The Meaning of the Bible

Yesterday, I posted portions of Raymond Van Leeuwen’s article “The Quest for the Historical Leviathan” where he discusses concepts of truth and method, particularly as they relate the the question of history and historicity in the biblical narrative. The Huffington Post is host to an article by respected biblical scholars Douglas Knight and Amy-Jill Levine promoting their recently published book, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us. This is precisely the kind of project that Van Leeuwen’s article aims to elicit. In their article, Knight and Jill-Levine write:

The Bible gives the impression of being grounded in history. The story of the Israelites unfolds chronologically from creation to the Hellenistic occupation during the fourth to first centuries BCE. A rich assortment of stories, poetry, laws and prophecies reinforces the sense of historicity. So it can be disconcerting to learn how little of the biblical material is actually attested in written sources from the periods being described. . . .

The task of archaeology is not to verify details in the Bible but rather to uncover evidence from the past, whether or not it fits with biblical reports. In less than 200 years of digging, archaeologists have uncovered vast amounts of information. . . .

Today’s historical reconstruction provides an increasingly detailed and realistic portrait of life in ancient Israel. . . .

On the above subject of history and historicity, for example, the Bible’s take on events and personages can vary substantially from what modern historians reconstruct. Rather than trying to investigate historical evidence, biblical writers use the past to advance a particular point of view. . . .

These biblical perspectives on history should not be surprising. As we explain in “The Meaning of the Bible,” “The Bible is not a neutral or objective text — if there even is such a thing. It is a religious text that promotes a point of view, and this perspective affects the ways in which it relates history.” Modern historians can hardly be neutral or objective either. Yet by obtaining new information through archaeology, external documents and novel theoretical tools, we today are placed in the fortunate, though not always easy position of balancing two long-term projects: uncovering the history of this period and enhancing our understanding of the Bible.

It will be interesting to see how they develop this in their book. The article tends to sensationalize/exaggerate the disparities between the history of ancient Israel as modern historians are able to reconstruct it and the portrayal of history within the Bible. For example, the omission of Abraham from the archeological record is to be expected, even given a maximalist position on the historicity of the patriarchal narratives. After all, how many semi-nomadic pasoralists made it in to the archeological record by name and reputation? Moreover, they adopt an interpretation of the conquest in the book of Joshua that is currently under debate when they suggest we should identify 16 cities with destruction levels.

Nevertheless, the challenge the archaeological record presents to those interested in the history portrayed in the biblical narrative is real, as is our need to spend greater time reflecting on what these texts mean. How integral is the history as portrayed in the narrative to the truth claims of the text? Is there a way for those less optimistic about the historicity of certain events described in biblical narrative to understand the intent of the narrative more faithfully? It will be interesting to see how Knight and Levine develop these and other questions and answer them. I, for one, will be stopping by the Harper Collins booth at SBL this year.


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