Sunday, March 13, 2005

I have started reading NP Lemche's The Israelites in Myth and Tradition. Lemche is said to be one of the leading 'minimalists' in OT studies and also one of those William Dever is squarely aiming his fire at. Dever paints a picture of minimalists as being extreme post-modern deconstructionists but Lemche is nothing of the sort. In fact, I would describe him as almost pre-modern as he seems to take his method from the great nineteenth century German historian, Leopold von Ranke. The first chapter of the book is called Playing the von Ranke Game and I assumed that this would show why von Ranke's once vaunted methodology is a complete failure. But no. Rather surprisingly, it seems that Lemche is seriously suggesting using von Ranke's methods to write a history of ancient Israel, or rather to demonstrate that you can't write one like that. Now if Lemche was an extreme decontructionist all this would be explicable as a prolonged practical joke, but he gives no indication that this is the case and I really have no idea what he is up to.

Von Ranke's method splits sources between primary and secondary and insisted we only use the former. For OT history, that means ancient inscriptions are the only primary evidence and the Bible is secondary almost regardless of how conservative you are. Thus all twentieth century developments like source criticism, redaction criticism and textual criticism go straight out the window. Lemche is willing to admit that the Bible does contain some historical nuggets but the only way to demonstrate them is to use a genuine primary source as the proof text. So, at present, Lemche's work looks to me like the amusing undergraduate exercise "What can be say about history if we assume our main source [the Bible] doesn't exist". This is similar to asking the question "What can we know about Jesus without using Christian sources?" and just as wrong headed.

But Lemche goes further and deals with the primary evidence with a quite unwarranted level of scepticism. Let's ignore his well poisoning when he mentions that everything has been considered a fake, even when those accusations are a century old. Rather, the problem is that he refuses to draw any connections between sources at all. Let's take the word 'Israel' as an example. This appears in the 13th century BC Merneptah Stele as a place that pharaoh had laid waste in Palestine. Lemche shows that the stele is best interpreted as meaning that this Israel is in the central Highlands - exactly where the remains identified by Dever as proto-Israelites were found. These remains are distinguished (according to Dever) by a paucity of pig bones but Lemche doesn't mention this at all. And we have the Bible placing Israel in central Palestine at that point in time. Three sources of evidence - two primary - and Lemche still refuses to call these people even proto-Israel. Worse is to come. The 9th century BC Tel Dan inscriptions also refer to Israel but Lemche won't accept that this must be the same entity that is on the Merneptah Stele! Does Lemche really think that the 13th century Israel disappeared and was simply resurrected by another group of people four hundred years later? Well, that is what he suggests.

All this explains why historians ditched the von Ranke method a century ago. It remains to be seen where Lemche is taking all this in the remains of his book, but he appears so far to be going nowhere in a hurry...


Andrew Criddle said...

For an admirably short (200 pages) and illuminating discussion of minimalist histories of Israel, post-modernism, recent OT Theology, and how these are related, I can recommend 'History and Ideology in the Old Testament: Biblical Studies at the End of a Millennium' by James Barr

Anonymous said...

Bede, you'll want to look out for Brian Hesse and Paula Wapnish, "Pig Lovers and Pig Haters: Patterns of Palestinian Pork Production", Journal of Ethnobiology, 10(2): 195-225, 1990; as well as "Can Pig Remains be Used for Ethnic Diagnosis in the Ancient Near East?" in Silberman & Small, The Archaeology of Israel: Constructing the Past, Interpreting the Present, JSOT Supplementary Series 237, 1997. As far as most people are concerned, pig bones are a dead issue--Dever was just wrong--absence of pig bones tells us absolutely nothing. I excerpted a bit of their conclusions here.

On the Merneptah stele, there are instances of cultures disappearing and reappearing with no relation to their former namesakes, the most prominent being the Hatti (Hittites), and their successors, the neo-Hittites, whom we most associate with the Biblical Hittites. I have posted an overview of positions with respect to the Merneptah stele which you may find useful. Lemche, incidentally, is very much in line with the mainstream on the Merneptah Stele, while Tel Dan, unfortunately, is not as unequivocal as you may like it to be, but there is not the time to go into it here.