Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On the Reliability of the Old Testament

K. A. Kitchen’s On the Reliability of the Old Testament is a book clearly written against reductionist views of the Old Testament’s historical reliability and particularly against the the Finkelstein reading of the archaeological evidence.

And Kitchen makes a very good case, particularly against the Finkelstein reading. He does that by marshaling an extremely wide array of evidence—so wide, it’s the sort of book only an emeritus professor is likely to write. Kitchen’s critique did throw into sharp relief a discontinuity in the thesis of Finkelstein's The Bible Unearthed—that it largely accepts the Biblical history of the period of the two kingdoms and immediately after as supported by the archaeological evidence, but not anything before that: and particularly not the period of the united monarchy of David and Solomon.

The Finkelstein explanation is that that is when the invention of a justificatory story based on tribal myths starts. This is a rather sudden discontinuity: as in, from one generation to the next. Nor is this the only odd telescoping required. Kitchen points out that the Finkelstein re-reading of the archaeological evidence requires long periods of building and other stability during periods known to have been subject to sudden shifts in power relations and cultural patterns, the addition of a third wave of “sea people” invasions mentioned nowhere in the written record and then frenetic levels and shifts in building activity during known periods of political stability. This lacks a certain plausibility.

Particularly when Kitchen points out that the patterns of village spread and retreat and urbanisation follow a pattern that is very plausibly that of the development of a united monarchy followed by its division. That the Biblical description of Solomon’s empire follows the same pattern as three other “mini empires” from that period in history (between the retreat of Egyptian dominance and the rise of Assyrian dominance) and which are not like the patterns of any other period. That the Biblical description of Solomon’s Temple is entirely in line with other temple structures before, during and after that period. That Biblical descriptions of Solomon’s wealth are also in line other references to that period and in no way extraordinary. And so on.

This is very much the flavour of Kitchen’s approach. What does the Hebrew text actually say? What is the evidence from that period, either in the Judah/Israel territory, or in neighbouring areas? What problems would there be in evidence coming down to us? What are the plausible anthropological/sociological inferences? What does the evidence support and not support? Where do the patterns of the text—the forms and use of rhetoric, the length of sentences, the metrical forms—fit in comparison with other cultures and their timings?

It also means that Kitchen does not have to draw a line and postulate sudden unreliability in the Biblical texts.
Kitchen starts with the period with the strongest and most direct archaeological evidence—the period of the two Kingdoms, the Assyrian destruction of Israel, the Babylonian destruction of Judah and exile, the Persian restoration—and shows how strong the archaeological evidence is, even for quite surprising side details. One has to separate rhetoric (and he points out that some standard rhetorical forms are used) from the factual claims. But, once one does so, the Biblical history from the start of the two kingdoms onwards seems fairly reliable. (Kitchen makes no comment whatsoever on theological claims, apart from noting that claims of divine intervention are standard in documents of the period from many cultures: his interest in merely in the evidence regarding the history.)

Having done a chapter on the divided monarchy followed by one on exile and return, Kitchen then works back successively, dealing with the united monarchy of David and Solomon, the period of Joshua and Judges, then Exodus and Covenant, then the Patriarchs. Kitchen argues that—particularly if one is careful with translation of the original Scriptures—the general history holds up well. That it often conforms to patterns from other cultures (such as use of tabernacles, p.278). That there are often references to matters that were not likely to be known in later periods and—particularly telling—conform to patterns from rather specific periods. Or simply conform to known patterns. For example, in dealing with the Israelites in the period of Joshua and Judges, it is clearly true that movements between nomadism and farming are hardly unknown in the region across its history. And that archaeological evidence is frequently supportive—even such things as pig bones turning up in refuse in some areas and not others (p.230).

It is clear Kitchen thinks the bulk of Leviticus (and Deuteronomy: its disobedience-punishment-contrition-deliverance pattern also occurring in texts of that period, p.301) was originally composed in the late second millennium BC (pp 288ff), though it is less clear whether he thinks there might have been later additions.

I enjoyed the discussion of the Biblical plagues (pp 249) as well as the role in mistranslation in creating the story of the parting of the “Red” Sea—escaping through swamps (that chariots couldn’t follow through) is certainly much more plausible (p.262). One of Kitchen’s regular points is that—leaving aside rhetoric and (fairly standard) claims of divine intervention—there is remarkably little fantastic elements in the Old Testament, which rather sets it apart from many other period texts. Indeed, it is often well-grounded in local geography and ecology. Even regarding events such as the walls of Jericho, walls falling down did happen (pp 187-8). (Happen fortuitously enough and folk can read all sorts of things into it.)

One of Kitchen’s useful habits is tabulation. He sets out clearly the specific patterns of various sections of the Bible—particularly what specific events are actually being said to happen—then systematically goes through them. Often providing comparison tables for writings from other cultures. (Of which we have far, far more than we did when systematic Biblical analysis began 200 years ago.) But also looking at what evidence is not likely to survive or be present (e.g. papyrus rotting in Delta mud, mud huts being transient—Delta mud even swallowed up stone buildings, or they get reused—p.246, Assyria having no direct contact with Canaan before 853, the inaccessibility and much re-building over of central Jerusalem for archaeology).

He then takes a step forward in time, with a chapter on the Prophets. Kitchen points out that prophetic writings occurred in other cultures, were regularly (often systematically) written down—partly to see if they came true—and that a prophet making a correct prediction is not a reason—without any other evidence—to presume that was added later. (It might, however, encourage folk to take the utterer seriously.) Kitchen tends to take a somewhat minimalist view of such predictions, reading them down, almost mundanely.

He then moves to the genealogies, again showing that they conform to patterns in other cultures, including early periods of clearly incorrect, and greatly exaggerated, life spans. The creation and genealogy parts of the Genesis Kitchen sees as the creation of a “prehistory” of a form done by the cultures who knew they were old. But nevertheless preserve surprisingly accurate information—the description of Eden, for example, preserves memory of a river that dried up thousands of years ago (pp 427-30).

His final chapter is the most pointed, involving a point-by-point attack on various previous commentators, again starting with the most recent and working back. Some of his comments are extremely blunt.

Each chapter has a useful summary at the end. Kitchen is taking pains to make his work as accessible as possible.

On the theology of the Israelites, Kitchen is perfectly happy that other cults competed for the devotion of Hebrews—the Old Testament says as much and there is supporting archaeological evidence—but it not impressed with claims that Hebrew monotheism is a later development, pointing out that monotheism (or at least monolatry) also had manifestations in other cultures before and during this period and that the evidence supports YHWH-alone as being the dominant religious perspective from very early.

I found Kitchen’s approach congenial and persuasive. He makes a good case for the actual history (as distinct from rhetoric and theological claims—though both conform to patterns seen in other cultures) being largely accurate and being composed over long periods of time. On the point about the length of time over which some of this would have been transmitted, Kitchen is able to point to cases in other ancient Near Eastern cultures where information was transmitted accurately across centuries, with big gaps between when written texts were produced.

Where I did demur somewhat is in the absoluteness of Kitchen’s dismissal of the documentary hypothesis. With his basic claim that, if one is going to infer from texts to the outside world, one should carefully examine such evidence (and at least have some such evidence) I have no quarrel. And that the original proposer of the Hypothesis, Julius Welhausen, had little or no such evidence available to him (and, somewhat less creditably, was actively hostile to such evidence) is a telling point.

Nevertheless, examining text-as-text is not an empty activity. If, for example, there are contradictory creation stories in various parts of the Old Testament, that needs explaining. As Kitchen himself does, using textual analysis coupled with references to (contemporary to the writer) patterns to hold that the Chronicler is clearly writing post exile (p.427).

If different words are used to describe God in different places and these are associated with different presentations of God, that needs explaining.

If there are distinctly different patterns of literary style and subject matter, that needs explaining. And yes, while itself a matter of history, it needs doing even if the history in the Old Testament remains substantially accurate throughout.

That being said, Kitchen does cast doubt on the E, J, P, D schema for the Pentateuch. His point that no such manuscripts have been found (or even hinted at by the external evidence) has power. That the various parts of the Old Testament follow distinct patterns for distinct periods going back at least to the late second millennium BC and beyond is persuasive of at least the antiquity of the original materials.

I very much enjoyed the book. (Even a critical, though generally positive, scholarly review is impressed, as is this summary review.) I particularly enjoyed the methods of analysis. I have no particular commitment to the historicity of the Old Testament either way, but it does amuse me to have human achievement supported rather than written off. (Especially via the “people in the past, they were so dumb” belittling.) And I very much appreciate someone taking so much effort to make the fruits of decades of study available to a lay audience.

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