A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism: From Benedict Spinoza to Brevard Childs is written by Mark S. Gignilliat. He is Associate Professor of Divinity (Old Testament) at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. He has taught Hebrew, Old Testament, and Biblical Theology at Beeson since 2005.

Summary of A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism

In this book, Gignilliat argues that the field has been shaped by seven major players in the past few hundred years. To that end, he devotes one chapter to each figure, outlining some of their life story, career, and contributions. He begins with Benedict Spinoza (1632-1637). Some of Spinoza’s enduring contributions include confidence in human rationalism and skepticism about the biblical claims regarding being/reality (25). Therefore, Spinoza rejects any claims found in the Bible which conflict with human reason (29). According to Gignilliat, “Once this winnowing interpretive process is complete, one is left with a Bible stripped to its moral and charitable components” (30). Furthermore, for Spinoza, the “literal sense of the text is collapsed into the historical sense” (35). Then in chapter two, Gignilliat deals with W. M. L. De Wette (1780-1849). De Wette shaped the field by stripping out the historical (in the post-enlightenment sense) nature of the text, and emphasizing the religious significance of the events described. So he can say that Chronicles is of no value for reconstructing history, but valuable for gaining insight about the religious climate of the writer (49). He was interested in the OT in order to understand the religious beliefs of the people who wrote it (52). Chapter three deals with Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). Of course he mentions the Documentary Hypothesis, but he also mentions the juxtaposition of pre-exilic Israelite religion with post-exilic Israelite religion (67). Wellhausen separates out the sources and reads them to determine the setting of the writing of each source, then reconstructs the history of the sources (69). It results in an evolutionary view of a passionate and unrefined religion that developed into a stifled and legalistic one. Chapter four deals with Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932). Gunkel’s main contribution was his form criticism. The key for him is to understand “the particular form or literary type as an entry point for our  understanding of this collection and the “real life” from which it arose” (91). Gunkel is not interested in the meaning of the text for the present reader. Rather, he is concerned about what the psalms meant to the ones who used them in their original setting. Chapter five deals with Gerhard Von Rad (1901-1971). He saw three main confessions of faith within the final form of the Hexateuch: Deut 26:5-9; 6:20-24; Josh 24:2-13. He thought of two streams of tradition, the Sinai Tradition and the making of the covenant. These two traditions were added to expand on the three basic creedal statements. Chapter six deals with W. F. Albright (1891-1971). Gignilliat writes, “For Albright, the essential historical character of the Old Testament narratives is integral to the authority of the Bible, even if the reporting of the Old Testament is blurry in the details” (132). One of Albright’s forgotten contributions is his outline of ceramic typology in ancient Israel so that one can give an accurate date for archeological remains. Albright hoped that use of the scientific method in archeology would provide certainty for the biblical claims, but he failed to foresee the possibility that even the scientific method would become suspected of bias. Chapter seven presents the contributions of Brevard Childs (1923-2007). Childs points out that by reading the Old Testament in the church one has already made some interpretive claims about its authority and how its meaning is to be understood. He does not deny the complex development of an Old Testament text, but he does deny co-equal status to the various layers in the composition, and ultimately privileges the final form of the text. Childs also brought an idea of canon consciousness, that the writers of some of the layers/books in the Old Testament were aware that they were writing scripture, etc. Two remarks from Gignilliat are important. First, “The biblical texts themselves provide a normative perspective and understanding of the historical events” (162). Second, “The final form of the biblical documents leaves a hermeneutical imprint on the material that renders an authoritative judgment regarding the text’s prehistory” (162).

Evaluation of A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism

This book does an amazing job of accomplishing its purpose (giving an overview of the contributions of these seven men). The style of writing is easy to understand, and the interesting biographies of each scholar are quite entertaining. The way that Gignilliat pays attention to each person’s hermeneutical and philosophical positions, as well as their position on the authority and nature of the Old Testament is masterful. I was thoroughly impressed with this work. I highly recommend this book for any serious student of the Old Testament. If you are a seminary student who is majoring in Biblical studies, read this book! If you are a pastor who wants to bone up on scholars of the OT, read this book! The distinctions between some of the hermeneutical and historical categories may be too nuanced for undergraduate students to pick up on, but the book would still provide a useful overview for them as well. Even the introduction and the indexes are well done!

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