Mario Liverani and the Old Testament

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

My review of Mario Liverani’s book, Israel’s History and the History of Israel has been received in different ways by different people. It is possible that my post failed to communicate clearly my objections to Liverani’s book or else people misunderstand where I stand on the issue of history and the Bible.

Let me begin by saying that I am not a maximalist nor a minimalist; maybe I am a medialist, as a readers has suggested. I am not a fundamentalist, I do not believe in inerrancy, and I am not a literalist. I believe that the Bible is sacred Scripture, that God has revealed himself in the history of Israel and in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and that the Bible is a record of that revelation.

I do not adopt a literal interpretation of every fact and statement in the Bible. In my study of the Bible I use historical criticism and a literary approach to the text. I believe that the biblical narratives are based on historical events but it does not mean that history has to become the arbiter of faith.

As a Christian, I believe that the ultimate source for knowing what God has done in history and in the person of Jesus Christ is the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. Everything we know about God we find in the Bible. In fact, without the Bible, our knowledge of God and what he has done would be minuscule. It is because of the Bible that we know the mighty acts of God in the events associated with the Exodus from Egypt and how they became the central focus of much of the Old Testament in the same way that the death and resurrection of Christ became the central focus of the New Testament.

However, the radical criticism and modern skepticism of biblical scholars have removed any possibility of historicity behind these events. To many scholars, these stories are only narratives that are metaphorically true even though they are not literally or factually true.

Marcus Borg, in his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), pp. 15-18, said that modernity has influenced the way most people read the Bible today: they know something to be true only when there is valid verification. Thus, one consequence of modernity’s impact on reading the Bible is that modernity has made people skeptical about spiritual realities.

It is this skeptical spirit that has impacted the study of Israelite history. The skeptical understanding of reality has influenced the way the Bible is read and has made the understanding of God and his work in the world a problem that goes against the very core of orthodox Christianity.

According to Borg, the logical outcome of this modern worldview is the kind of skepticism that leads to the rejection of the supernatural and eventually creates what has been called “the death of God theology.”

To me, it seems that biblical scholarship today has rejected the supernatural and developed a non-biblical view of God because of its preoccupation with factuality, that is, that for something to be true or historical it must be scientifically and historically proven by reliable evidence. In criticizing this view, Borg said that “modern Western culture is the only culture in human history that has identified truth with factuality.” He said Christian liberals are “fact fundamentalists,” that is, if a statement cannot be proved scientifically or historically, then that statement is not true.

Many biblical scholars are influenced by a postmodernity understanding of the Bible. This view affirms that historical events are culturally conditioned and in general, are historical reconstructions of the past. This is the view espoused by Liverani when he writes that the early history of Israel is an “invented history,” a reconstruction of the past in order to meet the political and ideological needs of the post-exilic Judean community.

It is the same view that led Borg to say: “The way of seeing and reading the Bible that I describe in the rest of this book leads to a way of being Christian that has very little to do with believing” (p. 18). Borg sees the Bible as the human product of two communities: Israel and the church. What the Bible says is the words of those two communities, not the word of God. Thus, the Bible as a whole does not have divine origin. The Bible is not divine in some parts and in some part human; the Bible is all a human product.

If the biblical narratives are invented history, then the Bible is no better than the Baal stories. If the Bible is only a human product, a work without divine origin, then there is no difference between the God of the Bible and Baal or Marduk.

Let us suppose that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David never existed, that they were part of this invented history created by a group of Zionists to justify their right to take the land from poor peasants who lived in Palestine in the sixth or fifth centuries BCE. My question is: how is the fact that these people did not exist, the fact that they are literary creation, the fruit of a fertile mind, how does this fact affect our understanding of the New Testament? Here are four examples:

1. In Exodus 3:6 God said: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” This statement was quoted by Jesus when speaking about the resurrection: “But about the resurrection of the dead– have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32).

If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never existed, how can this statement be true, even metaphorically true? Or does it matter?

2. During the transfiguration of Jesus, Matthew 17:2-3 says that Jesus was talking to Moses. I know that this is only a vision but one that even Peter saw. However, how could Jesus speak to Moses if Moses was just an invention of a creative writer?

3. In John 8:58 Jesus said: “‘I tell you the truth,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’” This verse says something special about Jesus and in the process says something important about Abraham.

4. In the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1, Jesus Christ is called the son of David, the son of Abraham. However, how can this be true if David and Abraham never existed?

How do minimalists explain and understand these statements of the New Testament if these people never existed? Do we take the approach used by the people at the Jesus Seminar? How do Christians proclaim the truth of the gospel when these statement are based on a fictive history that tells the actions of people who never existed? I hope Jim (or any biblioblogger) has a good answer for me.

It is easy to say that Jesus was just quoting from the “invented history.” It is also easy to say that Jesus was accommodating himself to the knowledge of the people of his day, or that in his humanity he did not know everything, or that this is just metaphorical language, or that this is just the way the early church believed these things to be.

If the Bible is just a human book, the product of ancient Israel and the early church, then these four statements are only what those human writers believed these things to be. So, nothing needs to be historical because human beings can invent a history to provide political and religious legitimation to an ideology or a community either in the sixth century (ancient Israel) or the first century (the early church).

However, if the Bible is a record of God’s revelation in the history of Israel, if the Bible is the Word of God transmitted through human agents, then a metaphorical truth will not be sufficient to explain the biblical narratives. Contrary to what Borg wrote, reading the Bible from a Christian perspective has a lot to do with believing.

Whether one believes the history of Israel is based on historical events or is an invented history depends on whether the Bible is only the words of human beings or whether it is the word of God. I know where I stand and I can do no other.

In the end, Mario Liverani and Claude Mariottini may not amount to much. Some of my paranoid readers believe that the Second Coming of Christ will be in 2012. If Jesus does not come in 2012, then in one or two generations Liverani and I will be history (whether invented or real the Lemches of the future will decide), but the truth of the Bible will remain.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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6 Responses to Mario Liverani and the Old Testament

  1. >Claude,Like you, I find grave problems with the minimalist approach, although I do not think that the problems are so much theological as historical. I just think the minimalists are lousy historians.I do have a few disagreements with this new post of yours, however, and I’ll just mention one. You write, “If the Bible is only a human product, a work without divine origin, then there is no difference between the God of the Bible and Baal or Marduk”. I wish to point out that it does not follow from the position that the Bible is a human work (recording Israel’s and the Church’s experiences) that the reality of the God of the Bible is placed in question. Logically, that’s not the case at all. If Israel *did* experience the real God (as I believe to be the case), and if the Church *did* experience the real God as well (as I also believe), then wouldn’t the record of those experiences be a record of the acts of the real God? This is a simple point that fundamentalists seem to miss (and, no, I’m not calling you a “fundamentalist”): the doctrine of biblical inspiration is completely unnecessary for the general truthfulness of the Bible’s account of God. Can’t an eyewitness’s report be true without being specially inspired? Of course it can. A testimony doesn’t have to have a “divine origin” in order to be a true testimony.


  2. David says:

    >Claude,Your response to the minimalist approach is theological. but don’t you agree that there is also an historical answer? That is, the Bible does have a greater value as an historical text than the value attributed to it by members of the minimalist school?


  3. >John,Thank you for your comment. I see your point but I and many other Christians believe that the Bible is much more than just a human book.I believe that God’s revelation in the history of Israel is unique. In that revelation of himself, God enters human history in a way that no other god has done before. What makes the Bible a unique book is that in his revelation, God assures believers that the record of that revelation is trustworthy. And this is the point the minimalists refuse to admit.Claude Mariottini


  4. Anonymous says:

    >David,Thank you for your comment. I agree with you. The Bible is an unique book precisely because of the historical characteristics behind the biblical narratives.I presented a theological argument because minimalists do not accept the historicity of the biblical narratives. How to you emphasize the historical aspect of the narratives when many minimalists believe that the narratives are invented history?Claude Mariottini


  5. Valerie McQueen says:

    Sir, As always, I find your writings fascinating and look forward to each and every post. Valerie


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