Biblical Minimalism and Maximalism in Scholarship
The legacy of BAR’s founding editor, Hershel Shanks
Biblical Archaeology Society Staff • 04/10/2018
Few topics have enjoyed as much coverage in the pages of Biblical Archaeology Review as the Biblical minimalism-maximalism debate. Centered on the Hebrew Bible as a(n) (un)reliable source for the earliest history of ancient Israel, the Biblical minimalism-maximalism debate encapsulates the passion and style of the BAR’s recently retired founder and long-time editor, Hershel Shanks.
During his incredible tenure of 43 years, Hershel introduced in BAR countless archaeological, historical, and literary topics that cover the Bible and the ancient Near East. But only a few stories amounted to what we can call media holy wars – major causes in which Hershel got especially involved, following and furthering the debate relentlessly over several decades.
To honor the veteran editor and his contribution to Biblical scholarship, the March/April May/June 2018 issue of BAR highlights his “crusades” – including the Biblical minimalism-maximalism controversy. Titled “For King and Country: Chronology and Minimalism,” the article is written by William G. Dever, who in the past weighed in several times on the subject to oppose the radically skeptical view of the historicity of central Biblical narratives, such as the Patriarchal/Matriarchal histories and the United Monarchy under the Biblical King David.
Unlike Biblical “minimalists,” who dismiss those histories as myths about a distant past (because the Biblical texts were composed too late after the fact to be true), Dever is a seasoned archaeologist. One may perhaps expect that archaeology would rebut the Biblical narratives concerning the Patriarchs and the Davidic dynasty, but Dever argues that his rigorous reading of archaeologically obtained data actually supports the more optimistic view of the historicity of the Patriarchal/Matriarchal era and the United Monarchy under the Biblical King David.1
A champion of archaeology’s crucial role in the study of ancient Israel, Dever says in an earlier BAR article, “By now the Biblical texts have yielded all the information, all they wish to tell us, about any ‘real-life’ Israel,” adding that compared to the Biblical canon, which is closed, “the archaeological data are more varied, more detailed and more dynamic, by constantly expanding.”2
In his latest BAR article, Dever took on the task of summarizing the Biblical minimalism-maximalism debate, which originated in Europe in the early 1990s. One more time, Dever introduces the general public to the crucial arguments about what Biblical scholars or archaeologists would consider a fact or a construct; what may have been an early historical reality or later myth; how the so-called low chronology (now mostly abandoned) moved all the archaeological evidence from the tenth to the ninth century B.C.E. stripping thus the figures of Saul, David, and Solomon of any historicity. Dever even hints that archaeological digs at Khirbet Qeiyafa and Tel Rehov have since provided a solid evidence for advanced culture and centralized government as early as the tenth century, the time of the Biblical King David.
In recollecting the milestones of the Biblical minimalism-maximalism controversy, Dever inevitably highlights the critical contribution by Hershel Shanks and BAR. To learn more about the long-debated issues of the historicity of the Bible and the role played in that heated debate by Hershel Shanks and BAR, read the full article “Hershel’s Crusade No. 2: For King and Country: Chronology and Minimalism” by William G. Dever, in the special 2018 tribute issue of BAR.
1. Dever’s latest book is an archaeologically based history of ancient Israel and Juda, from the emergence of Israelites in the Canaan around 1200 B.C.E. to the disappearance of both kingdoms by the early sixth century B.C.E.: William G. Dever, Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017).
2. William G. Dever, “Whom Do You Believe – the Bible or Archaeology?” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2017, p. 45.