You are on page 1of 3


(1986) The Cross of the Son of God, trans. John Bowden, London: SCM Press. (1995) Studies in Early Christology, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark.

2 History of the approach


1 2 3 4

Description History of the approach Reactions to the approach Modern applications

1 Description

Historical approaches to biblical interpretation involving the study of religion are grounded in the work of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule (loosely translated as the history of religions school). The religionsgeschichtliche Schule ourished during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the rst two decades of the twentieth century as part of a larger movement that investigated all religions as a product of human culture and human experience. Biblical scholars, particularly German Protestant scholars, sought to understand the religion of both the Old and New Testaments within the context of other religions. Members of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule attempted to be free from philosophical or theological assumptions, interpretations, and formulations of biblical questions. Rather than focus on doctrine, dogma, and theology, these scholars chose to investigate the Bible under the rubric of religion, particularly religious experience, cult, and practice. Guided by positivism, they focused almost exclusively upon historical and comparative analyses (deemed presuppositionless investigation). The results of their work tended to be descriptive of the history and chronological development of biblical religion. The rise of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule should be understood in relation to the advances within other disciplines at the time, including anthropology and ethnology. Particularly important was the burgeoning eld of archaeology with its discoveries in the Near East and the deciphering of ancient languages. Evolutionary theory played a signicant role in providing the theoretical framework of development from more primitive forms to highly developed forms within the natural world. For the religionsgeschichtliche Schule religious practice and belief were understood as developing along a similar continuum. Investigators also looked for parallel trends in various religions and were interested in the trajectory of inuence. They were particularly concerned with the prehistory of Jewish and Christian practices and concepts.

It is unclear who coined the term religionsgeschichtliche Schule for the movement, although it rst appears in the early 1900s, (Colpe 1961: 9 n.1). The roots of the movement, however, stretch throughout the nineteenth century. Julius Wellhausen brought together and synthesized the work of previous scholars in what has become known as the classical expression of the documentary hypothesis (JEPD; see his Die Composition des Hexateuchs und der historischen Bcher des Alten Testaments, 1889). The priestly legislation was seen as a late development, while the prophetic tradition came to the fore as the means whereby the religious beliefs of the Old Testament were created. Ancient Hebrew faith was compared to other primitive religions and similar developments could be traced. Eventually, this line of investigation led to what has been termed the panBabylonian school, which held that the religious ideas of the Babylonians were the source of the religious themes of all peoples of the ancient Near East. Hermann Gunkels Schpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (1985) is seen as the inauguration of religionsgeschichtliche Schule research. In this and other works Gunkel investigated the development of the Old Testament in light of other religions of the time. He emphasized that the texts of the Old Testament were the result of long processes of oral transmission within the contexts of community life and institutional structures. Other Old Testament scholars such as Hugo Gressmann and Emil Friedrich Kautzsch pursued this interest in Israelite religions beginnings, development, and relationships to other religions and particularly how its practices were conceived and developed (cf. Miller 1985: 201). In New Testament studies, the religionsgeschichtliche Schule took hold at the University of Gttingen with the work of Albert Eichhorn. In Das Abendmahl im Neuen Testament (1898) Eichhorn argued that the presentation of the Lords Supper in the New Testament reects the dogma of the church rather than the original, historical event of Jesus. In order to explain the development from Jesus to the sacramental cult meal of the church one must employ the history of religions method (Kmmel 1972: 253). Gunkel moved from Old Testament studies to the New Testament to argue that the religion of the New Testament was inuenced by Graeco-Roman religions by way of syncretistic Hellenistic Judaism (Zum religionsgeschichtlichen Verstandnis des Neuen Testaments, 1903). Thus, Christianity itself was a syncretistic religion. Similar themes appeared in other works such as those of Johannes Weiss. The influences on early Christianity were broadened to the mystery religions of antiquity through scholars such as Richard Reitzenstein, Alfred Loisy, and Wilhelm Bousset (see Ascough 1998: 509). Interestingly, although admitting the inuence 157


of Judaism, the mysteries, and Gnosticism upon the thinking and practices of the early church, these scholars often maintained that the actual gospel preached by Jesus remained untouched by such syncretism (cf. Kmmel 1972: 271). Rudolph Bultmann represents the third generation of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule that began to develop in the early 1920s. He was particularly interested in Gnosticism and its inuence on earliest Christianity, but also moved the religionsgeschichtliche Schule into new methods such as form criticism, existential interpretation, and demythologization.
3 Reactions to the approach

and Hellenistic religions and the various expressions of Christianity. Both Testaments were recognized as containing not one coherent religion but a variety of religions and religious documents. Revelation was seen as a product of human history and experience rather than a direct self-disclosure of God (Hayes and Prussner 1985: 137). Noncanonical material also began to draw serious attention as a source for the study of the religions of the Old and New Testaments.
4 Modern applications

The ndings of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule scholars were disseminated in both academic and popular works. However, many came into conict with ecclesiastical authorities and some even lost or left university positions. The work of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule tended to undercut theological work as it relativized the sacred literature out of which theological systems were constructed, challenging claims to uniqueness, absoluteness, revelation, and nality (Miller 1985: 202). The religionsgeschichtliche Schules period of influence ceased after the First World War due to both social and theological shifts in Germany, particularly Karl Barths dialectical theology. In its place there arose the biblical theology movement. Early critics focused on the movements propensity to explain Christianity in human terms without taking account of its supposed superiority to all other religions or of its uniqueness among the worlds religions (see Kmmel 1972: 310; Malherbe 1989: 7). Others emphasized that the investigation of Christianity must be set within the life of faith, with belief in the incarnation as a precondition to historical investigation (see Kmmel 1972: 319). Still others suggested that the religionsgeschichtliche Schule failed to explain what made Christianity distinct and thus allowed it to ourish and eventually triumph where the other religions failed. Such critiques were aimed at preserving the perceived integrity of the Christian faith without engaging in the material presented by the religionsgeschichtliche Schule proponents. Later critics have recognized that the most serious mistake of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule was a kind of myopia which led them to believe that once they had traced the origin and development of an idea or of the entire religion, they had said fundamentally what needed to be or could be said (Hayes and Prussner 1985: 134; see further Ascough 1998: 5963). On the positive side, advances made by the religionsgeschichtliche Schule led to the development and acceptance of various historical-critical methods such as form criticism and redaction criticism. A much greater understanding of the biblical texts and their social context was gained alongside a wider appreciation for Semitic 158

Recently a new form of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule approach has been operative in biblical studies. In Old Testament studies since the 1960s there has been a shift from the post-Second World War emphasis on biblical theology to a renewed interest in the history of religion (Miller 1985: 201). Bolstered by archaeological discoveries of this century, the work of recent interpreters such as Claus Westermann and Frank Moore Cross has brought about greater awareness of the importance of setting the history of Israel within its larger context. While not losing sight of Babylon, there has also been a rise in interest in other nations surrounding Israel, such as Egypt, Phoenicia, Moab, and Ugarit. Rather than simplistic genealogical connections being made between Israels religion and that of its neighbours, there is a growing recognition of a complex interaction with that world at many points, sometimes out of it, sometimes against it, often in a kind of creative tension that appropriates much from the milieu while giving it a new shape that may produce a rather sharp disjunction (Miller 1985: 208). New Testament studies in the 1960s and 1970s experienced a shift in the history of religions approach when scholars moved away from simply looking for the sources of the ideas and practices of Christianity. Through a broad comparative analysis, scholars recognized ways in which Christianity and Judaism confronted, conformed to, and were modied by their cultural environment. However, investigators often did not go far enough; Malherbe (1989: 11) suggests that the whole range of possible ways in which religions react when they meet, extending from opposition or rejection through amelioration to assimilation, conscious and unconscious, should be taken into consideration. A recent proponent of a new way of undertaking the history of religions approach is Jonathan Z. Smith. Smith advocates avoidance of arguments for the dependence of one religion upon another, the genealogical argument. Rather, Smith proposes that biblical religions be compared to other religions analogically wherein the aim is not to nd direct relationships. The comparative process serves to highlight similarities and differences. The connections rest in the mind of the interpreter and help the interpreter understand how things might be reimagined or redescribed. The com-


parison takes place around a specic set of options which is specied by the interpreter. This approach does not preclude the borrowing of aspects from one religion to another. However, rather than simply explain origins, Smith proposes that the setting beside one another of various facets of religion will lead to greater insight and awareness of both the religions being studied. Thus, ancient Mediterranean religions might be compared with modern Oceanic cargo cults in terms of myth and ritual. Clearly, one is not dependent upon the other, but examination of phenomena in both can lead to a greater understanding of each. Work done recently on all aspects of ancient religions shows that it is no longer adequate to speak of Israelite religion, or Hellenistic Judaism, early Christianity, or the like, as if these entities were monolithic, consolidated movements across time and geographical regions. In its place there is a growing recognition that one must speak, for example, of Israelite religions or early Christianities, thus giving recognition to diverse expressions and developments. This is true even at the microlevel where, for example, we might note that Pauls Galatian Christian community would not see itself having strong afnities with Pauls Philippian Christian community. Rather than claim that any one expression is unique or pristine, the differences among the biblical religions themselves, and between biblical religions and other ancient religions, invite negotiation, classication, and comparison (Smith 1990: 42) in order to understand each more fully.
References and further reading

Miller, P.D. (1985) Israelite Religion, pp. 20137 in The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters, D.A. Knight and G.M. Tucker (eds.), Philadelphia: Fortress Press/Chico: Scholars Press. Smith, J.Z (1990) Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity, Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Ascough R.S. (1998) What Are They Saying about the Formation of Pauline Churches? New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press. Colpe, C. (1961) Die religionsgeschichtliche Schule. Darstellung und Kritik ihres Bildes vom gnostischen Erlsermythus, FRLANT 60, Gttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Hayes, John H. and Frederick Prussner (1985) Old Testament Theology: Its History and Development, Atlanta: John Knox. Kmmel, W.G. (1972) The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems, trans. S. McLean Gilmour and H.C. Kee, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2nd edn. Malherbe, A.J. (1989) Greco-Roman Religion and Philosophy and the New Testament, pp. 326 in The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, E.J. Epp and G.W. MacRae (eds.), The Bible and Its Modern Interpreters 3, Philadeiphia: Fortress Press/Atlanta: Scholars Press. Metzger, B.M. (1968) Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity, in Historical and Literal Studies: Pagan, Jewish and Christian, NTTS 8, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 124.

Jesus as a gure in history has emerged again, to the surprise of the academic world. Book after book has appeared, written for the most part by a generation of scholars who had been taught during their postgraduate studies that little could be known of the life of Jesus. The dictum of Rudolf Bultmann was often quoted: I do indeed think we can know almost nothing about the life and personality of Jesus (1958: 8).The wisdom of our teachers was that the Gospels were written in order to inspire faith in Jesus as the Christ; therefore reliable information about him could not he discovered in them. Jesus is in the news again because many of us such as John Dominic Crossan, Paula Fredricksen, Robert Funk, E.P. Sanders have rebelled against our teachers. Why the rebellion? As in the case of any insurrection, there has been a combination of internal discontent and destabilizing circumstances. The internal discontent was caused by a deep unease about the conventions of postgraduate education. The claims that Christianity makes about Jesus in the New Testament are obviously designed to awaken faith in him. But the argument of Albert Schweitzer, that the abiding and eternal in Jesus is absolutely independent of historical knowledge and can only be understood by contact with His spirit (1910: 399), fed the insistence of NeoOrthodoxy that readers could not get behind the New Testaments faith, which they just had to take or leave. Nonetheless, the New Testaments claims are made about a person who is located in history. It is intellectually dishonest not to include the study of Jesus in an account of how the New Testament and the Christian religion arose. In fact, the old denial that Jesus could be known historically turned out to perform a service for the conservative waves of Christian practice, thought, and scholarship which flourished during the twentieth century. If Jesus could not be known in history, then the way was open to assert that only the teaching of the church could say anything about him. Both Protestant fundamentalism and Catholic papalism could easily live with scholars of the New Testament who had everything to say about the genre of the texts, and nothing to say about the person the texts spoke of. After the Second World War, a new quest of the his159