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Pinker was right (on the taboo nature of the question, “Were the events in the Bible fictitious — not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires?”)

Just by coincidence, I happened to get this (unsolicited) email today. It relates to the second item on Steven Pinker’s “taboo questions” list (“Were the events in the Bible fictitious — not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires?”). It indeed seems to be taboo in the sense that he was discussing.

Names and affiliations on the emails are redacted for politeness.

XXX wrote:

My dear YYY:


I know of no way to convince anyone of anything about [university name redacted] these days. I trust you’ve copied this to [president of the university]. That is as much as we can do; but do watch the response.


YYY wrote:

You are probably aware of the controversy surrounding the tenure decision on ZZZ at …. ZZZ has written one book in which ZZZ flatly denies the existence of the ancient Israelite kingdoms, the connection of contemporary Jews to any ancient Jewish people in the near east – however defined, and even states that Herodian Jerusalem was not Jewish.

ZZZ is entitled to advocate the destruction of the State of Israel. ZZZ is not entitled to publish fiction, call it history, and expect to receive tenure.

I am writing to ask you to consider writing a letter … as hundreds of alumni have already done.

A substantial literature on the ZZZ book exists in cyberspace, much of it intemperate, of course.

You might start with these calm and rational articles: …

There is a petition posted at: …

Me again: I offer no expertise or opinions on the substance of the matter–just reporting the “taboo” nature: as Pinker said, people do want to limit discussion of this issue. Whether suppression of the discussion is a good idea or a bad idea depends to a large extent on one’s views of the scholarship in question.

P.S. I forgot to note that the email was titled, “King Hezekiah under siege.” Talk about personalizing things!


  1. Phil says:

    Oh, come on, "taboo" has to mean more than "a few people write emails to complain about it."
    I've gotten email complaints about some of the questions I've raised in my work (like, "Do we really know that radon is dangerous at typical or even somewhat elevated residential concentrations), but it would be ridiculous to complain that the question is "taboo."

    Also, to be fair, the complainer seems to be complaining about the claim that there were no Israelite kingdoms whatsoever, which — I'm no historian so I make this comment subject to correction — I believe is known to be false.

    But anyway, a few griping emails does not make something taboo.

  2. Andrew says:


    The emailers may not succeed, but it seems that they're trying to make it taboo: "ZZZ is not entitled to publish fiction, call it history, and expect to receive tenure." (I have not read any of ZZZ's work (and have almost no knowledge of this area) so can't judge whether the history books are indeed "fiction.")

  3. p-ter says:

    phil, you underestimate the power of the baseless accusation. to a certain extent, it's a rhetorical tactic that works in shutting people up, or at least "chilling" speech (or perhaps running it into anonymous online forums).

    not that I know anything about this particular accusation or its veracity, but it has all the hallmarks.

  4. Phil says:

    I think the word "taboo" should be reserved for acts or statements that stir general or at least widespread, strong disapproval. That is what I have always understood it to mean. If "taboo" actually means "anything that anyone strongly disapproves of", then (1) I have fallen far out of touch with conventional usage, and (2) I withdraw my objection to classifying Pinker's questions as "taboo": although most of them do not generate widespread, strong disapproval, there are indeed some people who disagree that they are acceptable, and say so. But I think "taboo" means what I think it means, not what you think it means! It's gotta be more than a handful of people claiming that they are outraged at something, _even if_ that does have a "chilling effect."
    And Andrew: yes, the author of the email is insisting that if someone publishes falsehoods as if they are true, they should not be given tenure. And I agree with that! I don't know if the author's specific criticisms of the would-be professor are true — I suspect the email is not completely fair or factual — but I endorse the idea that someone shouldn't be a professor if they are going to teach their students things that aren't true.

  5. Blake Stacey says:

    Hmmm. There's a large body of literature devoted to figuring out how much of the Bible is historical. You've got "minimalists" who say that damn near everything is made up, including the monarchies of David and Solomon; in the opposite corner, you have quasi-minimalists who say (for example) that David existed but Abraham did not.

    Assyrian records attest to a few of the later kings of Judah, and Egyptian inscriptions of some time prior speak of an "Israel", but nobody can be sure whether that "Israel" was the name the people used for themselves or one which was applied to them (compare the case of "Japan" and "Nippon"). All in all, that's a pretty sparse record!

    I recommend Hector Avalos's The End of Biblical Studies (2007) for an up-to-date take on the situation. Knowing that such a book can be published and sold on the open Internet makes me inclined to say that Pinker's question is not truly "taboo".

  6. Andrew says:

    Blake, Phil,

    Clearly "taboo" can operate at different levels of severity. The point here is that it seems that the letter writers are trying to shoot down the researcher and deny tenure because ZZZ "denies the existence of the ancient Israelite kingdoms" etc. Pinker is not claiming that these taboo topics are never aired–after all, Pinker brought them up himself in a public forum–but that scholars are intimidated if they try to work in these areas.

  7. Phil says:

    To me, there's a big difference — a qualitative difference — between "controversial" and "taboo." Perhaps this is not true of other people's interpretations of these words.

  8. JZ says:

    Alternatively, Z is involved in a political cause and his historical research reaches the conclusions favored by the political cause. The humanities may not require declarations of conflict of interest as medicine does, but I don't know why the same potential issues don't apply.

    Is it usual to research non-falsifiable claims like non-existence of an entire people?

    I'd always thought there was a strong argument that the Bible has so much in common with neighbors' legal codes and literatures that it's not so remarkable; I'm not aware of any great controversy whether, say, Gilgamesh existed in spite of the lack of evidence.

    I looked at wikipedia for Hebrews, and after 500 revisions over several years, it's just two short paragraphs long, but the entry for the Hyksos does describe one aspect of the controversy.

  9. I'm somewhat familiar with the controversy and the specific case of ZZZ (though slightly less so with the controversial material itself) and it seems to be the case that while there are some academics in ZZZ's field who disagree with ZZZ's writings (and some who praise them), most of ZZZ's serious detractors have very little in the way of social science qualifications and merely have an ideological axe to grind. (I haven't read the major work in question and I don't think I possess sufficient context to judge it even if I did read it; I'd wager this is likewise true of those demanding ZZZ's head on a platter).

    I wish it weren't so, but such situations seem to be extremely common in regard to the Middle East. Makes me glad that my field doesn't have grey areas that people launch defamation campaigns over (yet!).