de Wette, Devolution, and Deuteronomy

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.


  1. Interesting response indeed. All the more because it didn’t really seem to be a response to anything you actually said. Perhaps I missed Doug’s point, or maybe my lack of familiarity with the subject matter has rendered me unable to grasp the nuances of what is being said. I dunno…

  2. I think he was just a bit hasty in his post. He seems a decent chap.

    I actually expected a ringing silence, the same that has attended the previous work on the anti-Judaism of these highly influential German Protestant religious scholars). In the works I’ve read and skimmed so far, none of them touch on the very clear connection between their peculiar ideas concerning Judaism (ancient or contemporary) and their Biblical scholarship which directly reflects those ideas. It’s as plain as day. So, my very little and quite cursory blog post is just a beginning.

    There are numerous directions to go, once the basement is cleaned out….

    One thing, though, is that to read the words of some of these people is actually nauseating. I hadn’t expected that.

  3. Yes, my post was thrown together quickly. Yes, I think my point was missed because of it. I’ll work on a less hasty response, but, of course, it will take time. It just seems like quite a leap to me to (ultimately) hang the Holocaust on 19th century German biblical scholars. We’re all blinded in some way by certain cultural ways of thinking, but I think it’s being a bit hasty to reject the conclusions of biblical criticism outright because of the presuppositions of the originators of the idea.

  4. No, Doug, you cannot hang the Holocaust about their necks, but their writings are certainly part of the process that led to it. I am not one for oversimplification.

    It is not hasty to reject conclusions that are justified solely by bigotry and irrationality, which were not recognized as such and adopted in a field that was everywhere rife with such. Nineteenth century Christian scholarship on Judaism was in general following the same invalid track. A simple consensus, then and/or now, does not mean that these people were correct, or that anything built upon their work should receive a pass simply because it has been taken as valid for so long.

    The truth is uncomfortable. As I commented under your post: the foundations are rotten, and the tottering building needs to be demolished. But that is not the end. What new building can we build? I’m working on the answer to that question and will post on it later in the summer.

  5. Kevin,

    I wish you well with your launch of a whole-scale alternative to the field of study of the Hebrew Bible as currently conceived. I really do. As far as I’m concerned, if you can make a plausible case for putting the composition of the bulk of the Pentateuch in the Late Bronze Age, I will be happy as a clam. I would love for that to be the case. You realize, of course, that you will have to do a bit more than cast aspersions on de Wette in order to make any headway on your project.

    Like Esteban, I recommend Barth’s work he refers to. He will make these guys come alive for you. Right now, I think your de Witte is a stick figure, a sort of action hero on the wrong team. Barth’s analysis of everyone he considers, even those he shouts his “Nein!” too, is critical and sympathetic at the same time. Though I admit Brunner and Bultmann might disagree.

    When you start building an alternative hypothesis from the ground up from the data at our disposal, and in accord with what else we now know about the ancient world, its literature, its genres, and the history thereof, from which the Hebrew Bible sprang and of which it, too, is an expression, I will try to follow your moves and comment on them from the perspective of someone who was trained by Kaufmannians in the broad sense, Jewish scholars who reject root and branch the anti-Judaism of de Wette and Wellhausen, scholars who are nevertheless convinced that J, E, D, P, and Dtr are a product of the 8th-5th centuries BCE, based in part on traditions that are older, and subject to at least some revision later.

    You do have your work cut out for you. In my view, none of the scholars who are making vital contributions to the study of the Hebrew Bible today are anti-Judaic in spirit. Nonetheless, almost without exception, all of them work within the consensus, however modified, which you wish to call into question.

    In your neck of the woods, they include Jacob Milgrom, William Schniedewind, Marvin Sweeney, and Ronald Hendel. In my neck of the woods, Michael Fox, Bernard Levinson, and Jeffrey Stackert. Going east, we have Mark Leuchter, Jeffrey Tigay, Robert P. Wright, and Jon Levenson. Just examples, of course. In Israel, as well, let us not forget the late lamented Moshe Weinfeld, for most of us, the one who put De Wette’s hypothesis on a truly scientific basis. Then there is Israel Knohl and Alexander Rofe’, not to mention their brilliant students.

    There are of course many fine Christian scholars at work on the Hebrew Bible as well, across the world. I can’t think of anyone who is a recognized leader in the field, Catholic, evangelical, or liberal Protestant, who subscribes to de Wette’s German romanticism today, German scholars included.

    Romantic notions of authorship and the history of ideas are now more prevalent, paradoxically, in the rejectionist camp, inhabited, as I’m sure you are aware, primarily by a part of the evangelical world.

    Consensus view scholars today hold to the consensus in full awareness of the questionable and sometimes ridiculous assumptions De Wette and Wellhausen made. Jon Levenson in particular is a great read in this sense. But this is the same Levenson who penned ‘Who Inserted the Book of the Torah?,” HTR 68 (1975) 203-33. The later Levenson, like Childs and Rendtorff, are examples of a post-historical-critical approach to the Hebrew Bible. They do not reject the consensus view so much as reset the discipline in terms of a focus on the Sache of the text. It turns out, according to them, that ancient exegetes had a better sense of the genuine concerns of the text than do most modern exegetes. And of course they are right.

  6. Thanks for the comment, John.

    It’s certainly not a wholescale retooling of the field that I have in mind, only particular elements of source and form criticism that need to be reevaluated. There is no way to prove that the Pentateuch derives mostly from the Late Bronze or Iron ages, or any other age for that matter before the second century BC and the earliest dates of the manuscripts. There can, however, be reasoned arguments that will extend the date back from the point of manuscript evidence, and that is all that the field consists of now in any case; people simply vary on the dates, according to their presuppositions, and find reasonable those arguments that partake of those presuppositions. Regarding source criticism in the OT especially, I think the consensus is now completely offtrack, moribund, and ossified, but not that source criticism itself should be abandoned. To paraphrase Jeffrey Tigay in reference to the editing of the Pentateuch: “something happened,” but certainly not the current consensus. There are more rational ways to approach the history of Israel and its documents that are not based in the specious argumentation of Jew-haters.

    At the heart of this critique, however, lies the willful blindness regarding the connection of the scholarship with the philosophy, regardless of consensus appreciation. Now, how is it valid to accept a man’s propositions which are solidly and inextricably the result of his unacceptable premises, whatever the case may be of a later scholar’s acceptance of those propositions? That is the question at hand with these dead Germans. Let’s put it another way, in a way much clearer, that shows directly the kind of offensiveness and absurdity involved: Would anyone accept the marital advice of a wife-beater when such advice is irrefutably a result of his wife-beating?

    Needless to say, there have always been reasoned alternatives and argumentation against these various now consensus positions originally formulated by these Germans. However, there is an overwhelming tide of inertia and, frankly, ignorance to overcome in getting those alternative views more than an occasional footnote’s notice. I’ll bring some of those forward. But first, I’ll cover the rest of the Gerdmar book, and see where it leads. I want then also to focus on one of the reasons for the noxious anti-Judaism and antisemitism of these and other Germans: Martin Luther.

  7. Kevin,

    I look forward to your arguments. I have read non-consensus authors, but have not, to my own dismay, found much of substance so far. The contrarian in me longs for a vibrant challenge to the consensus. So far, I haven’t seen a significant alternative, with a pars costruens, not just a pars destruens.

    On the other hand, your use of phrases like “dead Germans” sends off warning signals. Luther of course made both friendly and unfriendly comments toward Jews, depending on the political context. In any case, the theological context is paramount, and requires careful evaluation. We’ll see if you show Luther the same regard as Robert Wilken did in his parsing of Chrysostom’s anti-Judaism.

    Perhaps I need to do a series articulating the theses of Jules Isaac, according to whom contempt for the Jews manifests itself in three main themes in Christian tradition:

    * The first theme is the “dispersion of Israel as a sign of providential punishment,” beginning with the capture of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D, which Christians understood as God’s retribution for the crucifixion of Christ.

    * The second theme is the “degenerate state of Judaism at the time of Jesus”, in which Christianity portrayed the Jewish religion in Jesus’ time as “desiccated, ossified, reduced to mere formalism and ritual . . . legalism without a soul, without ferver, without true aspiration towards God.”

    * The third theme was the “crime of deicide”, and the application of collective guilt upon the Jewish people as a whole. Christianity came to depict the Jews “as Cain, as Judas, as a murderous people, a ‘deicide’ people . . . an abomination to the Christian world.” Thus the role of Pontius Pilate and the Roman soldiers would be increasingly subordinated to that of the Jews in the preaching and teaching of the Church fathers.

    Luther was a heir to the preaching and teaching of the Fathers. Historical honesty requires describing that continuity, with a willingness to criticize one’s own, not just those of a confession one rejects.

  8. Well, John, what am I supposed to call them, “living-challenged Germans”? They are dead, after all, and I want to make a distinction between living scholars and those from 100-200 years ago who are not living and whose intellectual and cultural environment (which is under question here) is equally dead. Pre-German unification radical Romantic idealism is dead.

    Historical honesty requires recognizing that Luther, like the other Reformers, was a highly selective reader of the Fathers. This is a known quantity. The Patristic tradition itself does not support him or his movement in any sense. His reading of the Patristic tradition does, but this is a separate issue altogether. But we’ll get to that later.

  9. Okay, Kevin, I’ll wait.

    In the meantime, I will simply point out that a scholar like Jaroslav Pelikan was able to demonstrate enormous continuities among dead Greeks, dead Latins, and dead Germans in his monumental opus, right alongside side of significant discontinuities.

    Heiko Oberman and Alistair McGrath provide a mere sample of the exquisite details.

    Or what about Otto Herman Pesch’s demonstration that Luther and Aquinas are not that far apart either?

    The following folks are long dead, I’ll grant you that: Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. So is allegorical exegesis a la Philo, middle Platonism, and medieval Aristotelianisms. All dead, just as dead as Ptolemaic astronomy. Just as dead as German Romanticism.

    Despite all this, the take on things of the movers and shakers in the history of the Church lives on, for very, very good reasons. Furthermore, it will be noted if you, an eastern Orthodox, pile on Luther, while excusing or downplaying the anti-Judaism and the anti-Semitism which have found expression in your own tradition.

    1. John, I haven’t even written anything about Luther yet. How can you say I’ve “piled on him”?

      And now with all your “deads” you’re simply being petulant. It’s well-known that the Reformers rooted through the Church Fathers for proof for their ideas, proof-texting, twisting texts, yet ignoring, above it all, the fact that the Fathers would never have countenanced their schism (or Rome’s, for that matter) or their many strange ideas, some of which (iconoclasm, for instance) are outright heresy. Don’t expect a pleasant reception for the Reformation here. You will never find it.

      You write: Furthermore, it will be noted if you, an eastern Orthodox, pile on Luther, while excusing or downplaying the anti-Judaism and the anti-Semitism which have found expression in your own tradition.

      A sentence fragment, but somewhat comprehensible. I recommend these two historical surveys on the matter of Byzantine (and hence Eastern Orthodox) treatment of Jews:
      Joshua Starr, The Jews in the Byzantine Empire: 641-1204. Burt Franklin, 1939.
      Steven B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium: 1204-1453. University of Alabama Press, 1985.
      A long tradition of tolerance with a few instances of oppression (roughly one per century, generally consisting of forced conversion, which was abandoned at the death of the emperor who decreed it) does not equate to whatever you have in mind. “Anti-Semitism” in Orthodoxy? Our Lord’s human nature is specifically a Jewish human nature. That means Christ, Jew and God, second Person of the Trinity, is on the Divine throne and worshipped by seraphim and cherubim and legions of angels and saints as well as every Orthodox Christian. There’s no possibility for antisemitism there. To suggest it is ignorant. Yes, there is anti-Judaism, of varying degrees of intensity, but no antisemitism. Yet it is nothing like Luther’s in its consistent viciousness.

      What is your problem? People have known about and commented on Luther’s inexcusably vivid hate of Jews for ages. I’m not the first. I certainly won’t be the last. Touchy!

  10. Kevin, as someone else that has actually read Gerdmar’s book, I think you are doing a fantastic job of summarizing his points.

    It is clear to me that the volume of the howls you hear in the comment thread of this post are directly proportional to the painfulness of the truths that Gerdmar discusses.

  11. THANK YOU, Theophrastus! It seems we’re the only two people who even have the book.

    I’ve likewise been going through some of the sources that Gerdmar mentions, several of which one can find on Google Books, and so on. I was particularly happy to get the pdfs of Alexander Geddes Critical Remarks on the Hebrew Scriptures, J. D. Michaelis’ Mosaisches Recht (in wretched Fraktur!), and Alexander Smith’s translation of the latter. I’ll be hunting for more tonight. I’d love to get some freebie de Wette and Wellhausen, but I’m not expecting it. Schade.

    The ringing silence I expected. I didn’t expect the petulance, the incomplete reading comprehension of what I posted, or the expectation that a single summary blog post (even if the first of many) should be held to the standard of evidence of a dissertation. All but the last three paragraphs above are summaries of Gerdmar, but it’s those last three (thoroughly my own) that have touched a nerve. Why should anyone care that I reject de Wette and everything built upon his work? Do they care that I wore a plaid shirt today, too? As we say in California, “whatEVER.”

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