Originally created 04/17/99

Old Testament 'minimalist' attacks Bible history



In recent years the media have lavished attention on the attempt by liberal scholars to undercut the historical basis of the New Testament. For instance, PBS recently devoted several hours to a series that promoted such views while excluding more conservative opinions.

And news writers were long enticed by Robert Funk's "Jesus Seminar," whose members voted among themselves and proclaimed most Gospel sayings and events to be fictional.

With less public notice, a similar fuss has been brewing over claims of little or no historical basis for the Old Testament. Such views emanate from a minority faction of scholars known as "minimalists" or "revisionists."

One minimalist leader is Thomas L. Thompson, a Detroit-born Catholic who began as a true believer but developed radical doubts during graduate study in Germany. He says his ideas made it impossible to complete a Ph.D. in Europe so he transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia.

But then his first book was too skeptical for the American publishers, he recounts, so he had it published in Germany. And, he says, no college would hire him because of his views so he spent a decade as a handyman and house painter.

That's curious, since a fellow minimalist, Presbyterian John Van Seters, had a similar book published in the United States a year after Thompson's tome and quickly landed a job at the University of North Carolina.

Thompson was eventually hired by two universities in Wisconsin, Lawrence and then Marquette. He says Marquette denied him tenure in 1993 because officials deemed his writing "incompatible with the Catholic mission of the university." Since then, he's been a professor at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Those interested in the scriptural squabble should take a look at Thompson's "The Mythic Past" (Basic, $30). He writes that the Bible may have "occasional tidbits of history here and there," but it's a big mistake to read it as depicting actual events. He treats it as an inspirational work that Jews devised around the third century B.C. to buttress their national identity.

"It is only as history that the Bible does not make sense," he says, so it should never be read that way. And "we no longer have a history of Israel," which would be good news for Palestinians.

Thompson not only erases as mythological the biblical characters of the dim past (Adam, Noah, Abraham) but also Moses, Joshua, Saul, David, Solomon and the later kings and prophets.

What next, the King David Seminar?

Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review magazine in Washington, thinks archaeology raises problems for a literal, Fundamentalist view of Old Testament history. But he says Thompson builds his opinions "not on the basis of the archaeological evidence, which really contradicts them, but on anthropological and sociological theories."

University of Arizona archaeologist William Dever, no biblical right-winger either, gives Thompson's book harsh treatment in a forthcoming issue of Shanks' magazine. Dever complains that the book fails to offer "reasoned and well-documented conclusions." He says Thompson and his radical allies assert that the Old Testament was written very late but "significantly, they never give any data to support this claim."

Less erudite readers will be even more frustrated trying to figure out what hard evidence might underlie Thompson's sweeping assertions.

He deals all too abruptly with material that supports opposite views, such as: (1) The inscription in Egypt commonly cited as evidence the nation of Israel existed in the Holy Land by 1214 B.C. (2) Inscriptions in Israel, Jordan and Egypt said to prove the existence of King David.

Similarly, Thompson laments that specialists in ancient Egypt favor what he calls old-fashioned biblical archaeology, but he fails to deal with the impressive arguments in James Hoffmeier's "Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition," just reissued in paperback by Oxford University Press.