Friday, June 26, 2009

Romantic and Protestant themes in Biblical Studies

Some time ago, my friend, Mad Hatter, wrote a very interesting piece on the Protestant themes emerging in Western Buddhist modernism. So I was very interested to find that Kevin Edgecomb has been reading one of the founding fathers of the historical critical method in biblical studies, Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette (1780-1849), and reflecting on the Romantic and (Liberal) Protestant biases that inform his work and that set the framework for the dominant scholarly approaches to biblical studies, Old Testament and New in the subsequent two centuries. The historical critical method not so long ago was the only way of doing Old Testament Studies but its hegemony was shattered when archeology began showing that its history was not so historical after all. At the same time, critical methodologies and paradigms were changing radically in the rest of the scholarly world, while biblical studies remained trapped in a 19th century critical paradigm. As I said the historical critical methodology has been pretty much abandoned by any Old Testament scholarship worth its salt nowadays but it still seems to thrive in New Testament studies, at least in the West, most notably in the circles that make up the Jesus Seminar (in fact it strikes me from reading Edgecomb's posts that the Jesus Seminar remains thoroughly imbued with much of de Wette's liberal Protestant and Romantic framework).

In his first post, De Wette, Devolution and Deuteronomy, Edgecomb sketches the cultural political background dominant in the Gemany of de Wette's day:

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.

Edgecomb then locates de Wette within this milieu before then summarising his overall theoretical framework:

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)

At this point he quotes the man himself:

[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.

And herein lies the rub. Edgecomb points out that the underpinning framework for the historical critical project was an anti-Judaism, even an anti-Semitism again reflceting the tenor of the times:

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.

In his next post on the subject, More of de Wette's Charm, teases out some further striking ideological associations to this anti-Judaism:

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!

I was lucky when I started my studies as an undergrad in the early 90s that not only was it a time when the historical critical paradigm in Old Testament studies was collapsing but that I was being taught by one of the scholars who was challenging that paradigm and paving the way for a new and more open and more indeterminate biblical studies. I refer, of course, to Ed Conrad. And I remember at the time Ed highlighting the anti-Jewish assumptions in the classical historical critical model. At the time I also discovered some of the work of Jewish scholar, Jon Levenson, especially his work The Old Testament, The Hebrew Bible and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies. Reading Levenson crystallised my own gradual realisation that when these historical critics were reading Jerusalem they were also reading Rome, or reading Jerusalem through the lens of Rome, Papal Rome, Catholic Rome. The irony is that nowadays historical criticism seems to thrive in Roman Catholic seminaries and universities, perhaps because since Vatican 2, Reformation has been resurgent in the Roman Church, albeit more often in a more Enlightenment and Romantic mode, than the devoutly and bitterly contested dogmatics of 16th century Europe.

But there is a further irony in the heart of the historical critical project. It's model works on the assumption of a pristine and pure beginning grounded in a pure spirit that gets corrupted and loses its way to be ossified in the dead hand of religion. The intersting thing is that the Ancient World put a value on the past that we don't hold to nowadays (although it still lurks in the Romantic back alleys of the culture). The Golden Age long gone and replacd by a more prosaic and corrupt present was the dominant understanding of the world and 'history'. This understanding was as much a Jewish as it was a 'pagan' way of thinking and it structures the Hebrew Bible/Old Testaments as much as it does any ancient Greek or Roman mythopoetry. The broad panorama of these Hebrew Bible/Old Testament texts is one of a golden past degenerating to a prosaic present. Eden to the Deluge, Noah to Babel, Abraham to Egypt, Moses to Babylon; a pristine beginning begins degenerating into disaster, the final one being the destruction of the Davidic state, exile and then the reality of life under Empire and a time when the people not only no longer are sovereign in their own land but dispersed throughout the nations. And perhaps the saga of degeneration, of trashing the community's past, serves in some way as a supporting myth to explain why Israel is dispersed throughout the nations and subject to foreigners in its land.

And it seems that de Wette and the subsequent historical critical school were seduced by this, oh so Romantic, ancient paradigm played out in the biblical texts.

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