de Wette, Vatke, and Wellhausen

Key to the formation of the modern academic field of Biblical Studies are the machinations of nineteenth century liberal German Protestants (as I’ve recently touched on in these posts: Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism, Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: Semler, Pasto, Who Owns the Jewish Past?, De Wette, Devolution, and Deuteronomy, and More of de Wette’s Charm), all of whom were anti-Jewish to a greater or lesser degree, though not full-blown anti-Semites. The latter requires belief in racial theory, which was yet to be developed, in part with support from the various “critical” anti-Jewish writings of these singularly driven men. And they were certainly driven: driven to support their own scholarship and liberal German Protestantism as the highest form of religion the world had yet seen. The respect granted to German scholarship in the nineteenth century by all Europeans was of the highest order, as it embodied the ideals of the Enlightenment, a recent event at that time. This permitted them a greater platform than they would enjoy in the twentieth century. Particularly skillful as a propogandaistic coup was the exclusive appropriation to their work of the terms “criticism” and “critical” — a situation that pertains to this day. The historical-critical method (the term originally invented to describe de Wette’s dialectic of the devolution of Hebraism into Judaism, superseded by Christianity, a revival of Hebraism, and so on, as I described here), a newly-minted approach to the Scriptures, became equated with criticism itself in the 1850s. This meant that other approaches were not referred to as critical, thereby severing the terminology’s usage from its roots in antiquity, particularly the Aristotelian usage, which had prevailed to that time. No longer was critcism the right application of a well-formed mind to decision-making, but something that the academy decided. The distinction is crucial. For it is certainly not the case that the historical-critical method of de Wette can be described as the conclusion of a well-formed mind. It is instead an entirely self-serving, societally and aetically contingent invention, an appropriation of the history of another race for purposes of his (and sympathizers’) own and only of useful application at that moment in time: for the unification of the German lands into a single rebuplican state, a state which would exclude all who would not convert to the above-mentioned highest expression of “the world spirit”: liberal German Protestantism as defined by theology professors (I will not sully “Theologian” with such an association) such as de Wette! This meant that it was preferred that there were no more Jews, and no more Catholics in the new Reich. In what was perceived as a noble gesture, they were welcomed to convert, otherwise they could leave—a familiar scenario for the Jews.

But here I want to focus on something else, which I find perfectly demonstrative of the irrationality lying behind the “criticism” of the day. This is the issue of dating the books of the Pentateuch, and how de Wette and Vatke could come up with such diametrically opposed opinions on the subject, all relying on exactly the same data.

Firstly, de Wette changed his mind on the dating of Deuteronomy. He at first considered it to be a product of the reign of Josiah, the “Book of the Law” described in 2 Kings 22. Later, however, he considered it to be even later, an exilic or post-exilic document written during a time when “Judaism” was in full swing, a time of rigid centralization and conformity to written strictures. This only means that he places the composition further along the course of the devolution of Hebraism into Judaism, in his terminology, which had already begun in pre-exilic times. de Wette leaves the authoring of the first four books of the Pentateuch to an earlier age than that of Deuteronomy, for they reveal (through narrative) a freer society and religion, one not encumbered by rules and regulations, when religion and its expression were rooted in personal piety, not in an external supernaturalism and legislation—the classic Romantic position.

Contrast Vatke. He, reading the very same Deuteronomy, posits it as representing a religion of the heart, not one of the dead letter, and therefore it must precede the legal materials found in the first four books of the Pentateuch. So, Vatke places Deuteronomy first (curiously maintaining a roughly Josianic date, a legacy of de Wettes’ reputation more than critical thought) and all the other legal materials later. It was Vatke’s solution which was generally received, and which was canonized in Wellhausen.

The two are diametrically opposed in their readings. This is not critical thinking. We needn’t go into the issue of assertion in the lack of contextual evidence, or at least not just yet. When de Wette and Vatke were writing, the great archaeological discoveries of writings from the ancient Near East were yet to occur. The languages were yet to be deciphered. Once they were however, and the great Library of Ashurbanipal discovered in 1850 by Austen Henry Layard, there was no excuse for Wellhausen and others to have ignored (as they did) the full panoply of literary texts and their implications. But there is also the question as to whether it would have entered their mind at all to equate such writings of great empires with the writings of a small client kingdom, particularly in light of their view of Jews and Judaism. They either wilfully ignored the contextual evidence, or they considered the Jews to have been incapable of being part of such a widespread literacy themselves. I think it was a little of both. In addition, Wellhausen had an agenda: to establish the liberal German Protestant scholarly trend as the solely acceptable one, in the face of challenges from conservatives. In this, he was successful, subjecting the Bible to a still-ruling hegemony of criticism. But this was and is to the detriment of gaining a true understanding of the writings of the Bible, Old and New Testaments.

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