The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Saturday, February 10, 2001

Frankly, Mr Shankly, since you ask


Traditionally, the world's racists and bigots have supported state-sponsored discrimination and thereby alerted everyone to their presence. Nowadays, we are told, the racists and bigots are not so considerate, such that the reactionaries in the nation I inhabit (the United States of America) no longer admit the racists and bigots exist to any influential degree. Our civil-rights groups have apparently accepted this conclusion and have since latched onto a new concept, albeit well-known to anyone who has had the misfortune to attend a secular college over the last fifteen years: "sensitivity". It first erupted into the national stage when George W Bush - now President - selected John Ashcroft as Attorney General. Ashcroft is no racist but has often espoused practices with which racists happen to agree. (For instance: in the state of Missouri he opposed a "voluntary desegregation order" which was not voluntary, would have cost a lot of money, and not done anything to solve the problem. But the word "desegregation" was in it, you see. He also opposed one African-American judge's ascension to the federal bench... while voting for the 26 other African-American nominations.) When the racism charge failed to stick, his opponents settled for broader claims: he could be seen as racist, racists support him, he has endorsed institutions which (unspoken word: other) racists support, etc.

In the course of my web-work, I have been debunked claims made by fundamentalist Jews and Christians. I have exposed barbarity, forgery, and plagiarism in several of their holy books. So far I haven't had to worry about the implications of what I write... but that may be about to change.

Enter Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review and leader of the drive to publish the remaining scrolls of Qumran Cave Four (the best of the Dead Sea Scrolls). He also thoroughly debunked Baigent and Leigh's "hogwash" that the Catholic Inquisition was responsible for keeping those scrolls secret. If anyone ought to be above such ethnic McCarthyism it is he. But in 5 November 1999 the Ha'aretz magazine in Israel published a article he wrote, in which he lumped all of us who publish our Biblical skepticism into the same group. Presumably he hasn't recanted his screed, because the full version was still on Archaeology Odyssey's website at the time of writing, bereft of a followup. The article is called Herzog's Attack on the Bible Unjustified [formerly @] and this attempts to debunk "It Ain't Necessarily So" by Ze'ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University (29 October 1999). Had Shanks stayed true to the title, I would not have bothered (or dared!) turn against him; but as you will see, Shanks was more interested in calling us names and impugning our motives than in addressing our arguments.

What is a Minimalist?

Shanks called Herzog an ally - but not quite a member, yet - of a group of villains he calls "minimalists". According to Shanks's first paragraph, Herzog merely aligned himself with them; according to his third, Herzog (and Israel Finkelstein) were like almost all [minimalists] in being serious scholars. At first I wondered who these sons of lawlessness were. They seemed to be real extremists in Shanks's first paragraph: According to the minimalists, the Bible is worthless as a source of history for the periods it describes; ... and thus can tell us, at most, about the period when they were composed. But in the second, they seem to include, well, most Christians and Jews: While the minimalists have no formal organisation and do differ in details, they share the basic view that the Bible is essentially a fictional account that served other functions for the biblical authors, creating a glorious, but false national history at a much later time.

As they say, the devil is in the details. Shanks used the term "minimalist" interchangably and made no real distinction between their worst elements and the others until much later on. Remove "fictional" and "but false" from the latter quote and even Shanks would agree: All modern scholars recognise that the Bible is human composition... its purpose is primarily theological, not historical... and it is tendentious... often speaks metaphorically... and it can also be inaccurate. Accent the word "essentially" instead - that is, attribute the Torah, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1 Kings to an ideological superstructure over fragmented memories and ancient legends as I do - and you are a minimalist.

Shanks straightaway thundered "that the minimalists are motivated by interests other than pure scholarship is widely acknowledged... Almost all are serious scholars, [b]ut most of them also have a political agenda". So what? That leaves a subgroup - even if it is in the minority - which even he admits has no political motive; so what interests could possibly be "acknowledged" - I would prefer "claimed" - on our part? (Just speaking for myself, I quite enjoy computer games and Dungeons & Dragons. I should hope Shanks at least likes to watch a movie now and again.) And why not start with the merits and, having proven your case, leave the motives for later?

Shanks was really saying we are not pure scholars, because, well, a lot of other people say so. As his lone example he cited Professor Avraham Malamat of Hebrew University, whom he alleges "publicly described one of them [minimalists] as both 'anti-Israel and anti-Bible'". Again, so what? Who is this guy and who made him chair of the Department of Minimalist Studies? What was the context? Whom was he even opposing? Leave aside that this was one man's word against another. Even if Malamat (and by extension Shanks) were correct, does Shanks really want to play the guilt by association game? Shanks belongs to a religion, or at least a religious culture that has sported... bad apples in its mix. If we're tacking Right then Shanks also hasn't signed on to a boycott of Israel, as many fellow academics have done because "apartheid" and other such rot. Now, I hasten to add, I am not one who would ever made such claims himself; I rather approve of Judaism, and I have some ancestry in that tribe myself. All I say here is that Shanks is vulnerable to attacks against him based on his associations. Likewise all minimalists must not be slandered as "anti-Israel", just because some hothead in a university threw the charge out there.

But nothing can stop Shanks when he gets rolling: "At the extreme, they can even be viewed as anti-Semitic. One of their number has written a book entitled, The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History. That about says it all." Er, no it doesn't. Anyone "can be viewed" a certain way. The important thing is whether he is. If he is, prove it. Citing a book title won't cut it; even Judenhassers like Edward Said reviewing it positively won't cut it (remember, guilt by association...). And I really don't approve of the passive-aggressive tactic of not naming the author: it's Keith Whitelam, by the way. One must assume that Shanks knew that to call even Whitelam an anti-Semite would result in a firestorm; no wonder he did not name the beast, and hedged it all with "can be viewed" and "at the extreme".

After a few more paragraphs of this, it does not surprise Shanks "that Herzog alludes to the Israeli-Arab conflict in an article otherwise about the Bible and archaeology". It is more surprising that Shanks would spend an entire introduction trying to send off all critics of the Bible into the margins of scholarly debate. He ought to know better.

The Loser's Laundry

Having thoroughly trashed everyone daring to defend a minimalist view - with the barest exception of two people he described as friends (Israel Finkelstein and Ze'ev Herzog, for how long I don't know) - Shanks then lamely admitted that the minimalists were right in many cases. The rest of his article reads like a checklist of bad biblical apologetics.

Research Is Redundant.

For the Exodus, Shanks says on our behalf "we don't need Professor Herzog to tell us that 2 million Israelites did not cross the Sinai... (Exodus 12:37)". Actually, all of "we" - including Shanks - have needed archaeologists like Herzog to tell us, or this misinformation would still be in our history books; and some of us still need to be reminded: "It is also true that... no Egyptian document mentions the Israelites' presence in Egypt, nor the events of the Exodus." And the utter lack of archaeological evidence for the desert wanderings may also be a "usual canard", according to Shanks, but it is nonetheless true, and the term "canard" is better suited to ethnic slurs and is irresponsibly employed here.

The Claim Is Too Embarrassing To Be False.

Shanks asserted: "When people invent histories for themselves, their ancestors are secret kings or princes or descendants of gods. Who would invent a history of their people as slaves, if there were not some truth in it?" This rhetorical question is in the first place disingenious. The Bible really claims that the Israelites are descendents of Patriarchs, chosen by the gods for a special destiny - and leaders of men. The question is secondly a straw man. Everyone accepts that there is "some" truth to the ancestors of Israel living subject to Egypt. If nothing else, the New Kingdom ruled most of Canaan from 1500 to 1000 BCE. But Genesis claimed Joseph's brothers came down to Egypt with him - literally, all the b'nai yishrael. Its sequel Exodus claimed their descendents fled as one, under Moses. There is more than a semantic difference between slaves of Egypt and slaves in Egypt. Lastly, the question has an answer, if not an exact one. Like Abraham, Aeneas was not a king, but a chosen one. His less illustrious descendent Romulus may not have been a slave, but he was brought up by a wolf and went on to murder his own brother. The same point would apply here: why would the grandest city in the world invent such an base intermediary between Mother Roma and high-walled Ilium?Other ancient cities concocted similarly unflattering portraits of their founders. Carthage, Rhodes, Acarnania, Syracuse, and even mediaeval Cornwall all had this in common: their founders were murderers who went into exile. As, indeed, was Moses.

It Could Happen.

Shanks was right to point out that Herzog was "grandiose" when he said "The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert", as this is unverifiable. But one can say there is no evidence that they left on such a scale; nor that it made any impact on the Israelite kingdom until Jeremiah fled "back" to Egypt. "He has surely not proved that Israel was not there," but he doesn't have to. In history, this amounts to the same thing as "it didn't happen".

The Bible Is Accurate - Elsewhere.

Shanks had to resort to "reading the Bible carefully" to dig himself out. Shanks reached for Judges 5:17; for Ezekiel 16:3; for anything that agrees with the archaeological record, which shows Israelite society emerging out of Canaan. In so doing he inadvertently showed that the more accurate accounts date from the poems of Deborah and the Prophets, not from the Torah and DtrH. This proves Herzog's point: that the Torah and core "historical" narratives most likely postdate, say, Ezekiel, and are less accurate too. Whoops.

We'll Fix It Any Minute.

Elsewhere he admits that the excavations of Jericho and Ai (which means "ruin" - no-one knows its real name) merely "indicate" that these cities were long gone when Joshua showed up (for now! more proof may come up any minute! - note his article's conclusion) but "according to Hebrew University archaeologist Ammon Ben-Tor, Hazor was indeed most likely destroyed and burned by the incoming Israelites, just as the Bible says (Joshua 11:1-11)". Hallelujah! Well, it was certainly resettled by the Canaanites *koff* "incoming Israelites", but as far as I know no material remains have surfaced from the city's assailants. Given the time it was sacked, it was more likely the Sea Peoples' work. Hazor was part of Amurru - northern Israel, Lebanon, and coastal Syria - at the time and Ramesses III made very clear whom he thought did it. He was there; Ammon Ben-Tor was not. This is supposed to show that the Bible is at most ambiguous about the conquest. What it actually shows is that it was wrong wherever we can verify it and questionable elsewhere. (And then Shanks went back to motive - "it begins to seem that he has another agenda - simply to destroy the credibility of the Bible" - and name-calling - "as is so fashionable among academic sophisticates these days".)

We Are Being Straw-Manned.

Forward in time, Shanks called "Herzog's discussion of Israelite monotheism" tendentious, although I cannot see why. Herzog had concluded that ancient Israel was polytheistic until very late. For some reason Shanks said "On the contrary, in many respects these finds confirm the picture we get from the Bible" - what, that it was monotheistic? No, that "Israel was a nation of backsliders". So in other words Herzog was right that there were polytheists in Israel, and especially among the common people. What Shanks needs to prove is that ancient Israel-Judah held a concept of a "backslider" - that is, that Deuteronomic concerns were the law of the land prior to the Exile. For that matter, he ought to produce a copy of a prophetic book predating Jeremiah that argues this case. Perhaps Hosea... if a decent text existed.

Contradictions Are Good For You.

Shanks would explain these contradictions with "The Bible preserves its own dissent." I remember this from Josh MacDowell's book, and it didn't help then and doesn't help now. If it dissents with itself, what use is it? We may be able to save some facts, but we have to pick and choose which account is more accurate. And if the pre-exilic prophets and poets unanimously oppose the base narrative of the Torah and the Deuteronomistic History based upon it, what is wrong with labelling the Torah a work of (not very) historical fiction?

The Nitty Gritty.

Shanks ultimately pleads a special case for Israelite history. In reference to the Patriarchs, the weakest link in the Bible this side of creationism - "The aphorism ['absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'] is not always applicable, but it is applicable here". He ought to explain why, other than the obvious, that it offends the superstitions of billions. (And incidentally the homo'phobia of billions: this is the section of Sodom and Gomorrah.)

So when Shanks proclaims "I believe my case is better than his", we are really talking about faith. But this is a faith about historical events, not about the composition of the merkabah. By an impartial reading of history, Shanks's belief is unhistorical. He has scant basis to dismiss Herzog and the "minimalists" as propagandists.

Whose Political Agenda?

Articles like Shanks's do absolutely nothing to advance the state of biblical archaeology, including biblical textual criticism and even fieldwork. Instead they do it a disservice by insinuating that its most independent practitioners have a "political agenda" (read: anti-Israel). But no: Only people on the extreme would say that we are anti-Semites, or perhaps anti-Semites only exist in our extreme, who cares. The important thing is that a perception exists. Our motives are suspect. As for people in-house like Herzog, Baruch Halpern, Israel Finkelstein, and myself, we are quislings in the making: "when we trumpet the negative, we only play into the hands of the worst elements among the biblical minimalists". Let us all stop publishing and shut up.

What hogwash! How would Shanks like it if I were to say: "Just by dint of arguing with minimalists, no-one is calling these scholars apologists for a manual of mass murder and rape (Numbers 31, Joshua 6 and 8, etc.). Almost all of them are serious scholars, but most support a political agenda." (Which those parts of the Bible are, and which at least Shanks does - as witness the many editorials in Biblical Archaeology Review on the antiquities trade, the Israeli Department of Antiquities, Palestinian misuse of abandoned Jewish holy sites, and so on.) Or: "We wouldn't dream of calling them fundamentalists, just because fundamentalists use certain of their findings. But they are not being sensitive to the uses to which their work is put. Some of these fundamentalists even call us "godless heathens"! (That about says it all.)" But I genuinely don't argue in this way because I judge arguments on their merits first and motives last. If Shanks is concerned with scholarship over cheap political points, he had best follow suit.

But this goes beyond Shanks and the Ashcroft hearings. The French force Yahoo to stop enabling its users to trade WW2 artifacts from the wrong side, claiming that they were "Nazi memorabilia" - what of trophy-hunters and artists? The Germans ask their government to block entire sites from the US. How long before they block my website, which is merely "insensitive to Jewish concerns" or else "can be viewed as anti-Semitic"? How long before Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem bar the Biblical Archaeology Review for the same reason? And since Buddhist statues are insensitive - to Islamic concerns - why not blow up the Sphinx?

There is a Sensitivity Inquisition ravaging the world today, and it must stop. Now. Otherwise debate on just about anything will run underground to the fringes. It will be the end not only of our free expression but of our history.

COMMENTARY 1/16/2015

The above was posted and then tweaked 10 Feb-10 March 2001 on my old SBCGlobal page (maybe even Earthlink and ATT, in those elder days), where I subsequently left it to rot. So here had lingered a few points, which fourteen years later I now see fit to correct. The hyperlinks were a priority obviously; fortunately the base text had just been moved, not lost. I had in 2001 taken the still-living fraud Edward Said more seriously than I should have. I was in pre-9/11 2001 inhabiting a less Zionist "phase" than I had entered into as of the next year when I'd started the blog proper. So, those bits are now re-tweaked.

But I have decided to retain that 2001-era SJW-ish "homo[']phobia" comment - even though it earned me an email from a homo' asking me out on a date (no, really, it did). I am no longer so homo'-friendly, as I then was; and the House of David is no longer so homo'-friendly, as it was when it was linking to Sullivan and Asparagirl. Still. Lines get drawn, here and there; and I figure that when I drew the line at the physical eradication of homosexuals, that's a line I can still stand on.

posted by Zimri on 21:20 | link | 0 comments

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