Deutsch-centricity in New Testament Histories of Research

I love Germany, the German language (even if I wish it came more naturally to me) and the German exegetical tradition. Where would New Testament study be today without the theologically robust criticism that has flourished in Germany (and of course in pre-unification German-speaking states as well)?

But I’ve noticed that certain histories of research have a tendency of suggesting that all true beginnings to a given problem’s solution began in Germany. Probably the most famous and egregious example of this is in accounts of historical Jesus research. It flourishes early with Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus – tellingly titled in German, Von Reimarus zu Wrede, which ignores almost entirely non-German works (with a few French titles for seasoning but very few in other languages). Then the German, Protestant, Lutheran Bultmannian idea, popularised in English by James M. Robinson’s book, A New Quest of the Historical Jesus, and then furthered in Tom Wright’s invention of the so-called ‘3rd Quest’ (in his updating of the Stephen Neill history of NT research), that there was a cessation to the Quest in the early 20th century, led by Bultman, and then a new quest inaugurated by Käsemann, et al., until the 3rd Quest happened. The tendentiousness of this historiographical periodisation has been rightly subjected to scrutiny by some recent scholars (e.g., F. Bermejo Rubio, “The Fiction of the Three Quests: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Historiographical Paradigm,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 7 (2009): 211-53; Mauro Pesce, “Per una ricerca storica su Gesù nei secoli XVI-XVIII: prima di H.S. Reimarus,” ASE 28/1 (2011): 433-64).

Another example: in a recent collection of essays (to which I contributed), F. Stanley Jones assembled a number of pieces that challenge the idea that the modern category of ‘Jewish Christianity’ was invented by F. C. Baur in 1831, and show that its roots actually go back to English Deism.

The roots of some historical critical approaches in English Deism have, of course, been often noted, and one of the best books about this phenomenon is The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World by none other than the great German scholar, Henning Graf Reventlow. But such occasional acknowledgements don’t seem to permeate the mainstream of NT scholarship as they might, perhaps in part since many see the Forschungsbericht as a kind of necessary evil to be done in a hasty prolegomenous fashion before getting on to what is truly important, instead of engaging it as the hermeneutical precondition of our own historical understanding of the very questions posed to us. There may also be a kind of teleology inherent in our historiographical backward glances that only allows us to see as genuine predecessors positions that agree largely or entirely with a modern consensus, when in fact there may be significant ways in which basic stances are first inaugurated even if the conclusions on critical issues don’t match entirely what our contemporary critical orthodoxy suggests.

One more to add to the pile of exceptions. Many discussions of the authenticity of the disputed Pauline letters will begin with, say, Schleiermacher’s doubts about 1 Timothy in 1807, or Baur’s rejection of the Pastorals as a corpus in 1835, or Eduard Mayerhoff’s doubts about Colossians in 1838. But there is in fact a significant predecessor to this Echtheitskritik, seldom noted, in the 1792 work by Edward Evanson: The Dissonance of the Four Generally Received Evangelists, and the Evidence of their Respective Authenticity Examined (Ipswich: G. Jermyn, 1792; second ed., 1805). In an appendix to his work on the Gospels, he considers the rest of the NT (255-89). His conclusions are radical and, some may say, ‘unscientific’ – and perhaps it is this lack of methodical rigour that has led to his work being forgotten by the mainstream of critical scholarship. He rejected Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, Jude and the letters to the seven churches in Revelation. It’s revealing that – the howler of Romans aside – this list does correspond to modern critical views, with the addition of the Pastoral Epistles, of course. He appeals to doubts in the early church about some of these (e.g., Hebrews and 2 Peter, etc.). He rejects Romans on the strength of the evidence of Acts (257-61), and rejects Ephesians (261-62) on the strength of some evidence still appealed to today, e.g., the incongruity of Paul’s lack of firsthand acquaintance with Ephesians (taking the address in 1.1 to be original); his argument is similar in regard to Colossians (263). He also casts doubt on Philippians (263-67) and Titus (267-69) but with less conviction. In passing, he questions Philemon (269). He also expresses doubts over Hebrews’ Pauline authorship (269-75). He also argues against the authenticity of James, which he sees as coming from a later time (275-77), against both 1 Peter (277-79) and 2 Peter (together with Jude: 279-80), and against all the Johannine epistles (280-83), although he curiously thinks nothing of Paul predicting the ‘state of the Church in later times’ in 1 Timothy (268).

Naturally my point here is not to claim that somehow Evanson based all of his opinions on irrefragable evidence, nor that he was a visionary to whose opinions we should all return and pay homage. But he should at least be acknowledged a bit more in our critical histories.

And I suspect that it would not be difficult to find many more such examples of opinions that first came to light in the radical English Enlightenment and only then were subsequently transplanted to German soil (sometimes, probably, through French intermediaries). Reventlow has done a real service in highlighting some of these, though there are probably more to be discovered.

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  1. Rehabilitating F.C. Baur with Jens Schröter and Matthew Hopper | German for Neutestamentler

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