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G. Kyle Essary

Sometimes, I think that people use the "historical search for" in order to write off the individual in question. I hold to the literal, bodily, historical existence of each of these individuals...but let's take it in a different direction.

The problem is that writing off the "history" doesn't write off what Moltmann might call the "history making" of each of these individuals. Of course, Moltmann was talking about the resurrection, but I think it refers to these individuals as well. For instance, you cannot be an American today without having already been shaped by a culture which was deeply shaped by Abraham Lincoln, Jesus and Moses...historical or not.

So yeah, even from a different direction, I think the critique of (many types of) minimalism fails.


I would, however, distinguish between things like whether or not the historical probability is high that Jesus was born in Nazareth and crucified on a cross in Jerusalem (in both cases, the historical probability is, most would say, relatively high), and the historicity of the resurrection or a nature miracle (in both cases, historical investigation can, if evidence to that effect so suggests, rule such things out, but it cannot put probabilities on the likelihood that they happened in specific instances).

William Willimon recently wrote on his blog:

"I don't preach Jesus' story in the light of my experience, as some sort of helpful symbol or myth which is helpfully illumined by my own story of struggle and triumph. Rather, I am invited by Easter to interpret my story in the light of God's triumph in the resurrection. I really don’t have a story, I don’t know the significance of my little life, until I read my story and view my life through the lens of cross and resurrection. One of the things that occurs in the weekly preaching of the gospel is to lay the gospel story over our stories and reread our lives in the light of what is real now that crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead."

That's a fine phenomenological description of effective preaching. Such preaching is "the Word of God proclaimed," and is history-making. It depends for its efficacy on the conviction that the resurrection is history-making.

But that doesn't prove that God raised Jesus from the dead. Nor do I mean to imply that Moltmann or you thought it did.

Gödel's theorem is clear: theories in general, not just the "theory" of the resurrection, do not and cannot prove themselves. Theories comport (or not) with evidence. But they lack within themselves a proof which compels assent.

It's a good thing, too. Otherwise things like freedom and love would be out of the question.

G. Kyle Essary

I'm not really concerned with the historical probabilities in themselves, but often the critique against the historical seems to be intent on sidestepping the more important issues. Here's what I mean by looking at the Pericopae Adulterae:

1. It's almost certainly not Johannine, or at least not in the original compilations of John. Thus, a very low probabilistic case can be made that it is an original part of John's Gospel.

2. It's not as clear whether or not such an even happened historically. Is it possibly historic? Of course. Does it seem historic? I see no reason to think not, yet at the same time, it doesn't even approach the level of historical surefootedness of say Jesus clearing the temple or being baptized by John.

So in this situation, I don't think anyone can with utmost certainty say that this event happened historically. But how does that diminish the teaching therein? Whether or not this story is historical, it is most definitely one of the most history-making events in Western history.

Transfer this to other topics in "history" and I believe much the same conclusion can be said, whether or not today's cultural milieu accepts what the implications of the history making event may be. In the case of the resurrection, that you mention in response, the history making in this event is truly without equal, regardless of the probabilities of the event actually having happened. Of course, I hold that it historically happened, but the point is that you can't get around it by simply arguing probabilities one way or another...we've all been shaped by it...and by Abraham Lincoln, Akiba, Moses and the rest.


Except with respect to perfectly banal details, certainty is a not a word in the vocabulary of a historian.

The example of the Pericope of the Adulterer is an interesting one, given the way that this passage is demoted in some circles because there are no good grounds for thinking that it is original to its context.

So what, I say. Since the one who draws in the sand looks like Jesus, swims like Jesus, and quacks like Jesus, chances are, he is Jesus.

No denying, furthermore, that the passage has been, when taken to heart, a story through which many have read their lives, without which the story of their lives, by their own admission, would not make sense. In point of fact, I could have formulated the last sentence in the first person.


Another thought.

Whether or not a particular narrative relates to history in terms of correspondence with a one-off event, or in a deeper and broader but non-specific way, as a parable does, it serves as scripture to the extent that it is regarded as relaying truth from God in the moment of reception.

What is necessary is the suspension of unbelief. The effectiveness of a historical novel is premised on the same presumption of truth, even though we know it does not narrate a one-off event. The only difference, in terms of appropriate reading strategy, is that a historical novel is received as a particular human author's take on truth, whereas scripture, though it is also that, is received as a witness to the truth with a capital T given us by God himself.

Alan Lenzi

This "history" vs. "history-making" thing sounds a lot like "history" vs. "myth." The latter might be defined as "authoritative, Truth-laden narratives or icons that capture ultimate values, which one accepts because it's what's in the air (i.e., one is born into it but one never recognizes the "it") and/or because one identifies it and suspends one's disbelief (i.e., critical faculties)." Of course, many people will bristle at that m-word.


Whenever I hear the expression, "suspend one's critical faculties," for some reason the first thing that comes to mind is the experience of falling in love.

Angela Erisman

I try to look for what everyone adds to a discussion. Having read a lot of this stuff, it's my sense that 'minimalists' (and I hate these terms, by the way) at their best poke us all where we need to be poked. 'Maximalists' at their best remind us that we can't magically erase the stuff there is to discuss, even as there are important differences about how to interpret it.

Everyone seems to be scared of "revisionism." But I suspect all good historians are revisionists. When an old metanarrative is challenged by new data or new perspectives, sometimes it NEEDS to be revised, and good historians will not be afraid to revise it. That's scary, of course, because it can mean letting go of things once held dear. On the other hand, if closer to the truth (or at least more honest to the data) is what you get out of letting go, that's a pretty good trade in my view.


Hi Angela,

What I especially don't like about the terms is that maximalists sometimes call anyone to their "left" minimalists, and miminalist anyone to their "right" maximalists. Those of us on the tightwire in the middle risk getting shoved to the ground.

Furthermore, some of those who are often called minimalists but take pains to distinguish themselves from, say, the Sheffield-Copenhagen axis, are among the scholars I learn the most from (agreement is another question, and is overrated).

I'm thinking of Israel Finkelstein and Christoph Levin. Just examples.

G. Kyle Essary

It's perspectival. I'm pretty confident that minimalists and maximalists are in reality more like the shoulders of a four lane highway.

G. Kyle Essary

To clarify, that was in response to the comment that you are on the tightwire in the middle.

Seth Sanders

Hey John,
Looking at your initial post above, a way just occurred to me to frame this whole thing outside the minimalist-maximalist cookie-cutter. The disadvantage, or maybe advantage, is it's very Star Trek: space-times, or to use the original term, chronotopes.

You write that minimalist historiography "refuses to discuss not only events but entire epochs referred to in the Hebrew Bible because those epochs, such as those of the Exodus, Settlement, Judges, and United Monarchy, are not attested outside of the biblical corpus." But periodization is actually an incredibly powerful force in creating history, and terms like "United Monarchy," as opposed to "Iron IIa Southern Levant," carry with them muscular assumptions about the shape of the world: each term implies its own, quite different, space-time.

To illustrate the power of periodization, consider the assumption that a big piece of American history happened, let's say, in terms of "the Civil Rights era" (and therefore only in the U.S., since that's where those battles and laws went down, maybe from the initial civil rights bill through the fights over busing), versus, let's say, "the drug era" or "the radical questioning era" (that might have happened all over the continent, from the mid-60s through the 70s? my examples are hackneyed but I hope clear). Periods actually entail space, as well as time, bringing into focus a specific and pointed territory and community of "Israel" as opposed to a bigger, more open, and blander regional "Southern Levant."

To give a closer example, the chronotope of "modernity" or "the modern world" also drags in a European and American space (until recently much of China and Africa were thought to not yet be in it, and the history of India does not divide up the medieval and modern periods at the same points we tend to), and a hotly contested time (nobody can agree on when modernity began: the Renaissance? The Enlightenment? Industrialization?).

Seeing "United Monarchy" as one chronotope, and "Iron IIa Southern Levant" as an alternative competing one, makes clear that using either is a linguistic act that carves out a different space and time. Neither is objectively given (undisturbed potsherds don't crawl together of their own volition into "Iron IIa" and "Iron IIb" piles); each entails different things.

So I'd disagree with you that there are actually existing Epochs out there in the world that are only referred to in the Hebrew Bible, but I'd agree that the avoidance of any of these terms is polemical. There are times when the bland, relatively presupposing "Iron IIa" is a helpful lens, and times when one would wish to conjure up the views that "United Monarchy" entails.

What is stunning is that from this point of view both modern Pentecostal prophecy and modern Levantine archaeology work through manipulating chronotopes (creating, and then either distancing us from or uniting us with, a "there-and-then" or "there-and-to-come" of ancient Israel or the Approaching Rapture). From this point of view history-making and prophecy-making are related enterprises, with very different rules and goals.


Hi Seth,

Your comment reminds me that I received permission to English a wonderful essay by Mario Liverani but still haven't gotten around to it, an essay in which he periodizes the sweep of ANE cultural development across 2500 years, the entire Bronze and Iron Ages, into chronotopes which are not just conventional, but sequenced in terms of a narrative.

What I like about that essay, and what I like about your work, is that they narrativize the archaeological and documentary record; said narratives can then be compared with those of, say, Mesopotamian and Egyptian takes on their respective histories (of which we are, with a few exceptions, poorly informed; one has to look at a variety of genres, including pseudo-prophetical literature to get a notion of such. Pseudo-prophecy and apocalyptic are ancient equivalents to sci-fi; for this train of thought, albeit implicitly: see my history and eschatology post:

And, of course, with Israelite self-understandings of its ethnogenesis and history.

Though it might seem that that is exactly what minimalists do, I'm not ready to back down from my sense that minimalism is, at least as often practiced, atrophied from an intellectual point of view.

I would rather read Wellhausen any day. He had far better historical instincts. He certainly did not throw everything out simply because it lacked external attestation.

The pars destruens of Wellhausen's synthesis is acute and to the point without indulging in the kind of destruction for the sake of destruction that often seems to be the hallmark of minimalist studies. The pars construens is fabulous - and wrong - and I mean both somehow as compliments.

W was fearless in rewriting the story of ancient Israel, Jesus, and early Christianity according to a counter-narrative he found more congenial. He built his fabulations on the basis of historical reasoning of a modern cast. Just so, there is a family resemblance of sorts between the ancient narrative and his counter-narrative. I consider this to be a plus, though it wouldn't be if in fact - to return to the example at hand - there was no settlement, there were no judges, there was no united monarchy, the end of the monarchy in Israel first and Judah second were no big deals, etc.

It simply is not a minor detail as to how one comes down on these questions. Though of course all one can ask in regard to them is intellectual honesty when coming down on them.

Minimalists tend to build their fabulations on the basis of anti-historical reasoning. They construct a metanarrative within which the fact that ethnoi give themselves etiologies is tarred as myth without or almost without remainder. To which one might reply, "Physician, heal thyself."

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