A debate currently rages among “maximalists,” “minimalists,” and “nihilists,” over the historicity of biblical accounts of the United Monarchy. What role does archaeological and epigraphic evidence play in the debate? How do the proponents of each group you discuss differ from the others in the approach they take to the biblical sources?
Since the 1990s the history of ancient Israel has been a fiercely debated topic. Different positions regarding this history have been called different names by opposing scholars and these are usually reflective of rhetorical positioning. The general polar dichotomy consists of “maximalists” on one side and “minimalists” on the other. However, Dever has used the term “nihilist” and “revisionist” to refer to some scholars who may in some cases be included as “minimalists.” The central issues in each group’s positioning revolve around the dating of texts, archaeology, and the general approach to historical inquiry.
Finkelstein (2002) in his own assessment of the situation sees three groups: conservative, centrist, and radical (Finkelstein is, of course, in the center). The conservative scholars hold that the biblical text “crystalized” in 10-9th centuries and contains older written sources about the past. Although many have since abandoned defense of the patriarchs and the exodus, they generally hold to a concept of a United Monarchy and find the biblical portrayal of its history to be accurate for the United Monarchy on.
Finkelstein describes the “radical” group who date the biblical texts to the Persian or Hellenistic periods, and see the texts as highly ideological and have little historical value. These scholars include Philip Davies, Niels Lemche, Thomas Thompson, Keith Whitelam. Some of these scholars have embraced the term “minimalist,” yet these scholars have more radically rejected that “Israel” itself was ever a historical entity and question our ability to ever discover what it is, thus questioning the biblical account and the modern historical method.
He then includes himself in the “centrist” category of those who date the biblical texts to the late monarchy (Finkelstein sees little evidence for pre-8th century written materials), and while they reject the existence of the United Monarchy, see the biblical texts as useful in reconstructing the monarchic period of Israel and Judah.
Finkelstein leaves out of his assessment, those scholars that have much more conservative, mostly evangelical scholarship and conservative religious traditions. Scholars like Kenneth Kitchen still argue for Mosaic authorship, though couched in the arguments of contemporary scholarship. These are closer to what “maximalist” is often supposed to mean.
The categories that Finkelstein makes are helpful to his cause, since he is in the center but they are useful for understanding how the dating of the biblical texts is an important issue in the reconstruction of ancient Israel. However, the dating of texts is often influenced by archaeology and archaeology is influenced by the dating of texts. These cannot be completely separated. Thus, part of Finkelstein’s dating on the biblical text is profoundly shaped by how he understands the archaeological record. Although Finkelstein points a finger at “conservative” scholars for using the Bible in archaeology, he uses it as well, just for periods that he thinks it is more reliable.
The mainstream debate (this is my bias of course), however, is between Finkelstein’s conservative and centrist groups, which one may call themselves “maximalist” and “minimalist.” The debate mostly centers around the “high” (or normal?) chronology vs. the “low” chronology argued by Finkelstein. This being said, acceptance of the high chronology does not automatically assume acceptance of the United Monarchy, but acceptance of the low chronology usually accompanies the rejection of the United Monarchy. (Finkelstein, however, in his original proposal, says that the historicity of the United Monarchy has nothing to do with the debate, and says that states may arise without monumental architecture). The “radical” group has been further ignored since the discover of Tel Dan (although one assumes that Mesha should have been enough) that describes the “house of David” along with a “king of Israel.”
Finkelstein is the main proponent behind the low chronology, though he is backed by most of his colleagues at Tel Aviv (notably David Ussushkin). Layers that have traditionally be assigned to the 10th century during Solomon’s reign, Finkelstein attributes instead to the 9th century during Omride rule.
In general the terms “minimalist” is most used for someone who is inherently skeptical of the Bible’s historical claims and the “maximalist” is someone who takes the Bible at face value. The reality is that most scholars are somewhere in between, but there are certain subjects that create sharp divisions, mostly the issue of high and low chronology.
Dever, William G. “Histories and Non-Histories of Ancient Israel: What Archaeology Can Contribute.” In Convegno Internazionale: Recenti Tendenze Nella Ricostruzione Della Storia Antica D’Israel, 29–50. Roma: Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, 2005.
Finkelstein, Israel. “Archaeology and Text in the Third Millennium: A View From the Center.” In Congress Volume Basel 2001, 323–342. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 92, 2002.
. “The Archaeology of the United Monarchy : an Alternative View.” Levant 28 (1996): 177–187.
Mazar, Amihai. “Iron Age Chronology: A Reply to I. Finkelstein.” Levant 29 (1997): 157–167.