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“Minimalists” and “Maximalists” in the News

10th December 2005

Today’s Globe and Mail has an op/ed piece by Dan Falk entitled, “Did spin doctors write the Bible?” While it has a catchy title, the article does nothing more than rehash the typical “minimalists say this, maximalists say this” sort of argument while drawing some modern political implications.

Here is an excerpt:

It wasn’t long ago that the Bible was read not just as an inspirational and remarkable collection of stories, but as history — if not a literal account of the Israelite people, then at least a somewhat reliable dramatization.

But that confidence has eroded over the past century, and in the past decade it has nearly been destroyed. Abraham and Moses, it now seems, probably never lived at all. David and Solomon may have been tribal leaders with good PR, not great kings presiding over a vast empire.

The debate has become sharply polarized. On one side are “minimalists,” who dismiss the biblical narrative as a fiction constructed for political and ideological reasons many centuries after the events they claim to describe. Opposing them are “maximalists,” who assert that much of the narrative should be read as real history. And frequently, the fight really seems to be about present-day politics in the Middle East.

What I find interesting is that the “maximalists” are described as maintaining that “much of the narrative should be read as real history.” Is this really the case? What does “real history” mean? While there are definitely some who would want to read the historical accounts in the Bible as straightforward historical accounts of what actually happened, most if not all of the scholars active on both sides of the debate would not agree. It seems to me that it is more a matter of degree. While virtually everyone agrees that the biblical texts can be valuable historigraphic sources for the period in which they were purportedly written (e.g., Persian period or later), the question is whether or not they can be used to reconstruct earlier periods.

Lemche, Davies, and others would argue that they are not reliable as such (even though they would both agree that biblical texts like Samuel and Kings preserve some vaild pre-exilic historical information), while others would argue that the biblical historical books should not be relegated to the status of “secondary” historical sources (contra Lemche) but may be used critically and judicisouly as a source for reconstructing the history of Israel. Few “maximalist” scholars would maintain that the biblical texts “should be read as real history” — at least if one is to assume that by “real history” Falk means a straightforward play-by-play of what actually happened, i.e., the objective “scientific” history.

At any rate, the article is worth a read.

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