William Dever wrote his book, What Did the Biblical Writers Know?, primarily to combat scholars who believe that the Hebrew Bible has no value as a historical document. Admittedly, the only part of it that he believes might have such value is the Deuteronomical History of Joshua through to Kings and some of the prophets. The book is arranged into six chapters of which the meat is to be found in the fourth and fifth. The sixth chapter is largely a repeat of the second and third which gets slightly tedious in its repetition. It should be pointed that although this book is intended as a polemic against particular scholars, there is plenty of value for those less interested in academic squabbles.
The first two chapters are aimed squarely at Dever’s opponents who he labels as ‘post modernist’ and ‘deconstructionist’, intending both terms to be derogatory. We are treated to a hostile summation of the basics of post modern literary theory and then given a run through of the ideas of several individuals whom Dever considers particular offenders, including NP Lemche. There are three charges laid by Dever. Firstly, he does not think that literary criticism, especially when using the methods of deconstruction, are appropriate to the study of the Bible as a historical document. Whether they are appropriate to the study of anything at all, Dever leaves open to serious doubt, but he clearly feels that historians should avoid them. In this, he is correct up to a point. While historians have had to learn lessons from postmodernism, what is left that makes it distinctive is much less useful. I think that you can precisely identify when someone has gone to far. If they say “history contains fictive elements”, “complete objectivity is impossible” or “writers have an agenda” then you are dealing with sensible mainstream historians who have taken on board the important lessons of postmodernism. But when someone says “all history is fiction”, “objectively is completely impossible” or “texts have no meaning beyond what they are given” then you have found yourself a bona fide literary critic who should not be let loose in a history department. Whether or not Lemche falls into this category, I shall deal with when I come to review his work.
The second item of Dever’s charge sheet is to do with alleged personal agendas, politics and motivations. It seems to stem from a long running dispute and rather than intrude on private grief, I will leave the matter to one side. Anyone interested in the thrust and counter thrust of this row will find plenty to whet their appetite’s on the web, especially at Bible and Interpretation.
The third item on Dever’s charge sheet is ignoring, distorting or abusing modern archaeology. Lemche, he says, “cites only minimal data” in his recent works and other scholars are said to be even worse. Dever, who is a field archaeologist, is not happy that scholars with no archaeological experience are misusing his subject for what he claims are their own agendas. Is it true that they are? At least the accusation is made from Dever’s own area expertise and can be assessed from the evidence. When an esteemed archaeologist explains how non-archaeologists have misunderstood data from outside their own area of expertise, then we have a proper case to answer. On the other hand, all the stuff on motivation and postmodernism that Dever also alleges is unhelpful even if it is explicable in terms of previous accusations of bad faith made by his opponents.
I'll deal with the chapters that actually set out the evidence from archaeology next.