The First Word: More dangerous than Holocaust deniers

European scholars repudiate the existence of biblical Israel and Jewish claims to antiquity in the land.

July 20, 2006 12:57

Here is a strange and troubling fact: The biggest difference between the teaching of the Bible in Europe and in North America is that in European faculties there is a near absence of Jews, except in Jewish programs and institutions. In the US and Canada, meanwhile, they probably number in the hundreds. In Europe Jews are professors in other areas of Judaica, they are professors of chemistry and history - but not of Bible. Why? It is partly because European institutions often house biblical studies within theological faculties associated with a particular church. The Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, for example, is appointed by the Queen, the head of the Church of England. The appointment has never gone to a Jew, but has never gone to a Catholic or a Lutheran either. Also, for sad and well-known reasons, there are fewer Jews in Europe than in America. Still, the near-total absence of Jew in the study of a book that the Jewish people, after all, wrote suggests some darker reasons on the continent. How different things are in North America. A few years back, I was chatting about this with the great scholar Moshe Greenberg, now at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and I realized that I didn't know who was the first Jewish professor of Bible in the United States. I asked him if he knew, and he said, "Me!" So it is a fairly new thing in America too, but we've come a long way in the decades since Greenberg taught at the University of Pennsylvania. (Greenberg's teacher, Ephraim Speiser, taught at Penn also, but was hired as an Assyriologist, not as a biblical scholar.) THIS OWES in part to the tremendous growth of Jewish Studies on nearly every major campus in the US. And I think it especially owes to enlightened faculties of non-Jewish scholars, first at Johns Hopkins and then at Harvard and Yale, who accepted and trained a generation of Jewish scholars. My colleagues from this Harvard-Yale group include Jon Levenson and Peter Machinist at Harvard, Jeffrey Tigay at Penn, Baruch Halpern at Penn State, Ronald Hendel at UC Berkeley, William Propp at UC San Diego, Tikva Frymer-Kensky at the University of Chicago, Saul Olyan at Brown and Alan Cooper at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The list goes on. Things are not perfect, but one would have to say that, overall, North America overcame its prejudice. Europe did not. LEST I be misunderstood: This is not meant as a blanket criticism of the whole of Europe's faculties. There are fine European Bible scholars who are honorable as persons and as professionals, who have been collegial and supportive to Jewish scholars and to Israel. What is disappointing is the big picture, not every individual within it. What's the result of this continental divide? For one thing, most (not all) European scholars are trained in a strangely-pronounced "seminary Hebrew" which is unsuited for fluency or comfort in reading. (An American colleague of mine, attending a conference of scholars in Europe, was puzzled as he listened to a paper on the term "keseth." Finally he figured out that the speaker was referring to the Hebrew word that is spelled chet, samekh, dalet. It took him even longer to get over the fact that everyone in the room but him had understood.) Still, one can be a good scholar of the Tanach without pronouncing Hebrew according to the conventions of current Israeli Hebrew. There are, however, other problems with the European situation that are more distressing. Above all, the difference between Europe and North America sheds light on the "minimalist" or "revisionist" circles in current Bible scholarship. These scholars claim that the Tanach was written entirely in the Persian or Hellenistic periods, and that its story is invented. This position is thriving in Europe - the centers are Copenhagen and Sheffield - but not in the US. These people are dangerous. They deny the existence of virtually all of biblical Israel. Thus do they attempt to pull out the carpet from under Jewish claims to antiquity in the land. They rather picture the Jews as Johnny-come-latelies in the Persian period (or later), arriving in the land and making up a history so they could claim an ancient presence there and thus displace the legitimate residents. (Sound familiar?) I THINK these Bible revisionists are more dangerous than Holocaust-denying ones. The Holocaust revisionists are more obscene, because the events are so recent and so painful. But Bible revisionists are more threatening in the long run. For one thing, unlike the Holocaust deniers, the biblical-Israel deniers have real credentials. Several have chairs in respectable universities. For another, they are more skilled at argument. I recently got together with my old friend Deborah Lipstadt, who is known for battling Holocaust deniers, and I set out to persuade her that my revisionists are more dangerous than hers. But before I could even make my case, she said, "You know, your revisionists are more dangerous than mine!" Biblical minimalism is also known as "the Copenhagen School." In the recent flap over cartoons depicting Muhammad, we biblical scholars may be the only ones to see the incredible irony in the Muslim world's anger at, of all places, Denmark! The minimalists also like to claim Israeli archeologists such as Israel Finkelstein as fellow minimalists, but that is a perverse exaggeration of his positions. Minimalism is not an Israeli or a North American phenomenon. It is a European phenomenon. WHY DO THEY do it? Is it in reaction to their own Christian upbringing? Are they anti-Semitic? Anti-Israel? Is it a wish to be noticed by making controversial, big claims? One cannot know what the motives of each of them are. What one can know, though, is that no one would look at these data and arrive at such a view simply because the data led them there. On the contrary, these scholars do not address facts - such as Hebrew linguistic evidence - that flatly contradict their claims. Some of the revisionists have protested their being called anti-Semites and anti-Israel as a grossly unfair attack on them. One wrote that he suspects these things are said because the revisionists' case is gaining ground. He said, "I smell fear." When I look at their positions and see that there is no way they would have arrived at these positions just from a straightforward study of the data, I must say that I smell something too, but it isn't fear. When institutions whose Bible faculties are still nearly Judenrein 60 years after World War II produce such views of the Bible - and when they boycott Israeli scholars and claim that it is out of principle - they will have to understand if the rest of us are skeptical. The writer is Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia and Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego. His books include Who Wrote the Bible? and The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery.

Related Content

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting, March 11, 2018
March 18, 2018
An early election


Israel Weather
  • 16 - 34
    Beer Sheva
    16 - 30
    Tel Aviv - Yafo
  • 16 - 27
    16 - 29
  • 22 - 32
    16 - 32