“Historical & Biblical Israel” by Reinhard G. Kratz

9780198728771Reinhard G. Kratz, Historical & Biblical Israel: The History Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah. Translated by Paul Michael Kurtz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 288, $99.00.

Ideas regarding the historical and biblical Israel in 20th and 21st centuries re-framed how Hebrew scholarship engages with issues surrounding those topics. Following these categorical distinctions, Reinhard G. Kratz explores how, through historical and sociological conditions, the Hebrew Bible became an authoritative tradition. His work is divided into three sections, each of which can be read independently: the history of ancient Israel and Judah, the biblical tradition, and Jewish archives. Throughout the work, Kratz focuses on how various categories, like biblical tradition, non-biblical tradition, biblical literature, para-biblical literature, etc., intersect and interact in order to paint a picture of how the Hebrew Bible became an authoritative tradition.

Part A first reviews the history of ancient Israel from its advent up to the Bar Kokhba Revolt and tops it off with  brief overview of ancient Israel’s religious history. Part B explores the transition and transformation of history into what is now biblical tradition. Kratz argues that the para-biblical literature through the 2nd Temple Period was rooted in biblical tradition and demonstrates “astounding coherence, even uniformity, of common literary and theological benchmarks”; therefore, para-biblical literature, in fact, endows biblical tradition with authority. Part C concludes with an examination of Jewish archives (i.e. Qumran and Elephantine) and how historical and biblical Israel, and biblical and non-biblical Judaism relate to each other.

Overall, Kratz offers a wonderfully nuanced introduction to historical and biblical Israel which does well in distinguishing between Jewish archives, biblical tradition, and historical Israel. By Part C it becomes clear how the dynamics between “biblical tradition” and “historical Israel” are far more convoluted than generally assumed. Although it can be difficult to follow in some moments, the framework in which he interprets their relationship is important and has potential to shape how biblical tradition and historical Israel are understood together. Of course, with extensive work on this topic (four pages of bibliographical references with his name), this is no surprise.

One of the great strengths of his work is his careful notation of terminology in the introduction. With a text like the Hebrew Bible, we are guaranteed to always be in the presence of biblical tradition; thus, his concise terminology for terms apocrypha/Pseudepigrapha (para-biblical literature), the Hebrew Bible (biblical literature, etc. are helpful for future studies. These are not new distinctions; however, the manners in which Kratz applies these terms provide a deep understanding of how each term may be used in subsequent studies on biblical traditions.

Kratz’s emphasis on relationship between para-biblical literature and biblical literature is also wonderful. Rather than placing one literary traditions over the others, in his usage of para-biblical, it is considered “no more or less “biblical” than biblical literature”. Essentially, Kratz draws attention to the tradition, albeit revised or reinterpreted, as the authoritative thing, not the literary text itself.

On a more critical note, at moments the distinction between “political” and “religious” was far too much. A more accurate depiction of how the biblical tradition became authoritative should have taken into account the the relationship between political and religious. For example, Kratz notes that the transition to the monarchy was “motivated first and foremost by geopolitical, demographic, and military – much less ethnic and religious – concerns” (18). More discussion surrounding how these two topics intersect, namely religious and political, would strengthen his arguments significantly.

Even so, this book is commendable. Kratz approaches an extremely complex topic of tradition and grapples with it, providing an adequate response as to how we may understand its development. Fortunately, in addition to the timeline and glossary, this work does not need to be read in one sitting; rather, it is written so that Part A, B, or C can be read independently.  Consequently the book is accessible to more people. It is, at moments, dense and quite complex, yet still worth the read. I recommend this book for people, especially undergraduate students, seeking to grasp how the biblical tradition became authoritative.

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

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