Monday, April 25, 2005

A couple of months ago, I posted some thoughts on some books about the Old Testament by William Dever and PN Lemche. I have now received a third book from Amazon: Kenneth Kitchen's On the Reliability of the Old Testament (OROT from now on). Kitchen is a distinguished professor of Egyptology who previously made waves by rubbishing the claims of new chronologists like David Rohl. It was clear then that Kitchen is a crotchety individual and the introduction and conclusion to OROT show further evidence of this. He launches into Lemche and some of his colleagues with attacks that really do his case no good at all. He also makes the mistake of labelling Lemche as a 'post modernist' as if this term alone invalidates his conclusions. As I explained in my review (from 13 and 15 March) of Lemche's The Israelites in Myth and Tradition, he is wrong but mainly because he is still using nineteenth century methods and not because he prefers trendy modern ones.

Kitchen is a Christian evangelical and quite fearsomely erudite. Whereas many OT scholars have given up on the Exodus and Conquest, let alone the Patriarchs, Kitchen stands by all of that. As far as he is concerned, the Bible is as accurate a historical text as the Assyrian or Egyptian chronicles. It is, he claims, based on contemporary records which make it biased but not ficticious. He illustrates his points with a quite unbelievable amount of factual data backed up by a hundred pages of footnotes to the scholarly literature. Taken as a whole, this is a prodigious achievement of encyclopedic breadth.

OK, you can't actually read this book from cover to cover. Despite being so long, it is terse and at times almost resembles notes rather than a completed text. It is also not a work for beginners. You will need to know your OT quite well to make sense of it and a passing familiarity with the current issues of Ancient Near Eastern history wouldn't go amiss either. And it helps if you also know who the Assyrians, Hittites, Babylonians and the rest are already. This, plus Kitchen's annoyingly unfocused remarks on other scholars are definitely minus points. Organisation is also rather strange. We start with the divided monarchy, then move on to the exilic period before moving back through the united monarchy, conquest, Exodus and Patriarchs. This can make things hard to find although the index is quite good and a full list of scripture references in provided.

On the whole, despite short comings, OROT is essential to anyone interested in the historicity of the Old Testament. Kitchen does not fall into the Albright trap of finding biblical sgnificance to every pebble in Palestine. When the evidence is lacking, like at Jericho, he says so and explains why he thinks this is so. On issues from pig bones to camels (both matters of debate in OT studies), he gives the lowdown and references to the literature. In summary, this book is about as fun as a trip to the dentist and every bit as necessary.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

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