Julius Wellhausen

views updated Jun 27 2018

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

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. □

Wellhausen, Julius

views updated May 21 2018


WELLHAUSEN, JULIUS (18441918), was a German Orientalist of signal importance for the study of the history of ancient Israel and early Islam. Wellhausen began his career as professor of Old Testament at the University of Greifswald (18721882) and continued as Semitist at the universities of Halle (an der Saale, 18821885), Marburg (18851892), and Göttingen (18921913). He received his early training from Heinrich Ewald (18031875) in Göttingen. Wellhausen represents a high point in the literary-critical method in Protestant historical theology: For Wellhausen the critical analysis of literary tradition according to motives and sources, whether in the Old and New Testaments or early Islam, constituted the basis for any historical research. He was critical of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule (e.g., the work of Hermann Gunkel) that was in the early stages of development at this time.

Wellhausen's work began with his Old Testament studies. With his works "Die Composition des Hexateuchs" (in Jahrbücher für deutsche Theologie, 18761877; published as a book in 1885) and Geschichte Israels (vol. 1, 1878; 2d ed. published as Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels, 1883), he provided the final breakthrough in the Pentateuch criticism that had been initiated by Edvard Reuss, Karl Heinrich Graf, Abraham Kuenen, and Wilhelm Vatke. With this advance in research Wellhausen also created the basis for a modern view of the history of ancient Israel, which he himself then presented in his work Israelitische und jüdische Geschichte (1894). Wellhausen was the first to make use of the insight that the "law" (torah ) as it dominates the Pentateuch as it is known, does not represent the earliest constituent of this collection but rather the final (postexilic) stage of its composition. He recognized, too, that the remaining historical sources (Yahvist, Elohist, and Deuteronomic sources) are older than this, the so-called Priestly source. For Wellhausen, Judaism is a new stage in the history of Israel and is to be distinguished from ancient Israel. For this reason Wellhausen also carried through the notion of historical development to its logical end.

In order to better understand ancient, pre-exilic Israel he applied himself increasingly to the study of Old Arabian and early Islamic history. Employing here a method that was characterized by a critical analysis of the sources, he gave impetus to the study both of pre-Islamic religious history (Reste arabischen Heidentums, 1887) and of the life of Muammad (Muhammad in Medina, 1882; Medina vor dem Islam, 1889), and early Islamic history (Prolegomena zur ältesten Geschichte des Islams, 1889; Die religiös-politischen Oppositionsparteien im alten Islam, 1901). The consequences of these works are still felt today. His most significant achievement, Das arabische Reich und sein Sturz (1902), provides the crowning finish to his work.

Following this, Wellhausen devoted himself primarily to study of the New Testament. His explanations and translations of the Gospels and the histories of the apostles brought him less acclaim than his earlier works, but these, too, still belong in the inventory of indispensable historical-critical research. Wellhausen's works are outstanding not only for their masterful command of the source materials but also for an excellent and impressive style that is particularly conspicuous in his translations.

See Also

Religionsgeschichtliche Schule.


A bibliography of Wellhausen's publications can be found in Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 27 (1914): 351368. This bibliography leaves out Wellhausen's article, "Über den bisherigen Gang und gegenwärtigen Stand der Keilentzifferung," Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 31 (1876): 153175. A collection of important essays by Wellhausen was published in Skizzen und Vorarbeiten, 6 vols. (Berlin, 18841899).

Publications on Wellhausen and his thought include Friedemann Boschwitz's Julius Wellhausen: Motive und Mass-Stäbe seiner Geschichtsschreibung (1938; reprint, Darmstadt, 1968); Horst Hoffmann's Julius Wellhausen: Die Frage des absoluten Massstabes seiner Geschichtsschreibung (Marburg, 1967); William A. Irwin's article, "The Significance of Julius Wellhausen," Journal of Bible and Religion 12 (1944): 160173; a special issue of Semeia entitled "Julius Wellhausen and his Prolegomena to the History of Israel," edited by Douglas A. Knight, Semeia 25 (1983); and my Wellhausen als Arabist (Berlin, 1983).

New Sources

Lothar Perlitt's Vatke und Wellhausen. Geschichtsphilosophische Voraussetzungenn und historiographische Motive für die Darstellung der Religion und Geschichte Israels durch Wilhelm Vatke und Julius Wellhausen (Berlin, 1965); Helmut Weidmann's Die Patriarchen und ihre Religion im Licht der Forschung seit Julius Wellhausen (Göttingen, 1968); and Kurt Rudolph's Wellhausen als Arabist (Berlin, Germany, 1983). Ernest Nicholson, The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Julius Wellhausen (Oxford, 1998), argues that Wellhausen's work remains the securest basis for understanding the Pentateuch. See also Hans Georg Kippenberg, Die Entdeckung der Religionsgeschichte (Munich, 1997), pp. 100103 (stressing the revolutionary consequences of Wellhausen's Bible criticism).

Betz, Hans Dieter. "Wellhausen's dictum Jesus was not a Christian, but a Jew in light of present scholarship." STh 45 (1991): 83110.

Smend, Rudolf. "Der Alttestamentler Julius Wellhausen und Wilamowitz." In Wilamowitz in Greifswald. Akten der Tagung zum 150. Geburtstag Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorffs in Greifswald, 19.22. Dezember 1998, edited by William M. Calder et al., pp. 197215. Hildesheim, 2000.

Kurt Rudolph (1987)

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

Wellhausen, Julius

views updated May 18 2018


Orientalist and Biblical scholar remembered chiefly for his contributions to the documentary theory on the composition of the Hexateuch; b. Hameln, Germany, May 17, 1844; d. Göttingen, Jan. 7, 1918. His studies in theology were made under the celebrated G. H. A. ewald at Göttingen, where he also taught for two years (187072). In 1872 he became professor of theology at the University of Greifswald. In 1882 he resigned his post, because his views on Biblical inspiration conflicted with those accepted at the university. Subsequently he taught at Halle and Marburg (188285). In 1892 he transferred to Göttingen, where he remained until his death.

His Prolegomena and Komposition des Hexateuchs became standard works in critical Biblical studies, to the extent that the theories he developed came to be considered the "orthodox" view in most non-Catholic Biblical circles. A culmination of his influence may be seen in P. Haupt's "Rainbow Bible." Although later scholarship, e.g., that of the "Scandinavian School," has considerably modified Wellhausen's documentary theories, his influence on Biblical criticism in Catholic as well as non-Catholic scholarship has been established.

The following are among his more important works: Pharisärer und Sadduzäer (1874); Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (6th ed. 1905); Die Komposition des Hexateuchs und der historischen Bücher des alten Testaments (3d ed. 1899); Israelitische und Jüdische Geschichte (4th ed. 1901); Reste arabischen Heidentums (2d ed. 1897); Das Evangelium Marci (1903), Matthäi (1904), Lucae (1904), and Johannis (1908).

Bibliography: Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2, v.10. o. eissfeldt, Die Religion in geschichte und Gegenwart, third ed. 6:159495.

[c. a. rehwinkel]

Wellhausen, Julius

views updated May 29 2018

Wellhausen, Julius (1844–1918). German biblical critic. Wellhausen put forward the theory in his Die Composition des Hexateuchs (1887) that the Pentateuch was compiled from four separate sources. Although his views were to a great extent accepted by most modern biblical scholars, they remained anathema to Orthodox Jews and to those Christians who maintain the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.

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