“Minimalism” and “maximalism” are labels applied to viewpoints within Old Testament scholarship. In the context of biblical scholarship, the minimalist represents the liberal viewpoint that suggests a new, progressive approach to Scripture, while the maximalist takes a more conservative, traditional approach. The question at stake is the historicity of the Old Testament: how much of the text, if any, reflects actual history, and what criteria should be applied when studying it from a historical angle?
Scholars labeled minimalists generally reject the historicity of the biblical text, while maximalists generally accept it as historically accurate. Some radical minimalists argue that the Old Testament books are mostly fictitious, composed sometime between the Persian conquest of Babylon and the first century AD. These same scholars would also argue that “Israel” as a national entity, the way it is portrayed in the Bible, did not exist. Maximalists, to the contrary, argue that the Bible is essentially reliable as a historical work and should be viewed as a primary source for the time period it portrays unless evidence can be demonstrated to prove otherwise.
The way that maximalists and minimalists approach the historicity of the Old Testament is the major sticking point between the two camps. According to many maximalists, the Bible should be viewed as historically reliable unless forceful external evidence is brought against it. For many minimalists, the Bible should be dismissed unless forceful external evidence is available to defend each of its individual propositions. The names minimalist and maximalist come from their respective starting positions: minimalists believe scholars should accept the minimum amount of biblical data as historical, and maximalists argue that the maximum possible amount of biblical data should be viewed as historical. For example, several prominent minimalists argue that the biblical portrayals of King David and King Solomon are essentially fictitious. They would contend that there was no united monarchy of Israel at that time, certainly not to the extent described in the Old Testament. Maximalists would be more charitable to the text, arguing that, when properly understood, the accounts of David and Solomon fit the historical reality.
Many contemporary scholars do not place themselves in either camp, sitting somewhere along the spectrum between maximalist and minimalist. Some accept the historical nature of certain parts of the Old Testament. Others believe that the Old Testament was based on recollections of historical events but heavily embellished and redacted to the point that it is no longer usable by historians or archaeologists. Some people refer to scholars near the center of the spectrum as “moderates.”
It is important to recognize that, most of the time, minimalists and maximalists are both dealing with the same data. It is their approach to the data that is being contrasted, not the data itself. Every scholar brings certain assumptions to the available data and arranges the evidence accordingly. Many minimalists assume that God does not exist, that miracles are impossible, and that the Old Testament is hopelessly propagandistic; therefore, any real history stemming from the biblical text is improbable. Many maximalists are committed Christians and lend additional historical weight to the text due to their convictions about inspiration. To be discerning individuals, we must recognize different people’s starting assumptions, listen to a wide variety of voices on any given topic, and gather as much relevant data as possible. As Christians, though, we do not have to approach these issues with a blank slate: we rely on our faith in God and His reliable Word as we navigate these difficult scholarly discussions.