Critical Biblical Scholarship—A Response

Alan Millard Responds to Ronald Hendel

Alan Millard

In the recent Biblical Views column “Critical Biblical Scholarship—What’s the Use?” Ronald Hendel claims, “There’s no good reason to be hostile toward good scholarship.”*

No one would disagree, but that begs the question, “What is good scholarship?” It is honest and balanced; it examines sources and evidence carefully and it weighs them disinterestedly. Critical scholars are, by definition, judging their subjects, and they rely upon certain standards to judge by.

What are those standards? Usually they are current ways of thinking, sometimes unconsciously adopted, and processes common in other scholarly disciplines (e.g., Classical studies, anthropology). They depend upon the consistency, logical arrangement and precision that scholars have come to expect from serious modern Western compositions.

The results of some two centuries of Biblical criticism have usually been negative. That is to say, they generally imply that the Biblical books are not what they claim to be—for the most part, their contents do not reflect events or attitudes of the periods they purport to describe. “A Biblical narrative reflects the historical context of its writing rather than the more distant past of its referent,” pronounces Thomas L. Thompson.1 So little, if any, of the Pentateuch comes from the hand of Moses; David and Solomon, assuming they existed, were minor rulers of a small area around Jerusalem; any oracles prophets may have uttered were adapted, expanded and edited centuries after they were spoken. Consequently, the Hebrew Bible is viewed as propaganda for a Judaism that arose in the Persian period or later; it has lost its claim to be an authoritative divine revelation.

Two simple examples illustrate the process of critical scholarship. In 1975, John van Seters published Abraham in History and Tradition,2 a book that has heavily influenced all studies of the Patriarchs since. He argued that there is no basis for the opinions of W. F. Albright and others who wrote that the biography of Abraham in Genesis describes life in the Middle Bronze Age (the early second millennium B.C.). Among the many reasons he gave was the rarity of references to tents in documents from that period, while the next millennium offered more (page 14). He does not explain why he prefers a later date for the Genesis narratives simply based on the rarity of references; the earlier alternative is simply ignored. Today we have more sources from the earlier period.3

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The second example concerns Sennacherib’s attack on King Hezekiah’s Judah. Some Hebrew Bible scholars have used various textual sources (e.g., Psalm 48) to trace a belief in “the inviolability of Zion” to the late in the seventh century B.C. in Judah. This theological theorizing led to a conception of Assyria’s failure to capture Jerusalem long after the events of 701 B.C., created to hide the fact that Hezekiah had actually surrendered to Sennacherib at Lachish to be allowed to keep his throne. This theory was promulgated despite the fact that the Assyrian emperor does not claim to have taken Jerusalem or to have met Hezekiah. His factual account tells of tribute sent to him at Nineveh at a later date, not one paid in Judah. This modern theory is founded on rewriting and contradicting the ancient reports.4

Few “critical” Biblical scholars are prepared to say that their studies lead them to accept that a Biblical book is what it says it is, or properly reflects what it claims to relate. The apparent contradictions in many of these studies are a major reason for questioning the results of Biblical criticism.

Critical scholarship often adopts a skeptical stance: Nothing in the Biblical text can be accepted without support from an independent source. A prime case in recent years concerns King David. Thomas Thompson stated, “The Bible’s stories about Saul, David and Solomon aren’t about history at all.”5 When a broken Aramaic inscription was unearthed at Tel Dan in 1993 mentioning the “house of David,” he and others used every means they could to avoid the conclusion that such an expression would refer to a dynasty founded by the man named David, though this would be a logical conclusion if taken from comparable ancient texts. As the phrase stands in the stele fragments in parallel with “king of Israel” and parts of Hebrew personal names, identifying the “David” with any other figure, real or imaginary, is surely far-fetched. This argument remains only because of the presupposition that David was not a historical figure.

Again, as noted, scholars commonly assert that writers in the late seventh and later centuries B.C. (the supposed lifetime(s) of author(s) of the Books of Samuel) could not know about earlier centuries.

Ronald Hendel

By then, “Iron I realities have already disappeared, even from the collective memory,” according to Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein. Therefore the description of Goliath’s armor in 1 Samuel 17 has to be assessed in light of the military equipment of the seventh century. Finkelstein asserts that “as an assemblage, the description perfectly fits the armament of Greek hoplites …,” although he admits that the hoplites did not wear scale armor as Goliath did. To overcome the discrepancy, he supposes that Assyrian elements were mixed into the description, or that some hoplites adopted Near Eastern scale armor. Furthermore, as the descriptions and depictions of Greek hoplites never include shieldbearers, he suggests that they, too, may be an Assyrian element, for they appear on some Assyrian reliefs. While Finkelstein properly explores ancient contexts, he does not consider that the Hebrew historian may have received information about “Iron I realities” from older sources. If this is taken into consideration, as good of a case can be made for setting Goliath’s armor in an 11th-century context as a seventh-century one.6

Skeptical authors skew Biblical scholarship by failing to allow for alternative opinions, and thereby mislead their readers.

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Any ancient document deserves to be treated with respect. Each one is a survivor from the past, so to belittle or deny its testimony risks minimizing or losing its contribution to our knowledge of history. Critical study, it can hardly be contested, should put as much effort into examining the reality of a document’s claims as it does into refuting them. Biblical texts need to be read against the contexts they presuppose. Therefore, a “respectful” attitude should primarily attempt to discover whether the Biblical content reliably mirrors its time, relying upon whatever could be drawn from the ancient sources.

If that produces clear corroboration of the Hebrew text, then it should be accepted. There have been many cases where that has happened. In the 19th century, experts were bewildered by Biblical and Greek references to an Assyrian king Pul, whose name does not appear in the cuneiform inscriptions. He was later identified as King Tiglath-Pileser (III).7

Even if a “respectful” attitude does no more than show that a statement is compatible with its context, it establishes that the statement may accurately reflect the situation. As such, it should only be counted as imaginary or fictional if an indubitable case were brought against it. For example, in light of the usage of gold in antiquity, commentators should not dismiss King Solomon’s lavish decoration of the Temple as easily as many have done in the past.** If a book dates to a time long after the events it relates, it does not necessarily deny the reality of its narrative.

Biblical scholars, whether critical, skeptical or respectful, should recognize that alternatives may exist and need to take care not to express their conclusions as certainties when there is room for doubt. The Bible is a legacy from antiquity. Biblical scholars should be aware that whatever conclusions they may reach, the text will outlast them!

To read additional author’s responses to readers’ queries click here.



Alan Millard is Emeritus Rankin Professor of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages at the University of Liverpool and author of Eponyms of the Assyrian Empire, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus and Treasures from Bible Times, among others.




* See Ronald S. Hendel, “Critical Biblical Scholarship—What’s the Use?” BAR, July/August 2012, 22, 62.

** See Alan Millard, “Does the Bible Exaggerate King Solomon’s Golden Wealth?” BAR, May/June 1989, pp. 20-29, 31, 34.

1. Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (New York: Basic Books, 1999), pp. 66, 67.

2. John van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1975), p. 14.

3. See M. M. Homan, To Your Tents, O Israel! The Terminology, Function, Form, and Symbolism of Tents in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (Leiden: Brill, 2002), p. 43.

4. See Alan Millard, “Sennacherib’s Attack on Jerusalem.” Tyndale Bulletin 36 (1985), pp. 61–77.

5. Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past, p. 206.

6. See Alan Millard, “The Armor of Goliath,” in D. Schloen, ed., Exploring the Longue Durée: Essays in Honor of Lawrence E. Stager (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2008), pp. 337-343; Philip J. King, “David Defeats Goliath,” in Sidnie White Crawford et al., eds., “Up to the Gates of Ekron.” Essays on the Archaeology and History of the Eastern Mediterranean in Honor of Seymour Gitin (Jerusalem: W. F. Albright Institute and Israel Exploration Society, 2007), pp. 350–357; Jeffrey R. Zorn, “Reconsidering Goliath: An Iron Age I Chariot Warrior,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 210 (2010), pp. 1-22.

7. Steven W. Holloway, “The Quest for Sargon, Pul and Tiglath-Pileser in the Nineteenth Century,” in Mark W. Chavalas and K. Lawson Younger, eds., Mesopotamia and the Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), pp. 68-87, see 73-79.

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  • gregory says

    hello Sir, Joseph smith rewrote John 1:1. Joseph Smith wrote “was of God” and the bible not rewritten by smith wrote “was God” did Smith striped Jesus of His deity ?

  • Lee says

    I support this article in a number of ways due to the fact that the author really hones in on something that is really universal in historical disciplines. The hermeneutic of suspicion, the inability to believe a text and automatically assume that it is not telling the truth has been more of hindrance to effective scholarship than aid, or at least in its now runaway form. The hermeneutic of suspicion set in as an interpretative framework in the sixties and seventies with a new generation of scholars growing up within the context of those times and the shift in political stances. Distrust and ultimately rejection of government, the media, and the general rebellion against anything claiming to be an “authority” and true witness extended into scholarly work and it became fashionable to be hostile to anything which purported to tell the truth.
    Examining the historiography of texts relating to my area of academic expertise, Ancient Mesopotamia, shows that in the earlier times, before 1965, the thrust of scholarship was to report what the text said and sought to explain it with supporting data. There were times when the scholar would have to tell the reader when the text failed to live up to the surrounding information or was shown to be inaccurate. But it is the tone that is most revealing; the tone was disappointment not hostility, it was tone that expressed hope to find the real events and believed that they were findable within the data set. The tone was one in which the scholar expressed the hope that with a little more digging the truth could be found and there was some basis to read, evaluate, and use the text.
    This shift in tone has changed the nature of scholarship and even the desire of many to be a scholar in the first place. I read the earlier journals and books and the author has excitement, love of the subject, interest, and eagerness to share but that has disappeared, Nowadays, there is open hostility and we look at the text and say, prove it! The tone of most modern journals is almost sad and downcast, a frustration with the text and almost a total lack of enthusiasm that we will ever find the information that we are looking for. What has supposedly made scholarship more factual has sucked the life out of the very process and made it a whip rather than a joyful pursuit of discovery. With a haughty laugh that indicates that we in some way think that we know more than the text, that our knowledge exceeds that of the authors. In some cases we do know more but that has come after long searching and hours of tedious study. Not instantly and certainly not without surprises.
    In sum, I think that we need to approach texts with more humility and allow the text to fail us rather than approach the text with an attitude that it has already failed us and our job is to dismiss and dismember texts with a scholarly axe. I would like to approach a text with an attitude that I can discover something and can find out more based on it rather than believe that my only task is to destroy what is before me. If nothing is true and nothing is what it says it is why even do the process of history or archaeology? Thank you BAR for posting this article.

  • David says

    Thanks so much. Religious folk like me who take the Bible more or less at its word have gotten an easy time of it because we can just disregard these charlatans posing as “scientists.” If they actually had scruples, they’d probably have some discomfiting things to say. :)

    Some of the readers here don’t get it.

    Paul: respectful means that the text is one of the sources you use to figure out what actually happened way back when. So if nothing contradicts it, then there’s no reason to doubt it. And if something contradicts it lightly, then you present both possibilities. And if something contradicts it completely and is indisputable (not sure of a good example) then unless you’re religious like me you say, okay, it’s wrong here (and if you’re Christian or Conservative then you can say it even you are religious).

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