Maximalists and Minimalists

Maximalism and Minimalism: labels for two opinions about the relation between written evidence and archaeology, which sometimes are conflicting. The expressions are used when discussing the past of ancient Israel, but similar debates are known in Roman, Greek, and Iranian archaeology.

The labels "maximalism" and "minimalism" were coined in the debate about the historical reliability of the Bible. For more than a century, archaeologists have been digging in the Near East, and inevitably, they found contradictions between the archaeological record and the story told in the Bible. This is neither unique nor problematic. Information about Antiquity is always fragmentary, and the scholars studying ancient Rome, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Persia, or Babylonia often have to cope with contradictory evidence. For example, Julius Caesar claims to have invaded Britain, but this has so far not been confirmed archaeologically. Although contradictory evidence can be frustrating, it is preferable to having only one source: in that case, we cannot establish whether it is correct or not; if the evidence is inconsistent, we can at least evaluate its quality.

When we are dealing with the history of the Jews, there is, after the sixth or fifth century BCE, no real contradiction between the main written source (the Bible) and the archaeological record. No one denies that the Jews returned from their Babylonian Captivity: archaeologists have identified the new villages, although it is not entirely clear when the return took place exactly. Moving backward, the discrepancy increases: in the age of the two kingdoms (Judah and Israel), the Biblical account is sometimes at odds with the results of archaeology, and if we look at the events before, say, king David, the fragmentary nature of our evidence is even more striking.

"Minimalism" and "maximalism" are two principles to cope with this situation. Maximalist scholars assume that the Biblical story is more or less correct, unless archaeologists prove that it is not; minimalists assume that the Biblical story must be read as fiction, unless it can be confirmed archaeologically. "Minimalism" and "maximalism" are, therefore, methods, approaches, or theoretical concepts.

It is easy to recognize minimalists and maximalists. If the author's method cannot immediately be deduced from the evidence he puts forward, the auxiliary hypotheses usually offer a clue. When the archaeological evidence contradicts the Bible, the maximalist will write something like "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"; the minimalist will stress that the Bible should be read as literature.

Take, for example, the Jericho walls: so far, no remains have been excavated of a wall that has collapsed in the Late Bronze Age, which contradicts the Biblical account of Joshua's capture of the city. A maximalist will argue that these walls stood on top of the hill and must have eroded; his minimalist colleague might say that the story should be read as a description of a first fruits offering - the first town captured by the Hebrews was for God. There's something to be said for both approaches, although in this example, the erosion argument is probably incorrect.

The debate between minimalists and maximalists is not always friendly, but there is in fact only one major issue in the Biblical sphere: the existence of the united kingdom of David and Solomon. Minimalists stress that this state can never have been the centralized organization we read about in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings, because the necessary archaeological evidence to prove the existence of a state organization is missing. There are no administrative documents, and something resembling a state architecture does not appear in the archaeological record until the ninth century, when almost identical stables and six-chambered gates were built in several places.

In this case, the conclusion appears to be inevitable that the kingdom of the Omrid dynasty (884-842) was the first centralized state. This is confirmed by the Samaria Ivories, which prove that their capital, Samaria, had access to the interregional trade routes, something that tenth-century Jerusalem did not have. David and Solomon appear to have been rulers in a different, more primitive type of society, probably of a tribal nature. Maximalists have not really been able to explain this away; so far, the objects we need to speak of a state organization, have not been discovered, too many stories betray oral origins, and there have been too many excavations to continue saying that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

This is not unique. The kingdom of the Medes, which is mentioned in several sources as the forerunner of the Achaemenid Empire, is missing too. This is not to deny that the Medes existed - sites like Tepe Nush-e Jan can safely be attributed to them - but the evidence that they lived in a well-organized state with a central administration, as described by Herodotus of Halicarnassus, is absent: no archives, nothing that may be labeled "state architecture". The contrast with the Achaemenids is striking: their architecture has been identified in cities like Babylon, Sardes, Van, and Dascylium; archives have been found everywhere from Egypt to Afghanistan; evidence for state control of the trade routes is known from cities as far apart as Taxila and Samaria.

Unfortunately, minimalism and maximalism are not always clearly understood. The debate is not restricted to the archaeology of Israel: as indicated above, there are similar debates in other disciplines. Iranologists once accepted the existence of a Median state, but the tendency is now to read Herodotus' story as a Greek view of the Achaemenid Empire projected on an earlier stage. It is not common among Iranologists to use expressions like "minimalism" and "maximalism", but the debate is identical.

It must also be stressed that a minimalist is not - as is often said - an atheist skeptic who denies the existence of a political organization led by David or Solomon. He is in fact a scholar who thinks that the normal evidence for a central state is missing. Nor is the maximalist someone who naively believes everything written in the Bible: he is not a literalist but a scholar who, faced with the usual lack of information, decides to make the best from the written data he has, the Bible. Maximalism and minimalism are theoretical concepts that have little to do with religion - many minimalists are believers, and there are many maximalist authors who are not led by religious beliefs (e.g., pseudoarchaeologists like Graham Hancock and Erich von Däniken).

Examples of pages with this issue

This page was created in 2009; last modified on 12 October 2020.