1945 to 1970
This period will be dealt with under four main headings: the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the biblical theology movement, Old Testament theology, and the debate about the history of Israel.
(a) The Dead Sea Scrolls
The news which reached the scholarly world in the late 1940s to the effect that significant quantities of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts had been discovered in caves near the north-west end of the Dead Sea was completely unexpected. It had the effect of diverting a considerable number of Old Testament scholars away from what they had been doing to devoting their whole attention to the new discoveries. The fact that the discoveries were to affect the study of sectarian Judaism and the New Testament rather more than the Old Testament did not prevent Old Testament specialists from entering the fray and contributing to theories about the origin and beliefs of the group generally believed to have written the sectarian documents in the hundred years or so before the beginning of the Common Era (see Cross 1958). It is noteworthy that Old Testament scholars from Germany became less involved in these discussions than their Anglo-Saxon or other Continental colleagues. Perhaps this was an indication of the much stronger commitment to Old Testament interpretation by German-speaking scholars than by their colleagues elsewhere. The immediate gain for Old Testament scholarship was confined to the field of textual criticism, the importance of the discoveries lying in the fact that the Hebrew fragments were about 1,000 years older than those on which scholarly editions of the Hebrew Bible were based. The seventh edition of the Biblia Hebraica edited by R. Kittel (1951) included variant readings from the Isaiah manuscript (IQIsa) and the Habakkuk scroll, and some of these were reflected in the Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible (1952). However, scholars would have to wait for many years before all the biblical fragments were published. Early theories about the textual transmission of the Old Testament based upon the discoveries posited three main centres of textual production: Alexandria (the Septuagint and some Qumran manuscripts), Palestinian (the Samaritan Pentateuch and some Qumran manuscripts), and Babylonian (the Masoretic Text). However, this did not explain why more than one text type was found at Qumran, and later research modified this view.
(b) Biblical Theology
The term ‘biblical theology’ is ambiguous (it can mean either the theology contained in the Bible or a theology in accordance with what the Bible contains; see Ebeling 1963); it has been applied to various movements within biblical scholarship from the late eighteenth century; and it presupposes the unity of the Old and New Testaments (see, generally, Barr 1999). In the present section the term will be used to describe the Old Testament aspect of a movement that was prominent especially, although not exclusively, in English-speaking scholarship in roughly the period 1945 to 1960, although it had its roots in earlier scholarship (for the New Testament aspect see Chapter 2 below). It was an attempt to harness the results of historical-critical study of the Bible to the theological and social needs of the churches in the immediate post-war period, and it did so by claiming that Hebrew psychology and the Hebrew language possessed certain unique features that made them suitable vehicles for divine revelation. At the level of psychology (in a very broad sense), the Hebrews possessed an awareness of history and historical processes not shared by their neighbours, for whom reality was more closely perceived in relation to the recurring cycles of nature. With regard to language, Hebrew was said to be a dynamic, verb and action-orientated language, in opposition to Greek, which was characterized as more static and noun-orientated. Biblical theology could thus accommodate the results of the history-of-religions approach by using the latter as a foil to the Old Testament. These results demonstrated the uniqueness of the Hebrew conception of reality. Historical criticism was important precisely because it investigated and corroborated the historical events through which God had acted to reveal himself. The roots of the claims made about the distinctive Hebrew way of perceiving reality went back to works such as those of Pederson (1926–40) and H. W. Robinson (1936), but they were given classical expression in two books by G. E. Wright, The Old Testament against its Environment (1950) and God who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital (1952). In Britain the movement found expression in studies of the biblical view of man (sic) and of work (Ryder Smith 1951) and in A Theological Word Book of the Bible (1950) edited by A. Richardson. The assumption behind these exercises was that the impact of divine revelation upon Hebrew experience left thought forms and linguistic features which could be systematized by means of word studies. It was taken for granted that because Hebrew thought and language had been uniquely formed by contact with the divine, the results gained from the studies of the thought forms and language would be normative for Christian attempts to understand the world and to shape its future.
The biblical theology movement failed because of its dependence upon flawed linguistic methods (Barr 1961) and outdated theories of social anthropology (see Rogerson 1974 and 1978). Its view that Israelites perceived history in ways different from their neighbours was also challenged (Albrektson 1967). The fundamental concern that inspired the movement, however, that of how to harness historical criticism to the needs of theology and of faith communities, would be taken up later by one of its critics, B. S. Childs.
(c) Old Testament Theology
The years 1957–60 saw the publication of one of the most important and influential Old Testament theologies of the twentieth century, that of Gerhard von Rad. It was both a masterly synthesis of much research by many scholars that had preceded it and possessed an originality that anticipated later developments, even if those developments went off in different directions than those indicated by von Rad. To the question ‘What is the subject-matter of an Old Testament theology?’, the answer was simple. It was Israel's confessions of its belief that God had chosen and sustained the people, as contained in the literary traditions of the Old Testament. How had God chosen and made himself known to Israel? Initially, in many ways, in various places, and at different times to individuals and to groups. These encounters had been recorded in various ways: in cult legends, aetiologies, poems, songs, and sagas. The encounters continued by units being combined into greater literary wholes. This was not merely a literary exercise. It had its setting in cultic celebrations at which the stories of God's dealings with Israel were recounted, and at which this history and thus the divine encounter were experienced anew, as something present and actual. In time, the literary traditions became the Pentateuchal sources J and E, and the period between their completion and the composition of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History beginning in the late seventh century was bridged by the prophets. These did not generally retell the histories of God's dealings with Israel, but rather looked forward to what God was about to do, for judgement or salvation. The Babylonian exile in the sixth century caused a major disruption, which was interpreted by the Deuteronomistic Historians in terms of reluctance of the people to obey God's commandments. Von Rad was uncertain about the origins of the Priestly traditions, noting their lack of reference to the house of David. This suggested that while, after the exile, they came to represent the practice of ritual and priesthood in the Jerusalem sanctuary, they did not necessarily originate in Jerusalem.
Two matters central to von Rad's position were his view of what could be known about the history of Israel prior to the period of the Judges, and how Israel's view of its history, as expressed in the Old Testament, was to be related to a scholarly, ‘objective’ reconstruction of that history. Von Rad accepted the researches of Alt and Noth, especially the latter's view that the principal themes of the story of God's dealings with Israel—the promise of land to the Ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), the exodus from Egypt, the law giving at Sinai, and the occupation of Canaan—had been developed separately and were not originally connected with each other. Their fusion was part of the creative process of building the tradition, assisted by cultic celebrations. The fact that stories about Moses were present in several of the themes—for example, the exodus and the Sinai law giving—suggested to Noth that the presence of Moses in the traditions was a later development in the process of tradition building, a conclusion that von Rad seemed to accept. At any rate, his view was that the events in which God had disclosed himself were beyond recovery by historians, which also meant that nothing could be known historically about personages such as Abraham. One reason for this, according to von Rad, was that until the sixth century when the Deuteronomistic History was composed, the only way in which occurrences could be described in Israel was by means of Dichtung—a German word normally translated ‘fiction’, but which in von Rad's usage seems to have indicated not falsification, but a poetic, creative, and imaginative account of happenings that expressed their inner meanings. Another reason was that personages such as Abraham were personifications of groups and their experiences, as well as being individuals whose names had been remembered.
Important for von Rad's view of how the traditions had coalesced into the connected stories of the sources J and E was the tribal league or amphictyony, proposed by Noth (1930). This association of Israelite tribes in the period of the Judges was the melting-pot which enabled the isolated experiences of different groups to become the property of the whole people. What God had done for one group or individual he had done for all. Von Rad's view of Israel's history from the period of the monarchy was less controversial, except that he believed that a new spirit, a kind of enlightenment, had emerged in the reign of Solomon. This affected the way in which the older traditions were now read, and resulted in there being no new perceptions of God's dealings with the people until the rise of the eighth-century prophets. In the post-exilic period Israel withdrew from its confession of God's dealings with the people in its history, to a position dominated by obedience to the law.
What was the place within an Old Testament theology of Israel's history as reconstructed by scholarly research? The answer was none. This did not mean that von Rad ignored it; it contributed vitally to his view of how and when the historical traditions had been formed. But it was the way in which Israel had chosen to link together the disparate accounts of God's workings that was of prime theological importance. No less important were the ways in which the tradition contradicted itself: for example, in the attitudes to monarchy expressed in 1 Samuel 8–10. What this amounted to was a rehabilitation, for theological purposes, of the Old Testament's own picture of its history, a picture which critical scholarship in the previous 150 years had so painstakingly taken apart and reassembled in a totally different form. Space considerations preclude any further description of von Rad's consequent treatment of the themes and institutions central to Israel's understanding of God's dealings with the people.
The achievement of von Rad lay in the way in which he was able to combine the results of historical research and literary, form-critical, and redaction studies of Old Testament texts to produce a theology centred upon divine-human encounter. This meant that it was not an intellectual account of what Israelites had believed, but a portrayal of dynamic and changing processes in which encounter with God was renewed, as received traditions were interpreted and reinterpreted in the face of concrete situations. In at least two ways von Rad anticipated things to come, although they would take forms of which he would hardly have approved. On the one hand, his insistence on the priority of Israel's own ways of constructing its traditions anticipated at the later canonical criticism, while his rehabilitation of the Old Testament's own picture of its history was not far from ‘final form’ approaches to the biblical text.
(d) Histories of Israel
The publication of the histories of Israel by Noth (1950) and Bright (1960) summed up and brought into direct conflict the tendencies noted above in German and American scholarship. While Bright accepted some of Noth's positions—for example, that Israel was a tribal confederacy in the period of the Judges—and took full account of developments in source and literary criticism, his history was essentially a nuanced and sensitive treatment of the picture presented in the Bible itself, from the time of the Patriarchs to the Maccabean Revolt. For Bright, the Patriarchs were recognizable historical personages; the exodus from Egypt could be dated to the thirteenth century; all the major lines of Israel's religion could be traced back to Moses, ‘the great founder of Israel’ (Bright 1960: 132); and while the conquest of Canaan under Joshua was not unequivocally endorsed by archaeological discoveries, it could ‘be regarded as certain that a violent irruption into the land took place late in the thirteenth century’ (Bright 1960: 120). Noth's history began, not with the Patriarchs, but with the origins of the tribes and their existence in Canaan as a tribal confederacy. The Old Testament accounts of the Patriarchs, the exodus, and the Sinai law giving were treated as traditions of the tribal league, whose main value was the information they provided about the beliefs of the tribes. The events that they presupposed were not easily accessible, and in any case were anachronistically ascribed to all Israel, whereas ‘Israel’ had come into being as a tribal league only in Canaan. In the case of the occupation of Canaan, this was a complex process of peaceful settlement, probably bound up with larger migrations of peoples such as the Aramean wanderings. The destruction of cities identified by Albright and Bright as evidence for the biblical account of the conquest were to be ascribed to the inter-city feuds known from the Amarna Letters of the thirteenth century and to the upheavals consequent upon the invasion of the Sea Peoples around 1200 BCE (Noth 1950: 79–80). From the time of Saul onwards, there was little for the two histories to disagree on, except that Noth's history went as far as the Bar Kochba Revolt in the early second century CE.