Thursday, January 27, 2011

Julius Wellhausen, the Academy, and the Church

Just read a significant chunk of Julius Wellhausen's Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel for a class I'm taking this semester.  The book mostly deals with the source hypothesis for the Pentateuch and is actually quite well written.  Wellhausen gets a lot of flack for being "anti-Catholic" in his rhetoric, I'm attempting here to give him a more charitable reading. 

Wellhausen lays out his hypothesis for the composition of the Pentateuch, which builds on the work of several earlier German scholars who had argued that various sources of material were worked together, probably sometime during the late Kingdom or after the exile, into a single canonical text that we now possess.  Wellhausen's main argument has to do with the nature of the source-texts.  One, known as "J" (from the German transliteration of the divine name YHWH as Jehovah) Wellhausen argues is the earliest and represents the earliest stage in Israelite religion in which religion is much more individualized and much less structured.  Wellhausen gives a preference for this form of religion.  A second source is Deuteronomy, which likely stood more or less as an independent text before its incorporation into the Pentateuch.  This represents a middle ground in the development of Israelite religion, Wellhausen argues, marking a movement toward centralization but not its completion.  The final source is the Priestly source, which Wellhausen claims is the latest because it demonstrates the most structural development, the most emphasis on ceremony and presupposes a centralized hierarchy.  This form of religion is stifling, Wellhausen claims, and destroys the moral and social fabric of Israelite culture embodied in the "J" source.

I'm simplifying Wellhausen a little, so two brief caveats.  Fist, Wellhausen is aware of a fourth source, "E" (from another name of God- "Elohim") but he thinks that this source has largely been combined with "J" and so separating the two is very difficult.  Second, while I am using the modern abbreviations for the sources, abbreviations that Wellhausen also uses, many of the source divisions are understood differently now.  My point in this post is not going to be to attempt to defend Wellhausen's theory about source divisions.  I am merely wanting to note something about Wellhausen's intentions that I think has been helpful for myself in terms of relating scholarship to my faith.

What I want to note is this: Wellhausen's book reads like a sermon.  Now, doubtless it is a Protestant sermon.  There seems to be little doubt that Wellhausen did really have the Catholic Church in mind when he wrote about the Priestly source and its stifling version of religion.  As I write this I am on a train coming back from a conference in which I might very well have been the only Protestant present, so there is a little bit of guilty pleasure in reading Wellhausen and his not-so veiled criticisms of Catholicism.  But putting aside my Protestant defensive mechanisms, I do think Wellhausen is being unfair to the Catholic faith.  So I'm not going to defend him on that count.  However, I think if we read him a bit differently, and I'm granting that on the level of "authorial intention" I think this is an incorrect reading, his sermonizing is actually quite valuable.  Wellhausen is worried about any form of religion that has become all ritual and that exists for the purpose of elevating the power of a particular priestly class.  He holds up instead a religion that is deeply connected to the social and especially the familial life of the community as the ideal.  To him that is a much more pure expression of religion, a much more true form of worship.  It lacks many of the rules of the later Priestly code- sacrifice is not restricted to Jerusalem, it need not be performed by a priest in any particular manner.  It can be done in the home as a familial act of worship and thanksgiving.  In that way, the worship becomes an extremely important aspect of these people's lives, it becomes much more personally meaningful and significant.

Whatever our agreements of disagreements with Wellhausen's scholarship, both on the point of the finer details of where to make the source divisions and on the more significant questions of his anti-Catholic bias, I think this reading provides a valuable model of how scholarship can interact with the life of the Church.  Scholarship does not need to exist in isolation from the questions that face the life of the Church.  Instead, it should address these problems.  This calls for a careful balance- we should not rewrite the history of Israel to support our particularly theological bias, which is what many accuse Wellhausen of doing (though interestingly, the basic outline of his theory is still the working model of most Old Testament scholarship today).  Neither, however, should studying the history of Israel be devoid of implications for how we view our own theology and worship as the contemporary Church.  Scholarship of the first kind tends toward some sort of fundamentalism- either on the right or the left end of he political spectrum.  Scholarship of the second kind tends toward isolation of the academy from the Church.  The goal should be to strike a balance between the two and do responsible scholarship that is still relevant to the Church of our day.

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