After Gunkel: Roads Not Taken
Gunkel’s multilayered reading of Genesis displays a methodological pluralism that has largely been abandoned in recent biblical scholarship. After Gunkel, scholars have tended to be methodological monists: one is a historian, another is a source critic, a third is a redaction critic, and so forth. More recently, the degrees of specialization have proliferated: one is a feminist reader-response literary critic; another is a postcolonial Third World theologian. Each inhabits a single method (or a hybrid that functions as one method) and tends to regard other methods with hostility or suspicion.
Adapted from the “Introduction” to Reading Genesis: Ten Methods, ed. Ronald Hendel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
By Ronald Hendel
University of California, Berkeley
The classic treatment of Genesis in modern scholarship is Hermann Gunkel’s commentary on Genesis, whose centennial we commemorate this year (the third and final edition was published in 1910).1 As Ernest Nicholson observed, “The influence of the methods pioneered by Gunkel upon subsequent Old Testament study can scarcely be overestimated.”2 Gunkel combined mastery of the older disciplines of source and textual criticism with a new focus on the history of traditions, comparative religion, folklore, and literary style. In his “Foreword,” he posed two programmatic questions:
How long until Old Testament scholars finally understand what a mighty task literary-historical problems present them, even in the realm of the narratives, and when will the testament of the great Herder finally be executed?3
Gunkel proceeded to unfold the historical and literary dimensions of the Genesis narratives. He showed how they originated in the folklore of Israelite and pre-Israelite cultures, tracing their transformation into larger narrative collections and, ultimately, into the literary documents of Genesis. This is literary history, the diachronic dimension of the stories and texts in their intricate evolution through time.
His evocation of Herder’s “testimony” is a call for a close literary reading of Genesis, which Herder pioneered in The Oldest Document of the Human Race (1774) and The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry (1782).4 Gunkel devoted a major section of his “Introduction” to “the artistic form of the legends of Genesis” (Kunstform der Sagen der Genesis), including issues such as prose style, genre, literary structure, character, description, speeches, motifs, keywords (Stichwörter), and other wordplay. Gunkel describes this literary task in Herderian terms: “[O]ne who wants to do justice to such old accounts must have sufficient aesthetic sensibility to hear an account as it is and as it wants to be.”5 This requires empathy (what Herder called Einfühlung; literally, “feeling into”) and sensibility to literary nuance. Gunkel embraced this literary task throughout his commentary, and he treated the variety of dimensions of Genesis – historical, folkloric, religious, and literary – with erudition and brilliance.
Gunkel’s multilayered reading of Genesis displays a methodological pluralism that has largely been abandoned in recent biblical scholarship. After Gunkel, scholars have tended to be methodological monists: one is a historian, another is a source critic, a third is a redaction critic, and so forth. More recently, the degrees of specialization have proliferated: one is a feminist reader-response literary critic; another is a postcolonial Third World theologian. Each inhabits a single method (or a hybrid that functions as one method) and tends to regard other methods with hostility or suspicion. Other scholars’ methods are – in various measure – heretical, hegemonic, or narcissistic. There is a crisis of confidence in the field today – a fractured sectarianism – in which the terms of discourse are in constant contention. As John Barton describes the current tension: “A great rift has opened … [with] each party on the whole regarding the other as largely worthless.”6
Usually, the lines of fracture are drawn up as “history versus literature” or “diachronic versus synchronic”; sometimes the counterclaim is “objective versus subjective” or “empirical versus politically engaged.” Each opposition, however, is overdrawn and based largely on portraying the other as a straw man or caricature. It is salutary to note that every intellectually responsible reading of Genesis relies on knowledge of an ancient language (i.e., biblical Hebrew, with a smattering of Aramaic, and – it is hoped – some Greek) and an awareness of ancient literary and cultural conventions. This is historical knowledge, and any historical reconstruction – of sources, redaction, or texts – that does not attend to the nuances of the literary text is merely incompetent. Reading the Bible is a multifarious task such that there are – to use Frank Kermode’s term – many “forms of attention” appropriate for reading it.7
There are partisans on both sides of the battle lines of history versus literature and the related binary oppositions in the study of Genesis. Rather than posing simplistic oppositions, we should imagine and practice an interweaving dialectic. We should acknowledge that the task of richly reading Genesis involves both sides of each of these contrasts: history and literature, synchrony and diachrony, empirical data and ideology. The notion that one can read an ancient text without attention to its historicity or that one can reconstruct history without attention to the literary constituency of the text is equally symptomatic of sectarian illusions. As Wittgenstein says in another context, such “problems arise when language goes on holiday.”8 We readily grant that Genesis is an ancient book – a discourse from the past – which necessarily entails the intertwining of history and literature.
An intelligent reading of any ancient literary text involves multiple skills and sensibilities. If we resist the seduction of sectarian rhetoric, it is easy to see that methodological pluralism – as exemplified by Gunkel’s classic commentary – has virtues that offer a model for the present. Reading Genesis: Ten Methods resumes “the road not taken” by pursuing the path of multiple and complementary methods, which diverge and converge in illuminating ways. This is not a lazy eclecticism but rather a methodological pluralism that befits the complex phenomenon that is the focus of our investigation: the task of reading Genesis in – and for – the modern age.
1 Hermann Gunkel, Genesis übersetzt und erklärt (HKAT; 3rd ed.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1910).
2 Ernest W. Nicholson, “Foreword: Hermann Gunkel as a Pioneer of Modern Old Testament Study,” in Hermann Gunkel, Genesis (trans. Mark E. Biddle; Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997), 9.
3 Gunkel, Genesis, v.
4 See Christoph Bultmann, “Creation at the Beginning of History: Johann Gottfried Herder’s Interpretation of Genesis 1,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 68 (1995), 23–32. See also the excerpt from The Oldest Document of the Human Race, in J. G. Herder, Against Pure Reason: Writings on Religion, Language, and History, ed. Marcia Bunge (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992) 107–10; idem, The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry 2 vols.; Burlington, VT: Edward Smith, 1833).
5 Gunkel, Genesis, xi.
6 John Barton, The Nature of Biblical Criticism (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 187.
7 Frank Kermode, Forms of Attention (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).
8 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 19.