Norman Gottwald: A Pioneering Marxist Biblical Scholar

Norman Gottwald belongs to a rare breed — an American Marxist biblical scholar.  More than one jarring juxtaposition in that epithet!  Unfortunately, he is less well known outside the relative small circle of biblical scholars than he should be.  In order to introduce him to a wider audience, let me say a little about his scholarly achievements and then some more concerning his activism.

Marxism and Ancient Israel

In contrast to the flowering of Marxist approaches to the Bible today, Gottwald first began work in the 1950s, when the US academy was largely hostile to such approaches.  After a few relatively conventional starts — an introduction to the Bible and a study of the biblical book of lamentations1 — Gottwald set his mind to a comprehensive study of the origins of ancient Israel.  The result, after more than a decade of work, was The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel 1250-1050 B.C.E., first published in 1979 and reprinted many times after that.2  The content of the argument was as controversial as its method.  Gottwald argued that early Israel arose out of a peasant revolution within Canaan between 1250 and 1050 BCE.  Throwing off the yoke of their Canaanite overlords, these peasants retreated to the Judean hills in order to shape a new, more collective society.  Was there a conquest of Canaan (the ‘Promised Land’) by Israelites escaping from Egypt?  Not really, apart from a small group of Levite priests.  Was Israel ethnically distinct from other Canaanites?  Not at all, for they were Canaanites too, a blend of many different groups.  Is there any evidence for such an argument, especially when the biblical material tells a grand story of enslavement in Egypt, escape, wilderness wandering and then conquest of a land to which the mythical Abraham had first made dubious claim?  Yes there is, but it lies in the archaeological record.  At the time, settlement of the Judean hills did indeed take place, making use of new technologies in a semi-arid environment with intermittent rainfall: lime-based cisterns for water storage, iron agricultural implements and terracing the hill sides.  As to whether these new settlers had any conscious notion of being a new entity, calling themselves ‘Israel’, is a question that remains open.

Gottwald did, however, make use of biblical material for a very different purpose: social structures.  The Bible, especially in its first seven books (Genesis to Judges) contains stories first told among these people.  And behind those stories we find traces of their social and economic structures.  They eschewed kings or chieftains, preferring tribal cooperatives, with a militia for warfare and inter-clan assistance during times of famine and hardship.  With a less hierarchical society, women had a relatively better place, being more integrated with daily economic and household activities.  Above all, these ‘Israelites’ developed a new economic system that Gottwald dubs a ‘communitarian mode of production’: primarily agricultural, it attempted to produce a fairer, redistributive system, based on tribal relations.  This mode of production stood in sharp contrast to the ‘tributary mode of production’ of the Canaanite city states, from which the people had so recently escaped.

Before I say a word on why this is a Marxist argument, let me ask how the argument has fared.  Initially, critics attacked its supposed lack of evidence, especially in biblical material.  Now, however, biblical scholars are more willing to regard the early narratives of the Bible as mythical and legendary.  Far from factual historical records, they function more as political myths.  Others were quick to point out that the new ‘Israel’ was a little too much like a hippie commune from the 60s or 70s, and that the evidence of ‘revolution’ is thin.  Yes, some Canaanite cities seem to have been destroyed around that time, but we have no way of knowing who destroyed them (it may just as easily have been an invading army).  Today, Gottwald’s confidence concerning the historical reconstruction of early Israel seems decidedly optimistic, given arguments that everything before 400 BCE is dubious (including the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, David and Solomon, the Babylonian exile).

Details aside, the lasting heritage of Gottwald’s work falls into three categories.  First, the argument that Israel was indigenous to Canaan is now widely agreed among scholars.  They may not have been conscious of being ‘Israel’ until quite late (after 400 BCE), but their economic, social and religious shape is distinctly Canaanite.  Second, Gottwald almost single-handedly established social-scientific research on the Bible as a viable and promising enterprise.  Social-scientific theory, comparative work and sophisticated sociological analysis is now well accepted and widely used.  Third, Gottwald showed how productive Marxist methodology can be.  He may have deployed Durkheim and Weber, but the core method is Marxist.  So we find complex treatments of mode of production, means and relations of production, ideology and culture.  Indeed, the two proposed modes of production — tributary and communitarian — still set the parameters of debate.  Alternative proposals may be made, such as household or domestic, for ‘communitarian’;3 one may find the Asiatic mode of production re-entering discussions over against the tributary mode.  (Marxist scholars have later developed the concept of a tributary mode of production without knowledge of Gottwald.4)  But the sense that two different economic systems are playing out against one another remains a staple.  My own argument is that one does not need two modes of production, for the two systems, one exploitative and the other redistributive, are part and parcel of the same mode of production.5  Indeed, since Gottwald’s work, Marxist biblical scholarship has increasingly found a place in the academy.6

Political Activism

However, there is another, even lesser-known side to Gottwald, the long-time activist.7  Gottwald is at pains to point out that the various phases of his scholarship are inseparable from his experiences of activism of more than half a century.  He is one of the few remaining radical biblical scholars who was immersed the heady excitement of the 1960s.  But even before then Gottwald had become involved as a young seminary lecturer in the fledgling anti-nuclear movement, in the late 1950s, which fed into the Vietnam War protests, as well as the first stirrings that were to explode into the civil rights movement of the sixties.  Already with an interest from earlier work on the prophetic literature of the Bible, he and his students began to see the way those texts spoke to their own situation: exploitation, abuse of power, grinding down of the weak and poor, these and more were the targets of prophetic invective.  Time and place may have differed, but the situations were sufficiently analogous to see that the prophetic texts were more than relevant.

During the critical mass and urgency of the sixties, with free speech, Vietnam, nuclear issues, feminism and racial discrimination all coming together, with myriad groups forming, reforming and coalescing into popular fronts, with calls to ‘speak truth to power’, Marx too was in the air.  So Gottwald read Marx and read some more, discovering — or perhaps it would be better to say re-discovering — the way prophetic and Marxist critiques overlapped with one another.  Note well: this pipe-smoking, pock-faced seminary professor with shaggy hair and a serious look did not resort primarily to the sayings of Jesus in the gospels.  No, he saw the connections with the Hebrew prophets.  A moment ago, I wrote ‘re-discovery’, since Gottwald was by no means the first to see that prophetic criticisms of wealth, latifundia, debt-bondage and exploitation of the vulnerable applied to his own time.  To cull two examples from a very long list, Gerrard Winstanley and Thomas Müntzer had done it many centuries before.  And since the nineteenth century Christian socialists had also made the connection between Marx and the prophets, Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901) — Old Testament scholar, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and then bishop of Durham (UK) — being but one of the most notable.8

The difference for Gottwald, however, was the way his political commitments and activism informed his scholarship and vice versa.  Unlike Westcott, who carried on his impeccable scholarly work in Hebrew linguistics in strict separation from his political convictions (although I wonder whether he was really able to do so, for the two must have influenced one another, even if indirectly), Gottwald saw the importance of Marx for both his scholarly and political work.  It is difficult for those who were not involved at the time to gain a sense of the sheer excitement and novelty of Marx, whose work had lain dormant for too long, the preserve of much-maligned communists and the atheistic totalitarianism of the Soviet Union.  For Gottwald, in the same way that Marxism provides a way to overcome the splintering of politics into interest groups, it also provides the means for moving past the Taylorisation of academic work and thereby seeing social, political, economic and ideological issues as part of a larger whole.  The Radical Religion journal came into being, edited by a collective in the late sixties and early seventies, and then Tribes of Yahweh, followed by the widely used The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction with its explicit focus on political matters and sustained critique of class dynamics in the reception and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.9

Political involvement remained a continuous part of Gottwald’s life — local elections in Berkeley, campaigns to turn electricity production and distribution over to public ownership, opting for a teaching post in New York on the wrong side of tracks (is that not most of New York?), and then in retirement becoming involved with the Democratic Socialists of America, working on immigration, globalisation, health care and labour relations.  In the meantime, Gottwald’s scholarly work has been taken up by radical religious groups around the world, including Korea, the Philippines, South Africa and South America.  Indeed, I would suggest that the point of unity in Gottwald’s work may actually be found in his political activism, for his scholarly and religious activities are inseparable from a sense that a better world is possible.


1  Norman Gottwald, A Light to the Nations: An Introduction to the Old Testament (New York: Harper & Row, 1959); Studies in the Book of Lamentations (rev. ed.; London: SCM Press, 1962).

2  A corrected edition was published in 1981 by Orbis Press, in Maryknoll, New York (where many works of liberation theology were published) and then again in 1999 by Sheffield Academic Press with a new preface.

3  See David Jobling, 1 Samuel (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998); Carol Meyers, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Gale A. Yee, Poor Banished Children of Eve: Woman as Evil in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003).

4  John Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode of Production (London: Verso, 1993); Jairus Banerji, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (Historical Materialism Book Series 25; Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 17-23.  Neither Haldon nor Banerji is even aware of Gottwald’s much earlier work.

5  See Roland Boer, In The Vale of Tears: On Marxism and Theology V. (Leiden: Brill, in press).

6  See the comprehensive survey in Roland Boer, ‘Twenty Five Years of Marxist Biblical Criticism’. Currents in Biblical Research 5.3 (2007): 298-321.

7  What follows is drawn from an interview I conducted with Gottwald in Amherst, Massachusetts, at the Rethinking Marxism Conference of 2000. See Roland Boer, ‘Political Activism and Biblical Scholarship: An Interview with Norman Gottwald’. Tracking ‘The Tribes of Yahweh’: On the Trail of a Classic (Ed. Roland Boer. London: Continuum/Sheffield Academic Press, 2002) pp. 161-76.

8  See Westcott’s speech, simply called ‘Socialism’, delivered to the Christian Social Union (of which he was president) in 1890 at Project Canterbury ( Westcott was one of the most significant biblical scholars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. See more generally on Victorian Christian socialism the study by Norman 2002.

9  Norman Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985).

Roland Boer is Research Professor in Theology at the University of Newcastle, Australia.  Visit his blog Stalin’s Moustache: <>.

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