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History of Religions School had ever existed, and most scholars don’t — other than it was “flawed” and “refuted” and “outdated.”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.
“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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