A Challenge For Biblical Minimalists

Museum of Biblical History Staff • 03.28.2015

Today, those who follow the Bible’s text as the Word of God are faced with an array of questions challenging the authenticity of the Bible’s claims of inspiration, from its relevance in modern times to its very historical authenticity.  In fact, many – whether religious or otherwise – have come to believe that a conflict exists between science and the Bible: or at least, between scientists and Bible scholars.  In reality, the conflict is certainly between some scientists versus others, between some Bible scholars versus others, etc., ad infinitum.  The real conflict, it would seem, is the same as it always was:  between those who choose to believe, and those who choose not to—whether scholarly or otherwise.

tel dan stela

Museum Replica of the Tel Dan Stela Mid 9th century B.C.

Among Biblical archaeologists, the foremost question of the day is the challenge presented by what has been termed, Biblical minimalism. What does this relatively new model in Biblical understanding say? Israel Finkelstein, one of the more recognized minimalists, writes: “Biblical historians . . . dubbed ‘biblical minimalists’ by their detractors, have argued that David and Solomon, the united monarchy of Israel, and indeed the entire biblical description of the history of Israel are no more than elaborate, skillful, ideological constructs produced by priestly circles in Jerusalem in post-exilic or even Hellenistic times.” (128)  In short, Biblical minimalism asserts two propositions: that (1) the Bible should be treated as a mythohistorical text, and that (2) that Israel was not a united nation before the return from Babylonian captivity, or perhaps even later.  The question that remains then is, what does the archaeological data say?  Does it support this model?

To be brief, let us suffice to say that much evidence has been discovered to the opposite.  Perhaps the principal example of evidence thus far has been that of the so-called Tel Dan Stele, a group of small fragments belonging to a larger stele which dated to the 9th century B.C. and found in the most northern region of ancient Israel, Tel Dan.  The stele was discovered in the 1993-94 excavation seasons by archaeologist Avram Biran of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.  Pictured to the right is the Museum’s replica of the Tel Dan Stele.  It was originally meant to be a “memorial” inscription, dedicated to a victory over Israel.  Although the author is not identified in the surviving text, the most widely accepted candidate for authorship is Hazael, king of Damascus (Syria).  The statement most relevant to our inquiry here is a rather short statement within the text: “. . . I overthrew the house of David.” (Hallo, 161-62)  Such a small group of words; yet words with a major impact on minimalist ideas.  For years, it was held by minimalists that no king named David existed—that he was a myth.  Yet here, in plain text, is an historical reference to him.  The question has since been brought forth, was David the king of a united nation of Israel or just a tribal leader of a small group of Semitic nomads?

Today, the search for clues is on.  While minimalists continue to hold to and modify their perspectives according to the evidence, traditionalistic archaeologists such as Dr. Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University in Jerusalem continue to dig for answers from an opposing perspective: that the Bible does give an accurate record of the ancient history of Israel.  Discoveries made during his excavations at Khirbet Qeiafa have been celebrated by traditionalists, and now he continues his work at Tel Lachish. (See The Great Minimalist Debate) Certainly, the latest of great discoveries which support the traditionalist perspective has been the six seals found at Khirbet Summeily by Mississippi State University, which suggest a relatively complex political organization – closer to evidence of a united Israel during David’s time. (Khirbet Summeily)

Whatever the future holds, it seems that at the present minimalists are finding a mounting challenge ahead of them to prove their case.  In the meantime, archaeologists from both sides continue to dig, and to defend their positions; letting the facts reveal the truth.


Works Cited

“Khirbet Summeily Yields 10th-Century B.C. Clay Seals.” 16 December 2014. Archaeology . Web. 24 January 2015.

Millard, Alan. “The Tell Dan Stele.” Hallo, William W., Ed. The Context of Scripture. Leiden: Brill, 2003. 161-62. Print.

“The Great Minimalist Debate.” 19 June 2012. Biblical Archaeology Society. Web . 24 January 2015.