A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism

Gignilliat, Mark. A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism.

This is a great intellectual snapshot of Old Testament studies from the last 300 years.

Spinoza: he first tries to show the connection between Descartes’ rationalism and Spinoza’s conclusions. There is a movement away from the substance of the things themselves to the actual thinking process.

Much of Spinoza’s argument consists of typical academic grand-standing: we are neutral, etc.  He does make one important claim: the bible doesn’t make metaphysical claims. Not surprisingly, this allows Spinoza to operate on a hidden metaphysical claim:  deism. Another payoff (or more likely, crippling debt) from Spinoza’s method is the view that the Bible is a natural book with a natural history.

In light of that, Spinoza’s natural history denies Mosaic authorship, places divine law in naturalistic categories, and rejects miracles because scientific law is absolute.

M. L. De Wette: History Becomes Religion

Biblical critic as romantic rationalist.  While de Wette himself was probably a critic, he claims that Johann Herder protected him from the wasteland of biblical criticism.Herder had rejected the Enlightenment’s devaluing of historical particulars. The Enlightenment also ignored the relationship between language and culture. Herder even suggested a link between language, culture, and consciousness.

Unfortunately, de Wette’s foundation, already weakened by criticism, was shattered by Kant. The result is that we now focus on “timeless truths,” truths that only exist outside of space and time. To be fair, de Wette saw where this was going and backed off.

De Wette later discovered Schelling’s lectures on art, where Schelling argued that art manifests the Absolute. The surprising payoff is that this meant that Kant’s dominant philosophy was only a partial reflection of the Absolute.  

Julius Wellhausen: Israel’s History and Literary Sources

He says he learned from Ritschl that Graf said the law came after the prophets chronologically. Wellhausen’s project aimed to reconstruct Israel’s history from various sources.  Well. wasn’t simply saying that there were different authors for the Pentateuch. That wasn’t new. He used those various sources to construct an Israelite religion based off that most pure form of human expression: 19th century German liberalism.

Herman Gunkel

While he began on a promising note that we must understand the writings as the ancient Hebrews did, leading to the idea of a Sitz im Leben, Gunkel never transcended the methodological naturalism that crippled German scholarship. 

Gerhard von Rad

Von Rad’s life was filled with dangerous irony.  He championed the OT but was appointed by Nazis to teach at Jena.  He openly condemned the Nazi church but was later forced into the German army.  He ended the war as a prisoner of war in an American camp. 

Problem of the Hexateuch: Moses + Joshua. 

Brevard Childs

While he lived in the Northeast growing up, Childs had the background and manner of a Southern aristocrat.  He taught himself Greek while on the way to World War II.

When Childs was in Europe, he studied under the legends of the time.  


Behind almost all of these critics is a desire to get to the reality “behind the text,” whether it is “ultimate feeling” or “real history.”  The author does a good job in showing the influence of German philosophical movements on the critics without reducing the critics’ position to German romanticism.


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