Julius Wellhausen was the scholar who put the finishing touches on the documentary hypothesis. For a hundred years before him, other scholars had been analyzing the sources of the Pentateuch–Wellhausen extended the analysis to Joshua and called the six-book work the “hexateuch.”

It is easy to remember the dates for Wellhausen (do you think this could be a hint about a quiz question?). He produced his most famous works about a hundred years after the American Declaration of Independence. Specifically the first edition of his Composition of the Hexateuch was published in German in 1876. Two years later, in 1878 the first edition of his famous Prologemena to the History of Israel.

Think about the importance of these dates for the intellectual milieu in which Wellhausen worked. On the one hand he comes about a hundred years after Kant and the Enlightenment. The American and French Revolutions came out of Enlightenment. The American Revolution and Declaration of Independence were more directly influenced by John Lock, but Kant’s philosophy strongly favored democracy as well.

The Enlightenment strongly emphasized reason and science. Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859 when Wellhausen was about 15 years old. How do you think that book might have influenced him?

The 19th Century was also the age of Hegel, who believed the Absolute Spirit was actualizing itself in history, and of Marx, who saw history as driven by material causes in the class struggle.  The Romantic poets and painters  celebrated what is spontaneous, natural, and primitive–in reaction to the Enlightenment’s excessive preoccupation with reason.  Nietzsche celebrated the vital urges of life including the drive to superiority, and Kierkegaard sought a more personal and authentic expression of Christian faith.

The movement that would become known as the  history of religions school was just getting organized.  Using approaches from the new sciences of anthropology,  sociology, and comparative religions, this approach believed that all religions developed according to natural laws.  Religion progresses through regular phases: animism, ancestor worship, polytheism, national gods, and eventually monotheism.

Inspired by the Romantics,  scholars of comparative religions did not despise “primitive” religion.  They believed it was a vital and real force in the lives of its practitioners.  They also valued myth, believing it was a creative way of portraying truths, values, and insights that could not be expressed otherwise.

A great influence on Wellhausen was Wilhelm De Wette.  De Wette admired the religious spirit of the creators of what he considered the myths that make up the Old Testament.  In his historical-critical studies of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, De Wette made two influential claims:

  • First, that monarchy preceded the Pentateuch.  There were Kings in Israel before there were priests, laws, or temple.  The Pentateuch was not written by Moses but arose during the monarchy.
  • Second, there is a history within the Pentateuch.  Specifically, the book of Deuteronomy was composed last after the other books.  An early version was composed during the reign of Josiah and “discovered” in the temple.  The rest of the book was composed in the post-exilic period.

Wellhausen’s reconstruction of the Old Testament is famous for two elements:

1. The Documentary Hypothesis. He taught that the Hexateuch was composed of four sources, which he labeled J, E, D, and P. They are listed in chronological order: J being the oldest and P the latest.  J and E were combined at an early date, and Wellhausen did not worry about separating them.  Deuteronomy was no longer the last book, it was the Priestly Document (P).  Wellhausen was relatively unconcerned with the final editor(s) who assembled the four sources in their final form.

2. He used the reconstructed sources to rewrite the history of Israel’s religion.  Israel’s religion went through various stages from a primitive animism to ancestor worship, to worship of a tribal god, to exclusive worship of one national god (without denying the existence of other gods), eventually to real monotheism.

We have to remember two things about this evolutionary development: according to romanticism, primitive is good.  Second,  progress is not always one way and in a straight line.  There is also decay.  Specifically for Wellhausen, he admired the passion of the 8th century prophets, but disparaged the legalism of the Deuteronomic lawgiver, and the ritualism of the priestly writer. For Wellhausen, the religion of Israel ends in decay, preparing the way for the new religion of Christianity.

10 Responses

  1. What evidence is used to establish Wellhausen to an Hegelian scheme of history? Most of the evidence I have seen so far only points to Vatke being influenced by Hegel, and Wellhausen dispensing, more or less, with Hegel’s system. I would like to establish any direct connection between Hegel and Wellhausen if possible.

  2. Scot,

    It’s a fair question, and I will have to look into it further. Maybe I’m relying on a “received tradition” about W. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that he uses a developmental framework that was current in the 19th century and that was influenced by a variety of philosophers?

  3. Further Googling has pointed to a few sources that either demonstrate or acknowledge an implicit association with Hegel. The best one is Presidential Voices By Harold W. Attridge, James C. VanderKam. I had come to the same conclusion as you of a “developmental framework,” for Hegelianism did not die, it just went unnoticed, or unacknowledged. And Darwinianism was in full swing, so I think that conclusion is accurate. If you could find any supportive material/references, it would be helpful, for I am trying to develop a connection between Hegelian or dialectics and higher criticism. I believe that a dialectical paradigm/methodology is used to justify the “conclusions” of the various schools of higher criticism. Thank you for your prompt response.

  4. I’m not much of an expert on Hegel. Darwin may be a more important influence. Wellhausen said he wanted to undertake a scientific investigation of the OT.

    I plan to learn more about Hegel over the next couple years–part of another project, learning more about the philosophers that influenced Bonhoeffer (or with whom Bonhoeffer interacted): Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, primarily.

    For now, I’m content to say that W. was influenced by the Zeitgeist or milieu of the 19th c. One can see the influence of many current of thought–whether it was direct and conscious or more indirect.

    I believe W. was a colleague with the classicist Willamowitz. I would also like to explore that influence further.

    I think it is fairly easy to fit W’s stages of Israelite religion into a “thesis/antithesis/synthesis” framework–but it is an oversimplification to identify that with Hegel; he did not originate that framework nor use it exclusively.

    I don’t think W. used concepts like “absolute spirit” to explain Israelite religion.

  5. Matthew Sciabarra (Total Freedom) and Bertell Ollman (Dance of the Dialectic) have written some very good books on the dialectic. I have a much better understanding of Hegel and the dialectic because of them, and would highly recommend their works as an excellent resource and because of the numerous references. Thanks for you thoughts about the dialectic influencing W, I will see what I can find out about that as well. Thank you for your time.

  6. Julius Wellhausen’s real contribution to the world is not higher criticism or a new way of looking at the Bible, but rather the excuse people, especially dictators like Hitler and Stalin, needed to ignore the God of the Bible and do their own thing, including the extermination of millions of human beings.

    Wellhausen’s contribution to the Holocaust in Europe cannot be denied. Though I’m sure he had no idea where his theories would lead, when you combine his teachings about what the Bible is and where it came from with the teachings of Darwin and Marx, you have the perfect storm of rationalism that made the state the highest good, and the greatest evil. After all, if God is dead, the Bible cannot be divinely inspired, and there is no higher authority than the state. With God out of the way (?), who was to say that the mass murder of millions of human beings was wrong? If “might makes right,” then what the Nazi’s and the Communists did was not wrong, only offensive to those who didn’t approve. Thus is life without God! Europe is still basically living without Him, in that only about 1% of all Europeans attend church or worship God regularly. Of course, since God and nature can’t stand a vacuum, the religious void in Europe will be filled with something. Want to guess what that will be? Start brushing up on your Arabic, the Muslims are coming! (They’re already there.) They may bring a holocaust that will rival anything the world has seen yet. Thanks, Mr. Wellhausen.

  7. The statement: “I don’t think W. used concepts like “absolute spirit” to explain Israelite religion.” says much.

    W. and his contemporaries appear to me to have “intelectualized’ the scritures to the furthest degree. While being a romantic, he was still influenced by Darwin in that he accepts the “evolutionary process” of the religion of Israel. It seems to me that W. and others negate the involvement of the “Spirit of the Lord” in building a personal relationship with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the nation of Israel, and ultimately the Christian community.

    It seems to me that The Holy Spirit and Jesus himself, nust be taken into greater account when it comes to the issues of authorship, interpretation, etc. As for how we do this, I humbly admit, is beyond my grasp.

    I do know this, I am often frustrated with comentarries, and research articles that sound intelectual, but avoid controversial issues (or interpret/dismiss a passage because of personal bias). This is part of what is driving me to further my knowledge and skills.

    I respect W. for his work, as I do other authors I read. They have put in the time and hard work. , and offer tremendous insights. Ultimately, though, it is truth I’m hungry for.

  8. I am enjoying reading the insights and opions about W. One thing I would add to the “developmental framework” and “Zeitgeist” that Mark wrote about is that it is the process of thought that motivated W, and that continues to motivate most left thinking theologians, etc. The process is the dialectic, and I am very interested in being able to tie W. into using the process, and not necessarily the Hegelian dialectic. For the dialectic has a very long history, and if you read the tempation in the Garden, you will note the Socratic Dialectic being used by Satan as he temps Eve. Two men have identified this in print, the first is Dean Gotcher and the other is Dr. John MacArthur. Ultimately, the dialectic is at odds with truth because it can be used to justify any position a person wants to take. It allows them to “intelluctualize” until the truth is lost in jargon that is not relevant to living the truth. Keep up the discussion, for I am learning. Thanks

  9. The idea that Wellhausen’s criticism of the Old Testament is based on or was influenced by Hegel and/or Darwin is total nonsense. These assertions are all from biblical fundamentals who oppose Wellhausen’s historical reconstruction. W’s problems all stemed from earlier O.T. scholars’ problems, who were trying to reconstruct ancient Israel’s past. These historical problems all derive ultimately from the O.T. itself. One needs to READ WELLHAUSEN, not accept what other say about him.

    • I agree that one should read Wellhausen himself, that he was working with problems within the text of the Old Testament itself, and that he put the finishing touches on the work of other scholars.

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