The German theologian Gerhard von Rad (1901-1971) developed the "tradition history" approach to the Old Testament that has dominated the study of the Bible for nearly 40 years.
Gerhard von Rad was born to a patrician medical family in Nürnberg on October 21, 1901. After studying theology at Erlangen and Tübingen, he served briefly as a pastor in a Bavarian church before preparing himself to teach Old Testament. On completing a dissertation on Das Gottesvolk im Deuteronomium (The People of God in Deuteronomy), he took a teaching position at Erlangen. Here he wrote Das Geschichtsbild des Chronistischen Werkes (The Concept of History in the Work of the Chronicler) and studied Semitics with Albrecht Alt at Leipzig. In 1930 von Rad moved to Leipzig, where he taught until 1934. During these years he gained competence in archaeology and wrote several important essays, the main one of which dealt with the priestly writing in the Hexateuch, the first six books of the Bible. In 1934 von Rad moved to Jena, where he had few students but considerable time for research. Here he wrote his epoch-making study of the form-critical problem of the Hexateuch and an exquisite literary study of the beginnings of historiography in ancient Israel, as well as such popular books as Moses and The Old Testament—God's Word for the Germans! At Jena von Rad began his commentary on Genesis, but World War II delayed its appearance.
In the summer of 1944 he was inducted into military service, assuming some responsibility for housing soldiers in barracks until becoming a prisoner of war in mid-March of 1945. From then until the end of June he remained in the camp at Bad Kreusnach, where he endured much hardship. After his release, he taught briefly at Bethel, Bonn, Erlangen, and Göttingen before moving to Heidelberg in 1949. From then until his retirement in 1967 he remained at Heidelberg except for temporary visits abroad. During these years he published his influential theology of the Old Testament in two volumes and his analysis of Israelite wisdom (Weisheit in Israel), as well as two brief monographs of great value: Der heilige Krieg im alten Israel (Holy War in Ancient Israel) and Das Opfer des Abraham (The Sacrifice of Abraham).
Von Rad died on October 31, 1971. He had received honorary degrees from the Universities of Leipzig, Glasgow, Lund, Wales, and Utrecht. Moreover, he had been elected to membership in the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and he was the first Protestant after Adolph Harnack to be named to the Order pour le merité for science and art. Von Rad's colleagues held him in such esteem that they contributed essays to two Festschriften (a collection of tributes by colleagues) and to a memorial volume, Gerhard von Rad: Seine Bedeutung für die Theologie (Gerhard von Rad: His Significance for Theology).
Reflecting on his career as an interpreter of Scripture, von Rad described himself as a historical "monoman" and emphasized his wish to overcome the atomism of research that was dominant when he entered the discipline. These two ideas imply that he sought to apply the category of Heilsgeschichte (salvation history) to the Hebrew Bible and that he endeavored to link the different biblical traditions in a coherent manner. The book of Deuteronomy provided the norm for virtually every discussion; von Rad actually published three books about this central text, which he believed represented early northern traditions arising among levitical priests, traditions that were later presented in the form of a sermon placed in the mouth of Moses and used in connection with King Josiah's reform in 621 B.C.
According to von Rad, the Hexateuch grew out of liturgical recitations (little credos) that the people spoke in connection with the festival of Weeks at Gilgal. The original credos consisted of Joshua 24:2-13 and Deuteronomy 6:20-24 and 26:5-9. These confessions of faith allude to the essential traditions comprising Genesis through Joshua (patriarchs, exodus, wilderness wandering, conquest), with two glaring omissions (Sinai and the primeval history, Genesis 1-12). Von Rad argued that the Sinai narrative about Moses' receipt of the law was a separate tradition from the four complexes in the Hexateuch and that the author known to scholars as the Yahwist wrote the primeval history as a preface to the story about divine promise and its fulfillment, the settlement in Canaan by the people of God.
Von Rad's thesis depended on an understanding of ancient Israelite life prior to a Solomonic "enlightenment" as entirely sacral. Furthermore, the proposed origin of the Hexateuch assumed that the Bible arose out of the actual practice of worship. Generation after generation adapted earlier liturgical traditions to new historical circumstances, dropping some emphases and introducing new ones. Von Rad devoted his efforts to charting the course of living traditions. In his view, Old Testament theology derived its categories from ancient Israelite confessional statements rather than from modern systematic thought. Therefore, he described several theologies, those of the main sources of the Hexateuch (the Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly writer), as well as those represented by the prophetic traditions and wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and Wisdom of Solomon).
Naturally, this mode of presenting a theology of the Old Testament raised the issue of unity, for the diversity in viewpoint came into focus at every point. Von Rad believed in the unity of the Bible, which he described under the categories of promise and fulfillment. In his view, Israel's God promised land, progeny, and blessing—promises that were constantly being fulfilled. The result was eschatology, a looking to the future for the full measure of divine promise. Such an approach was related to the typology of early church Fathers, but von Rad insisted that the Old Testament contained both promise and fulfillment.
When he turned to the wisdom literature, von Rad discovered that tradition history was not all that useful as an interpretive device. This new interest prompted him to acknowledge that too much emphasis had been put on history, for in wisdom literature the deity's action was identified with creation and humans went on the initiative against God in such works as Job and Ecclesiastes. His last three published works concentrated on the silence of God (the doxology of judgment, Israelite wisdom, the sacrifice of Abraham in Genesis 22). One dimension of his work, the exposition of the Bible in sermons, proved that the most exhaustive study of the Scriptures need not diminish religious commitment to the power of the word.
Von Rad's views were highly controversial, evoking considerable heat. Many of his theories have not stood the test of time, but it would be difficult to find another person who has contributed so much to the understanding of the Old Testament. It may be that in truth he wrote a history of Israelite religion rather than an Old Testament theology, but he insisted that the Hebrew Bible be understood in the context of the religious life of ancient Israel. That is surely a correct insight.
The most comprehensive study of von Rad's life and thought will be found in James L. Crenshaw, Gerhard von Rad (1978). Two other sources in English are found in books that discuss von Rad among others. These books are D. G. Spriggs, Two Old Testament Theologies (1974) and G. Henton Davies, "Gerhard von Rad, 'Old Testament Theology,"' in Contemporary Old Testament Theologians, edited by Robert B. Laurin (1970). One may also consult Crenshaw, "Wisdom in Israel, by Gerhard von Rad," Religious Studies Review 2 (1976).
Crenshaw, James L., Gerhard von Rad, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1978, 1991.