The Historical-Critical Exegetes: A Brief Summary of the Consensus in the 41st Century

Herman Von Voelkenhausen
Catholic University of Cologne
St. Benedict XVI Chair of Theology
April 12, 4019

+JMJ+

Before outlining the views of the majority of contemporary scholars on the historical-critical tradition of the 19th and 20th century, it is worth first mentioning the traditional view of that school from which our own views have arisen and evolved beyond.

Writers of the 22nd century onward who reflected deeply on the historical-critical phenomenon, scattered as such writers are, assume that the exegetical school was simply directly inspired by Spinozistic and post-Kantian ideals to re-envision the Scriptures in a radical way, breaking with the cumulative conclusions of the ages and the clear teaching of the Church. These exegetes supposedly became immensely popular, even holding chairs in the most distinguished theological faculties of Europe, where they would really speak and teach their students directly. Their lectures and writings were the real motion towards a culmination in the “Jesus Seminar,” the fullest expression of the movement, which was followed by a number of special disciples who gradually unpacked the wisdom contained therein in the midst of the larger academic community that turned to join the historical-critical movement in this final phase of critical scholarship.

We must now pause and admit that all of this seems rather childish to us, but to the majority of theologians and historians from the year 2100 until well into the 3800’s, this simplistic position was simply taken for granted. It is no wonder; due to the limited knowledge of the 19th and 20th century which was available to the early authors, we cannot expect very much accuracy on their part. The advent of the internet came only near the very end of the 20th century, and immediately afterward came that dark cloud of Fake News, which persisted well into the mid-22nd century. With such imprecise methods of research and communication, we should be inclined to go easy on those who first attempted to react to the historical-critical phenomenon. The tradition which took their analyses in good faith, it is true, has less excuse insofar as their means of investigation increased in quality, but those authors were hindered by the all-too-natural allure of continuity and the professional risk of speaking out too boldly.

The first point which nearly all authors now make is that of the difference between the “historical exegetes,” and the “scholars of faith.”

The exegetes are the real human beings at the center of the scholarly movement traditionally placed in the 19th to 21st centuries (although it seems increasingly likely that these early dates are fallacious). Many of them, it is granted, really did exist as human beings. But it matters very little what these men really were in their historical lives – it mostly matters that they existed. For instance, whether or not some sayings of Rudolph Bultmann were actually spoken by him is largely irrelevant; what really matters is that a tradition developed which sees him in connection with such sayings.

The “scholars,” then, are the writers in the minds of those who received their teachings and modified them. We encounter the scholars in the writings which are associated with them by name.

Immediately the question is raised – how were these writings produced? “The books bear the names of the authors themselves,” it is objected. As foolish as it sounds to us, it was once unthinkingly presumed that, since an exegete’s name was attached to a text that he must have actually written that text himself. The prevailing theory today is that while some writers did indeed exert a kind of influence over the writings that bear their names, in almost every case we see a kind of pseudepigraphy.

A fundamental body of writing in the historical-critical tradition will serve as a fine framework for an introduction to the methods we are using today to analyze this period of theology. This collection of books was traditionally presumed to be the work of a single author, but now the agreement is that it actually is an amalgamation of several written traditions under the redaction and collection of later theologians. First, there is the Kuenen source, or K. Next, the Graf source, G. Third, the Hupfeld source, H. Finally, the Reuss source, R. Over time, a careful redaction on the part of later German exegetes over the coming decades would piece these writings together to form what the historical-critical tradition, and those who uncritically write of its history, has called the collected works of Julius Wellhausen.

Perhaps there really was a Julius Wellhausen, but the “historical exegete” is, in any case, less important than the significance of the “scholar” represented in the popular imagination of the academy of the 20th century. For those first disciples of the masters of the historical-critical tradition, such as Wellhausen was to those who followed in that tradition, they really were seen as true scholars, important figures who somehow had advanced the theological milieu towards a new era.

It should be noted that the most recent quest for the historical Albert Schweitzer has come up largely empty. There is now, however, a broad consensus that he was not born in Alsace-Lorraine, but in Tübingen – to place his birth in an as-then recently annexed part of France was a clever narrative device used to broaden the appeal of the historical-critical movement beyond Germany in the long-term. That is to say, there was a value of a kind of “academic annexing” being imposed on the narrative of the Schweitzer character during the period of redaction of the earlier records of his life. It is well established that he did spend time in France, but to place his birth and childhood in anywhere but Germany finds no support except the primary texts themselves, which, as we have said, have changed the narrative to suit their own ideological agenda.

In the 19th century, the time for historical-critical exegesis was ripe, as there were expectations in the air for such a movement, after the Prussian myth of Schleiermacher had taken hold of the European imagination. (The Schleiermacher-myth was distinct from but related to the Prussian myths of Fichte and Kant, all of which were zealously absorbed and appropriated by the “Hegelian Community.”) Eventually, this all culminated in the well-known “Jesus Seminar” Event. While most scholars agree that there really was a Jesus Seminar, there is little consensus beyond three points: that the Jesus Seminar was formed around the year 1980, that it preached an apocalyptic doctrine about the coming end of traditional Biblical theology (with itself as a central catalyst), and that it ended in a shameful demise.

An example will serve us well to illustrate the attitude of current scholarship on post-Jesus Seminar thought. Virtually all historians of theology today recognize the minimal “historicity” of the writings of Bishop Spong, that is, Spongian authorship. Instead, various radical publishing houses collected the reports of various moderate pieces of scholarship on the part of Bishop Spong, and they published books under his name. Why? Clearly, these publishing houses had their own theological agenda which they were willing to advance, even in the face of such enormous ridicule. Their reflection on the meaning of Spongian theology prompted them to take a courageous attempt at promoting work largely inspired by his own teachings but which was itself a radical development of them. This is a standard model for the era.

The writings of all the post-Jesus Seminar theologians are typically dated to the late 21st to early 22nd century. It was a common pious mentality of devotees of the historical-critical exegetes, and especially those following the Jesus Seminar, to view the writings traditionally attributed to figures such as Bishop Spong, Bart Ehrman, and Paul Bradshaw as being written much earlier than they really were. It has been firmly established, however, that Bradshaw did indeed write his work first, and Spong and Ehrman based their writings on his, and upon other accounts of the Jesus Seminar and the tradition it represents. Furthermore, these three works draw on a common source, “Q,” (from the French, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” – “What is it?”) which links them together. They are altogether in a different tradition, however, than the Reza Aslan tradition, which is decidedly more “spiritual” than historically minded in its presentation.

Of course, as is well-known, current academics consider many of these texts to have been compiled by the communities which gathered around these figures. The Spongian community, the Aslanian community, and so on. (Bradshaw, it is true, perhaps did actually write his own works – but it is altogether clear that he himself could not have come up with the idea that John was unaware of an Institution Narrative – this was a later redaction by the publishing house.) The growing majority also views most of the writings attributed to Bart Ehrman actually to be complete forgeries – fully dishonest, albeit clever, pseudepigraphy. (Several editions and translations of his work have also left us wondering what the “true” or “original” texts were in the first place – the recent unearthing of hundreds of copies of the text “Jesus Interrupted” in what is thought to be a 25th century Siberian landfill may prove to be a crucial discovery to aid us in getting to the bottom of this vexing problem. My own forthcoming work “Misquoting Bart Ehrman” will investigate this data at length.)

The motivation for our project is simple: it is altogether unrealistic that such men would have really existed, taught, and written as they are traditionally have thought to have done. Their doctrines are too systematically bizarre and radically incoherent to have been the products of single authors; it is altogether unthinkable that, even given such bad scholarship, they somehow gained wide acclaim to the point of wielding true academic and intellectual authority. Therefore, what was at stake in the 19th and 20th centuries, and what was carried on by the disciples of historical-criticism in the centuries which followed, must be studied under a hermeneutic which takes the spirit of the tradition seriously while retaining the position that such fantastical theories themselves were not taken literally by those who first originated them. It was only later generations of devotees of historical-critical exegesis who, in their zeal, took these traditions to be literal works of Biblical scholarship.

Post by: Eamonn Clark (NB: Faith is a gift – let no man boast… Let us pray for souls who lack such a great grace to see and know the Living God!)

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