Monday, October 27, 2008

If You're Not a Maximalist . . .

Then you must be a . . . minimalist? Apparently, the categories of minimalist and maximalist in Biblical Studies exist in a bi-polar opposition. That is, you must be one or the other. Since I critiqued Anson Rainey's BAR article in my last post and Rainey is clearly a maximalist, then I must be a minimalist. This appears to be the logic used by Jim West to induct me into the quasi-facetious illustrious Guild of Biblical Minimalists. While I appreciate the honor of receiving the attention of the guild, I feel compelled to point out that I will critique all equally, and membership will not restrict me from similarly pointing out the issues, weaknesses, and logical fallacies found in the published work of the other members of the guild, especially the Council of Five. Some of their attempts to venture into Semitic epigraphy have been just as ill conceived and illogical as Rainey's mishmash of archaeology, Bible, and linguistics. You see, I'm a true minimalist . . . questioning everyone and finding everyone else is wrong. No one is safe. Besides, when you have two opposing forces driven by powerful ideological commitments arguing over an issue, you'll often find the truth (i.e., the best probable answer) is somewhere in the middle - unacceptable to each side because it brings in more of the other side than either would like to admit.


  1. Hmmmm... the term 'minimalist', along with terms such as 'nihilist', 'post-modernist', etc, were used as polemical terms by conservative and apologetic biblical scholars over the last 2 decades. The joke is that those falsely so accused are now claiming the term for themselves. 'Guild' is another such polemical term, amusingly reversed on the polemicists.

    As Philip Davies wrote a few years ago, some of the polemicists who use the term 'minimalist' themselves hold positions largely indistinguishable from those they label 'minimalists'. Few biblical scholars accept much of the enneateuch as simple 'history'.

    I agree with your sentiment in not wanting to be labelled one way or the other -- but this is exactly the ironic point of the Guild website, expressed via the genre of satire.

    I disagree, however, with truth lying "somewhere in the middle". I don't like the metaphor. It always sounds to me like some combination of both sides will yield the truth, and that they have already found it -- if they could just rearrange the pieces. To the contrary, I think the real advances come by subsuming both positions under a new paradigm altogether unthinkable by both parties.

  2. NT,

    You may not like the metaphor but I think we end up in pretty much the same place. The point is that neither side is "right" because the evidence inevitably points to conclusions "unthinkable by both parties" as you've said. And it's never so simple as rearranging or combining the two sides to find the answer. I agree that a new paradigm is often needed. The minimalists (in the classic Copenhagen/Sheffield sense) ask important questions and much of their work has brought to light serious methodological issues in the scholarly work on Bible and ANE history. The questions were good, but I often disagree with their answers just as much as I disagree with Rainey. If being a minimalist simply means questioning long held consensus positions resting on no evidence and bad arguments, then sign me up! Of course, Jim already did. I wonder, will the Guild offer membership cards? I have a nice laminated one from SBL.

  3. Yeah - we agree in substance. Rethink everything, always. (BTW: I'm currently considering historicity of the Abraham narrative -- although not in any sense conveyed by Genesis.)

    'Christians' named themselves after what was a polemical term, as have a lot of religious groups. And look where that movement is today. So, I'm sure the Guild will take off in a similar way, and will start offering membership cards -- even laminated ones. What did Rodney Stark say? You only need 40% growth per year to go from small sect to Official Religion of the Empire. I think the Guild has grown at least that fast, especially with the involuntary membership sign-ups.