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    Minimalism and the rhetoric of misrepresentation

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    • 03/03/2004

    By Paul Newall (2004)

    Keith Whitelam's paper Representing Minimalism: The Rhetoric and Reality of Revisionism is found in a festschrift for Robert Carroll, Sense and Sensitivity. In the early parts of his essay, Whitelam attempts to show that the rhetoric of those like William Dever and Gary Rendsburg does not match the reality of what minimalists (or revisionists, variously) are either engaged in or suggesting. It is perhaps worth giving some examples for the benefit of those not aware of what can sometimes pass for scholarship in Biblical Studies and use them to illustrate a more general point, which will be the goal of this piece.

    Whitelam's point of departure is an article by Rendsburg, in which the latter explains to us "the consensus" before moving on to "the crisis". Notwithstanding this basic attempt to "control the rhetorical space" (as Whitelam characterised similar tactics here), Rendsburg states that

    The positive historicism of Albright and the others gave way, not only in biblical studies, but in the humanities in general, to the relativism, skepticism, and indeed nihilism which now dominates.

    This is not the first time that an allusion will be made to wider problems in the humanities, which are laid at the door of "postmodernism" (Dever) or relativists and - inexplicably - nihilists by Rendsburg. Nevertheless, Rendsburg provides a useful description of minimalism and maximalism:

    In short, the paradigm has shifted from a maximalist stance to a minimalist one. A few definitions of these terms. The maximalist holds that since so much of the biblical record has been confirmed by archaeological work and by other sources from the ancient Near East, for example, the aforementioned Mesha Stele, that even when there is no corroborating evidence, we can assume that the Bible reflects true history, unless it can be proved otherwise. The minimalist approach is exactly the opposite. Because so much of the biblical record is contradicted by archaeological work and by other sources from the ancient Near East, for example, the lack of any conquest at Jericho and Ai, we must assume that the Bible is literary fiction, unless it can be proved otherwise.

    It should be immediately apparent that this is a false dichotomy, which Whitelam shows by quoting examples of those who fit into neither camp - including, quite brutally, Dever himself, who regards "the historicity of the Exodus as a dead issue". In spite of the failure of his simplistic attempt at definition, Rendsburg asks "who are these people, these minimalists?" and goes on to tell us:

    To give you the names of the four best known among them, they are Thomas Thompson, Philip Davies, Niels Lemche, and Keith Whitelam. Some of them are driven, as I indicated above, by Marxism and leftist politics. Some of them are former evangelical Christians who now see the evils of their former ways. Some of them are counterculture people, left over from the 60s and 70s, whose personality includes the questioning of authority in all aspects of their lives.

    None of the information in this rather poor ad hominem is relevant to the credibility or otherwise of minimalism, of course, but Rendsburg goes on to identify two important factors in the portrait of a minimalist:

    First, almost without exception, these individuals have no expertise in the larger world of ancient Near Eastern studies. [...] In short, the academy has created an intellectual environment which permits the untrained to operate on an equal par with the trained.

    Whitelam points out that since he was himself "trained" by F.F. Bruce and A.A. Anderson, these scholars have (by implication) failed to adequately prepare their students. Rendsburg provides no argument as to why an "untrained" person should be ignored a priori, leaving his complaint another ad hominem. However, the second charge is perhaps more serious:

    Second, as you may have gathered, almost without exception, the scholars of this group are not Jewish. [...] Now, at first glance, one might think that one's religious or ideological identification would have no effect on one's scholarship, and I too once naively thought this to be true. [...] But with the current group of revisionists, as I intimated earlier, ideology, not objective scholarship, governs. If it is not actual Marxism, it is leftist politics in general. If it is not revolution against the sins of one's youth, the sin being once having identified as an evangelical Christian, then the issue is anti-authority culture in general. Furthermore, and I do not hesitate to use the terms, these scholars are driven by anti-Zionism approaching anti-Semitism.

    Again, this is a straightforward ad hominem, but the accusation is a serious one. Moving to the supporting footnote, we find that Rendsburg relies on Dever, who opines that "several of Whitelam's statements border dangerously on anti-Semitism; they are certainly anti-Jewish and anti-Israel." Following the citation, Whitelam found no page reference: this is just Dever's assertion, which Whitelam calls "the most extreme form of a rhetoric of misrepresentation which has been designed to marginalize and discredit." Whitelam links it to a reported comment by Jerome Berman, linking minimalists to Holocaust deniers - a tactic with echoes of that also employed by historians opposed to contemporary historiography (the idea being to imply that disbelief in the past wie es eigentlich gewesen is tantamount to an insistence that the Holocaust never happened, which is an emotive argument of no substance and never supported by reference to �postmodern� historiographers writing any such thing). It seems the best we can say in response to this behaviour is that it is disappointing.

    Rendsburg moves on to pose and answer the question "why not simply ignore this bunch?" Admitting that he considered this the preferable course of action previously, he tells us that it failed because the "minimalists dominate both in the noise that they make and in the quantity of their books. Volume after volume appears from their pens, all of it recycling the same views, all of it suspended on nothingness, to quote Job 26:7." Repeating implicitly the empty charge of anti-Semitism, Rendsburg suggests that Jewish scholars avoided the issue because of the alleged politics of the minimalists.

    We can move on to Dever to test whether indeed the minimalist programme is "suspended on nothingness". Whitelam blockquotes him as saying that the revisionists (i.e. Rendsburg's nihilists) "caricature the history of traditional scholarship [and] demonize any remaining opponents", which is an interesting irony, given the "anti-Semitism" above. In spite of providing no justification for his own charge, Dever himself lectures us on "not pretending to an expertise one does not possess [and] resisting the temptation to indulge in personal polemics that stem from a sense of inadequacy, either in oneself or in the evidence at hand [and] refusing on principle to distort the evidence or another scholar's view". Having digested this advice, Whitelam offers a selection of commentary from Dever on minimalist arguments, variously described as "'credulous', 'facile', 'fashionable', 'a passing fad' [...] part of 'trendy academic fashions' [...] 'politically correct' [...] or 'circle of dillentantes'".

    This last reminds us of an identical complaint made against so-called "postmodernists", often by Dever but also by a vocal group of philosophers who would have us treat "nihilists", "relativists" and "postmodernists" as Rendsburg advises for minimalists; that is, never seriously and with an appropriate measure of disdain and contempt. The approach of historians like Evans in historiography is much the same, up to and including identical rhetorical strategies. This, I submit, is where the importance of Whitelam's paper lies: these tactics of demonising the opposition or questioning the integrity of those who refuse to dismiss them outright without further consideration are part of a wider phenomenon not limited to Biblical Studies. Occasionally a book-length study arrives, laying out in painful detail just how far the misrepresentation has gone, or a paper such as Whitelam's attempts to do likewise on a smaller scale, but in general rhetoric seems to hold sway, even at the lofty heights of academia.

    Although studies of the influence of rhetoric are increasingly common, the so-called criticisms we have been considering fail on another level, too: they do not understand the concepts they reject as invalid. Whitelam refers to Dever's claim that minimalists are engaged in a project of deconstruction, but it is difficult to find any indication that he (or those analogously hostile in other disciplines) appreciates that to deconstruct is not to "knock down" at all, as we have seen. Indeed, Dever's conception of the minimalists' goal goes well beyond misunderstanding to a plan which

    ... if it could be carried out, would in my opinion see not the advent of a secular Utopian "Brave New World" but rather anarchy, chaos, and ultimately those conditions of despair that have often historically led to Fascism.

    Notwithstanding the unargued allusion here to historical laws, again we see the same tactic and the same attempt to give the reader the impression of closet Nazis endeavouring to bring about a fourth Reich as we find in the suggestion that antirepresentationalist historiographers are Holocaust deniers. Even so, if Dever comprehended deconstruction then he could not say that minimalists "are social engineers manipulating the biblical text for their own goals", since if il ny a pas hors du texte then everyone is engaged in the same game, including maximalists. Likewise, there is no reason to suspect that Rendsburg knows what nihilism implies, not least since he is not a philosopher and thus - by Dever's criterion above - should not pretend to expertise he does not have. This is the point, however: concepts like relativism are complex and not amenable (meaningfully, at least) to being mangled for the sake of a cheap rhetorical point. At the very least, a reader passing Dever's test would recognise the mischaracterisation immediately.

    Rendsburg laments the unfortunate fact that "serious scholars must take the time away from their own productive scholarship to respond to the baseless twaddle of the minimalist camp", much as this sentiment surfaced in the wake of Derrida's death. The problem for Rendsburg is that it is difficult to find a representative minimalist or minimalist work to hold up as indicative of the kind of scholarship that should be rejected. This, of course, is a consequence of his false dichotomy in defintion, but it surfaces just as readily in the opposition to "postmodernism". The question "what is postmodernism?" is as impossible to answer as "what is minimalism?", given that supposed "postmodernists" disagree with one another as readily as do "minimalists". To get around this problem of an ill-fitting straw man, Dever employs another rhetorical strategy and asserts that the minimalist believes there was "no 'early Israel'". Shanks, similarly, declares that Whitelam would have us accept that ancient Israel "never existed" - just as the past is supposed to not exist for the historiographer who dares to question historical representationalism. However, to recognise (either implicitly or explicitly) that wie es eigentlich gewesen is beyond our epistemologies is not to make a metaphysical claim (which, in any case, is unargued by those who would suggest that holding the past to not exist is absurd), nor is it to suggest that we must let go the reins and accept all readings as equally valid.

    In summarising his article, Whitelam makes an obvious point:

    Biblical minimalism will not die because it does not exist as a coherent, self-conscious, closely articulated movement.

    The failure of the frequently vigorous attempts to combat the ostensibly similarly dangerous doctrines of the "postmodernists" and "antirepresentationalists" in historiography and philosophy respectively may be attributed to the same, apparently lamentable circumstance that the targets of all this collective and righteous indignation simply do not exist. These relativists and nihilists appear to keep coming back for more, in spite of the best efforts of Rendsburg, Dever and others, because they are not there to be hit in the first place. By employing criticism that misunderstands the methodology of its opponents, fails to identify them meaningfully or to demarcate between degrees of supposed folly and relies wholly on a "rhetoric of misrepresentation", it is little wonder that minimalism still haunts the dreams of those who would presume to dictate the direction of learning while demonstrating their own unwillingness to do so.

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