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Blake Reas

John,

Are we sure that Bryant Wood is wrong on his theories? I have read some of his articles, and I do not find him to be overly unreasonable. Also, just what "fundamentalist", or ETS members read the bible with out reference to Genre? I am baffled! I see the plural pronoun spewed everywhere, but no one gives me a specific instance! Who does this? Daniel Block? Darrell Bock? G.K. Beale? Blomberg? Carson? Doug Moo? R.T. France? John Currid? Joyce Baldwin? Alec Motyer? Who, which one? Give me names, otherwise I am going to continue to think that criticisms of inerrantists are nothing other than burning strawmen.

Joshua

John,

Thanks for this and the previous post. I read some of the dialogue between McGrath and the folks at triablogue and couldn't help but feel that both sides were stuck on verifying or denying the truthfulness of Scripture based on a univocal historical referent--as if the writers of Scripture were news reporters or something.

Your posts have been refreshing. Thanks.

JohnFH

Hi Blake,

No, I am not sure that Bryant Wood is wrong on his theories. On the opposite end of the spectrum, furthermore, I'm not sure that Niels Peter Lemche is wrong on his theories either. I happen to come down between the two on historical-critical questions, but I don't pin much of anything on that happenstance.

You list a bunch of scholars for whom I have the greatest respect. Of course they are as concerned about genre identification as anyone else. For the record, furthermore, I don't have any fundamental problems with ETS' definition of inerrancy either, though I don't like the wording in all places (who does?).

The question is, what ARE the genres the book of Joshua instantiates? If the educated guesses I speak of in this post are on the right track, it is not the case that a reconstruction of the kind Bryant Wood attempts is the direction one would naturally take. Does that make sense, or do I need to explain further?

I don't remember exactly what genres Wood sees in Joshua, but somehow I would not be surprised if he did not consider historicized foundation legends of cult centers as among them. My guess is that he might be offended at the thought.

This is a question I pose to fellow evangelicals with inclinations like those of Wood: would you feel betrayed if it turned out that God allowed an 8th or 7th BCE author of the Deuteronomistic history to put together an account of the conquest period based on foundation legends, ancient epic, records of tribal boundaries which unfortunately date from the monarchical period, and little else, except the grace of God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in terms of the truth conveyed through such clay vessels?

If you would feel betrayed, Blake, I'm fine with that, and I wish you well in finding a historicization of the book of Joshua along Wood's lines that you find convincing.

Really, I would be happy if Wood were on the right track. How delightful if he were. But intellectual honesty forbids me from pretending that I think he is on the right track.

JohnFH

Joshua,

You touch on an important point. If a text does not have a univocal historical referent, if it is as multivocal and layered as is a great historical film like Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan or even Coppola's Apocalypse Now, is that a bad thing?

I don't see it. Historical films, ancient historical narrative in general, but Gibbon and Toynbee as well, are eloquent precisely because of their ability to collapse the present into the past and otherwise make the past dense with allusions.

I mention Coppola's Apocalypse Now because when I've asked Vietnam vets what film portrays Nam as it really was - wie es eigentlich geschehen ist, to play off of Ranke's famous ideal - they often mention Apocalypse Now. That was a lesson for me. A surreal film captures the essence of Nam better than "realistic" films. Fancy that.

Blake Reas

Hi John,

I understand what you are saying, but would the ancient Israelites have assumed that their history was "written propaganda" or "Historicized Foundation Legends". Wouldn't the implied reader (I think that is the right terminology) think that these events happened as spoken in their scriptures?

It appears that you are attributing at least a certain degree of "dishonesty" to the biblical writers. The authors found some disparate stories with no timeline, and formed it in a way that suited their purposes, along with myths (considered historical?), legends (to us, but to them?), and wove them together into a what? Is it History? You said "Historicized Foundation Legends" but for some reason I do not think that these text should be called "historical". How would the ancient reader have understood the book of Joshua? If the reader understood the book to be "historicized myth/legend", then fine, but I find that to be questionable. Did not the Hebrews believe that God acted in History? Surely they did not believe these events took place in mythical dream time, or not at all! Isn't part of these books appeal that God actually does act in the way scripture describes?
I guess my question is this: Did the biblical writers rewrite history, and skew historical events for the purposes of conditions in their own time(i.e. reinforce ideology)? Am I misreading you? If that is what you are saying, then I see no difference with what the Ancient Israelites did, and how modern americans, and how soviet russians rewrote histories to inspire national patriotism. Either way you are stuck with a lie in a divine text, or with a writer who was "guided by God's grace and Holy Spirit" to write erroneous history, unless of course the readers or hearers understood that these narratives were not "true" in a factual since, but "spiritually" true.

It seems, to me anyway, that if you cannot show that the author and reader had a mutual understanding that these stories were not exactly accurate, then it causes huge problems for the nature of God. Theories like this are not worthy of God as Christians have defined Him, because God cannot lie. And if this God inspired a faulty text why did he do that? If he could tell the truth (inspire the biblical writers to write truth), then why didn't he? Is God somehow prevented from making accurate historical judgements, and using literary artistry at the same time? If not you will have to explain why.

Of course if you can give me evidence that both the biblical writers AND their audience understood that these events did not happen as depicted in the text, then I would be comfortable with it, but if you cannot show me that there was a mutual understanding between author and audience, then I would have to reevaluate Joshua's role in the canon along with any other book that is not worthy of a Good God.

Mike Heiser

I'd chime in as well in defense of Wood, at least in terms of such a categorical sweeping away of his positions. Exactly where can they not be true (i.e., where are they hopelessly or substantially unworkable?). And in the spirit of phrases like "people like Bryant Wood" -- how about "people like V. Phillips Long?" Is he really that dramatically different than Wood? Would he sweep Wood aside as quickly? I doubt it, even though there are bound to be differences of opinion between them (and after the dating of the exodus, where might those be?). And I'm still waiting for a late date explanation that handles the Judges year figures in some other way than "Jephthah was wrong" or that literally HALVES his numerical figure (as opposed to making it an approximation).

James McGrath

John, I think if you look at my post, I emphasized that one could still hold to the text's "historicity" (in varying degrees). My point was only about "inerrancy" when the latter is understood to mean the text being precisely accurate in every detail.

Blake Reas

Dr. Heiser,

In "A Biblical History of Israel" Long, Provan, and Longman all speak favorably of Wood. They did not find his work to be "unworkable". If history is more uncertain than science, then I think we need to be careful in saying that scholar "x's" views are "unworkable". Multiple theories can fit any phenomenon, so I am skeptical when people simply brush people off.

Blake

JohnFH

Blake,

As usual, you are asking great questions. In fact, I would be none too happy if you were not asking them. That you are is a sign of your intellectual seriousness.

No, I don't think the author of book of Joshua was being dishonest. It stands to reason that he had a set of shared understandings with his intended audience which we can only begin to unpack with any confidence. We should be careful not to prematurely limit the options.

When the Primary History (Genesis-2 Kings) references the book of the wars of the LORD (Num 21:14) and the book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13 and 2 Sam 1:18), allowance has to be made for the possibility that the sources in question are epic materials along the lines of Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey or Virgil's Aeneid. My assumption would be that the writer and audience shared a common understanding that epic (the kind of thing that Homer wrote) and history (the kind of thing that Herodotus would write) relate to singular facts in different ways.

I am also convinced that ancient authors and readers were ideologically astute. They expected literature to have an ideological dimension and were not ashamed of it. For that reason, they sometimes omitted and revised details great and small in accordance with ideology to an extent far beyond what we might consider appropriate. If you make a synoptic comparison of material in Kings versus Chronicles with the help of a serious commentary, you will see what I mean.

With respect to historicized foundation legends, my assumption would be that, at the time, the narrative embedded in liturgies connected with pilgrimage sites in ancient Israel (which, ex hypothesi, the author of the book of Joshua reused for historiographical purposes) was well enough known such that many of the original readers would have been able to connect the dots and note the borrowing. I imagine the borrowing would have been considered a feature, not a bug, in the content of the book.

The foundation legends connected with cult centers in ancient Israel, as in ancient Greece and Rome, would have been the most authoritative sources of knowledge of epochs gone by much later generations possessed. NOT to have made full use of them would have been weird, rather than the reverse.

Unfortunately, the hard evidence we have on hand cannot mutate these assumptions into known facts.

But the hard evidence we have is interesting and points in the direction I am suggesting. Parts of Joshua, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings in the Deuteronomistic history were transmitted in antiquity with differences in detail great and small (you might want to read my review of BHQ for a first discussion and bibliography, or work through my series on canon).

The differences in detail large and small of which I speak would not have been tolerated if the shared understanding was that it was essential to decide which of the versions and which of the individual details within the variant versions corresponded to a standard of historiographical excellence in the sense of a history characterized by faithfulness to documents contemporaneous with the events recounted. That's no way to frame the question, furthermore, because very often "documents contemporaneous with the events recounted," or from one or two generations hence as in Hittite historical narrative, does not appear to have been available to the authors of the Deuteronomistic history.

Taking a wider view still, for the full length of the Primary History, there really is no evidence and there are no cues within the text that suggest that a history based on documents and contemporary or near-contemporaneous sources would have been possible in the first place.

Given this situation, it is no wonder that biblical historical narrative is characterized rather often by the preservation of two or more variant versions of the same narrative. That would have been the honest way to go if the goal was to preserve as much traditional material as possible rather than decide between two versions which differ in details large and small. Decide on what basis?

The profile of the evidence in hand is an embarrassment to those who think these texts would have been thought to have been defective if they were not self-consistent in the way you and I expect a historical narrative recounting the origins of a modern state to be. They are not self-consistent in that way. It is absurd, really, to expect that they would be. This is my basic beef with James McGrath's question, and with your apparent assumptions as well.

Blake, I think you are going to be in perpetual hot water as you compare with scripture with scripture and scripture with external data if you proceed on the assumption that scripture would be lying or defective in some way if it could be shown that it utilizes a very wide range of genres current at the time in accordance with the conventions of those genres at the time, because our conventions and genres are very different, and our particular notions of truth and falsehood are tied up with them.

BTW, the Bible, though it contains I think examples of historicized myth and legend (Genesis), satire (Jonah and Esther), stories (Job), and so on, does not contain a host of other genres that are well-represented in the "canons" of neighboring peoples. For example, omen literature, execration texts, and erotic (pornographic) texts have no place in the canon of ancient Israel. In short, lines were drawn in the sand. The lines are not, however, as restrictive as you apparently would have wished they had been.

JohnFH

I agree with Mike and Blake that Wood's hypotheses bear examination no less than those of Long or whoever.

But then my question is - and my purpose here is not to close the debate, but to keep it open - what assumptions is Wood making about the genres which the book of Joshua instantiates? My impression is that they are unrealistic assumptions.

JohnFH

James,

I see the criterion of "accuracy" in the sense you suggest as largely inapplicable to the book of Joshua. Mind you, I realize the criterion is not yours, but of some defenders of scripture's trustworthiness. Still, I think the logical thing for someone who has familiarity with ancient texts to do is call that criterion into question, not the trustworthiness of scripture understood on its own terms. Perhaps wrongly, I hear you doing the latter.

It's like asking if Coppola's film, Apocalypse Now, is an accurate portrayal of the Nam war. Vets I know say it is. It's a deeper kind of accuracy that they care about. Such, I submit, is the sense in which believing readers of all epochs have understood the book of Joshua to be accurate.

I also realize that the Deuteronomistic history has sometimes been read as if it did not draw on sources which relate to history and describe history in markedly different ways, but is the product of dictation by God such that all the conversations and events referred to in it could be replayed if we had a time machine, and we would hear the same words we find in the Masoretic text all over again.

To be sure, if that is the only way a person is able to read the text and still take it seriously, I don't want to disabuse her or him of what I think is an illusion.

It pays to take the biblical text with complete existential seriousness. It tells your story; it is your history, too.

Jim Getz

On the question of genre and original readers, how would Karl van der Toorn's "library hypothesis" inform this discussion? Particularly relevant to the ensuing discussion on Joshua is van der Toorn's theory that most of the Bible was written by scribes and for scribes. While this doesn't preclude propaganda as one of the motives for the narrative, it does nuance what that means. (A similar phenomenon has been observed for Assyrian annals by Barbara N. Porter---they serve an internal propagandistic function for those who could read within the court.)

I personally have some problems with his reconstructions of the history of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah; but the theory itself, based on good empirical data of scribal practices, seems basically sound.

JohnFH

Hi Jim,

Thanks for an interesting contribution.

Karel van der Toorn's hypothesis is part of a larger tendency among some biblical scholars who think of biblical literature, before it became biblical as it were, before it became a corpus and a national (and nationalistic) canon in the Maccabean period with a broad readership and regular re-reading as scripture in synagogues and in sects like the Yahad of Qumran, as written by literati for literati.

There are grave difficulties with this hypothesis. It might be worth going back and reading Blenkinsopp's Prophecy and Canon for a corrective perspective. I have a hard time thinking of prophets, and "the sons of the prophets," as literati, though I admit that the prophet-scribe relationship, from Isaiah to Jeremiah, is a fascinating and under-studied topic.

If Amos, Hosea, Micah, and First Isaiah are compositions much of whose contents originate in the 8th cent. BCE, in what sense are these texts, which so self-consciously address the ruling classes and the people as a whole, written by scribes for scribes?

In what sense are pre-exilic psalms written by scribes for scribes? Quite a few seem intended for public use, and/or fairly generalized private use.

And what about texts which express a priestly-prophetic point of view, in which a Sitz im Leben in "preaching" broadly understood, is verisimilar? D, H, Jeremiah's sermons, and Ezekiel? To think of these examples as literature written by scribes for scribes seems way too restrictive.

Here's an off-the-wall analogy. By definition Deuteronomy is the product of scribes because scribes and scribes alone produce written literature. But was Deuteronomy designed to be published in a peer-reviewed journal like JAAR, or for a more popular venue, like BAR? I'm thinking the latter.

Nathaniel

John,

This is an interesting post -- very interesting, since McGrath's post is now being cited (such is the speed of the internet) on some atheist blogs as an admission by a Christian that the Bible is historically unreliable.

Full disclosure: this is not a field in which I have any specialty. So my questions are really those of an interested layman; I hope they won't seem, to a specialist, too foolish.

I have no problem with thoughtful assignment of passages or books to genres where factual accuracy is not of paramount importance. I am also more interested in the general historicity of the historical books than in inerrancy. So nothing that follows is intended as an attempt to shoehorn everything into the narrative.

But it is not at all clear to me that Joshua and Judges were not intended to be, inter alia, generally faithful historical records. Embellished? Perhaps. Rhetorically calculated? Absolutely. But beneath the rhetoric, there seems to be a consistent story of a series of raids sent out from the camp at Gilgal; occupation (as opposed to destruction) of any point beyond Gilgal is intimated only from Joshua 18:4 onward.

So it seems to me that both Albright and Finkelstein have overread the text when they assume that occupation immediately followed conquest. If we take the narrative at face value, we would not expect to find, say, inscriptional evidence celebrating the conquest of Makkedah (which there is essentially no hope of excavating now), Libnah, Lachish, etc. All that we could reasonably expect is to find that these cities were indeed occupied in the Late Bronze -- and when we have evidence on that point at all, it is generally affirmative, with the exception of Hebron, which has not, however, been fully dug. The identification of Ai with El-Tell is in dispute and that site is significantly eroded in any event, and Late Bronze Jericho is, from what I understand, eroded away; we have precious little even from 1420-1275 and practically nothing from later.

If this is correct, then I am not sure what the problem would be in answering McGrath by pointing to a period around 1220-1120 BC.

I would welcome your further thoughts on this.

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  • Phil Lembo what I'm thinking
    a recovering lawyer, now in IT, with a passion for a faith worth living
  • Roses and Razorwire
    a top-notch Levantine archaeology blog, by Owen Chesnut, a doctoral student at Andrews University (MI)
  • Scripture & Theology
    a communal weblog dedicated to the intersection of biblical interpretation and the articulation of church doctrine, by Daniel Driver, Phil Sumpter, and others
  • Scripture Zealot
    by Jeff Contrast
  • Serving the Word
    incisive comment on the Hebrew Bible and related ancient matters, with special attention to problems of philology and linguistic anthropology, by Seth L. Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Trinity College, Hartford, CT
  • Singing in the Reign
    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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    Copyright © 2005 by John F Hobbins.