Keith Whitelam explains to Simon Targett that the Jewish version of the Old Testament is a fiction designed to legitimise Israel and that the history of the Palestinian people has been silenced. Israel Finkelstein (right) disagrees
Moses and the pharaoh's daughter, Jonah and the whale, David and Goliath: the things you are liable to read in the Bible - they ain't necessarily so. That is how the American-Jewish librettist Ira Gershwin put it in the 1930s jazz opera, Porgy & Bess. Centuries before, the first heretics had questioned the historical accuracy of the Old and New Testaments, and in this age of post-Enlightenment rationalism the stories of the Bible have been sidelined as bald fact has triumphed over blind faith.
Yet, as the third millenium ad approaches, the bewitching power of the Bible refuses to vanish. Innocent spoofs like Monty Python's The Life of Brian can still cause offence, and across the United States the religious right now enjoys such revivalist popularity that the political commentator Noam Chomsky thinks the US has become "the most fundamentalist country in the world". But, oddly enough, the Bible retains the strongest appeal in the temples of the rationalist empire - the universities.
For most scholars working on the ancient history of the Near East, the Bible remains as essential as a Lonely Planet travel guide. Over the past 25 years, however, a handful of scholars have set about proving the historical fallibility of the Bible. Reaction has been vitriolic. Four years ago, Albert Glock, a West Bank-based US archaeologist, renowned for questioning the Bible as history, was murdered by a masked assassin. If it is possible, the temperature of the academic debate will rise still higher this week with the publication of The Invention of Ancient Israel by Old Testament scholar Keith Whitelam.
Like other sceptics, Whitelam, a soft-spoken Quaker with a Lincolnshire lilt, contends that ancient Israel is an invention of modern scholarship. He believes that the picture of a thriving Iron Age Jewish kingdom headed by David and Solomon is "a fiction". Unlike other sceptics, he goes one key step further, contending that the scholarly debate has been driven by a dominant "biblical discourse" fuelled by a tankful of "unspoken and unacknowledged" assumptions. The main effect, he says, has been "the silencing of Palestinian history".
According to Whitelam, the history of Palestine has been distorted by the deference shown to the Hebrew Bible. All the great biblical scholars - from the earliest explorers like Edward Robinson through mid-century biblical specialists like the German Albrecht Alt and the American William Albright, to modern scholars like Israel Finkelstein - have been diverted by the search for ancient Israel, and particularly the Davidic empire. This search, he maintains, has sometimes been underpinned by more controversial political assumptions, which have a bearing on the fraught contemporary politics of the Near East.
One, attributed to western scholars, is that ancient Israel was "the taproot of western civilisation" and the forerunner of the European nation-state. Another, attributed to Jewish scholars, is that there is a Zionist continuum between ancient and modern Israel. Pointing out the perceived importance of the Bible narrative to the legitimacy of the modern state of Israel, Whitelam cites Menachem Begin's observation that "if this is Palestine and not the land of Israel, then we are conquerors and not tillers of the land".
Whitelam stops short of saying that all biblical scholars have been self-consciously or deliberately misleading. But he does charge them with being "part, at the very least, of what Edward Said terms a 'passive collaboration' which has silenced Palestinian history". He is also provocative, referring to "the tyranny of the present", "the politics of scholarship", and to those who have committed "an act of dispossession" by making Palestinian history "an excluded history".
This is likely to arouse great anger. Already, fellow biblical sceptics have experienced personal vilification for simply questioning the historical basis of the Davidic empire. "We've been called all sorts of names," reveals Philip Davies, professor of biblical studies at Sheffield University. In a recent article, he was attacked by the Israeli historian Ansom Rainey, who listed him as part of "a circle of dilettantes" which "could safely be ignored". Even a supposedly neutral term like "minimalist", introduced by Yale Assyriologist William Hallo has been given a pejorative bite.
More than this, the sceptics have been dubbed anti-semitic, a charge they naturally reject. Liverpool Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen, whom Davies calls "fundamentalist", argues that the sceptics have revived "the anti-semitic trash" of the 19th-century German scholar Julius Wellhausen. Similar charges have been broadcast on the Internet, where even the word "Palestine" has been adjudged anti-semitic. According to biblical sceptic Thomas Thompson, an Old Testament professor at Copenhagen University who participates in the Internet discussion group "Ioudaios", when he suggested the alternative term "South Levant", so doing away with not only "Palestine" but also "the land of Israel", he was roundly abused.
Worst of all, biblical scepticism has meant some professional isolation, especially in the US. It is a fact that most of the sceptics are based outside the main centres of biblical scholarship: Whitelam at Stirling, Davies at Sheffield, Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche at Copenhagen, John Van Seters at North Carolina. Many, too, have allegedly experienced discrimination. Thompson says he suffered 12 years of exclusion after publication of his seminal work of the 1970s which questioned the existence of Abraham. "I worked as a house painter for a time," he remembers.
Whitelam is likely to get similar, if not harsher, treatment. At the Society for Biblical Literature meeting in Philadelphia last November, his seminar paper summarising the book was labelled "anti-Israel and anti-biblical" by Abraham Malamat, a leading Israeli scholar described as "moderate and open-minded" by Liverpool professor Alan Millard. But since then, political tensions have escalated following the assassination of Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, and they are likely to rise further still this week with the first Palestinian elections. "It is not beyond the realms of reason to imagine that Keith Whitelam could be the subject of an attack," says Philip Davies. "That is because the emotions that are being aroused are the sort that led to the killing of Yitzhak Rabin." Thompson holds a similar view. Admiring the "bravery" of addressing the issue of hidden political and religious agendas, he says that Whitelam will face "a tough time", noting that the new book will probably be regarded by some scholars "as a piece of hate literature".
Whitelam himself is under no illusions about the the book's reception: "The public perception of biblical studies as being some kind of antiquated gentlemanly pursuit is badly misplaced." He knows the story of Albert Glock, who used to tell students "remember, you're not excavating ancient Israel, you're excavating Palestine", and who was shot dead in the car park at Bir Zeit University. But he means to pursue the sceptical path, eventually writing a history which gives "a post-colonial, contrapuntal reading of the Palestinian past".
Some say biblical scepticism will be short-lived. Rainey talks of "this new fad" while Millard says "it will die out after a while". But Whitelam disagrees. There are already plans to establish an annual seminar on Palestinian history. After that, Whitelam will be working on "a new rhetoric", rivalling "the dominant biblical discourse" and serving to transfer Palestinian history from the narrow biblical world to the broader Braudelian world of trade, land settlement and la longue duree.
One day, early next century maybe, the Palestinians may finally have a history in which they are more than "a backdrop to the histories of Israel and Judah", in which "Israel is but an entity in the sweep of Palestinian time". For now, they will have to put up with the fact that, as Whitelam says, "for the past there is a Palestine but no Palestinians, yet for the present there are Palestinians but no Palestine".
The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History, published yesterday by Routledge, Pounds 40.