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The Copenhagen School (also known as "biblical minimalism" by detractors[1]) is a school of biblical exegesis which treats the Bible as a purely mythical literature rather than as historiographical literature which can shed light on actual history. Within this paradigm, archaeology should be used for reconstructing history, and the Bible has no value for that. This contrasts with some approaches to the historicity of the Bible which see some historical value at least parts in of the Bible, particularly parts of the Old Testament. Minimalist scholars date all or most of the Old Testament to a period centuries later than the majority of scholars, seeing it as literature created later rather than as oral history handed down. The key people typically associated with the School (although they do not necessarily accept the idea that there is such a School) are Thomas L. Thompson, Keith Whitelam, Niels Peter Lemche, and Philip Davies.[1]



The belief in the historical nature of the first few chapters of Genesis and stories such as that of Noah's Ark had been abandoned by the end of the 19th century; by the middle of the 20th, the archaeological evidence for the remainder of Genesis (the stories of the Patriarchs), for Moses and the Exodus, and for Joshua and the Bible's version of the conquest of Canaan, was also coming into conflict with the archaeological evidence, or rather the lack of such evidence; and the focus of debate had begun to move to the historical reality of the Bible's picture of the United Kingdom of Israel and its kings David and Solomon.

Minimalism arose in the late 1960s from the need to deal with the increasing contradictions between the findings of Syro-Palestinian archaeology and the Bible's version of history: "For decades ... scholars interpreted archaeology in light of what the Bible said ... [taking] for granted that what the Bible said, was true—not just morally and religiously, but historically and scientifically. So, as an archaeologist back in the 19th century, you would pick up your Bible and expect to find Noah's Ark somewhere on top of Mount Ararat in Turkey, just as the Bible said; or that you could dig in Jerusalem and find the remains of David's and Solomon's palace."[2]

Biblical minimalism starts by treating the historical narratives of the Bible as literature rather than as history, with a plot, a set of characters, and a theological theme concerning the nature of the covenant between the people of Israel and their God. The Biblical episodes are therefore broadly comparable to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: the play is based in real history, but was not written for the purpose of retelling that history. "Israel" as we know it from the Bible is in fact a literary construction rather than an objective reality. By historicising the text, the traditional approach to Biblical scholarship created a false ancient "Israel" which fails to fit into the archaeologically established context of Iron Age Syria and Palestine.

See also



  • Davies, Philip R., Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures, 1998.
  • Finkelstein, Israel, The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement, 1988
  • Garbini, Giovanni, History and Ideology in Ancient Israel, 1988 (trans from Italian).
  • Halpern, Baruch, "Erasing History: The Minimalist Assault on Ancient Israel", BR, Dec 1995, p26 - 35, 47.
  • Lemche, Niels Peter, Early Israel, 1985.
  • Lemche, Niels Peter, The Israelites in History and Tradition, 1998.
  • Provan, Iain W., "Ideologies, Literary and Critical Reflections on Recent Writing on the History of Israel", Journal of Biblical Literature 114/4 (1995), p585-606. (a critique of the Copenhagen School of Thought - with responses by Davies (above) and Thompson (below))
  • Thompson, Thomas L., Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, 1974.
  • Thompson, Thomas L., Early History of the Israelite People, 1992.
  • Thompson, Thomas L., "A Neo-Albrightean School in History and Biblical Scholarship?" Journal of Biblical Literature 114/4 (1995), p683-698. (a response to the article by Iain W. Provan - above)
  • Thompson, Thomas L., The Mythic Past, 1999.
  • Van Seters, John, Abraham in History and Tradition, 1975.

External links

  • Philip Davies (2005), "The Origin of Biblical Israel", The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, Volume 5, Article 17. Places the origins of "biblical" Israel in the Neo-Babylonian period.


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