One hundred years of Old Testament interpretation

Written by Ronald E. Clements Reviewed By Robert L. Hubbard, Jr

If all philosophy is but a footnote to Aristotle, then the last century of Old Testament interpretation is but a footnote to Wellhausen. In this readable, insightful book, Clements surveys the work of Wellhausen and his more important footnotes with a particular eye for their methodology and their ‘interconnections’ with each other. Regrettably, the contributions of linguistics and archaeology are omitted from this otherwise useful survey.

What is significant in Clements’ presentation of pentateuchal criticism is how Wellhausen and Gunkel supplemented each other. While to Wellhausen goes the credit for unlocking the alleged four documents comprising the Pentateuch and the history of Israel’s religious institutions which those documents reflect, Gunkel’s method of Gattungsgeschichte (form criticism) opened up the pre-literary history of the individual pericopes (cf. his work on the patriarchal narratives) and yielded ‘a picture of greater depth’ than Wellhausen’s (p. 15). Gunkel is praised particularly for his appreciation of the function of literature in early societies and his use of comparative ancient near eastern material. The later work of Mowinckel, Alt and von Rad are traced to Gunkel’s inspiration. While some who reject the documentary hypothesis are mentioned—J. Pedersen, Engnell and Kaufmann—Cassuto’s more comprehensive work in the area escapes mention as does Kline’s argument that Deuteronomy closely resembles second-millennium treaty patterns and, hence, must date earlier.

As for the historical books, Clements notes that when Wellhausen and Budde failed to find pentateuchal sources here, interest then shifted to the problem of the conquest. Here Clements praises Alt’s pioneering use of Egyptian materials and topographic data in positing his theory of a prolonged, peaceful settlement of sheep-herding bedouin. He credits Noth with weaving together strands of Alt’s earlier work into his famous ‘amphictyony’ thesis. More significant was another development: the recognition by scholars that the historical books contain not documents but early collections of material compiled under a religious (not merely a historical) purpose. In work concerning the prophets, Duhm and Hölscher are cited for first seriously investigating the ecstatic nature of prophecy. Clements notes further how Gunkel’s observation that prophetic speech included a variety of other forms (i.e. liturgies, narratives, etc.) led Mowinckel to discover close ties between prophecy and both the cult and legal materials (the decalogue, Deuteronomy). Wolff’s analysis of the influence of wisdom on Amos is also mentioned.

As no surprise, Clements singles out Gunkel and Mowinckel as prime movers in Psalms studies. Of special note, says Clements, was how the influence of anthropology led Mowinckel beyond Gunkel in relating the Psalms to the cult and the prophets. A wider understanding of prophecy resulted. Clements also rightly praises Mowinckel for initiating an increased appreciation of the king’s role in the Old Testament.

While Clements’ chapter on wisdom literature, though interesting focuses unnecessarily upon the relationship between Proverbs and comparable Egyptian literature, his chapter on theology deals mainly with Eichrodt and von Rad. The problem of an Old Testament theology is how to organize it—historically or systematically? Clements generously praises Eichrodt’s attempt to combine both approaches under the rubric of ‘covenant’ but crtiticises its tendency to abstract Old Testament ‘ideas’ from their cultural context, its masking of tensions within the Old Testament, and its failure to account for the transition of Israel’s religion from one of cult to one of a book. Von Rad draws Clements’ praise for his innovative approach but draws criticism for emphasizing the Old Testament’s diversity to the detriment of its unity. I note two crucial omissions: discussion of the relationship between the two Testaments and review of the methodology of the ‘biblical theology movement’.

In summary, the author achieves his purpose although the scope of his presentation is limited. Figures covered are almost exclusively German, something to be explained, no doubt, by the author’s omission of archaeology, a field dominated by other nations, from his survey. Since the author’s concern was methodology, such an omission approaches the same methodological mistake Wellhausen made of considering the Old Testament in isolation from its historical context. Such criticisms are minor, however. The book’s biographical details bring famous names to life, the concise summaries of their work are invaluable, and the delineation of their interconnections ties the entire last century together into a continuous story. Clements has, indeed, performed a valuable service for the Old Testament student.

Robert L. Hubbard, Jr

North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois