Thursday, September 7, 2017


Ingrid Hjelm, Thomas L. Thompson (ed.), History, Archaeology and the Bible Forty Years After "Historicity." Changing Perspectives, 6. Copenhagen International Seminar. London; New York: Routledge, 2016. Pp. xvi, 229. ISBN 9781138889514. $140.00.

Reviewed by Laura Quick, Princeton University (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This book is part of the Changing Perspectives series, published by Routledge. Volumes 6 and 7 of the series stem from a conference held at the University of Copenhagen in October 2013, convened by Anne Katrine de Hemmer Gudme, Jesper Høgenhaven, and Ingrid Hjelm on the occasion of the retirement of Thomas L. Thompson in 2009, and the then-pending retirement of Niels Peter Lemche, both from the same institution. Accordingly, the conference focused on the Copenhagen School's influence on biblical studies, taking the publication of the groundbreaking works of Thomas L. Thompson1 and John van Seters2 in 1974 and 1975 as a terminus sine qua non: the contributions thus provide a response to and evaluation of some of the field-altering changes that have taken place within biblical scholarship following the publication of these two studies. (While not affiliated with the University of Copenhagen, the Canadian scholar van Seters, along with Philip R. Davies, latterly of the University of Sheffield, are often, along with Copenhagen colleagues Thompson, Lemche, and Frederick H. Cryer, grouped together as a "School" due to the methodological congruency shared between their approaches to biblical criticism.) Volume 7 is essentially oriented toward literary studies, providing an assessment of these major changes as they concern literary criticism as well as anthropological studies.3 This collection of essays, volume 6 of the series, focuses on historically oriented biblical scholarship, especially upon the intersection of biblical studies and archaeology. A complete list of authors and titles appears at the end of this review.

The editors recall in their introduction the state of the field in biblical criticism prior to the publication of the studies of Thompson and van Seters, tracing some of the key publications from the pre-1970s landscape of biblical archaeology and concluding that these past studies had essentially accepted the historical construct of the biblical narrative in their reconstruction of ancient Israelite "history." Into this landscape, scholars such as Thompson and van Seters radically reframed the way in which the Bible could be used in confrontation with the archaeological and extra-biblical data. Writing in 1974, Thompson broke with theory that linked the patriarchal narratives to the lived experience of the Bronze Age. Confirming Thompson's conclusions, in the following year van Seters extended this critique, arguing that these narratives actually reflect a context in the Iron Age, and not the Bronze. Thereafter scholars felt increasingly able to disconnect their historical reconstructions of ancient Israel and Judah's past from a biblically oriented narrative, turning instead to evidence gleaned from archaeological findings, as well as ancient Near Eastern texts, and the "Copenhagen School" was born. In this volume, a number of scholars map some consequences of this development as well as possible avenues of future research. Some of the highlights of these contributions are detailed below.

Part I focuses on changing perspectives within biblical studies. In "Old and new in Scandinavian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible," Douglas A. Knight recalls the past 100 years of biblical criticism conducted in Scandinavia. While the last few decades have seen the development of the "Copenhagen School," as recounted above, biblical scholarship in Scandinavia actually has a long and healthy history. Knight traces some of the most important developments and debates. Of particular value is his introduction to some of the leading figures in the field who may be less well known to scholars outside of the Scandinavian arena, and whose innovative work on the oral prehistory of biblical literature4 significantly predates and anticipates some of the current scholarly concerns for the role of oral tradition in the composition of the Hebrew Bible.5 While the Copenhagen School has sometimes somewhat pejoratively been referred to as "biblical minimalism," due its privileging of external data over the biblical text, in "Myth and history" Reinhard G. Kratz demonstrates the continuity of the Copenhagen School with prior biblical scholarship. Kratz shows the convergences between the minimalist movement and the founding fathers of modern critical biblical scholarship, Wilhelm Martin, Lebrecht De Wette, Julius Wellhausen, and Martin Noth. In this way, Kratz moves the debate beyond such pejorative categorizations as "minimalism," or its counter movement, "maximalism," by demonstrating the congruency in approach between the minimalists and the overarching concern of post-Enlightenment biblical scholarship for the historical-critical method.

The final contribution of Part I is Martin Ehrensvärd's "The contemporary debate over linguistic dating of biblical texts." This essay provides a helpful analysis and review of the scholarship concerned with the possibility of dating biblical Hebrew texts according to apparent developments in biblical Hebrew language. In recent years, the debate between those in favor of such an approach and those against it has seen the emergence of two distinct schools of thought on the subject. Though recalling the contributions of the counter movement, Ehrensvärd is very much on the side against explaining linguistic diversity in biblical Hebrew according to chronological stratification: "linguistic dating of biblical texts is not feasible with the evidence and methods we currently possess" (p. 64). Nevertheless, there is a growing body of scholarship that argues exactly for this approach.6 It would have been of interest to include a response from this side of the debate alongside Ehrensvärd's contribution.

Part II deals with the no less controversial impact of archaeology upon matters of cult and history, with case studies on Jerusalem, Kuntillet 'Ajrud, and Mount Gerizim. Margaret L. Steiner's contribution, "From Jerusalem with love," provides a useful review of the 150-year-long history of archaeological excavation at Jerusalem. A chief problem here is the interpretation of archaeological evidence, an issue which is also put to question in Brian B. Schmidt's "Gender marking, overlapping and the identity of the Bes-like figures at Kuntillet Ajrud," which considers how to interpret the graphic representations of graffiti figures at that site. Indeed, the interpretation of archaeological data has been one of the key elements of the Copenhagen School's criticism of modern biblical study, which calls into question the use of the biblical material to decipher material evidence. Nevertheless, and despite the characterization of some of the counter voices in the debate, it is important to recognize that this call to acknowledge the problematic nature of combining written texts with archaeological evidence is not at the same time an argument against the value of the Hebrew Bible as a historical source at all. This is felicitously demonstrated in Lukasz Niesiołowski-Spanò's article, "Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Jews: a reassessment," which uses 2 Maccabees alongside the archaeological context to demonstrate the religious and ideological dimensions of the texts which purport to describe the "persecution" of the Jews by Antiochus IV, and their subsequent rebellion.

Part III extends Niesiołowski-Spanò's approach by considering the role of ideology in history writing concerned with ancient Israel and Judah. If Niesiołowski-Spanò provided a reassessment of a well-examined problem in biblical criticism, the reasons for the Jewish revolt starting in 173 BCE, in this section we witness a re-orientation of the landscape of biblical history as a whole: the possibilities of reconstructing the earliest periods of ancient Israelite history are called into question. In "From the search for ancient Israel to the history of ancient Palestine," Emanuel Pfoh maps the change concerning assessments of the historicity of biblical traditions, as scholars have increasingly relegated these to the realms of theological, rather than historiographical, discourse, and the corollary of this – the increasing tendency of scholars to re-date the production of this discourse from the early Iron age to the Persian, Hellenistic, or even Graeco-Roman periods instead. This section also includes a number of essays which illustrate the role of ideology in contemporary perspective.

My one criticism of the volume as a whole is its failure to provide contrasting perspectives on still-debated topics. The original studies of Thompson and van Seters did not escape criticism during the initial period of their publication, and the same must be said for some of the subsequent developments traced in the essays in this volume. The debates between "minimalists" and "maximalists" have taken up many pages over the last several decades. The minimalist movement has completely reframed biblical scholarship since its foundation, and even scholars who disagree with its essential tenets must take into consideration its conclusions. The value of this volume is that it orients the reader to these conclusions. But similarly, it would have been interesting to see dissenting scholarly voices reflecting on the movement, and the implications that this has had for the production of their own scholarly positions.

Nonetheless, the essays in this volume provide a thought-provoking perspective on the field of contemporary biblical scholarship. Taken as a whole, this collection presents a valuable over-view of the development and impact of the Copenhagen School, and as such would be particularly suited to students who wish to gain an entry into current debates, with perhaps the caveat that some of the results presented by the scholars included here are not necessarily concluded but are rather still subject to debate and dissent. The work will also be of interest to more senior scholars who wish to consider the role of ideology and historiography in the reconstruction of ancient Israel's past. This is an important collection, and the editors and contributors are to be thanked for their work in the preparation of this volume.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Ingrid Hjelm and Thomas L. Thompson 1
PART I: Changing perspectives in biblical studies 15
1. Old and new in Scandinavian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, Douglas A. Knight 17
2. Myth and history: reflections on the relationship between biblical history and the history of Israel, Reinhard G. Kratz 35
3. Out of the wilderness? Some suggestions for the future of Pentateuchal research, Thomas M. Bolin 47
4. The contemporary debate over linguistic dating of biblical texts, Martin Ehrensvärd 60
PART II: Archaeology, cult and history 69
5. From Jerusalem with love, Margareet L. Steiner 71
6. Gender marking, overlapping and the identity of the Bes-like figures at Kuntillet Ajrud, Brian B. Schmidt 85
7. Lost and found? A non-Jewish Israel from the Merneptah stele to the Byzantine period, Ingrid Hjelm 112
8. Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Jews: a reassessment, Lukasz Niesiołowski-Spanò 130
PART III: Ideology and history 141
9. From the search for ancient Israel to the history of ancient Palestine, Emanuel Pfoh 143
10. Ethnicity and a regional history of Palestine, Thomas L. Thompson 159
11. "The destruction that can be studied:" Israeli archaeology and the deserted Palestinian villages, Raz Kletter and Gideon Sulimani 174
12. The Bible in the service of Zionism: "we do not believe in God, but nonetheless he promised us Palestine", Ilan Pappe 205
13. Arab scholars' contributions to biblical studies, Ziad Muna 218


1.   Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham (BZAW, 133; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974).
2.   John Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975).
3.   Ingrid Hjelm and Thomas L. Thompson (eds.) Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity. Changing Perspectives, 7. Copenhagen International Seminar. London; New York: Routledge, 2016).
4.   In particular, see Henrik Samuel Nyberg, Studien zum Hoseabuche (Uppsala: A.B. Lundequistska, 1935); Ivan Engnell, Gamla Testamentet (Stockholm: Svenska Kyrkans Diakonistyrelses Bokförlag, 1945); and Eduard Nielsen, Oral Tradition (London: SCM, 1954).
5.   For a recent review of this area see Laura Quick, "Recent Research on Ancient Israelite Education: A Bibliographic Essay," Currents in Biblical Research 13:1 (2014): 9-33. See also the contribution of Thomas M. Bolin, "Out of the wilderness? Some suggestions for the future of Pentateuchal research," in the volume currently under discussion.
6.   For example M. Eskhult, "The Importance of Loanwords for Dating Biblical Hebrew Texts," in Ian Young (ed.) Biblical Studies in Chronology and Typology (London: T&T Clark, 2003), pp. 8-23.

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