Norman Gottwald

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.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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14 Responses to Norman Gottwald

  1. Duane says:



    Thanks for this post. Gottwald’s A Light to the Nations was the text (in addition to the Bible) for an introduction to the Old Testament course taught by Gerald LaRue at USC. It was the first academic on the Hebrew Bible course I took. That was in 1964. Gottwald’s book and Gerald LaRue himself are among the major reasons that I took up the study of the Hebrew Bible.


  2. Airton says:

    Belo testemunho sobre Gottwald, caro Claude. Pelo que sei, ele veio ao Brasil algumas vezes. Infelizmente, nunca o encontrei. Seus livros, entretanto, são de leitura obrigatória entre nós.
    Um abraço


  3. Pingback: Abnormal Interests: Claude Mariottini on Norman Gottwald

  4. Dr. Mariottini, I really enjoyed this post and I was looking for some textbooks to study and have come to the conclusion that Dr. Gottwald’s work is worth exploring. I was interested to read that you were in Berkeley in the early 70’s. I grew up in the area and I attended the university in the 1990’s. I am pleased that it turns out that we have even more in common than I thought.


    • Marcus,

      I did not know you attended the University of California at Berkeley. I lived 10 years in the Bay Area and enjoyed my days as a student at the GTU. You are right: we have a lot in common. More than just love for blogging, we also share the Berkeley experience. Thank you for sharing this information with me.

      Claude Mariottini


  5. christian abbott says:

    who would you say are some of gottwald’s contemporary influences?


    • Christian,

      Norman Gottwald was one of my teachers and I was fortunate to read the first five chapters of The Tribes of Yahweh before they were published. He shared them with his students in a seminar in Old Testament Theology.

      Gottwald was very influential in the 1970s and 1980s because he promoted the sociological study of the Old Testament. His writings were very popular because they found acceptance among people who accepted Liberation Theology. The reason for this is that both Liberation Theology and Norman Gottwald used Marxist sociology to guide their presentation. With the fall of the Soviet empire and the diminished influence of Marxism and communism, Gottwald’s influence has waned. Very few people today accept Gottwald’s view of the rise of Israel. However, if you have not read The Tribes of Yahweh I think you should. There is still much to learn from this amazing book.

      Claude Mariottini


  6. AndrewFoster says:

    What is Norman Gottwald’s own religious identity? Does he have any kind of Christian orientation? He is saliently said to be “Marxist” but also has taught on Christian theological faculties, and is known to attend an American Baptist church. What does the “Marxist” mean? He is identified as a “biblical” scholar, but his publications seem to pertain exclusively to the “Hebrew Bible,” without any sign of being Jewish.


    • Andrew,

      Gottwald was one of my professors. He is an American Baptist and an Old Testament scholar. He specializes in the sociological study of the Hebrew Bible and as such he uses sociology and anthropology to understand the biblical text. It is here that he uses the sociological insights of Marx to look at the formation of early Israel as a social revolution against the oppression of the Canaanite overlords.

      Claude Mariottini


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