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Review of Wellhausen and Kaufmann

Aly Elrefaei. Wellhausen and Kaufmann: Ancient Israel and its Religious History in the Works of Julius Wellhausen and Yehezkel Kaufmann. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 490. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2016. xiv + 304 pp.,  €99.95, hardcover.



In this slightly revised edition of his PhD dissertation submitted to the University of Göttingen, Aly Elrefaei presents an insightful and eminently approachable analysis and comparison of two of the most important biblical scholars of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Julius Wellhausen and Yehezkel Kaufmann.


The book begins with a short introduction in which Elrefaei lays out the structure and significance of his argument. One of strengths of Elrefaei’s aim is to present Wellhausen and Kaufmann independently so as to address their individual claims and approaches on their own terms before comparing them side-by-side. Furthermore, Elrefaei is emphatic in his aim to reserve judgment on the claims he investigates.


After this short introduction the volume is divided quite naturally into three distinct parts. In Part One, Elrefaei describes Wellhausen’s reconstruction of the history of Israel. In this section, the author operates with the understanding that Wellhausen “moved from a criticism of the sources, mapping out different stages of religious development in Israel, to a historical synthesis on the history of Israel and Judah” (p. 10). Part One is rather short, perhaps because of the relative familiarity that current scholars have of Wellhausen’s work. However, Wellhausen’s scholarship does receive less discussion than Kaufmann’s.


In Part Two, the author describes Kaufmann’s interpretation of ancient Israel. In this study, Elrefaei moves from Kaufmann’s literary criticism, to his phenomenology, and ends with his sketch of the early history of ancient Israel. Because Kaufmann’s scholarship is less known than Wellhausen’s, Elrefaei helpfully ends Part Two with a discussion of Kaufmann’s historical setting and scholarly influences. These foundations, Elrefaei demonstrates, have a profound impact on the way that Kaufmann understands paganism, popular religion, and the role of Israel’s prophets.


And in Part Three, Elrefaei compares and contrasts the respective views of Wellhausen and Kaufann. In terms of agreement, it is significant to note that both of these scholars accepted the historical-critical method and both believed that the biblical text was the main source for reconstruction Israel’s history, but they nonetheless arrived at different conclusions on many basic details. According to the author, the three main points of disagreement between Wellhausen and Kaufmann are religious history, the nature of pre-monarchical Israel, and the trustworthiness of the biblical text. In terms of religious history, Elrefaei strongly supports his conclusion that Kaufmann believed that the Israelite religion was born fully fledged under the leadership of Moses, Wellhausen understood the development of Israelite religion in evolutionary terms. Secondly, with regard to pre-monarchial Israel, Wellhausen strongly emphasized the role of the prophets in developing the religion of Israel whereas Kaufmann placed this power of influence and creation upon the shoulders of Moses, believing that Israel’s religion remained largely unchanged. Thirdly, Elrefaei rightly recognizes that a major distinction between Kaufmann and Wellhausen is their distinct views of the biblical text. Both believed that the biblical text is the main source for reconstructing the history of Israel, but they were greatly divided as to how trustworthy the biblical text is. In practice, Kaufmann’s Jewish roots were instrumental in his strong faith in the reliability of the biblical text.


One of Elrefaei’s main objectives in this volume is to remind biblical scholarship of its roots. And although Elrefaei recognizes that no biblical scholar would adopt Wellhausen’s or Kaufmann’s theories without modification, he recognizes the importance of remembering the heritage of modern critical scholarship of the Old Testament (p. 7). Elrefaei lucidly concludes his book with the following words, “We should clearly see that future scholarship needs to understand the foundation on which it is building or the ideas it is rejecting and must examine earlier, classical masterpieces to do so. I am convinced that instead of a complete denial of Wellhausen and Kaufmann’s reconstruction, we should look for what can be learned from the works of these two gifted scholars. For some of the thoughts of Wellhausen and Kaufmann regarding the history of ancient Israel and its religion still surprise us” (p. 274). With these words, Elrefaei hopes to both reserve judgment on these scholars and invite modern scholars to look back at the same time that they look forward.


However, it is always a challenge to reserve judgment when engaging in a project of this type. For this reason it is not surprising to find that Elrefaei favors one of these scholars over the other. Elrefaei has, without a doubt, done a huge service to biblical scholarship, but there are several instances where Elrefaei noticeably discusses critiques that have been offered against Kaufmann, though never offering scholarly critique of Wellhausen. The decision to offer critiques of Kaufmann but not of Wellhausen intimates that Elrefaei is favoring one over the other, but fortunately, such instances are few.


As Reinhard Kratz, Elrefaei’s research supervisor, says in the preface, “The great merit of [this] study is to have retraced and analyzed in detail the works of Wellhausen and Kaufmann with focused attention to the question of ancient Israel’s earliest history, thus making their views on this question accessible to scholars today” (p. viii). Indeed, this is a great strength of this work. Not only is this text eminently readable, it is clear and engaging. Furthermore, because the majority of the quotations have been translated from the German (all Hebrew quotations have been translated) this text is also accessible to younger scholars and students as well. This text, then, would function just as well as text for senior scholars as for an introductory class on biblical studies at the graduate level.


— Stephen D. Campbell, Durham University

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