Conquest and Sola Scriptura
A reply to a rebuttal
13-12-14 (Dutch version 28-06-14)
After a long wait it has finally happened. At the request of Deputies for Relations with Foreign Churches and of the Canadian Subcommittee for Relations with the GKv, Koert Van Bekkum has responded to the criticism that was voiced on his dissertation From Conquest to Coexistence.
There was every reason for it. Because not only within the GKv, but also from the sister-churches strong criticism has come forward on this thesis. There was on the table of the synod of Ede even an official admonition from the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, which also included criticism on that dissertation.
Plenty of reason therefore for a rebuttal, now that Synod of Ede had to judge this criticism.
Van Bekkum reacts to this criticism under the title Conquest and Sola Scriptura.
This title is well chosen. For the core of the criticism concerns the question whether Scripture may and should still be its own interpreter, or that also other issues, as for example extra-Biblical literary traditions or archaeological artefacts may play a contributing role in the interpretation of the text of the Bible, yes may even contradict its literal meaning.
In this article I discuss the rebuttal Van Bekkum advances in the above article. I will do this by considering it point by point and providing my comment on these. The emphasis will lie on the substantive objections that have been raised and on Van Bekkum’s response.
Before I start I make a preliminary remark.
Van Bekkum complains in his article that justice has not always been done to him in the representation of his views. He believes that his book was hurriedly judged, and that unnecessarily fast big words were used.
He feels himself, moreover, treated unfairly because his confessional integrity has at times been doubted, and people failed to recognize that a large part of his scientific work has been directed at defending the historical reliability of the Bible against Bible-critical views of colleagues. To illustrate this intention Van Bekkum also frequently refers in his rebuttal to his other publications.
Personally, I always take notice of such complaints. Firstly, because honour is sensitive, and injustice can very easily be done to the other person. Secondly, because misrepresentations cloud a clear discussion.
Moreover, a discussion can easily arise from wrong motivations. Only too often discussions are ‘won’ by portraying a caricature of the other party. In such discussions you no longer seek the heart of the opponent, but only the triumph of your own right. All this is, of course, very unspiritual. This complaint has urged me personally to carefully read my articles once more to examine myself in this respect. Furthermore, I have once again immersed myself in From Conquest to Coexistence, and also studied a large number of Van Bekkum’s other articles. All this to arrive at a balanced judgment.
Communicative and rhetorical context
In his article Van Bekkum pleads for an understanding of the context in which he as a Reformed theologian conducts his scientific work. That context is one of a debate with scientists who no longer believe in the historical accuracy of the Bible.
He mentions as an example that these days there is not only doubt about the existence of the patriarchs, but also that the story of the Exodus and the Entry, and even the historicity of the kingdoms of David and Solomon are in doubt. The opinion is increasing that the Bible is historically an unreliable document.
It is over against these that Van Bekkum wants to defend the historical reliability of the Biblical historiography. He wants to do this by engaging with the latest information obtained from the study of the ancient Near East without adopting a predetermined dogmatic position. Relying on Bavinck he states that we must have respect for the facts because God’s providence has placed them on our path. You have to deal with them.
To say it with Bavinck: Facts are ‘stubborn things’ that require a response. 1
I agree with this opinion, albeit with a reservation. In this situation it is important to distinguish sharply between facts and facts. Many things that are being presented as fact are actually not fact at all. They are often theories about facts. A Reformed theologian need not be impressed by such interpretations. If science teaches us anything, it is that its theories have only a limited shelf life. Archaeology in particular provides numerous examples. Van Bekkum’s outline on archaeology, in his article The Old Testament as a historical document, provides a useful illustration. 2
It should make us cautious in appealing to the results of archaeological research. It is especially archaeology that supplies us with very few hard facts and many interpretations. Van Bekkum, moreover, is fully aware of this distinction, and in several places in his publications he warns us against the uncritical acceptance of all kinds of scientific theories. 3
I also agree that the discussion with Bible-critical scientists may, ‘for argument’s sake’ initially be conducted with assertions and methods of research that they regard as valid. Van Bekkum requests understanding for this ‘rhetorical context’ when we assess his dissertation.
He is entitled to ask this from his readers. But this should not be allowed to lead to an acceptance-in-principle of this methodology as a proper way to interpret Scripture.
That does happen in my opinion when we pay attention to the way in which Van Bekkum allows his final interpretation of a Bible passage to be influenced by the dialogue between the two monologues of exegesis and artefact. This damages the principle of Sola Scriptura.
I want to further demonstrate this judgment in the rest of this article.
Old Testament theologian or apologist
The question can however be asked whether by using this methodology the study of the Old Testament does not move more and more into the field of apologetics. It is not that you should not be engaged in a conversation with unbelieving Bible scholars and historians, but the question can be raised whether we don't allow our agenda to be determined too much by scientists who do not regard the Bible as the Word of God. May we not expect from the Reformed Old Testament theologian that he does his work in the conviction that Scripture is the inspired Word of God and that within that conviction the unity of Scripture is a fundamental starting point, so that Bible texts should not be studied in isolation but that the whole of Scripture should always be involved in their interpretation? Does that not set a limit to ‘ letting a text exhaust itself’ as advocated by Van Bekkum? 4 For the church is built up only when the work of the Old Testament theologian starts from that point. A Reformed theologian explains Scripture as a believer, does he not? And not as a person who first needs to be convinced of the reliability of God’s Word.
A critical factor is, of course, whether one regards Scripture as a unity or as a random collection of religious texts. From the Reformed perspective the term ‘professionally’ means that you áre prepared to make use of dogmatic arguments derived from another part of Scripture than the text that is the subject of exegesis. An exegesis of the talking donkey of Balaam in Numbers 22 cannot neglect 2 Peter 2:16, and sends the exegesis of the text in a conclusive direction, namely that the donkey actually did talk. The same applies to what Paul says in 1Tim 2:14 about the woman who was seduced by the serpent. Also this text makes a metaphorical explanation of the speaking snake impossible. In both cases we obviously have to do with observable facts. This is how the original readers have also read these texts.
There is, incidentally, nothing wrong with an initial lengthy search for purely exegetical arguments. But the conversation with colleagues should not make the Reformed theologian wary of relying on dogmatic arguments. It seems at times that bible scholars like Van Bekkum prefer to settle for the lesser certainty of a particular Bible passage than the strength of what Scripture as a whole is saying.
I believe therefore that studies like those of Van Bekkum are of little or no significance for the upbuilding of the faith of believers. Even if ordinary church members have questions about the reliability of historical Bible writings - questions which according to Van Bekkum we are not allowed to brush aside - even then it is uncertain that such doubts can be removed by a rationally constructed discourse. The cause of such doubts is usually existential in nature and rarely has only an intellectual basis.
It is, for the same reason, doubtful whether such studies will be able to overturn the scientific consensus on the historical reliability of the Scriptures, even if the [researcher’s] credentials are put on the table at the end of the research. 5 Van Bekkum, after all, admits himself that the choice of a certain vision on the history of the ancient Near East and on the historical reliability of the Bible is often motivated by ideological considerations, and not by a careful and objective consideration of all available facts.
In short, the method used is not without danger for a Reformed approach to Scripture, and also is of less practical interest than Van Bekkum claims.
I just used the words ‘not without danger’.
The reason is that, in my opinion, the rhetorical context to which Van Bekkum refers is contagious indeed. In several of his publications we come across similar considerations as in From Conquest to Coexistence, even when there is no question of a debate with a Bible-critical colleague. 6
Therefore Van Bekkum absolves himself too easily of Prof. J. Douma’s question whether this is the way in which the TUK today teaches to exegete, arguing that his dissertation is not a treatise on how a Reformed theologian should read the Bible.
The rhetorical context does actually penetrate the hermeneutical principles that are applied to the exegesis of the Bible.
Douma’s question is therefore relevant indeed.
Did the sun actually stand still?
Most of the unrest about Van Bekkum’s thesis has undoubtedly been caused by his explanation of the so-called solar miracle in Joshua 10.
His critics have reproached him for his apparent denial of the reality of this miracle, by which he would have shown that he is receptive to ideas that are critical of Scripture.
For Joshua 10:13 reads: “And the sun stood still and the moon stopped until the people had revenge upon their enemies.” (…) “So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.”
By denying the historicity of this miracle Van Bekkum would no longer have allowed Scripture to speak for itself, but subjected her to non-Biblical data.
Van Bekkum’s reply to this accusation is amazing. He simply contradicts that he denies the miracle of Joshua 10.
“The miracle stands”, he writes in his article. Even stronger, this is, according to him, also written in his thesis.
How can that be? Did all the critics read his book wrong? That is hardly conceivable anyway.
The explanation of this inconsistency can, however, be found in the sentence he writes immediately following this claim. “The meaning of the text is perhaps just a little different from what is thought.” 7
Thus Van Bekkum concedes that his explanation of Joshua 10 is different from that of Reformed exegetes of all times, but in spite of that he thinks that he is holding on to the miracle. For what the text says is just a little different from what is thought. “Just a little” different.
By formulating it in this way Van Bekkum pretends that this concerns a mere detail. This explains his outrage about the ‘totally incorrect’ representation of his opinion by his critics.
But in this manner Van Bekkum downplays the difference. For in the one (reformed) explanation Joshua’s prayer was surprisingly answered with a cosmic miracle, while in the other (Van Bekkum's) explanation the prayer was indeed answered in a special way but without the resulting extended day.
And that is not ‘just a little’ different.
It has all the appearances of ‘have a look, it doesn’t say what it says.’
But according to Van Bekkum, there is no reason for concern. Because in exegeting Joshua 10 he proceeded wholly in a manner which is commonly in use within the Reformed tradition. The comparison of Scripture with Scripture was conducted prior to the comparison with non-Biblical information. There is therefore no question of denial of the miracle, and there is also no question of non-Biblical information dominating the text of the Bible.
Besides, according to Van Bekkum, no one takes the text of Joshua 10 completely literally, because it is not consistent with our current understanding of the cosmos. We, too, who work with a heliocentric view of the universe make a transition when reading Joshua 10, by not letting the sun but the earth stand still in this miracle.
Quite unjustly, Van Bekkum makes it appear as if the problem in the interpretation of Joshua 10 lies in the text presenting a different perspective on the workings of the universe than we have today. But that is of course nonsense. Everyone understands that Joshua speaks the language of perception as he bids the sun and moon to stand still. That is not the problem here.
But the problem dóes lie in the mystery of the miracle that there was a day that lasted much longer than 24 hours. It is that miracle that Van Bekkum has explained away. For the oriental citizen of the second millennium BC the standing still of the sun in the midst of heaven was as great a miracle as for modern man. To put it in the words of Van Bekkum: just as ‘strange.’
According to him, however, we must read the text very differently. The picture would be one of Oriental imagery, in which sun and moon are personified and seen as part of God’s heavenly court.
Van Bekkum seeks support for that thought in, for example, Psalm 148: 3, Judges 5: 20, Isaiah 24: 21-23, Joel 3: 15-16 and in particular Habakkuk 3:11.
But this picture does not emerge from those texts.
Sun and moon in Psalm 148: 3 figure as part of God’s creation, along with sea monsters, mountains and hills, wildlife, livestock and birds. All these, along with the kings and nations of the earth, young men, girls and the elderly, must praise the name of the Lord.
Judges 5:20 does speak about the stars joining the fight against Sisera; but the same context mentions the brook Kishon dragging the enemy along. Here, too, there is no reason to assume that the stars are part of God’s court. Whoever defends this should also accept that the brook Kishon belongs to that court.
In Isaiah 24: 21-23 we also do not read anything about a heavenly court to which the sun and the moon belong. Although there is in this text, as in the earlier texts, a personification of sun and moon, this occurs in many texts in the Bible, also involving many other natural phenomena such as rain, hail, fire and wind.
Joel 3:15-16 speaks of the day of the LORD, when judgment will be executed upon Israel’s enemies. Among the forebodings of that great Day, or among the signs of that Day, belong also the hiding of the light of sun, moon and stars.
A similar description of the Day of the Lord is given in Habakkuk 3. This takes the form of a divine theophany in which God acts as a warrior. God’s action is so awe-inspiring that even the mountains tremble and the flood roars, while the awestruck sun and moon stand still in the heavens. This last expression means without a doubt that they are darkened - an image that is also used in the prophecy of Joel.
These texts illustrate how all of nature is impressed when God goes out for judgment and for the deliverance of his people. But they make no mention of a heavenly court.
Why then does Van Bekkum think that this is still the case. I believe that the answer must be found in his conviction that Joshua 10 presents an epiphany, which the Bible writer draws in terms derived from the way it was spoken in Ugarit about Baal the storm- and war-god. 8
This part of Scripture (according to Van Bekkum) makes use of a tell convention in which sun and moon act as members of a heavenly court.
That idea does, however, not arise from the text itself, but is read into it by Van Bekkum. It cannot be concluded from the fact that the sun and moon are directly addressed by Joshua. Inanimate creatures are more often addressed in the Bible. Moses must speak to the rock (Numbers 20: 8), and Jesus rebukes the waves and the wind (Luke 8:24). The text that comes closest to this idea is Judges 5:20 which expressly refers to a war of the stars against Sisera. There they are mentioned together with the brook Kishon which dragged the enemies of Israel along. Judges 5 does not mention what precise role the stars played in this war and how they fought against Sisera’s army.
As this text is clearly a poetic fragment, namely of the song of Deborah, we should not, in my opinion, take the picture of the warring stars literally. Anyway, sun and moon in Joshua 10 are not portrayed as personified astral forces fighting on the side of God, but as ordinary creatures who are completely at the Creator’s disposal. Sun and moon are fully subject to Him, as are the hailstones He rains down on Israel’s enemies.
Thus Van Bekkum draws an over-hasty conclusion when he asserts that the verses do not have a meteorological or astronomical significance, but only a military. If the sun and the moon are becoming engaged in the battle, which is indeed the case, why then would this exclude a literal halt? How did the sun and the moon fight for Israel? Was it not precisely by them remaining a full day in the sky, as the end of verse 13 once more explicitly confirms?
According to Van Bekkum we have to interpret this standing still of sun and moon very differently. It would constitute an ancient oriental tell convention, by which a war campaign of several days is being portrayed as a victory in one single day. The standing still of the sun and moon should therefore not be taken literally, but is in fact no more than a metaphor. “The lengthening of the day to defeat the enemy in one single attack is to be understood as a rhetorical strategy that reflects a common literary technique of the ancient Near East, by which a great military victory is drawn together into one single time period.” 9
Van Bekkum defends this interpretation by taking the poetic lines from the book of Jasher, in which Joshua commands the sun and the moon to stand still, as the primary source, and regards the comment that the writer of the Book of Joshua added in the following verses, as a ‘hyperbolic interpretation’ of secondary importance. 10
In this way one part of Scripture is played off against the other, where age serves as a criterion to determine which of the two should be given the greatest weight. The older it is, the fuller its authority; all this from the questionable assumption that the Book of Joshua does not originate from Joshua’s days, but would have been written during the early monarchic period. 11
Thus the garment of Scripture that is woven as a single piece, is being torn to shreds that are played off against each other.
But comparing Scripture with Scripture is yet another thing.
In line with Sola Scriptura?
Despite all this Van Bekkum believes that his interpretation of Joshua 10 is in line with the Reformed way of exegesis. Genuine indignation is discernible in his defence against those who have accused him of non-Reformed hermeneutics, when he writes: “In my view all the results fit perfectly within the classic Reformed hermeneutics. This is not surprising because the book simply compares Scripture with Scripture, and always uses non-Biblical information within an overarching framework of confessional theology. While the same confession at the same time indicates that such data can simply submit its own contribution.” 12
At first glance, a confidence boosting statement.
There is, however, a snake in the grass. It lurks in the last sentence in which Van Bekkum says that in the process of interpreting Scripture it is wholly in agreement with the confession that non-Biblical data can submit its own contribution. But to him ‘its own contribution’ means that this contribution can overrule Scripture, as we have seen in his interpretation of Joshua 10 in which he appeals to Canaanite representations and descriptions of royal victories in Assyrian annals.
We are not saying too much by concluding that in spite of his solemn declarations Van Bekkum’s explanation is much less determined by the comparison of Scripture with Scripture than by discoveries in the archaeological records and presumed tell conventions. 13
In several passages of his thesis, but also in other publications, Van Bekkum explains certain texts in such a way that the result is in direct conflict with their literal meaning. This concerns the relationship between the truth claim and the truth value of a text.
In what follows we will dwell on the manner Van Bekkum uses to relate these two. We will also mention examples of how Van Bekkum develops this distinction in a number of actual cases.
Truth claim and truth value
Much unrest around Van Bekkum’s thesis arose from an interview he gave in Nederlands Dagblad (Dutch daily) on the occasion of his promotion.
“Not everything in Joshua has really happened that way” 14 , said the newspaper’s headline. A headline Van Bekkum regrets afterwards, because it gave the impression that he would not accept everything in this Bible book as being historic, while actually he wanted to defend this historicity. 15
Yet the headline does reflect an essential point of his opinion, that is, the view that there is a difference between history and the way the Bible writer puts that history into words.
In Biblical historiography we have, according to Van Bekkum, a form of visual art, a form of representation, which makes use of such tell conventions as artistic construction, simplification, selection, suggestive detail, rhetorical exaggeration and the use of anachronisms. 16
Playing with tension between the ideal and the real would also belong to that tell convention. According to Van Bekkum this is discernible in the way in which the borders of the conquered land are described. It would then not be a description of the actual boundaries in the time of Joshua, but an ideologically charged view of the boundaries as they later coincided with the kingdoms of David and Solomon. In other words, the Book of Joshua does not define the actual boundaries but the ideal boundaries.
If the ordinary Bible reader reads the Book of Joshua he might in his innocence just think that what it describes is also what really happened. But we should not regard the Bible story just as a story through which we can look at the past. It is also a literary composition which should be looked at. It is history. But it is also story. A kind of ‘fictional history’.
This means that the Biblical historical narrative does not refer in everything on a one to one basis to what really happened. We’re dealing with dressed up history.
Told history is not the same as history which actually happened.
Van Bekkum regards it as a mistake from the past that the biblical history writer has been regarded too much from the viewpoint of the ‘either-or’ logic of modernity.
That happened, for example, at the Synod of Assen (1926), when every kind of figurative language from science would have been banned because of an empiricistic historicistic model of Bible interpretation. By that approach, all that is mentioned in Biblical history must either have happened literally ór be understood metaphorically. Thus, there was, according to him, no regard for metaphoric elements in the historical narrative that originated from certain tell conventions.
The result was that descriptions such as those of Paradise and the Fall were simply read as representations of literal events, an approach that is strikingly demonstrated by the statement of G. Ch. Aalders that a snake is a snake, to speak is to speak, and a tree is a tree. 17
The way Van Bekkum portrays the Reformed way of Scripture explanation is imprecise. Reformed exegetes have never objected to a possible figurative way of explanation as long as the text provides sufficient justification. Never has the proposition been defended that all scripture must be taken literally. This is however mandatory if the text clearly appears to want to be understood that way.
The problem is that Van Bekkum wants to stick to what the text says but understands the claim of the text differently. It basically means that the text says something different than previously thought.
Saying that you stick to the text, while in the meantime you understand its meaning differently, naturally leads to talking at cross purposes. After all, you’re dealing with two different things.
In that situation a broad reassurance that you adhere to the whole of Scripture does not suffice. If you don't agree beforehand on determining the actual meaning of a particular part of scripture, it becomes an empty statement. After all, even the most outrageous heresies have been and are being defended with an appeal to Scripture.
Whether such an appeal is right or wrong can therefore not be decided by the personal assurance that you want to adhere to Scripture. This will require a prior determination of what Scripture actually teaches. That is also the significant point of Van Bekkum’s exegeses.
To give an example, it would surely be quite remarkable if a person who claims to maintain the historical reliability of the book of Exodus, at the same time denies that the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt actually passed through the Red Sea, and thinks to be able to defend that view with the argument that this passage is only a figurative expression. The Bible writer would have chosen thereby to convey the message that there had been a miraculous deliverance.
Then the crossing of the Red Sea is of course not a historical event. The deliverance itself is in a general sense historical, but the way in which it is being told is not. It is no more than an artistic composition by the Bible writer, who has reproduced this historical fact by making use of tell conventions and suggestive details.
Van Bekkum’s appraisal of Biblical history as told history also creates room for him to make a distinction between the truth claim and the truth value within the Biblical historiography. For what a Bible writer asserts does not automatically have to be true.
From various quarters Van Bekkum has been put on notice that by taking this position he damages the authority of Scripture. For if extra-Biblical sources show that a certain truth claim by a Bible writer cannot be upheld, it must be concluded that he obviously means something different from what at first sight he claims. Extra-Biblical data can thus be used as a ‘check’ on the interpretation of the Bible. In that context Van Bekkum uses the word ‘judge.’ Artefacts can be used, for example, to judge the truth claim of a Bible text.
What is being tested?
Van Bekkum denies in his reply that by using the term ‘judge’ he means to say that he wants to submit the Bible to human judgment. It would simply be a test of a research hypothesis resulting from exegetical labour. A confrontation with the artefactual material may lead to a revision of that hypothesis.
So far, so good. But what happens next? Keeping in mind the hermeneutical rule that Scripture is its own interpreter, is then the text re-examined in order to reach a different exegesis that does justice to all the data of Scripture? Or is the artefactual material decisive and the exegesis adjusted accordingly? That is the crucial question at the centre of all of this. All means are permitted in assessing scientific hypotheses formulated on a Bible text.
No disagreement there. But when there is a difference between Biblical and non-Biblical data the position of Reformed exegetes has always been that Scripture has the final word. The alternative means the surrender of the Sola Scriptura principle.
Then it is also no longer possible to speak of “thus says the Lord.”
In the end we have only scientific hypotheses left that have no longer any binding force for believers today.
Following Van Bekkum’s defence that “the ‘testing’ of one’s own, very preliminary human interpretation (...) is something different from ‘judging’ the Bible itself”, the question should be asked whether in case of contradiction from the artefactual material he accepts the verdict of the Bible text itself. Van Bekkum claims he does, but his thesis contains formulations that raise doubts about it. For he is not only talking about assessing a human research hypothesis, but also about the truth value of the text, by which he nevertheless raises the impression to be willing to question the truth claim of the text itself. 18
That this seems to be the intention also appears from what he writes in the introduction to his thesis about the relationship between text and artefact. There he does not shy away from using big words and states that it is impossible to give a precise definition of Biblical historiography without testing the results of the exegetical work in a dialogue with the artefactual data. 19 In other words, if we let only the Scriptures speak we can never get to a good understanding of the nature of Biblical historiography.
This is a statement that essentially puts the Sola Scriptura principle at risk. The talk about ‘testing’ the truth claim of the Bible writer is therefore certainly not a glitch or an unfortunate formulation.
The same also becomes clear from what Van Bekkum remarks a few pages later about the historical reliability of the Biblical chronologies. Over against researchers who hold that these chronologies are unreliable, he acknowledges that they are sometimes highly schematic and display faith in a divine plan; but at the same time he maintains that this does not yet mean that they are therefore mythical in character.
In that context, he writes: “Neither the shape of the ideologically construed chronologies, nor the conviction that there is no divine plan behind history, can answer the question what the nature is of the historical truth claim in a text as Exodus 12:40 or 1 Kings 6:1. Only a careful historiographical analysis of the chronological context of these verses, including the stories within that framework, can lead to a hypothesis that determines their historical truth claim. And only by bringing this truth claim into dialogue with artefactual information can its truth value be tested.” 20
What else does this mean than that the historical reliability of a truth claim in a Biblical historical narrative cannot be accepted beforehand? Such a truth claim cannot be accepted on the authority of Scripture itself. Always a confrontation is required with artefactual data. For: “Ultimately, there is more than a truth claim, there is also a truth value. Thus the monologue of the text requires dialogue with the monologue of the artefact.” 21 Not until the dialogue between text and artefact is finished the meaning of a text can be determined. The following statement by Van Bekkum in his article Conquest and Sola Scriptura, should be read against that background: “Nothing of what the text says is put aside as non-historical.” 22
The epilogue of his thesis would have put this conviction once more explicitly into words. Those crucial sentences would not have been quoted by me and others by which an imprecise picture of his position is given. But here applies what has been pointed out already: whoever replaces the meaning of a text with another should not feel offended when he is accused of having no respect for that text. At the breakfast table everyone feels cheated when suddenly there is jam in a peanut butter jar. Then your excuse that jam better matches the label on the jar won’t do. You will really have to provide a better explanation. What Van Bekkum does is not letting the text speak for itself, but making its content dependent on extra-Biblical sources. He sticks with the label, but replaces the content.
David and Goliath
Van Bekkum has already demonstrated in an article on Biblical history what this kind of work method can lead to. There he claims that it was not David who defeated Goliath, but that the Bible writer credited the victory to his name while someone else had done it.
Van Bekkum acknowledges in that article that it is impossible to accept the message of the Biblical historiography except on the basis of autopisty; but that it is also true that this does not yet answer the question of how the Bible refers to history. For it is possible that the Bible writer makes use of historiographical conventions which perhaps make modest use of mythic fragments from the Umwelt or of techniques from the royal historiography. In that context he refers to the fight between David and Goliath. 23
From the observation that victories of generals or heroes in the ancient Near East are often attributed to the (later) king, Van Bekkum calls this ‘an option to be considered.’ 24 “The story did not literally happen that way, but is indeed in a spiritual and historical sense an example of David’s battle with the Philistines. For this unequal struggle has the great contrast between the circumcised and the uncircumcised as background, and can only be won because God helps David.” 25
Van Bekkum believes that by this explanation he “does not damage the integrity of the story, and that he dóes respect its historical claim.” 26
It is a startling illustration of what his methodology leads to: the historical content of a concrete event is replaced by another under the comforting assurance that the historicity is maintained.
Of course, the question how Israel has been able to draw comfort and certainty from this story is left hanging. How could it have known that God would help them in the war against the Philistines if David had in fact not at all defeated Goliath? How could there be certainty that God would help David, if the event that had to serve as proof had not happened at all?
In his thesis Van Bekkum provides yet more examples of what the approach advocated by him can lead to. Thus he does not regard it objectionable to assume beforehand that the Bible writer has consciously included elements in the text to provide it with an older and therefore more respectable appearance. Thus he also accepts that there are anachronisms in the text that are in conflict with the historical reality. As examples he mentions the reports of iron chariots. These would not have existed at all in Joshua’s days. 27 Philistines also would not have been living in Canaan at that time. Joshua with his army would never have been in Kadesh Barnea, Baal Gad and Misrephot. 28
All these matters are, however, described in the Book of Joshua as definite historical facts (see for example Joshua 10: 41; 11: 17, 8).
Van Bekkum also posits that the command to destroy the Canaanite peoples possibly dates from a period after the Entry, viz. from before the 7th or maybe the 11th century BC. This could possibly relate to the fulfilment of a historical tradition concerning Canaan as the promised land and the prohibition to make a covenant with the original inhabitants. This means that the command to destroy them would have been given afterwards. 29 The command would then function as a kind of justification in retrospect. But this is in conflict with Deut 20: 17, and the promise made to Abraham.
All this is reason enough to have doubts about Van Bekkum’s loyalty to Scripture. For all that, Van Bekkum believes that there is no question of Bible criticism, and that he takes the inspiration seriously enough. As an argument in defence he mentions that the human and divine factors in the inspiration are indistinguishable. “Anyone who examines this process with care and lets the text itself decide which form the revelation adopts, shows to be taking the inspiration absolutely serious.” 30 Those who want to pinpoint how the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible writer makes of God a ‘God of the gaps’.
Now it is indeed not right to regard God as ‘hole-filler’ in the process of inspiration. This could erroneously create the impression that the divine involvement in the creation of a Bible text played a role only when the Bible writer himself was unsure or did not have enough resources at his disposal. What ‘inspiration’ wants to say is that áll of the biblical history writer’s labour is the product of both human effort and guidance by the Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who takes care that that human labour is at the same time fully His Word and corresponds with His intentions. How this happens is hidden from us.
Now nobody has asked Van Bekkum to indicate how the Spirit operates precisely in the inspiration. But he was asked to show clearly that the Bible text is more than a mere human document. That has also everything to do with accepting the truth-claim of the text. Precisely because the Bible text is inspired by God and is completely God’s Word, it is perfectly reliable, even with regard to the truth-claim. This also has consequences for the manner in which Scripture is explained. For it means that not only the Sola is decisive in the explanation, but also the totus of Scripture.
Date of Entry
I would like to finally make some remarks about Van Bekkum’s choice in favour of a late Entry. In his rebuttal he says that he is familiar with the arguments for an early Entry, but that that is not his choice.
His supporting argument is that the 480 years in 1 Kings 6:1 do not constitute a direct-Biblical ground. 31
For, according to Van Bekkum, both the early and the late dating of the Entry are highly dependent on extra- or non-Biblical data, namely the combination of annual staff appointments in Assyria and accurately dated sun eclipses. Van Bekkum additionally points to the fact that within Reformed, Presbyterian and evangelical circles there have always been supporters for both dates.
The latter is, of course, not a valid argument. In every discussion it is possible to mention dissidents.
It is, furthermore, a false argument, for if it is true that both datings are dependent on a list of staff appointments, the fact remains that in the one instance the 480 years is taken literally and in the other case it is not.
So it is indeed a direct-Biblical ground. Only the calendar to which it is applied may be problematic. You cannot dismiss a logical derivation from a Bible text as being indirect-Biblical if you offer no substantive criticism on the way that logical derivation has been established. If you think you can, the major part of Van Bekkum’s thesis, along with numerous other writings, may as well be dumped on the rubbish heap. Surely nobody will want that.
Van Bekkum denies that a 15th century dating solves the archaeological difficulties related to the conquest of Jericho. Jericho remains an archaeological problem.
It could be that he is right in this. The fact is that Van Bekkum makes no attempt to refute Bryant Wood’s arguments which I mentioned, who claims that this archaeological problem can indeed be solved. That does not create a strong impression. Now we have to make do with Van Bekkum’s assertion which he does not substantiate by facts. All he says is: “The suggestion of several reviewers that a fifteenth-century dating solves the archaeological difficulties concerning, for example the conquest of the city of Jericho, is incorrect.” 32
Van Bekkum claims that Jericho and Ai remain a problem. 33 He is willing to stick with the historicity of the conquest of these cities, but he cannot offer these conquests a place in his chronology of the Entry. However, if we accept Wood’s argumentation this problem vanishes indeed. That should in any case be an important reason to confront oneself with the work of Bryant Wood. It is of course nice to hear that Van Bekkum does not doubt the historicity of the conquest of Jericho and Ai. But this conviction would have created a stronger impression if he had actually tried to give this conquest a place in his dating of the Entry. Now it remains a static conviction, which in his dialogue between text and artefact does not play a significant role.
Actually the whole issue comes down to two related questions.
Is in the interpretation of Scripture a deciding appeal to non-Biblical sources, such as artefacts, permissible? The second related question is: Are we, in the interpretation of Scripture allowed to appeal to tell conventions?
Anyone who answers these questions unreservedly with ‘yes’ need not have objections to the work of Van Bekkum. An explanation of Joshua 10 in which the standing still of sun and moon is denied, is then definitely possible.
Then there also needn't be any objection to the view that not David but one of his generals killed Goliath. That kind of interpretation may be defended by invoking tell conventions of the ancient Near East. For these have shown that it happened more often that an act of a hero was attributed to a (later) king.
You should also have no problems with the statement that at the time of the Entry there were no Philistines living in the coastal strip, or that the enemies of Israel were using iron chariots when in reality that cannot have been the case at that time. It can also be freely denied that Joshua conquered certain cities, while in reality this happened much later. All these matters are alleged by Van Bekkum. All are plausible if the above two questions are answered in the affirmative.
But we can still go a step further. The consequence of an affirmative answer to the above questions is that the door is opened to much more radical interpretations, as for example the denial of the creation days, the symbolic interpretation of the paradise story and the questioning of all kinds of miracles. All these can be seen as a form of embedding. Tell conventions can, as it were, act as a back door to draw liberalism into the church.
I am convinced that this is not Van Bekkum’s intention. But the fact that he does not want that is not thanks to, but in spite of his method.
Conquest and coexistence at synod
The Synod of Ede has avoided the problem regarding the thesis of Van Bekkum. In so doing she acted in line with previous synods that had to deal with criticism from the churches on Woord op Schrift (De Bruijne and Doedens) and Schepping en Oordeel (Paas). In all these instances the criticism was that in these writings there was mention of (beginning) Bible criticism. How did the Synod of Ede respond to this criticism?
Beyond the empty claim that the Van Bekkum file and other associated files should now finally be closed because enough had been said about the matter, there was no advance. A substantive assessment was left undone, also on this occasion. 34
This is plainly disappointing.
What Van Bekkum advocates is a direction between Bible criticism and
liberalism – a kind of Third Way. We see a similar pursuit also in other fields. Thus there are many christians who choose the middle ground between evolutionism and creationism. Creationists are often blamed for taking the first chapters of Genesis as descriptions of factual history. This is then conveniently labelled as fundamentalist.
This attitude reflects a ‘lazy man's approach’ because it completely ignores the serious study of Scripture that is being performed by many creationists. With Van Bekkum you get the impression that he similarly regards the classic Reformed manner of exegesis (as it was for example upheld in the doctrinal decisions of the 1926 Synod of Assen) as a kind of fundamentalism. This makes it understandable that he detects in his Reformed predecessors from the previous century a preference for literalness, rational exactness and sensory perceptibility.
Van Bekkum wants to leave that approach behind. But he also does not want to go the way of liberalism. Instead, he advocates a Third Way.
The pursuit of that kind of Third Way is a dangerous development. A danger that has not sufficiently been recognised by the synod of Ede and its predecessors.
Not many years ago, professor dr. J. van Bruggen urgently warned against this:
“The subject under discussion is of fundamental importance for christianity. Whoever contests the historic credibility of the canon cuts the branch on which he is sitting. There is only a limited time for choosing between a confessional christianity and a modern Bible-critical christianity. Sooner or later this choice proves to develop into a choice for or against the christian faith. Without confidence in the given writings of the apostles and prophets, faith in God and in his Son Jesus Christ deviates from the course and misses the port.” 35
Sadly, we have to draw the conclusion that successive GKv synods have ignored this warning.
1. Bavinck, H., Modernism and orthodoxy. Speech held at the handing over of the Rectorate of the Free University on 20 October 1911. Kampen, 1911.
Van Bekkum also refers to this speech in his thesis. His assertion that “for the understanding of Scripture today the church needs to place it more in its own context in which it was revealed” is questionable. (p 2). Here Van Bekkum even uses the word ‘apparently’. This is the kind of statement that draws a conclusion on an assertion that still needs to be proven. Everything is not yet that ‘apparent.’
2. Van Bekkum, drs. K, The Old Testament as a historical document. In: Theologia Reformata Vol 46, no 4 (2003), p 328-355.
3. Similarly in his dissertation From Conquest to Coexistence. Ideology and Antiquarian intent in the Historiography of Israel’s Settlement in Canaan.
For the purpose of this article, I made use of the original PhD thesis, as it is found on the site of the Kampen Theological University, 2010. Hereafter quoted as: From Conquest to Coexistence.
4. See for example the following statement: “In the exegetical debate about the Bible contemporary Reformed Bible scholars these days use ‘dogmatic’ arguments less often than was done in the past. They prefer to conduct critical discussions with colleagues, and would rather look for a professionally responsible alternative than immediately formulating a ‘fundamental over-against’. The flood of new data and people’s specialization in the field has amply demonstrated that we can say much less with certainty than was thought. The matching approach is now to first of all exhaust the text in accordance with its own nature.” Koert Van Bekkum, Rob van Houwelingen, Eric Peels, New and old things. Treasure hunting in the Scriptures, Barneveld 2003, p 245.
5. Van Bekkum advocates a method in which he makes clear, by analysis of the existing consensus that there has been no entry of Israel into Canaan, that within that consensus there is evidence of political and religious presuppositions, so that the existing research is far from impartial and objective. Scientific discourse demands, according to him, that during that analysis process use is made of the methods and terminology of the religious sciences. It is not until the end that one’s own cards are laid on the table, with the announcement that the research was done by a Reformed theologian.
6. See for example God’s Word in human language. Thinking about the authority of the Bible, by Koert Van Bekkum, Wim Houtman and Reina Wiskerke, Barneveld 2003.
K. Van Bekkum, Biblical historiography - sometimes a photo, sometimes a painting; in Nederlands Dagblad, 29 July 1999.
K. Van Bekkum, How the Bible tells miracles, in Nederlands Dagblad, 6 April 2010.
Also Van Bekkum’s remark that sermons have been made in which the dissertation had been used, Conquest and Sola Scriptura. A reaction to the ecclesiastical and ecumenical criticism on From Conquest to Coexistence, p 4.
Hereafter cited as: Conquest and Sola Scriptura.
7. Koert Van Bekkum, Conquest and Sola Scriptura, p 5. Italics by Van Bekkum.
8. Van Bekkum bases this on a study by Dr. C. Houtman, Himmel im Alten Testament, p 194-209. According to Van Bekkum the Israelites would therefore have made no clear distinction between the celestial bodies and the related identified persons. From Conquest to Coexistence, p 242.
9. From Conquest to Coexistence, p 250.
11. Van Bekkum bases this late dating of the Book of Joshua on the facts that the boundaries of the conquered land mentioned in Joshua match those of the kingdom of David and Solomon; that the book of Joshua apparently makes references to the early monarchic period, as seen for example in the hamstringing of horses of the conquered nations; and that the Gibeonites would have been drawn into the temple service as woodcutters and water carriers.
The issue regarding the genesis of a Bible book does not focus only on the question when it received its final form, but especially on the use of the resources that were available to the Bible writer. Background to this is the thought that older sources present the most reliable information, while the writings of a (possible) later editor are logically considered to be less reliable because he was further removed in time from the events reported by him. With a later Bible writer the motivation for writing such a Bible book could more likely have been profoundly ideological, with the possible consequence of distortion of the historical reality. Primary sources are, incidentally, not automatically more reliable than secondary.
All these are considerations that matter in ordinary historiography. They belong to the work of source criticism. But there we are dealing with products that are purely human work. In the Bible, however, we deal with historiography that was inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that there is divine assurance of its reliability. It has, as it were, a hallmark that is lacking in all other historiography. This makes a detailed study of the genesis of historical Bible books, for the purpose of discovering the oldest and therefore most trustworthy traditions of that historiography, unnecessary. Ultimately, áll the events mentioned in the Biblical historical narrative are completely true. The uniqueness of the Biblical historiography is not only that it is completely true, but that it is simultaneously non-objective. For the Bible story always includes a tendency as well. For this reason it is known as prophetic historiography too. The facts are not presented as just neutral, but they are also placed in the light of God’s revelation, by which that written history itself also becomes revelation to us.
Van Bekkum considers that parts of the historical description have been taken from the horizon of the Bible writer. That could have been the case with the report about the conquered and apportioned land (From Conquest to Coexistence, p 557)
However, this consideration easily leads to misunderstandings as it creates the impression that the Bible writers were no more than the mouth of their own social and cultural group and did no more than present a partisan and therefore unreliable (!) reproduction of history. The use of the term ‘ideology’ only reinforces that thought. However because it is the Holy Spirit who guided the Bible writer in describing the historical events, we may believe that he presents a completely reliable description of the historical events. In his rebuttal Van Bekkum makes clear that in speaking about the ideology of the Bible writer it was not his intention to create room for doubt about the reliability of the Biblical historical narrative, but that he has merely adopted the terminology in use among his colleagues.
From his epilogue it should be clear that with ideology he wishes to say nothing else than that the Bible writers believed that they were led by God’s Spirit, and that this is also Van Bekkum’s conviction.
12. Conquest and Sola Scriptura, p 5.
13. His appeal to Old Testament scholars as Noordtzij and Van Gelderen also fits in. These theologians were not at all representative of the way in which Reformed exegetes explained Scripture. With their appeal to ancient Oriental influences on the Bible story and to the results of archaeological investigations, they were simply controversial. Thus Van Gelderen had said in a 1917 lecture that the view that “Genesis chapters 1-11, with regard to geological and prehistoric things, are just as strictly historic as Baruch’s story about Jeremiah’s fate under Jehoiakim and Zedekiah, rests on dogmatic grounds, and is unfounded.”
In their hearts Van Gelderen and Noordtzij agreed with Geelkerken’s hermeneutic principles, but they rejected his concrete ideas about Genesis 2 and 3 because of a lack of exegetical arguments.
It is significant that Van Bekkum speaks about ‘Van Gelderen’s being right’ and the ‘law of Noordtzij’, by which he shows that he sides with the hermeneutical approach of Van Gelderen, and at the same time makes clear that there is apparent room within the Reformed Confession for beliefs like those of Noordtzij because - despite the fierce criticism on his book God’s Word and the centuries’ testimony - he was never ecclesiastically condemned. See: K. Van Bekkum, Van Gelderen’s ‘being right’, and the law of Noordtzij. On the importance of the biographical genre for theology; lecture at the symposium on the biography of Dr. J G Geelkerken, May 22, 2013.
Opposition and suspicion, Van Bekkum apparently wants to say, are simply the fate of Scripture expositors who refuse to walk exclusively on the beaten paths of science. But their methodology fitted well within the framework of Reformed hermeneutics. And that’s why there is also no reason to criticise Van Bekkum’s methodology.
In this light it becomes understandable that Van Bekkum also regards the work of theologians like B.J. Oosterhoff and H. de Jong as Reformed. He calls De Jong ‘the most liberated among the Bible scholars of his generation’, despite the fact that he is aware of his claim that there is a margin of uncertainty to the Bible.
One should place that remark within its own context. It will show that these and other critical statements about the Bible “were never intended to undermine the authority of Scripture, but actually wanted to prevent that what the Bible has to say is buried under all too overly ‘dogmatic’ prejudices.” Koert Van Bekkum, Rob van Houwelingen, Eric Peels, New and old things. Treasure hunting in the Scriptures, Barneveld 2003, p 250.
14. in Nederlands Dagblad, 12-03-2010.
15. Conquest and Sola Scriptura, p 5.
16. From Conquest to Coexistence, p 31- 32; p 557.
17. Van Bekkum quotes these familiar words of synod adviser G. Ch. Aalders in his contribution: The Geelkerken issue in theology-historical perspective, published in The Geelkerken issue, a retrospect after 75 years, G Harinck (editor).
These should be typical of a positivist way of historiography as that would have been influenced by historicism. It would allow history to be described ‘as it had actually happened’. This thought would have led Synod of Assen to make the well-known statement that to the apparent intention the snake and his speaking, and the two trees of paradise had been sensory perceptible realities.
Although Van Bekkum admits that the Synod had no opinion on the relationship between history and historiography, she did in his opinion create the impression that this was the case by stating that the historicity of Genesis 2 and 3 was assured only if the historiographic reference to the history was taken quite literally (p102). Van Bekkum criticizes this statement, and believes that Assen has been unable to substantiate the pretence that in the end only Scripture decides (ibid, p 103). In his opinion Assen’s appeal to Sola Scriptura was therefore not right. Despite his confident assertion that this is provable, Van Bekkum does not prove his claim that the judgment of Assen was the result of a historicist perspective on the historical narrative (Faith in Certainty? Reformed faith in a postmodern era. TU -reflection series 1, p 107).
Assen did not say anything about the relationship between the historical narrative and history, as A N Hendriks rightly points out in a discussion of Van Bekkum’s contribution in Faith in Certainty? Nor was Assen interested in a certainty based on sensory perceptibility, as Van Bekkum suggested. What Assen was interested in is Scripture’s apparent meaning in Genesis 2 and 3 (A N Hendriks, in magazine Nader Bekeken, Feb 2001, p 50). Van Bekkum’s remark as if the issue was that the confidence of the believer in Christ would have equalled the precise certainty about historicity and the detailed description of the past is incorrect. (Faith in Certainty?, p 107-8). Synod of Assen was not interested in seeking the certainty apart from Christ in the historical details. But rather in a certainty that finds its ground in Christ as the Word has portrayed Him with all its associated details before our eyes (Galatians 3:1).
18. According to Van Bekkum a description of the historiographic nature of a piece of ancient history writing must contain the following three steps: “First of all, it is necessary to interpret the text by a careful, contextual reading and to study its literary artistry and genre conventions. Secondly, the results of this study can be used to reconstruct the expectations and beliefs of the text’s community, to formulate hypotheses concerning its antiquarian intent or antiquarianism, the use of sources and the history and traditions, and to define the nature of its historical truth-claim. Thirdly, the text’s truth-value can be judged by bringing the results into dialogue with artefactual evidence.” From Conquest to Coexistence, p 31-2.
19. ‘But without using them as a check one against the other, it becomes impossible to offer a precise definition of biblical historiography.” p 2.
20. “Neither the form of the ideologically constructed chronologies nor the conviction that there is no divine plan behind history, can answer the question for the nature of the historical truth-claim in a text like Exodus 12:40 or 1 Kings 6:1. Only a careful historiographical analysis of the chronological framework of these verses, including the stories within that framework, can lead to a hypothesis defining their historical truth claim. And only bringing this truth claim into dialogue with artefactual evidence can test its truth-value.” ( ibid, p 34) (italics AC)
21. “In the end there is more than a truth-claim, there is also the truth-value. For this reason, the monologue of the text requires (italics AC) a dialogue with the monologue of artefact.” (ibid, p 35)
22. Conquest and Sola Scriptura, p 7.
23. K. Van Bekkum, The Old Testament as a Historic Document. An exploration of the change in the vision on Old Testament historiography, in Theologia Reformata 46 (2003), p 353.
24. ibid, p 354.
27. The question may be asked what the addition ‘iron’ has to do with describing something in contemporary terms. If the chariots in the time of the Bible writers (that is, according to Van Bekkum, during the early monarchies) were just made of iron, why then did they mention this as a special feature? Was this not just common knowledge? If so, the addition was unnecessary. But precisely the use of this adjective argues for rejecting the idea of an anachronism. For things that are obvious need not be mentioned. The writer of the Book of Joshua was apparently aware that iron chariots were quite exceptional in the time of Entry. If so, this is logically an argument to take the word ‘iron’ just literally.
28. From Conquest to Coexistence, p 352. See Woudstra’s remark about these cities not having been occupied: “The cities that Joshua conquered in his southern campaign (ch. 10) were apparently not occupied. Occupation was to follow later and would take more time. Again and again the book of Joshua itself indicates that work remained to be done in future years (cf. 13:1; 15:63; 16:10; 17:12, 16). Thus the picture of Judges 1 ought not to be contrasted with that of Joshua.” Marten H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua , NICOT, p 26.
29. From Conquest to Coexistence, p 347. The fact that not all cities are being occupied does not, according to Woudstra, necessitate the conclusion that the Book of Joshua is of a later date - as Van Bekkum defends.
30. Conquest and Sola Scriptura, p 8.
31. According to 1 Kings 6:1 the construction of the temple began 480 years after the Exodus. If this number is taken literally it means that the Entry took place around 1400 BC. Quite strong arguments can be mentioned in support of this dating. See my article Conquest and Establishment V and VI on www.eeninwaarheid.nl.
Van Bekkum does not, however, see this number as pointing to a precise dating but as an idealized figure with especially ‘substantive significance’. We discover that significance if we take the number 480 as a composite of 12x40 years, with 40 to be taken as an indication of one generation On that basis he arrives at a much later date for the Entry, namely around 1220 BC.
32. Conquest and Sola Scriptura, p 10.
33. When asked by the interviewer: “Are there any problems with the archaeology?” Van Bekkum replies: “Certainly. The biggest concern Jericho and Ai. It seems very likely that they were not inhabited at the time of entry. I think that as an orthodox believer you must have the courage to say: Here we have a problem. Full stop.” Not everything in Joshua has really happened that way. Interview in Nederlands Dagblad, March 12, 2010.
Now it is of course possible that the archaeological evidence for the destruction of Jericho and Ai at the time of the Entry is undeliverable. Then you have a problem with archaeology. Not as a believing Christian, Van Bekkum means to say.
I can agree. But the situation obviously becomes different if those problems with archaeology originate from a dating of the Entry that is based on a symbolic conception of the 480 years mentioned in the book of Kings. In that case the problem lies with an earlier and erroneous decision.
34. For this conclusion, see the report by DJ Bolt on the discussion of the objections of the foreign sister churches, on this site. I sincerely challenge anyone to show, on the basis of the decisions that were made, that substantive discussion actually did take place.
35. Prof. Dr. J. Van Bruggen, The compass of christianity. Origin and significance of a disputed Bible, Kampen 2002, p 229-230.