Historical and Biblical Israel

The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah

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Reinhard G. Kratz
Paul Michael Kurtz
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Historical and Biblical Israel is a revised and enlarged translation of a German monograph published in 2013. In the light of textual discoveries and methodological advances in the past few decades, the author, Reinhard G. Kratz, focuses his attention on their impact upon three distinct fields of research: the history of Israel and Judah, the formation of the Hebrew Bible, and Jewish archives. As the introduction states, the fundamental question regarding “under which historical and sociological conditions and in which manner the Hebrew Bible became an authoritative tradition (i.e.) holy scripture,” is the focus of the volume. As Kratz acknowledges, this statement echoes similar questions posed by critical biblical scholars since the nineteenth century. One cannot, he argues, simply equate the historical portrait (or sacred history) of Israel as presented in the biblical tradition with the realia of ancient Israel and Judah, even though the biblical traditions developed during the same period. This is due, in part, to the predominant understanding that biblical traditions represent only one segment among the many that comprise the history of these two nations and peoples.

Part A covers the geo-political context of the history of Israel and Judah (largely archaeological and epigraphic sources). Part B specifically addresses the development (pre-biblical material and later literary history) of the particular biblical tradition within this history. Part C focuses on the archival sources utilized in the biblical traditions, which may reflect biblical history or traditions, or a mixture of both. By attempting to determine the distinctions between these materials, the author endeavors to differentiate between older, pre-biblical sources and later biblical traditions that the author terms as “biblical ideals” or, in other words, a literary based desired past.

The progression of evidence offered and arguments made throughout the book demand a careful reading. The author has done a superb job of amassing sources to supplement and document his work and regularly cites German works, which happily serves to introduce English readers to a broad spectrum of untranslated German scholarship. Overall, his presentation and treatment of the evidence is fair, although clearly slanted towards his historical-critical conclusion. On the other hand, the author’s sweeping conclusion that archaeological and epigraphic evidence, while feasible, has “no true legitimacy and lacks any real foundation” (204) is a rather unfortunate mischaracterization that echoes his somewhat selective treatment of these in earlier chapters.

In attempting to describe non-biblical and biblical Judaism, the author enlists epigraphic and textual evidence, such as the Aramaic papyri from Elephantine to support a theory that biblical Judaism represented merely one faction of Judeans (represented in a general sense by the scrolls from Qumran, 164-65) or, more accurately, one faction’s “ideal” rather than mainstream Judaism, which the community at Elephantine characterized (143). More problematic is an attempt to equate unprovenanced archival evidence from Al-Yahudu, an exilic and Persian period Jewish settlement probably in the vicinity of Nippur, where mixed marriages apparently occurred based upon the names recorded. As the author notes, various biblical texts, including Ezra 9-10, condemned such practices. Yet this hardly makes a case for ignorance regarding the Mosaic law, especially since this community clearly chose to remain in exile rather than return to Judah, and thus could hardly be considered observant, much less the holders of stringent religious convictions (151-52). Likewise, he views Samaritan texts as reflecting “a certain religious development over the course of time” (176) that the parallel growth of the biblical tradition somehow overshadowed. Rather than offering support to the author’s intended argument, these observations simply illustrate the focused textual and theological alterations earlier Samaritans made to the Pentateuch for political and cultural reasons relating to their ongoing conflict with Judaism, which began at least as early as the late sixth century BCE, according to the testimony of biblical sources. The author rather postulates that while the biblical traditions themselves are indeed much older, their (assumedly political, cultural, and religious) dissemination, status, and impact date only to the second century BCE, when political conflict between the peoples of these two neighboring provinces elevated and independently shaped the Torah into holy scripture for Samaria and Judah respectively (178-81).

In sum, the volume presents a complex, but well-documented and argued historical-critical view of how biblical Judaism, a movement that initially was one sect among many theologically and politically diverse “non-biblical” Jewish groups, somehow came to dominance. On the other hand, the author seems not to interpret or seriously consider the extant writings of these varied communities (e.g., at Elephantine) merely as individual voices from unorthodox minority groups established during the monarchy in Judah (e.g., the Arad shrine and Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions) as well as those rising out of religious turmoil following the destruction of the Temple and usually in distant exilic contexts. The scrolls from Qumran powerfully demonstrate that Second Temple Judaism was hardly monolithic, yet reverence for biblical texts was mantained, at least for the covenanters that deposited their library in nearby caves. The book ends with a plea for a via media regarding those that balance their faith while practicing historical-criticism, arguing that one should not intrude upon on the other.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeffrey P. Hudon is Adjunct Professor in the Department of Religion at Bethel College.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Reinhard G. Kratz is Professor of Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament at the University of Gottingen.

Paul Michael Kurtz (translator) is Research Associate at the Institute of Hebrew Bible, University of Gottingen.



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