Modernism’s Assault on the History of Israel

By Phil Roberts

For many centuries after the close of the New Testament canon, the Bible was the only really well-known account of the events of antiquity. Consequently, the Biblical version of ancient history was pretty much taken for granted. Only occasionally would a dissenting voice arise. But the social and cultural upheavals of the 15th and 16th century Renaissance brought radical changes in the way Western man perceived himself and his world. This new perspective is now identified by the term “Humanism”-a philosophy based on an exalted confidence in man and his intellectual power, and usually accompanied by a corresponding decrease in man’s sense of dependence on God. “Man is the measure of all things.”

The trends established in the Renaissance reached their full flower in the 18th century Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an epoch dominated by (1) an increased emphasis on humanistic philosophy, (2) an attitude of rebellion against traditional religious beliefs, and (3) the canonization of the “scientific method” as the only sure basis of knowledge. Under the spell of humanistic philosophy, however, the “scientific method” came to mean much more than a systematic, open-minded inquiry. Incorporated into the method was a rationalistic bias against anything purporting to be supernatural.

The implications of this new spirit for the study of the Bible were clearly articulated by A. Kuenen, one of the fathers of the modernistic approach to Israelite history. In the opening chapter of his book, The Religion of Israel(1882), he expressly declares that his methodology will admit no distinction between the origin of the religion of Israel and the origin of any other religion. “For us,” he says, “the Israelite religion is one of those religions; nothing less, but also nothing more.” And in his earlier book on The Prophets and Prophecy in Israel (1877) he said, “So soon as we derive a separate part of Israel’s religion directly from God, and allow the supernatural or immediate revelation to intervene in even one single point, so long also our view of the whole continues to be incorrect . . . It is the supposition of a natural development alone which accounts for all the phenomena.” Notice that these comments do not come in the final chapters. They come at the very beginning of both books. They are not the conclusions which a modernist reaches after his study of the Bible. They are the “suppositions” with which he begins.

For the modernist, therefore, the task becomes that of a reconstruction of Bible history. The Biblical account cannot be true because it tells of the divine origin of the nation and religion of Israel. The modernist must, therefore, extract historical data from the supernatural mold of the Bible, and press that same data into a naturalistic mold. He must reconstruct Bible history. He does not consider his job one of disproving the accuracy of the Biblical account. The accuracy of that history and the arguments of those of us who believe it are simply rejected out of hand. His attitude toward us is succinctly stated by John Hayes in the recently published, encyclopedic tome, Israelite and Judaean History (1977). In this work of 767 pages, precisely one-half page of the introductory chapter is devoted to the conservative position. In that half page, Hayes gives a few examples of our beliefs, and then concludes with the following remark: “In the following chapters, practically no attention will be given to this view since it does not assume that one has to reconstruct the history of Israel.” There is, therefore, no confrontation between modernism and conservatism. As far as they are concerned, we do not exist. All their time and energy is consumed in developing and defending their various reconstitutions. And it is to those reconstructions that we now turn our attention.

The first full-blown modernistic reconstruction was put before the public in 1878 by the German scholar, Julius Wellhausen, in his book, Prolegomena to the History of Israel. Wellhausen of course rejected all of Gen. 1-11′ as pure legend. Likewise, he regarded the patriarchal stories of Gen. 12-50 as historically worthless legends, referring probably to whole nations rather than to individual patriarchs. But from the time of Moses onwards Wellhausen did not feel much need to reconstruct the outward political history of Israel. Indeed, he could even say in his article o n “Israel” in the Encyclopedia Britannica that “the historical tradition about Moses (as opposed to the legislative tradition-PR) is in its main features manifestly trustworthy.” No, to Wellhausen it was not so much the political history of Israel that needed reconstruction as it was the religious history. And the key to Wellhausen’s reconstruction of that religious history is found in his source-criticism of the Pentateuch-the famed “Documentary Hypothesis.” According to this theory the authorship of the first five books of the Bible was not to be attributed to Moses (ca. 1400 B.C.), but to no less than four separate authors from much later times. The oldest section, “J”, was said to have been written no earlier than 850 B.C., and even then exhibited a very primitive concept of God. Next came “E”, written about 750 B.C. and exhibiting an only slightly higher concept of God. The third section, “D”, is roughly the same as our present Deuteronomy and was written in 621 B.C. as a pious forgery, the sole purpose of which was to enforce the legitimacy of Jerusalem as the central sanctuary for the nation. This was presumably the document “found” by Hilkiah during the days of Josiah (cf. 2 Kings 22:8-20 and Deut. 12:1-14). The fourth document, “P”, was not composed until during or shortly after the Babylonian captivity (ca. 500 B.C.). It contained most of the complex legal material in the books of Exodus-Numbers. Finally, the whole thing was woven together into the form of our present Pentateuch about 400 B.C., perhaps by Ezra himself, and attributed to the legendary character of Moses to give it an air of authority.

Of course, these late dates made it possible to explain the miraculous stories about Moses and the origin of the nation as nothing more than legends which grew up around the great national hero later on. But more importantly, the division of the Pentateuch into separate strands coming from different time periods permitted Wellhausen to rearrange the contents of the Pentateuch in a way that would correspond to an evolutionary pattern of progression from simple to complex. Darwin’s theory was then in its heyday. In the reconstruction Wellhausen argued that Israel’s religion had at first been nothing more than a primitive, polytheistic faith in Jehovah as the national God of Israel. It was not until the time of the first great writing prophets, Hosea and Amos (ca. 750 B.C.), that Israel’s faith became truly monotheistic. And it was not until after the Babylonian captivity that the detailed cultic laws of sacrifice and priesthood were evolved.

All of this sounds very strange-quite absurd even-to those of us who accept the Biblical account. But Wellhausen’s reconstruction had great appeal to those who shared his naturalistic presuppositions. Yet, by the turn of the century criticisms from within the modernist movement itself began to arise. In Germany, these criticisms focused primarily on Wellhausen’s exclusive reliance on source-criticism, as opposed to the newer form criticism. In America, the criticism did not come until slightly later. But when it did, it came in a flood, and focused primarily on increasing archaeological evidence that the radical skepticism of the Wellhausen school was totally unwarranted. Moreover, in both countries the evolutionary model was rapidly becoming passe. As a result, by 1940 there was hardly a leading scholar anywhere to represent a true Wellhausen reconstruction. Only the documentary hypothesis survived to pass into the. canons of critical orthodoxy, and that with considerable modification.

In the wake of the disintegration of the Wellhausen school, the modernist movement divided into two camps regarding the reconstruction of Israel’s history. On the one hand is the Alt-Noth approach (Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth), represented in English by Noth’s The History of Israel (1960). On the other hand is the Albright-Bright approach (William Foxwell Albright and John Bright), represented best by Bright’s A History of Israel (1972). Both of these schools are thoroughly modernistic. They are, nevertheless, sharply divided over the proper way to reconstruct the history of Israel. This division is most apparent in their approaches to the history of the origins of Israel.

The German school of Alt and Noth approaches the history of Israel almost exclusively from a form-critical study of the Old Testament itself, searching through the Bible for the various sagas, legends, and myths which they believe were preserved at ancient Canaanite centers of worship such as Gilgal, Bethel, and Shechem, and eventually taken over by the Israelites. Presumably these legends were welded together by the Israelites to form the continuous narrative of the patriarchal stories in the Bible, which were then taken as an explanation of the origin of the nation.

But according to Alt and Noth, the true origin had been much different. The Israelites were not at all a unified nation decended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In fact, according to the Alt-Noth reconstruction there simply was no such thing as the nation of Israel until the time of the Judges. It was at that time that a number of unrelated, semi-nomadic tribes gradually and peacefully penetrated the land of Palestine from various directions and, at some time during the 12th century, bound themselves together in a twelve tribe league known as an amphictyony. This amphictyonic league was, according to Noth, the beginning of “Israel.” These “Israelites” took over both the Canaanite centers of worship and the legends attached to those centers; mixed the legends with fragments of their own; and wove the whole thing into the consecutive narrative of the patriarchs known to us through the Bible. In sum then, Noth believes that the Biblical account of the history of Israel is totally worthless for anything prior to the time of Saul and David; that the patriarchal and even the Exodus stories are nothing but cult legends; and that the real key to the origin of the nation is the formation of a twelve tribe amphictyonic league.

In contrast to all this is the American school of Albright and Bright. Focusing primarily on an archaeological approach, they have concluded that the origin of the nation of Israel was actually fairly close to the general picture presented in the Bible. Members of this school have severely criticized both the methods and the conclusions of the Alt-Noth school along three major lines: (1) a failure to utilize the results of archaeological research as an external control on their speculative literary analysis of the Biblical text; (2) building a theoretical reconstruction of Israel’s history around the concept of an amphictyonic league when in fact no evidence for the existence of any such league in Israel has ever been found; and (3) a simply unwarranted “nihilism” toward the value of Israel’s historical documents.

According to Bright, the patriarchs were real people, and the Biblical picture of them is essentially correct. They did indeed go down into Egypt and come out under the leadership of Moses. And the conquest of Canaan was a true military invasion, as recorded in Joshua. Of course all true miracles are eliminated from the account by Bright, and many errors and inconsistencies are found in the Biblical record. But his attitude towards Biblical history is, within the modernist spectrum, a very conservative one. And his reconstruction is not so much a reconstruction as an adjustment of Israel’s history to fit the methods of modern, humanistic historiography. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression that Bright and his school actually believe in some miracles. But their commitment to the methodology of naturalistic historiography prevents them from allowing this into their work.

Unfortunately, though, it is the Albright-Bright school that has most recently fallen into disfavor in modernist circles. That is not to say that the Alt-Noth reconstruction has survived intact. Critics are more and more inclined to reject the amphictyonic league as part of the early structure of the nation. But the rejection of the historicity of the patriarchal period is generally accepted, along with radical skepticism about the ethnic unity of Israel. It is my opinion that this ascendency of the Alt-Noth approach is due, not to any successful refutation of the criticism from the Albright-Bright school, but simply to the fact that its methods and conclusions are more in keeping with the presuppositions and spirit of unbelieving modernism.

The problems of the Alt-Noth approach are pervasive, however, and it is unlikely that this school will hold the field forever. Indeed, pressure is already mounting within critical circles, and the next few years will probably witness the rise of yet another reconstruction of Israel’s early history-most likely the one recently proposed by G. E. Mendenhall In His Book, The Tenth Generation (1973). Mendenhall, trained in the methods of the Albright-Bright school, nevertheless maintains the radical skepticism of Alt and Noth with regard to the historical reliability of the Biblical text. But he has rejected the concept of the amphictyonic league, and the idea that the tribes which eventually merged to form the nation of Israel were semi-nomadic invaders. Instead, he argues, Israel was created by a social revolution within Palestine. In other words, the lower classes of the indigenous population of Canaan revolted against the city-state overlords and banded together to form a new political unit named “Israel.” “Israel,” he argues, is not an ethnic designation but a political one. There was neither a conquest (Bright) nor a peaceful invasion (Noth). There was simply an internal social revolution. I suspect that this social revolution theory will be just the thing that will capture the fancy of a new generation of modernists needing a new reconstruction to replace the well worn and now frazzled AltNoth approach.

But the real concern for those of us who believe the Bible is not the next tack to be taken by modernism. It is our own stance in the face of modernistic criticism of Bible history. First, we must not hide our heads in the sand. We cannot afford to ignore either the modernist or his arguments. Second, we must equip ourselves to expose the basic fallicies of modernistic reconstructions. This is often a tedious task, but a number of books are available which will assist the believer. Perhaps the finest critique of Wellhausen and his school ever written is James Orr’s The Problem of the Old Testament (1926). Also of value in dealing with the documentary hypothesis is O. T. Allis’ The Five Books of Moses (1943). Unfortunately conservatives have yet to produce anything of real substance in dealing with the more recent schools of Bright, Noth, and Mendenhall. Some material may be found in O. T. Allis’ The Old Testament: Its Claims and Its Critics (1972). But Allis was a veteran of older battles, and many of his arguments against the newer schools lack cogency. At present, most conservative scholars seem content to play the Bright school off against the Noth school. This approach can be seen in R. K. Harrison’s excellent Introduction to the Old Testament (1969) and also in Kenneth Kitchen’s extremely useful Ancient Orient and the Old Testament (1966). This can be a dangerous game though, and it appears to me that several of its practitioners have actually come very near to surrendering to modernism’s presuppositions in the process. No such surrender is to be found, however, in Leon Wood’s A Survey of Israel’s History (1970), which is probably the best all round conservative history of Israel available today.

But last and most importantly, we must realize that the real gulf between us and modernism in the study of Biblical history is neither a matter of scholarship nor of argumentation. They work with the same data we do. They know it just as well as we do, and often better. It is naive for us to think we can overthrow them by argumentation from that data, because their position was not arrived at by argumentation from that data to begin with. Rather, their reconstructions are the interpretation of the data which is forced upon them by their anti-supernatural presuppositions and methodology. And until that philosophical impass is solved, no real communication with modernism is possible.

Truth Magazine XXII: 41, pp. 663-666
October 19, 1978