May 28, 2011

Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament

If you have watched any Nova or National Geographic specials on pretty much any facet of the Old Testament over the past few years, it very quickly becomes obvious that a rather stark historical minimalism is dominant in the scholarly world, or at least the scholarly world they feature. And this could be dismissed as just media bias, but a similar minimalism is also quite prominent in the OT academic circles and is evidenced in many introductory OT textbook. So what in the OT is historical? The Bible certainly treats the major characters and events in the OT as historical, and it builds its understanding of God and his character from God's acts in history (God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the exodus). So if the OT was entirely made-up history, a fictional construct from after the exile to give a rag-tag band of people an identity, that would have pretty profound implications for how we understand God and how we understand the Bible.

K. A. Kitchen, an emeritus professor of Egyptology at Liverpool University, takes these questions head on, as he systematically looks at the historicity and plausibility of the OT writings in their historical contexts. The book is a detailed era-by-era investigation into the Biblical text (sometimes point out that what we assume the Bible says isn't actually what it reports), cultural settings, archaeological discoveries, and documentary and inscriptional evidence from the Levant and the surrounding world, in order to see whether the Bible's historical record fits with, and often intersects with, the history as it can be understood from outside the Bible.

The book is filled with detail. It is 500 pages of discussion of the evidence and the various approaches to its reconstruction along with careful evaluation of how the historical and archaeological data coheres with the Bible, along with another 150 pages of notes, diagrams, and indices. That's all to say, he deals with all of the major issues that arise out of this wide-ranging subject matter. This mountain of detail and discussion is made easily navigable by its good organization, helpful use of charts, and its concise summaries at the end of each chapter.

Kitchen's careful conclusion is that the minimalism so prevalent in the academy and in popular scholarship today is merely a relic of past assumptions now eclipsed by the evidence. He concludes his investigation of whether the Biblical writings were composed entirely within the postexilic period (400–200 B.C.) or whether they reflect their purported historical settings by asserting, with regard to the divided monarchy, exile, and return, that the Bible's accounts of these periods "show a very high level of direct correlation (where adequate data exists) and of reliability." And, concluding on what can be said of the historicity of the accounts before the united monarchy, when direct evidence is more difficult to find, that "the Hebrew founders bear the marks of reality and of a definite period." Thus, he concludes that the Bible's historical accounts make sense in the times that they purport to represent, and don't give evidence of a postexilic invention so popular in academic circles. I must also say that while Kitchen's study is indeed detailed, it is also entertaining, as he shows a warm and sometimes scathing humor as he looks at historical evidence or at rival historical reconstructions. The book was enjoyable to read, and is a very helpful push back against the minimalism that can begin to erode Biblical faith. It certainly isn't the last word on any of these matters, but it is an important and substantial tome that will need to be reckoned with. And if you're not ambitious enough to dig in to all of the data, selective reading of especially important topics and careful reading of all of the introductory and summary materials makes for a good overview of the relevant materials.

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