Norman Gottwald was my teacher when I was doing graduate studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California in the early 1970s. One of the courses I took with Gottwald was a class on Old Testament Theology.
In preparation for class discussion, Gottwald gave the students three weeks to read Gerhard von Rad’s two volumes Old Testament Theology and Walter Eichrodt’s two volumes Old Testament Theology. Then, we spent two weeks discussing the content and methodology of these two classical works in Old Testament theology.
The rest of the quarter we spent studying the first five chapters of Gottwald’s magisterial work, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel 1250-1050 B.C.E. It was a great experience being there when Gottwald was using his class to provide feedback on a book that made a great impact on Old Testament studies. A few years later, when I was working on my Ph.D. at The Southern Baptist Seminary, our Old Testament colloquium spent a whole semester discussing The Tribes of Yahweh. The reaction of both the faculty and the students in the colloquium to the book was mixed, but all of us knew that we were discussing a unique contribution to the social studies of the Old Testament.
Over the years I have maintained contact with Gottwald. When I finished my dissertation, I asked Gottwald to be my outside reader. He accepted my invitation, read my thesis, and provided helpful suggestions that greatly improved the content of my work.
I recently had the opportunity to write a short biography on Normal Gottwald: “Norman K. Gottwald,” The Encyclopedia of Christian Literature, George T. Icurian, ed. (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2010), 340-341.
I write this brief essay on Norman Gottwald in order to introduce an article on Gottwald by Roland Boer, Research Professor in Theology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. In his article, “Norman Gottwald: A Pioneering Marxist Biblical Scholar,” Boer has a good introduction on The Tribes of Yahweh, on Gottwald’s use of Marxist sociology to study the Old Testament, and the political activism that has influenced Gottwald’s scholarship.
I am very familiar with Gottwald’s political activism. The Vietnam War was going strong and Gottwald and many of the students in our class opposed Nixon’s policies. It was also the time when students were revolting at the University of California-Berkeley because of People’s Park.
Below I present two brief excerpts from Boer’s article. In the first excerpt he discusses the content of The Tribes of Yahweh. In the second excerpt, Boer discusses the lasting influence of Gottwald’s work.
The Tribes of Yahweh
The content of the argument was as controversial as its method. Gottwald argued that early Israel arose out of a peasant revolution within Canaan between 1250 and 1050 BCE. Throwing off the yoke of their Canaanite overlords, these peasants retreated to the Judean hills in order to shape a new, more collective society. Was there a conquest of Canaan (the ‘Promised Land’) by Israelites escaping from Egypt? Not really, apart from a small group of Levite priests. Was Israel ethnically distinct from other Canaanites? Not at all, for they were Canaanites too, a blend of many different groups. Is there any evidence for such an argument, especially when the biblical material tells a grand story of enslavement in Egypt, escape, wilderness wandering and then conquest of a land to which the mythical Abraham had first made dubious claim? Yes there is, but it lies in the archaeological record. At the time, settlement of the Judean hills did indeed take place, making use of new technologies in a semi-arid environment with intermittent rainfall: lime-based cisterns for water storage, iron agricultural implements and terracing the hill sides. As to whether these new settlers had any conscious notion of being a new entity, calling themselves ‘Israel’, is a question that remains open.
Lasting Influence of Gottwald’s Work
First, the argument that Israel was indigenous to Canaan is now widely agreed among scholars. They may not have been conscious of being ‘Israel’ until quite late (after 400 BCE), but their economic, social and religious shape is distinctly Canaanite. Second, Gottwald almost single-handedly established social-scientific research on the Bible as a viable and promising enterprise. Social-scientific theory, comparative work and sophisticated sociological analysis is now well accepted and widely used. Third, Gottwald showed how productive Marxist methodology can be. He may have deployed Durkheim and Weber, but the core method is Marxist. So we find complex treatments of mode of production, means and relations of production, ideology and culture. Indeed, the two proposed modes of production — tributary and communitarian — still set the parameters of debate.
Roland Boer has written an excellent article on Normal Gottwald, an article that students of the Old Testament should read. The article was published by Monthly Review Online. You can read the article in its entirety here.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary