Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, by Julius Wellhausen, , at sacred-texts.com
The work which forms the greater part of the present volume first appeared in 1878 under the title History of Israel. By J. Wellhausen. In two volumes. Volume I. The book produced a great impression throughout Europe, and its main thesis, that "the Mosaic history is not the starting-point for the history of ancient Israel, but for the history of Judaism," was felt to be so powerfully maintained that many of the leading Hebrew teachers of Germany who had till then stood aloof from the so-called "Grafian hypothesis"—the doctrine, that is, that the Levitical Law and connected parts of the Pentateuch were not written till after the fall of the kingdom of Judah, and that the Pentateuch in its present compass was not publicly accepted as authoritative till the reformation of Ezra—declared themselves convinced by Wellhausen's arguments. Before 1878 the Grafian hypothesis was neglected or treated as a paradox in most German universities, although some individual scholars of great name were known to have reached by independent inquiry similar views to those for which Graf was the recognised sponsor, and although in Holland the writings of Professor Kuenen, who has been aptly termed Graf's goel, had shown in an admirable and conclusive manner that the objections usually taken to Graf's arguments did not touch the substance of the thesis for which he contended.
Since 1878, partly through the growing influence of Kuenen, but mainly through the impression produced by Wellhausen's
book, all this has been changed. Almost every younger scholar of mark is on the side of Vatke and Reuss, Lagarde and Graf, Kuenen and Wellhausen, and the renewed interest in Old Testament study which is making itself felt throughout all the schools of Europe must be traced almost entirely to the stimulus derived from a new view of the history of the Law which sets all Old Testament problems in a new light.
Our author, who since 1878 had been largely engaged in the study of other parts of Semitic antiquity, has not yet given to the world his promised second volume. But the first volume was a complete book in itself; the plan was to reserve the whole narrative of the history of Israel for vol. ii., so that vol. i. was entirely occupied in laying the critical foundations on which alone a real history of the Hebrew nation could be built. Accordingly, the second edition of the History, vol. i., appeared in 1883 (Berlin, Reimer), under the new title of Prolegomena to the History of Israel. In this form it is professedly, as it really was before, a complete and self-contained work; and this is the form of which a translation, carefully revised by the author, is now offered to the public.
All English readers interested in the Old Testament will certainly be grateful to the translators and publishers for a volume which in its German garb has already produced so profound an impression on the scholarship of Europe; and even in this country the author's name is too well known to make it necessary to introduce him at length to a new public. But the title of the book has a somewhat unfamiliar sound to English ears, and may be apt to suggest a series of dry and learned dissertations meant only for Hebrew scholars. It is worth while therefore to point out in a few words that this would be quite a false impression; that the matters with which Professor Wellhausen deals are such as no intelligent student of the Old Testament
can afford to neglect; and that the present volume gives the English reader, for the first time, an opportunity to form his own judgment on questions which are within the scope of any one who reads the English Bible carefully and is able to think clearly, and without prejudice, about its contents. The history of Israel is part of the history of the faith by which we live, the New Testament cannot be rightly understood without understanding the Old, and the main reason why so many parts of the Old Testament are practically a sealed book even to thoughtful people is simply that they have not the historical key to the interpretation of that wonderful literature.
The Old Testament does not furnish a history of Israel, though it supplies the materials from which such a history can be constructed. For example, the narrative of Kings gives but the merest outline of the events that preceded the fall of Samaria; to understand the inner history of the time we must fill up this outline with the aid of the prophets Amos and Hosea. But the more the Old Testament has been studied, the more plain has it become that for many parts of the history something more is needed than merely to read each part of the narrative books in connection with the other books that illustrate the same period. The Historical Books and the Pentateuch are themselves very composite structures, in which old narratives occur imbedded in later compilations, and groups of old laws are overlaid by ordinances of comparatively recent date. Now, to take one point only, but that the most important, it must plainly make a vast difference to our whole view of the providential course of Israel's history if it appear that instead of the whole Pentateuchal law having been given to Israel before the tribes crossed the Jordan, that law really grew up little by little from its Mosaic germ, and did not attain its present form till the Israelites were the captives or the subjects of a foreign power. This is what
the new school of Pentateuch criticism undertakes to prove, and it does so in a way that should interest every one. For in the course of the argument it appears that the plain natural sense of the old history has constantly been distorted by the false presuppositions with which we have been accustomed to approach it—that having a false idea of the legal and religious culture of the Hebrews when they first entered Canaan, we continually miss the point of the most interesting parts of the subsequent story, and above all fail to understand the great work accomplished by the prophets in destroying Old Israel and preparing the way first for Judaism and then for the Gospel. These surely are inquiries which no conscientious student of the Bible can afford to ignore.
The process of disentangling the twisted skein of tradition is necessarily a very delicate and complicated one, and involves certain operations for which special scholarship is indispensable. Historical criticism is a comparatively modern science, and in its application to this, as to other histories, it has made many false and uncertain steps. But in this, as in other sciences, when the truth has been reached it can generally be presented in a comparatively simple form, and the main positions can be justified even to the general reader by methods much less complicated, and much more lucid, than those originally followed by the investigators themselves. The modern view as to the age of the Pentateuchal law, which is the key to the right understanding of the History of Israel, has been reached by a mass of investigations and discussions of which no satisfactory general account has ever been laid before the English reader. Indeed, even on the Continent, where the subject has been much more studied than among us, Professor Wellhausen's book was the first complete and sustained argument which took up the question in all its historical bearings.
More recently Professor Kuenen of Leyden, whose discussions of the more complicated questions of Pentateuch analysis are
perhaps the finest things that modern criticism can show, has brought out the second edition of the first volume of his Onderzoek, and when this appears in English, as it is soon to do, our Hebrew students will have in their hands an admirable manual of what I may call the anatomy of the Pentateuch, in which they can follow from chapter to chapter the process by which the Pentateuch grew to its present form. But for the mass of Bible-readers such detailed analysis will always be too difficult. What every one can understand and ought to try to master, is the broad historical aspect of the matter. And this the present volume sets forth in a way that must be full of interest to every one who has tasted the intense pleasure of following institutions and ideas in their growth, and who has faith enough to see the hand of God as clearly in a long providential development as in a sudden miracle.
The reader will find that every part of the Prolegomena is instinct with historical interest, and contributes something to a vivid realisation of what Old Israel really was, and why it has so great a part in the history of spiritual faith. In the first essay of the Prolegomena a complete picture is given of the history of the ordinances of worship in Israel, and the sacrifices, the feasts, the priesthood, are all set in a fresh light. The second essay, the history of what the Israelites themselves believed and recorded about their past, will perhaps to some readers seem less inviting, and may perhaps best be read after perusal of the article, reprinted from the Encyclopædia Britannica, which stands at the close of the volume and affords a general view of the course of the history of Israel, as our author constructs it on the basis of the researches in his Prolegomena. The essay on Israel and Judaism with which the Prolegomena close, may in like manner be profitably compared with sect. 11 of the appended sketch—a section which is not taken directly from the Encyclopædia, but
translated from the German edition of the article Israel, where the subject is expanded by the author. Here the reader will learn how close are the bonds that connect the critical study of the Old Testament with the deepest and unchanging problems of living faith.
W. ROBERTSON SMITH.
Pages 237 to 425 of the Prolegomena and section II of Israel are translated by Mr. Menzies; for the rest of the volume Mr. Black is responsible. Both desire to express their indebtedness to Professor Robertson Smith for many valuable suggestions made as the sheets were passing through the press.