How Should We Study Ancient Israelite Religion?

Frank Moore Cross on the history of religion in ancient Israel

How Should We Study Ancient Israelite Religion?

Eminent Biblical and Dead Sea Scroll scholar Frank Moore Cross says we must look at religion in ancient Israel on the basis of modern historical method.

Few Biblical scholars carry as much weight as does Frank Moore Cross, author of the following article, “The History of Israelite Religion: A Secular or Theological Subject?,” in which he says that anyone wanting to study the history of ancient Israelite religion should view the enterprise through the lens of history rather than theology. Frank Moore Cross notes that this viewpoint is a relatively new development, with origins in the late 18th century. But for several subsequent centuries, the methodology was wrongly skewed. Frank Moore Cross delineates the faulty premises of Wilhelm Vatke, in which he presents ancient Israelite religion as being composed in three dialectic stages; religion in ancient Israel, according to Vatke, was an antithesis to paganism and portrayed religion in ancient Israel in opposition to Christianity. Frank Moore Cross also cites the work of Julius Wellhausen, a disciple of Vatke, who further skews ancient Israelite religion in an anti-Semitic mode.

Ancient and pre-modern frameworks of religion in ancient Israel should be examined by theologians and philosophers, but historians need to try to look beyond the scriptural texts and theological assumptions and traditions to look at the physical, archaeological record, which has burgeoned in recent decades. They also need to compare accounts of ancient Israelite religion with ancient documents of surrounding cultures, says Frank Moore Cross. He notes that historians have noted shifts in ancient Israelite religion: from myth to epic memory, from “hierarchical notions of equity” to redemptive views of justice, from sacred notions of king and priest to a less sacred “view of temple and priesthood.”

The free eBook Frank Moore Cross: Conversations with a Bible Scholar, a collection of Hershel Shanks’s five interviews with Frank Moore Cross, is a treasure. Cross discusses the Hebrew Bible, the origins of Israel, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the history of the alphabet, ancient Hebrew seals and ancient Hebrew inscriptions.


The History of Israelite Religion

A Secular or Theological Subject?

By Frank Moore Cross

If we propose to study the history of the religion of ancient Israel, we must be governed by the same postulates that are the basis of modern historical method. Our task must be a historical, not a theological, enterprise. We must trace the origins and development of Israel’s religion, its emergence from its West Semitic, particularly Canaanite, past, its continuities with the past, its innovations, individual or peculiar configurations, its new emergent whole, and its subsequent changes and evolution.

This is a task and an interest that are relatively recent in Western thought. Only in the late 18th century—notably with Johann Gottfried Herder’s Vom Geist der hebräischen Poesie (Concerning the Genius of Hebrew Poetry [1782–1783])—were there the first serious attempts to free the study of Israelite religion from dogmatic frameworks—theological or philosophical—and to study it in purely historical terms.

To be sure, Spinoza in the preceding century had raised the most serious questions of literary criticism, arguing, for example, that is was quite impossible to accept the tradition that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, which includes an account of his death. Herder proposed to examine Israel and Israelite religion as a historical phenomenon using a historical methodology in no way different in principle from the historical investigation of the history of Greece and Greek religion, searching for its place in the history of nations and in the history of religions.

The Hebrew Bible in pre-modern times had been studied as a book of divine laws, mythologically descended from heaven, or as a book of prophecies, prefiguring New Testament fulfillment. Israel’s history was treated as sui generis, without links to mundane or secular history. It was a unique, divine, even miraculous history, a history that furnished the key to history past and future, but not a natural part of human history. While discontinuous with other national histories, it revealed the design and purpose of universal history.

One perceives in these ancient frameworks and points of view theological or philosophical dogma that persists into our day and deserves examination by the theologian or philosopher. In writing a history of Israelite religion, however, we must approach the Hebrew Bible and its religious traditions using the ordinary tools of the secular historian. I should add that it is difficult for the most conscientious and objective historian to rid him or herself of the drag of theological or philosophical dogma. The Hebrew Bible is a primary parent of Western culture and faith. It is difficult for a child to look at a parent with objectivity. Our fundamental understanding of goodness, of justice, of truth derives from the Bible, and we look at the world with spectacles furnished by Biblical tradition and its interpretation—even those moderns who despise religion.

It has been said, rightly I believe, that to understand the history of the interpretation of the Bible, one must know the entire history of Western thought. We shall skip over that long history, from Philo and the rabbis to Spinoza, and select an example or two of more recent attempts to write histories of the religion of Israel.

One of the early and still influential attempts to compose a history of the religion of Israel was the work of Wilhelm Vatke, Die Biblische Theologie wissenschaftlich dargestellt: Die Religion des Alten Testament nach den kanonischen Büchern entwickelt (Biblical Theology Delineated Scientifically: The Religion of the Old Testament Developed According to the Canonical Books [1835]). Vatke viewed the history of Israelite religion as composed of a series of stages, three in number in dialectic movement. As a devout student of Hegel he described this dialectic in terms of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. This is the necessary logic of history, he argued: the dialectical unfolding of an even higher grasp of truth, or in concretely Hegelian terms, the movement of the spirit (Geist): the logic of history understood as the biography of God. Vatke’s categories, categories in opposition, are the familiar Hegelian ones: nature-spirit; myth-history; slavery-freedom; unconscious-conscious; exterior-interior; magic/cult-the ethical.

The stages delineated by Vatke are three, the first two in opposition, the third taking up the other two in a higher resolution or synthesis:

(1) Paganism: nature religion marked by the slavery of nature and its timelessness: magic, cult and idolatry.

(2) Prophetic religion: spiritual, ethical, historical, individual, free. Moses the liberator initiates this stage and the free, ethical impulse. The eighth-century B.C.E. prophets (Amos, Hosea and Isaiah) are the climax of this movement. They rise to a higher consciousness of God. Mechanical cultic, natural, amoral forms are overthrown in principle.

(3) Legalism: in the Bible’s Deuteronomistic and Priestly sources a new stage (synthesis) emerges: idolatry is defeated and a universal consciousness gained, but also the ethical is now frozen in law, the concrete is encapsulated in the abstract. Theocratic legalism sets in, sullying ethical monotheism.

In Vatke’s work, claimed to be historical, we see actually the older medieval theological framework replaced by an equally dogmatic philosophical schema. Vatke’s system (I cannot call it history) is profoundly antinomian, not to say anti-Judaic or anti-Semitic. The German idealism of this period, and Christian apologetics that found objective idealism profoundly congenial, constantly plays on the oppositions of slavery vs. freedom and law vs. grace. Hegel said of Moses, “The liberator of his nation was also its lawgiver; this could mean only that the man who had freed it from one yoke had laid on it another.”

Vatke sees the religion of Israel not merely as antithesis to paganism. The main thrust of his system is in the opposition of Judaism to Christianity. “Abstract thought” (read: law) as opposed to “concrete spirituality” (read: gospel). Dead letter (that is, law) as opposed to interior spirit. In short, Judaism leads to a new and higher stage, a new thesis: Christianity in its early, creative phase, i.e, New Testament Christianity. In New Testament Christianity freedom is reborn, and grace replaces law. Christianity rekindles prophetism in a higher form and is its successor. One must observe that apocalypticism, a movement of 500 years in duration, and the real forebear of Christianity, is ignored, suppressed.

Vatke thus cannot view the history of the religion of Israel in itself—only as part of the emergence of Christianity, a philosophical counterpart to the medieval understanding of the history of Israel.

The freeing of the history of the religion of Israel from theological forms thus in fact merely plunged it into philosophical schema, one dogmatic structure for another. Israel’s history is understood now as a type of universal history, a stage in God’s increasing self-consciousness.

I have chosen to comment at length on Vatke’s work, for in Vatke the philosophical skeleton is laid bare and made obvious. Vatke’s volume swarms with the jargon and mythology of Hegel.

Vatke’s synthesis and his heritage linger on. Julius Wellhausen, the most imposing figure in critical Biblcial studies of the 19th century, was Vatke’s disciple.a Wellhausen, in his classic volume, Prolegomena to the History of Israel (1878) writes of Vatke: “… from whom indeed I gratefully acknowledge myself to have learnt best and most.” In Wellhausen’s profoundly influential work, the Hegelian jargon of Vatke is dropped and, it has been argued (wrongly in my judgment), that Wellhausen was free of his Hegelian past. However, the essential lines of Vatke’s synthesis are preserved. The anti-Judaic spirit is, if anything, stronger. Wellhausen disguises his philosophical presuppositions by arriving at his history of Israelite religion by first dating corpora of Biblical literature, then arranging them in sequence, and lo and behold coming out with Vatke’s conclusions, by and large. Wellhausen can argue, no doubt sincerely, that his synthesis is based on scientific literary criticism. The difficulty is that Wellhausen’s method is circular: Biblical literary material, the law codes, etc. are dated by clues that presume Vatke and Wellhausen’s reconstruction of Israelite history. It is little surprising that when they are arranged in sequence they prove Wellhausen’s presuppositions. Vatke had no extra-Biblical controls to break the viciousness of the literary-critical circle. Wellhausen had few. The archaeological revolution was still in the future.

Strangely, a nostalgic school of Neo-Wellhausenists has sprung up despite our new knowledge, and a number of leading scholars, especially in Europe, fall under this rubric. So we are not beating a dead horse in refuting their views. The German heritage of academic idealism (compounded with Romanticism) is pervasive and is useful in Christian apologetics and homiletics. Marvelous to say, it has even penetrated into Israeli Biblical scholarship despite its antinomian and latently anti-Semitic thrust.

I do not propose to stop here to give a detailed critique of the Wellhausenist synthesis. Rather I turn to the constructive task of composing a history of Israelite religion. There has been a cascade of new, extra-Biblical resources that give us new aids and insights and controls, and indeed require that we go back to the Biblical sources and reexamine old work based on Biblical literature alone. Out of the richness of the new data, I believe that a new, provisional synthesis can emerge—in any case, extraordinary progress can be made.

The religion of Israel was born the child of ancient Near Eastern religion, and especially the religious culture of ancient Canaan. Ivan Engnell wrote in 1945 “the first prerequisite for understanding Old Testament religion is to understand Canaanite religion correctly.”1 Engnell overstates, but his point is well taken.

We wish first of all to understand the emergence of Israelite religion from its context and to follow its early development. Israel does not leap full-formed into history like Athena from the head of Zeus. The study of origins is always difficult but has a unique fascination. The possibility of such a study in concrete detail is recent. Little more than a century ago, the Hebrew Bible was an isolated artifact of Near Eastern civilization, a monument of faith without known context or ancestry. Historical questions of “origins” or “emergence” could not be answered satisfactorily and indeed were rarely addressed. Today, thanks to the archaeological exploration of Israel and neighboring lands, the history of Israel has become part of the history of the ancient Near Eastern world. Israel’s ancient literature can be viewed increasingly as evolving out of the genres of kindred literatures. We possess Northwest Semitic epic literature from a century or so before Moses. The religion of Israel can now be described in its continuities with, and in its contrasts with, contemporary Near Eastern and especially West Semitic mythology and cult.

Two dynamic societies, Israel and Greece, rose from the ruins of the ancient Near Eastern world. The first societies of the ancient Near East blossomed and grew old and moribund in the course of the third and second millennia B.C.E. The cataclysms that began about 1200 B.C.E. were symptoms of the end of essentially static and hierarchical societies. Israel as a nation was born in an era of extraordinary chaos and social turmoil. Egypt’s empire had collapsed and the Hittite kingdom had fallen, the Middle Assyrian Empire was in decline and invasions brought the destruction of the great Canaanite city-states of Syria and Palestine, most notably at the hand of Greek Sea Peoples (which included the Philistines).

The great powers did not die overnight. Nepotistic and nostalgic successors to the old states—the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Neo-Babylonian Empire and its Persian successor—survived to oppress Israel and to threaten Greece. In any case, these frozen and elitist societies of the ancient world gave way to new dynamic, literate and “historical” societies that reached their pinnacle in Israel and Greece: Israel with its prophetic critique of state and clergy, Greece with its gift of logic and skepticism.
We are interested in the emergence of certain characteristic features of Israelite religion: (1) the shift from pure myth, stories of the gods, the central focus of Canaanite religion and cult, to the centrality of epic memory in Israelite religion; (2) the shift from hierarchical notions of equity to Israelite conceptions of justice as redemptive; and (3) the change from sacral or divine conceptions of state and church, king and priest, to the desacralizing of state and the critical, provisional view of temple and priesthood.

In sum we are interested in tracing the progressive secularization of religion in ancient Israel.2



1. Ivan Engnell, A Rigid Scrutiny: Critical Essays on the Old Testament, trans. and ed., John T. Willis, with the collaboration of Helmer Ringgren (Nashville: Vanderbilt Univ. Press, 1969), p. 35.

2. This article has been adapted from my paper, “Introduction to the Study of the History of the Religion of Israel,” in John Kaltner and Louis Stulman, eds., Inspired Speech: Prophecy in the Ancient near East, Essays in Honour of Herbert B. Huffmon (JSOT SS 378 London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), pp. 8–11. It is published here with the permission of the editors and T&T Clark.

The History of Israelite Religion” by Frank Moore Cross originally appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, May/Jun 2005, 42-45.

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