From the Stone Age to Christianity (Albright)

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Albright, William F. From the Stone Age to Christianity. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957.

Reading this book was like being introduced to an old friend. No one can read widely in Old Testament studies without coming across the name of William F. Albright. But one might not have read him: some of his major works are out of print. In any case, Albright was a scholar of the highest caliber. Albright’s methods are more critical than mine, but he does defend the basic historicity of the Old Testament. While sections of the book are tedious (e.g., the dating of various pottery), the book as a whole is a literary joy to read. He writes with that old school style, somewhat similar to Arthur Lovejoy.

There is something of elitism in this book. Albright has little patience for amateurs. He’s probably justified, though. Amateurish lexicography has ruined many sermons, for example. Albright writes, “In few fields of learning has more nonsense been perpetrated by amateurs, i. e., by enthusiasts who are unwilling to submit to the painfully rigid discipline of the linguistic method” (Albright 45). He then explains how proper linguistic analysis proceeds: induction, deduction, and analogical reasoning (42-43). In other words, he helps you avoid the word = concept fallacy. “Actually, no competent lexicographer in any language fixes the precise meaning of a word by its etymology but rather by collecting as many passages where the word occurs as possible or practicable and by listing all meanings and shades of meaning in them” (46).

He explains why Hegelianism was so popular among Old Testament scholars in the 19th century. It was something of a necessity (pardon the pun). Scholars read the OT and saw a wide variety of data representing different time periods. One doesn’t even have to accept the documentary hypothesis to realize that some parts of the Old Testament represent a more “prophetic” cast while others have a “priestly” accent. Hegel allowed the reader to put all of these facts into a coherent system. He was wrong in the end, to be sure, but his system had great explanatory power.

While we don’t have to accept an evolutionary development of Israel’s worship (which Albright himself doesn’t advocate), we have to be honest that Israel didn’t fall out of the sky with a fully intact Old Testament. We know that, but examining the history can be messy at times.

We also have to deal with the problem of monotheism. The word is something of an anachronism and doesn’t really explain all the data in the Old Testament. There is only one Yahweh. No one is like him. Sui Generis. For a while it was fashionable to posit henotheism: Israel worshipped Yahweh, but other nations worshipped their gods. That doesn’t really explain the evidence, either. Those who advocate henotheism are usually pushing an evolutionary worldview, anyway. So, henotheism is out of the question. Nonetheless, we still have to deal with apparent henotheistic passages. Jepthath’s response in Judges 11:24 sounds henotheistic: “Wilt thou not possess what Chemosh thy god has given thee?” Albright fails to connect this with Gen. 10-11 and Deut. 4 and 32: God allotted the nations to various beney ha-elohim. That solves the henotheism problem.

Albright’s comparisons with other religions of the time are quite interesting, yet he doesn’t always draw the most powerful inference. He notes of Ninurta that she “spans the whole cosmos and all the gods and goddesses may be symbolically equated with parts of his cosmic body” (218). This doesn’t sound anything like monotheism or henotheism. Rather, it is almost a pure monism. And while Albright notes of monotheistic-sounding religious movements in Egypt, he cautions against reading too much into them. When men like Akhenaten or even Plato spoke like this, this was hardly a religion. These “monotheisms” were so rarified and abstract tha the masses would never fall for it. Sort of like medieval scholasticism. This is why Yahweh, perhaps ironically, is always described in anthropomorphic terms. Calling him “The Ground of Being” or the “essence beyond essence” would have guaranteed failure, and rightly so.

Albright has a quite good account of the Joshua narrative, although speculating that Joshua 10 and Judges 4-5 are probably the same event (275). He also notes clear editorializing in Judges (18:30). He then suggests a striking line of argumentation: there might have been Hebrews in Palestine before Joshua. There is very little spoken of the conquest of north-central Palestine, except for a list of conquered towns in chapter 12 (277).

This book was a joy to read. However, it is only for the intermediate level student.

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