depiction of the historical purpose of these Mesopotamian texts provides an accurate assessment. The fact that I would still describe these annals a bit differently than Kitchen isn’t the real issue here. For me, the real issue concerns how we as biblical scholars conduct comparative analysis.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that the ancient Mesopotamian empires were the most advanced historically minded kingdoms in all human history (I know, that’s exaggerating the issue, but I’m trying to illustrate an important point). Even if this was true, that would not mean by extension that ancient Israel was an advanced historically minded kingdom. Ancient Mesopotamia had a tremendous influence on much of the biblical material, but these two worlds were also very distinct. Ancient Mesopotamia had a very advanced archaic scribal tradition. Writing first emerged in Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE. The history and culture of ancient Israel (including its scribal tradition) was very different. Ancient Israel was divided historically into two separate kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. According to the Bible, prior to this division, these kingdoms existed as a unified people.

The first evidence of an inland Canaanite script appears in Israel during the 10th century BCE. We have alphabetic writing and official seals from what would have been the period of this United Monarchy (if the Biblical account is correct that such an entity existed). Hebrew doesn’t exist as a written language until the 9th (perhaps 10th, depending on how you classify “Hebrew”) century BCE. This means that during the time period of biblical heroes such as Samuel, Saul, and David that a written form of Hebrew was only beginning to take shape. So the stories about these men do not stem from a contemporary written royal record.

The northern kingdom of Israel seems to have developed a fairly advanced society during the 8th century BCE. During this time, the southern kingdom of Judah was much smaller and far less articulate. By the end of the 8th century, however, Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians (think of the famous “lost ten tribes”). Twenty years after the destruction of Samaria, the Israelite elite had established a significant presence in Judah, and that presence changed everything, including the development of scribal texts that would eventually find their way into our Bible. During the century or so between the Assyrian destruction of Israel and the later Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, the kingdom of Judah followed Israel’s lead and developed an extraordinary literary culture. By 586 (the year Babylon destroyed Jerusalem), the Judean scribes had created their own literary texts that developed Judean authority. And these texts would eventually find their way into our Bible. This is the basic historical background for the development of writing and literary sources in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This is the historical background that must be taken into consideration in a study of “historical reliability” in the scribal works that appear in the Bible.

Now, returning to Kitchen’s analysis, unfortunately, like many other Near Eastern studies in the past, Kitchen’s work is suspect if for no other reason than as an Egyptologist (who also deals with Mesopotamian texts), Kitchen fails to view biblical material in its own unique historical and cultural context. Israelite scribal traditions are not the same thing as Mesopotamian scribal traditions. I’m going to be direct. Near Eastern scholars like Kitchen who fail to properly contextualize this material often create a type of “parallelomania” in Near Eastern society, which results in the absorption of various distinct cultural and religious aspects into a meaningless synchronic whole.

Kitchen’s work fails to take into consideration the type of methodology articulated by biblical scholar Shemaryahu Talmon concerning the way we should properly perform comparative Near Eastern analysis. Talmon explained that it’s essential that Near Eastern scholars properly clarify unique cultural distinctions before drawing the types of comparisons Kitchen’s work creates. Here’s Talmon:

In dealing with the fundamental issues concerning the social and religious history of biblical Israel, scholars often revert to a comparison with external ‘parallels’ without the prerequisite definition of a methodology of procedure and before examining the phenomena under consideration in their innerbiblical context.[2]

In contrast to this problematic paradigm for comparative analysis (again, the one that Kitchen’s study adopts), the methodology Talmon expresses is essential, since “random comparison without reference to the general structure and profile of the overall scale of values and beliefs of the societies involved can only mar and distort.”

In other words, according to a proper methodology for comparative analysis, any feature of the Bible, including its annals and alleged “historical” consciousness, must first be investigated in its own context prior to analysis in a larger Near Eastern setting. This is really important. Failure to adopt this model for comparative studies leads interpreters to a faulty conclusion, as they superimpose aspects of non-Israelite culture into the Bible.

The methodology proposed by Talmon suggests that any concept (again, including historical consciousness and “reliability”) acquires its meaning within its particular source context. So in another words, it doesn’t matter what Egyptologists or specialists in Mesopotamian history determine for their specific fields. They can’t simply impose those same values on biblical texts anymore than biblical scholars can impose what we see happening in the Bible on ancient Babylon. Instead, scholars must look carefully and critically at the material in the Bible itself before we can draw effective parallels between different time periods and cultures, even within the ancient Near East.

And as expected, when we do so, that’s precisely where many of Kitchen’s arguments break down.

Taking into consideration the history of ancient Israel I sketched in the above section, the truth is that we have very little information about scribal schools and activities in ancient Israel. The biblical book of Kings contains references to a scribal account known as “the Annals of the Kings of Israel” (see, for example, 2 Kings 15:11). Many scholars believe that this reference refers to a type of political chronicle kept in the court of northern Israel. This record was most likely brought by Israelite scribes down into the southern kingdom of Judah after the Assyrians conquered Israel in 721 BCE. But it’s been lost.

One of the earliest Israelite scribal productions that we have is the law collection that appears in Exodus 21-23 known as the “Covenant Code.” The linguistic and textual evidence suggests that this material was never really practical law applied in ancient Israel, but rather (much like other Near Eastern legal collections) primarily a scribal exercise. Israelite scribes also wrote down prophecies like those found in the books of Hosea and Amos. There were certainly other prophecies recorded by Israelite scribes that have not been preserved. And it’s probably not a coincidence that southern scribes in Judah who had negative feelings about Israel preserved the prophecies found in Hosea and Amos, since they are quite critical of the northern kingdom.

As I’ve already mentioned, the archeological record strongly indicates that when the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria, many Israelites fled to the southern kingdom of Judah. Israelite refugees took with them some of the texts that now appear in the Bible such as the prophecies of Amos and Hosea, as well as the Covenant Code, the E source in the Pentateuch, and probably an early stage of what would eventually become Deuteronomy. These texts were part of Israelite cultural heritage, but remember, there was no Bible at the time. This material, therefore, did not hold the same sacred status that religious believers give these writings today. The evidence for this is that later scribes in Judah, trained and influenced by the northern refugees, added onto and reformulated this material into the creation of other biblical texts, including the eventual laws of Deuteronomy.

But wait! Timeout! I thought we didn’t have very much information about scribal schools in ancient Israel! So how have I formulated this picture? Well, part of it comes from our knowledge of general ancient Near Eastern history, but more precisely, this entire picture comes together from one source: the Bible itself.

The Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament is a massive collection of scribal documents produced by Israelite and (more specifically) Judean scribes. It is a scribal compilation of a diverse assortment of religious texts written over a thousand-year period. The scholarly consensus holds that these writings, which include various genres such as narratives, laws, poetry, wisdom sayings, prophecy, and apocalyptic texts were composed from approximately the twelfth through the second centuries BCE.

So before we turn to comparative Near Eastern analysis with ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, we must first carefully look at this material to determine to what extent these scribal records represent an effort to record reliable accounts of ancient Israel and Judah filled with historicity. Of course we can, as Kitchen wants to do, use comparative Near Eastern examples to fill in the blanks, but comparative analysis cannot be the driving force to make our assessment. Instead, we must rely upon the scribal records themselves, and when we do, our analysis presents a far different picture from the traditional model conservative scholars such as Kitchen assume.

And this is point number two in my problem with Kitchen’s analysis. Because it doesn’t matter, really, what Egyptian or Mesopotamian scribes were doing. We’re talking about biblical scribes. In his efforts to depict the scribal records that appear in the Bible as historically reliable, Kitchen jumps directly to comparative analysis without looking carefully and critically at the biblical texts themselves. And I’ll show it, by looking at Joshua and Judges.

[1] Mark W. Chavalas review in Hebrew Studies 46 (2005): 395.

[2] Shemaryahu Talmon, Literary Studies in the Hebrew Bible: Form and Content Collected Studies (Jerusalem-Leiden: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University-E.J. Brill, 1993), 34.

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