Reviews of

A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism

In Andrew Knapp, Biblical Criticism, HB/OT, Mark S. GIGNILLIAT, Zondervan on April 23, 2014 at 9:31 pm

2014.4.9 | Mark S. Gignilliat. A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism: From Benedict Spinoza to Brevard Childs. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012. 186 pages. ISBN: 9780310325321.

Reviewed by Andrew Knapp

Creating a digest of biblical criticism is no simple task. Despite the relative youth of the discipline, the last two centuries have witnessed an astonishing array of thinkers and methodologies producing a quagmire of sundry and often contradictory results. Undeterred, Mark S. Gignilliat wades in with the purpose of identifying and describing some of the firmest foundations in this morass, those scholars whose work has ushered in new eras of critical research and birthed new “schools” within the field. By concentrating on seminal figures, he aims to present a history of the discipline, in admittedly broad strokes. The result is a 186-page précis of the field, concise and readable. Both Gignilliat and Zondervan should be commended for this volume—the author for the book’s conception and his lucid writing, the publisher for a well-presented, well-designed (one typo in the table of contents notwithstanding), and affordable product.

After a brief introduction (11-14), the author presents the field by profiling seven major Old Testament scholars: Benedict Spinoza (15-36), W. M. L. de Wette (37-56), Julius Wellhausen (57-77), Hermann Gunkel (79-100), Gerhard von Rad (101-22), William Foxwell Albright (123-43), and Brevard Childs (145-68). Gignilliat finishes the study with “More a Postscript than a Conclusion” (169-76), in which he ruminates on how to read the Bible both critically and confessionally. Each profile contains first a brief personal biography to introduce the scholar and contextualize his work, then a discussion of the scholar’s work and contribution to Old Testament criticism. The author deliberately chose pioneering figures, scholars who not only had important insights, but who introduced (or advanced) new ways of approaching the biblical text. Thus one can identify watershed moments and schools of thought associated with each figure under examination: Spinoza and a naturalist understanding of Scripture, de Wette and the use of the Old Testament to reveal the history and religion of ancient Israel, Wellhausen and source criticism, Gunkel and form criticism, von Rad and the engagement of theology through historical criticism, Albright and biblical archaeology and the comparative method, and Childs and canonical criticism. It is both unnecessary and contrary to the spirit of the book (which recognizes the virtue of brevity) to provide synopses of every chapter, the contents of which are self-explanatory. In the following, I will provide one synopsis (the following six chapters follow the same format and style, focusing on the other scholars in rough chronological order), then conclude with an evaluation of the project.

Gignilliat commences his “picture gallery,” appropriately, with the 17th-century scholar Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677). He reports Spinoza’s background in a prominent family in a Jewish community in Amsterdam. Spinoza, however, refused to be encumbered by the “dogma of Judaism” (18). Enamored with the work of Descartes, Spinoza rejected Judaism’s focus on divine revelation, instead privileging the “natural light of reason” (27). His outspoken criticism of his community earned him an excommunication, whereupon he continued his study and began to publish. With his famous Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, which appeared in 1670, he expounded his views to a wider audience and earned himself a certain degree of notoriety. Never one to mince words, Spinoza intensified his attack of the Judaism of the day in the Tractatus: “They consider it pious not to trust their reason and their own judgment and deem it impious to have doubts concerning the reliability of those who have handed down the sacred books to us. This is plain stupidity, not piety” (quoted from Gignilliat, 25). The primary purpose of the Tractatus was not to castigate Spinoza’s opponents, though, but to lay out his own position. Spinoza distinguished philosophy, which deals exclusively with truth, from religion, which deals exclusively with morality. More importantly, he claimed that the Bible is a natural text with a natural history—thus denying, for example, Moses’ authorship and the basic revelatory character of the Torah—and must be interpreted as such. In the latter lay Spinoza’s primary contribution: the Bible “cannot contradict what is known from the natural light of reason. In this sense, the natural light of reason functions as the normative guide for the reading of Scripture” (32, emphasis Gignilliat’s). Although Gignilliat asserts in the introduction that Spinoza’s “detaching of a robust doctrine of revelation from the material study of the Old Testament … has had a deleterious effect on the study of the Old Testament as Scripture” (13), in the chapter he manages to remain mostly aloof—he does not come off as overly sympathetic to Spinoza, but neither does he vilify him as many from confessional traditions have.

In a book of this nature, one must walk a fine line between an austere presentation of facts in an (almost certainly ill-fated) attempt at objectivity and constant assessment of the scholars’ strengths and weaknesses—the former leads to boredom, the latter to a book that becomes more about the author than the figures under examination. Gignilliat disclaims in the introduction, “I have a working understanding of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture that not only informs my reading but in fact determines and shapes the way I approach it. I am not neutral. But my lack of neutrality when it comes to Old Testament hermeneutics is located in an Anselmian epistemology—credo ut intelligam: ‘I believe so that I may understand’—and a confessional posture. That said, I do hope readers find a fair presentation of these figures’ lives and work” (14). Here he succeeds admirably. As an example, this reviewer is a product of the Albright school and I remain sympathetic to my scholarly great-grandfather (Doktorgroβvater?), but it is difficult to argue against Gignilliat’s description of Albright’s positivism and the conclusion that “Albright’s appeal to scientific methodology and assured results creates obstacles difficult to overcome” (142). Overall, Gignilliat manages to engage the ideas presented without dismissing those with which he disagrees or adulating those of which he approves. The lone exception to this appears in the final chapter, where Gignilliat briefly loses his detachment and introduces Brevard Childs with undue melodrama: “The term paradigm shift lines the fence between overuse and cliché. Because of these dual dangers, a risk is run whenever the term is employed to describe someone’s thought. Ideas are at times labeled such when in fact they are important twists and turns in the field, but not necessarily paradigm shifts. With these dangers in mind, I will run the risk of describing Brevard Childs’s canonical approach to Old Testament studies as indeed a paradigm shift” (145). For my part, I am not particularly enamored with Childs’s approach, but I can understand and forgive Gignilliat’s yielding to the impulse to gush over the man who is clearly his scholarly muse.

Those familiar with the field will doubtless grumble about which scholars are included in and excluded from the volume. I recognize that this must ultimately come down to the author’s discretion and have no serious objection. But the selection is telling: the inclusion of Childs especially, but also von Rad (and even Albright) skews the book toward a certain type of confessional reader and betrays an underlying parochialism. One could make a strong case that scholars who have advanced social-scientific (Norman Gottwald or George Mendenhall), anthropological (Mary Douglas or even William Robertson Smith), literary-critical (Carol Newsom), or other approaches to Old Testament studies have had an equal, if not greater, impact on the field as it stands today. In sum, Gignilliat’s selection is justifiable, but it certainly caters to the publisher’s traditional readership.

That quibble aside, Gignilliat is judicious in nearly every aspect of the book’s scope. He selects important figures for analysis, and reading through the volume grants one a perspective of both the forest and the trees: Examining the figures seriatim allows one to see the grand trajectory of scholarship from the incipient biblical criticism of the 17th century to the broad, variegated field of the early 21st century. But the biographical introductions to the main characters also allows one to grasp the figures’ quirks and to contextualize their works—this reviewer was left with a renewed admiration for the giants on whose shoulders we stand, but also an unsettling feeling that the methodologies and theories that biblical scholars today hold dear might be far different if not for an entrenched New Testament faculty’s cliquish resistance to a young outsider (Gunkel), a missionary kid’s isolated youth and lack of physical prowess (Albright), or so many other twists of fate.

Gignilliat dedicates about twenty pages to each figure, which delves somewhat deeper than the Pavlovian responses graduate students are conditioned to have to each (e.g., Gunkel = form criticism = searching for the original setting of the psalms) but also keeps the book brief. His presentation is accessible and unpretentious, in line with the goal of the author and publisher of a book for use in classrooms. It could indeed serve such a purpose, though ideally in tandem with the works of the scholars themselves. Reading about literature can never substitute for reading the literature itself, and in this case—where the objective is to learn about critical scholarship, itself secondary literature—the book is relegated to a status of something like tertiary literature. Recognizing this does not denigrate the book’s value but only reinforces its ideal position as a supplement. This being said, for the reasons outlined above I do recommend this book as a primer for those new to biblical studies or a refresher for those already familiar with names such as Wellhausen and von Rad, especially for those concerned with how to read both critically and confessionally. Gignilliat delivers what he promises: A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism.

Andrew Knapp
andrew.n.knapp [ at ]



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