It is often said that “History is in the eye of beholder.” The reporting of history lends itself to subjectivity, ideological bents, and a narrow focus. In the last seventeen years, the European Seminar has wrestled with issues of historicity in ancient Israel. Their most recent contribution, The Hebrew Bible and History: Critical Readings, continues the Seminar’s work by providing a dialogue on writing a history of ancient Israel. The contributors span the theological spectrum so that their viewpoints provide a dialogue.
The volume comprises of five parts, including an introduction at the beginning of each section. Part one (pp. 3–170) focuses on the question of historical methodology and each article deals with the tension between a maximalist and a minimalist position. For instance, Herbert Niehr (pp. 15–23) begins the section with an overview of the various types of textual sources in recovering a historical methodology. He argues that the process for recovering a historical methodology should begin with a historical anthropology, then primary sources, then secondary sources. J. Maxwell Miller (pp. 31–55) discusses the possibility of writing a history without the Bible. He argues that the Bible is often considered a secondary source but that it does not differ from works such as Herodotus. Nadav Na’aman (pp. 56–71) probes the reliability of archeology as having the final authority. He argues that archeology is lacking in two areas: incomplete information and interpretative bias.
Part two (pp. 171–382) focuses on the rise of the monarchy in ancient Israel. John Van Seters (pp. 185–202) discusses the historicity of the geography of the Exodus. He notes that the work of archeology in the past few decades has overturned earlier discoveries. He focuses on Pithom and Succoth and identifies them with the Tell el-Maskhuta, a town built by Necho II around 600 BC. Walter Dietrich (pp. 270–92) provides a synchronic reading of the story of David and his relationship to the Philistines. He argues that David did not fight against the Philistines but had a treaty with them. Herman Niemann (pp. 311–51) argues that a historical event can be restricted through a threefold process. He also argues that we should avoid the presupposition whereby any theological dimension of the biblical portrayal can be derived from Solomon.
Parts three and four (pp. 383–518) focus on two case studies: Josiah’s reform and Nehemiah’s wall, with contributions investigating the historical issues that have come into skepticism recently concerning either Josiah’s reform or Nehemiah’s wall. In the last chapter (pp. 519–33), Lester L. Grabbe outlines the work of the seminar dating back to the past twenty years. He suggests categories that the historical method should apply when researching the history of ancient Israel.
The essays are arranged in such a way that the volume will serve as a reference work for years to come. The reader navigates easily through 564 pages because Grabbe has compiled the book as gears rotating in order. The introduction to each section serves as a goldmine for readers, since he introduces each section by surveying the issues while also summarizing each article. The structure at the macro-level services the reader even though there are some inconsistencies in its formatting. For example, some chapters use footnotes with a bibliography, while others use only footnotes. The volume would further assist the reader with the inclusion of a bibliography after each section.
The essays display European scholarship, which the editor declares without any hesitation (p. 521). Grabbe should be commended for his attempt to bring a wide range of voices from across Europe to dialogue on writing a history of ancient Israel. Yet, he admits that the past seventeen years of the seminar has not brought a consensus (p. 522). He introduces the volume by stating the inclusive nature of the contributors, but then he reveals his hand against the “ultra-conservatives.” He states, “It is safe to say that ultra-conservatives were not a part of it. This was because I felt that all who participated had to be genuinely critical scholars, whereas fundamentalist and many conservative evangelicals would be unable to engage in a useful dialogue on the issues” (p. 524). Here Grabbe displays a common mantra that inerrancy and good scholarship cannot coexist, but this author hopes that initiatives such as the new Text and Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary will disprove such false presuppositions. Evangelicals have an invested interest in the text that should promote their inclusion in wrestling with the historicity of Scripture. Perhaps if the editor expands his audience to evangelicals a solution may arise concerning the historicity of ancient Israel. The Seminar limits itself by denying evangelicals a place at the table.
The volume comprises top-notch scholars from around Europe and each essay succinctly addresses a particular topic. A key issue in the volume is archaeology’s relationship to the text, since archeological evidence appears to contradict the text. Archeology and composition theory dominate the formation of the critical readings. The text plays the piper to either archeology or composition theory. Thus, the biblical figures such as David or Saul become fluid figures, or even a part of the narrator’s imagination. These critical readings of the Hebrew Bible provide imaginative reconstructions of ancient Israel with a plethora of textual information. Evangelicals will disagree with many of the conclusions but should glean from their analysis of each text and would serve well the Church and scholarly community by engaging with this scholarly resource.