Ancient Judaism—Biblical Criticism from Max Weber to the Present

Written by Irving M. Zeitlin Reviewed By Gerald Hegarty

The ebb and flow of a century of OT scholarship is reflected in Irving Zeitlin’s Ancient Judaism, a book which derives its title and inspiration from Max Weber’s work published first as a series of articles from 1917–1919. Weber enhanced the work of 19th-century positivists who had seen economics as the dominant force in the development of their social theory by showing how the religious dimension was crucial if even its economic perspective was to be understood properly. Weber’s work met enthusiastic response from OT scholars in the 1920s, and so has left its mark on an era of biblical study. Weber was concerned with the interaction of society and ideas and believed that the 8th-century prophets worked a decisive change in the consciousness of Judaism whereby the sense of Israel’s elevation and covenant emerged as the decisive unifying factor in the reconstruction of Israel and the emergence of Judaism during and after the exile. Whereas Wellhausen had emphasized the influence of the idea of the covenant, Weber analysed the social function of the covenant idea. Weber’s attention to the social dimensity was given additional force by Noth’s idea of an ancient Israelite ‘amphictyony’.

The new Ancient Judaism is caught in the flow of scholarship which is returning to positions taken up by Wellhausen. It does not want to take that course and so is tossed about in a rough sea. Although Zeitlin is concerned with the factors that influenced Israel’s self-understanding, he is not as sceptical as Weber about the formation of that identity prior to the emergence of the classical prophets. Thus Zeitlin emphasizes that the creation of the Israelite state in the time of the Judges was in direct resistance to the hegemony of Philistia. In this sense the young David can be seen as in the tradition of the Judges but surpassing them and Saul in his ability to focus the aspirations of Israel and transmute the tribes into a kingdom. Throughout Zeitlin points out Israel’s refusal to forsake her identity by maintaining a social and political organization different to the Canaanite ‘city-state’ pattern, to the point of rejecting adoption of their technology for battle. All of this reflects Zeitlin’s dispute with much 20th-century OT scholarship and his acceptance of a conservative view of the text.

Indeed, Zeitlin’s whole understanding of the Old Testament emphasizes the origin of ‘ethical monotheism’ before the entry into Canaan and thus the formation of a distinctive nation of ‘Israel’. Therefore it is possible for Zeitlin to read the particular orientation of Israel’s worship of Yahweh as a resistance to cultural adaptation to the religion of the surrounding nations, even during the exile. The significance of this, which he does not emphasize, is that Yahweh himself is the protector of his covenant people. Thus the force of God as elector of Israel is missed in a discussion which displays only part of Weber’s legacy by not giving a prominence to the theology of the prophets.

In the current revival of interest in Weber’s thesis Zeitlin’s book may well be caught in one of the eddies a strong current produces. On one side its arguments and scholarship appear insufficiently resilient to meet the force of E. W. Nicholson’s statement of the covenant in OT theology in his recent God and His People. On the other side it is buffeted by more vigorous attempts to develop a sociological understanding of Israel’s history. The contending options in OT scholarship should give pause to any who seek to embark on such a troubled sea.

Gerald Hegarty