Delitzsch, Friedrich

views updated


DELITZSCH, FRIEDRICH (18501922), German Assyriologist. Friedrich Conrad Gerhard Delitzsch was the son of the Old Testament scholar Franz Delitzsch (18131890). Both were men of extremely high linguistic ability, but in other respects they formed a striking contrast. The father was pious and conservative in theology, and although he was interested in Christian missions to the Jews, he was warmly appreciative of Judaism; the son became iconoclastic and contemptuous toward traditional doctrine and hostile to the entire dependence of Christianity upon Judaism.

The leading figure in the Assyriology of his time, Friedrich Delitzsch placed grammar and lexicography of the languages of ancient Mesopotamia on a sound and exact basis. In the area of biblical scholarship, his Die Lese- und Schreibfehler im Alten Testament (1920) provided an exhaustive classification of ways in which copying errors, such as writing one consonant in place of another, may have affected the text of the Hebrew Bible. His main influence on religious studies came with the "Babel-Bible" controversy. Advances in Assyriology had already made a difference to scholarship but had hardly affected the general public. Delitzsch's two lectures "Babel und Bibel" were delivered, in 1902, before the German Oriental Society and were attended by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who took an active interest in these matters. In the past, the Bible had been considered the oldest book: it was believed to reach back to the beginnings of the world. Now Assyriology presented new knowledge, knowledge that went back to an epoch much earlier than that of which the Bible had known. The similarity between the Babylonian and the biblical worlds was enormous. But this meant that the Old Testament material was not unique and could not count as pure revelation. The Babylonian material confirmed the antiquity of the biblical material but put in question its finality. In fact the Old Testament rose little above the religious and ethical level of Mesopotamian civilization.

By relativizing the authority of many elements within the Bible, the new discoveries made room for a conception of religion that was more in accord with "reason." Delitzsch insisted on the spiritual and universal nature of God as discerned, he thought, by the German Reformation. In this light, what Delitzsch considered the limited, parochial, and sometimes immoral world of the Old Testament could not continue to have authority. These ideas met with a storm of opposition. In his later work Die grosse Täuschung (The great deception; 1921), Delitzsch continued in the same vein but became more extreme. The Old Testament was a collection of fragments which had some literary and cultural value but had no relevance for Christianity. Christianity had as close a relation to paganism, Delitzsch claimed, as it had to Judaism, and he emphasized to an almost hysterical degree the "defects," "inaccuracies," and "immoralities" of the Old Testament.

Delitzsch was facing real problems in the existence of common ground between the Bible and its antecedent religious environment and of religious differences between some strata of the Bible and others. But the controversial stand he took was rooted more in modern ideological conflicts than in a dispassionate study of the ancient religions. His use of ancient evidence was often exaggerated and distorted, as when he argued that Jesus, being a Galilean, was not of Jewish blood and when he asserted that Jesus' teaching was "anti-Jewish." Similarly, Delitzsch's conception of Christianity draws from only a very narrow strand in the Christian tradition. As history of religion, his assessment of the data was intemperate, and his outbursts had the effect of retarding rather than advancing the cool assessment of the problems that Assyriological discovery had created for the relationship between Bible and religion.


Delitzsch's controversial lectures were published in German as two books under the same title, Babel und Bibel (Leipzig, 19021903); the English edition, Babel and Bible (Chicago, 1903), contains not only the lectures but a selection from the comments they engendered, including those of Kaiser Wilhelm II and of Adolf von Harnack, along with replies by Delitzsch. Die grosse Täuschung (Stuttgart, 1921) appears never to have been published in English.

New Sources

Arnold, Bill T., and David B. Weisberg. "A Centennial Review of Friedrich Delitzsch's 'Babel und Bibel' lectures." Journal of Biblical Literature 121, no. 3 (Fall 2002): 441457.

Larsen, Mogens Trolle. "The 'Babel/Bible' Controversy and its Aftermath." In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, vol 1. New York, 1995.

James Barr (1987)

Revised Bibliography