Philosophy and Practice in Writing a History of Ancient Israel

Philosophy and Practice in Writing a History of Ancient Israel elucidates and examines assumptions about history writing that current historians of ancient Israel and Judah employ. It is undertaken in the context of the conflict between so-called “minimalists” and “maximalists” within the discipline today. Though the use of the Bible as evidence is the focal point of the opposition of these two approaches, Moore shows that a number of related philosophical and practical concerns are telescoped in this issue, including concepts of Empiricism, Objectivity, Representation and Language, Subject, Explanation, Truth, and Evidence Evaluation and Use. Organized around these topics, Philosophy and Practice aims to situate the study of ancient Israel and Judah in the broader intellectual context of academic history in general and to provide insight into the formative assumptions of the current debate. It also aims to show that the central issue of the reliability of the Bible as evidence is surrounded by related issues that are equally important for understanding the past of ancient Israel and Judah and writing about it. Moore shows that ideas about objectivity in particular have a direct bearing on the evidentiary debate, which, in turn, affects what subjects and modes of explanations historians see as available to them. Moore argues that current historians of ancient Israel are beginning to work with a notion of historical truth that attempts to take into account the many contingencies for the concept and writing of history that twentieth-century discussions about history have introduced.


“Moore has done a tremendous job in sorting out the recent history of historiography on ancient Israel and deserves all our thanks.” -RBL

“This dissertation, written under the supervision of John Hayes from Emory, is a serious contribution to the debate on how, and whether at all, to write a history of ancient Israel…Moore has done a tremendous job in sorting out the recent history of historiography on ancient Israel and deserves all our thanks…Moore has covered a very wide field.”—Ernst Axel Knauf, RBL 09/2007

“This dissertation, written under the supervision of John Hayes from Emory, is a serious contribution to the debate on how, and whether at all, to write a history of ancient Israel…Moore has done a tremendous job in sorting out the recent history of historiography on ancient Israel and deserves all our thanks…Moore has covered a very wide field.”—Ernst Axel Knauf, RBL 09/2007

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Philosophy and Practice in Writing a History of Ancient Israel

  1. Review

    What is “Ancient Israel”? Megan Moore begins her valuable book by presenting several schools of thought and the sets of pre-suppositions in relation to dealing with this vexed issue of  “Ancient Israel”.  These two sets are the “maximalists” or “non-minimalists” and the “minimalists” and they are central to Moore’s book, which was written “in the context of the conflict between so-called “minimalists” and “maximalists” within the discipline today”. [p.1]


    Maximalist and Minimalist Historians

    The “maximalist” historians tend to favour Ancient Israel’s connection with  “ancient biblical Israel”.  The Hebrew Bible presents stories and narratives relating to the Twelve Sons of Israel, formerly Jacob, their entry into and exodus from Egypt, their wilderness wanderings,  their  conquest under Joshua of the land of Canaan or Palestine and their settlement there. The “maximalists” therefore tend to “adopt the Bible’s timeline and paradigms as frameworks for their own history writing”. [p.2]

    The “minimalist” historians are described by Moore as scholars who “minimize the importance of the Bible as a historical source and of Israel as a historical subject”. [p.77] In their quest for the actual or “historical Israel”, they  tend to see little  connection between the Bible and Ancient Israel. [p.84] In contrast to the views of the maximalists, Moore presents their view of the biblical text  as being “late, biased, ideological, polemical and  largely removed from the actual events and circumstances of ancient Palestine”. [p.1]

    In this context, several important qualifications are presented. One is the re-naming of the  maximalists as “non-minimalists”, on the basis that only moderate maximalists are the subjects within her book, and not the  more extreme,  literalistically and fundamentalistically-minded  maximalists, who are so vocal on television and on radio in the promotion of their belief in biblical inerrancy. The other qualification is the author’s positioning of her very important book about “Ancient Israel” within “the intellectual context of academic history in general”. [p. 2]

    Processual and Post-processual Methodology

    The author’s second and also very important polarity is that of processual and post-processual archaeology. Following the era of William F. Albright, the 1960s witnessed a broadening of the horizon, as archaeologists investigated the process of changes within social and environmental  adaptations  and  they sought to establish, with the support of related disciplines such as scientific anthropology, sociology and psychology, “the total cultural system”.  The intended goal of such processual developments was a generalized process which,  in Moore’s words, would become “timeless laws on the cultural process” [p.40].

    Although “process” has mostly been related to social and environmental adaptive  processes and patterns, it could also, in the opinion of the reviewer at least, be applied to the usual  procedures for  scientific analysis which include the articulation, assessment, application and appropriation of a text or artifact. Moore points out that, as ethno-archaeologist, “processual archaeologists studied settlement patterns within a site, as well as settlement patterns over a larger area”  and that they “adopted some methods from other social scientists”.  [p.41] Clearly she had in mind anthropology, sociology, psychology and other social sciences.

    The “post-processual” movement on the other hand became critical of the concept of “timeless laws” sought by “processual” archaeology. Its proponents considered ideology to be an active and not a passive agent in a culture and considered symbols to be open to changes in meanings within and between cultures. The history envisioned by such post-processualists was “a discipline that combines chronology, culture and environment”. [p.42]

    The author’s two sets of polarities, the “minimalist” and the “non-minimalist”, as well as the “processual” and the “post-processual”,  can provide the  useful framework for  both her excellent and scholarly book and also for her reader’s own reflection on his or her  personal perspective,  somewhere on the spectrum between these poles or maybe even right on one of the poles. Perhaps a 1 to 10 scale would be of benefit here. Within this context, Moore includes Michael Stanford’s interesting observation that “almost every social scientist today lives and works somewhere between the two poles of positivistic objectivity and insightful subjectivity”. [p.11] In a similar sort of insight, it has been said that humans are in need of both scientific rationality and of spiritual reflection.

    Willam F. Albright

    Moore’s valuable ground-work in her first two chapters as outlined above is followed by her chapter 3 study of the school of William F. Albright, which sought to formulate “historical portraits that fused artifacts from the ancient Near East with Israel’s story as told in the Bible”. (p.3)  In contrast, Albrecht Alt and his pupil Martin Noth, used sociological and other comparative models as they formulated a “reconstruction of Israel’s past which did not necessarily follow the Bible’s story line, especially in the case of Israel’s origins”. [p.3]

    The “minimalists” in chapter 4 and the “non-minimalists” in chapter 5 are then each exhaustively investigated under the following ten headings: (1) their  definition; (2) issues relating to history and to historiography; (3) objectivity; (4) representation, language, subject and explanation; (5) texts; (6) artefact; (7) the combination of texts and artifacts; (8) the views  on evidence; (9) views on truth  and (10) the assumptions relating to the concept of “Ancient Israel”.  

    Some of these same ten items are then summarised in chapter 6, and  Moore concludes with her  final thoughts  on “Truth and Writing History about Ancient Israel”. [p. 182]

    Reviews of books usually include the book’s theme, its content in a brief summary form, some highlights and a recommendation, condemnation or a general comment relating to the book’s status, role, value, importance in its academic field. I have presented in brief the theme, contents and my opinion that this is book is both a very interesting, as well as a very scholarly, meticulously documented academic contribution to both the long-standing issue of “Ancient Israel” and its historicity, as well as the continuing role and presuppositions of archaeology in relation to the assessment of both the text and the artifacts within such a debate.


    The reviewer has been impressed by the many highlights, which are present on nearly every page of this book and by the time-frame from the 1960s to the present day. It therefore  provides  the reviewer with a history of  own interest in and academic study of  Near Eastern Archaeology during  the 1970s as a Student and as a Tutor in the Middle Eastern Studies Department at the University of Melbourne. Also available were the many excellent books and journals, which were available for research at the Australian Institute of Archaeology, then located at 174 Collins Street in Melbourne.

    Amongst the highlights, the following insights should be of interest and of value.

    The post-modernist scholar  C. Behan McCullagh has observed four ways in which bias manifests itself: “(1) in misinterpreting evidence; (2) in omitting significant facts about a subject; (3) by implying facts which are known to be false and (4) by not mentioning all important causes of events in an explanation.” [p.10]

    Dorrit Cohn has distinguished historical, empirical fact from created, imaginary fiction. In her view, historical narrative has a “referential level of analysis”, it is committed to verifiable documentation and can be described as “emplotted”,  because it is an “ontologically independent  and temporally prior data base of disordered, meaningless happenings that it restructures into order and meaning”. Emplotments reflect ideological choices and “the author of history and the narrator of historical narrative are univocal”.   Fiction on the other hand is “plotted”,  it  invents its characters, places and events  and the fiction’s  author and its reader are distinct. [p.19]

    The warning is given that the influence of social scientific theory could lead to unwarranted generalisations and grand narratives. However, micro-histories also have their problems. [p.20]

    Natalie Davis offers  advice about understanding people culturally different from ourselves. She states  that “anthropology can help the historian by offering a close observation of living processes of social interaction; interesting ways of interpreting symbolic behaviour; suggestions about how the parts of a social system fit together; and material from cultures very different from those which historians are used to studying”. [p.25]

    The concept of “truth”  is explored by Megan Moore within six pre-suppositional frameworks: (1) the correspondence theory; (2) the coherence theory, (3) the collective endorsement process within pragmatic theory; (4) the consequential utilitarian principle within pragmatic theory; (5) the contra-power  hermeneutical concern, in reaction to colonialism and in response to the diversities of  human cultures and (6) the community-accepted principle, expressing a post-modern truth. [p.30]

    Guy Halsall has formulated six important procedures in an appropriate order for helping historians to decode evidence:  (1) frame the questions; (2) collect the data; (3) assess the reliability of the data (the quality of excavation, the quality of textual interpretation); (4) examine the context of the data; (5) establish patterning within the data; and finally (6) produce conclusions but leave open the possibility of alternative explanations”. [p.43]

    Thomas Thompson and John Van Seters

    An interesting feature of the 1970s was the work of Thomas Thompson and John Van Seters, who were critical of the Albrightian synthesis between Archaeology and the Bible and which can now be seen in retrospect as the early rise of “minimalism”.   Doubts about the historicity of the biblical narrative were often expressed but Moore indicates that their concept of history referred to “the actuality of the past”. [pp.75-79]

    She also notes that these scholars “agree that much of the Hebrew Bible is not an eyewitness account of what it reports, making it suspect for historical reconstruction”. [p. 90]

     However, thematically, Thompson was sure that “the Hebrew Bible betrays a Hellenistic provenance, citing Greek story patterns and worldviews that he finds in the texts” and textually, David Henige contends that “transmission is the inexorably fatal enemy of accuracy, as has been demonstrated thousands of times in various tests in psychology, sociology and other fields, including history”. [pp.91-93]

    Religion and Archaeology

    Moore also deals with Archaeology’s dealings with religion. Israel’s past is clearly tied to religion, so the question is posed as to whether it “really makes sense to divorce a scholarly discipline from its basis of relevance to the rest of the world. [p. 114]

    The triumphalist histories of Israel tend to highlight the early victories of the Israelites and such victories, including the described event  of the  sun remaining motionless in the sky for 24 hours for Joshua, indicate the role and importance of Israelite religion and their chosen deities, including Elohim, El, El Shaddai, Yahweh and Yahweh Saves or Joshua. Norman K. Gottwald sees the problems which arise in the religiously and theologically apologetical study of history when he notes that “some scholars operate with pre-conceptions about Israel that are not

    necessarily based on evidence”. [p.119] No doubt he refers to the use of faith.


    A clear distinction between approaches in theology can help to clarify the issue of theological presuppositions. If the approach rises up out of a confessional and personally-accepted theology, this provides a theological pre-supposition from an inside perspective towards  the objects of study, such as a text, a tradition or an artifact.    Here religion acts as a active subject. A suitable term for this presupposition would be “exotheology” or a movement out of or from a religion or a theology and  maintaining the theology as a personal  belief system.


    However, if the approach is from an outside  anthropological, sociological or psychological position, perspective and pre-supposition, this provides for a scientific and scholarly study and analysis of a religion from an outside perspective and this perspective views  religion as a passive  object of this study. A suitable term for this outsider’s view would be “eisotheology” or a movement into or towards the religion, the theology or the belief system being investigated or analysed as an object of study.

    Naturally, the “minimalists’ argue that, since the Bible is mainly based on theological presuppositions, that “Syro-Phoenician archaeology should separate itself from biblically influenced presuppositions and framework”. William Dever has further proposed that Syro-Palestinian archaeology should continue to move toward a social-scientific, theory-based modeling approach”. [p.126]

    The often-mentioned  quest in this book for historical truth, for historicity and for facticity concerns all Archaeologist and Historians. Between the evidence and the actual event, there lies the possible, the probable or plausible within a context of coherence and the positively certain. [p.102]

    Probability Ratings Scale

    Moore describes the “Probability Ratings Scale” based on textual or artifactual evidence for probable reconstructions of history and Norman K. Gottwald goes on to both  describe historical truth as “relational, inferential, hypothetical and constructivist”  and to affirm that “modern and ancient histories can be understood as constructions, each alleging possible or probable correspondences with reality”. [p.131]

    Gottwald then challenges all archaeological and historical scholars to assess the role of ideology in their own constructions and to be in active dialogue with other ideologically shaped constructions.  In his view, “the history of Israel would greatly benefit from such an understanding of historical truth, since knowing what actually occurred in ancient Israel is extremely difficult”. [p.132]

    Archaeology as a Bridge

    Moore’s postprocessualist conclusions include the insight from Sandra Scham, that,  since Archaeology is “a discipline that bridges the sciences and the humanities”,  it “must also provide a bridge between the abstract (interpretation) and the concrete (material culture). [p.157]

    The author also ventures into Israel’s early topographical, chronological and theological  horizons, indicating that Israelite artifactual remains tend to lie within the present West Bank region including Lower Galilee, as Israel Finkelstein established with his Early Iron Age settlements discovered and excavated there. Israel’s chronological horizons have traditionally begun at the origin of the Universe as depicted by the Israelites in Genesis 1, while archaeologists tend to discuss conditions in the Late Bronze Age. As for the Israelites’ deity Yahweh, very early evidence for such worship is slight but later Israelite names with theophoric elements of Yahweh are common in the Iron II period. Identifying Yahweh-worship with incipient Israel is still problematic. [p.163]

    Qualified Correspondence Truth

    Moore concludes on a political note. She holds that historians attempt to achieve objectivity and correspondence in their histories, but history is constructed through language. Grand narratives and authoritative voices can be constructed but these” can be both helpful and harmful, since constructions of history wield power and influence ideas about the construction of the present”. [p.183]

    She has therefore articulated what she calls “qualified correspondent truth”, which avoids the desire to claim near-total certainty, but allows for the historian’s acknowledgement of “the relativity of plausibility or quality of reconstructions”. In this context, debate can continue on the merits and rationale of their various reconstructions and arguments, while at the same time “considering the implications of their reconstructions for theological, political and other communities with an interest in Israel’s past”. [p.183]

    The 17 pages of bibliographical material relevant to the issues described above and the fully-documented text in the footnotes at the bottom of each page, help to make this book very user-friendly, exhaustive and very scholarly. Everybody interested in Near Eastern history, archaeology and Judaeo-Christian religion will benefit greatly from reading this excellent book.

or, use the form below to post a comment or a review!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>