Religionsgeschichtliche Schule

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RELIGIONSGESCHICHTLICHE SCHULE is the name that was given, beginning in 1903, to a group of German Protestant theologians who consistently applied the history of religions method to the interpretation of the Bible. This school of thought originated at the University of Göttingen, where a number of young theologians became known as the "little Göttingen faculty" because of their common concerns and their critical dissociation from Albrecht Ritschl, who had earlier been their teacher. The group was made up of Hermann Gunkel, Wilhelm Bousset, Johannes Weiss, Ernst Troeltsch, Wilhelm Wrede, Heinrich Hackmann, and Alfred Rahlfs. After 1900, Carl Clemen, Hugo Gressmann, and W. Heitmüller joined the school, while Rudolf Bultmann and Otto Eissfeldt may be reckoned as forming a third generation. All looked upon Albert Eichhorn as the decisive influence on their work.

Development of the School

The Religionsgeschichtliche Schule drew theological conclusions from preceding developments in historical science, Orientalism, the history of religions, and ethnology. Many kinds of scholarly endeavors served as godparents for the school: Johann Jakob Wett-stein's efforts to produce a complete, annotated edition of the Greek New Testament, including variants (Hē Kainē Diathēkē: Novum Testamentum Graecum, 2 vols., 17511752) and J. G. Herder's undogmatic and literary approach to the Bible; the discoveries made and the languages deciphered in the Near East; the rise of historical thinking in the works of such scholars as Barthold G. Niebuhr, Leopold von Ranke, and Johann G. Droysen; the discovery and decipherment of new sources from the ancient Near East; the development of literary criticism; the new science of religions as developed by F. Max Müller, C. P. Tiele, P. D. Chantepie de la Saussaye, James G. Frazer, and Nathan Söderblom; the new field of ethnology associated with Adolf Bastian, Friedrich Ratzel, and E. B. Tylor; and the antimetaphysical spirit promoted by Neo-Kantianism in Germany during the second half of the nineteenth century. Even the "Babel and Bible" discussion started by Friedrich Delitzsch, Alfred Jeremias, and Peter Jensen, which to some extent ran parallel to the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, contributed to the rise of the latter.

Historical criticism in the form of source analysis of biblical documents had already been generally accepted and was causing difficulties for dogmatic theology. The rise of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule meant the definitive victory of the historical-critical method, but the school supplemented this method with a deeper understanding of the historical process that lay behind the literary sources and with the application of the comparative history of religions to the Bible and Christianity. For this reason the representatives of the approach comprised primarily biblical scholars. Apart from Clemen, only Hackmann opted for the general history of religions. Strictly speaking, this method was a movement within Protestant biblical exegesis, and theologically it was of course in the liberal camp.

Though it was initially a purely academic phenomenon, its representatives attempted, as those of hardly any other theological movement of the past had done, to broadcast their view on a large scale through popular works on the history of religions and through periodicals such as Theologische Rundschau (1917), Religionsgeschichtliche Volksbücher (1903), and Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments (1913), and collections such as Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (1st ed., Tübingen, 19091913), Die Schriften des Alten Testaments in Auswahl: Übersetzt und für die Gegenwart erklärt, by Hermann Gunkel (Göttingen, 19101915), and Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments neu übersetzt und für die Gegenwart erklärt, by Johannes Weiss (Göttingen, 1906). As a result, they were soon in conflict with ecclesiastical authorities, who accused them of destructive, secularizing intentions, an accusation that the school firmly denied.

Historians see the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule as beginning its public activity in 1895, which was the publication year of Gunkel's Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (Creation and Chaos in Primordial Time and End Time). But the basic ideas of the school had been clearly at work even earlier in Gunkel's Die Wirkungen des heiligen Geistes: Nach den populären Anschauungen der apostolisch Zeit (The Effects of the Holy Spirit according to the Popular Mind of the Apostolic Age; Göttingen, 1888). In this earlier publication Gunkel examined exotic and even irrational features of early Christianity, such as belief in the preternatural, and explained these features as due to the ideas that were popular in the period of "late Judaism." The same approach was soon adopted by Johannes Weiss in his Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes (Jesus' Preaching of the Kingdom of God; Göttingen, 1892) and by Wilhelm Bousset, who in his Die Religion des Judentums im neutestamentlichen Zeitalter (Tübingen, 1903) developed the idea that Judaism in the New Testament era was the real soil from which Jesus and the primitive Christian community sprang. In Hauptprobleme der Gnosis (Göttingen, 1907) and Kyrios Christos (Göttingen, 1913) Bousset also drew upon the religious history of Hellenism and late antiquity in describing the Christianity of the first and second centuries. By and large, the further work of the school followed the same general lines, though at times the emphasis differed, as in the case of the brilliant but short-lived Wilhelm Wrede, who, in his Paulus (Tübingen, 1904), Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangilien (Göttingen, 1901), and Vorträge und Studien (Tübingen, 1907) maintained what were probably the school's most radical views.

In the field of Old Testament studies Gunkel pioneered not only the religio-historical explanation of the Old Testament, especially in his Genesis (1901) and Psalmen (1926), but also the literary-historical method and, in particular, a reformulated "tradition-historical" approach that ushered in a new age of Old Testament exegesis. Hugo Gressmann followed Gunkel's lead in his Der Ursprung der israelitisch-jüdischen Eschatologie (Göttingen, 1905) and Der Messias (Göttingen, 1929).

The end of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule after World War I was due not only to the social changes that the war brought to Germany but also to correlative radical shifts in theology, such as those produced by Karl Barth and dialectical theology, and, surely, to the early deaths of many of the school's leading representatives. Richard Reitzenstein (18611931), who wrote Die Vorgeschichte der christlichen Taufe (Prehistory of Christian Baptism; Leipzig, 1929) was one of the last champions of the school's ideas, unless one includes Rudolf Bultmann and his school as the third, most recent generation. This third generation reshaped the heritage of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule and sought to safeguard it, especially in the area of the study of gnosticism, by new methods such as form criticism, redaction history, tradition history, existential interpretation, and demythologization.

Characteristics of the Approach

The mounting criticism, especially after World War II, of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule and its program cannot gainsay the fact that it brought major progress in the understanding of biblical writings and their history. Questions first raised by the school, such as the role of Canaanite religion, apocalyptic thought, eschatology, pneumatology, gnosis, and Hellenistic Judaism, cultus, and piety in the formation of Christianity, are still vital and have acquired increased relevance due to new discoveries such as those at Ugarit, Khirbat Qumran, and Nag Hammadi. Biblical exegesis, theology, and religious studies cannot retreat to the scholarly situation as it was before the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule was formed. The facts brought to light by the school cannot be dismissed, even if scholars now prefer explanations other than those proposed by the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule.

Plurality of Christianity's origins

The school's members rejected interpreting the New Testament solely in light of the Old Testament. Primitive Christianity, they believed, was not a mere continuation of Old Testament history but had other roots as well.

One of these other roots was Hellenistic Judaism, represented by the thought of Philo Judaeus (d. 4550 ce), as opposed to rabbinic Judaism, which belongs to a later period. The Hellenistic religious outlook, as expressed in the mystery religions and other Oriental religions of redemption, in gnostic groups, Hermetism, emperor worship, and magic, played an important part in the development of early Christianity. Gunkel, in his Zum religionsgeschichtlichen Verständnis des Neuen Testaments (Göttingen, 1903) had already spoken of the "syncretic" character of early Christianity, arguing that, from the historical viewpoint, Christianity had many links with contemporaneous religions. Bousset, though somewhat more cautious on this point, constantly rejected the artificial division between primitive Christianity and its historical environment. He explained the disjunction that appeared between the teachings of Jesus and those of the later church by citing the influence of this early environment. Behind the replacement of "Jesus the itinerant prophet" with "Christ the Lord" was the transition, beginning even before Paul, of primitive Christianity into the Hellenistic-Roman world in the form of a Hellenistic community of Christians at Antioch. The Religionsgeschichtliche Schule was concerned primarily with intellectual links, not with individual derivations or parallels. The same principle held for the Old Testament, whose historical development, the school believed, was to be understood in light of its changing milieu, to which belonged Canaan, Babylon, Egypt, and Iran.

Historical framework

The division between the New Testament and the history of the early church and its dogma, the school believed, is an artificial one. The New Testament canon is a historical product and should be studied only in the framework of a history of early Christian literature. Prominent examples of this approach are found in the works of Eichhorn and Wrede.

Concept of religion

According to the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, the traditional focus on doctrinal concepts should be replaced by a focus on religion, the religious spirit, and piety. Theology is only one side of religionthe rational, conceptual, and systematic side. The essence of religion, as understood by the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, is nonrational experience. This concept of religion originated in the works of Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834) and became normative for the theology and philosophy of religion of the subsequent period. The school aimed at writing a history of Christianity as a religion and not simply a history of ideas, dogmas, and doctrines.

Role of religious practice

The Religionsgeschichtliche Schule was part of a current of thought that, in contrast to the overemphasis by some scholars on mythology or ideology, regarded the realm of cult and religious practice as central and as an important expression of piety. The interest in the "theology of the community," that is, the popular religion of the masses (including folk tales and fairy tales, or, in other words, the "seamier side" of religion as contrasted with the "heights" of elitist theology), was already paving the way for a sociological and psychological interpretation of religion. On the other hand, the school also stressed the innovative role of religious individuals and authorities (for example the Old Testament prophets and Jesus), who, according to the school, have a formative influence on the history of religions.

Tradition history

One of the most important but often overlooked discoveries of the school is what is known as "tradition history," which was first proposed by Gunkel. Tradition history is the attempt to get behind the written tradition (i.e., texts) to its prehistory. This approach was considered to be the only way to make texts historically intelligible. The abandonment of classical literary history and criticism for a history of preliterary "form," "genres," or "materials" is a result of the historical approach taken by the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule: a text yields its meaning through its history, its development, and the materials (its "prehistory") used to compose it. This turning of written tradition into something problematic soon became a tool of tradition criticism and made nonsense of many problems regarded as central by literary criticism. The old representatives of literary criticism, such as Wellhausen, rejected Gunkel's works, although they themselves could not avoid raising questions that involved the history of traditions.

This aspect of the school's work is another indication of its concern with "the religion of the community" as a sociopsychological category. The designation "history of traditions" was at times used by members of the school as a synonym for "history of religions." Unfortunately, the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule failed to make a clear distinction here and, more importantly, to introduce a necessary reflection on method, a step that would have spared it a great deal of trouble. Methodological clarification began only with the rise of "form criticism" in the works of Bultmann and Martin Dibelius (18831947).

Definition of the field

Consideration of the Bible as a historical religious document that is to be investigated with the same tools as other religious texts soon led to the view that the traditional theological faculties should be replaced by departments of the history of religions. The historical disciplines associated with theology are really no longer theological, Wrede clearly saw; rather, they belong to the history of religions, since they employ the same tools as philology and all other historical sciences.

The school's "leveling down" of Christianity so that it becomes just one more subject of a general or comparative history of religions led to a certain relativism that had an important impact, especially on dogmatic and theological systems. In this situation Troeltsch, who remained faithful to a romantic and ultimately Hegelian concept of development, drew historico-philosophical conclusions that looked to the future development of Christianity in the framework of a universal history of religions. Bousset, too, sought to rescue Christianity from the maelstrom of historical relativization by reverting to the liberal theological emphasis on ethics and morality and to the idea of the irreducible personality of Jesus as a revelation of God. But Christianity cannot be rescued by the tools of historical science; at this point the assertions of faith stand alone against the power of history and critical reflection. To rescue Christianity is the task of theology, not of the history of religions.

The Religionsgeschichtliche Schule began as a movement within theology, but it ended outside theology because its methods and approach were so radical. The attempt to restore the ties connecting the school and Christian theology expresses only the personal piety, or Christian faith, of the school's representatives. Here again the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule created a dilemma, in this case one of the most difficult that the history of religions as such must face: the relation between personal conviction or faith and scientific honesty or objectivity.

See Also

Bultmann, Rudolf; Delitzsch, Friedrich; Wellhausen, Julius.


To date there is no successful overall portrait or bibliography of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule. A number of monographs are available on individual representatives of the school (Gunkel, Bousset, Wrede) or on special topics (gnosis, salvation history, tradition history). More recently, additional materials concerning the beginnings of the school have been published (in particular by Hans Rollman and Friedrich W. Graf). For general orientation, see articles in the first edition of the encyclopedia Die Religion in Geschichte and Gegenwart, 5 vols., edited by Friedrich Michael Schiele (Tübingen, 19091913), which work as a whole is representative of the school's aims and methods. See also Werner Georg Kümmel's Das Neue Testament: Geschichte der Erforschung seiner Probleme (Freiburg, 1958), esp. pp. 259414; Hans-Joachim Kraus's Geschichte der historisch-kritischen Erforschung des Alten Testaments von der Reformation bis zur Gegenwart (Neukirchen, 1956); and Horst Stephan and Martin Schmidt's Geschichte der evangelischen Theologie in Deutschland seit dem Idealismus, 3d ed. (Berlin, 1973). The works listed below may also be fruitfully consulted.

Bousset, D. Wilhelm. Religionsgeschichtliche Studien. Leiden, 1979.

Clemen, Carl. Die religionsgeschichtliche Methode in der Theologie. Giessen, 1904.

Colpe, Carsten. Die religionsgeschichtliche Schule, vol. 1. Göttingen, 1961.

Gressmann, Hugo. Albert Eichhorn und die religionsgeschichtliche Schule. Göttingen, 1914.

Ittel, Gerhard Wolfgang. Urchristentum und Fremdreligionen im Urteil der religionsgeschichtlichen Schule. Erlangen, 1956.

Ittel, Gerhard Wolfgang. "Die Hauptgedanken der 'religionsgeschichtlichen Schule.'" Zeitschrift fur Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 10 (1958): 6178.

Klatt, Werner. Hermann Gunkel. Göttingen, 1969.

Morgan, Robert, ed. and trans. The Nature of New Testament Theology: The Contribution of Wilhelm Wrede and Adolf Schlatter. Naperville, Ill., 1973. Includes (pp. 68116) a translation of Wrede's Über Afgabe und Methode der sogenannten neutestamentlichen Theologie.

Paulsen, H. "Traditionsgeschichtliche und religionsgeschichtliche Schule." Zeitschift für Theologie und Kirche 75 (1958): 2255.

Reischle, Max. Theologie und Religionsgeschichte. Tübingen, 1904.

Renz, Horst, and Friedrich W. Graf, eds. Troeltsch-Studien, vol. 1. Gütersloh, 1982. See especially pages 235290 and 296305.

Rollman, Hans. "Zwei Briefe Hermann Gunkel an Adolf Jülicher." Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 78 (1981): 276288.

Rollman, Hans. "Duhm, Lagarde, Ritschl und der irrationale Religionsbegriff der Religionsgeschichtlichen Schule." Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 34 (1982): 276279.

Rollmann, Hans. "Theologie und Religiongeschichte." Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 80 (1983): 6984.

Sänger, Dieter. "Phänomenologie oder Geschichte? Methodische Anmerkungen zur religionsgeschichtlichen Schule." Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 32 (1980): 1327.

Troeltsch, Ernst. "Die 'kleine Göttinger Fakultät' von 1890." Christliche Welt 18 (1920): 281283.

Troeltsch, Ernst. "Die Dogmatik der 'religionsgeschichtlichen Schule.'" In his Gesammelte Schriften, 2d ed., vol. 2, pp. 500524. Aalen, 1962.

Troeltsch, Ernst. "Christentum und Religionsgeschichte." In Gesammelte Schriften, 2d ed., vol. 2, pp. 328363. Aalen, 1962.

Verheule, Anthonie F. Wilhelm Bousset: Leben und Werk. Amsterdam, 1973.

New Sources

Berry, Wendell C. "Methodological, Pedagogical, and Philosophical Reflections on Mircea Eliade as Historian of Religions." In Changing Religious Worlds, edited by Bryan S. Rennie, pp. 165189. Albany, N.Y., 2001.

Lehmkühler, Karsten. Kultus und Theologie: Dogmatic und Exegese in die Religionsgeschichtliche Schule. Göttingen, 1996.

Lüdeman, Gerd, ed. Die "Religionsgeschichtliche Schule": Facetten eines theologischen Umrichs. New York, 1996.

Kurt Rudolph (1987)

Translated from German by Matthew J. O'Connell
Revised Bibliography

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