K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 684 pages.
I would like to thank Eerdmans for providing me a review copy.
Kenneth Kitchen’s book examining the evidence for the reliability of the OT is a tour de force that no serious scholar of the Old Testament or of ancient Israel can ignore. Kitchen’s knowledge of the ancient Near East, especially Egypt, which is his specialty, is unparalleled and put to good use in this book. Kitchen consistently defends the reliability of the OT, and has thus done a great service to evangelicals. This book is unlikely to be surpassed in the near future.
Kitchen covers the entire scope of history represented in the OT—from Adam to Ezra and Nehemiah. He does so in (roughly) reverse chronological order: divided monarchy (ch. 2), exile and post-exile (ch. 3), united monarchy (ch. 4) conquest and settlement (ch. 5), exodus (ch. 6), patriarchs (ch. 7), prophets and prophecy (ch. 8), and pre-patriarchs (ch. 9). Chapter 10 concludes the book with a survey and critique of the history of “minimalism”—Kitchen’s main antagonist.
The book has a number of notable features, some serious, and others not so much. Although this book is clearly in the genre of academic scholarly work, the copious use of exclamation points is startling! I think there are as many exclamation points in the first chapter as in all other scholarly books I have read combined! This is symptomatic of Kitchen’s emphatic and aggressive style. He is brutal in his critique when he deigns to interact with “ignorant” scholars. Here are a few such examples of Kitchen’s unrestrained disdain for critical scholarship:
“This kind of speculative theorizing is all very well as a mode of experimentation in the abstract, or as a ‘flavor of the month’ fashion, or even just as simple indulgence in academic ego massage (‘Look how clever I can be!’). But can it claim any respectable, independent factual basis?” (390)
“[T. L. Thompson’s] blather, blather, blather about literary motifs, etc. … is, frankly, mere hocus-pocus.” (457)
“Absolute bunkum!” (470)
“But this tiny handful of examples [of postmodern deconstruction] of (anti)academic lunacy will suffice. If the English departments that started off all this nonsense can find nothing better to do than this drivel, then we would be much better off without them. And their resources would be freed up for people with something worthwhile to offer to their fellow humans. The only worthwhile thing one can really do with claptrap deconstruction is … to deconstruct it.” (471–72)
“To close this early minimalist episode, one can only shake one’s head in sorrow over the sad history of Old Testament scholarship in the last two hundred years.” (497)
As these quotes illustrate, Kitchen could be accused of resorting to ad hominem, though I might imagine Kitchen retorting that if one really is an ignoramus, then it is not an ad hominem to point it out. Suffice it to say, Kitchen never relies solely on name-calling, but always documents the errors of his interlocutors and where they have been corrected. “Minimalists” receive the brunt of his critiques (by which he means those who think there is little to no reliable history in the OT), though they are by no means his only targets. He also regularly inveighs against the ignorance of “biblicists,” by which he refers to those who make claims about what can and (more often) cannot be true in the OT without a thorough knowledge of the ANE and parallels that demonstrate their folly and ignorance.
Kitchen makes his case for the reliability of the OT by at every point noting analogies with contemporaneous ANE cultures or literature. In other words, he sets the OT in its cultural context in order to demonstrate that it fits where and when it claims it does. Thus, for example, he argues that the narratives of the patriarchs could only have originated in the early 2nd millennium and that the covenant structure of Sinai and Deuteronomy can only fit within the late 2nd millennium. Thus, they could not have been fabricated at a later date, such as during Josiah’s reign or during the exilic or post-exilic period. Even monotheism has precedent in Akhenaten of Egypt during 1350-1340 (330–33; as an explanation for Moses’ monotheism, this obviously relies on a late date for the exodus). The downside of this method is that it obscures the distinctiveness of the OT and of Israel, giving the impression that Israel was but one culture and religion among many, with little to set it apart. Thus, Kitchen’s work needs to be supplemented by other works that compare and contrast Israelite literature and thought (e.g., John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament).
Kitchen’s book is thoroughly modernist. Words like “factual” and “objective” rival in number his use of exclamation points. For Kitchen, the truth or falsehood of his (and the OT’s) claims can be determined irrespective of one’s faith commitments. This is especially clear in his discussion of the various “miracles” in the OT. Without fail, Kitchen tries valiantly to demonstrate that miracles can have purely naturalistic explanations, including the decimation of Sennacherib’s army (41), the Jordan River crossing (167) and the fall of Jericho (188), the nine plagues of Egypt (250; he concedes that the tenth plague “if treated as at all historical” has no plausible naturalistic explanation), and the mention of Cyrus in Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1 (380). Thus, the only “miracle” left in the OT is the tenth plague on Egypt, which Kitchen acknowledges will be a matter of faith. His effort is both failed and misguided. The OT simply does not allow for a naturalistic explanation of every miracle (telling are the miracles he does not discuss—e.g., those of Elisha). Nor is a naturalistic interpretation of the first plague (from which a naturalistic interpretation of other plagues is derived) sustainable. A high flood bringing Roterde (red earth) and flagellates metaphorically described as “blood” does not account for the biblical claim that “blood” will be found “even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone” (Exod 7:19). Thus, either the OT is unreliable on this point, or a purely naturalist interpretation of the plagues simply will not do (as Kitchen concedes for the tenth plague).
Furthermore, while we can appreciate Kitchen’s efforts to make the OT believable to those who automatically discount the supernatural, these efforts are misguided. Even if one were to accept a purely naturalistic explanation for the “miracles,” are we really expecting secularists to believe that all these natural phenomena happened at precisely the moment that Israel needed them to happen? Is that not miracle enough as it is? Thus, Kitchen’s efforts on this count will only serve to offend pious believers and amuse patronizing unbelievers.
This leads to a critique of the work as a whole. While I do not adhere to “post-modernism,” especially as summarized (caricatured?) by Kitchen (469–72), his thoroughgoing modernism simply will not do, either. Kitchen’s stubborn claims that he can analyze the data in a purely objective and detached manner seem deeply naive in light of the decades of post-modern critique of modernism. Kitchen wants desperately for the OT to be accorded its rightful place as reliable history alongside sources from the surrounding cultures, which are invariably treated with less skepticism than the OT (50; the literature of a now defunct religion is less threatening to secularists than the literature of an active and growing religion). This misses the point, though, since the OT was never meant to convey simple history (as Kitchen himself would acknowledge). Thus, Kitchen strives to give the OT a place that it does not want. We can imagine the biblical authors responding that to accept theology without the history is liberal fideistic folly, but to accept history without theology is pointless. Thus, as evangelicals we can be thankful to Kitchen for giving us further confidence in the history while recognizing that his project vis-à-vis the unbelievers will ultimately fail. (This touches on the debates among those who hold to classical, evidential, or presuppositional apologetics. I think the three are complementary, but that the former two must be subservient to presuppositional apologetics.)
The minimalists will be unconvinced, since to be convinced would be to have their whole worldview shaken to the core. Kitchen claims that accepting his arguments does not necessarily entail accepting any religious views. At heart, Kitchen is making a historical argument. On this point, Kitchen is right, at least in theory. However, in practice, this is simply not true. To accept that the OT presents reliable history (including the plagues, the exodus, the Red Sea and Jordan River crossings, the united monarchy, etc.) while maintaining a naturalist worldview is untenable. The cumulative incredibility of all that the OT narrates apart from a belief in a sovereign God who orchestrates history on behalf of his people is too great for any rational person. A decision must be made. Either the OT is unreliable in large swaths of its claims, or its claims that the Creator God, YHWH, is sovereign over creation and history is true. And this, ultimately, is why the minimalists will remain “unconvinced.” They cannot accept that Kitchen is right about the history, without also accepting that they are wrong about the theology.
Perhaps Kitchen’s most valuable contribution is his observation that the ancients generally did not make up history, but rather theologized it (e.g., 51, 63, 262). That is, they took the bare facts of history and gave them a theological interpretation, which implies that the hermeneutics of suspicion so often used by secular biblical scholars are wrong-headed. Theology and ideology do not imply a lack of historicity. This suggests that if an Assyrian, an Israelite, a Babylonian, and an Egyptian historian all entered a bar and sat down together, their debate would not be primarily about the history (what happened) but about the theology (whose God has authority to interpret the history). So when Isaiah makes his case that Israel’s God is the true God because he alone can predict the future, he is also making a claim that Israel’s God alone is the true and faithful interpreter of history (Isa 41:21–29). That is, the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian historians are wrong in their interpretation of history, not because their history is wrong, but because they interpret it with reference to gods that are not gods—their gods cannot predict and control the future. Thus, inasmuch as we believe that Israel’s God did predict the future, we can accept the theological interpretation of history contained in the OT.
Kitchen’s book brings together all the evidence in favor of the reliability of the OT. This is a great service, but it also highlights a deficiency. Kitchen does not engage in philosophical argument for the reliability of the OT. For that, one must turn to Provan, Long, and Longman’s superb book, A Biblical History of Israel, which also includes discussion of the archeological and textual evidence, albeit not as comprehensively as Kitchen.
I approached this book wondering if it would be a good resource to give to college students who had questions about the reliability of the OT. The answer is a resounding “no.” This is an academic work (the use of accursed endnotes notwithstanding). It is inaccessible to college students and possibly even to those with seminary training. Though Kitchen writes clearly, he expects a high degree of familiarity with current archeological and literary research on the ANE from the reader. Furthermore, its utility is less in what it says and more in that it exists. That is, for most non-scholars, a straightforward reading, even if they understood it, would contribute little to their understanding of the Bible and of the history of Israel. This is largely due to the fact that Kitchen almost point for point defends the traditional conservative view on the dating and reliability of the books of the Old Testament (with the exception of the late date of the exodus, on which see Eugene Merrill’s reviews in BibSac and JETS). Thus, it serves to confirm the beliefs of evangelicals, but unless one intends to memorize the vast amounts of data in the book, it is sufficient to know that the book exists, that it is meticulously researched, carefully argued, and done so by an up-to-date, world-class Orientalist.
Pastors and campus ministers who interact with those who have been exposed to criticisms of the reliability of the Bible will profit greatly from the knowledge that such a book exists, and perhaps even benefit from having it on their bookshelf where they can point to it or reference it if necessary. For scholars of ancient Israel and of the OT, on the other hand, this is a book with which one must be familiar, at the very least, and more likely, ought to have read cover to cover. The minimalists can blissfully ignore this book if they chose, but if they do it will not be because this book is not worthy of response, but because they have no response. Sadly, Kitchen’s rhetoric seems calculated to shame rather than persuade, and while biblical scholars have much to be ashamed of, such rhetoric will not win converts to Kitchen’s cause.