Challenging the Consensus Except When the Consensus Says You Shouldn’t

5102894mjxl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (2nd ed.; Westminster John Knox, 2015).

I don’t usually hustle to purchase revised editions of books I already own, but when the book covers the field of biblical archaeology which changes with each new dig season, I can hardly pass up the chance to see how authors have integrated new material such as that found in the city of David (the “large stone structure”), that found at Wadi Feynan, and that found at Khirbet Qeiyafa. (Concerning the later, new analysis of the 14C samples has been published within the past couple of months making the book I am about to quote already lacking in the latest publications.) As the first edition of A Biblical History of Israel by Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III was a very formative book for me when I first read it 10 years ago, I made sure to pre-order the second edition (which just came in the mail last week).

When the book arrived I turned with eager expectation to the newly added appendix which interacts with critics of the first edition of A Biblical History of Israel. The authors readily respond to the critiques of several in the scholarly guild and offer, to my mind, a compelling defense of the method and overall value of A Biblical History of Israel.

In particular, I liked how he responded to one senior scholar, humorously suggesting that there must actually be two authors going by the same name (punning on pentateuchal criticism), but also showing that much opposition to historical reliability of the biblical text comes not from critical engagement with the evidence, but from appeal to consensus – what “the academic guild” thinks about a particular issue.

Read this lengthy quote not only for the humor, but for the important methodological reminders that are often forgotten or muted in discussions:

When he gets to our discussion of Israel’s emergence in Canaan, the important thing for [Lester] Grabbe is not to demonstrate by way of argument where we have gone wrong, but to emphasize that we have departed from “the scholarly consensus” – whether in our reading of Joshua and Judges, or in our reading of the archaeology. On the latter, “real scholars” apparently already know the truth about Ai, notwithstanding (as we point out in [the first edition of a Biblical History of Israel]) that “the site may not be correctly identified” and “the archaeological finds may not be representative of the unexcavated portions of the site.” For our own part, we are already known by Grabbe not to be real scholars, even though we appear to behave as scholars in the way that we handle evidence….

In order to be real scholars, we must apparently also come to the “correct” conclusions. That is to say: we must come to Grabbe’s conclusions, and those of the people of whom he approves. It is agreement on outcomes, it seems, that defines for Grabbe the fellowship of the truly critical scholars – not critical thinking as such. It is end-results, not method. On this basis one is either “in” or “out”; and if it is the latter, one can (it seems) expect no serious engagement with one’s work. One can expect no argument – only reminders that one is “outside.” ….

This approach to “critical” scholarship is, however, all the more astonishing when one considers the following words from Grabbe, in a different essay from 2011, concerning what he terms “a general institutional mind-set of the academy,” which is “to overvalue consensus”:

It can be subtle, slow, and ponderous, but before you know it this relentless academic bulldozer has a way of grinding down new ideas … one of the greatest dangers to scholarship is the comfortable consensus. No one wants to be the underdog. Thus, when certain topics come up for academic discussion, it is easy to let it be known that you agree with the majority. In academic circles there is nothing that quite equals the sound of bandwagons being hastily boarded – it is hard to describe but it is sort of a pusillanimous sound. Never forget, though, what a consensus is: it is like a stick picked up to help you in climbing the trail. Use it as long as you find it useful, but discard it without a second thought as soon as it has served its purpose. A consensus is not for life; it is not even just for Christmas. It is not to be worshiped; it is not even to be revered. On the contrary, my appeal to you is, next time you meet a consensus, do not shake its hand. Stare at it. Give it a good sniff, poke it, sneer at it, threaten it, and if it does not look you in the eye, attack it.

We have quoted here from the beginning and the end of the essay; the whole thing is well worth reading. How, though, are we to put this Lester Grabbe together with the other one described earlier, who depends so much on appeals to consensus in his interactions with [the first edition of a Biblical History of Israel]? It is difficult not to think that a certain kind of traditional historical critic, looking back from the future (if such critics still exist in the future) on the debate in the early 2000s about the history of Israel, and considering the literary sources available for reconstructing this debate, would be driven to the conclusion that there must have been two Lester Grabbes back then, since according to the law of contradiction one person could not possibly have written all the materials attributed to him.

A Biblical History of Israel, 433-434.

The second edition was well worth the purchase to my mind, in part because the unwieldy endnotes of the first edition have been replaced with glorious, easy-to-consult footnotes. Furthermore, the assimilation of new data and published materials has been an important update to a ten-year-old volume. Finally, the appendix provides an important response to the many who have already decided that the biblical text simply cannot be trusted to provide us with a true picture of Israel’s past.

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA


5 comments on “Challenging the Consensus Except When the Consensus Says You Shouldn’t

  1. SLIMJIM says:

    Love that turning around and applying higher critical methodology back to the critic himself!

  2. […] is a minister in the United Reformed Church and serves at Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, CA. This article appeared in The Reformed Reader and is used with […]

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