This past week I read A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism by Mark S. Gignilliat. I thought the book was an excellent introduction and overview of some of the towering figures in Old Testament scholarship. But one of the things that I found especially interesting was learning about the personal lives of these men. For two of these men their scholarship was interrupted by a stint of military service. We sometimes forget when we are discussing the views of this or that scholar that they lived actual lives and it wasn’t always pretty. Here, for example, is a story concerning Gerhard Von Rad (1901 – 1971).
“In the summer of 1944, von Rad was forced into military service. During his short stint in military service, von Rad wrote his family: ‘I can only fall back on the very simple resignation of Paul Gerhardt’s hymn, ‘I have put my heart and mind in the heart and mind of God.’ For, after all, that is unshakeable. Of course I don’t mean to say that I am not continually plagued by a great despair.’ Then in March of 1945, just a little over a month before the end of the European front of the war, von Rad was taken prisoner of war by the Americans at Bad Kreusnach. He remained a prisoner of war until the end of June but suffered the effects of malnutrition for years. Von Rad’s days as a prisoner of war were a time of extreme difficulty. He described the situation in terms of a God-forsakenness of biblical proportions. Even in these dire straits, von Rad remained the teacher, lecturing to the prisoners on the book of Genesis. He also remained the minister as he encouraged young theologians in their faith, preached to the prisoners, and administered the sacraments.” (108-9)
And then we have this regarding William Foxwell Albright (1891 – 1971):
“To add insult to injury, Albright was drafted into military service in 1918, toward the end of World War I. Albright was so worn down when he arrived at Camp Syracuse in New York that he fainted during his physical examination. These six months of service as a clerk and potato peeler proved difficult and important in William’s life. He had time for free thought and critical reflection on the bewildering amount of data in his first-class mind. More than this, Albright had time to reflect on spiritual matters. Ever referring to God’s providence in his life, Albright wrestled with his faith, higher-critical approaches to the Bible, and his frustration with the narrow dogmatism of his father. He found the people surrounding him did not need the ideas of higher criticism. Albright wrote, ‘The men needed only the simple faith of the Nazarene, as everyone did. Albright was struggling after truth. He was also gaining physical strength and improving his health during this period. Though difficult, this season in the army was a good interruption in the young scholar’s life.” (127)
Two brilliant scholars, two horrific wars. They survived, many didn’t. We immediately think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a casualty of war though not as a soldier. One of the things Gignilliat’s book did for me was to put flesh and bones on people who were before merely names of a page and figure heads of certain theories of Old Testament criticism. He says in the Introduction that he does “not want to make villains of the usual suspects in this volume. In fact, the reader may sense my deep sympathies for the intellectual and spiritual difficulties faced by some of these figures.” (14) On that point I think he succeeds and admirably so. I really enjoyed this book and think it is a good survey of some of the key players in Old Testament scholarship. Gignilliat is well aware of the limitations of a book like this and cautiously frames the reader’s expectations early on. For beginning Old Testament students this will be a great resource. Gignilliat provides resources for further reading at the end of each chapter for students who want to dig a little deeper.