By the early 20th century, mainstream biblical scholarship had largely abandoned belief in the historicity of Genesis 1-11 (the stories of Creation, the Fall, Noah’s ark, and the Tower of Babel). Genuine biblical history, it was thought, began with Abraham and the patriarchs.

In the 1970s, though, certain scholars began to argue that the rest of Genesis — indeed, the Pentateuch as a whole (including not only the patriarchs but also the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan) — is equally fictional. Still, the large majority of scholars, religious or not, continued using the Bible as a historical source for the period commencing with the establishment of the Israelite monarchy under Saul, David and Solomon.

In the 1990s, however, battle erupted between two broad factions within biblical scholarship, commonly known (although they themselves reject the titles) as “minimalists” and “maximalists.”

The Bible, say advocates of “minimalism,” cannot be regarded as a historical source. Some claim that the biblical texts date no earlier than the fifth century B.C., the Persian period. At the extreme, Niels Peter Lemche argues for an even later origin in the Hellenistic era (between the second and third centuries B.C.). Unsurprisingly, he’s sought to discredit the ninth-century B.C. Tel Dan Stele, which mentions the dynasty of David, as a forgery.

The minimalists advance two basic claims. One holds that the concept of “Israel” itself was invented for ideological reasons, in order to enhance the status and power of the priests and scribes who created the Bible and to justify their possession of the land of Palestine. Furthermore, some add, it legitimates modern Israeli occupation of Palestine and its oppression of the Palestinians.

The minimalists also claim that historical writing is inescapably both selective and subjective, reflecting the contemporary concerns of its authors. Of course, few if any academic historians would deny this with regard to any historical text, ancient or modern — but its implications become dramatic when the very late dates the minimalists suggest for the Bible’s composition are recalled: The Bible can be used, they say, to shed light on Jewish political concerns of the fifth through the second centuries B.C., but it contains minimal authentic information about the time of “Moses” or “Abraham” or even David, Solomon and Hezekiah.

Just as reading the Book of Mormon as 19th-century American religious fiction yields conclusions that differ drastically from those to be discovered in a voice from the dust of the Pre-Columbian New World, seeing biblical stories as myths projected back into the past rather than as accounts, however imperfect, of actual historical people and events fundamentally transforms their meaning.

Many scholars have responded very critically to the minimalists. The prominent English Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen, for example, replied with a massive book titled “On the Reliability of the Old Testament” in which he provides numerous examples of historical claims of the Bible that are confirmed by non-biblical evidence. Iain Provan, Philips Long and Tremper Longman collaborated to produce “A Biblical History of Israel,” which expressly criticizes minimalist assertions as mistaken and unreasonable. Jan Joosten, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, rejects a late date for Genesis through 2 Kings on linguistic grounds.

Still, despite their deep erudition and superb qualifications, such authors have been dismissed by the minimalists simply because they’re believing Christians.

But Avi Hurvitz, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is more difficult to brush off in this fashion. On the basis of linguistic comparisons with indisputably ancient Hebrew inscriptions, he argues that, contrary to minimalist doctrine, important biblical texts were, in fact, written before the Persian period. It’s also difficult to brand Herschel Shanks’s influential “Biblical Archaeology Review,” which regularly features articles by leading authorities in the field, as Christian apologetics. (Many of its authors are Israelis.)

Nor can the eminent American archaeologist William Dever be branded a Christian apologist. The minimalists’ fiercest academic critic, Dever has been derided as a “biblical maximalist” — which, since he’s an atheist who denies many biblical claims, seems rather curious. In numerous articles and lectures, and in books such as “What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Israel,” Dever has criticized the minimalists for, among other things, taking too purely literary an approach to the Bible and paying insufficient attention to relevant archaeological evidence.

Tribal warfare has plagued the Middle East since antiquity. It’s scarcely surprising that it’s also found among the scholarly tribes of biblical studies.

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.