Minimalism, Maximalism and Middlemalism

There’s been a bit of curfuffle lately about the (as yet unverified) ‘decyphering’ of an inscription on a pottery shard from Khirbet Qeiyafa by Prof Gershon Galil. I’ve written about my thoughts on the overblown press at Sabio’s blog (which he graciously incorporated into his post). I won’t go back over that.

The Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon

Credit: University of Haifa

Reactions to the decyphering are disappointing. Those favoring a minimalist historical view of the Hebrew Bible crying foul on Galil’s conclusions. Those favoring a maximalist view even going so far as to claim this is proof of the story of David and Golliath (though clearly no reasonable scholar is saying that)! Then there are those who buy into Finkelstein‘s middle way that try to balance both extremes.

I’m not a fan of either of these three approaches. I think we simply don’t have enough information to come to any of these conclusions. We have very scant documentary and archaeological evidence. The best we can do is to try to constrain the realms of possibility. It seems clear to me that the extremes are unlikely: the Hebrew bible isn’t accurate in every historical detail, neither it is the case that it was created from whole cloth at a much later date. If verified, this discovery helps to pull in those error bars somewhat. It helps us understand the evolution of the canaanite languages and to understand that people of C10 BCE at least had the notion of a king.

It would be refreshing to hear from more people willing to make clear that the range of scenarios that match the evidence is huge. There’s enough information to make hypotheses and give predictions, but nowhere near enough to determine where the truth lies.



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8 responses to “Minimalism, Maximalism and Middlemalism

  1. It seems clear to me that the extremes are unlikely: the Hebrew bible isn’t accurate in every historical detail, neither it is the case that it was created from whole cloth at a much later date.

    Would that be a general statement of Finkelstein’s position? And then you are saying that Finkelstein is generally correct but considers this theory more demonstrable than it really is?

    It seems unlikely things will change much from the current level of understanding, though likely the error bars will continue to move slightly inward as the extreme positions are deemed less likely by accumulated small evidences. Funny, the minimalist position could only be proven by an overwhelming absence of evidence, and since the evidence of those eras are not expected to be substantial, maximalists will continue to make their case.

  2. Hi Ian, hear is a comment you can delete, I didn’t see anywhere else to send a comment to you, your RSS link on the right side is incorrect I believe, it should be:

    Your blog sounds great and lines up with a lot of my interests. Thanks for starting it up!

  3. ian

    @attr – Thanks for commenting! Its a whole new blogging world 🙂

    The RSS link works for me, with At least, that’s what WordPress is generating automatically. I didn’t type that in. Are you not able to subscribe?

    As for Finkelstein. My understanding is that he wants to posit a middle ground. The middlemalism of the title. I think he’s likely to be more right than the extremists, but only by virtue of the fact that most probability distributions are fatter in the middle 🙂 I just think there is too much we don’t know. So much so that one strong discovery could significantly change the consensus. When there’s that much volatility, it is hard to take any confident pronouncements seriously.

  4. atimetorend

    Ian, the RSS link worked for me this time (google reader). I tested it before I commented, but maybe I made a mistake. Thanks.

  5. Yeah ! Ian has a blog !!

    Some thoughts:

    a) Liberal vs. Conservative, as political taxonomies goes in the USA is equally uninformative but not useless. It certainly tells us something — or gives us direction for the next step: Like asking if you mean in terms of economic policy, foreign policy or domestic policy?
    And labeling one’s self liberal or conservative in those subcategories would aid the dialogue further. Either to improving the categories or to exploring our thinking.

    I love taxonomies and think them useful. But I agree with your warning that it is important to realize how temporary and volunerable and human-made and loaded they are.

    But useful. At so it goes for the Minimalist-Maximallist labels. I didn’t know anything about them until 1 week ago. And the simple categories helped me along the way as I gradually improved the intricacies of the metaphor in my head.

    b) So, you are saying that though Finkelstein may be the best approximation to truth on this issue we have, you are warning that the variance in the data leads to an extremely high p-value and thus perhaps not really significant knowledge. Thus, hold on to your opinion but be aware, it won’t take but a few new data points and the best approximation could change again. Right?
    I don’t see how people who don’t have math models actually communicate ! (half-kidding at the risk of coming off a total snob)

    One question:
    Would you give us a short list of books to understand this biblical archeology debate. I imagine Finkelstein would be one. Keep it to less than 10 — and in order of preference. Sabio requests humbly.

  6. ian

    @attr Thanks for persevering, I’ll keep an eye out. Its a new server install so things might be flakey.

  7. ian


    b) Yes. Imagine you roll two dice and cover the result. One person might guess a 2, another 12, but you’d be better off guessing 7 (Finkelstein is maybe guessing 6 – he’s kind of low-balling because he’s migrated gradually from guessing 3 or 4 🙂 ). But no matter what guess you make you’re more likely to be wrong than right. And if you show me that one of your dice is a 6, well then things might change again. We can be pretty sure a 1 or a 13 isn’t right though.

    Now I know decent scholars know this, of course, but that isn’t the way it comes across sometimes. When a chunk of the scholarly community also have ideological skin in the game*, it is even harder to get perspective. That doesn’t mean their actual scholarship is suspect.

    c) Book list. I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer this. I’m not an expert by any means. I think it is probably best to start from something like Finkelstein’s David and Solomon. Not because it gives a good overview of the debate, but because it covers the material. The articles in “Understanding the History of Ancient Israel” (OUP) I found very interesting, if your library has it. Ken Kitchen’s “On the Reliability of the Old Testament” advocated historicity, but I didn’t find it convincing (I am probably predisposed more against the maximalist viewpoint – Kitchen is also a vocal opponent of the documentary hypothesis which I know more about and am pretty convinced by, so I probably was biased before I started). After that most of what I’ve read are papers published here or there.

    *The ideologies here are far more potent than just another inerrancy debate, of course, because they cut to the heart of the State of Israel’s historical thread to its legitimacy. The extreme minimalist position, that Israel was only a legitimate independent state for a hundred years or so between the Maccabean revolt and the Roman occupation, could be seen as anti-Zionist and therefore potentially anti-semitic. Whether or not it is true.

  8. The ideologies here are far more potent than just another inerrancy debate, of course, because they cut to the heart of the State of Israel’s historical thread to its legitimacy.

    Wow, that is important ! Indeed true !

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