The Poet and the Historian: essays in literary and historical biblical criticism

Written by R. E. Friedman (ed.) Reviewed By Deryck Sheriffs

The six separate specimens of literary-critical scholarship have no common focus beyond being addressed to advanced students of the Old Testament. Friedman contributes ‘The Prophet and the Historian: the acquisition of Historical Information from Literary Sources’—Zech 7 & 8 on the fasts is prophecy not law. F. M. Cross recapitulates much he has said on ‘The Epic Traditions of Early Israel’ in Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Baruch Halpern informs us that ‘the early formulations of the covenant spawned later partisan reinterpretations, each of which appealed to earlier texts for proof, ‘these traditions grew by feeding on themselves’. He describes the misunderstanding of the Song of the Sea and of Deborah by the prose versions, and goes on to the work of P as ‘the cautious verbiage of institutional bureaucracy’, a ‘literalist, or guide to fundamentalists’. He sides with metaphor against such inner-biblical literalism, and his essay ‘Doctrine by Misadventure: between the Israelite Source and the Biblical Historian’ certainly has some purple passages (‘David’s Lear-like status … the tragedy of the old man unable to hold his own either politically or in bed’).

David appears in the next two as well—Moshe Weinfeld ‘Zion and Jerusalem as Religious and Political Capital. Ideology and Utopia’, and A. M. Cooper ‘The Life and Times of King David according to the Book of Psalms’. Cooper, as do other contributors, has some scathing things to say about the plethora of mutually contradictory scholarly hypotheses and critical ‘results’. Indeed, a maxim emerging from this volume for Themelios readers who do not share these authors’ presuppositions about Scripture could well be ‘set a thief to catch a thief’. ‘The application of historical-critical and form-critical methods only multiplies hypotheses and uncertainty, and hardly moves us closer to a valid understanding of the history of Israel, or of the history of Israelite literature’—so A. M. Cooper. His solution, after a glance at B. S. Childs’ canonical approach, is along the lines of the so-called New Criticism: ‘the meaning of the psalm is nothing more or less than the way we, as readers, appropriate the text and make it meaningful … a world of imagination which exists nowhere beyond the language of the poem and our own minds’., p. 131. finally, the Greek empire strikes back in A. Momigliano’s ‘Origins of Universal History’—Daniel’s pseudonymist cribbed the four empire scheme from Herodotus, Ctesias and company: six full pages of bibliography document the apocalyptic struggle towards this conclusion.

Served this literary-critical menu, what can one say? Scholarly consensus is obviously as far away as ever, and professors dead or retiring are ever savaged by the doctoral shark pack. Evangelicals would do well to applaud softly, if not carry a big stick, when Cross plays Mac the Knife to Wellhausen and Gunkel. His positive affirmations about transmission of Middle Bronze traditions are attached to a pre-JE epic law which we don’t have, sung by bards quite romantically enough for Gunkel. The hard evidence for virtuoso performances bardic or liturgical in tribal-league times at Gilgal or anywhere else is still missing. Moreover, Cross like other contributors credits much canonical Scripture to ideological propagandists just as much at loggerheads as J and P were for Wellhausen.

For me the plum is Moshe Weinfeld and his use of incontrovertibly dated Near Eastern Texts providing a delineated cultural horizon and revealing uniquely Israelite features in the foreground. There is at least a documented cultural continuity expressed in literature in Mesopotamia from Sumerian to Babylonian times, and attested historical contact between this zone and Israel’s ancestors, kings and exiles, giving some credibility to the comparative method. Although Weinfeld speaks in terms of ‘the typology of court ideology’, which can demean when applied in a reductionist manner to biblical material, his literary-critical decisions against the late emergence of dynastic messianism are positive. The ANE texts should be required reading, and those interested in Old Testament eschatology focused on David and Zion should not miss this one.

Deryck Sheriffs

London School of Theology