Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette (1780-1849) is generally considered the founding father of modern critical Biblical Studies. Specifically, he was the first to develop and apply a philosophically-based method to the Biblical texts, rather than relying upon religiously-influenced or -established commonplaces or traditions. This does not, however, mean that his own method was devoid of religious influence or even connections to political and social issues of his day. In fact, his method is entirely rooted in the worldview of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century German intellectual environment.
The German intellectual scene of de Wette’s time was in lively ferment. Much discussion was taking place regarding the unification of the various German principalities and territories into a single German national state, particularly after the end of the Holy Roman Empire (so-called) and the disturbances caused by Napoleon. To have a single, democratic, liberal, Protestant Christian German state was the thinking (German) person’s ideal. There was, however, a problem with this: the Jews. Living amongst the various German Christians was this group that held to its own culture, its own religion, and was effectively a nation amongst nations. The coming German state, however, was envisioned to be a single cultural entity, a German one at that. There would be no room in the plan for any Jewish “particularists” who will reject the German “universalist” position of the unification supporters by not completely assimilating.
Enter de Wette. Drawing especially on the works of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1802) and Jacob Friedrich Fries (1773-1843), and strongly influenced by a Romanticism that led him to view religion as a matter of aesthetics and feeling, de Wette systematized various intellectual strands into a dialectic of the development of true religion (liberal German Protestantism, of course) out of false religion (post-exilic Judaism, of course). It is this dialectic that he applied to the Holy Scriptures; this was his “method.”
The development proceeds as follows. First there was Hebraismus, the religion of the patriarchs and of Israel in pre-exilic times, which went through several stages:
1.) pre-Mosaic polytheistic Hebraismus
2.) Mosaic Hebraismus
3.) degenerated polytheistic-Mosaic Hebraismus
4.) the ideal Hebraismus of the Prophets and Poets
In this series, 1 and 3 are bad, while 2 and 4 are good. Then comes the Exile, and de Wette makes this the end of Hebraismus (overall a better thing than not) and the beginning of Judaism (an entirely degraded form of Hebraismus, of no value):
[W]e must consider the nation after the Exile as another, with a different thinking and religion. We call them in this period Jews, before that Hebrews; we call what pertains to the postexilic cultural formation Judaism, and what pertains to the pre-exilic cultural formation Hebraismus. de Wette, Biblische Dogmatik, 48; quoted in Gerdmar, Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism, 81.
The Jews acquired “Oriental philosophy” (a bad thing) during the Exile through association with Zoroastrians especially, becoming tainted with such ideas as demonology, messianism, resurrection, and so on. Religious expression turns away from faith and life to study and introspection, a thing completely unacceptable to a Romantic like de Wette. Jesus is seen as the great Romantic, reviving the spirit of Moses:
The way Jesus presented things was pure of anything didactic, methodical and systematic; it was not teaching but merely reviving, directed at common sense and unspoilt feeling. de Wette, Biblische Dogmatik, 213; Gerdmar, 84.
Within this same idealistic Romanticism, de Wette claims Jesus to present no dogma and rejecting a faith based on authority. The Pharisees, standins for rabbinic/contemporary Jews in de Wette’s views, represent the opposite of Jesus and the spirit of Hebraismus: holding to mythological tales, their outward obedience to dead laws, their expectation of a political messiah and world domination, and their religious particularism that is exclusive rather than universalistic. It is this mindset that drives de Wette’s distinctions in dating the documents of the Old Testament.
de Wette was the first to suggest that Deuteronomy was the “Book of the Law” that was discovered in the Temple in the time of King Josiah of Judah, as depicted in 2 Kings 22. de Wette ties this “discovery”, which he actually posits as a composition of the text at this time, with the imposition of a degraded Hebraismus on the people: the beginnings of Judaism. Thus, it is not any elaborate philological argument, nor any source critical discovery, nor any kind of argument based upon any logic at all that drives de Wette’s determination of the date of Deuteronomy as late. It is his liberal German Protestantant Romantic nationalist dialectic regarding how degraded Judaism was which determines it. This is in no way objective or acceptable argumentation. Indeed, there is no argumentation. There is only assertion of Romantic ideals, liberal Protestant ideals, and radical German nationalist ideals, while drawing upon other earlier anti-Jewish writings. His theological fulminations on Jewish degradation led, contrary to his short-sighted will, to an anti-emancipation movement that was disastrous for Jews, one which finally found full expression in the Holocaust.
de Wette’s is not rational thought. I reject de Wette’s ideas, every foundation of them, and everything that has proceeded to be built upon his misguided, corrupt, and bigoted mentality.
What things might we discover in leaving such bitter and childish thoughts as those of de Wette and his ilk behind? It’ll be interesting to find out.