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SBL e-journal

Alan T. Levenson





Was the Documentary Hypothesis Tainted by Wellhausen’s Antisemitism?



APA e-journal

Alan T. Levenson





Was the Documentary Hypothesis Tainted by Wellhausen’s Antisemitism?






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Was the Documentary Hypothesis Tainted by Wellhausen’s Antisemitism?

Julius Wellhausen’s analysis of the Torah is perfused with the anti-Jewish sentiment prevalent in Bismarck’s Second German Reich. This adversely affected the use of the Documentary Hypothesis among Jewish scholars until Yehezkel’s Kaufmann’s introduction of a Jewish variation on the theory.


Was the Documentary Hypothesis Tainted by Wellhausen’s Antisemitism?

Julius Wellhausen, ca. 1900, age 56. Wikimedia

Since the 18th century, the Documentary Hypothesis, the theory that the Pentateuch is made up of multiple independent sources, has existed in a variety of forms. Nevertheless, most Bible scholars highlight the publication of Geschichte Israels (Israelite History), later called Prolegomena to the History of Israel, by Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) in 1878 as the most significant expression of the theory, the culmination of a century’s inquiry.[1]

In Wellhausen’s day, the Documentary Hypothesis was seen as incompatible with divine revelation, which is why he stopped teaching the DH to theology students at Greifswald. His task there included preparing students for the Protestant ministry,[2] and he did not think his source critical approach was consistent with that goal.[3] The remainder of his illustrious career was spent as a professor at Halle, Marburg, and Göttingen universities.[4]

The Degrading of Israelite Religion

Three of Wellhausen’s conclusions stand out for what they implied not only about the religion of the Old Testament (as he called it) but about Judaism:

  1. The development of biblical texts over time correlates with broad changes in religious thinking.
  2. While the prophets lived long after Moses, the prophetic literature of the literary prophets, such as Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah, are more ancient than much of the Torah.
  3. The cultic laws of the Priestly (P) text—the Tabernacle passages in Exodus, the entire book of Leviticus, and the legal sections in Numbers—are post-exilic.[5]

Read as propositions on their own, these seem like harmless abstract points, and each of them may even be true. But read in light of each other, Wellhausen suggested that Israelite religion began as something spiritual and pure, like what we see in prophetic works such as Amos and Isaiah. But with the destruction of Israel and then Judah, and the following exile to Babylonia, the Israelite religion became degraded.

In the post-exilic period, Judahite religion was dominated by the priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple, and the text they produced, the Priestly Text of the Torah, is legalistic and lacking in spirit (Geist). As the Priestly text dominates the Pentateuch, Wellhausen offers his overall evaluation of Torah-centered Judaism:

The law thrusts itself in everywhere; it commands and blocks up access to heaven… as far as it can, it takes the soul out of religion and spoils morality (Prolegomena, 509).[6]

Elsewhere, Wellhausen expressed how Judaism continued to degrade as the Second Temple period, especially when the Pharisees picked up the mantle of Judaism:

The Pharisees killed nature through the commandments, 613 written commandments and 1000 other laws, and they leave no room for conscience. One forgot God and the way to him in the Torah.[7]

The Place of Jesus in Religious History: Ancient and Modern

With Judaism degraded to legalism, Wellhausen argued, Jesus brought back and even enhanced the prophetic spirit at the heart of the older Israelite religion:

Jesus casts ridicule on the works of the law, the washing of hands and vessels, the tithing of mint and cummin, the abstinence even from doing good on the Sabbath. Against unfruitful self-sanctification He sets up another principle of morality, that of the service of one’s neighbour… Just this natural morality of self-surrender does He call the law of God; that supernatural morality that seeks to outbid this, He calls the commandment of men. Thus religion ceases to be an art which the Rabbis and Pharisees understand better than the unlearned people which know nothing of the law. The arrogance of the school fares ill at the hands of Jesus… (Prolegomena 510).[8]

Wellhausen’s Jesus was a Jew who distanced himself from the legalistic Judaism of his times, connecting him directly with the more pristine, common-folk morality of the prophets.

Wellhausen’s negative view of “Pharisaic Judaism” as compared with the Old Testament prophets and the moral teachings of Jesus cannot be understood as a purely abstract comparison of religious traditions. Instead, Wellhausen was speaking about religious groups in his own time, specifically Catholics and Jews. To understand this better, we must understand Wellhausen in his historical context.

Late-19th Century Germany: The Context

From 1862–1871, Otto von Bismarck, the Minister President of Prussia, succeeded in dissolving the German Confederation and replacing it with a united German Empire, known as the Second German Reich (Zweite Deutsche Reich). While Bismarck’s status ultimately depended on the support of the sovereign, he dominated the political scene until 1890.[9]

Thus Conservative Prussian-Lutheran culture prevailed, augmented by the political support of the National Liberal bloc until approximately 1878–1879.[10] The cultural-political status of non-Protestant religious groups in this German Empire, often left out of the picture of tracing biblical scholarship, strikes me as an important element in understanding the implications of the generally hostile reception of Wellhausen’s work on the part of German Jewry.

Catholics in Bismarck’s Empire

The status of Catholicism in the new Bismarckian Empire was highly suspect in the eyes of the Lutheran Bismarck, his early pietist supporters, and his ardently anti-Catholic Prussian ministers. Soon after the Proclamation of the German Empire (Deutsche Reichsgründung), Germany conducted a Kulturkampf (“culture war”) against organized Catholicism under Pope Pius IX.[11]

The Jesuit Order was disbanded, clerical training in Rome was impeded, Lutheran Religion Ministers harassed Catholic priests, and the latter were occasionally jailed. This was overt religion oppression. Rather than capitulate, the Catholic population, a majority in the South and in the Rhineland, flocked to a religiously inflected political party (the Zentrum).[12]

It was during this period that Wellhausen penned his Israelite History, and Wellhausen’s contempt for Catholicism animates the anti-legalistic and anti-ritualistic sentiments he expressed for the Priestly Text and Second Temple Judaism.[13] Nevertheless, if such dismissive language hinted at a negative attitude to Catholicism, it was explicit in its anti-Judaism.

Jews in Bismarck’s Germany

It would be a mistake to draw a sharp distinction, as some would like, between Wellhausen objecting to the Jewish religion in the abstract and in antiquity, while supporting Jewish equality in his own day. The primacy of the rule of law (Rechtsstaat) for liberals was the proverbial horse. If the cart carried equality for the Jews and other minority groups, that was a price well-worth paying. Once should not infer from this calculus warm sentiments toward that minority. Indeed such a distinction between past and present also would ignore another important aspect of German society under the Second Reich.

By the end of the 1870s, with the accession of a new Pope, Leo XIII, and as a consequence of political changes in Europe requiring Bismarck’s concentration, the Kulturkampf was laid to rest. German Catholics returned from the political wilderness. This left Bismarck, who derived enormous political benefit and psychic energy from always having a national enemy (Reichsfeind), open to new candidates in the 1880s. The anti-Catholic persecution gave way to a campaign against a distinctly less numerous and less well-organized Judentum (translated as Jews, Judaism, or Jewry).[14]

The year 1879, just one year after the first version of Wellhausen’s magnum opus appeared, was a pivotal one in German history, often referred to as the second founding of the German Empire (Die zweite Reichsgründung). That second founding, whose basic arrangements prevailed until the World War I, was based on a right-wing coalition, unlike the Bismarckian-Liberal coalition of the late 1860s–1870s.

Germany’s turn to the political right in 1879 included an acceptance of the new political antisemitism that had been gaining ground throughout the 1870s, and which won significant academic approval in the Berlin antisemitism conflict of 1879–1881 (Antisemitismusstreit).[15] In 1881, the celebrated Berlin University historian Heinrich von Treitschke delivered an address titled “A Word About Our Jewry” (“Ein Wort über unser Judenthum”), which lent institutional legitimacy to the more vulgar expressions of Jew-hatred which were proliferating in new media and new movements.

One constant in this great shift was the complete domination of the German university system by Protestants.[16] Jews and Catholics would have had a tough time university-hopping as Wellhausen did, and experienced a kind of academically marginalized status in biblical studies.[17] Wellhausen, skeptical of Catholicism and hostile to Judaism, was a good reflection of the mainstream in this era.

The Effect of Academia in the Real Lives of Jews

In late 19th century Germany, academy was held in great esteem. Americans call a debate “merely academic” to emphasize how low the stakes are, but in Imperial Germany, the academy held a much loftier status. When von Treitschke delivered his legitimizing “A Word About Our Jewry,” his most illustrious opponent was another Berlin University history professor, Theodor Mommsen.

To take another example, when Friedrich Delitzsch published his Bibel und Babel (1902-1905), an indictment of the Hebrew Bible as being entirely unoriginal compared to other ancient Near Eastern texts, it constituted a national event. Kaiser Wilhelm II feted Delitzsch the Younger with abandon, at least initially.[18]

Wellhausen published his devastating analysis of Israelite history (1878/1883) at exactly the moment that German Jews’ hard-won battle for legal equality (Emanzipation) was coming under protracted attack.[19] He did not publish his work for the purpose of calling Jewish rights into question, but nevertheless he must have been aware of the effect such a damning critique of Judaism by a respected academic could have on the real-life struggle of Jews in Germany.

For these reasons, having as much to do with Imperial Germany as Bible scholarship, I take a less forgiving view of Wellhausen’s anti-Judaism than that of the great John Barton, Professor (emeritus) of Holy Scripture at Oxford. Barton’s “Biblical Criticism: A Common Sense Approach to the Bible” (TheTorah 2020), argues that historical context exonerates Wellhausen from claims of antisemitism:

Wellhausen was in truth opposed to Judaism as a religious system. Nevertheless, he was not anti-Semitic in the sense of hating Jews or wishing them harm, either individually or collectively. Moreover, Judaism in his writings was often a placeholder for Catholicism, whose canon laws and rituals seemed to violate the spirit of pure religion in the minds of many Protestants. That said, Jewish readers could certainly be forgiven for not appreciating these nuances. (my italics)

In this view, the Jewish reaction to Wellhausen as anti-Semitic was understandable but insufficiently sensitive to context. In my view, the historical and social realities of Germany in the late 19th century point in a different direction. Wellhausen’s writings participated in the anti-Jewish thrust of Bismarck’s Germany. Hence, the widespread negative reaction Jewish scholars had to Wellhausen’s oeuvre: Jewish readers contemporary with Wellhausen understood the real-life implications of his work all too well.

Antisemitism and Bible Criticism

Solomon Schechter (1847–1915), an important figure in the history of the Conservative Movement in the United States, may be the best-known example of resistance. In an address delivered in 1903, titled “Higher Criticism—Higher Anti-Semitism,” Schechter excoriates Wellhausen’s anti-Jewish rhetoric, and explicitly contextualizes it as reflecting Prussian anti-Semitism:

Wellhausen’s Prolegomena and History are teeming with aperçus[20] full of venom against Judaism, and you cannot wonder that he was rewarded by one of the highest orders which the Prussian Government had to bestow.

Unsurprisingly, Schechter kept Wellhausen’s theory—and by extension, any form of higher criticism—out of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS),[21] which is why Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of JTS a century after Schechter, called the latter’s influence baneful.[22] Schechter’s successors, Cyrus Adler and Louis Finkelstein continued this tradition, and the Documentary Hypothesis was kept out of JTS Seminary classrooms until after WWII, even though several JTS faculty employed source criticism in their scholarship.[23]

Isaac Meyer Wise (1819–1900), the president of Hebrew Union College, which trained Reform rabbis, also rejected the Documentary Hypothesis,[24] but his son-in-law, Kaufmann Kohler, practiced source criticism in his own scholarly work—in fact he could not get a position in the German rabbinate due to his commitment to that theory.[25] Nevertheless, even Kohler sequestered it from more elementary levels of Bible instruction.[26]

Yehezkel Kaufmann and Jewish Documentary Hypothesis

Yehezkel Kaufmann

The introduction of Bible Criticism in the (non-Orthodox) Jewish seminaries was in no small thanks to the work of Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889–1963), a Russian-born, Israeli Bible scholar.[27] While Kaufmann wrote in Hebrew, and had a tendency to be very long-winded, his influence owes much to the one-volume English translation condensation by Moshe Greenberg (1928–2010)—no minor figure in Bible studies himself—which made his thinking accessible.

To be sure, Kaufmann saved Bible criticism for Jews. While on the face of it, his work is the most egregious example of Wellhausen-walloping in scholarly literature, Kaufmann was able to distinguish between Wellhausen’s source division, as per his Composition des Hexateuchs und der historischen Bücher des Alten Testaments (1876/77, 3rd ed. 1899), which he accepted, and his dating of the sources in the Prolegomena, which he excoriated.

Most importantly, Kaufmann argued that P was earlier than D, thus undoing Wellhausen’s model of the “deterioration of Israelite religion in the Second Temple Period” theory. For Kaufmann, an ardent Zionist, the whole Torah was a product of the First Temple period, when Israel was a sovereign nation on its own land. D with its predilection for the national, rational, and hortatory gets the final Torah word.[28]

Some Jewish scholars still make use of Kaufmann’s relative dating, though many have reverted to Wellhausen’s view that P is, in fact, the latest of the four documents. Even for those who adopt little if any of Kaufmann’s specific views, his engagement in the Documentary Hypothesis as such, and with such obviously Jewish national interests, removed the stigma from the discipline of critical Bible scholarship of being thought of as inevitably antisemitic. Put more simply: Kaufmann effectively acted as a Jewish filter for Wellhausen’s work.[29]

Jewish Appreciation of Wellhausen a Century Later

Wellhausen was a giant in his field and his approach dominated Bible studies for decades. As Kaufmann showed, Wellhausen’s source division could be separated from his biases, and they have been. It is ironic that a century later, a best-selling popular explanation of the Documentary Hypothesis titled Who Wrote the Bible? was penned by a Jewish Bible scholar, Richard Elliot Friedman. Moreover, the academic Anchor Bible series made use of only Jewish scholars to pen commentaries on the Torah, all of which are chock full of source critical analyses.

But this is hindsight. It is easy to view the belated Jewish responses to Bible criticism as simply ostrich-like evasion, but in the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, when antisemitism and even anti-Jewish laws were an imminent threat, the prejudices revealed by Wellhausen and others in the field warranted skepticism.[30] One might view this story, in part, as a case of Jewish resistance to European Orientalizing.

As John Barton noted, one could consider P very late and still hold a lofty view of its religious system; many scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, do so. But Wellhausen certainly did not. He and his contemporary mandarins codified a method and hypothesis about the Bible’s composition that remains valid. Wellhausen’s generation also bear the onus for propounding a view of Spätjudentum (Late Judaism) and supporting a profession that precluded a sympathetic hearing for post-exilic and rabbinic Judaism until after the Second World War.[31]

Bible Scholarship and Bible Scholars

Can you tell the history of Bible scholarship without telling the story of Bible scholars?

Bible scholars such as Wellhausen and Kaufmann disentangle the sources from which the Bible was composed, and work to isolate each texts influences, biases, and cultural context. The same can be done by historians with the work of the Bible scholars themselves. We are all the products of our upbringing, training, and times (Zeitgeist).

The Bible remains an anthology of ancient Near Eastern texts, but the study of the Bible changes over time, with readers in every era finding texts to speak to their interests and confirm their ideals.[32] And just as Wellhausen shows that the Bible cannot be understood properly outside its historical context, the same must be said of modern Bible scholarship. For those looking for a tangible example of how cultural context influences scholarship, the history of the Documentary Hypothesis since Wellhausen’s day offers a case in point.


February 15, 2021


Last Updated

August 31, 2021


View Footnotes

Prof. Alan T. Levenson holds the Schusterman/Josey Chair in Judaic History at the University of Oklahoma and is the director of the Schusterman Center for Judaic and Israel Studies. He received his Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Ohio State University. Levenson is the author of The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible: How Scholars in Germany, Israel and America Transformed an Ancient Text, and Joseph: Portraits Through the Ages (2016), and a biography of the Manchester-raised author-translator Maurice Samuel (forthcoming).