March 04, 2004

"Bible Protestants," Zionism, and History

Posted by Ed

Last week, A.N. Wilson published a fascinating "world of books" column in The Telegraph. Wilson begins by discussing a recent book on the role of British "Bible Protestants" in early Zionism, before he goes on to two related questions: the interpretation of the Bible as history and the importance of related questions in the world today.

Here's how Wilson's column begins:

I have been reading a fascinating book by Jill Hamilton, God, Guns and Israel, published by Sutton Publishing at £20. Its subtitle explains its huge range - "Britain, the First World War and the Jews in the Holy Land". Running through the book like a Golden Thread is the contention that nearly all the key gentile players in the Zionist story were in origin Bible Protestants. Lloyd George was not notably religious but, as he said: "I was taught in school far more about the history of the Jews than about the history of my own land. I could tell you all the kings of Israel. But I doubt whether I could have named half a dozen of the kings of England and no more of the kings of Wales."

The last I checked, Wales never had any kings--a fact which confirms Lloyd George's claim that he didn't know British history very well.

Even so, the book cited by Wilson argues that Lloyd George was more important than Arthur Balfour in securing British support for an independent Jewish state, a role he performed as the solicitor employed by the Zionists to put their case to the Colonial Secretary. Wilson goes on to note that "It is astounding that all these otherwise intelligent people, such as Lloyd George, Balfour and others, should have read the Bible as a piece of literal history, rather than being, what it so obviously is, a piece of spiritual mythology":

Read such excellent books as Northrop Frye's The Great Code or Thomas L Thompson's The Bible in History (Jonathan Cape, 1999) for the actual relationship between the "historical" books of the Bible and real history. The Bible "histories" were perhaps based on various bits of ancient Jewish mythology but they were almost certainly written in post-exilic times, and probably only a couple of centuries before Christ.

There is no archaeological evidence for Jerusalem being a City of the legendary David or for Solomon having built a Temple, any more than there is for King Arthur's Camelot. That simply isn't the sort of book the Bible is. Very few Jews ever thought it was, incidentally, until outer political circumstances in Russia and later Germany changed the desire for a Jewish homeland from a romantic dream of the few into a matter of dire urgency for the many.

It would have been nice if Wilson had discussed the archaeological evidence in more detail, explained more fully what Frye and Thompson's books actually argue, or discussed changes in the way Jews have viewed the "history of the Bible." These oversights are forgivable in a short column, however.

It also would have been fascinating to know more about the specific views of British "Bible Protestants" in the context of the time. Historians often treat William Jennings Bryan, one of Lloyd George's American contemporaries, as an idiot––after all, it isn't hard to make fun of a man who claimed that the fact that we could break the law of gravity by jumping was evidence that miracles were possible. When you think about it, is it really "astounding" that "all these otherwise intelligent people" believed in the literal truth of the Bible as history? I have my doubts about this... That view seems silly to me, writing in the early twenty-first century, but I suspect that Wilson is greatly underestimating the number of people who shared these views just a century ago (not to mention today.)

Wilson concludes by discussing the contemporary importance of these questions:

Such fundamentalist creeds, such fundamentally false readings of the Bible as history, underlie, one suspects, the thinking of George W Bush and Tony Blair when they consider the Middle East. It would be wonderful if they could spare the time to read Thomas L Thompson's book.

This seems like as good a reminder as any I've seen of the importance to contemporary politics of popular perceptions of history.

Update: Brian Ulrich has written some more commentary related to this article.

Posted by Ed at March 4, 2004 03:50 PM

Not to disagree too strongly with the point, but I think the lack of evidence for a Solomon-era temple probably has something to do with the Dome of the Rock being on Temple Mount. That's not really something you can dig through to find evidence.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich at March 4, 2004 08:14 PM

Well, Wales sort of had kings. It's a question of translation, and western historians tend to call them chiefs, but the rulers of Powys or Dyfed should probably be called kings. Don't they do the same thing in Russia, calling rulers prince who probably were about as powerful and independent as western kings?

Posted by: Kathleen at March 5, 2004 12:28 AM

Wilson's point is good, but I find it very amusing that he's the one making it; his horrible (but supposedly serious) Paul: The Mind of the Apostle is nearly as disconnected from real history (or the best mainstream scholarly attempts to reconstruct it) as the Bible Protestants are.

Posted by: Ryan Gabbard at March 5, 2004 10:54 AM
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