Norman Gottwald is one of North America’s leading biblical scholars, and he has just published a comprehensive introduction to the Hebrew Bible that will soon make his name known to a very wide audience. It is titled The Hebrew Bible—A Socio-Literary Introduction.1
Gottwald is associated with a sociological approach to the study of ancient Israel. That is, he works from the conviction that the institutions and beliefs of a group of people cannot be understood apart from the social context in which the people live. The ideas expressed in the Hebrew Bible, therefore, must be studied in light of an analysis of the social conditions out of which they emerged.
At first glance, this viewpoint may seem commonplace. Modern critical scholarship has always operated from the assumption that the biblical writings must be understood in their original historical context. But for Gottwald, and others like him, the social context is more than what is conventionally meant by the historical context. It includes not only the political situation of the time, but also the full range of factors that affect the life of a people. By “a people,” moreover, is meant not only the leading figures of the day—those whose names are found in our histories—but the full range of the population, including aristocrats, commoners and slaves.