Rediscovering the Traditions of Israel: The Development of the Traditio-Historical Research of the Old Testament, with Special Consideration of Scandinavian Contributions

Written by Douglas A. Knight and Gene M. Tucker Reviewed By G. I. Davies

There are a number of general surveys of Old Testament scholarship available to the student, ranging from the rather dated volume edited by H. H. Rowley, The Old Testament and Modern Study, through H. F. Hahn’s The Old Testament in Modern Research to the recent surveys by R. Davidson in Volume 3 of the Pelican Guide to Modern Theology and R. E. Clements in his A Century of Old Testament Study. Although sometimes scorned as ‘books about books about the Bible’, twice removed from the real subject for study, such works are useful in several ways. Apart from their intrinsic interest, they make quickly and easily available results of research which have otherwise to be culled from many books, often long and written in a bewildering diversity of languages; by showing up the different approaches which exist towards a particular topic they help the student to understand, and to assess, the views set out in the standard textbooks; they thus preserve the gains of the past and hopefully prevent the same mistakes from being made again.

Knight’s book, which is a revised version of his doctoral dissertation, belongs to this general type. Although its scope is narrower than the books mentioned above, he has chosen a topic of immense importance in modern Old Testament scholarship—the history of tradition. What exactly is meant by the study of ‘the history of tradition’? The opening chapters appropriately tackle this important question of definition, and it quickly emerges that the term has been used by scholars in several different ways (pp. 21–25). For example, for many it means the study of the developments in the period prior to the writing down of Old Testament books or their sources, when traditions were passed on orally (e.g. Engnell, Mowinckel, Fohrer). For others it is concerned with the whole series of processes by which the Old Testament reached its present form, including not only the oral stage but the work of writers and redactors as well (e.g. Noth, von Rad, Kaiser—this is the view assumed in the useful handbook by W. E. Rast, Tradition-History and the Old Testament). But scholars have had very different views about the length of the period of oral transmission of particular parts of the Old Testament, with some, especially in Scandinavia, maintaining that almost all the significant processes which gave the Old Testament books their present form took place in oral composition and transmission. Consequently Engnell’s at first sight narrow definition of tradition history proves to embrace nearly as many questions as the wider one of Noth. Equally, while most scholars have seen tradition history as a method of exegesis to be employed alongside source criticism (‘literary criticism’), those who have followed Engnell treat it as an alternative to and replacement for the literary critical method.

Knight himself, while clearly seeing the factors which have led some to prefer the wider definition, regards as basic the connection of tradition history with the period of oral transmission. It is ‘concerned with illuminating the precompositional history of the text’ (p. 30). This seems preferable, as otherwise a variety of exegetical methods have to be included under the single heading. But in fact Knight does not adhere rigidly to the narrower definition, for to have done so should have excluded consideration of, for example, von Rad’s assessment of the J source in the Pentateuch and Noth’s treatment of the later historical books. I am not inclined to complain overmuch, as the author’s critical presentation of these studies makes a valuable contribution to the evaluation of these scholars’ work.

A particularly helpful section of the book (Part 2) surveys the ‘Scandinavian debate’ on the role of oral tradition in the formation of the Old Testament and makes conveniently accessible a discussion which was carried on mainly in Swedish and Norwegian. Conservative students and teachers who are attracted by Engnell’s opposition to the dominant views on pentateuchal criticism will do well to examine this section carefully. To do so may lead them to conclude that there is less of lasting value in this branch of Old Testament scholarship than has sometimes been claimed. Even Knight’s contention that ‘the Scandinavians were responsible for establishing and emphasizing’ the importance of oral tradition (p. 391, n. 31) probably does not do justice to the achievements made in Germany at an earlier period.

It is this work which forms the other main subject of the book. The originator of traditio-historical study is argued to be Richard Simon, the 17th-century Roman Catholic who in other respects also is now being seen as the pioneer of modern historical criticism. Certainly he seems to have been the first to envisage in concrete terms (his ‘public scribes’) a long process of creation for the biblical books, but his immediate influence was small. In any case he did not make much of specifically oral tradition. Some initial attention was given to the latter in the late 18th century by writers such as Herder, Nachtigal and others (including J. G. Eichhorn, whose importance here Knight overlooks: see E. Ruprecht in ZAW 84 (1972), pp. 293–314), but for a variety of reasons research in the following century concentrated on the elucidation of the written stages of the tradition. It was only with Hermann Gunkel that a real move was made towards defining the contribution of the preliterary stage to the formation of a particular biblical book (Genesis). Naturally the work of Gressmann and Alt also comes into the reckoning at this point, but the bulk of this section (pp. 97–176) is properly reserved for the writings of Martin Noth and Gerhard von Rad, who can justly be regarded as the leading exponents of the traditio-historical method. Indeed it is precisely their enormous influence on recent Old Testament study that makes the book so important.

Knight points out an interesting difference between them, in that for Noth tradition history is above all the handmaid of history, while for von Rad it serves a theological purpose. But common to both scholars was the conclusion that the presentation of Israel’s early history in the pentateuch was in its main outlines artificial and unreal. For this they have been strongly criticised both in America (especially by John Bright) and in Germany (most notably by Siegfried Herrmann and Georg Fohrer), and Knight gives a useful summary of these criticisms (pp. 193–213). Not all of them will stand up to examination, but it is clear that some important points have been made. For all the fresh insights into the Old Testament that traditio-historical studies have provided—and there are many—it has to be recognized that ‘this field (unlike literary criticism and even form criticism) lacks distinct, commonly accepted criteria and analytical procedures. This is perhaps inevitable since traditio-historical research deals with a sphere [i.e. oral tradition] in which essentially only hypotheses and conjectures can thrive’ (p. 213).

As an American with a Scandinavian wife who did his doctoral work in Germany, Knight was ideally placed to write an informed and objective account of these developments, and he has made the most of his opportunity. Although much of the detail will be required only by advanced students, the sections on von Rad, Noth and Engnell are very worthy of study by undergraduates. In this second edition all quotations are translated into English—this is the only significant change from the first edition. As an introduction to traditio-historical studies Rast’s book (see above) may be more suitable, but for a serious evaluation of them Knight is an essential guide. Its value is enhanced by a full bibliography and two indexes.

G. I. Davies

G. I. Davies is Lecturer in Old Testament Studies in the Department of Theology at Nottingham University and was at one time chairman of the British Theological Students’ Fellowship.