More of de Wette’s charm

Because my last post on de Wette was so interesting to some, I thought I’d post some more of his ideas and comment upon them. The point here is to demonstrate that, if anything, de Wette’s proposals were not critical in the true sense, that is, demonstrative of rational discernment, but are rather the result of deep-seated prejudices which are reflected in all his work, root and branch.

de Wette proposes that Hebraismus, his label for the religion of the Patriarchs and Moses as a discrete entity separate from later manifestations of Israelite religion (which, however, includes the Prophetic strain), becomes the intellectual source of life

from which Christianity, and after the killing of it in Catholicism, true Christian Protestantism has come forth, and with Christianity and Protestantism, the scholarly spirit of the new European culture.
(Gerdmar, Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism, 80; quoting de Wette, Biblische Dogmatik, 59-60)

So, we see de Wette equating here “original religion,” Hebraismus, the best of Israelite religion, with earliest Christianity, with Protestantism (the German strain, of course), and European scholarship (again, German, of course). He does not neglect to declare Catholicism “dead,” in the same way that he declares Judaism dead. He describes Judaism elsewhere as “degenerated, petrified Hebraismus”
(Gerdmar, 81; quoting de Wette, Biblische Dogmatik, 114).

Presumably, Catholicism is thus conceived by de Wette as a degenerate, petrified Christianity. In this sense, he sets up the equation of Judaism (Hebraismus’ degenerate successor) with Catholicism (Christianity’s degenerate successor), and Christianity (Hebraismus’ revival) with Protestantism (Christianity’s revival). Just as dead Judaism was followed by living Christianity, so dead Catholicism is followed by living Protestantism, which finds the flower of its expression in scholarship, namely, de Wette’s own!

We find here not only blatant apologetics, but the classical early Enlightenment attachment to historical cyclicism, a long discarded practice in historiography. There is likewise here a heavy-handed admixture of pure Romanticism: the contrast of the spontaneous, vivacious, ruleless Hebraism, Christianity, and Protestantism (liberal German Protestantism, mind you, not that conservative stuff) in opposition to rote, dead, rule-laden, Judaism and Catholicism. This “freedom is life” and “restriction is death” motif is a core concept of Romanticism, if not the core concept.

This entire dialectic of de Wette’s is, of course, arrant nonsense. The equation of liberal German Protestantism with early Christianity is unbelievably stupid, in addition to being purely offensive. If anything, as we all well know nowadays, and as is described in the writings of the New Testament itself, we should without question equate early Christianity with Judaism. The first generation of Christians were considered Jews by outsiders, whatever distinctions may have been made in Christian and Jewish circles, as seen in Claudius’ expulsion of all Jews from Rome for arguing over Chrestus/Christus (arguments dissociating this from Christian-Jewish controversy are unconvincing). A clear distinction is, however, recognized by late AD 64, with Nero’s specific targeting of Christians and not Jews as culpable for the great fire that had just swept through the city (conveniently clearing a nice swath for the construction of Nero’s Golden House and its grounds). Labelling both Judaism and Catholicism as dead is both thoroughly offensive and entirely stupid, displaying only a colossal ignorance of the spiritual life of these two traditions.

But, after all, de Wette is quite obviously not after truth, but “truthiness.” All this work of his was politically motivated to provide a religio-philosophical justification for republican plans to unite the German-speaking lands into one nation-state, with liberal German Protestantism as the state religion, and liberal German Protestant scholarship as its intellect.

Utilizing the very same early Christian and Jewish sources that de Wette used, we nowadays come to radically different conclusions regarding early Christianity’s makeup. It is likewise obvious to all observers that neither Judaism nor Catholicism is lifeless and moribund. Seeing his success in this aspect of early Christian history, one can summon no confidence in de Wette’s treatment of Israelite history. The only truly rational expectation is to find him treating the evidence selectively in order to establish his point, constructing a case so that the ultimate goal of his dialectic (which is the supremacy of liberal German Protestantism) is established. This requires that he posit the devolution of true religion, Hebraism, into Judaism, false religion. His view of history as cyclical will permit nothing else, for it must match his understanding that the living, true religion of Christianity devolved into the false, dead religion of Catholicism. Then, just as Protestantism revived true religion, so Christianity must have done so. This is exactly what de Wette has done, completing the cycle, and proving, by his extension of this historical dialectic, that liberal German Protestantism is the ultimate of all religious expressions.

And it is this dialectic, this so-called critical ordering of history, that de Wette describes as “historical-critical.” The name has stuck. So it is used and adapted by Wellhausen and later authors. But its origin lies as the label for de Wette’s forcing history into his own mold. It is neither historical, nor critical.

Next up in our tour of liberal Protestant German anti-Jewish scholarship: Julius Wellhausen.


  1. I’m looking forward to Esteban’s posts, too. Baur is as foundational for New Testament studies as Wellhausen is for Old Testament studies. (Wellhausen absolutely approaches that corpus from his Protestant standpoint of its being the “Old Testament” and absolutely not the “Hebrew Bible”.)

    But we also need to keep in mind that at the time, in the nineteenth century, Professors were often not split into “New Testament” and “Old Testament” programs and chairs, but rather held a single post as theologian. de Wette was professor of both OT and NT, and wrote on both, as was and as did Wellhausen. And this is important to realize, because their programs were not restricted to one or the other, but involved a full dialectic of the development of history in a particular direction, as I described above. There is no escaping that. Their methodologies are incidental to their greater goal, and of value only insofar as they assist them in achieving that goal: proving that liberal German Protestantism is the supreme expression of religion in human history. Everything is subservient to that.

    Scholarship at the time being almost exclusively Protestant, then and until the middle of the twentieth century, the students ate it up. The dialectic and methodologies were spread throughout every institution of higher learning to a greater or lesser degree, most famously by Wellhausen’s students. Being proper little evangelists, they acted as cells to distribute the “historical-critical method” throughout higher education, and they were successful.

    There are various factors which attenuated the impact of various responses: 1.) some of the earliest and best responses and arguments against the program were from Jews, therefore completely ignored; 2.) other reactions were from Catholics, ditto, yet Catholics were also still at the time wary of modernism; 3.) the Russians with their great Patristic tradition were in a different world; by the time that they would’ve been extremely useful to counter what Rome in the early twentieth century belatedly labeled “modernism,” Russian intellectual life was under the heel of the Bolshevik atheist state, squelching any response that might be seen to aid in a defense of religion, however attenuated.

    I’ll wait to post on Baur until after Esteban does! It’ll take me a little while to put together some stuff on Wellhausen. There’s a lot there to work with.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying this, Nick!

  2. I’m enjoying this too. One of the ironies is that historical criticism lives and thrives amongst Catholics. When I started undergrad studies back in the early 90s I read Jon Levenson’s The Old Testament, The Hebrew Bible and Historical Criticism. It hit me then that the historical critics were pretty much reading Jerusalem as Rome.

  3. Thanks, Michael! It’s very, very interesting (though somewhat ugly) reading, combining the formation of modern Biblical Studies with the maturation of anti-Judaism into antisemitism proper. The two are intimately intertwined, root and branch. The field of modern academic/critical Biblical Studies would not resemble what it is today without the anti-Jewish roots that it sprang from.

    Some would disagree with that evaluation, claiming that further investigations have corroborated various of the findings. But, these further investigations have always taken place from within the same view of the development of history (or dialectic, as I’ve been using the term) which was invented (not “discovered”) by Wellhausen, who is the intellectual offspring, synthesizer, and devotee of earlier ideas.

    Historically, throughout the nineteenth century as these rationalist approaches to the Bible were being developed (in forms described then as either “positive criticism” or “negative criticism”, which I’ll describe in a separate post), the only real opponents that they encountered were from religious traditionalists. It became a commonplace that any critique of these approaches must therefore be rooted not in rationalism (which is not to say “rational thought,” clearly) but in a kind of reactionary fundamentalism. So it is to this day. Any critique begun is almost immediately rejected out of hand, because it is assumed that it will advocate solely a fundamentalist approach. Predictably (and pathetically), such assumptions appeared even here, at my commencing these posts. But there are reasoned critiques that have appeared throughout the nearly two centuries since this process of rationalist critique of the Bible (not solely criticism, for the surface narrative of the Bible’s books themselves are often overturned), and that still appear, and which provide some very interesting possibilities for an alternative to the current dialectic of Biblical Studies, involving the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, the Apocrypha, the New Testament, the Pseudepigrapha, and the Rabbinic and Patristic canons. History does not require a Protestant supersessionist interpretation which whithers under a truly critical historical glance.

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