The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (3)

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by Tim Widowfield

Ernst Troeltsch

In the previous post, I promised to discuss a group of scholars who changed the perspective of biblical scholarship. I was referring to those whom we commonly group into the religionsgeschichtliche Schule. In English we call this the History of Religions School. The German term, religionsgeschichtliche, implies a secular, critical-historical approach toward religion. The reputation of the History of Religions School has not fared well over the past few decades.

A withering review

For example, in Ben Witherington’s scathing review of Robert Price’s Jesus Is Dead, he writes:

In any case, one of the things that movies like ‘The God who is not There’ and the Zeitgeist movie, and Robert Price’s book have in common is a reliance on the old, and now long since out-dated and refuted notions of the Religionsgeschichte Schule [sic] when it comes to the issue of Jesus and the origins of Christianity. It seems that my former Gordon-Conwell classmate, Bob Price, and various others as well did not get the memo that these sorts of arguments are inherently flawed, have often been shown to be flawed, and shouldn’t be endlessly recycled if you want to argue cogently that Jesus didn’t exist and/or didn’t rise from the dead.

What is the Religionsgeschichte Schule [sic], and why is this school now closed? The history of religions approach to early Christianity, and to Jesus himself, involved as its most foundational assumption that the origins of what we find in the NT in regard to Jesus, resurrection, etc. come from non-Jewish culture of various sorts, particularly from Greco-Roman culture, but also (as the Zeitgeist movie was to remind us) from Egyptian sources. In short, anything but an origin in early Judaism is favored when it comes to explaining the NT and Jesus. (italic emphasis Ben’s, bold emphasis mine)

Just for the sake of accuracy, Religionsgeschichte is a noun; religionsgeschichtliche is the adjectival form. He got it right in the title, but muffed it four times in the body of the review. Still, you have to hand it to him; he actually mentioned it. These days, you’d hardly know the History of Religions School had ever existed, and most scholars don’t — other than it was “flawed” and “refuted” and “outdated.” Just learning those pejorative modifiers would appear to suffice, or at least to keep you in good standing within the guild.

When is a school not a school?

We may find it somewhat difficult to describe a school whose members often insisted there was no school. In “The Dogmatics of the ‘Religionsgeschichtliche Schule,'” Ernst Troeltsch explained:

In the first place, it should be remarked that the matter here indicated is not a specifically German problem in any sense of word; neither is it really a new question; nor does the movement rest upon any simple and unitary foundation so that a “school” might properly be said to be built upon this foundation. The movement signifies, in general, simply the recognition of the universally accepted scientific conclusion that human religion exists only in manifold specific religious cults which develop in very complex relations of mutual contact and influence, and that in development it is impossible to make the older dogmatic distinction between a natural and a supernatural revelation. (Troeltsch 1913, pp. 1-2, emphasis mine)

Troeltsch argued that we now know Yahweh-worship did not arise in a vacuum. The Israelites came in contact with other cultures who had different ideas. These ideas cross-pollinated with and changed Judaism, which evolved.

It is no longer a biblical problem, but rather a problem of the history of religions. The same may be said of the further development of Yahweh-religion into prophetism, into legalism and priestly religion, into messianism, and into apocalypticism. Moreover, the same must be said concerning the exceedingly difficult task of explaining the origin of Christianity, which already in the preaching of Jesus presupposes the peculiarly complicated religious history of late Judaism. (Troeltsch 1913, p. 4, emphasis mine)

If we accept the notion that Jesus came from a Jewish background, steeped in messianism and apocalypticism, then his message of the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God, his calls to repentance, his cleansing of the Temple, his running afoul of the authorities all make a kind of sense. That is, we can for the most part understand Jesus’ basic trajectory from his baptism by an apocalyptic wild man to his death on the cross within the eschatological context of Judaism.

However, when we examine the religion that expanded out from there, we have more difficulties. We have trouble explaining, for example, how the deification and worship of a man, the ritualistic drinking of blood, or the plurality of God could arise from Judaism. Troeltsch put it this way:

Jesus’ life and teaching must be interpreted not by reference to later Christology and metaphysics, but exclusively in the light of prophetism and late eschatological Judaism. The rise and development of the Christ-religion into a new community and church, so strikingly different from Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God, constitutes as yet a much-discussed but still unsolved problem, in the solution of which, however, religionsgeschichtliche interpretations play an important part. (Troeltsch 1913, p. 9, emphasis mine)

For Troeltsch, and certainly for Wellhausen and Wrede, who took the religionsgeschichtliche stance, Jesus was a Jew, and the basis of his message came from Judaism. And while later scholars may have engaged in rampant speculation about the origins of Christian sacraments and gospel legends, nothing exists intrinsically within the religionsgeschichtliche “Schule” that requires us to look for those origins solely in Greco-Roman religion or the mystery cults of the first century. Troeltsch, as we see above, would not have agreed with that approach at all.

Since and sensibility

And yet Witherington writes:

Thankfully the vast majority of scholars, Jewish, Christian, or of no faith at all have long sense [sic] realized that the NT and its ideas, and Jesus himself cannot be explained or explained away using the tired old arguments of the Religionsgeschichte [sic] Schule. The discussion has moved on, but those most determined to exorcise Jesus from their historical worldviews have ignored or are ignonrant [sic] of the fact that their arguments are not cogent and will hardly persuade anyone except those who already want to believe such things. 

Of course unfortunately, most readers in the 21rst [sic] century don’t know the history of Biblical scholarship, don’t know about the origins of the Religionsgeschichte [sic] Schule in Germany during a period when anti-Semitism was rapidly on the rise, and therefore there was a need to explain away the Jewishness of Jesus and the NT (remember the Jesus-was-an-Aryan argument?), and so they now find these sorts of arguments useful or even compelling in the attempt to banish Jesus from the halls of history and relegate Christianity to some third rate Greco-Roman rehash of a religion. (emphasis mine)

Remember: When in doubt, always pull out your big, broad brush, and paint your enemies as anti-semites. It works every time. I must congratulate Ben for packing so much irony into a couple of paragraphs. And I would be tempted to laugh, until I recall that he is a respected scholar with a real PhD, working at a real seminary, teaching real students.

The basis of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule is simply this: Religion is a human endeavor. And like any other human endeavor, religion evolves, takes on ideas from other cultures, and reinvents itself. If that’s true, then we can and should try to study it in a systematic, critical, scientific way.

Troeltsch identified two main interests at hand: the emergence of Christianity and its development over time (the “historical side”) and the theology of Christianity (the “philosophical side”). In neither of these interests could one legitimately say any sort of “school” exists.

What school? Where?

Where a Schule could exist, he argued, and where foundations were only starting to be laid, was in the question of the structure of Christianity. He called it “the ultimate theological problem, viz., . . . the exposition of a Christian religious system (which is what we mean by dogmatics).” (Troeltsch 1913, p. 6)

And beyond that, he asked:

But what do we mean by Christianity? This is the second fundamental inquiry, and the second task of dogmatics is to be found in the answer given to it. The first investigation leads us only to Christianity in general, not exclusively to the Bible, but to the whole living, historical complexity known as Christianity. This, however, represents an extraordinarily extensive world of thought and life with widely divergent periods and epochs. It cannot, just as it stands, furnish the principles and the materials for dogmatics.

Moreover, its interpretation is very definitely conditioned by religionsgeschichtliche study which shows how the primitive biblical religion was bound up with very definite temporary conditions, how Platonism and Stoicism blended with Christianity until the two were indistinguishable, how various national, political, and social ideals conditioned and transformed it, how Protestantism, with the conception of a religion of individual assurance, gave it a new significance, and how modern science and humanitarian ethics have drawn it under the sway of their influence. In view of these facts, it is clear that for more than one reason the Christianity which is to be expounded by dogmatics is not identical with the thought-world and the ethics of the New Testament. Such simple biblicism is impossible. (Troeltsch 1913, p. 11, emphasis and reformatting mine)

Along comes Wrede

One scholar in particular who followed the religionsgeschichtliche stance assiduously was William Wrede. In The Messianic Secret, Wrede took the bold step of treating the New Testament as if it were any other book, with the expectation that to find any historical truth within it, we have to use historical-critical methods. When you see other scholars (Albert Schweitzer, for example) disparage Wrede’s “thoroughgoing skepticism,” you should understand that they were referring to Wrede’s point of view — his stance.

Treating the gospels as ordinary books was decidedly not the norm. Recognizing that Mark had sources with differing points of view with respect to Jesus’ understanding of his own messiahship was an unpleasant jolt. And concluding that the historical Jesus did not see himself as the Messiah was, for many biblical scholars at the time, wholly out of bounds.

What concerns us here is the fact that Wrede, in order to study the gospels critically, had to construct an analytical framework. To put it another way, he had to create a credible historical methodology for studying the scriptures. This sea change meant that honest scholars would have to stop pulling ad hoc arguments out of thin air and start from a serious, historical foundation. It also meant they would have to start approaching the Bible as skeptically as they would any other human literary work.

In the next post, we’ll take a closer look at Wrede’s framework.

Troeltsch, Ernst

“The Dogmatics of the “Religionsgeschichtliche Schule,'” The American Journal of Theology, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Jan., 1913), pp. 1-21, The University of Chicago Press

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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11 thoughts on “The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (3)”

  1. Die “Religionsgeschichtliche Schule” (German), University of Göttingen website. (in German) @ https://www.uni-goettingen.de/de/die-religionsgeschichtliche-schule/57155.html

    Eddy, Paul Rhodes; Boyd, Gregory A. (2007). The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Baker Academic. p. 93. :

    [T]he German Religionsgeschichtliche Schule of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—now often referred to as the “old history of religions school.”

  2. Hi Tim, do you mean:
    And concluding that the historical Jesus did see himself as the Messiah was, for many biblical scholars at the time, wholly out of bounds </i>

    …or this:

    And concluding that the historical Jesus didn’t see himself as the Messiah was, for many biblical scholars at the time, wholly out of bounds.

    I ask this because Bob Price raises an interesting point about the Messianic Secret in Mark:


    And I wonder who was the first scholar to show that idea (because I think that surely he is not Price).

      1. Price is repeating partially not Wrede here, but more precisely (I think) Georges Ory’s view according to which the original idea about Jesus by the people was the same answer given by Peter. Something as:

        27 And Jesus went out, and his disciples, into the towns of Caesarea Philippi: and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Whom do men say that I am?
        And Peter answereth and saith unto him, ”(The men say that) Thou art the Christ.
        30 And he charged them that they should tell no man of him.

        In my view, Price is saying, with Ory, that the people (+ Peter) had a wrong opinion about Jesus: they believed that he was the Jewish Messiah but really he was not the Jewish Messiah, but the marcionite Christ. Hence the strange reaction of Jesus with the his exhortation to silence.

  3. Hi Neil,

    Off topic question: Christian missionaries tell Jews that shortly after Jesus’ death, the rabbis altered the Hebrew Scriptures to eliminate any possible prophecies about Jesus. Jews such as Rabbi Skobac of “Jews for Judaism” deny this. They accuse Christians of distorting a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the LXX, and “shoehorning” Jesus into these mistranslations. Who is right? Do you have a post on this topic or can you refer me to a book or online source which gives an unbiased evaluation of this issue?

    1. Hi, gary:

      This is Tim. I have seen many references to the Christian claims that Jews “doctored” the Masoretic Text, and that the LXX is a witness to an older text. I’m not sure if we’ve discussed this before in detail here on Vridar, but I’ll look into it.

  4. Peter de Mey, “The Influence of Metaphysical and Epistemological Presuppositions on Jesus Research Then and Now: Reconsidering the Christ-Myth Debate” (paper presented at the conference “Sourcing the Quests: The Roots and Branches of the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” Leuven, 28 April 2004):

    Troeltsch remains an adept of the historical method in theology. A group of believing Christians gathered around the symbol of the risen Christ. But they had good reasons to do so.

    It is not a question of individual details but of the factuality of the total historical phenomenon of Jesus and the basic outline of his teaching and his religious personality. This must be capable of being established by means of historical criticism as historical reality if the ‘symbol of Christ’ is to have a firm and strong inner basis in the ‘fact‘ of Jesus. (The Significance of the Historical Existence of Jesus for Faith, p. 198)

    The verification of the basic historical facts concerning Jesus, even if sometimes denied or neglected by those who consider belief in Christ‘s salvific work the only remedy against original sin, thus, is believed by Troeltsch to be equally indispensable for the continued existence of Christianity.
    According to Troeltsch, the “lack of community and cult is the real sickness of modern Christianity and contemporary religious practice generally.” Prior to all doctrinal developments, the first Christians first of all gathered to worship Christ. Relying on “the laws of social psychology” Troeltsch argues that the founder of the Christian religion remained the necessary “archetype” of generations of Christian communities since then. Troeltsch deems it not very likely that a time will come in which this will no longer be the case. Even if “ordinary piety” does not absolutely require the person of Jesus”, organized Christianity will stand or fall with his existence.

  5. Additional messianic contenders:
    In B. J. VI. v. 4, where in our texts the prophecy of the world-ruler is referred to Vespasian solely, the Slavonic Josephus states, “Some indeed by this understood Herod, but others the crucified wonder-doer Jesus, others again Vespasian.”

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