S. R. Driver “Taught the Faithful Criticism, and the Critics Faith”

A reflection on the yahrzeit of Samuel Rolles Driver


February 24, 2020

Prof.Marc Zvi Brettler


Marc Zvi Brettler


S. R. Driver “Taught the Faithful Criticism, and the Critics Faith”

Samuel Rolles Driver (1846–1914), portrait c. 1895. Wikimedia

I do not often commemorate the yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of significant figures, but a book I am working on has brought me time and again back to Samuel Rolles Driver, who died on February 26, 1914.[1] Most recently, I came across this quote in an article from 1916, which said of Driver, “‘He taught the faithful criticism and the critics faith,’ wrote an eminent Jewish scholar.”[2] Who, I wondered, was this “eminent Jewish scholar,” and what did it mean that a Jew said this, over a century ago, of the Anglican Driver?

I searched the Jewish Chronicle, the British Jewish weekly continuously published since 1841,[3] and with the help of Professor Edward Breuer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found this statement in an obituary published for Driver on March 6, 1914, penned by Israel Abrahams.[4] But why, I wondered, would a Jewish newspaper publish an obituary for an Anglican biblical scholar? And what else did Abrahams have to say about Driver?

To make sense of this, a little on Driver, his life, and work is necessary.[5]

Eminent Grammarian and Biblical Exegete

Driver was the greatest British biblical scholar of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—one of the few scholars of that era whose work has endured. He is the “D” of the famed BDB Lexicon—the Brown, Driver, Briggs A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament—which is still widely-used more than a century after it was published, largely because of Driver’s role in the project. His 1892 book on the Hebrew tenses remains a classic.[6] But he was much more than a lexicographer and a grammarian.

Driver was an outstanding exegete, especially well-known for his commentaries on Deuteronomy in the ICC (International Critical Commentary) series, which he helped to found and edit, and his commentary on Samuel; he wrote many other commentaries as well.[7] He also published several medieval Jewish biblical commentaries.

His facility in post-biblical Hebrew was remarkable, and with Adolph Neubeauer, the first reader in Rabbinic Hebrew at Oxford and an important cataloguer of Jewish manuscripts at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, in 1876-77 he published, The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters. This book, on Jewish interpretations of the longest “suffering servant” passages in Isaiah, remains the most extensive collection of medieval interpretation of any biblical passage available in both the original languages (mostly, but not exclusively, Hebrew) and English. Such cooperation between Jewish and non-Jewish scholars was far from the norm then.

Driver was appointed Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford in 1883—a position first established by Henry VIII in 1546, and now held by Professor Jan Joosten.[8] Driver was considered theologically conservative at the time of his appointment, but soon thereafter, after systematically studying Torah texts, was persuaded by most of Wellhausen’s source-critical conclusions.

He popularized this position in his 1891 An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament, which went through nine editions through 1913. This sober and convincing book—these adjectives best describe all of his work[9]—is responsible for a seismic shift in English-speaking biblical studies, convincing many in the English-speaking world of the basic correctness of Wellhausen’s source-critical model.[10]

Chief Rabbi Hertz, in his famous Pentateuch and Haftarot, often quoted or cited Driver approvingly, though not on matters of the composition of the Torah. My late teacher, Nahum Sarna,[11] had a reverential attitude toward Driver, who was his countryman.

But none of this prepared me for the Jewish Chronicle obituary by Abrahams.

Abrahams’s Obituary

Israel Abrahams (1858–1925) was one of the most prominent British scholars of Jewish Studies of his time; he succeeded Solomon Schechter as Reader in Talmudic Literature at Cambridge when the latter took up his position to head the Jewish Theological Seminary in NY. Abrahams was from a traditional Jewish family, and was educated at, and taught at, Jews College, the college of Jewish studies in London that trained Orthodox ministers (rabbis), though later in his life he became one of the prime builders of Liberal Judaism in the United Kingdom.[12]

Even once his affiliation with Liberal Judaism became known, he was “able to maintain his position at Jews’ College, teaching there without violating either his own conscience or the college ethos.”[13] He kept up strong connections to the more traditional community throughout his life; Claude G. Montefiore, the prime figure behind the Liberal Movement in Great Britain, called Abrahams “the scholar who has taught and helped so many orthodox Jews, and who has made orthodox Judaism so much better known and so much more appreciated.”[14] Sadly, it is hard to imagine such interdenominational compliments today.

Abrahams’s obituary noted Driver’s mediating position:

On the one side were ranged the ever-increasing host of those who, in consequence of scientific and historical arguments, were treating the Bible as discredited and obsolete. Opposed to them were arrayed those who sought to defend the Bible by disputing the results of science and history. Between the wolf and the shepherd, as in the ancient apologue, the lamb was being torn to pieces. Driver, and others of his school, delivered the endangered victim from arrogant foes and imprudent friends.

Abrahams goes on to explain why he favors Driver’s position concerning lower, or textual criticism:

His “Notes on Samuel” remain the best introduction, in any language, to the study of the Hebrew of the Bible. Our neo-Hebraists might do worse than saturate themselves with this book of Driver’s. It, and the rest of his writings, would save them from many current treacheries to the purity and beauty of Hebrew style. …
Again and again he illumines phrases and turns of expression which one thought one understood until Driver gave the real sense. And here a word is appropriate with regard to his dealing with the original Hebrew. Of course, he did not accept the plenary or verbal inspiration of the Massoretic text. He held that text to be sometimes defective, and he frankly, though cautiously, adopted emendations.[15] But though he used every trustworthy source of betterment, he had a profound respect for the traditional text. The versions, he said, give superior readings in certain details, but “on the whole the purer text was undoubtedly preserved by the Jews.”

More Palatable Than Wellhausen

Abrahams went on to explain how Driver often agreed with many of the positions of Wellhausen, but was more palatable:

Wellhausen converted “Higher Criticism” into what Dr. Schechter aptly termed “Higher anti-Semitism.”[16] The German[17] never says a good word for Judaism which he can avoid. Driver, on the other hand, never uses a harsh word unnecessarily. The reason for the difference is obvious. Driver understood the genius of Israel. Wellhausen has always been destitute of such understanding. Israel tended to express religion as a law, but a law that breathed the spirit of the prophets. Israel assimilated, but Israel always wove the assimilated material into a nobler fabric.

Abrahams further insists that Driver “taught us that we can probe without killing faith.” He concludes his obituary with the following quote from Driver: “The Old Testament must remain an ever-fresh fountainhead of living truth, able to invigorate and restore, to purify and refine, to ennoble and enrich, the moral and spiritual being of man.”

A Personal Reflection on Driver

My identification with Driver should be clear. Yes—he died more than one hundred years ago, and was Anglican rather than a traditional Jew,[18] but as Maimonides famously noted, “one should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds.”[19] And indeed, after Driver’s death, he was praised by some establishment figures from the Orthodox Jewish world.

The Jewish Chronicle notes immediately following Abrahams’s obituary: “In the course of his sermon last Sabbath, the Rev. Michael Adler paid a high tribute to the services rendered by the late Canon [S. R. Driver], in the cause of Biblical scholarship and Hebrew study.” Adler (1868-1944), an important army chaplain in WWI, served for over thirty years as Reverend (=rabbi) of Central Synagogue in London, an Orthodox Synagogue affiliated with the United Synagogue.

Adler clearly had first-hand familiarity with Driver’s work, and could express his appreciation for Driver, who engaged in both higher (source) and lower (textual) criticism. It is difficult to imagine a contemporary Orthodox rabbi praising a non-Jewish, or even (or especially!) a Jewish scholar, who is sympathetic to such positions. But scholars such as Driver who “taught the faithful criticism, and the critics faith,” are most deserving of recognition and appreciation.

Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author of many books and articles, including How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is a cofounder of TheTorah.com.


View Footnotes