A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism (Book Review)

One way to view modern biblical scholarship is as a big set of conversations. People join the conversations, ask lots of questions, raise new ideas, and challenge old ones. It can be quite daunting keeping up with everything people are saying, but it is exciting trading and testing ideas.

These conversations have been going a long time now, so many conversation partners have come and gone. Some of these are the giants in the field of Biblical Studies. Students usually encounter the names of these giants early on in their studies as they are just trying to pick up what has been said in conversations past. At that stage students are usually unaware of the profound effect these scholars have had. Their influence goes beyond the conversations these scholars had in their own day. They have left an indelible mark on all the conversations after them.

I’m grateful, therefore, to have received from Zondervan a review copy of Mark Gignilliat’s book, A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism (Zondervan, 2012). One of the beauties of Gignilliat’s book is that it not only identifies and introduces some of these expert conservationalists in Biblical Studies; it also allows readers to begin detecting echoes of these scholars in subsequent scholarly conversations. Gignilliat works hard to frame an understanding of these seminal scholars within the social and philosophical currents of their own day. To this end, he supplies a brief biography of these scholars, concentrating on the influences that impacted them, and then sketches the particular contribution each person made to the conversation of Biblical Studies. The result is simple yet masterful! Gignilliat distils the essence of these innovative contributors for easy consumption, allowing us to hear their salient statements, understand how these fell on other ears of the day, and then perceive how theses statements still echo even in our day.

Gignilliat introduces us to seven master conversationalists in chronological order. They are:

  1. Benedict Spinoza
  2. W. M. L. de Wette
  3. Julius Wellhausen
  4. Herman Gunkel
  5. Gerhard von Rad
  6. William Foxwell Albright
  7. Brevard Childs

Of course this list raises questions as to why these seven were chosen over others. Gignilliat states three reasons for the shape of his list:

(1) I want the volume to remain small and accessible to students; (2) I believe the figures in this work represent the larger trends and tendencies of Old Testament criticism in the modern period; and (3) I wanted to finished. (loc 104)

Yet one thing these seven particular scholars have in common is they are no longer with us. Their respective legacies are, therefore, somewhat set. It would perhaps be preemptive to include on the list someone who is still contributing to current conversations in biblical studies. Thus, either Thomas L. Thompson or Philip R. Davies could feature on the list as critics of William Foxwell Albright. While this would provide good balance, both Tom and Philip are still with us actively contributing to ongoing conversations. Their inclusion would perhaps sell their contributions short before they were finished.

If, however, we are to apply departure from the conversation as a criterion for inclusion, then there are two particular names I am surprised are still not on the list. These are Martin Noth and James Barr. The contributions of Wellhausen and von Rad would surely have been enhanced if Noth’s contribution to tradition history in the Pentateuch and the ‘Deuteronomistic History’ had been included. James Barr’s work in comparative philology and his criticism of biblical theology were also highly influential. We could argue the toss on other names, but the legacy of these two scholars, I feel, has been overlooked and, by implication, unwittingly minimised.

Mark Gignilliat (Beeson Divinity School)

Nonetheless, the discussion of these seven scholars is very well presented. It gives students a useful orientation to how these men were shaped by the conversations of their day, thus uncovering their assumptions, and their ideological and rational framework. It also equips the student to see how these men, in turn, shaped conversation after them. For example, we see how Descartes’ radical rationalism and deism influenced Spinoza’s separation of ‘theology’ and ‘morality’ from ‘philosophy’ and ‘truth’. We observe how Romanticism stood behind de Wette’s emphasis on mythicism over historicism. A similar observation is made for Gunkel in his analysis of the Psalms. We come to understand von Rad’s distinction between ancient Israel’s actual history and their account of it in their kerygmatic documents about their God. This notion stands behind many current conversation in biblical studies today, and has led many to abandon conversing about the Bible as ‘scripture’. Thus, we are helped to understand the response of Brevard Childs’ ‘canonical criticism’ as a critical confessional contribution.

Students wishing to understand why current conversations in Biblical Studies sound the way they do will find Gignilliat’s book an excellent tool. It gives some good ‘sound bites’ that will help train the ear. It also just might help students begin to understand how they themselves converse in Biblical Studies. It’s not until we hear someone else speak that we realise we have the same or different accent (i.e. assumptions and framework). Gignilliat’s clever book may guide students to discover from whom it was that they inherited their ‘accent’. Understanding the greats, therefore, is an important step in self-awareness.


Those who made the list:

Benedict Spinoza

W. M. L. de Wette

Julius Wellhausen

Herman Gunkel

Gerhard von Rad

William F. Albright

Brevard Childs


Those I think should have made the list:

Martin Noth

James Barr


DISCLAIMER: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher (Zondervan)

Buy it on Amazon: http://amzn.to/18Ux67r
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By it at Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/175aSO4


2 thoughts on “A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism (Book Review)

  1. Thanks George,
    Did Gignilliat offer much critique to the contributors and comment on current trends? It seems as though the point of understanding these contributions would be in seeing the way they affect OT study today.
    Do you know of any resources on Barr and Noth that would dovetail with “A brief history”?

    • There is some evaluation, yes, but this is not the primary goal of the book. The main aim is descriptive rather than evaluative. But Gignilliat describes well enough that you are able to pick up the influences on today’s scholars.

      I’m unaware of similar presentations for Noth and Barr. The closest is probably an article by Ernst Axel Knauf, arguing that Noth was highly influenced by his situation in wartime Germany.

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