Tuesday, June 16, 2009

De Wette and Deuteronomy

Kevin has posted what I can only describe as a rant against W.M.L. de Wette and his theory on the composition of Deuteronomy. Basically, Kevin is hung up about the fact that de Wette posits a religious decline from Moses (good, pure Yahwism) to pre-exilic polytheism ("degraded Hebraismus" as Kevin labeled it) to the post-exilic emergence of Judaism in its Deuteronomic sense. Deuteronomy is seen as an attempt to reform the "degraded Hebraismus." The issue is that de Wette was being anti-Semitic by positing a degraded Israelite religion. The larger issue is 18th-19th century Romanticism (also reflected in Wellhausen's work) which asserted the decline from pure, natural religion to static, organized religion. I don't think the Romantics limited themselves to describing Israelite religion, so can we really attribute their reasoning to anti-Semitism? Here's a quote from Kevin's post that sums up his view:
de Wette was the first to suggest that Deuteronomy was the “Book of the Law” that was discovered in the Temple in the time of King Josiah of Judah, as depicted in 2 Kings 22. de Wette ties this “discovery”, which he actually posits as a composition of the text at this time, with the imposition of a degraded Hebraismus on the people: the beginnings of Judaism. Thus, it is not any elaborate philological argument, nor any source critical discovery, nor any kind of argument based upon any logic at all that drives de Wette’s determination of the date of Deuteronomy as late. It is his liberal German Protestantant Romantic nationalist dialectic regarding how degraded Judaism was which determines it. This is in no way objective or acceptable argumentation.
Kevin goes on to completely reject de Wette's conclusions on the basis of his philosophical bias. However, he didn't offer anything in return; no alternative to explaining Deuteronomy and Israelite religion. Kevin asserts that de Wette's conclusions were based on no evidence (aside from perhaps reading the Hebrew Bible which seems to support de Wette's reasoning). The problem is that later archaeology has turned up evidence that supports de Wette, at least in part. De Wette's date for Deuteronomy is generally accepted as the consensus. The connection to Josiah's reform seems likely. The idea of a decline from Mosaic Yahwism to polytheism is generally no longer accepted, though. The early pure religion of Moses is viewed as an idealization of a past that never was. Archaeology supports the assertion that the ancient Israelites were polytheists of a sort, precisely as described in the Deuteronomistic History. Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History together describe the history of Israel precisely along that trajectory of pure Mosaic Yahwism, continual rebellion and idolatry by the people, prophets constantly decrying that idolatry, exile brought as punishment for that rebellion, the return and a re-commitment to the Torah led by Ezra and repentance for rebellion.

So if de Wette was anti-Semitic, should we also conclude that the Deuteronomist and the Deuteronomistic School were anti-Semites? I'm not ready to discard all German biblical scholarship from the 18th-19th centuries on such weak evidence of their anti-Semitism. Kevin, I understand that you're reading a lot on theological anti-Semitism this summer. Just a word of caution, it is popular in ideologically driven scholarship to demonize the opposition by reading between the lines and pulling out philosophical subtexts right and left, imputing motivation and intent. The intentional fallacy should remind us how little access we really have to what they were thinking at the time.


  1. Douglas, you'll just have to stay tuned. This is only a summary post. I will certainly provide options.

    Don't mix my words up. de Wette himself was not a racial antisemite. He was very strongly anti-Jewish. This is a crucial difference. His writings were, however, part of the evolution of German anti-Judaism into true racial anti-semitism, with disastrous consequences.

    de Wette's motivations are clear: they are not based on a rational evaluation of the evidence, but one completely rooted in his philosophical leaning. That is not objective. It is one which equates (explicitly in his words) Hebraismus, Christianity (meaning German Protestantism), and German liberal Biblical scholarship. Thus he states, explicitly, that the pinnacle of true religion is reached in his writings and those of others like him. I left that out of my post because it's so rankly absurd. I see I should have left it in.

    de Wette sees, as I quoted, a complete disconitnuity between the pre-exilic and post-exilic cultures, so different as to render the people involved "different nations." This is in no way supported by archaeology or the OT itself. Continuity of the nation throughout, rather is the story of the Old Testament. And an evaluation of post-exilic and contemporary Judaism as degraded (or "depraved" is perhaps a better translation), lifeless, and focused on the letter without spirit is simply a charicature created, fostered, and traditioned by those completely unfamiliar with the texts involved. They are, however, working to further other goals of their own, very clearly so, in their writings, which they are not shy about proclaiming. These goals and their setting, however, are nowadays universally ignored. Incorporation of and valuing these men's findings, and then regarding them as unquestionably valuable because of "consensus" is not a rational approach to the problem, but it has been consistent in Biblical Studies. You do not find this kind of voluntary donning of blinders anywhere in the rest of the humanities.

    The Biblical Studies building totters upon rotten foundations, but no one wants to look under the floorboards, and when they do, they make excuses. The house is to be condemned, torn down, and rebuilt.

    I'm sure you're going to love it when I deal with Wellhausen and the rest, and eventually Luther!

  2. Kevin,

    Thanks for your clarification. I agree that the presentation of post-exilic Judaism (or any organized religion for that matter) as static and lifeless is a caricature. Accepting a few key ideas from de Wette is not the same as accepting everything he said as right and valuable. It is rational to weigh it and sift what's good from what's crazy talk. The fact that some is crazy talk (like the quote you mention) doesn't mean it should all be thrown out on principle.

    I'll have to give the rest of your comment some thought and work on a more detailed reply when I have time.

  3. Remember that this post is only a very short and cursory summary of the Gerdmar book I happen to be ploughing through. There are other scholars covered in the Gerdmar book, and the mentality, one building upon the other, is clear and unquestionable.

    There is no reason that it should not be thrown out as crazy talk, as these days, were the man to publish it in German, it would be actionable talk. The point I want to make is that the scholarship of various of these men, still respected, is based in a completely unacceptable worldview and mentality, and their work springs directly and precisely from it. This will not be the case with all of the scholars mentioned in Gerdmar, but it is certainly the case of the liberal Protestant German scholars that he covers. For Wellhausen, I'll present some of the material from Pasto's dissertation. These things have been swept under the carpet for far too long, and some of these people treated as geniuses or heroes when the are anything but such.

  4. Kevin,

    So I'm saying - let's not be so hasty to throw out and downplay their entire contribution because they were products of their culture, but you're saying - yes, reject it all because they were products of their culture, nothing is valuable, they were all wrong.

    Just so we're clear about the sides we're on here . . .

  5. Doug,

    In case you missed it, here is what I posted over at Kevin's blog:


    I wish you well with your launch of a whole-scale alternative to the field of study of the Hebrew Bible as currently conceived. I really do. As far as I’m concerned, if you can make a plausible case for putting the composition of the bulk of the Pentateuch in the Late Bronze Age, I will be happy as a clam. I would love for that to be the case. You realize, of course, that you will have to do a bit more than cast aspersions on de Wette in order to make any headway on your project.

    Like Esteban, I recommend Barth’s work he refers to. He will make these guys come alive for you. Right now, I think your de Wette is a stick figure, a sort of action hero on the wrong team. Barth’s analysis of everyone he considers, even those he shouts his “Nein!” too, is critical and sympathetic at the same time. Though I admit Brunner and Bultmann might disagree.

    When you start building an alternative hypothesis from the ground up from the data at our disposal, and in accord with what else we now know about the ancient world, its literature, its genres, and the history thereof, from which the Hebrew Bible sprang and of which it, too, is an expression, I will try to follow your moves and comment on them from the perspective of someone who was trained by Kaufmannians in the broad sense, Jewish scholars who reject root and branch the anti-Judaism of de Wette and Wellhausen, scholars who are nevertheless convinced that J, E, D, P, and Dtr are a product of the 8th-5th centuries BCE, based in part on traditions that are older, and subject to at least some revision later.



    [addressed to Kevin:}

    You do have your work cut out for you. In my view, none of the scholars who are making vital contributions to the study of the Hebrew Bible today are anti-Judaic in spirit. Nonetheless, almost without exception, all of them work within the consensus, however modified, which you wish to call into question.

    In your neck of the woods, they include Jacob Milgrom, William Schniedewind, Marvin Sweeney, and Ronald Hendel. In my neck of the woods, Michael Fox, Bernard Levinson, and Jeffrey Stackert. Going east, we have Mark Leuchter, Jeffrey Tigay, Robert P. Wright, and Jon Levenson. Just examples, of course. In Israel, as well, let us not forget the late lamented Moshe Weinfeld, for most of us, the one who put De Wette’s hypothesis on a truly scientific basis. Then there is Israel Knohl and Alexander Rofe’, not to mention their brilliant students.

    There are of course many fine Christian scholars at work on the Hebrew Bible as well, across the world. I can’t think of anyone who is a recognized leader in the field, Catholic, evangelical, or liberal Protestant, who subscribes to de Wette’s German romanticism today, German scholars included.

    Romantic notions of authorship and the history of ideas are now more prevalent, paradoxically, in the rejectionist camp, inhabited, as I’m sure you are aware, primarily by a part of the evangelical world.

    Consensus view scholars today hold to the consensus in full awareness of the questionable and sometimes ridiculous assumptions De Wette and Wellhausen made. Jon Levenson in particular is a great read in this sense. But this is the same Levenson who penned ‘Who Inserted the Book of the Torah?,” HTR 68 (1975) 203-33. The later Levenson, like Childs and Rendtorff, are examples of a post-historical-critical approach to the Hebrew Bible. They do not reject the consensus view so much as reset the discipline in terms of a focus on the Sache of the text. It turns out, according to them, that ancient exegetes had a better sense of the genuine concerns of the text than do most modern exegetes. And of course they are right.


    The odd thing about the way Gerdmar and Pasto frame the debate, to judge from Kevin's comments only, is that debate is joined at the level of de Wette and Wellhausen. This is like joining the debate about astronomy and evolutionary biology, respectively, through discussion of Galileo and Kepler, and Mendel and Darwin, respectively.

    It has an antiquarian ring to it, in the bad sense. In the case of biblical studies, the field since has been revolutionized by the Kaufmann school in the broad sense. Yet Kaufmann's continuators have not rejected but reworked what they thought were the undeniable insights of their historical-critical opponents.

  7. John: thanks for weighing in on the issue and giving such a thorough response.

    Kevin: I want to respond further to your initial comment here. First, I think that de Wette's main contribution - dating Dtr to the seventh century - stands on its own - independent of whatever philosophical biases de Wette may have had. The conclusion is logical based on biblical evidence, not any "philosophical leaning." That's why it's been retained in biblical studies and is supported even by many Jewish scholars such as John's mentioned like Fox, Levinson, and Rofe. Second, I'm not sure what evidence supports your statement that "Continuity of the nation throughout, rather is the story of the Old Testament". There is a difference between the assertion of continuity by the post-exilic community (i.e., Ezra-Nehemiah) and a real continuity of material culture in Judah from pre-exilic to post-exilic times. There is, in fact, a discontinuity in relgious artifacts, language, etc. between the communities.

    Time prohibits further musings on the topic tonight.

  8. This is a great discussion. John your comments are eespecially helpful. I imagine that Kevin might find Levenson's book, "The HB, OT, and Historical Criticism" engaging. Also, not that it really matters for this conversation, but I don't think Schniedewind and Stackert are Jewish. The wording was a little ambiguous for me. John, or anybody else, I'd love to hear your opinion of the younger scholars on your list such as Stackert or Leuchter. John Anderson had an interesting discussion of up snd comers to the field and these might be a helpful contribution to that discussion.


  9. Yes, Schniedewind and Stackert are Christians, or at least one would presume so given their educational backgrounds. In my haste, My wording was misleading.

  10. Doug, there are a number of objections to a strictly seventh century Deuteronomy, and I'll get to those, eventually. de Wette's foolishness isn't the only reason to reject it. And, acceptance by any or all Jewish scholars is irrelevant. Scholarship should not be an ethnic poll or decided by plurality. On the distinction btw exilic and post-exilic, you'll have to demonstrate a complete break btw the two periods and people groups: the territoty of Benjamin, N of Jerusalem, was inhabited continually. There is no break there, but continuation. And to say "The conclusion is logical based on biblical evidence" is hardly the case. Based on "biblical evidence," you'd have to accept it as Moses' own pre-death speech. It's rather the secondary/tertiary/etc literature that makes this case, and much of it shares a dialectic rooted in the German past under discussion.

    Gerdmar isn't making the connection with these men's scholarship (and of the bit I've read of Pasto, neither is he). I am. G & P are solely documenting the anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism of German Biblical scholars, not solely de Wette and Wellhausen (though these two receive majority treatment in Pasto's dissertation). Here is the list of chapters in Gerdmar. There will be plenty of opportunity for me to offend the scholarly heroes of any number of people in the coming days.

    My short answer to John is here.

  11. Kevin, it's getting late, so maybe I'm not thinking clearly but you seem to be consistently missing the point. Acceptance by Jewish scholars is relevant if your argument was that de Wette's conclusion rested solely on anti-Jewishness, not biblical data. By "biblical evidence" I was referring not so much to what the Bible claims for itself (as your response presumed) but to the plausible historical context for the appearance of its legal innovation of cultic centralization that is articulated by Rofe as quoted in my subsequent post.

    At any rate, I look forward to your future postings on the subject though I will likely not have time to comment much with my preliminary exams starting in less than 6 weeks. I need to study more and blog less.

  12. One of my learned colleagues (who doesn't like to comment on blogs) sent me the following response to Kevin's post and earlier comments here.

    ------begin quote-------
    Problems I see:

    (1) Temporal Reductionism: De Wette was late 1700's, the high point of German scholarship was ca. 1900 (or late 1800's if you like). I love generalizations. Kevin is homogenizing "biblical studies" too much.

    (2) No address of the issue in Deuteronomy that prompts De Wette: De Wette's project was significant in scholarship b/c it allowed for a reconstruction of Israelite religion in the face of a big issue in interpreting the history of Israel. How could Deuteronomy--that raft of specific rules--just get lost? How could Josiah's reform make sense unless it was really a RE-form? That's the evidence for De Wette's idea--an implausibility of context for the biblical story. Kevin doesn't touch in his end-around ad hominem argument.

    (3) Too quick to cry "anti-Semitism" and too quick to fuse Israelite Religion and Judaism: Even the Bible proposes a degradation of Israelite religion at various points. Is the Hebrew Bible anti-Semitic?
    ----end quote----

    More food for thought anyway. I, for one, am through with this subject for now.

  13. I can't seem to trackback/pingback from WordPress. Here's a link to my late-to-the-party reflections. Summary: Really excellent conversation.

  14. Good luck on your prelims, Doug. Don't bother with this stuff. You can always catch up later. I'll be posting on it on and off over the summer.

    I recommend my comment over on Brooke's Anumma.

    Is your colleague reading me deliberately superficially, or is he just fond of speciousness? Just asking.

  15. He enjoys both superficiality and speciousness immensely, so I'm not really sure which it was. Seriously, I have no idea. I was just passing along his comment. I think most of us are just confused about what exactly you're trying to prove. I'm sure future posts will help us all to see the light; though you can expect ringing silence from me in the comments - knee deep in PhD exams and all that.

  16. Well, I think it would help if everyone had Gerdmar's book and Paasto's dissertation at hand, which I'm merely summarizing. Without that, what I'm seeing is criticism of stuff that no one has read.

    Happy studying, and good luck. Keep up the good work. A healthy dose of skepticism can be a good thing!

  17. Hi, I'm the guy who enjoys speciousness and superficiality.

    My statement about the reduction of the temporal development of biblical studies isn't too substantial, and the quip about the Bible being anti-Semitic really was just a poke.

    However, the matter of the plausibility of the scriptural account of the account of the discovery of the scroll in Josiah's time really is an issue. The book of the Torah got LOST?! The book that happens to contain the bulk of the material about centralization of the religion? Those sorts of questions are examples the issues that critical scholars raise--and I think that they're ultimately helpful.

    At one level the early critical scholars well may have been nationalistic bigots with a false sense of the trajectory that developing cultures take (i.e. the Romantic notion that youthful cultures are vibrant and simple, and aging cultures are complicated, rule-mongering killjoys). It's valid to say that early critical scholarship has the devolution of Israelite religion as a pillar. That doesn't deserve protection--at least I don't want to protect that--and I doubt that anyone really thinks otherwise.

    However, the wholesale dismissal of biblical scholarship is what bothers me. I think that people are more than their respective contexts and their presuppositions and that learning from study is possible. I want to protect is the idea that even deeply flawed people can still notice valid details of the biblical text and hold them up for examination. The problem with saying that biblical scholarship as we now know it is rotten to the bottom is that there's no room to salvage the insights about the biblical text that those scholars had.

    The most basic definition that I know of a critical perspective is that it does not grant automatic privilege to the text (any text). Those who have adopted a critical perspective on the biblical text notice things about the text that people who want to privilege the text don't notice (and the reverse is true). I consult critical scholarship because it helps me notice the remainder of the biblical text that a synthesizing confessional approach can obscure (i.e. the rough edges). In a similar way, the confessional approach to the biblical text exposes a different remainder--the possibility of coherence.

    Best of luck in your project.

    -Tod Twist

  18. Tod,

    Very, very well said. I hope you starting posting on these things, and whatever else is on your mind.