Apologetic Issues in the Old Testament, Part 2

| By Richard Hess

Note: Today’s entry on the BioLogos Forum, by Old Testament scholar Richard S. Hess, was first published as an appendix to Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP Academic; Nottingham: Apollos, 2011). Yesterday, Hess began this series with a consideration of some of the chief issues addressed more popularly in recent pro-atheist books. Today he discusses arguments made by the so-called “minimalists” and criticisms of the historical witness of the Bible. Tomorrow, Hess will discuss perhaps the most important apologetic issue in the Old Testament, that of Deuteronomy, Joshua and divinely ordained genocide.

Apologetic Issues in the Old Testament, Part 2



Minimalists and the Old Testament

The issue of minimalism, or more accurately the question of the historical value of the Bible, has changed over the years in terms of the focus of ancient Israelite history. For example, in the mid-1970s the major concern was whether the patriarchs of Genesis 12–36 had any historical claim to its tradition.5 The critics questioned the application of parallels from cuneiform archives dating to the traditional date of the patriarchs, the early second millennium b.c. They argued that such parallels could be found in cuneiform texts from a thousand years later, that the style of “history writing” in Genesis did not predate the Greeks who wrote in the fifth century b.c. and later, and that other customs and materials in Genesis could best be dated to the first millennium b.c. This was countered by a series of studies that demonstrated that the quantity and quality of many parallels in the early second millennium b.c. appear only then outside the Bible, that narrative writing of events such as found in Genesis 12–36 was known in the patriarchs’ world of the second millennium b.c., and that many of the customs cited, including especially the personal names, are either exclusive to the early second millennium b.c., or match it in a statistically significant manner not found later.6

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a shift that questioned whether anything in the Old Testament could be considered reliable. Behind this lay assumptions that no significant writing existed in Israel before the Hellenistic period, that there was no ethnic connection between Palestinian Jews of the third century b.c. and Palestinians before the sixth century b.c., and that a Judean state centered in Jerusalem could not be demonstrated before the late eighth century b.c. Thus all history writing in the Old Testament, including that of the postexilic period, was called into question and regarded as fairy tales.7 In fact, much recent evidence has demonstrated that significant writing did exist in ancient Israel, that despite the deportations in and around Palestine in the first millennium b.c. an authentic memory of physical ancestors was preserved in the Old Testament that reached back to the early first millennium b.c., and that evidence exists for a Judean state before the Assyrian invasion of 701 b.c. (above all, in the attested dynasty known as “the house of David”).8 Indeed, this approach has been found problematic in so many areas that a host of monographs and collected studies have presented compelling evidence to debunk the theories.9

By 2000 and in the following years, the questions shifted again. This time challenges to the Bible focused on Israel’s early appearance in Canaan as recorded in the book of Judges and on the period customarily identified with the United Monarchy of the tenth century b.c. While each of these criticisms has its own significance and remains important up to the present, I can only consider something of the last and latest controversy. This view was popularized by the writings of the Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein and the popular writer on archaeology Neil Asher Silberman.10 This approach chose a middle way. They accepted that the writings of Genesis were fiction but rejected the assumptions that the later periods of the Old Testament also lacked any historical worth. The assumption was that c. 622, scribes of King Josiah of Judah collected the earlier writings and traditions of Israel to create a work that supported the “reforms” of this king. The farther back in time one went, the less historical value was present that could be ascribed to the writings. Thus the claims of Genesis and the first six or seven books of the Old Testament were almost entirely fiction, or at least legend whose kernels of truth were largely unrecoverable. There was a David and probably a Solomon who ruled in Jerusalem, but over a small kingdom rather than a great empire. Omri and Ahab provide the beginnings of historical worth in the northern kingdom of Israel, while late-eighth-century Hezekiah begins something approaching history in the southern kingdom of Judah. Although there is reason to challenge some of these findings, they have become the accepted dogma in mainstream biblical criticism.11

There is a cluster of issues here. However, they tend to revolve around the question of whether the written or oral traditions may have some claim to antiquity and authenticity. Insofar as historical worth is based on two or more independent witnesses, the earliest undoubted witness outside the Bible to a specific event attested in the Old Testament is the attack of Pharaoh Sheshonq (also called Shishak) against Palestine in 925 b.c. (cf. 1 Kings 14:25; 2 Chronicles 12:9). However, this does not invalidate any- thing purported to appear earlier in the biblical text. It simply means that we do not have an independent witness. If a text concurs with history where it can be checked, it may be reasonable to assume that the burden of proof lies with those who would argue for the absence of historicity else- where in the same context.

For example, the Bible claims that David and his son Solomon ruled over a kingdom that at various times comprised some or all of the modern state of Israel as well as regions beyond (see 2 Samuel 5; 8; 10). Is there any basis for this claim? Several lines of evidence bear on this question. First, it is important to note that the period that the Bible assigns these rulers to,the late eleventh century down to 931 b.c., was a time of weakness for the surrounding powers that might have conquered Israel and ruled in the area. This was true of Egypt and the Hittites, who had earlier impacted this region. Egypt was in decline and the Hittite empire had collapsed near two centuries earlier. Assyria and Babylonia were yet to rise to sufficient strength so as to influence the southern Levant.

Second, the powers that are mentioned in conflict with Israel in 2 Samuel 5, 8 and 10 include Aram, Ammon, Edom, Moab and Philistia. The Arameans are attested as early as three centuries before the eleventh century and gain in strength at this time. Like Israel did, they also took control in the power vacuum left by a diminished Egypt.12 In the region of Ammon the Amman citadel and perhaps one third of occupied sites before the eleventh century b.c. remain occupied into the tenth and ninth centuries.13 Although it has long been assumed that there was no settlement in Edom before the eighth century, and therefore no context for a territorial state or entity, this has now been shown incorrect. In the low- land region of Edom south of the Dead Sea, tenth-century b.c. mining sites and forts such as Khirbet en-Nahas have been discovered.14 The region of Moab is mentioned in Egyptian sources as early as the thirteenth century b.c. During the eleventh and tenth centuries b.c. more and more settlements were appearing in this region, suggesting an in- crease in statehood. The expansion and strength of the Philistines at this time is well documented.15

Third, twelfth century b.c. Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer were diverse architecturally; respectively, an Israelite settlement, a Canaanite city- state and a Philistine dependency. However, in the mid-tenth century b.c. they all conformed to similar architectural forms, with casemate walls, six-chambered gateways and a palace complex (though the latter is not certain at Hazor). As noted in 1 Kings 9:15, these were strategic centers. Their emergent uniformity of major structures suggests the formation of a single state in this area.16 The use of ashlar masonry resembles Phoenician styles rather than local Palestinian ones. Further, the fact that domestic architecture is not common in Solomonic Hazor or Megiddo (nor that there is any nearby population center at Megiddo) suggests that these were built and controlled by a larger territorial state, such as that described in Samuel and Kings.17 To this evidence should now be added the large building of ashlar masonry which the excavator dates to the period of the United Monarchy. Located in Jerusalem, it suggests the center of a supraregional state.18

Fourth, the Solomonic temple as described in 1 Kings 5–8 is paralleled both in the literary forms of the biblical text and especially in the details of comparative architectural forms found in West Semitic temples through- out Syria from the eleventh through the ninth centuries b.c.19

Thus the biblical picture of David and Solomon’s reigns reflects the known realities of southern Canaan in the eleventh and tenth centuries b.c. More could be said, such as the already mentioned “house of David” texts coming within a century and a half of David’s reign, according to the biblical text.20 However, I leave this evidence with the reader to consider whether it provides sufficient warrant to give these texts about David and Solomon, so severely attacked in the past decade, their rightful place as authentic and ancient writings.


5. See Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the His- torical Abraham, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 133 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974); and John Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (London: Yale Univer- sity Press, 1975). The term minimalism had not yet been coined or applied at this point. How- ever, similar authors and arguments would be used in the 1990s, when the term began to be used.

6. See especially the numerous studies collected in Alan R. Millard and Donald J. Wiseman, ed., Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives (1980; reprint, Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1983); Richard S. Hess, Philip Satterthwaite and Gordon Wenham, eds., He Swore an Oath: Biblical Themes from Genesis 12-50, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994); and Alan R. Millard, James K. Hoffmeier and David W. Baker, eds., Faith, Tradition, and History: Old Testament Historiography in Its Near Eastern Context (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1994). A single-authored work that represents the f inest example of applying ancient Near Eastern studies to the Bible is Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), esp. pp. 313-72.

7. See Thomas L. Thompson, Early History of the Israelite People: From the Written and Archaeo- logical Sources, Studies in the History of the Ancient Near East 4 (Leiden: Brill, 1992); Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (New York: Basic Books, 1999); Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (New York: Basic Books, 2005); Neils Peter Lemche, Prelude to Israel ’s Past: Background and Beginnings of Israelite History and Identity, trans. E. F. Maniscalco (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998); Lemche, The Old Testament Between Theology and History: A Critical Survey (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008); Philip R. Davies, In Search of ‘Ancient Israel ’ (Sheffield, U.K.: JSOT, 1992); Davies, The Origins of Biblical Israel (New York: T & T Clark, 2007); Davies, Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History–Ancient and Modern (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

8. On literacy see Richard S. Hess, “Literacy in Iron Age Israel,” in Windows into Old Testament History: Evidence, Argument, and the Crisis of “Biblical Israel,” ed. V. Philips Long, David W. Baker, and Gordon J. Wenham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), pp. 82-102; Hess, “Questions of Reading and Writing in Ancient Israel,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 19 (2009): 1-9; Hess, review Literate Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan: The Tel Zayit Abecedary in Context, by Ron E. Tappy and P. Kyle McCarter Jr., Bulletin for Biblical Research 19 (2009); William M. Schniedewind, “Orality and Literacy in Ancient Israel,” Religious Studies Review 26, no. 4 (2000): 327-32. On the ninth-century evidence for David, see André Lemaire, “‘House of David’ Restored in Moabite Inscription,” Biblical Archaeology Review 20, no. 3 (1994): 30-37; William M. Schniedewind, “Tel Dan Stela: New Light on Aramaic and Jehu’s Revolt,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 302 (1996): 75-90. On the general questions of authentic historical memory, see the following footnotes.

9. Among the monographs see among others William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001); William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003); Kitchen, Reliability of the Old Testament. At least four conferences have produced important sets of papers challenging this critical approach. See the essays in Long, Baker and Wenham, ed., Windows into Old Testament History; James K. Hoffmeier and Alan Millard, ed., The Future of Biblical Archaeology: Reassess- ing Methodologies and Assumptions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004); Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil and Paul J. Ray Jr., eds., Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, BBR Supplement 3 (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2008); Daniel I. Block, Bryan H. Cribb and Gregory S. Smith, eds., Israel: Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention? (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2008). See also the important collection of John Day, ed., In Search of Pre-Exilic Israel, JSOT Supple- ment Series 406 (London: T & T Clark, 2004).

10. Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (New York: Free Press, 2001); Finkelstein and Silberman, David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition (New York: Free Press, 2006).

11. See, for example, Thomas Römer, The So-Called Deuteronomistic History: A Sociological, Historical and Literary Introduction (New York: T & T Clark, 2007).

12. K. Lawson Younger Jr., “The Late Bronze/Iron Age Transition and the Origins of the Arameans,” in Ugarit at Seventy-Five, ed. K. Lawson Younger Jr. (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2007), pp. 131-74.

13. Elizabeth Bloch-Smith and Beth Alpert-Nakhai, “A Landscape Comes to Life: The Iron Age I,” Near Eastern Archaeology 62 (1999): 108-11.

14. Thomas E. Levy and Mohammad Najjar, “Edom and Copper: The Emergence of Ancient Israel’s Rival,” Biblical Archaeology Review 32, no. 4 (2006): 24-35, 70.

15. Ann E. Killebrew, Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity: An Archaeological Study of Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, and Early Israel 1300-1100 B.C.E., Society of Biblical Literature Archaeology and Biblical Studies 9 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), pp. 197-245.

16. John S. Holladay Jr., “The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah: Political and Economic Centralization in the Iron IIA-B,” in The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land, ed. T. E. Levy (New York: Facts On File, 1995), pp. 368-98.

17. Volkmar Fritz, “Monarchy and Re-Urbanization: A New Look at Solomon’s Kingdom,” in The Origins of the Ancient Israelite States, JSOT Supplement 228, ed. V. Fritz and P. R. Davies (Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), pp. 187-95; Baruch Halpern, “The Con- struction of the Davidic State: An Exercise in Historiography,” in The Origins of the Ancient Israelite States, JSOT Supplement 228, ed. V. Fritz and P. R. Davies (Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), pp. 44-75. Note that Finkelstein and Silberman, David and Solomon, would date the gates a century later. See however, Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know, pp. 131-35, who represents a wider opinion among archaeologists and dates them to the tenth century b.c.

18. Eilat Mazar, “Did I Find King David’s Palace?” Biblical Archaeology Review 32, no. 1 (2006): 16-27, 70.

19. Victor (Avigdor) Hurowitz, I Have Built You an Exalted House: Temple Building in the Bible in Light of Mesopotamian and Northwest Semitic Writings, JSOT Supplement 115 (Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992); Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know? pp. 144-57.

20. For a tenth-century b.c. mention of David as part of a Palestinian place name mentioned by pharaoh Sheshonq, see Kenneth A. Kitchen, “A Possible Mention of David in the Late Tenth Century BCE, and Deity *Dod as Dead as the Dodo?” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 76 (1997): 29-44.


About the Author

Richard Hess

Dr. Richard S. Hess is Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Denver Seminary. He is also the editor of the Denver Journal, the Seminary’s online theological review journal, and the Bulletin for Biblical Research. Dr. Hess earned a PhD from Hebrew Union College, an MDiv and a ThM from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a BA from Wheaton College. He is a member of the Committee on Bible Translation for the New International Version and serves as Old Testament and archaeology editor for the forthcoming NIV Study Bible. Dr. Hess has also worked for theNew American Bible, the Holman Standard Christian Bible, the English Standard Version, and The Common English Bibletranslations of the Old Testament. His current research projects include commentaries on the books of Genesis and Kings, an Introduction to the Old Testament, Hebrew grammar, and the study of ancient Near Eastern texts related to the Old Testament. Dr. Hess is a member of a dozen scholarly societies, and has done postdoctoral research at universities in Chicago, Jerusalem, Cambridge, Sheffield, and Münster, and has held National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright, and Tyndale House (Cambridge) postdoctoral fellowships and grants. He was lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at International Christian College, Scotland, and Reader in Old Testament at Roehampton University, London. Having lectured at more than one hundred scholarly societies, universities, and colleges, he has recently given invited lectures at SAIACS, Bangalore; Min Zu University, Beijing; Lancaster Bible College Graduate School; Faraday Institute, Cambridge University; New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati; and Whitely College, Melbourne.For a complete list of Dr. Hess’ activities and publications, please see here.


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