Johannes Weiss, 1863–1914

UnknownThis year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Johannes Weiss (13 Dec 1863 – 24 Aug 1914). The son of the noted NT scholar Bernhard Weiss and the son-in-law of the liberal theologian Albrecht Ritschl, Weiss produced an impressive number of publications over a wide range of topics, before he died just short of his 51st birthday.

The conservative American Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen met Weiss while studying in Marburg (where Weiss then was, before moving to Heidelberg). At first Machen was not terribly impressed and said so in his letters home: “J. Weiss I have only heard one morning. He doesn’t seem to be gifted with the imagination of Jülicher, but then not everybody can be a genius”. Later he wrote: “As to J. Weiss, the chief professor of New Testament, perhaps his claim to renown lies chiefly in the fact that he is the son of Bernard Weiss of Berlin – one of the greatest New Testament scholars and conservative at least in the fundamental point of the miraculous (& in a great deal else too). J. Weiss is, however, anything but conservative…..But after all, I cannot think him to be at all a scholar of the first rank, nor do I think he will ever be.” Several years on, Machen revised his opinion and said “I thought of him rather as a popularizer than as a profound scholar. I have since then come to see that this impression was totally incorrect. His Urchristentum and above all his amazing, rich and learned commentary on 1 Corinthians have made me repent of my youthful injustice to one of the ablest of modern New Testament scholars” (see Dennison 2009).

Weiss’s reputation was made on his brief study of Jesus’s Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, first published in 1892 (the basis of the English translation) and later revised in 1900. In this work, intentionally held back until his father-in-law Ritschl had died, Weiss opposed the liberal Ritschlian tradition of seeing the kingdom of God as something achieved within history by human cooperation under God. Rather, he placed a firm emphasis on the eschatological element of the kingdom,writing, “as Jesus conceived of it, the Kingdom of God is a radically superworldly entity which stands in diametric opposition to this world. This is to say that there can be no talk of an innerworldly development of the Kingdom of God in the mind of Jesus! On the basis of this finding, it seems to follow that the dogmatic religious-ethical application of this idea in more recent theology, an application which has completely stripped away the original eschatological-apocalyptic meaning of the idea, is unjustified. Indeed, one proceeds in an only apparently biblical manner if one uses the term in a sense different from that of Jesus” (Jesus’ Proclamation, 114).

If Albert Schweitzer’s programme comes to mind, this is no mistake. Schweitzer followed on from Weiss, though faulted the latter for restricting, as he thought, Jesus’s eschatological stance to his teaching, and unjustifiably refrained from extending this to his action as well. Since Schweitzer’s 1906 work was translated into English very soon after its publication, Schweitzer’s take on Weiss determined his Anglophone reception. Mark Chapman notes: “Whatever its shortcomings, in the mediation of an eschatological interpretation of the Gospels to England, Albert Schweitzer’s Von Reimarus zu Wrede was of vital importance and Weiss was known, if he was known at all, only second-hand…Thus even though Weiss’s historical scholarship, at least in respect of New Testament origins, was far more rigorous and critical than Schweitzer’s, it was through Von Reimarus zu Wrede that Weiss’s influence in England was mediated” (Chapman 2001: 76).

Eventually, however, Weiss came to be seen as an early voice for the eschatological take on Jesus that has come to dominate at least wide strands of historical Jesus work. Writing in mid-20th century, N. Perrin contended that “In retrospect one can see that the whole modern interpretation of Jesus and his teaching stems from these sixty-five pages” (N. Perrin, with reference to the first edition of Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, as cited in the ET). This book is still worth reading today, and offers a punchy presentation of Jesus’s eschatological preaching, even if it remains a product of its time.

Why not pay homage to the great scholar by reading some of his work? I offer here a brief bibliography of works by and about Weiss. Tolle lege!

Works by Weiss:

a) in English translation: Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, translated and edited with an introduction by Richard Hyde Hiers and David Larrimore Holland; Lives of Jesus Series; London: SCM, 1971 (n.b., a translation of the shorter 1892 Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes); “Acts of the Apostles,” “Ethics,” “King,” and “Passion Week,” in James Hastings, A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (Scribner’s 1906); Christ: The Beginnings of Dogma (1911); Paul and Jesus (1909); “The Significance of Paul for Modern Christians,” American Journal of Theology 17 (1913): 352–67; The History of Primitive Christianity (2 vols.; translated by ‘four friends’, edited by F. C. Grant; New York: Erickson, 1937; translation of Das Urchristentum, posthumously completed)

b) untranslated works: Der Barnabasbrief kritisch untersucht (1888); Die Evangelien des Markus und Lukas, with B. Weiss (1892); Ein Beitrag zur Frauenfrage (1892); Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes (1892, 19002, 19643); Die Nachfolge Christi und die Predigt der Gegenwart (1895); Beiträge zur paulinischen Rhetorik (1897); Ueber Ansicht und den literarischen Charakter der Apostelgeschichte (1897); Die Idee des Reiches Gottes in der Theologie (1901); Die christliche Freiheit nach der Verkündigung des Apostels Paulus (1902); Das älteste Evangelium (1903); Das Offenbarung des Johannes (1904); Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments (1906-1907, a collaborative commentary on the NT for which W. was editor and responsible for the synoptics and Revelation); Die Aufgabe der neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft in der Gegenwart (1908); Der erste Korintherbrief (Meyer Kommentar; 1910); Die Geschichtlichkeit Jesu (1910); Jesus im Glauben des Urchristentum (1910); Jesus von Nazareth: Mythus oder Geschichte? (1910); Ueber die Kraft. Björnsons Drama und das religiöse Problem (1912); Synoptische Tafeln zu den drei älteren Evangelien mit Unterscheidung der Quellen in vierfachem Farbendruck (1913).

Other literature:

Brown, “Weiss, Johannes,” in Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters; R. Bultmann, “Johannes Weiß zum Gedächtnis,” ThBl 18 (1939): 242–246; F. C. Burkitt, “Johannes Weiss in memoriam,” HTR 8 (1915): 291–97; Mark D. Chapman, The Coming Crisis: The Impact of Eschatology on Theology in Edwardian England (JSNTSup 208; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), esp. 58–80; W. D. Dennison, “J. Gresham Machen’s Letters Home from Marburg, 1905–1906,” ZNTG 16 (2009): 241–75; Friedhelm Hartenstein and H. D. Betz, “History of Religions School,” Religion Past and Present; D. L. Holland, “History, Theology and the Kingdom of God: A Contribution of Johannes Weiß,” BR 13 (1968): 54–66; B. Lannert, Die Wiederentdeckung der neutestamentlichen Eschatologie durch Johannes Weiß (TANZ 2; Tübingen: Francke, 1989); idem, “Weiß, Johannes,” TRE 35 (2003): 523–26; W. Schmithals, “Johannes Weiß als Wegbereiter der Formgeschichte,” in C. Breytenbach, ed., Paulus, die Evangelien, und das Urchristentum (AGAJU 54; Leiden: Brill, 2004), 328–54; Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, first complete edition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001); W. Willis, “The Discovery of the Eschatological Kingdom: Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer,” in idem, ed., The Kingdom of God in 20th Century Interpretation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 1–14.

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