Matters of Fact

Bryan D. Estelle
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Nov/Dec 2004

Theory will always color the outcome of the analysis of texts, including the Old Testament. This is evident in two new important books by Kenneth Kitchen and William Dever addressing the historical reliability of the Old Testament.

Dever, a well-respected archeologist, was inspired to write this book by the flurry of media attention accompanying his first book, What Did the Biblical Writers Know, and When Did They Know It? (2002). Much of the new book continues where the last one left off, and is written primarily with a popular audience in mind. It is helpful insofar as it provides a needed chastening for the “minimalists,” the intellectual heirs of French philosopher Michel Foucault, who question the historicity of ancient Israel as recorded in the Bible.

Dever answers the first question of his title-Who were the Israelites?-by means of the grid of agrarian frontier land reform. Agrarian land reform, according to Dever, was the primary motivation behind the early Israelite movement. Thus, the Israelites were mostly indigenous Canaanites, mixed perhaps with some nomads and a few Semitic slaves escaping from captivity in Egypt. He answers the second question-Where did they come from?-by telling us that there was no Israelite conquest coming from outside the land of Canaan. Concerning the earlier event of the Exodus from Egypt, he turns to a kind of minimalism himself with respect to its historical veracity. He writes that “there is little history in these books [Exodus and Numbers] although there may be some vague memories of actual events” and “the miraculous, larger-than-life story of the Exodus as it now stands in the Bible cannot be corroborated as factual history.”

Though Dever provides a useful check on the minimalists, his answers to these questions are ultimately unsatisfying to the reviewer. In contrast, Kitchen’s volume is a full-frontal assault on recent minimalist biblical scholars and other latter-day rationalist critics. Years ago, Professor I. Howard Marshall prodded Kitchen to write a counterpart to F. F. Bruce’s The New Testaments Documents: Are They Reliable? This new book is the long-awaited product of that prompting, and the result is a formidable tour de force, a magnum opus, at least as far as his contributions directly to Old Testament studies are concerned.

Kitchen’s organizational method is very different than Dever’s, starting with the latest biblical literature and working backward. He begins by discussing material around the Babylonian exile, and then trods through the corridors of time back to the book of Genesis. Although Kitchen has been clear in thought, he’s not always gentle in manner. After establishing his impressive credentials-“over half a century’s experience in reading texts … in over a dozen languages”-he then proceeds to severely spank the “New Literary Criticism and its willing dupes in biblical studies” (469-70). Kitchen writes with obvious conviction-in fact, this reviewer stopped counting the use of exclamation points in the book! Kitchen shows little patience for “overspeculative, factually disadvantaged sociological anthropologists” who have spun theories that he believes have no factual foundation whatsoever. Will this kind of rhetoric ultimately result in all his assiduous labor being reduced to merely preaching to the choir? One hopes not.

One of the most interesting aspects of Kitchen’s tome is his discussion of Covenant, Law, and Treaty (283 ff.). Supplementing and building on his earlier published work in biblical studies, Kitchen marshaled evidence from some eighty to ninety treaty/law and covenant documents to demonstrate patterns and changes through two thousand years of history. For Kitchen, the book of Deuteronomy, which is a linchpin to the Old Testament, is earlier than often assumed. He writes that the “basic correspondence between Sinai and the Hittite corpus is clear beyond all doubt … Sinai and its two renewals-especially the version in Deuteronomy-squarely belong within 1400-1200 [b.c.]” (286-87).

Dever concludes his volume by noting that “there are facts; facts matter; and some facts matter a great deal.” Yet when these two books are read side by side it becomes evident that what matters more are our observations, interpretations, and the construction of those facts. For example, Dever constantly asserts late-dating for the composition of the Hebrew Bible, whereas Kitchen lets his immense erudition in ancient Near Eastern studies do his heavy-lifting toward promoting an early date for many of the books of the Old Testament. Or, consider another major difference. In his reconstruction of ancient history, although Dever often suggests a dialogue between the biblical text and artifacts, he definitely gives archaeology primacy over the biblical text. Kitchen, however, one time after another, uses independent archaeological evidence to establish the reliability of the biblical record. Paradigmatic is what Kitchen writes, “All manner of details find correspondences in both the biblical and external documents.”

Despite its shortcomings, Dever’s book, if read critically, provides a nice companion volume alongside of Kitchen’s. Kenneth Kitchen’s book should leave a deep and profound appreciation for the cultural setting of the Bible upon the reader. Both authors, however, could have demonstrated more forthright admission as to how pervasive previous theoretical commitments are in shaping their construction of the evidence and their understanding of the history represented in the text.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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