Monday, February 16, 2009

Wellhausen wasn't that bad of a guy

James McGrath has reported on his exciting weekend at the Midwest SBL Meeting in Illinois. I would've liked to catch the session on teaching the Bible. He writes:
A nice moment was when one member shared the experience of reading Julius Wellhausen's Prolegomena to the History of Israel, and how clear it was when reading that book that Wellhausen's source critical approach was an attempt to make sense of the text, not impose a pre-defined framework upon it. Critical reading of the Bible is nothing other than an attempt to take the Bible seriously, all of it in all its details and with all its difficulties. Pretending that the Bible doesn't have these features is, by way of contrast, an act of infidelity to Scripture.
Wellhausen often gets a bad rap, usually from people who haven't read him or at least haven't read him charitably. One reason ad hominem is so effective is that we tend to see things as worse than they are when we already "know" that someone else was wrong and have a bad impression of that person.


  1. Great quote. Thanks for posting this Doug.

  2. The points in Prolegomena where Wellhausen falls short of his normal standard for critical excellence, though, are definitely related to his anti-Semitic ideology--it seems to blind him at times to things he would otherwise notice and treat with due critical rigor. This seems to be Kaufmann's major criticism of Wellhausen.

  3. Chris,

    Indeed Wellhausen did have his flaws. I think Kaufmann's main criticism of Wellhausen though was against his Romantic notion of the devolution of a "pure" religious expression of Ancient Israel into the dead and ritualized organized religion of later Judaism. Whether or not that was related to anti-Semitism is hard to say.

    The point is that he was doing his best to deal honestly with the text - even the parts that troubled his understanding. Whether he arrived at the right understanding is another question.

  4. there hasn't been a scholar of wellhausen's stature since von rad and bultmann- both of who learned a good bit from him. nor has there been a scholar of his stature since them.

  5. Apart from the Prolegomena, I found Semeia 25 a valuable collection of articles appraising Wellhausen's legacy. He was a true polymath.

    I remember reading (probably in that issue) about one sermon preached in the late 19th century along the lines of "Ye cannot believe the Bible and Wellhausen!" I think it's safe to say we will continue to deal with the legacy of 19th century scholarship for the foreseeable future...