Review of R. Kratz, Historical and Biblical Israel: The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah (2015)


Historical and Biblical Israel: The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah, by Reinhard Kratz, is a revised and enlarged English edition of a work that originally appeared in German. Following in the footsteps of the bold 19th century exegete J. Wellhausen, Kratz aims to clarify the relationship between the Israel of history and the “Israel” of the Bible and to reconstruct the historical evolution by which the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament came to be an authoritative tradition for Judaism and Christianity. The work is divided into three sections that build on one another: first, a survey of the history of Israel and Judah until the destruction of the Second Temple as the context in which the biblical tradition arose (part A), second, an investigation into the formation and literary development of that tradition (part B), and lastly, a consideration of the role of scribal archives as the setting in which biblical literature was produced, edited, and transmitted (part C).


Although some of the content has appeared elsewhere separately, the book represents a notable contribution by one of the foremost scholars in contemporary Hebrew Bible study. It succinctly summarizes a wide range of historical and textual research, provides a comprehensive and original synthesis of the data, and could easily function not only as an introduction to German critical scholarship but as an entree to salient discussions and primary resources by means of the thorough and up-to-date footnotes and bibliography. Historical and Biblical Israel is clearly the work of a seasoned scholar who has distilled a vast amount of learning into a rather slim and compact volume.


What distinguishes Kratz’s reconstruction of the origin of the Hebrew Bible from other treatments is the degree to which he critically contextualizes it in the larger sweep of political, religious, and cultural history, from the earliest attestation of Israel to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The outline of history in part A allows him to see the biblical tradition as largely the product of a period subsequent to the destruction of the Israelite and Judahite kingdoms, when the biblical authors sought to found a new cult and religion, namely biblical Israel/Judaism. In part B the identification of pre-biblical written sources based on historical and comparative considerations is then used to determine how individual traditions were transformed over time into the books of the Bible, which process is dated according to major epochs and caesuras in Israel and Judah’s own history. Finally, in part C Kratz discusses epigraphic evidence from known centers of scribal literary production to suggest that the tradition of biblical Judaism did not become widely authoritative in Palestine or the diaspora until after the Maccabees and Hasmoneans established it as their official religion. The upshot is that while we can trace biblical tradition back to its monarchic-era roots, this religious tradition was of marginal significance in terms of its cultural impact and coexisted with the Canaanite milieu of ancient Israel and Judah that remained dominant in the region until well into the Second Temple period.


I think in general Kratz’s analysis is strong and well-reasoned. His integration of the Bible with primary source material is methodologically circumspect, if at times slightly optimistic about the value of the biblical narrative as a historical source. Although different scholars may not find his reconstruction to be altogether convincing, his conclusions are balanced and judicious. Kratz carefully weighs interpretive options, guides the reader through the steps of his argument, and often acknowledges when the available evidence prevents firm decision.


Of the various sections, part B will probably invite the most criticism, since it is here that Kratz relies upon the very complex and hypothetical enterprise of literary-historical criticism of the Bible. He does not provide detailed argumentation for his reconstruction of literary development, but only refers to previous publications, which is perhaps understandable considering the nature of the book. Nevertheless, I thought there were a number of assertions and claims made in this section that lacked persuasiveness. For example:


  • The biblical books’ authors and copyists arose from scribes who worked outside of state-sponsored institutions (p. 63). The criticisms leveled at the court and temple in literature set in the monarchic period in my view do not necessitate the assumption that they rejected these institutions or were unconnected with centralized institutions in the post-monarchic period. The scribal archive at Qumran seems an inadequate model for thinking about the origin of the biblical tradition.
  • The legal collection of the Covenant Code originated apart from the early Exodus narrative through a process of oral tradition (pp. 67-68, 84). As it stands, the Covenant Code appears to be a literary composition integral to the larger narrative context. Nowhere does Kratz engage with D. Wright’s proposal that the Covenant Code is literarily dependent on the Code of Hammurabi.
  • The concept of a conditional relationship with God was first developed by the prophets (p. 76). This suggestion is obviously dependent on Wellhausen, who characterized the prophets as religious innovators and the discoverers of ethical monotheism. But it can no longer be taken for granted that the books of the prophets reflect the historical situation they describe or preserve authentic original teaching. In general, the prophetic books appear to have been constructed by a later readership and so presuppose external religious development.
  • The stories of Genesis originated from oral traditions of different tribal groups in ancient Palestine (p. 81, 108). Kratz tends to assume that literary depictions of ancestral figures or regional heroes stem from a long chain of oral/written tradition. But in fact we have little evidence that this was the case, and I think this approach to tradition-criticism underestimates the ability of scribes to function as creative authors who invent tradition.
  • The exodus-conquest story is exclusively Israelite (p. 81). In the fiction of the narrative the people of Israel is inclusive of Judah (cf. Josh 7:1, 18), so the emphasis on Israel seems an inadequate basis upon which to literarily differentiate the story from the Genesis narratives.
  • The Deuteronomistic history originated around 560 BCE (p. 86). Kratz does not explain why a date immediately after the end of the monarchy is more plausible than a setting during the Second Temple, and neither does he devote much attention to clarifying the identity and origin of the Dtr authors.
  • Wisdom literature was progressively theologized (p. 91). The idea that wisdom sayings in Proverbs were originally secular and became theologized over time seems circular, since it requires judging the theological elements of the sayings as essentially secondary.
  • The redaction responsible for the primeval and patriarchal narratives is distinct from that of the exodus narrative (p. 97). While this view is common enough in European scholarship, it would have been helpful to provide more substantiation for this thesis. At least in my mind, it seems less than obvious that the patriarchal, Joseph, and exodus narratives in their earliest literary form would have had separate origins. Too often the tradition-historical approach assumes diverse origins as the only viable solution to the problem of literary fractures.


Despite these disagreements over literary history, Kratz can only be offered fulsome praise for his daring attempt to produce a synthetic reconstruction of the origin of the Hebrew Bible and to make it available to a broader readership. His writing is compressed and yet clear and accessible, and the glossary at the end of the book will assist those less familiar with the technical terminology of academic biblical studies. Finally, although the book is strictly historical in its interpretation of the development of the biblical tradition, the author ends with an eloquent postlude directed at those who may have concerns that the conclusions reached in the book undermine religious faith.

[Note: I received a free review copy from OUP]