Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Is Joshua Historical?

A few years ago, I mentioned in a post that the Theological University in Kampen (TUK), Netherlands, had awarded a doctorate to Koert van Bekkum for a dissertation that denied that in Joshua 10 the sun actually stood still or that the day was actually lengthened. According to him, this is just a literary device celebrating a great victory. His thesis has been controversial within the Gereformeerde Kerken Vrijgemaakt (GKV), which runs the TUK.

Recently, on June 2, 2012, the Synod of the GKV appointed Dr. van Bekkum as lecturer at the TUK. Since the GKV is a sister church to the Canadian Reformed Church, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at van Bekkum's disssertation and its theological implications.

Van Bekkum's Thesis
Dr Van Bekkum's thesis has since been published as From Conquest to Co-existence (Brill, 694pp, 2011), for the bargain price of $234.98 at Amazon.ca. If you can't afford a hard-copy, you can read it free online.

For readers with limited time, the substance of the thesis can be found in an interview (in Dutch) with Dr. van Bekkum. The title of the interview--"Not everything in Joshua really happened"--gives the bottom line. A more detailed critique (in English) has been written by A. Capellen.

A Questionable Methodology
Dr Van Bekkum states that he wants a dialogue between archaeological data and the Biblical text. What actually emerges, however, is a rather one-sided monologue where archaeological considerations dictate a radical re-interpretation of the Biblical text. In the Epilogue of his thesis he justifies this:

"...Christians should embrace the world as it is known through science and accept well interpreted evidence gratefully, for facts are stubborn things which are brought on our way by God’s providence.

So in the end, the ultimate reason not to use (systematic-)theological arguments, is a theological one: the trust in the truth cannot be valued as trust in God, if it is not willing to explore the diverse forms of reality on their own terms and to appreciate the results of this exploration as knowledge of God’s reality. For this knowledge is fairly limited by its nature, but still has to be considered to be real knowledge influencing the understanding of the Bible." (p.597)

In other words, we should consider the results of archaeology as God-given, and therefore re-interpret the Biblical text accordingly. The Bible is to be understood in the light of archaeology, rather than vice versa.

Reducing the Historicity of Joshua
One result of this is that Dr van Bekkum --primarily on archaeological grounds-- places the conquest at the late date of about 1220 BC (and the Exodus at about 1260 BC). This contradicts I Kings 6:1 (480 years between Exodus and the fourth year of Solomon's reign [about 967 BC]).

Consequently, Van Bekkum questions the historicity of much of Joshua. Thus, for example, Joshua did not conquer Jericho (contra Josh.2&6) or Ai (contra Josh.7-8), since according to van Bekkum these were uninhabited ruins at the time; the sun and moon did not actually stand still (contra Josh.10); the Canaanites did not have yet chariots of iron (contra Josh.17) at that time; the Israelites numbered only several 10,000 (not 600,000 men as per Num.26:51); etc.

Van Bekkum claims that the book of Joshua contains many exaggerations and literary story techniques. Not everything is intended to be taken as literally true.

The reviewer A. Capellen concludes:
All considered, Van Bekkum’s book has disappointed me...  In the thesis he has, in fact, continued the track he already started in a number of articles. They can be read in the bundles ‘Geloven in Zekerheid?’ [Faith in Certainty?]9 ‘De kwestie Geelkerken’ [The Geelkerken issue]10 and in the periodical ‘Theologia Reformata’.11 With reference to what is called there a ‘rational-positivistic’12 manner of dealing with Scripture these publications opened the door to an understanding of Scripture that that removes itself from the historic-grammatical literal exegesis.

In doing so Van Bekkum completely follows the line the TUK  has taken since the appearance of the bundle ‘Woord op schrift’. I cannot forgo the impression that in this respect he even has been instrumental for this new direction. Consequently we see the plea for the use of narrative conventions and a more metaphoric understanding of Scripture also return in this thesis even though the notion ‘metaphor’ is practically not used in this study.

Two Different Reactions
The GKV magazine Lux Mundi (March, 2012) has an interesting article entitled "Two Reactions to Koert van Bekkum's Dissertation".

One reaction is from Prof. Dr.J. Douma, formerly professor at the TUK. He is very critical of van Bekkum's assumption that the historical writing in the Bible must be judged as an aesthetic product:
"We must then pay attention to the artistic construction of the stories, discovering simplification, selectivity, and suggestive detail (p. 32 f.). Rhetorical devices such as hyperbole, exaggeration, and anachronism are signaled...this new way of reading the Bible signals a break with the way the TUK has done exegesis up till now..."

The article states:
Douma concludes by saying that he acknowledges Van Bekkum’s intention to subscribe to Article 5 of the Belgic Confession, where the Reformed Churches affirm that the Bible is inspired and totally trustworthy. However, according to Douma, Van Bekkum contradicts this confession by so qualifying its historical reliability that one no longer can speak of the Bible’s clear historical assertions.

So much disappears as “aesthetic construction” and “ideological propaganda” that the Bible is no longer is seen as communicating clearly what has happened in history. Miracles disappear in a mist of poetic rhetoric. This is a serious departure from orthodox Reformed exegesis, and is unacceptable as a contribution to Reformed theology.

I concur with Dr. Douma's assessment and concern. Yet, unfortunately, Dr. Douma himself, by reducing Genesis 1 to a mere literary device (see my earlier post), has set the stage for Dr. van Bekkum to likewise undermine the historicity of the book of Joshua. Dr van Bekkum is merely taking Dr. Douma's faulty reasoning one step further. And, no doubt, their students will take it further yet...to its logical conclusion. After all, once we can no longer accept all of Scripture as historically reliable, how can we be sure that any of it is?

The other, quite different, reaction is from Prof Dr Eric Peels, professor of Old Testament at the seminary of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken (CGK- sister church to the Free Reformed Churches in North America). Peels is very positive. He considers van Bekkum's work to be "beautiful", a "masterful job" for which he has "enormous appreciation". Such gushing enthusiasm does not bode well for the direction of the CGK.

The Lux Mundi article concludes:
The future will reveal which assessment is the most convincing to, and therefore which path is to be followed by the Reformed community in The Netherlands.

Just three months later, the synodical appointment of Dr. van Bekkum to the TUK has clearly indicated which path the GKV has chosen.


JohnV said...

Dr. Byl:

I have a question: if the book of Joshua is not historical then would the Bible not be unchanged if this book were removed from the canon? Does it have any revelational value left?

I ask this because, if one sees Joshual as only literary technique with no substance of truth to it, then it can be made to say anything, even everything, which is the same as saying nothing at all.

To put it in terms of the world's challenge to the believer: if the Bible (or any part of it)is not reliable as to history or science, then on what basis is it to be believed for its' spiritual value?

I do not even address the reliability which men put upon themselves and their own learning overtop of their trust and faith in God's superior knowledge.

I do not even address that the original intent would seem to have been to keep the book of Joshua in line with true history, while in effect it removed any real historical tie, calling all of it into question.

There are a lot of obvious intellectual problems with van Bekkum's thesis, it seems to me. Not that I've read it, but I would be very much inclined to ask myself why I should bother to read it at all.

John Byl said...

Hi John

Thanks for your comments. Yes, you raise valid concerns about the implications of van Bekkum's approach to Scripture.

Anonymous said...

The prime error is that of placing faith in the so-called "facts" of archaeology. When will we learn that there are no such things as uninterpreted facts presented in books or study papers? Even something as straightforward as "water boils at 212 degrees F" is an interpretation because it assumes knowledge that is not expressed and ignores the times when water does NOT boil at this temperature.

Behind all scientific claims is the assumption that God would never do anything differently from the way we have observed him to act. Yet, clearly, that is not true because of the record of such books as Genesis, Joshua, Samuel and Kings and Chronicles. That these are all interpretive histories should only remind us that we are to make a choice between God's interpretation of history or that of the men of science who claim in their unbiased opinions that God could not have done the things he says he did without leaving evidence. By this, of course, they mean incontovertible evidence which according to Romans 1 does not exist.

I think we know where you stand, is there room over there for another?