The Problem of Old Testament History

Bernhard W. Anderson


Symposium: The Old Testament in the Church Today.
The London Quarterly & Holborn Review (January 1965): 5-11.


The Old Testament bristles with many problems for the historian who attempts to write a history of ancient Israel. To take just one example, the major part of the period of post-exilic Judaism-from Ezra's Reform to the outbreak of the Maccabean wars - is so poorly documented that the Jewish community is almost lost in oblivion. In the future, the plurality of problems will undoubtedly be reduced in number and significance as our knowledge of the Biblical period increases. But there is one fundamental problem which underlies all the specific problems of Old Testament history and which becomes more and more acute with the advance of historical studies. This singular problem is well stated by Walther Eichrodt: 'The discrepancy between the picture of history constructed by critical study and the salvation-history portrayed in the utterances of Old Testament faith has emerged ever more clearly in the researches of the last hundred years, and has long constituted an urgent problem for the understanding of the message of the Old Testament.'[1]


This 'discrepancy' points to the new situation in which the Church finds itself as it reads the Bible today. For centuries the picture of history presented in the Old Testament was accepted as a credible account of the actual course of history, from Creation onward. The movement of historical criticism, however, has brought us to the 'point of no return'. No longer can we read the Old Testament history in the same way as Calvin, Aquinas, Augustine, Paul or Ezra. The Biblical view of history is confronted with the picture of history presented by historical criticism. The discrepancy between the two becomes a dilemma: on the one hand, the historian is committed to a critical method which requires that he retell the history in terms of human causality, that is, as a chain of human events; and on the other hand, the Old Testament itself presents the history as a Heilsgeschichte, that is, as the story of the actions of God.

Admittedly, this discrepancy does not have to become a sharp alternative. The historian has been emancipated from the historicism of the late nineteenth century with its concern to recover 'what really happened', apart from theological embellishments. History is meaningful occurrence, not naked event (a contradiction in terms). Accordingly, one cannot disregard the testimony of contemporary witnesses that particular events, like the


crossing of the Reed Sea (Ex. 15[21]), were experienced as theophanic occurrences, or that a sequence of events was united by divine purpose. Nevertheless, the modern historian does not write history in the same way as the Old Testament, that is, as a confessional recital of the actions of God. He has to retell or reconstruct the history as a causal chain of human events within which, at best, the divine action is subtly manifest.

It is not surprising, then, that historians have extolled the early source of the Books of Samuel, especially the Davidic Court History (II Sam. 9-20; I Kings 1-2), as an example of sober, factual historiography.[2] In contrast to other historical presentations, this source does not stress God's miraculous intervention into the course of events. Rather, his word, spoken through the prophet Nathan, operates subtly in the sphere of interpersonal relationships to bring upon David the consequence of his deed. This realistic historiography is said to reflect the 'Enlightenment' of the Solomonic era which, compared with Israel during the days of the Confederacy, was characterized by a new secularity.

It would be a great boon if the Old Testament contained more source material of this kind, written by contemporaries of the events and presented with historical sobriety. Unfortunately, such material is fairly meagre. Even the Davidic Court History is embraced within the large Deuteronomic History whose dominating purpose is to trace the salvation-history from the Mosaic period to the fall of the nation. Gerhard von Rad writes of this theological picture of history: 'What is decisive for Israel is not what commonly makes "the tumult and the shouting" in history. Decisive for the life and death of the people of God is the word of God injected into history.'[3] So within the Old Testament itself the historian finds illustrations of the fundamental historical problem: the discrepancy between a historiography which is akin to modern historical understanding, and the portrayal of Israel's history in terms of Heilsgeschichte.


This historical problem becomes especially acute in the period of Israel's early history, the period roughly covered by the Pentateuch (or Hexateuch). Old Testament scholars are in general agreement that the event of the Exodus from Egypt was fundamental for the radically historical faith of ancient Israel. The traditions of the Old Testament testify that the Exodus was the crucial event, to which previous events were related as preparation and subsequent events as outcome. The historian who attempts to penetrate this creative period, however, is immediately confronted with two major difficulties. First, at least three centuries of oral transmission of the traditions separate the Exodus from the earliest literary source in which it is reported. And second, the historical meaning of the Exodus is presented as a dramatic story of the mighty acts of Yahweh, the God of Israel. The purpose of the traditions is primarily to glorify God, not to relate sober history.

Wellhausen proposed an attractive solution to the discrepancy between the theological picture of Israel's early history and modern historical understanding. According to his view, the sources of the Pentateuch reflect the spiritual situation of the time in which they were written; and the Penta-


teuch in its final form, with its grand portrayal of salvation-history from the Creation to the Conquest, was the construction of the priests of Judaism. Thus the Heilsgeschichte was a late and artificial way of viewing Israel's early history, which could be set aside in favour of an historical reconstruction along evolutionary lines.[4] It is to be noted that Wellhausen and his followers did not challenge the fundamental outline of Israel's early history, including the period of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the revelation at Sinai, the wanderings in the wilderness, the invasion of Canaan; rather, they rejected the understanding of this sequence of events in terms of Heilsgeschichte.

The Wellhausen reconstruction of Israel's history collapsed primarily because of internal weaknesses which became evident as historical critics renewed their efforts to penetrate and understand the Biblical period. During the past thirty years or so fresh historical study has been devoted to the early period of Israel. The result has been a 'decisive reversal' of the Wellhausen solution 'by tracing the roots of the post-exilic law and of the interpretation of Israel's historical origins in terms of Heilsgeschichte back into the period of Israelite origins itself'.[5] The new approach to Old Testament history has taken different forms on both sides of the Atlantic: on the one side, the German form-critical school of Albrecht Alt and his followers, and on the other side, the American school of William F. Albright and his students. Distinguished representatives of both schools have produced a History of Israel, in which the different historical treatment of the early period becomes clear to the thoughtful reader.[6]

The German school has been profoundly influenced by Hermann Gunkel, who opened a new era for both Old and New Testament studies by developing the study of oral tradition. Critical of the Wellhausen reconstruction, Gunkel insisted that the early period, when speech found expression in oral forms, was the creative time in the history of literature, and he advocated a method (form-criticism) for pushing back into the pre-literary tradition. Space permits only a brief mention of the directions in which German form-critical research has moved out from Gunkel's position. In his study of the God of the Fathers, Albrecht Alt showed that behind the theological harmonization of the present Book of Genesis are vestiges of patriarchal times, when a deity entered into special relationship with a patriarch and promised his clan fertility and immediate acquisition of land.[7] Martin Noth analysed the basic themes of the Pentateuch in the attempt to show how independent traditions grew and merged during the period when Israel was united as a Twelve-tribe Confederacy.[8] And Gerhard von Rad showed that the literary sources of the Hexateuch are dependent upon a canon of faith summarized in the 'little historical credo' (cf. Deut. 26[5-9]) and that the extensive complexes of material such as the Sinai pericope or the Exodus-Conquest narratives were shaped in early religious festivals.[9] These lines of investigation converge to show that the picture of Israel's history in terms of Heilsgeschichte was not a late construction but was actually rooted in the period of oral tradition.

The American school is equally critical of the Wellhausen reconstruction of Israel's history, as is clear from Albright's monumental From the Stone


Age to Christianity (first edition, 1944). In this case, however, the major influence has been the new horizons opened up by archaeological investigation. Thanks to the new data from external sources, the history of Israel as presented in the Old Testament can now be understood within the larger context of the ancient Near East. No longer need it be said, as in the Wellhausen heyday, that the Pentateuchal sources are primarily valuable for the historical times in which they were written. Nor need one be confined to the method of the form-critical and tradition-historical scholars which leads to no surer results for Israel's early history, for 'such internal methodologies can never really assess the historical in the traditional'.[10] The great value of archxology for Biblical studies is that it has provided 'external sources of information' which can serve as a check upon the early Biblical traditions. Although archaeology does not prove the Biblical record to be true (contrary to the assumption based on Werner Keller's popular book The Bible as History: Archaeology Confirms the Book of Books, 1956), it does help us to understand that there is a real connection between the Biblical Heilsgeschichte and the events which occurred on the plane of secular history during the second millennium B.C. It is altogether consistent with this approach that G. Ernest Wright has written a monograph God Who Acts (1952), the title of which paraphrases what the German school would call Heilsgeschichte.


It remains to be seen, however, whether historical critics can escape being driven to the conclusion that the Heilsgeschichte, even though early in origin, is essentially a theological construction unrelated to the factual course of history. Wellhausen rejected the Pentateuchal picture of Israel's history but held on to the sequence of events, now the question is whether post-Wellhausen scholars, having restored the primacy of the Heilsgeschichte, will disavow its relation to the actual course of historical events.

The seriousness of this question is evident in the debate which has been waged over the past years between the American and the German schools.[11] As an illustration we may take the exchange of articles on 'History and the Patriarchs' by G. Ernest Wright and Gerhard von Rad.[12] Wright defends the thesis that 'Biblical Heilsgeschichte is a celebration of events which Biblical man thought really happened'. European form-criticism, he argues, issues in a 'negativism' which threatens the historical foundations of Israel's faith. For the form-critic fixes his attention on the fragment, which usually proves to be a cult legend, and argues that the historical sequence which links the fragments together is not derived from historical experience but from the theological perspectives of the later cultic community. Wright then asks his central question: 'By what objective criteria can it be presumed to be more probable that the later cultic tradition which now holds the various items of the epic together is the more or less artificial construction of the cultus out of disparate themes from different cultic centres, but that it is less probable that there was always one central confessional story connected not so much with a cult place as with a particular group of people who found in it the explanation of their existence?' (p. 294). This is a 'historical conclusion'


which form-criticism and tradition history are incapable of making alone. Hence this methodology, in his judgement, is not on a par with the historical method which relies upon data gleaned from archaeological investigations and which supports the view that 'the patriarchal period is at least authentic in the sense that it can be fitted into an actual historical era of ancient history'.

In his reply, von Rad asserts that he and Martin Noth have no intention of denying that 'very concrete historical experiences of Israel lie behind the framework in which the individual traditions are embedded'. Indeed, form-critical studies show that some of the traditions, for instance the old covenant ceremony in Gen. 15[7ff], belong to a very ancient time. But he insists that investigation of the traditions must be the first task, precisely because 'we do not find immediately behind the texts the events they speak about, but rather a long, complicated process of tradition to which the stories of Genesis (or of Exodus to Numbers) owe their present form' (p. 213n). Careful study of the Abraham and Jacob traditions, for instance, discloses a number of individual units which were originally associated with southern or northern sanctuaries; it was only at a relatively late stage in the process of tradition that these disparate materials were unified on the basis of the Leitmotif of the promise to the fathers. Thus critical study of the traditions refutes Wright's hypothesis that during the patriarchal period there was 'one central confessional story' which formed the basis of a people's self-understanding. Von Rad then puts his central question: 'Such a homogeneous historical tradition would presuppose a corresponding historical bearer of the tradition. But where can we find the bearer of such a comprehensive and unified tradition?' (p. 214). The traditions of Genesis presuppose small groups whose own traditions were gradually mixed with the indigenous traditions of the land into which they moved. In any case, 'the possibilities of obtaining authentic history about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob out of this very complex source material are soon exhausted. We do not have the necessary objective criteria to untangle the historically authentic material from its inextricable intermixture with other material' (p. 214). Besides, concludes von Rad, the traditions have been so completely transformed in meaning within the realm of the Yahweh faith that it is not very profitable to push back into older stages of tradition which are 'theologically speechless'.


If this debate up to now has not led to any scholarly consensus, it has at least focused attention upon the fundamental problem of Old Testament history. Surely any definition of 'history' must include a sequence of events remembered by a group of people who finds the meaning of its existence therein. For the Old Testament the question is whether the meaning inheres in a group's shared history or whether it is imputed to historical traditions by theological revisers.

Wright has some difficulty defending the thesis that the traditions of Genesis reflect the shared history of a particular people. He admits that in regard to Genesis 'archaeology cannot contribute as much to the direct solution of issues posed by the form-critic as it can for the thirteenth century


and the Mosaic era' (p. 294). In this instance he chose to defend his thesis in a context which easily lends itself to the method of form criticism. One might more readily assent to dissolving patriarchal tradition into fragments which have a cultic provenance if the form-critic's conclusions were essentially different in regard to the events which cluster around the crucial event of the Exodus. Here Wright's question is decisively important. Martin Noth does not doubt that the tradition has preserved real historical experiences but asserts that these events were 'unrelated to one another in time or content'. Originally, unrelated events have been put into a unified historical framework during the period of the Israelite amphictyony.[13] Similarly, von Rad grants the historicity of individual events (Exodus, crossing of the Reed Sea, sojourn at Kadesh) but insists that the sequence has been made to conform to 'a preconceived theological picture of the saving history already long established in the form of a cultic confession'. In other words, the unity of the tradition was not based on the 'direct historical memories' of a tradition-bearing group; rather 'it was Israel herself who arranged the sequence of events in a cultic confession'.[14]

It may be, as Pyre R. de Vaux suggests, that these two schools are moving toward one another from different starting points, one emphasizing the gains which archaeological investigation has brought to our historical understanding, and the other stressing the limitations upon our historical knowledge owing to the nature of the traditions.[15] He draws attention, for instance, to certain modifications in Noth's position on the contributions of archaeology, which apparently lead him away from the extreme scepticism of his History. It is unfortunate, however, that the impression is sometimes created that there are two different approaches to the history of Israel, championed by each of these schools. If, as all admit, the faith of Israel truly rests upon events of history, and not upon a Heilsgeschichte that merely hovers in the air, both archaeological investigation and form-critical investigation must go hand in hand. Just as archaeology does not serve the purpose of proving that the Biblical tradition is true, so form-criticism does not necessarily lead to historical negativism. If major excavations have been conducted at only two per cent of potential sites in Palestine, surely we may expect much more light to be shed in the future from archaeology.[16] And the further pursuit of form-critical studies will undoubtedly show that individual units of tradition, especially those emanating from the period of the Exodus, wilderness wandering, and invasion of Canaan, witness to a marvellous sequence of events, rooted not in the cult but in the historical experience of a tradition-bearing group, which was finally appropriated as the shared history of all the tribes of Israel and became the nucleus around which independent and widely separated traditions were organized. Then the 'discrepancy' between believed history and factual history will be accepted as a tension, not a hiatus.


[1] Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, Vol. I (1961), trans. by J. A. Baker, p. 512.

[2] Cf. R. H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament (1948), who acclaims the author of the early Samuel source as '"the father of history" in a much truer sense than Herodotus half a millennium later' (p. 357).

[3] Gerhard von Rad, Theology of the Old Testament, Vol. I (1962), trans. by D. M. G. Stalker, p. 144.

[4] See the remarks by James M. Robinson, 'The Historical Question', New Directions in Biblical Thought (1960), ed. by Martin E. Marty, pp. 73-94.

[5] James Robinson, op. cit., p. 75.

[6] For the German school, Martin Noth, The History of Israel, trans. from the second German edition by Stanley Godman (1958); for the American school, John Bright, A History of Israel (1959).

[7] Albrecht Alt, Der Gott der Väter (1929), republished in his Kleine Schriften, Vol. I (1959), pp. 1-72. See now the reconsideration of this subject by Frank M. Cross, Jr., 'Yahweh and the God of the Patriarchs', Harvard Theological Review, Vol. LV (1962), pp. 225-59.

[8] See especially his study of the oral tradition, Überlieferungsgeschichte des Pentateuch (1948).

[9] See especially his Das formgeschichiliche Problem des Hexateuch (1938), reprinted in his Gesammelte Studien zum Alten Testament (1958).

[10] G. Ernest Wright, 'History and the Patriarchs', Expository Times, Vol. 71 (1959-60), p. 292. See further his book Biblical Archaeology (1957).

[11] See, for instance, John Bright's vigorous criticism of Martin Noth in Early Israel in Recent History Writing (1956) and Martin Noth's review of Bright's History of Israel in Interpretation, Vol. XV (1961), pp. 61-6.

[12] Wright, Expository Times, Vol. 71 (1959-60), pp. 292-96; von Rad, Vol. 72 (1960-61), pp. 213-16.

[13] Martin Noth, History, p. 136.

[14] von Rad, Theology, Vol. I, pp. 2, 3.

[15] R. de Vaux, O.P., 'Les patriarches hebreux et 1'histoire', Studii Biblici Franciscani (Liber Annuus: XIII, 1962-63), pp. 287-97.

[16] See Paul W. Lapp, 'Palestine: Known but Mostly Unknown', The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. xxvi, No. 4, (December 1963), pp. 121-34.

Reproduced by kind permission of Methodist Publishing House.
Prepared for the web in February 2006 by Robert I. Bradshaw.