Book Write-Up: The Old Testament: A Literary History

Konrad Schmid.  The Old Testament: A Literary History.  Translated by Linda M. Maloney.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012.

Konrad Schmid defines a literary history as “an attempt to present and interpret literary works not simply in themselves but in their various contexts, linkages, and historical developments” (page 1).  In The Old Testament: A Literary History, Schmid situates writings within the Hebrew Bible in historical contexts: the time before Assyria’s rise as a world power, the Assyrian period, the Babylonian period, the Persian period, the Ptolemaic period, and the Seleucid period.  Schmid also discusses the role of scribes in the production of ancient religious writings, intertextuality (in which one writer interacts with another writing), and redaction.  Redaction plays a significant role in Schmid’s work, as Schmid explores the redactional harmonization within the text of different voices, as well as the redactional conformity of the texts to what would become the general structure of the Hebrew Bible as a whole (i.e., the priority of Torah over the prophets).

The book excels in its depiction of religious and theological diversity within the Hebrew Bible.  This is especially the case in Schmid’s discussion of themes in Genesis.  Schmid argues that the priestly writer’s flood story was essentially placing eschatology within a primeval context.  Against those who wrote that God would judge people with a cataclysm, P was saying that God already did so with the flood, and that God vowed never to do so again.  According to Schmid, there were writers within the Hebrew Bible who disagreed with P on this: the Isaiah Apocalypse, for instance, maintains that God indeed will destroy the earth because its inhabitants broke God’s covenant, which probably means God’s covenant with Noah, a covenant that applies to all of humanity.  Schmid discusses other ways in which biblical writers differed from one another: some, to promote a political agenda of Israel’s restoration, restricted the restoration to the Jews in Babylonian exile returning to their land, whereas other voices and redactions universalized the restoration, envisioning Israelites returning from all over the earth.

Schmid’s literary history is also useful because it refers to recent scholarship.  For example, a number of biblical scholars long held that there are three (largely independent) Isaiahs: First Isaiah was written in the eighth century B.C.E., Second Isaiah was written in exile, and Third Isaiah was written in Israel’s post-exilic period.  According to Schmid, “support for the traditional three-book hypothesis has declined markedly” (page 203), as scholars notice redactional connections between the Isaiahs.  Not only does Schmid refer readers to recent scholarship, but he is also evenhanded in his discussion of various attempts to date biblical stories and writings, such as I-II Chronicles and the story of Josiah, as he acknowledges different arguments and possibilities.

Also noteworthy are some of Schmid’s proposals on dating.  Schmid, for example, considers Judges 3-9 to be pro-Assyrian: to be arguing in the aftermath of Assyria’s destruction of Northern Israel’s monarchy that Israel does not need a king and can co-exist with hostile powers.  Schmid regards the Moses story, by contrast, to be anti-Assyrian: to be saying that the only legitimate imperial power is that of God.  Whether or not one agrees with Schmid’s proposals, they do make the book worth the read.

The only criticism that I have of Schmid’s book is that it does not adequately explore who wrote the biblical texts, and what exactly their political agendas were.  He says that they were scribes with different perspectives.  But why did they have the perspectives that they did?  Schmid does offer general ideas, but he could have gone deeper.

The book is an introduction to the Hebrew Bible.  To a professor of an Introduction to Hebrew Bible class, I would recommend it as a supplement to Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible?  Who Wrote the Bible? would show students the basis for historical-critical interpretations of the Bible (i.e., biblical contradictions, different authorships, anachronisms, etc.).  But because Friedman presents a particular model for the Pentateuch’s composition and development—-his version of the JEPD Documentary Hypothesis—-students would profit from also reading Schmid’s book, which offers other models for the Hebrew Bible’s composition and development.

I received a review copy of this book from Fortress Press in exchange for an honest review.  See here for Fortress Press’s page about this book.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Book Write-Up: The Old Testament: A Literary History

  1. A really nice and thorough review or perhaps critique is a better word James. I liked it a lot.


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