Wellhausen, Julius°

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WELLHAUSEN, JULIUS ° (1844–1918), German Semitist. Born in Hameln, Wellhausen was the son of a Lutheran clergyman, He studied in Goettingen under H. Ewald and was professor of theology in Greifswald from 1872 to 1882. However, he resigned from this position because he did not believe himself equal to the task of "preparing the students for serving the Protestant Church." He was professor of Oriental studies in Halle from 1882 to 1885, in Marburg from 1885 to 1892, and in Goettingen from 1892.

Wellhausen summed up the conclusions of the 19th-century Pentateuch criticism and based upon it a new comprehensive view of the history of Ancient Israel. He also analyzed the Gospels of the New Testament and the pre-Islamic and early Islamic tradition of the Arabs. In his first important book, Der Text der Buecher Samuelis (1871), Wellhausen made consistent use of the Septuagint in order to arrive at the original text of Samuel; in his second important book, Die Pharisaeer und die Sadducaeer (1874), he followed mainly Josephus and the New Testament in his description of the two parties and their relationship. He then turned to the tradition concerning the beginnings of Ancient Israel. In Die Composition des Hexateuchs (1889), he put forward a new and modified hypothesis concerning the four sources: Jahwist (j), Elohist (e), Deuteronomy (d), Priestly Code (p). Taking as his starting point the works of K.H. Graf and A. Kuenen, he reversed the chronological order: he dated the Priestly Code, which had until then been regarded as the oldest source (Grundschrift, "primary source"), from the period after the Babylonian Exile. In 1878, he analyzed the remaining historical books (Bleek-Wellhausen, Einleitung in das Alte Testament, "Introduction to the Old Testament," 4th–6th editions, 1878–93) and he applied the conclusions of this research in his historiography Geschichte Israels (1878; later Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels, 1882; Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, 1885) in which he revived the theses of W.M.L. de Wette and W. Vatke. He considered the Priestly Code and Chronicles as sources not for the history of Ancient Israel but only of post-Exilic Judaism. Ancient Israel did not yet know theocracy as a hierocratic institution but only as an idea. The actual law originated only shortly before the Exile (Deuteronomy); after the Exile it became the basis of the canon in the form of the ritual law written down by the priests. In 1894, Wellhausen wrote his Israelitische und juedische Geschichte ("The History of Ancient Israel and of the Jews") as a development of the sentence "yhwh the God of Israel, Israel the people of yhwh," which he called the "foundation on which the collective consciousness of Israel has rested at all times." He included in this history, as a matter of course, a chapter on the Gospels, though later he published this only with reservations. He concerned himself with the Arabs first of all for the sake of the history of Ancient Israel, namely in order to "become acquainted with natural man in whom the law of the Lord was implanted by priests and prophets." He believed that the best explanation of the religion of Ancient Israel was to be found in the religion of the pre-Islamic Arabs (Reste arabischen Heidentums, 1887). Here also, a critical appraisal of the sources led him to a historiographic synthesis: Das arabische Reich und sein Sturz (1902).

Wellhausen was not only a penetrating analyst, but also an excellent writer. He had a great deal of effect even on his adversaries, who attacked him vehemently, for instance with the claim (today definitely disproved) that he was a Hegelian. The driving force behind his historiography was a delight in the free development of human individuality. His view of Ancient Israel has been corrected in many details by the further development of literary criticism (H. Gunkel) and recent research on the Ancient Near East.


A. Rahlfs, in: K. Marti (ed.), Studien zur semitischen Philologie and Religionsgeschichte (1914), 353–68; O. Eissfeldt, in: rgg3, 6 (1962), 1594–95: L. Perlitt, Vatke und Wellhausen (1965); F. Boschwitz, Julius Wellhausen, Motive und Masstaebe seiner Geschichtsbeschreibung (19682).

[Rudolf Smend]