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The historicity of the Bible is the question of its "acceptability as history," in the phrase of Thomas L. Thompson, a scholar who has written widely on this topic as it relates to the Old Testament. This can be extended to the question of the Christian New Testament as an accurate record of the historical Jesus and the Apostolic Age.
Many fields of study compare the Bible and history, ranging from archeology and astronomy to linguistics and comparative literature. Scholars also examine the historical context of Bible passages, the importance ascribed to events by the authors, and the contrast between the descriptions of these events and historical evidence.
The Bible exists in multiple manuscripts, none of them autographs, and multiple canons, none of which completely agree on which books have sufficient authority to be included or their order (see Books of the Bible).
To determine the accuracy of a copied manuscript, textual critics scrutinize the way the transcripts have passed through history to their extant forms. The higher the volume of the earliest texts (and their parallels to each other), the greater the textual reliability and the less chance that the transcript's content has been changed over the years. Multiple copies may also be grouped into text types (see New Testament text types), with some types judged closer to the hypothetical original than others. Differences often extend beyond minor variations and may involve, for instance, interpolation of material central to issues of historicity and doctrine, such as the ending of Mark 16.
The books comprising the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament (the two are almost, but not exactly, the same) were written largely in Biblical Hebrew, with a few exceptions in Biblical Aramaic. Today it exists in several traditions, including the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint 47 books (a Greek translation widely used in the period from the 3rd century BCE to roughly the 5th century CE, and still regarded as authoritative by the Orthodox Christian churches), the Samaritan Torah, the Westminster containing the modern 39 books, and others. Variations between these traditions are useful for reconstructing the most likely original text, and for tracing the intellectual histories of various Jewish and Christian communities. The very oldest fragment resembling part of the text of the Hebrew Bible so far discovered is a small silver amulet, dating from approximately 600 BCE, and containing a version of the Priestly Blessing ("May God make his face to shine upon you...").
According to the dominant theory called Greek primacy, the New Testament was originally written in Greek, of which 5,650 handwritten copies have survived in Greek, over 10,000 in Latin. When other languages are included, the total of ancient copies approaches 25,000. The next ancient text to come close to rivaling that number is Homer's Iliad, which is thought to have survived in 643 ancient copies. Recognizing this, F. E. Peters remarked that "on the basis of manuscript tradition alone, the works that make up the Christians' New Testament texts were the most frequently copied and widely circulated [surviving] books of antiquity". (This may be due to their preservation, popularity, and distribution brought about by the ease of seaborne travel and the many roads constructed during the time of the Roman Empire). When a comparison is made between the seven major critical editions of the Greek NT verse-by-verse – namely Tischendorf, Westcott-Hort, Von Soden, Vogels, Merk, Bover, and Nestle-Aland – 62.9% of verses are variant free.
A four gospel canon (the Tetramorph) was first asserted by Irenaeus, c. 180. The many other gospels that then existed were eventually deemed non-canonical (see Biblical canon) and suppressed. In his Easter letter of 367, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, gave a list of exactly the same books as what would become the New Testament canon, and he used the phrase "being canonized" (kanonizomena) in regards to them. The Council of Rome in 382 under the authority of Pope Damasus I issued an identical canon, and his decision to commission the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible, c. 383, was instrumental in the fixation of the canon in the West. See Development of the New Testament canon for details.
The Hebrew Bible is not a single book but rather a collection of texts, most of them anonymous, and most of them the product of more or less extensive editing prior to reaching their modern form. These texts are in many different genres, but three distinct blocks approximating modern narrative history can be made out.
God creates the world; the world God creates is good, but it becomes thoroughly corrupted by man's decision to sin. God destroys all but the eight remaining righteous people in a deluge and shortens man's lifespan significantly. God selects Abraham to inherit the land of Canaan. The children of Israel, Abraham's grandson, go into Egypt, where their descendants are enslaved. The Israelites are led out of Egypt by Moses (Exodus) and receive the laws of God, who renews the promise of the land of Canaan.
The Israelites conquer the land of Canaan under Joshua, successor to Moses. Under the Judges they live in a state of constant conflict and insecurity, until the prophet Samuel anoints Saul as king over them. Saul proves unworthy, and God selects David as his successor. Under David the Israelites are united and conquer their enemies, and under Solomon his son they live in peace and prosperity. But the kingdom is divided under Solomon's successors, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and the kings of Israel fall away from God and eventually the people of the north are taken into captivity by outsiders. Judah, unlike Israel, has some kings who follow God, but many do not, and eventually it too is taken into captivity, and the Temple of God built by Solomon is destroyed.
(Chronicles begins by reprising the history of the Torah and the Deuteronomistic history, with some differences over details. It introduces new material following its account of the fall of Jerusalem, the event which concludes the Deuteronomic history). The Babylonians, who had destroyed the Temple and taken the people into captivity, are themselves defeated by the Persians under their king Cyrus. Cyrus permits the exiles to return to Jerusalem. The Temple is rebuilt, and the Laws of Moses are read to the people.
(Several other books of the Hebrew Bible are set in a historical context or otherwise give information which can be regarded as historical, although these books do not present themselves as histories).
The prophets Amos and Hosea write of events during the 8th century kingdom of Israel; the prophet Jeremiah writes of events preceding and following the fall of Judah; Ezekiel writes of events during and preceding the exile in Babylon; and other prophets similarly touch on various periods, usually those in which they write.
Several books are included in some canons but not in others. Among these, Maccabees is a purely historical work of events in the 2nd century BCE. Others are not historical in orientation but are set in historical contexts or reprise earlier histories, such as Enoch, an apocalyptic work of the 2nd century BCE.
While the authorship of some of the Pauline epistles is largely undisputed, there is no scholarly consensus on the authors of the other books of the New Testament, which most modern scholars acknowledge as pseudonymous autographs written more than a generation after the events they describe.
Jesus is born to Joseph and Mary; he is baptised by John the Baptist and begins a preaching and healing mission in Galilee; he comes up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, is arrested, tried, condemned, and crucified. He is raised from the dead by God, appears before his followers, issuing the Great Commission, and ascends to Heaven, to sit at the Right Hand of God, with a promise to return. The followers of Jesus, who had been fearful following the Crucifixion, are encouraged by Jesus' resurrection and continue to practice and to preach his teachings. The Apostle Paul preaches throughout the eastern Mediterranean, is arrested, and appeals. He is sent to Rome for trial, and the narrative breaks off.
The epistles (literally "letters") are largely concerned with theology, but the theological arguments they present form a "history of theology". Revelation deals with the last judgement and the end of the world.
Prior to the 19th century, textual analysis of the Bible itself was the only tool available to extract and evaluate whatever historical data it contained. The past two hundred years, however, have seen a proliferation of new sources of data and analytical tools, including:
The meaning of the term "history" is itself dependent on social and historical context. Paula McNutt, for instance, notes that the Old Testament narratives "do not record 'history' in the sense that history is understood in the twentieth century ... The past, for biblical writers as well as for twentieth-century readers of the Bible, has meaning only when it is considered in light of the present, and perhaps an idealized future." (p. 4, emphasis added)
Biblical history has also diversified its focus during the modern era. The project of biblical archaeology associated with W.F. Albright, which sought to validate the historicity of the events narrated in the Bible through the ancient texts and material remains of the Near East, has a more specific focus compared to the more expansive view of history described by archaeologist William Dever. In discussing the role of his discipline in interpreting the biblical record, Dever has pointed to multiple histories within the Bible, including the history of theology (the relationship between God and believers), political history (usually the account of "Great Men"), narrative history (the chronology of events), intellectual history (ideas and their development, context and evolution), socio-cultural history (institutions, including their social underpinnings in family, clan, tribe and social class and the state), cultural history (overall cultural evolution, demography, socio-economic and political structure and ethnicity), technological history (the techniques by which humans adapt to, exploit and make use of the resources of their environment), natural history (how humans discover and adapt to the ecological facts of their natural environment), and material history (artefacts as correlates of changes in human behaviour).
A special challenge for assessing the historicity of the Bible is sharply differing perspectives on the relationship between narrative history and theological meaning. Supporters of biblical literalism "deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood." But prominent scholars have expressed diametrically opposing views: "[T]he stories about the promise given to the patriarchs in Genesis are not historical, nor do they intend to be historical; they are rather historically determined expressions about Israel and Israel's relationship to its God, given in forms legitimate to their time, and their truth lies not in their facticity, nor in the historicity, but their ability to express the reality that Israel experienced."
This apparently irreconcilable clash of views is most acute for the questions of the greatest contemporary political significance (such as the promise of land by God to Abraham) and theological import (the Virgin Birth and Resurrection of Jesus), which are also the "events" that have proved the least susceptible to extra-biblical confirmation.
There had always been a critical tradition dating back to at least St Augustine of Hippo (354–430), with interpretations "plainly at variance with what are commonly perceived in evangelicalism as traditional views of Genesis." The Jewish tradition has also maintained a critical thread in its approach to biblical primeval history. The influential medieval philosopher Maimonides maintained a skeptical ambiguity towards creation ex nihilo and considered the stories about Adam more as "philosophical anthropology, rather than as historical stories whose protagonist is the 'first man'." Greek philosophers Aristotle, Critolaus and Proclus held that the world was eternal.
The birth of geology was marked by the publication of James Hutton's Theory of the Earth in 1788. This marked the intellectual revolution that would dethrone Genesis as the ultimate authority on primeval earth and prehistory. The first casualty was the Creation story itself, and by the early 19th century "no responsible scientist contended for the literal credibility of the Mosaic account of creation." (p. 224) The battle between uniformitarianism and catastrophism kept the Flood alive in the emerging discipline, until Adam Sedgwick, the president of the Geological Society, publicly recanted his previous support in his 1831 presidential address:
We ought indeed to have paused before we first adopted the diluvian theory, and referred all our old superficial gravel to the action of the Mosaic Flood. For of man, and the works of his hands, we have not yet found a single trace among the remnants of the former world entombed in those deposits.
All of which left the "first man" and his putative descendants in the awkward position of being stripped of all historical context until Charles Darwin naturalized the Garden of Eden with the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. Public acceptance of this scientific revolution was, and remains, uneven but the mainstream scholarly community soon arrived at a consensus, which holds today, that Genesis 1–11 is a highly schematic literary work representing theology/mythology rather than history.
A central pillar of the Bible's historical authority was the tradition that it had been composed by the principal actors or eyewitnesses to the events described – the Pentateuch was the work of Moses, Joshua was by Joshua, and so on. But the Protestant Reformation had brought the actual texts to a much wider audience, which combined with the growing climate of intellectual ferment in the 17th century that was the start of the Age of Enlightenment threw a harsh sceptical spotlight on these traditional claims. In Protestant England the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his major work Leviathan (1651) denied Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and identified Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles as having been written long after the events they purported to describe. His conclusions rested on internal textual evidence, but in an argument that resonates with modern debates, he noted: "Who were the original writers of the several Books of Holy Scripture, has not been made evident by any sufficient testimony of other History, (which is the only proof of matter of fact)."
The Jewish philosopher and pantheist Baruch Spinoza echoed Hobbes's doubts about the provenance of the historical books in his A Theologico-Political Treatise (published in 1670), and elaborated on the suggestion that the final redaction of these texts was post-exilic under the auspices of Ezra (Chapter IX). He had earlier been effectively excommunicated by the rabbinical council of Amsterdam for his perceived heresies. The French priest Richard Simon brought these critical perspectives to the Catholic tradition in 1678, observing "the most part of the Holy Scriptures that are come to us, are but Abridgments and as Summaries of ancient Acts which were kept in the Registries of the Hebrews," in what was probably the first work of biblical textual criticism in the modern sense.
In response Jean Astruc, applying source criticism methods common in the analysis of classical secular texts to the Pentateuch, believed he could detect four different manuscript traditions, which he claimed Moses himself had redacted. (p. 62–64) His 1753 book initiated the school known as higher criticism that culminated in Julius Wellhausen formalising the documentary hypothesis in the 1870s, which in various modified forms still dominates understanding of the composition of the historical narratives.
By the end of the 19th century the scholarly consensus was that the Pentateuch was the work of many authors writing from 1000 BCE (the time of David) to 500 BCE (the time of Ezra) and redacted c.450, and as a consequence whatever history it contained was more often polemical than strictly factual – a conclusion reinforced by the then fresh scientific refutations of what were at the time widely classed as biblical mythologies, as discussed above.
In the following decades Hermann Gunkel drew attention to the mythic aspects of the Pentateuch, and Albrecht Alt, Martin Noth and the tradition history school argued that although its core traditions had genuinely ancient roots, the narratives were fictional framing devices and were not intended as history in the modern sense. Though doubts have been cast on the historiographic reconstructions of this school (particularly the notion of oral traditions as a primary ancient source), much of its critique of biblical historicity found wide acceptance. Gunkel's observation that
if, however, we consider figures like Abraham, Issac, and Jacob to be actual persons with no original mythic foundations, that does not at all mean that they are historical figures ... For even if, as may well be assumed, there was once a man call 'Abraham,' everyone who knows the history of legends is sure that the legend is in no position at the distance of so many centuries to preserve a picture of the personal piety of Abraham. The 'religion of Abraham' is, in reality, the religion of the legend narrators which they attribute to Abraham
has in various forms become a commonplace of contemporary criticism.
In the United States the biblical archaeology movement, under the influence of Albright, counter-attacked, arguing that the broad outline within the framing narratives was also true, so that while scholars could not realistically expect to prove or disprove individual episodes from the life of Abraham and the other patriarchs, these were real individuals who could be placed in a context proven from the archaeological record. But as more discoveries were made, and anticipated finds failed to materialise, it became apparent that archaeology did not in fact support the claims made by Albright and his followers. Today, only a minority of scholars continue to work within this framework, mainly for reasons of religious conviction. William Dever stated in 1993 that "[Albright's] central theses have all been overturned, partly by further advances in Biblical criticism, but mostly by the continuing archaeological research of younger Americans and Israelis to whom he himself gave encouragement and momentum ... The irony is that, in the long run, it will have been the newer 'secular' archaeology that contributed the most to Biblical studies, not 'Biblical archaeology'."
The scholarly history of the Deuteronomic history parallels that of the Pentateuch: the European tradition history school argued that the narrative was untrustworthy and could not be used to construct a narrative history; the American Albright school asserted that it could when tested against the archaeological record; and modern archaeological techniques proved crucial in deciding the issue. The test case was the book of Joshua and its account of a rapid, destructive conquest of the Canaanite cities: but by the 1960s it had become clear that the archaeological record did not, in fact, support the account of the conquest given in Joshua: the cities which the Bible records as having been destroyed by the Israelites were either uninhabited at the time, or, if destroyed, were destroyed at widely different times, not in one brief period. The most high-profile example was the "fall of Jericho."
John Garstang, who excavated in the 1930s, announced that he had found fallen walls dating to the time of the biblical Battle of Jericho. However, Garstang later revised the destruction to a much earlier period. Kathleen Kenyon dated the destruction of the walled city to the middle of the 16th century (c. 1550 BC), too early to match the usual dating of the Exodus to Pharaoh Ramses, on the basis of her excavations in the early 1950s. The same conclusion, based on an analysis of all the excavation findings, was reached by Piotr Bienkowski.
Proponents of this theory also point to the fact that the division of the land into two entities, centered at Jerusalem and Shechem, goes back to the Egyptian rule of Israel in the New Kingdom. Solomon's empire is said to have stretched from the Euphrates in the north to the Red Sea in the south; it would have required a large commitment of men and arms and a high level of organization to conquer, subdue, and govern this area. But there is little archaeological evidence of Jerusalem being a sufficiently large city in the 10th century BCE, and Judah seems to be sparsely settled in that time period. Since Jerusalem has been destroyed and then subsequently rebuilt approximately 15 to 20 times since the time of David and Solomon, some argue much of the evidence could easily have been eliminated.
None of the conquests of David nor Solomon are mentioned in contemporary histories. Culturally, the Bronze Age collapse is otherwise a period of general cultural impoverishment of the whole Levantine region, making it difficult to consider the existence of any large territorial unit such as the Davidic kingdom, whose cultural features rather seem to resemble the later kingdom of Hezekiah or Josiah than the political and economic conditions of the 11th century. The biblical account makes no claim that Israel directly governed the areas included in their empires which are portrayed instead as tributaries. However, since the discovery of an inscription dating to the 9th or 8th century BCE on the Tel Dan Stele unearthed in the north of Israel, which may refer to the "house of David" as a monarchic dynast, the debate has continued. This is still disputed. There is a debate as to whether the united monarchy, the empire of King Solomon, and the rebellion of Jeroboam ever existed, or whether they are a late fabrication. The Mesha Stele, dated to c. 840 BCE, may reference the House of David, and mentions events and names found in Kings.
There is a problem with the sources for this period of history. There are no contemporary independent documents other than the accounts of the Books of Samuel, which exhibits too many anachronisms to have been a contemporary account. For example there is mention of late armor (1 Samuel 17:4–7, 38–39; 25:13), use of camels (1 Samuel 30:17), and cavalry (as distinct from chariotry) (1 Samuel 13:5, 2 Samuel 1:6), iron picks and axes (as though they were common, (2 Samuel 12:31), sophisticated siege techniques (2 Samuel 20:15). There is a gargantuan troop (2 Samuel 17:1), a battle with 20,000 casualties (2 Samuel 18:7), and a reference to Kushite paramilitary and servants, clearly giving evidence of a date in which Kushites were common, after the 26th Dynasty of Egypt, the period of the last quarter of the 8th century BCE.
The historicity of some NT teachings of Jesus is also currently debated among biblical scholars. The "quest for the historical Jesus" began as early as the 18th century, and has continued to this day. The most notable recent scholarship came in the 1980s and 1990s with the work of J. D. Crossan, James D. G. Dunn, John P. Meier, E. P. Sanders and N. T. Wright being the most widely read and discussed. The earliest New Testament texts which refer to Jesus, Paul's letters, are usually dated in the 50s CE. Since Paul records very little of Jesus' life and activities, these are of little help in determining facts about the life of Jesus, although they may contain references to information given to Paul from the eyewitnesses of Jesus.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has shed light into the context of 1st century Judea, noting the diversity of Jewish belief as well as shared expectations and teachings. For example the expectation of the coming messiah, the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount and much else of the early Christian movement are found to have existed within apocalyptic Judaism of the period. This has had the effect of centering Early Christianity much more within its Jewish roots than was previously the case. It is now recognised that Rabbinical Judaism and Early Christianity are only two of the many strands which survived until the Jewish revolt of 66 to 70 CE, see also Split of early Christianity and Judaism.
Most modern scholars hold that the canonical Gospel accounts were written between 70 and 100 or 110 CE, four to eight decades after the crucifixion, although based on earlier traditions and texts, such as "Q", Logia or sayings gospels, the passion account or other earlier literature (See List of Gospels). Some scholars argue that these accounts were compiled by witnesses although this view is disputed by other scholars. There are also secular references to Jesus, although they are few and quite late. Almost all historical critics agree, however, that a historical figure named Jesus taught throughout the Galilean countryside c. 30 CE, was believed by his followers to have performed supernatural acts, and was sentenced to death by the Romans, possibly for insurrection.
Many scholars have pointed out, that the Gospel of Mark shows signs of a lack of knowledge of geographical, political and religious matters in Judea in the time of Jesus. Thus, today the most common opinion is, that the author is unknown and both geographically and historically at a distance to the narrated events although opinion varies and scholars such as Craig Blomberg accept the more traditional view. The use of expressions that may be described as awkward and rustic cause the Gospel of Mark to appear somewhat unlettered or even crude. This may be attributed to the influence that Saint Peter, a fisherman, is suggested to have on the writing of Mark. The writers of the Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Luke used Mark as a source, with changes and improvement to peculiarities and crudities in Mark.
The absence of evidence of Jesus' life before his meeting with John the Baptist has led to many speculations. It would seem that part of the explanation may lie in the early conflict between Paul and the Desposyni Ebionim, led by James the Just, supposedly the brother of Jesus, that led to Gospel passages critical of Jesus' family.
The historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles, the primary source for the Apostolic Age, is a major issue for biblical scholars and historians of Early Christianity.
While some biblical scholars view the Book of Acts as being extremely accurate and corroborated by archaeology, others view the work as being inaccurate and in conflict with the Pauline epistles. Acts portrays Paul as more in line with Jewish Christianity, while the Pauline epistles record more conflict, such as the Incident at Antioch, see also Paul the Apostle and Judaism.
An educated reading of the biblical text requires knowledge of when it was written, by whom, and for what purpose. For example, many academics would agree that the Pentateuch was in existence some time shortly after the 6th century BCE, but they disagree about when it was written. Proposed dates vary from the 15th century BCE to the 6th century BCE. One popular hypothesis points to the reign of Josiah (7th century BCE). In this hypothesis, the events of, for example, Exodus would have happened centuries before they were finally edited. This topic is expanded upon in dating the Bible.
An important point to keep in mind is the documentary hypothesis, which using the biblical evidence itself, claims to demonstrate that our current version was based on older written sources that were lost. Although it has been modified heavily over the years, most scholars accept some form of this hypothesis. There have also been and are a number of scholars who reject it, for example Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen and the late Umberto Cassuto and Gleason Archer.
The major split of biblical Scholarship into two opposing schools is strongly disapproved by non-fundamentalist biblical scholars, as being an attempt by so-called "conservative" Christians to portray the field as a bipolar argument, of which only one side is correct.
Recently the difference between the Maximalist and Minimalist has reduced, however a new school started with a work, "The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel" by Israel Finkelstein, Amihai Mazar, and Brian B. Schmidt. This school argues that post-processual archaeology enables us to recognise the existence of a middle ground between Minimalism and Maximalism, and that both these extremes need to be rejected. Archaeology offers both confirmation of parts of the biblical record and also poses challenges to the naive interpretations made by some. The careful examination of the evidence demonstrates that the historical accuracy of the first part of the Old Testament is greatest during the reign of Josiah. Some feel that the accuracy diminishes, the further backwards one proceeds from this date. This they claim would confirm that a major redaction of the texts seems to have occurred at about that date.
The viewpoint sometimes called Biblical minimalism generally hold that the Bible is principally a theological and apologetic work, and all stories within it are of an aetiological character. The early stories are held to have a historical basis that was reconstructed centuries later, and the stories possess at most only a few tiny fragments of genuine historical memory—which by their definition are only those points which are supported by archaeological discoveries. In this view, all of the stories about the biblical patriarchs are fictional, and the patriarchs mere legendary eponyms to describe later historical realities. Further, biblical minimalists hold that the twelve tribes of Israel were a later construction, the stories of King David and King Saul were modeled upon later Irano-Hellenistic examples, and that there is no archaeological evidence that the united kingdom of Israel, which the Bible says that David and Solomon ruled over an empire from the Euphrates to Eilath, ever existed.
In published books, one of the early advocates of the current school of thought known as biblical minimalism is Giovanni Garbini, Storia e ideologia nell'Israele antico (1986), translated into English as History and Ideology in Ancient Israel (1988). In his footsteps followed Thomas L. Thompson with his lengthy Early History of the Israelite People: From the Written & Archaeological Sources (1992) and, building explicitly on Thompson's book, P. R. Davies' shorter work, In Search of 'Ancient Israel' (1992). In the latter, Davies finds historical Israel only in archaeological remains, biblical Israel only in Scripture, and recent reconstructions of "ancient Israel" to be an unacceptable amalgam of the two. Thompson and Davies see the entire Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) as the imaginative creation of a small community of Jews at Jerusalem during the period which the Bible assigns to after the return from the Babylonian exile, from 539 BCE onward. Niels Peter Lemche, Thompson's fellow faculty member at the University of Copenhagen, also followed with several titles that show Thompson's influence, including The Israelites in history and tradition (1998). The presence of both Thompson and Lemche at the same institution has led to the use of the term "Copenhagen school". The effect of biblical minimalism from 1992 onward was debate with more than two points of view
There is no scholarly controversy on the historicity of the events recounted after the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE, but there is great controversy concerning earlier data. The positions of "maximalists" vs. "minimalists" refer primarily to the monarchy period, spanning the 10th to 7th centuries BCE. The maximalist position holds that the accounts of the United Monarchy and the early kings of Israel, king David and king Saul, are to be taken as largely historical.
In 2001, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman published the book The Bible Unearthed. Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts which advocated a view midway toward biblical minimalism and caused an uproar among many conservatives. In the 25th anniversary issue of Biblical Archeological Review(March/April 2001 edition), editor Hershel Shanks quoted several biblical scholars who insisted that minimalism was dying, although leading minimalists deny this and a claim has been made "We are all minimalists now".
Apart from the well-funded (and fundamentalist) “biblical archaeologists,” we are in fact nearly all “minimalists” now.—Philip Davies, "Beyond Labels: What Comes Next?"
The fact is that we are all minimalists -- at least, when it comes to the patriarchal period and the settlement. When I began my PhD studies more than three decades ago in the USA, the 'substantial historicity' of the patriarchs was widely accepted as was the unified conquest of the land. These days it is quite difficult to find anyone who takes this view.
In fact, until recently I could find no 'maximalist' history of Israel since Wellhausen. ... In fact, though, 'maximalist' has been widely defined as someone who accepts the biblical text unless it can be proven wrong. If so, very few are willing to operate like this, not even John Bright (1980) whose history is not a maximalist one according to the definition just given.—Lester L. Grabbe, "Some Recent Issues in the Study of the History of Israel"
In 2003, Kenneth Kitchen, a scholar who adopts a more maximalist point of view, authored the book On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Kitchen advocated the reliability of many (though not all) parts of the Torah and in no uncertain terms criticizes the work of Finkelstein and Silberman, to which Finkelstein has since responded.
Jennifer Wallace describes archaeologist Israel Finkelstein's view in her article Shifting Ground in the Holy Land, appearing in Smithsonian Magazine, May 2006:
However, despite problems with the archaeological record, some maximalists place Joshua in the mid second millennium, at about the time the Egyptian Empire came to rule over Canaan, and not the 13th century as Finkelstein or Kitchen claim, and view the destruction layers of the period as corroboration of the biblical account. The destruction of Hazor in the mid-13th century is seen as corroboration of the biblical account of the later destruction carried out by Deborah and Barak as recorded in the Book of Judges. The location that Finkelstein refers to as "Ai" is generally dismissed as the location of the biblical Ai, since it was destroyed and buried in the 3rd millennium. The prominent site has been known by that name since at least Hellenistic times, if not before. Minimalists all hold that dating these events as contemporary are etiological explanations written centuries after the events they claim to report.
For the united monarchy both Finkelstein and Silberman do accept that David and Solomon were really existing persons (no kings but bandit leaders or hill country chieftains) from Judah about the 10th century BCE - they do not assume that there was such a thing as united monarchy with a capital in Jerusalem.
The Bible reports that Jehoshaphat, a contemporary of Ahab, offered manpower and horses for the northern kingdom's wars against the Arameans. He strengthened his relationship with the northern kingdom by arranging a diplomatic marriage: the Israelite princess Athaliah, sister or daughter of King Ahab, married Jehoram, the son of Jehoshaphat (2 Kings 8:18). The house of David in Jerusalem was now directly linked to (and apparently dominated by) the Israelite royalty of Samaria. In fact, we might suggest that this represented the north's takeover by marriage of Judah. Thus in the ninth century BCE—nearly a century after the presumed time of David—we can finally point to the historical existence of a great united monarchy of Israel, stretching from Dan in the north to Beer-sheba in the south, with significant conquered territories in Syria and Transjordan. But this united monarchy—a real united monarchy—was ruled by the Omrides, not the Davidides, and its capital was Samaria, not Jerusalem.—Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, David and Solomon. In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition.
Others such as David Ussishkin argue that those who follow the biblical depiction of a united monarchy do so on the basis of limited evidence while hoping to uncover real archaeological proof in the future. Gunnar Lehmann suggests that there is still a possibility that David and Solomon were able to become local chieftains of some importance and claims that Jerusalem at the time was at best a small town in a sparsely populated area in which alliances of tribal kinship groups formed the basis of society. He goes on further to claim that it was at best a small regional centre, one of three to four in the territory of Judah and neither David nor Solomon had the manpower or the requisite social/political/administrative structure to rule the kind of empire described in the Bible.
André Lemaire states in Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple that the principal points of the biblical tradition with Solomon as generally trustworthy, as does Kenneth Kitchen, who argue that Solomon ruled over a comparatively wealthy "mini-empire", rather than a small city-state.
Recently Finkelstein has joined with the more conservative Amihai Mazar, to explore the areas of agreement and disagreement and there are signs the intensity of the debate between the so-called minimalist and maximalist scholars is diminishing. This view is also taken by Richard S. Hess, which shows there is in fact a plurality of views between maximalists and minimalists. Jack Cargill has shown that popular textbooks not only fail to give readers the up to date archaeological evidence, but that they also fail to correctly represent the diversity of views present on the subject. And Megan Bishop Moore and Brad E. Kelle provide an overview of the respective evolving approaches and attendant controversies, especially during the period from the mid-1980s through 2011, in their book Biblical History and Israel's Past.
Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details of the Bible as a source of history.
But someone may ask: 'Is not Scripture opposed to those who hold that heaven is spherical, when it says, who stretches out heaven like a skin?' Let it be opposed indeed if their statement is false.... But if they are able to establish their doctrine with proofs that cannot be denied, we must show that this statement of Scripture about the skin is not opposed to the truth of their conclusions