Julius Wellhausen

Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), an important nineteenth-century scholar, was a historian, linguist, and textual critic. He devoted his life to the study of the ancient and early medieval history of the Semitic peoples. His many works in this area provide the basis for all serious investigation into the rise of both Judaism and Islam.

Wellhausen's name will ever be associated with higher criticism of the Old Testament, the study of Hebrew and Greek scriptures from a purely scientific and a critical/historical point of view. He investigated the origin of the Hebrew bible, the Jews, and Judaism amidst the backdrop of the ancient Near Eastern empires of Assyria, Neo-Babylonia, Persia, and the Macedonian-Greek states of Seleucus and Ptolemy. Wellhausen remains a dominant influence on modern Hebrew biblical studies.

Julius Wellhausen was born in the northern German city of Hameln on May 17, 1844. His father was a Lutheran minister; Julius was to follow in the same vocation. Wellhausen was sent to Gottingen during the period 1862-65 to study under Heinrich Ewald, a Hebraist and Old Testament scholar. However, Wellhausen and Ewald had a gradual falling out during the years 1866-70. The two quarreled over the proper interpretation of the Old Testament and about Prussian politics. Wellhausen received his Ph.D. in theology in 1870 and then taught for two years at Gottingen. In 1872, Wellhausen received a professorship at Greifswald, located on the Baltic Sea. He resigned in 1882 because he believed that his teachings were having a dire effect on theological students destined for the ministry, and because he had become a figure of controversy over his published views on the Old Testament.

By 1882, Wellhausen had already written many important books. His first work was De Gentibus et Familus Judaeis (1870), which dealt with the Old Testament genealogies. Then came Der Text Der Bucher Samuelis Untersucht (1871). He thought the extant Hebrew text of the two books of Samuel to be very inexplicable and corrupt. Using all the Hebrew evidence and that of the early Greek translations, such as the Septuagint, he tried to reconstruct a more accurate text. Next came the Pharisaeer und Sadducaeer (1874), dealing with the rise, development, and ideas of the two dominant Jewish sects existing at the time of Jesus. After that came the very important work Die Composition des Hexateuchs und Der Historischen Bucher Des Altes Testaments (1876-77), which first appeared as articles in a German scholarly journal. Next appeared his most famous work Geschichte Israels, Band I (1878). All later editions of this seminal book were entitled Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israel (1883). An English translation appeared in 1885; it was not printed again until 1957.

The Prolegomena has the same significance for Old Testament study as does Copernicus's Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1543) for astronomy and Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) for biology. After the publication of the Prolegomena, scholars were divided into two camps: those that accepted Wellhausen's basic ideas about Hebrew history and those that did not. Most of the academic and learned world opted for Wellhausen, but an intense controversy continues to rage about the whole matter. Wellhausen also edited the later editions of Friedrich Bleek's standard introduction to the literature of the Old Testament, Einleitung In Das Alte Testament.

At the time that Wellhausen studied with Ewald, the German theological world was in turmoil over D. F. Strauss's Life of Jesus (1835-36). This work asserted that the four canonical gospels were not history, but rather were collections of Christian folklore, myth, legend, fiction, and pious propaganda, with hardly any trace left of the real Jesus. F. C. Baur, another student of early Christianity, claimed that Acts was unreliable and not factual, and that more than half of Paul's letters in the New Testament were written after his death. Baur believed that the gospel of John also was late (c. 150 C.E.) and contained no authentic deeds or sayings of the historical Jesus. The Old Testament narratives had undergone similar questioning. It was in this context that Wellhausen lost his faith and soon came to adopt only critical, historical, and scientific methods of inquiry about the Bible. This difference was at the center of his final break with Ewald.

For more than two millennia it was thought that the laws of Moses were older than that of the Hebrew monarchy, established by Saul c. 1020 B.C.E., and the Hebrew prophets, 9th to 5th centuries B.C.E. Wellhausen was vexed when he tried to clearly understand the relationships between the Mosaic laws, supposedly dating from about 1450 B.C.E., and the monarchy and the prophets. Wellhausen was both uneasy and confused about the concept that the Mosaic laws contained the key and explanation of the later ages of Hebrew history. He was severely perplexed by the explanations given by A. W. Knobel in his learned and then standard commentaries on the Pentateuch (1852-61) and by the writings of his mentor, Ewald. Wellhausen wrote: "so far from attaining clear conceptions, I only fell into deeper confusion, which was worse confounded by the explanations of Ewald in the second volume of his History of Israel. At last, in the course of a casual visit to Gottingen in the summer of 1867, I learned through Ritschl that Karl Heinrich Graf placed the Law later than the Prophets, and, almost without knowing his reasons for the hypothesis, I was prepared to accept it; I readily acknowledged to myself the possibility of understanding Hebrew antiquity without the book of the Torah."

The question was, were the laws of Moses in existence before or after the prophets such Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah? A small number of scholars had already placed the prophets before the Law. Among these were Eduard Reuss (1833), J. F. L. George (1835), William Vatke (1835); this was revived by K. H. Graf in 1866. Here cause and effect were completely reversed and this position was considered as obviously absurd. However this provided Wellhausen the clue he needed to make the entire Israelite/Jewish biblical history truly intelligible in his book on the Hexateuch and in the Prolegomena. These two volumes, his most important works on Jewish history, soon overturned the existing consensus on the matter and led to a scholarly revolution. Wellhausen accepted the so-called "documentary hypothesis" that the five books of Moses were not written by Moses but rather consisted of four different, later, and anonymous sources which have been designated by scholars with the letters, J, E, D, and P. Wellhausen's final conclusions were that Judaism and the extant Pentateuch did not exist before the 5th century B.C.E. He believed that the priest Ezra, not Moses in the second millennium B.C.E., instituted Judaism about the year 444 B.C.E.

In 1882, Wellhausen moved to Halle as assistant professor in Semitic languages. He moved to Marburg three years later, having received a full professorship. His stay at Marburg (1885-91) made up the happiest years of his life. During this time he confided to told close colleagues and friends that he was "fed up" with the Old Testament.


Growing Interest in Islam

Wellhausen returned to Gottingen in 1892, where he wrote and taught for the remainder of his life. He devoted much of his time to the full explication of early Islam. A host of articles, monographs, and books on the subject flowed from his pen. Wellhausen spent more than 20 years reconstructing the earliest phases of Islamic history. Some of his most important works on the Arabs and Islam include: Muhammed in Medina (1882), a translation of al-Waqidi's Maghzai, a work on Muhammad's military expeditions; Leider der Hudhailiten (1884), a study of early Arabic poetry of the Hudhail tribe; and Resta Arabischen Heidentum (1887), a study of pre-Islamic Arab paganism and comparative Semitic religious customs. Others include: Medina vor dem Islam (1889); Skizzen und Vorarbeiten (1889-1899), a collection of learned monographs, mostly on Islam; and Die Religiouspolitishe Oppositionsparteien Im Alten Islam (1901), English translation (1975), as The Religiopolitical Factions in Early Islam. Das Arabische Reich und Sein Sturz (1902), English translation (1927), as The Arab Kingdom and its Fall, is generally considered to be Wellhausen's masterpiece on early Arab-Islamic history.


Other Writings

In the summer of 1872, William Robertson Smith, reputedly the greatest living Semitic scholar in England, met Wellhausen while working in Arabic with Paul Lagarde in Gottingen. This connection would later bear fruit. During the years 1881 to 1888, Smith became the co-editor of the 9th edition of the Britannica and employed Wellhausen to write the lengthy articles on Israel, Pentateuch, and Septuagint, as well as several smaller entries on Moses and Moab. The 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica both advocated and espoused biological evolution and the critical study of the Bible, two areas very inimical to the Judaic-Christian tradition.

During these years he also published, Die Kleinen Propheten Ubersetzt, Mit Noten (1892), a translation of the minor prophets with a small commentary; Israelitische und Judische Geschiscte (1894), an enlargement of his 1881 article on Israel which appeared in the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica; and Book of Psalms, A Critical Edition of the Hebrew Text (1895).


Spreading Influence

The chief disseminators of Wellhausen's view on ancient Israel in Britain were Samuel Davidson (1806-98), Thomas Kelly Cheyne (1840-1915), William Roberson Smith (1846-94), and Samuel Rolles Driver (1846-1914). The first significant response to these new ideas was heresy trials held in Great Britain and the United States. The most famous cases in the British Isles were those of John W. Colenso, Bishop of Natal (South Africa), (1867), and William Roberson Smith (1881). The most notorious cases in the United States were those of C. H. Toy (1879), Charles A. Briggs (1892), and Henry Preserved Smith (1892). All three were prominent American Old Testament Hebraists. These battles were fought between supporters of the right to free critical-historical inquiry and those who upheld traditional orthodoxy.

The revolution largely wrought by Wellhausen could not be denied forever. It necessitated the production of new biblical dictionaries, encyclopedias, commentaries, and newer assessments of ancient Hebrew history. The old standard English histories of the ancient Jews by H. H. Milman (1830) and A. P. Stanley (1863-76) were replaced by those of H. P. Smith (1903), Cambridge Ancient History (1923-27), Osterley and Robinson (1932), Lods (1930-37), Noth, etc. The new commentaries were International Critical Commentary (1895-present), Westminster (1899-1933), and the later volumes of the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (c. 1895-1930). The contrast between the pre-Wellhausen era and what came after can most easily be seen by comparing such once authoritative reference sets as William Smith's Dictionary of the Bible (1863) and John McClintock's Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature with T. K. Cheyne's Encyclopaedia Biblica and James Hastings's Dictionary of the Bible.


New Testament Scholarship

In the last stage of Wellhausen's career, after about 1900, he turned his attention to the New Testament. His work here, while highly regarded in some circles, is not as significant as his writings on Judaism and Islam. Still Wellhausen proved to be a precursor of the later New Testament "Form Criticism" or "Formgeschichte," as developed by Martin Dibelius, K. L. Schmidt, and Rudolf Bultmann. Wellhausen wrote commentaries on all four gospels, Acts, and Revelation. In all his New Testament writings, Wellhausen rejects the ideas of Johannes Weiss (1863-1914) and Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) linking Jesus's teachings to contemporary Jewish apocalyptic and eschatological thought.

In his prime, Wellhausen was a big and vigorous man whose recreational hobby was swimming. Though married, Wellhausen remained childless. Deafness and the First World War clouded his last years. Wellhausen in died in Gottingen on January 7, 1918.


Further Reading on Julius Wellhausen

Barnes, Harry Elmer. A History of Historical Writing, University of Oklahoma Press, 1937.

Bewer, Julius A. The Literature of the Old Testament, third edition, Columbia University Press, 1962.

Bleek, Friedrich. Einleitung in das Alte Testament, fourth edition, Druck und Verlag von G. Reimer, 1878.

The Cambridge Ancient History. Cambridge University Press, 1965.

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, Cambridge University Press.

Driver, S. R. An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament. Meridian Books, 1956.

Duff, Archibald. History of Old Testament Criticism. Putnam, 1910.

Eissfeldt, Otto. The Old Testament: An Introduction. Harper and Row, 1965.

Encyclopaedia Biblica, edited by T.K. Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black, Macmillan, 1899-1903.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, ninth edition. R. S. Peale Co., 1892.

Ewald, Heinrich. The History of Israel, fourth edition. Longmans, Green, 1883-1886.

Gooch, G. P. History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century. Peter Smith, 1949.

Hastings, James. A Dictionary of the Bible. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1900-1912.

The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Various volumes and publishers.

Julius Wellhausen and His Prolegomena to the History of Israel (1983).

Kaufman, Walter. Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Harper and Brothers, 1958.

Kogan, Herman. The Great EB: The Story of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Geschichte der Historisch-Kritischen Erforschung des Alten Testaments. Verlag der Buchhandlung des Erziehungsvereins, 1956.

Kummel, Werner Georg. The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of its Problems. Translated by S. McLean Gilmour and Howard C. McKee. Abingdon Press, 1972.

McClintock, John and James Strong. Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper and Brothers, 1871-1881.

Nicholson, E. W. The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Julius Wellhausen. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Noth, Martin. The History of Israel, Harper and Row, 1958.

Pfeiffer, Robert H. Introduction to the Old Testament, Harper and Brothers, 1948.

Rogerson, John. Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century: England and Germany. SPCK, 1984.

Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. Macmillan, 1968.

Smith, Henry Preserved. Old Testament History. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903.

Smith, William. Dictionary of the Bible. Houghton Mifflin, 1883.

Thompson, R. J. Moses and the Law in a Century of Criticism since Graf. E. J. Brill, 1970.

Timmer, John. Julius Wellhausen and the Synoptic Gospels: A Study in Tradition Growth, 1970.

Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. Meridian Books, 1957.

Wouk, Herman. This is My God: The Jewish Way of Life. Little, Brown, and Co., 1988.