Monday, January 10, 2005

Toward a Definition of Maximalism

In the study of the Hebrew Bible today, the terms "maximalism" and "minimalism" are thrown around with great abandon. I personally believe the term "minimalism" has a meaning, but "maximalism" does not. Take this test and tell me what you think.

It's easy to find out if you are a minimalist. Just answer "no" to the following question:
Did King David exist?
But trying to find out if you are a maximalist is harder. Let us suppose you have answered "yes" to the above question, but "no" to these two questions:
Did Moses exist?
Did Abraham exist?
Are you still a maximalist? What if you answered "yes" to Moses and "no" to Abraham? Are you still a maximalist?

Let's stipulate that if you said "yes" to all three, maybe you really are a maximalist. But let's add a couple more names to the mix:
Did Noah exist?
Did Adam exist?
Now, if you answered "no" to those two, but "yes" to all the rest, are you still a maximalist? Do you have to answer "yes" to all to be a maximalist, or does that make you a "fundamentalist" (a word I hate, and almost never deployed without a subtext of polemic)?

The question about "Adam" is particularly thorny. Unless you believe the human race has always existed, then you must believe there was at some time a first human. But you might want to object that we are not in a position, historically speaking, to know the name of the gentleman (or lady).

In fact, I submit that it is impossible to define "maximalism." Even if one answered "yes" to David, Moses, and Abraham, as I do, one might still want to add "--but I don't necessarily believe every story told about him." What does that make you?

UPDATE: Thanks for your comments (me too, Dr. Cathey). Responses, appreciative and thoughtful, have also been posted by Jim West and Tim Bulkeley.


Jim said...

Was that a rhetorical question? If not, then my answer is - minimalist.

Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...

A very good post! You bring up some very interesting points here! I took the test and am a maximalist - of the old Albright - Bright sort.


Hans said...

Unless you believe the human race has always existed, then you must believe there was at some time a first human.
If you think that the emergence of humanity was a gradual one, as it is assumed to be with evolution, then the question of the first human may be not an answerable one - there will be a transition period, where it will be difficult to decide whether a specific specimen is human or not, to determine "this is him, his parents are still apes, his children are already human". It would be like deciding at which exact time a person stops being young or becomes old. You may of course just insert an arbitrary line "youth ends at midnight on the 30th birthday, old age begins at 60", but that's then just that - an arbitrary line created for simplifying a task.