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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Up to 1945

The position stated classically by Wellhausen (although it can also be found with different emphases in Robertson Smith (1881) and Abraham Kuenen (1874–5) divided the history of Israelite religion into three periods. The first, that of the period of the Judges and the early monarchy (twelfth to eighth centuries BCE), was characterized by many local sanctuaries. There was no centrally organized priesthood or ritual, and there were family or city-based communal occasions of worship (Judg. 21:19, 1 Sam. 9: 11–14; 20: 18–29) as well as celebrations at harvest times. These conditions were represented in the sources of the Pentateuch designated as J and E (because they mainly used the divine names Jahweh and Elohim respectively) as well as in Judges and the books of Samuel. Under the influence of the eighth-century prophets and their demand for exclusive loyalty to God backed by social justice, the composition of Deuteronomy (D) in the seventh century initiated a reformation in the reign of Josiah around 622, which closed the local sanctuaries and made Jerusalem the sole legitimate place of sacrifice. This second period ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians in 587 and the resulting period of exile. The third period was that of the restoration after 540, when the temple was eventually rebuilt (c.515) and when the Priestly (P) and ritual portions of the Pentateuch were composed. An implication of this position was that little could be known of the history of Israel before the rise of the monarchy in the late eleventh century, and that most of what was attributed to Moses was the projection back into earlier times of what were essentially the rituals of the post-exilic period.

Leaving aside the attempts that were made to vindicate the account of Israel's religion that were derived from a straightforward non-critical reading of the text (i.e. the traditional view), scholarship reacted in several ways to the position outlined by Wellhausen. These can be characterized as literary, archaeological, and anthropological, although these categories are not exact.

(a) Literary Responses

These took two forms. On the one hand were the attempts of scholars such as Budde and Eissfeldt to extend the tracing of the Pentateuchal sources J and E into the books of Joshua, Judges, and 1 Samuel, or to refine the analysis by the discovery of new sources such as Eissfeldt's ‘L’ source (Eissfeldt 1922). The other approach, associated particularly with the work of Gunkel (1901–10), took the sources for granted and enquired after the form and origin of the units from which they were composed. This led to the form-critical investigation of the sources in one of its senses (see Chapter 34 below).

(b) Archaeological Responses

These took various forms: cultural, religious, and historical. The cultural responses were based upon the discovery of Assyrian and Babylonian texts which resembled the biblical accounts of creation and flood and the laws of Exodus 21–4. They illuminated the cultural context of ancient Israel and disclosed the history, religion, and culture of ancient Mesopotamia as never before. One conclusion that was drawn from these discoveries was that everything that was thought to be unique to the Old Testament was, in fact, derived from Babylon (Delitzsch 1901–2). This view, as later developed by Delitzsch (1921), would provide ammunition for ‘German Christian’ attempts to discredit the Old Testament. In a different direction, the similarities between the religions of Mesopotamia and Israel stimulated the formation of the ‘history of religions school’, a group of scholars originally based in Göttingen who, without relinquishing their commitment to the Old Testament as scripture, were concerned to trace the emergence of Israel's faith within the wider cultural background (Klatt 1969). There was a similar development in New Testament scholarship (see Chapter 2 below). Particular attention was paid to the Babylonian roots of Israelite apocalyptic and eschatology, and a concrete working out of these general ideas led, in Scandinavian and British scholarship, to theories about how sacral kingship in ancient Israel had played a vital role in forming beliefs about the universal kingship of the God of Israel and of messianic expectations (Volz 1912; Mowinckel 1922; Hooke 1935). Drawing upon reconstructions of the Babylonian new year festival, biblical scholars reconstructed an annual ceremony in ancient Israel in which the king played a crucial role. He underwent ritual humiliation and death before being restored to life and participating in a sacred marriage.

These ceremonies ensured the prosperity of the community for the coming year. They were reconstructed mainly from the psalms (thus reversing the post-exilic dates to which most of them had been previously assigned by critical scholarship), but it was believed that the creation story of Genesis 1 was also used in the rituals, rituals which ultimately looked beyond the immediate future to an eschatological consummation of God's universal rule.

The historical response took two forms. The excavation work of W. F. Albright and his students had the aim of confirming the historicity of the biblical record in opposition to negative conclusions about what could be known of Israel's history prior to the period of the Judges, conclusions that went back through Wellhausen to the early nineteenth century. Albright believed that he had found evidence for the conquest of Canaan as related in the book of Joshua, and that other discoveries confirmed the claim in Genesis that the Hebrew ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) had migrated from northern Mesopotamia some time in the first half of the second millennium. His book From the Stone Age to Christianity (1940) presented what was in fact a vindication of the biblical account of Israel's history, with a decisive role being attributed to Moses in founding Israel's distinctive faith. With some modification, Albright's position continued to be advocated by his pupils G. E. Wright (1957) and J. Bright until (in the case of Bright) the 1980s (Bright 1981). German scholars such as G. Schumacher and E. Sellin were also pioneers in Palestinian archaeology, but a distinctive contribution to biblical geography and history was made by the researches on the ground by A. Alt and M. Noth. While broadly accepting the Wellhausen synthesis, they refined it in several directions. Alt's essay ‘The God of the Fathers’ (1929) identified the religion of Abraham and the Ancestors with a type of religion deduced from (much later) Nabataean sources in which the phrase ‘the God of X’ (X being a person) indicated a loose bond between an individual and the god in whose honour that individual had founded a cult. Noth's researches into the period of the Judges (1930) led him to conclude that prior to the monarchy Israel had been an amphictyony: that is, a tribal league centred upon a specific sanctuary, whose members had a common religion, mutual obligations, and basic laws. Noth traced the material common to the presumed Pentateuchal sources J and E to the tradition held by the members of the amphictyony. The researches of Alt and Noth had the effect of providing a more positive picture of Israel before the monarchy. On another matter they were in direct opposition to Albright, holding that there had been no Israelite conquest of Canaan, but, rather, a gradual process of settlement. Noth's commentary on Joshua (1938) argued that its stories of conquest were largely aetiological: that is, folk stories generated long after the event to explain the history of particular sites. Noth's researches into the composition of the Pentateuch (1948) also led him into direct conflict with Albright, with the conclusion that virtually nothing could be known about Moses.

Anthropological responses to the Wellhausen synthesis developed the implication of his work: namely, that there had been a steady development or evolution of Israelite belief from polytheism, through henotheism, to monotheism. Using the method known as the doctrine of survivals (i.e. reference to customs thought to be ‘primitive’) and comparing them with features of other cultures, especially the cultures of modern so-called primitive peoples, scholars such as Oesterley and Robinson (1930) found references in the Old Testament to animism (the worship of spirits believed to reside in trees or springs) and polytheism, in accounting for the development of Israel's faith.

(c) The German Church Struggle

The ‘German Christians’, a movement closely allied to the National Socialism of Adolf Hitler, expressed their anti-Semitism by targeting the Old Testament, among other things identified as Jewish (Scholder 1977–85; Weber 2000). The view that there was something distinctive and German about German Christianity had been argued well before the rise of Hitler by Artur Bonus (1914). It was then taken up by ‘German Christians’ and combined with views such as those of Delitzsch to maintain that the Old Testament had no place in Christianity or its worship. It is difficult from the vantage-point of hindsight to appreciate the pressures under which Old Testament scholars in Germany were placed, pressures that included boycotts and sit-ins by ‘German Christian’ students, and pressures exerted by university administrations that were required to execute government policies after 1933 (Scherffig 1989–94). While some, such as G. von Rad, became members of the Confessing Church in opposition to National Socialism, others succumbed to the pressures, while others carried on as best as they could in the circumstances. Outright theological opposition came from the Swiss scholar Vischer in his The Witness of the Old Testament to Christ (1934–42), which sought to identify the implicit presence of Christ in Old Testament narratives in support of his view that the Old Testament was not only indispensable to the church, but the book without which it was impossible to understand the New Testament.

(d) Other Theological Responses

If Vischer's work can be seen as a response to the situation created by the ‘German Christian’ movement, the remarkable number of other Old Testament theologies that appeared in German in the 1930s were more of a response to the ‘dialectical theology’ of the 1920s. This latter movement, associated particularly with the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, was a direct challenge to the ‘liberal’ theology presumed to be allied to the practice of historical criticism. It claimed that a distinction should be made between what could be gained by historical research and what was revealed to faith, and it stressed that faith was concerned centrally with life. These claims posed fundamental questions for scholars who were writing about the theology of the Old Testament. If an Old Testament theology was simply an account of the beliefs that ancient Israelites had held at different times in their history, it failed the test of enabling modern believers to gain from the Old Testament those aspects of revelation that would help them to live the life of faith. If, on the other hand, all the emphasis was placed upon the revelatory element, there was a danger that the knowledge gained from historical criticism would at best be ignored and at worst be regarded as irrelevant. Walter Eichrodt (1933–9), Ernst Sellin (1933), and Ludwig Köhler (1935) sought to bridge this divide by organizing their theological work around key institutions or ideas that described the relationship between God and his people, rather than abstract truths or doctrines that were unrelated to life. The historical-critical dimension was retained by examining how the divine–human relationship had manifested itself at different periods and in different ways. The dimension of revelation was safeguarded by the claim that it was precisely in and through the historical processes of Israel's existence that God's character and will were disclosed. Even so, the desired synthesis could not be achieved without an element of subjective interpretation. Eichrodt chose the institution of the covenant as the organizing principle of his investigations, while for Sellin and Köhler the guiding ideas were those of the holiness of God and the lordship of God, respectively. In Britain a distinctive contribution to the discussion was made by H. W. Robinson who, in publications from as early as 1905, had argued that the Israelite experience of reality was different from that of modern Western humans. This approach was a variation on the use of anthropology, because it drew upon studies of ‘primitive’ peoples and their alleged psychology, and argued that it was precisely because of an awareness of reality different from that of moderns that ancient Israelites were able to perceive the divine in the events of nature and history. Robinson was only partly able to work this out in a theology of the Old Testament before his death (Robinson 1946), but the legacy of his view of ancient Hebrew psychology lasted well into the following period.

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