McKim - Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters

Donald K. McKim - Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters

Donald K. McKim - Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters

Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2007
USA ISBN 978-0-8308-2927-9
UK ISBN 978-1-84474-194-6
The Christian church has been interpreting its Scriptures since its earliest days. Within the pages of the New Testament we find Jesus interpreting Moses and the prophets, and opening the Scriptures to the travelers on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:27, 32). In Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, who was reading from the prophet Isaiah, he posed a basic question: Do you understand what you are reading (Acts 8:30)? As the New Testament church grew and Christianity expanded into different lands, the task of interpreting sacred texts was constantly present and pressing.
Gradually, the canons of the Old and New Testaments were formed. The church began to look to a collection of biblical books as its source for gaining a knowledge of God. So the work of interpreting the Scriptures took on major importance. For the church to grow in its theological understandings as well as in its mission and ministries, its canonical Scriptures must be understood. The biblical materials needed to be comprehended by contemporary persons and by successive generations. While the church believed it was being led by the Holy Spirit, it is the Spirit acting in conjunction with the Word of God in the Scriptures that brings new knowledge and wisdom for the people of God.
Through the centuries the church’s biblical scholars and theologians have interpreted the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. This work has been carried out in formal ways by those who have been trained for this task. Yet the Christian Scriptures are also interpreted by persons who read the Bible and comprehend its meaning without having formal training and within the contexts of their own lives and circumstances. The practice of biblical exegesis takes place at a host of levels by a wide array of people. Indeed, whenever anyone reads the Bible and explicates its meaning, biblical interpretation is taking place.
The present volume focuses on the work of many of the most significant biblical interpreters through the last two thousand years. It brings together scholarly essays that show the methods, practices and interpretive stances adopted by a number of the church’s most important biblical scholars. These writers, from the early church to the present, are leading biblical interpreters by virtue of their particular approaches; the importance of their insights or their development of theological perspectives is rooted in their interpretations of Scripture. Some who are included have pioneered distinctive viewpoints. Others have engaged in thorough expositions of Scripture over a long period of time. Still others have made particular advances in some aspect that shapes the interpretive process. While their contributions have varied, all who are included have made important advances to our overall understandings of the Old and New Testament Scriptures.
The biblical interpreters in this volume have been significant. But they are not the only interpreters who could or should be included in a book of this kind. The size limits of this work have made it impossible to include a longer list of interpreters. Perhaps a companion volume can some day be produced. It is also fair to ask whether or not many other important biblical interpreters have been omitted or whether some who are left out could replace some who are included. To this the only reply is that those included are there by virtue of my own considered judgment, in consultation with others. But I bear responsibility for the list. I would not claim that it is exhaustive or by any standard to be a full list of the very most important biblical scholars. I would simply suggest that those studied here are important; I recognize that a strong case can be made that others, who are not surveyed here, could or should be included. This is an attempt to produce a work that will give a unique perspective on biblical interpretation during the last two millennia by studying approximately one hundred major biblical interpreters.
* * *
KUENEN, ABRAHAM (1828-1891)
Abraham Kuenen was one of the most important critical Old Testament scholars of the nineteenth century. An exponent of Dutch theological modernism, he wrote critical studies of the Pentateuch, prophecy and the religion of ancient Israel that contributed significantly to the emergence of the so-called Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis. However, because Julius *Wellhausen came to dominate the scene, and because many of Kuenen’s most important articles were accessible only in Dutch, his importance was hardly appreciated in Britain and almost not at all in North America.
Life and Context. Kuenen was born on September 16, 1828, in Haarlem, and entered the University of Leiden in 1846 as a student of divinity where he studied under J. H. Scholten, one of the founders of Dutch modernism. This movement, which began to take effect around 1850, attempted to reform Christianity by interpreting the Bible without regard to the doctrines of Dutch Calvinism. Modernism understood the principle of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) to entail that the Old Testament should be interpreted in the light of its own history and circumstances, not as an appendage to the New Testament or a quarry of proof texts that supported theological doctrines.
Kuenen completed his studies with the award of a doctorate in 1851 on part of the Arabic version of the Samaritan Pentateuch of Genesis. In December 1852 he became an associate professor in the faculty of divinity and in 1855 a full (extraordinary) professor. For historical reasons his chair was that of New Testament and the history of the books of the Old Testament, a title that was not changed to Old Testament exegesis until 1877, by which time he had already produced significant works of Old Testament criticism. In 1887 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Edinburgh. He remained in Leiden until his death on December 10, 1891.
Interpretive Principles
Keunen’s version of modernism committed him to the critical study of the Old Testament texts with a view to establishing and reconstructing the history that they implied and that had been responsible for their composition. This approach was avowedly antisupernaturalistic. God had achieved his purposes through the natural processes of history, and there was no need to resort to theories of divine supernatural intervention in the world. Although Kuenen accepted the possibility of the miraculous, he did not think that, in practice, the miracles described in the Bible had happened. This approach did not intend to undermine Christian faith but aimed to make faith possible in a world that was becoming increasingly aware of scientific knowledge and technological progress. It demanded the free and unfettered critical study of the Bible.
Kuenen’s first major work was the Historisch-kritisch onderzoek, which appeared from 1861 to 1865. The first volume came to the attention of the Anglican missionary bishop to the Zulus in South Africa, J. W. Colenso, who began an extensive correspondence with Kuenen that lasted until 1878 and led to Colenso publishing a substantial part of volume 1 in his English translation under the title The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined (1865). Kuenen followed the broadly critical consensus that had emerged by 1860 that held that the Pentateuch consisted of four main sources: a Grundschrift (basic source, later known as P or the priestly source); a younger source using, like the Grundschrift, the divine name Elohim; a Yahwist source using the divine name YHWH; and Deuteronomy. Of these, the Grundschrift was the earliest and contained some material dating to the time of Moses, while the youngest was Deuteronomy, dated to the seventh century. However, Kuenen added a reservation that would become significant in the development of the so-called Grafian hypothesis. He felt uneasy about the view that all the laws of the Grundschrift were earlier than Deuteronomy and was prepared to accept that some were later. There had been a process of supplementation of the priestly laws over a considerable period of time. This view was challenged by Colenso, who persuaded Kuenen that all the laws of the Grundschrift were written around the same time in the exilic or postexilic period and that the historical narratives of the Grundschrift were similarly exilic or postexilic, although Colenso did not go this far. The late dating of the whole of the Grundschrift had radical implications for the historicity of the traditions about Moses and the beginnings of Israelite religion and was the corner-stone of the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis. It was Kuenen who proposed privately to Graf that the whole of the Grundschrift, its narratives and its laws, was exilic or postexilic, a view that Graf then published in 1869 without acknowledging Kuenen’s contribution.
Colenso’s English translation of the first part of Kuenen’s Historisch-kritisch onderzoek made little impression in Britain. Colenso had earned the wrath of the establishment in England on account of his radical treatment of the story of the exodus, and in any case, Britain was not ready to accept even the comparably moderate critical position that Kuenen held at this time, before he became convinced of the late dating of the Grundschrift.
Someone who did pay attention to Kuenen was William Robertson *Smith, who, in 1870, had been appointed at the age of twenty-three to the chair of Old Testament at the Free Church of Scotland College in Aberdeen. In 1870 Smith published an extensive review that included Kuenen’s work on prophecy, as presented in the second volume of Kuenen’s Historisch-kritisch onderzoek of 1863 and the first part of his De godsdienst van Israël of 1869. This latter volume’s account of the religion of ancient Israel began with the eighth-century prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah of Jerusalem, whom Kuenen took to be the founders of Israelite monotheism.
Smith took particular exception to Kuenen’s understanding of prophecy and its history. According to Kuenen, Israelite prophecy had been founded by Samuel, who combined belief in Israel’s national God with Canaanite ecstatic prophecy. During the reign of Ahab in the ninth century, the prophets had opposed the attempt to introduce the worship of Baal and had supported the revolution of Jehu. The outcome was, however, that the Syrian king, Hazael, oppressed Israel, from which the prophets concluded not that their God was weak, but that he was angry. The prophets were thus able to conclude that God transcended purely national interests; and this was the heritage that inspired the eighth-century prophets. This approach typified the antisupernaturalistic modernism of Kuenen, which sought a naturalistic explanation for the phenomenon of prophecy and therefore for the religion of Israel. Smith’s objection was that Kuenen’s approach could not explain why other nations, contemporary with Israel, and with higher cultural achievements, had not similarly produced prophets who proclaimed ethical monotheism. Israel’s uniqueness in this regard could only be of divine origin.
This unpromising beginning in the relationship between Kuenen and Smith was transformed around 1880 when Smith was accused of heresy on account of articles in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Smith was held to be propagating Kuenen’s views, and Kuenen came to Smith’s rescue by declaring that Smith was not obliged to him in any way and that their views differed on important matters. This was a powerful testimony to Kuenen’s fair-mindedness and initiated a regular correspondence between the two men.
From 1867 Kuenen played a leading part on the production of the Theologisch Tijdschrift, to which he contributed two series of articles. The first, from 1867 to 1876, dealt with issues connected with his work on ancient Israelite religion; the second, from 1877 to 1884, tackled issues arising from the criticism of the Pentateuch and Joshua. These articles contained his most important and original work and remain untranslated. However, their results, embodied in his books De godsdienst van Israël (1869-1870) and the second, completely revised edition of his Historisch-critisch onderzoek (1887-1893 with different spelling of the title) were translated into English in 1877 and 1886. Their main impact was felt in Unitarian circles, and in 1882 Kuenen was invited to deliver the Hibberd Lectures (a Unitarian foundation), which he published in 1882 under the title National Religions and Universal Religions. In these he attempted to show that national ideas of religion had been superseded by universal ideas, in Islam and Buddhism, as well as in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that in each case a “charismatic” personality had been decisive in the transformation. The lectures were judged, on the whole, to have fallen short of Kuenen’s best work.
Dutch modernism and Kuenen’s critical scholarship did not go unchallenged in the Netherlands (see especially De Vries 1989) and probably the most serious scholarly challenge to Kuenen came from a later holder of the Leiden chair, B. D. Eerdmans (1898-1938). He appealed to the new disciplines of archaeology, history of religions and form criticism in his attempt to overthrow the documentary theory and its implications. However, his reconstructions, which found many traces of polytheism in the Old Testament, failed to win support among Old Testament scholars.
Kuenen has been described as the senior to junior pioneers of critical scholarship, such as Wellhausen and Robertson Smith. His studies prepared the ground for and substantially anticipated their syntheses. His critical studies still raise questions that must be considered in any attempt to do justice to the Old Testament.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Works. “Critical Method,” Modern Review 2 (1880) 461-88; Historisch-kritisch onderzeok naar het ontstaan en de verzameling van de boeken des ouden verbonds (3 vols.; Leiden: P. Engels, 1861-1865), ET of part of vol. 1, The Pentateuch and Joshua Critically Examined, trans. and with notes by J. W. Colenso (London: Longmans, Green, 1865); De godsdienst van Israël tot den ondergang van den joodschen staat (Haarlem: A. C. Kruseman, 1869-1870), ET The Religion of Israel to the Fall of the Jewish State, trans. A. H. May (3 vols.; London: Williams and Norgate, 1874-1875); De profeten en de profetie onder Israël (Leiden: P. Engels, 1875), ET The Prophets and Prophecy in Israel: A Historical and Critical Enquiry, trans. A. Milroy (London: Longmans, Green, 1877; reprint, Amsterdam: Philo, 1969); National Religions and Universal Religions (Hibbert Lectures; London: Williams and Norgate, 1882); Historisch-critisch onderzoek naar het ontstaan en de verzameling van de boeken des ouden verbonds (3 vols.; Leiden: P. Engels, 1887-1893), ET of vol. 1, A Historico-Critical Enquiry into the Origin and Composition of the Hexateuch, trans. P. H. Wicksteed (London: Macmillan, 1886 [sic]).
Studies. P. B. Dirksen and A. van der Kooij, eds., Abraham Kuenen (1828-1891): His Major Contributions to the Study of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993); A. Kamphausen, “Abraham Kuenen,” Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche, ed. A. Hauck (1902) 11:162-70; H. Oort, “Kuenen als godgeleerde,” De Gids 3 (1892) 509-65; J. Rogerson, Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century: England and Germany (London: SPCK, 1984); C. H. Toy, “Abraham Kuenen,” The New World 1 (1892) 64-88; S. J. De Vries, “The Hexateuchal Criticism of Abraham Keunen,” JBL 82 (1963) 51-57; idem, “Kuenen, Abraham (1828-1891),” DBI, 2:38-39; Bible and Theology in the Netherlands (2d ed.; New York, Peter Lang, 1989); P. H. Wicksteed, “Abraham Kuenen,” JQR 4 (1892) 471-89, Kuenen’s bibliography 571-605.
J. W. Rogerson


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