This volume is one of the first in a new series, Fortress Classics in Biblical Studies. The aim of the series is to make accessible to English audiences some of the important literature that has shaped biblical scholarship. This particular edition contains six essays originally published between 1900 and 1928. The reader should note however that this edition is not simply a republishing of previous English translation essays. The editor, K. C. Hanson, has translated the essays and notes that he has made some changes by moving some citations in the articles to footnotes, deleting some side comments, adding some additional more contemporary notes in square brackets and some biblical citations not in the original manuscripts, and most importantly offering a correction to earlier English translations (p. x).
The book offer slices of Gunkel’s work in biblical interpretation, illustrating the breadth of his work. The first essay tells the reader a great deal about the period in which Gunkel wrote as he defends both the importance of the Old Testament and its study by scholars as crucial for the church. One can hear the arguments of Harnak and others against the use of the Old Testament as a backdrop for Gunkel’s passionate defense. Yet at one and the same time, this essay is one of the most troubling, because several of the statements he makes that while acceptable at the time are now seen in a different light on the other side of World War II, such as “Israelite religion, it is true, is not simply to be identified with Christian religion. Indeed, in numerous details and in its profoundest thoughts Israelite religion is much inferior to it” (p. 13).
The second essay focuses on his presentation of form criticism. This essay is helpful in giving the reader a first hand view of Gunkel’s program. It provides the reader with an understanding of how form criticism grew and the influences that impacted its earliest roots. The next three essays on the Jacob traditions, the Hagar traditions, and the prophets are the exercise of the form critical method. In these chapters, the reader can follow in detail how Gunkel sees the traditions developing and why this complex history, both oral and written, must be considered when studying a text. The final essay covers the religion of the Psalms and presents the traditional categories for the Psalms along with Gunkel’s ideas of how they were used in the cult and in the religious life of individual Israelites. Again this essay gives the reader access to the original ideas that was the beginning of form criticism readings of the Psalms.
The benefit of the volume is that it offers these essays in an accessible format for English readers. Instead of reading about form criticism as it has developed over the past 80 years, the reader can see first hand how Gunkel developed this way to look at scripture and can recognize how closely he sees the forms of both narratives and poetry as directly related to how Israel practiced its religion. In addition the essays allow a reader to see in situ the theological struggles and innovative ideas that were the genesis of present day interpretation. The reader can see for herself how Gunkel addressed the issues of his time, how he engages and writes about the biblical text, and how he is passionate about his work. As a result, the book’s greatest value is in the study of the history of interpretation. It illustrates the world as it was and illustrates clearly the presuppositions of Gunkel’s time that have been debated and changed over the past one hundred years, such as historical context as the innovative and unique form of Israel’s religion; the understanding of myth as a primitive form of religion from which Israel evolved to a more historical and rational understanding; the superiority of Israel’s religion over all other ancient Near Eastern religions and the superiority of Christianity over the Jewish religion; and the concept that all pieces of literature fit into a form and once one determines how that form fits into Israel’s religious life, the clear and only meaning of the text can be discerned.
The book is a valuable to to anyone who desires to understand the historical context and issues from which Gunkel wrote, however as a model for biblical interpretation today, it is sorely out of date and some of its comments are today considered anti-Semitic and painful to read. These essays are to the modern reader what Gunkel spoke of the biblical text, “… the Old Testament contains conceptions that, although they have now been outgrown in the history of ideas, can never be forgotten, because they are necessary in the path of evolution … ” (p. 15).