Review: Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Brief Socio-Literary Introduction

 [N.B. – I originally wrote this review in toto, and then due to a computer issue, lost it.  This second write-up is by no means as polished as the first was, but due to time constraints, I hope it is at least acceptable.  It communicates my basic points from the original].

Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Brief Socio-Literary Introduction. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.  Pp. xxiv + 388. Paper. $45.00. ISBN: 978-0-8006-6308-7.

This volume is an abridged version of the author’s 1985 publication, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction (Fortress) and is intended for use in college/university settings.  While abridged, it has also been updated, boasting a new, more current chapter, topical, and book bibliography.  Many will likely be aware of Gottwald’s earlier volume and its impact, utilizing social-scientific methodologies to their fullest.  The same can be said of this volume.  Gottwald writes in the preface:

“Although the newer literary methods and their counterparts in the social sciences have by now become fully recognized instruments in biblical studies, their full impact has yet to penetrate newly published or recently revised introductions to the Hebrew Bible [ . . . . ] My approach [ . . . . ] is to describe how th enew literary and social-scientific methods, in concert with older historical-critical methods, apply to each of the t hree major divisions of the Hebrew Bible and to each historical period in ancient Israel from its inception through the Hellenistic era” (xxi).

The book is broken up into four sections: (I) The Text in Its Contexts; (II) Intertribal Confederacy: Israel’s Revoutionary Beginnings; (III) Monarchy: Israel’s Counterrevolutionary Establishment; (IV) Home Rule Under Great Empires: Israel’s Colonial Recovery.  I will hear briefly offer an overview of the various sections.

I: The Text in its Contexts
Gottwald here discusses the issue of methodology as it relates to biblical studies.  After noting the explosion of methodologies for studying the text, he briefly treats confessional and historical-critical approaches to the Hebrew Bible.  He notes how these two approaches often exist in tension with one another within both Jewish and Christian interpretive communities.  Existentialism and Biblical Theology are then treated as attempts at a synthesis, which also have proven problematic.  This all sets the stage for the advent of new literary and social-scientific approaches.  Two emphases are evident here: (i) the Hebrew Bible is “a literary production that creates its own fictive world of meaning and is to be understand first and foremost, if not exclusively, as a literary medium” [11]; (ii) the Hebrew Bible is a “social document that reflects the history of changing social structures, functions, and roles in ancient Israel ove ra thousand years or so, and which provides an integral context in which the literary, historical, and religious features of the Israelite/Jewish people can be viewed and interconnected” [11].  After surveying each method individually, Gottwald notes literary and social-scientific models have much in common, not least of which is a great frustration with the historical-critical way of doing things.  Both, he argues, are also deeply concerned with the text’s structure; how might literary structure inform social structure, he muses.  Such will be the method of this volume.

Rounding out this section is an analysis of the “World of the Hebrew Bible,” focusing upon geography, material culture and archaeology, and the political, cultural, and social history of the aNE (and this section, will brief, is still quite well done, and boasts a series of 16 maps outlining the development of the aNE from 2600 BCE until 63 BCE, along with two tables representing the chronology of aNE political regimes and the Hebrew Bible in the wider context of ancient literature), as well as a section on the “Literary History of the  Hebrew Bible,” by which Gottwald means the formation of the Hebrew Bible.  He sees this formation as a product of three overlapping phases: 1) separate literary and oral unites are formed between 1200 BCE and 100 BCE; 2) formation of Hebrew Bible in writing in three parts, following the order Law, Prophets, Writings, starting ca. 400 BCE with the Law and ending ca. 90 CE with the Writings; 3) preservation and transmission of the text in its original languages and translation, which is further broken up into two phases: i) 400 BCE-90 CE, when the finalization process was still underway; ii) ca. 90 CE until the present, when it had reached its final form.

II: Intertribal Confederacy: Israel’s Revolutionary Beginning
This section opens with a treatment of the “sources” for Israel’s premonarchic history.  While I understand this is an introduction and thus simplicity in hot-button issues is often key, I find myself terribly bothered by the all-too-easy presentation of the classical documentary hypothesis as the cutting-edge norm in Pentateuchal studies (see HERE for why).  To be fair, Gottwald does begin with the traditions and thus oral history, but he still argues that these were “later written into continuous sources that were finally revised or redacted to form the present biblical books” (84).  What he means by “sources” is not patently clear, but the enumeration and clarification of JEDP, along with the redactor R and common JE source G preceding this discussion, I am inclined to think he means something similar to the documentary hypothesis.  Now, I am not advocating an introductory textbook must cover every conceivable option for Pentateuchal composition; I rather wish the picture was presented more honestly, with the documentary hypothesis as one way we did things and now there being a variety of ways we are trying to do things.  It is also odd that Gottwald holds on to this view given his comments about the classical historical-critical method in the opening section.  Gottwald’s discussion of the development of these themes (a “snowballing” over time, he calls it, 86) is fair enough; the centrality given to the documentary hypothesis is not.

In treating the ancestral narratives (Gen 12-50), Gottwald notes the importance of paying attention to genre along with literary features such as type-scenes.  This is a helpful section that is expanded upon by cross-references in the text to the book’s website (see above).  He goes on to argue that the ancestral traditions are quite difficult to date and trust historically, and the best means of looking at them, then, is to realize they became a part of Israel’s traditions during the tribal period.  He rehearses the view established long ago by Alt, and which I think still has great merit, that Jacob was associated with Northern Israelite groups and served as their “ancestor hero” while Abraham and Isaac played the same role in the southern highlands and northern Negeb.  Given that Israel is named for Jacob and not Abraham, Gottwald avers that the Jacob traditions would have entered Israelite consciousness first and been seminal and formative on those grounds.

Regarding the Moses traditions, Gottwald continues his trend of surveying first the historical and then literary approaches, concluding that neither are adequate inandof themselves.  He argues that Moses Israelites must be differentiated from Israelites in Canaan on three grounds: 1) the theophoric name Israel bespeaks an entity in Canaan; 2) the Moses group does not yet appear to have been an agricultural community; 3) the Moses group is not large enough to comprise all Israel.    Gottwald’s view on the origin of Israel should be well known, and will thus not be rehearsed here.

III. Monarchy: Israel’s Coutnerrevolutionary Establishment
Gottwald first treats the United Kingdom with brief sections on Saul, David, and Solomon.  He further discusses the structural and socio- effects of the monarchy, among them political centralization and social stratification.  One of the final sections in this chapter, however, is a bit puzzling.  It focuses solely on the J source, arguing that J’s conception of YHWH is one that “has prevailed in popular Judaism and Christianity ever since” (186).  One may rationalize Gottwald’s extended discussion here by appealing to the old view that J is the first of the Pentateuchal sources to be written, in the 10th-9th centuryes.  Indeed, Gottwald says just this (188).  There are compelling reasons, however, to avoid such a date.  Aside from the standard attacks leveled at source criticism over the last 25 years (see especially Whybray’s The Making of the Pentateuch), very few (if any) still hold to von Rad’s J set in the time of the United Monarchy.  Even John Van Seters’ supplementary hypothesis–which largely accepts von Rad’s description of the J author–dates J later, in the exile.  It is odd to me, then, that such an emphasis is given to the J author here. 

Sections on the Northern and Southern Kingdoms round out this section.  One element worthy of note here is that in the suggested biblical text for these chapters . . . . the Northern Kingdom, for instance, it is suggested on shoudl read not only 1 Kgs 12-2Kgs 17 but also Amos and  Hosea, the two northern prophets.  I am convinced that prophecy is heavily integrated into the institution of the monarchy.  Gottwald’s treatment of these prophets here includes still a sustained treatment of each book on its own, and it does a great service by situating them in and putting these in conversation with their historical circumstances.  This is one great benefit of Gottwald’s sociological approach.

IV. Home Rule Under Great Empires: Israel’s Colonial Recovery
The first chapter, “Sociohistorical Horizons of Colonial Israel,” is a very fine section that integrates text and society together well.  Gottwald surveys Jewish responses to the exile, Jewish life in exile, Jewish response to Persian rule, the missions of Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel and Joshua, Nehemiah, and Ezra, the movement towards Macedonian, Ptolemaic and subsequently Seleucid rule and the Maccabean revolt.  This section does an outstanding job of synthesizing history with the literary sources.  Students of both the Old and New Testaments would benefit well from reading this chapter.

 The final two chapters in this section trace out the completion of the canon.  A thumbnail sketch of Gottwald’s view is enumerated above, and he follows that pattern here.  He first notes the relationship between Law and Prophets, arguing that the two traditions develop in dialogue (267).  There is a sort of interplay between the two: the Law is tempered by prophecy (269) and prophecy is accomodated to the Law (271).  The Priestly author is responsible for finishing out the Law, argues Gottwald.  Separate sections treating some of the prophets, among them Ezekiel, Isaiah, the prophets of the rebuilt Temple (Haggai and Zech 1-8), along with Obadiah, Joel, and Malachi from the Book of the Twelve receive sustained analysis.

The final chapter examines the formation and completion of the Writings.  This section is a panoply of various topics, ranging from the relationship between 1 and 2  Chronicles and Ezra/Nehemiah to redactional disorder in Ezra/Nehemiah to a discussion of what constitutes biblical poetry to the genres of the Psalms to Wisdom literature to Apocalyptic and Daniel.  Each section, however, is quite well done, remaining conversant with the secondary scholarship (such as Gunkel and Mowinckel on the Psalms).  These books, though, often receive short schrift in many introductions.  Gottwald also seems to depart, at several places here (though not always) from discussing the sociological import of some of these texts.

In the conclusion, Gottwald images his methodology as “a grid of key components arranged along domain, sectoral, and geographical axes” (339).

1. Domain axis: concerned with the historical experience of Israel in its various stages, and is concerned with socioeconomic, political, and religious thought and organization.

2. Sectoral axis: joins with the domain axis by analyzing how the sociopolitical ‘frames’ of the domain axis give rise to specific literary forms with distinctive theologies.

3. Geographical axis: relevant at two points – a) during the divided monarchy; b) during the exile, given the literary, social-organizational, and theological circumstances of Palestinian Jews and diaspora Jews are quite different. 

These axes are represented graphically on five charts that close out the volume.

One very fine aspect of this introduction is that in each section Gottwald not only describes the issue at hand but also discusses, often in very sustained, detailed treatment for an introduction, the history of research leading up to the present moment.  This helps to set the stage for much of what he is seeking to do with his ‘cutting edge’ synergy of  literary and social-scientific methodologies. 

I also very much appreciate Gottwald’s methodology.  One indisputable fact is that the biblical texts were created by concrete communities.  To examine, then, how the shape and character of the text may inform the makeup and social-organization of that community makes a great deal of sense.  It also succeeds in retaining an historical dimension to the task of interpreting, but it is not purely historical-critical.   This introduction demonstrates the success of such a method.

Accompanying website with charts, maps, illustrations indexed in the beginning of the book (  Among the wonderfully helpful aspects of this website is a table listing other suggested aNE texts in relation to specific biblical books and coded to Pritchard’s ANET and Beyerlin’s NERT.  For example, if one wanted to explore further the Cain/Abel motif, one could look to the Sumerian “Dumuzi and Enkimdu” in ANET 41-42 or the instruction aspect of Proverbs one could look at the Instruction of Amen-em-opet in ANET 421-424.  While no where near exhaustive, this is a helpful and adequate set of references for the beginning student; ANET and NERT can provide further bibliography and cross-referencing.  Also featured on the website are sample syllabi, a pre-made test, chapter summaries and study questions.  I would also be remiss if I did not mention the beautiful color photographs included in the center of the volume from various artifacts and sites in the ancient Near East.  Included are masseboth (on which see HERE), horned altars, various figurines, coins, and a host of other items.

My main quibble with the volume, and it is fairly significant, is the pervasive insistence in all parts of the book that the documentary hypothesis is the most compelling, well-articulated, cogent, and accepted way of describing Pentateuchal composition.  Indeed, it is not.  In my view, the documentary hypothesis has clearly been debunked; recent contributions on Pentateuchal composition show this quite clearly (see my work HERE).  If this is frustrating to the scholar, it may be terribly confusing or disorienting to the neophyte student.

In the end, Gottwald has produced a very fine introductory volume to the Hebrew Bible.  He is attentive to and conversant with the important issues in the history of scholarship, and his methodology is both well-articulated and brings something new to the table: a synthesis of literary and sociological approaches to the biblical text.  Students and scholars alike will do well to heed Gottwald’s contention that socio-literary approaches to the biblical text are terribly wanting and tremendously important.

15 thoughts on “Review: Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Brief Socio-Literary Introduction

  1. Jill says:


    On the documentary hypothesis, see Joel Baden, now a Yale faculty member, “Rethinking the Supposed “JE” Document” (PhD diss, Harvard University, 2007). He agrees with Schwartz. Among those who disagree, his diss is considered a serious and important work (esp. Carr) and has created quite a buzz. I’m not sure of its publication timeline, but he’ll be a force in source criticism for sometime.

    • John Anderson says:

      Patrick, I’ll take that as a compliment. I try to fashion these as if I were doing it for RBL (though with less critique at times, given the venue). I also want the publishers to feel as though I did the book a service . . . . and so they know I actually read them!

      And while it is a long review, yes, keep in mind (see the N.B. at the beginning) . . . . I wrote it twice!

      • Patrick George McCullough says:

        Yeah, bummer about needing to write the thing twice. I wonder if that’s the service that the publishers want done to their books. They do come from the publicity department, so is a RBL-style review the most effective form of publicity for blogs?

  2. Hebrew Scholar says:

    Wow! Thanks for your long review of “The Hebrew Bible”. I haven’t read it yet, but I really appreciate detailed reviews of Hebrew-related books. A long review is sometimes a better way of knowing about a book than flicking through the pages in a bookshop. Thanks – and further long reviews welcome!

  3. Jonathan Allen says:

    For us less academic people, could you recommend one text that in your opinion debunks the DH particularly thoroughly, or goes the furthest in that direction?

  4. John Anderson says:

    Jonathan: I’d recommend very highly Whybray’s The Making of the Pentateuch. it is, to my knowledge, the most thorough and sustained refutation of the DH.

    If you don’t want to read all his arguments in detail, at the end of each chapter there is a nice summary list of statements that outline the main critiques (and they are many). If time permits I may post them up on here.



    • Jonathan Allen says:

      John – thanks for the specific recommendation – I’ll add it to my wish-list and check out the review Richard offers …

  5. John Anderson says:

    Thanks for providing the link, Richard.

    A note about Whybray. His own argument that a single author is responsible for compiling and writing the Pentateuch has not been accepted in scholarship. Some days, though, I must admit, I do think it is a possibility. If pressed, though, I’d probably tend towards a supplementary hypothesis that takes the various traditions (read: NO SOURCES) into account.

  6. Richard says:

    John, could you explain how your view is contra the sources view in that I’ve now read Rendtorff, Blum and Carr and I don’t see how ‘radical’ a break their view is from the DH. THeir view of a basic building block of units of tradition which are then pieced together could easily fit into a DH approach if modified a la Carr.

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