What Might Have Been

The following comes from my notes on the chapter “The History of Religions School and the Jews” in Anders Gerdmar, Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism (Brill, 2009)

Johannes Weiss (1863-1914) was, like Wilhelm Bousset (1865-1920), a student of Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889). Both were considered members of the History of Religions School (Religionsgeschichtliche Schule), an academic movement emphasizing the place of religion in history—an approach which occasionally produced some rather awkward results. Be that as it may, at its peak, around the turn of the century, it was an approach that garnered some of the finest minds in German scholarship: Duhm, Kautsch, Wrede, Bousset and Weiss, among others.

While Bousset was something of a devoted follower of Wellhausen and the de Wettian/Ritschlian tradition which separated Judaism from all influence on nascent Christianity, Weiss was something of a maverick, a loner at this period, finding continuity between the Jewish environment of Christ’s day and earliest Christianity, despite his own leanings (which were liberal, both confessionally and politically). In this, he followed the data presented in the New Testament itself and related sources for the period, rather than being led by an idealistic-systematic theological dialectic which would separate the two, in marked contrast to all his contemporaries. He presented this approach first in his Die Predigt Jesus vom Reiches Gottes, “The Preaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God, in 1900. He read the sources on their own terms, criticizing both Bousset’s and Wellhausen’s approaches for lacking historical objectivity.

In Weiss’ posthumously published (and partly finished by a colleague) book Das Urchristentums, soon translated into English as The History of Primitive Christianity, we find the musings of a remarkable mind, well ahead of its own age. Weiss situates Jesus in continuity with a Palestinian-Jewish background. He determines the four Gospels to be of Palestinian origin. He states that Jesus is Jewish, and his words relate to contemporary Jewish discussions. He also shows that the ethical demands of Jesus are not elements of some new moralism of universal non-national humanity, but result from a development of the religion of the Jewish prophets. Jerusalem was the center of the new faith, and the church organized itself as the synagogue had. He presents Paul as a Jew with a strong Palestinian-Pharisaic-Jewish background, with training in rabbinical interpretation, who is in part suffering by his people’s rejection of Jesus. He often directly confronts (and demolishes) the suppositions of Bousset, Wellhausen, and Baur. And while Weiss does hold some of the commonplaces of the age (the Hellenistic/Alexandrian hypothesis, that an element of Gentile freedom comes into the Jerusalem church via Stephen, a representative of the Jewish-Hellenistic enlightenment; the Judaism of Jesus’s day being lesser than the religion of the Prophets), they are still adumbrated, and not expressed in the triumphalistic and often ugly manner of Weiss’ colleagues and predecessors.

Gerdmar summarizes Weiss’ work nicely (pp 183-184):

Weiss’s characterisation of Judaism is rather different [thatn Bousset’s, Semler’s, and de Wette’s], painting a picture that is basically independent from the prevalent ‘Late Judaism’ hypothesis. Where Bousset perpetuates such positions, Weiss questions them. He upgrades the Palestinian-Jewish background of Jesus, making it his genuine background. Instead of seeing this as a disadvantage and trying to distance Jesus from it, for example, he understands Jesus’ ethics as being a development from those of the old prophets, rooted in his Jewish nation. Weiss does not describe Jewish faith in negative terms but presents Paul on the basis of his Palestinian-Jewish background; using rabbinical hermeneutics, he was “according to formation and education a real Jew in every respect”. This was seventy years before the so-called ‘new perspective on Paul’ was conceived. Weiss holds that Paul does not believe in an outright rejection of Israel—although he sees an anti-Judaism in John—and his usage of the ‘Late Judaism’ concept lacks the traditional negative notions of Bousset. Nowhere does Weiss employ stereotypes of Jews and Judaism, either in his description of New Testament Judaism or with reference to modern Jews.

Weiss’ premature death in 1914 cut short a brilliant career, quite tragically for the field, as it turns out to be. Perhaps it is that his ideas were too different from those that had become consensus for them to have persisted without his direct and cogent recapitulation. As it is, Bousset’s Die Religion des Judentums im neutestamentlichen Zeitalter (“The Jewish Religion in the Age of the New Testament”), in its first edition of 1906, and a 1926 edition expanded by Hugo Gressman, unfortunately became the standard reference work on the subject in German universities until the middle of the century. This perpetuated the old ‘degenerate Judaism’ dialectic established by de Wette as the “historical-critical method,” systematized by Wellhausen, and given a newly darker, uglier edge by Ritschl, Bousset, and Gressman.

One has to wonder, though. What would the field look like now had Weiss lived longer and propogated his methodology and conclusions more widely? As Gerdmar noted, on the subject of Paul’s Jewish identity Weiss was seventy years ahead of his time. The discussions we’re having right now relating to the “New Perspective on Paul” might instead have been fifty years in our past. What subjects might we have progressed to with an earlier recognition that Jesus was not a gnomic Gentile philosopher, but a Jewish rabbi? How might further, undone work of Weiss have had a bearing on Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis? For surely it was also under the scrutiny of Weiss’ keen intellect. And though at this point we might see it as a gnat against a hurricane, might Weiss’ approach, if it had become the consensus, have at least mitigated if not derailed the dread horror of Germany’s fully-developed antisemitism and its inevitable result?

Let the case of Weiss be a lesson. Scholarship is always developing. Yet that development is not necessarily for the better.

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