The Quandary of the assigned debate in class

One of my favorite units in my 101 class is the week we cover the Hebrews.  I frame the question of the unit around the challenge of how history is affected by the historian’s search and we spend the opening volley looking at the minimalist and maximalist camps in biblical archaeology.  This subject is potentially as emotional for my students as it is for the scholars debating it today.

There are a lot of challenges built into this field of study.  Particularly when considering the early biblical books, it is difficult to assess what should be regarded as history versus religious origin myth.  Abraham came out Ur, but conquered all sorts kingdoms for which we have no evidence at all.  It is a considerable hurdle that the stories were written down well after the events supposedly happened. In my opening workshop where we considered the question about how a historian’s beliefs effect his/her research, I used the example of the Exodus story and the maximalist arguments by James Hoffmeier (“Out of Egypt”, Biblical Archaeological Review, Jan/Feb 2007) and Meshel Ze’ev (“Wilderness Wanderings”, Biblical Archaeological Review, Jul/Aug 2008) to explain how one side answers a lack of archaeological evidence.  Maximalists argue for authenticity in biblical texts to demonstrate plausibility.  Minimalists argue that biblical texts comprise a collection of religious documents–not historical documents.  So, I decided to introduce the debate into our classroom with one of the fairly recent flash points in the field.

Broken in antiquity and reused as building material, the stela lay in a wall beneath the eighth-century B.C.E. destruction debris from Tiglath-pileser III’s conquest. The inscription’s 13 partially preserved lines in the Early Aramaic language, written in paleo-Hebrew script of the ninth century B.C.E., uses dots to separate the words.

A heated question in biblical archaeology, today, is the question over King David.  Did he ever exist?  Is he part of an origin myth story?  In the mid-1990s, excavations at Tel Dan revealed a shard of a stele that had been torn down, stuffed into a wall and used as filling.  The writing on the fragment is perfectly clear, but the artifact is only a chunk of a larger piece.  It made so much news because the lead excavator, Avraham Biran, announced that it provided proof of King David’s existence.  On the stele, the proto-Hebrew letters BYTDWD, Bethdod, which Biran translated as HouseofDavid.  I have deliberately run the letters together, because the written language 1) has no vowels, and 2) uses dots to indicate a separation of letter groupings into separate words.  Minimalists argue that DWD can be translated as David, or uncle or kettle, the lack of written vowels opening the door to various possibilities.  Also, there is no dot between BYT and DWD in the inscription which leads Biran to suggest the likelihood that DWD should be translated as David, but others to point out that this is not the only or most logical possibility.  Biran hypothesizes that the shard comes from a victory stele erected by an invader referenced in the biblical record.  Critics argue against both the translation and the use of the Bible as a historic source to prove that the Bible is a historic source.  (Some scholars who believe the fragment says House of David, are critical of some of Biran’s explanations.)

In the Biran translation, the material in brackets represents suggested reconstructions. Fortunately, the phrases “House of David” (the dynastic name of the kingdom of Judah) and “king of Israel” (often used without a specific name in the Books of Kings) need no reconstruction.

The Biblical Archaeological Review (BAR), admittedly a maximalist publication, is often conscientious in giving voice to detractors and published a critical paper by Phillip Davies, who was particularly unimpressed with the translation Biran provided–especially given the gaps in the tablet.  So, the Davies article was paired against the write-up based on Biran’s report and written by BAR’s editorial staff.  Students, during the practicum phase of class, met in small groups to discuss the Biran perspective and the Davies perspective which had been assigned as homework.  They were tasked with analyzing both sides and then we came together and each side of the room was assigned a position to take.  They were given time to prep their arguments and asked to write them down, including their own position at the bottom.  Something curious happened next.

The debate grew heated (though always respectful and friendly) almost immediately.  As students were preparing for the debate, some acknowledged that they supported the opinion I assigned them to

argue against, others said that they were undecided.  By the end of the this debate, some of the students had strongly allied with the position that they were assigned.  What did I do?  Had I created an emotional attachment to the side that they were developing an argument for?  Were they fully listening to the other side of the aisle?  Why had they flopped?  I am adamant when I assign a student a position in an argument that they will always be able to supply their own opinion at some point.  My brother-in-law thinks such assignments are immoral, forcing a student in to a compromising situation.  I have never thought that, but last night seeing students switch their position post-debate got me worried.  The reason I do this is to insure an equal representation of each point of view–I always tell the students that I know some people will be arguing against the position they believe in, so they will always have the opportunity to clear the air and state their actual point of view.  At least two of my most active debaters switched their point of view.  So, was this a successful exercise because their point of view evolved?  Or, had I created a circumstance that swayed them artificially?  Not all students flip-flopped, and a couple remained undecided, so perhaps it is just that, an evolution of thought, but I am not really sure.

I would love to hear ideas or comments–I can also direct you to some more information about the controversies.


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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

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