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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The History of Ancient Israel

Closely matching the nineteenth-century quest for the historical Jesus there emerged a similarly focused concern to reconstruct the actual course of the rise and historical development of ancient Israel. Once again it was the impact of the French Enlightenment, with its prominent concern with historical research as a means of understanding the nature of human existence and civilization, which served to initiate fresh questions. Paris at the end of the eighteenth century had provided a haven for several British scholars in which they had found encouragement to examine afresh the nature of the Bible.

At first the interest was primarily into their literary forms and poetic nature. This was a field of enquiry which had been begun by the French priest Richard Simon (1638–1712), and which had been carried further by the Englishman Robert Lowth (1710–87), by J. G. Herder (1744–1803) and J. G. Eichhorn in Germany. Few scholars had more energetically pursued the task of classifying the various types of literature to be found in the Bible, and commenting on their religious worth, than W. M. L. de Wette (1780–1849). Yet the goal of such enquiries had not been historical, even though a new impetus towards historical questions had already begun to transform studies of the classical civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome.

Louvre, © RMN-Hervé Lewandowski.

It was primarily this concern which now turned attention to the historical books of the Old Testament. How much real history did they report? By the early 1820s scholars were beginning to subject the lengthy histories of Herodotus, Thucidydes, and Tacitus to fresh critical examination. Should not the narratives attributed by tradition to Moses be subjected to a similar critical scrutiny? In Britain it was Henry Hart Milman (1791–1868), an eager disciple of Edward Gibbon, who initiated the task, at first almost by accident. His The History of the Jews, published in 1829 as the first of a three-volume popular history of the Jewish people, dealt with the biblical story as far as the late Old Testament period. It had been sponsored on account of the revived interest in Jews and Judaism that had arisen in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and the extent to which the Napoleonic constitution had made possible the ending of a ghetto-bound existence for many of them.

Trustees of the British Museum.

Milman's little book was no monument of scholarship, but it highlighted the possibility of recasting the historical narratives of the Old Testament into the form of a real history, explaining away the miraculous element and regarding the biblical assertions of a divine plan as the cover for belief in a providential destiny. What was now called for was a more wide-ranging critical re-examination of the nature and time of origin of the historical narratives of the Old Testament. The scholar who took up this challenge was the German H. G. A. Ewald (1803–75), who laid out the mammoth task of reconstructing Israel's story in a five-volume work (1843–55), carrying it through from its beginnings until the birth of the early Christian church (two volumes on the Apostolic Age were added in 1858–9). In spite of Ewald's grand design and energetic fulfilment, the work sufficed largely to highlight yet again the problems relating to a critical evaluation of the sources. It was of significance that Ewald, whose political views made him a controversial figure in Germany, received a wide following in Great Britain, appearing as the scholar most likely to succeed in combining faith and piety with scholarly integrity. Yet his achievements were only partially successful and too many questions were left unanswered for the History to be more than an interim work of scholarship.

It was Ewald's pupil and follower Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) who was destined to pursue more rigorously the task addressed by Ewald. He recognized the primacy of the need to reasses the historical worth, and time of origin, of the historical books of the Old Testament. Thus his major publication devoted to the subject in 1878 was entitled in its second edition of 1883 Prolegomena to the History of Israel. In spite of Wellhausen's ambition to write the story of the rise of a great nation, in the manner that B. G. Niebuhr and T. Mommsen had attempted for ancient Rome, the central feature of this work was a critical evaluation of the course of Israel's religious development. It was this which held the key to an understanding of the various documents which had been woven into the construction of the two largest Old Testament compositions—the Pentateuch and the Former Prophets. Although now existing as two single wholes, these are, in reality, built up from a number of separate source documents. To identify and define these was a necessary prerequisite to recovering the basic course of ancient Israel's history.

Illustrated London News.

Wellhausen had endeavoured to carry through a historian's task, although it was his literary achievement of identification and reconstruction of the four primary documents from which the Pentateuch had been composed that became most directly associated with his name. This documentary reconstruction has passed into history as the Graf–Wellhausen hypothesis, bringing into the story reference to Karl-Heinrich Graf (1815–69), a German schoolmaster who had studied in Strasbourg under Eduard Reuss. Graf had anticipated Wellhausen in reconstructing a picture in which the course of Israel's cultic institutions and rules had passed from simple forms into elaborate realities. It was the key by which the major literary components of the Pentateuch could be identified and dated. Graf had himself clearly learned the necessity of this critical historical perspective from his Strasbourg teacher Eduard Reuss, with whom he maintained an important correspondence.

The initial response to Wellhausen's proposals in church circles was strongly negative, and took time to be assimilated. Strong refutations were published, among the most widely read and influential of them being The Problem of the Old Testament (1906) by the Scottish scholar James Orr (1844–1913). In Germany, Great Britain, and America, however, by the beginning of the twentieth century, Wellhausen's literary reconstructions of the sources of the Pentateuch had come to be regarded by most critical scholars as the best solution to an admittedly difficult problem.

By 1900 these literary problems no longer appeared in need of major review and to complement them there was now emerging a new area of research of great promise. This lay in the archaeology of the Holy Land itself and of the neighbouring lands which had been the cradles for the civilizations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Although its beginnings are to be found in a survey of the historical geography of the region, which had begun in 1838–9 with the explorations of the American Edward Robinson, it soon grew into extended excavation of the most prominent sites. These led to the establishing of major institutes and organizations for the systematic prosecution of archaeological research in the region.

Courtesy Professor R. E. Clements.

Initially the meagre results in the Holy Land itself were largely compensated for by the immense achievements of similar archaeological research in the neighbouring territories. Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon all had immense importance for the Bible, not least in rendering possible a means of establishing a credible chronology of events. In many respects it was the rediscovery of the achievements of the civilizations of ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria which was to have the most profound effect upon the interpretation of the Bible. The closeness of the links between the biblical world and that of the ancient Near East could now be examined more closely and at first hand. Much of the defensive apologetic of the biblical writings, which had led to grotesque and negative estimates of the quality of life in antiquity, could now be set in a clearer light. Even the skills and techniques of writing and the production of literary works, such as those preserved in the Bible, could be given a cultural context which they had not previously possessed.

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