Franz (1813-1890) und Friedrich (1850-1922) Delitzsch

Franz Delitzsch was a great scholar of the Hebrew Bible in his day, and his commentaries on the Old Testament are still highly regarded (in the series with his colleague Karl Keil–if you watch, you can find the 6-volume OT set of “Keil and Delitzsch” on sale for around $100.00.  His prodigal son Freidrich couldn’t have been more different in his approach to the Old Testament.

Franz Delitzsch had a great knowledge of the Hebrew language and the Hebrew Bible.  In fact he translated the NT into Hebrew, for use in Jewish evangelism.  He was a friend of the Jewish people and defended them against attacks in his own country.  He was convinced that the OT was the inspired word of God, a testimony to Christ, and an essential part of the Christian Bible.

Hebrew belongs to the Semitic family of languages.  Historical-comparative linguistics was a growing discipline in the 19th century: Arabic, Syriac, and Ethiopic were the primary Semitic languages available for comparative study, and Delitzsch learned and used these languages to enhance his knowledge of Biblical Hebrew.  There are many rare words in the Hebrew Bible, and there are grammatical obscurities.  Often a point of grammar or vocabulary can be clarified by referring to one of the cognate Semitic languages.  So the Keil and Delitzsch commentaries will sometimes make reference to one of those languages to clarify the Hebrew.

Delitzsch employed the historical-grammatical method in his exegesis of the Old Testament, guided by a reverent faith.  He was not at first impressed by the historical-critical approach of Wellhausen, in particular with the documentary hypothesis.  However, he was an up-to-date scholar, and tried to remain honest and open-minded.

Eventually he became convinced by some of the arguments for the documentary hypothesis and came to this compromise: the portions in the Torah that are explicitly declared to be written by Moses, he accepted as written by Moses; but for other portions he allowed for the possibility of editors, redactors, or compilers.  Moses, of course, is not mentioned at all in Genesis, and in Deuteronomy he is the main speaker but the narrator who tells the story of Moses’ words and actions in the framework of the book, is unnamed.  So Delitzsch’s compromise left quite a bit of room to accommodate current “scientific” theories and approaches.

(Keil wrote the commentary on the Pentateuch in the joint series.)

Franz Delitzsch was a careful scholar who had one foot in the old “pre-critical” world and another in the modern critical world.

His son Friedrich at first seemed to follow in his father’s footsteps.

 A whole new field of study was open for historical and linguistic comparative study—the world of Assyriology.  Akkadian cuneiform was deciphered by the 1850s,  and the great library of Nineveh had been discovered in 1842.  Since Nineveh was the capital of ancient Assyria, and since it’s library furnished the first treasure-trove of new material, the new discipline of studying cuneiform literature became known as Assyriology.  Later study revealed that the language (now known as Akkadian) includes two major dialects of Assyrian and Babylonian, each of which is subdivided into period: Old, Middle, and Late (or Neo).  So Assyriologist today could in fact study Old Assyrian documents or they could specialize in Neo-babylonian.

 Friedrich Delitzsch became an accomplished Assyriologist, specializing in Old Babylonian material.  In 1902 he gave a series of lectures in Berlin entitled “Babel und Bibel.”  These lectures were a sensation, attended by important people and reported in the world’s newspapers.  As a sensational event in popular culture, they have been compared to the Scopes Trial in Tennessee.  Friedrich Delitzsch published a two volume book on the Old Testament in 1921 called The Great Deception.  (More)

 Delitzsch compared the biblical accounts of creation and the flood, as told in the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic, the Enuma Elish, and Atra Hasis, among others.  His conclusion was shocking: there is nothing original in the Bible!  The Old Testament is nothing but a second-hand retelling of ancient myths and legends, not as artfully told.  The civilization of the Babylonians was vastly superior to that of the Hebrews.  Moses was an ignorant uncivilized shepherd.

 Delitzsch indulged in the trendy racism of his day.  The crowd responded with hilarious laughter when he said Moses even went so far as to marry a “negro woman.”

Friedrich Delitzsch considered himself an enlightened Aryan Christian.  He concluded that the Old Testament is the book of a non-Christian religion written by an inferior people.  He recommended that it be dropped from the church’s Bible.

As outrageous as this sounds to us, it seemed perfectly reasonable to many German Christians.  The leading liberal theologian of the day was Adolph von Harnack, a lifelong resident of Berlin.  Harnack was a neighbor of the Bonhoeffer family, a colleague of Dietrich’s father NN who was a respected professor of Psychiatry at the University of Berlin.  Regular dinner at the Harnacks was a part of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s upbringing.

Harnack published a serious historical study of the ancient heretic Marcion in YYYY.  He painted a sympathetic portrait and agreed that Marcion was right to reject the Old Testament.  Harnack believed enlightened liberal German Christians had no need for such a primitive book.  Nevertheless, he was not an anti-Semite and was didn’t live to see the worst results of a church severing its ties with Israel.

Harnack remained a defender of liberal theology and had a series of debates with Barth, whom he considered a fundamentalist.  Bonhoeffer studied historical theology with Harnack for a year, before choosing another professor as his Doktor-vater.  He maintained a respect for the old gentleman while rejecting his liberal theology.  Bonhoeffer wrote a meditation from prison lamenting how his generation had put too much faith in reason and culture—and they had failed them in the time of crisis.  He must have been thinking of Harnack especially when he wrote that.

Von Rad joined with Barth, Bonhoeffer and others in the Confessing Church—confessing that Jesus Christ alone was Lord and leader or (Führer) and protesting the idolatry of nationalism and racism.  The confessing church also testified to the unique role of Israel in the purpose of God and to the importance of Israel’s testimony to Christ in the Old Testament.  Von Rad was one of the few Old Testament scholars in the pre-war era to uphold the importance of the Old Testament for Christian faith.  He was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Delitzsch the younger.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: