The Hermann Detering Legacy—1

As of this writing, Dr. Detering’s German website is online here. It includes a page that Detering thoughtfully provided for English readers. We shall begin there.

Detering’s ‘English page’ contains twenty-two entries. However, only seven were authored by Detering himself. Those are the ones that I will include in this and subsequent posts, to be followed by other writings by Detering available in English. Detering’s inclusion on his website of writings by other authors reveals their importance in his eyes. Those ancillary writings include books by Edwin Johnson (Antiqua Mater), P.-L. Couchoud, and G. Bolland, as well as much material supplied by Klaus Schilling. Perhaps some of this interesting ancillary material will also be uploaded to this website in due course. However, the primary purpose of this particular project still remains to provide a repository of Dr. Detering’s work.

In an attempt to reconstruct Detering’s legacy chronologically, this initial post presents the Introduction to his 1991 dissertation, which Detering included on his website under the rubric “Dutch Radical Criticism.” Detering was, beyond any doubt, the world’s foremost authority on the so-called Dutch Radical School of New Testament Criticism. The young graduate traveled to Holland and learned Dutch in order to conduct research. His devotion to the Dutch Radicals was early, deep, and colored all his future work.

The following is edited for clarity and idiomatic usage,
with some seminal statements by Dr. Detering in bold type.

Dutch Radical Criticism
Published June 1, 1992 by H. Detering
[From the Introduction to Detering’s Ph.D dissertation.]

Dutch Radical Criticism is the usual name for a trend of thought arising in the 19th century within the New-Testamentary discipline in the Netherlands. Its representatives disputed:

—the historical existence of Jesus, and/or
—the authenticity of all the Epistles of Paul.

Among its representatives we find, besides the classicist S.A. NABER, the theologians A. PIERSON, A.D. LOMAN, W.C. VAN MANEN, J.A. BRUINS, J. VAN LOON and H.U. MEYBOOM, and the philosopher G.J.P.J. BOLLAND. The last representative of Dutch Radical Criticism, G.A. VAN DEN BERGH VAN EYSINGA, Professor of New Testament and Ancient Christian Literature in Amsterdam, passed away in 1957. From that time on there has no more been any other representative of radical criticism in the academic field in the Netherlands. The radical critics are also taken together as a group and defined as the Dutch Radical School.

The historical-scholarly examination of Paul and the Epistles of Paul in Dutch Radical Criticism has two tasks:

—to detail the scholarly work of the Dutch critics, almost totally forgotten at home and abroad,
with specific attention paid to the Pauline Epistles; and
—to place this work in the scholarly and religio-historical context of its time.

Such an examination of the Dutch Radical School makes it evident that there is no reason to qualify its work as “unscholarly,” or to consider it a “wrong track” in scholarship. Rather, it can be acknowledged that the majority of problems and aporias raised by the Dutch Radicals still remain unsolved. Moreover, a glance at present-day New Testament studies offers the possibility—on many points—to test the Dutch Radical theses with more patience and less prejudice than in the past.

By way of introduction, an examination of the Dutch Radical School begins with a few remarks on its general point of view. Then follows an inquiry into the historical assumptions and roots from which Dutch Radical Criticism originated. In doing so, discussion will be directed at three scholars:

— the Tübingen New Testament scholar F.C. BAUR;
— the New Testament scholar and philosopher BRUNO BAUER, who was deprived of his office in 1842—
he was the first scholar in Germany to deny the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth; and
— the Englishman E. EVANSON who, in his principal work (Dissonance of the Four Received Evangelists, 1810),
was the first to deny the authenticity of the so-called Principal Epistles (Romans, I/II Corinthians, Galatians).

The majority of the Radicals did not regard Palestine, or respectively the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, as the starting-point of the religious movement that was later called Christianity. For the Dutch Radical School, the starting-point of Christianity was Alexandria and the Gnosis at home there, as well as the area of Syria/Samaria and its redeemer/Christ myth.

For Dutch Radical Criticism, Rome is the pivot on which the history of second-century Christianity hinges. In the Christian congregation of Rome a unique coalition formed out of a combination of Stoic thinkers on the one hand and Jewish-Christian thinkers on the other. That coalition was later defined as Catholicism. The Roman congregation historicized the (gnostic) myth of the Redeemer. This transformation was necessary primarily for propaedeutic-pedagogical as well as practical reasons. The Roman congregation had realized that a docetic spirit [i.e. the saving Gnosis–RS], as taught by Gnosticism, was ill-suited for the foundation of a nascent universal church, something that could establish power only on the basis of accepted tradition and acknowledged history. The projection of the mythical figure of Christ into Palestine was the decisive contribution of the Jewish Christians of Rome who, through annexing the Old Testament, fixed the outline of Jesus’ lifestory from Bethlehem to Golgotha.

Against the background of this conception of the genesis of Christianity, the Dutch Radicals BOLLAND and VAN DEN BERGH VAN EYSINGA viewed all the Pauline Epistles as second century products of Christian consciousness, probably flowing into the Church from Marcionite circles. At the same time, VAN MANEN and LOMAN differed in that they maintained Jesus’ historicity while denying the authenticity of the Pauline Epistles. This shows us that one widespread opinion regarding the Dutch Radical School does not hold true, namely, that it was purely concerned with the denial of Jesus’ historicity.

The starting-point of Dutch Radical criticism of the Pauline epistles is the lack of external evidence (argumenta externa). Wherever one looks, one is unable to convincingly corroborate their ancient existence. The Radicals dismissed the first Letter of Clement as testimony for the existence of Paul’s Epistles in the early part of the second century. They did similarly with the seven Letters of Ignatius, which they rejected as unauthentic. In doing so, the Dutch Radicals agreed with the criticism of the Tübingen school, whose important arguments that have as yet attracted far too little interest. In the view of the Dutch Radicals, Justin also—who flourished in the middle of the second century—cannot be regarded as a witness for the existence of Epistles of Paul.

In Justin—as in Aristides—allusions to Pauline epistles are indeed occasionally found. But the critics argue that the lack of explicit references shows either (a) that Justin and Aristides knew only general theological treatises and no Pauline epistles as such, or (b) that those writings were gnostisizing Marcionite forgeries. The latter suspicion is strengthened by the peculiarity that while the heretic Marcion was at a later date excluded from the Church, he was yet the first to bring to light a collection of Pauline epistles. Moreover, literary criticism of the Pauline Epistles—especially to the Galatians—makes it clear that the Marcionite version represents the older and more original form of the text. For these reasons, the radical critics concluded that “Paul” was a symbolic figure in Marcionism.

Thus the early Church used “Paul” to project its own theology and doctrine into the apostolic past of the first century, and thereby to legitimate itself in the theological feuds of the second century. Only by means of Catholic revision were the epistles wrested from the hands of the Marcionites. This Catholic revision can still be distinguished from the original Marcionite text of the epistles. The Catholic revision is characterized by certain anti-ascetic and anti-docetic theological points of view, as well as by links to Old Testament traditions and by introducing Jewish nomistic ideas. The sanitized epistles were definitively turned into property of the Church by their subsequent canonization.

As regards the authenticity of the Pauline epistles, perhaps the most damning external evidence is the witness of the New Testament itself. The failure of Acts to mention Paul’s literary activities is especially telling. Furthermore, the image of Paul in Acts is obviously different from that in the epistles.

Quite apart from the argumenta externa, the Dutch Radicals support their assertion that all the epistles of Paul are inauthentic by a series of argumenta interna. The latter appear principally when one considers the literary character of the Epistles published under the name of Paul. Compared to a normal letter dating from antiquity, the abnormal length, the form, and the frequent literary seams expose the actual documents used to produce the Pauline epistles. The Dutch Radicals have delineated their original elements and have underscored the fictive character of their final form by bringing to light incompatible elements, including:

– conflicting historical reasons behind the epistles
– conflicting portrayals of the congregations envisaged in the epistles
– conflicting relations of the Apostle to these portrayals of the congregations.

The descriptions of Paul’s opponents, too, also conflict and are often vague, pale, and misty. They do not permit any clear historical arrangement. In addition, the Dutch Radicals question the Jewish descent of the putative author. There are many indications that he neither thinks nor speaks as would a Jew. In particular, the first two chapters of Galatians—which the Dutch Radicals expose as pseudo-historical—reveal the fictive character of ‘Paul.’

Yet one more argument for the inauthenticity of the Pauline epistles is their mutual dependence. This is especially evident in the dependence of Galatians on Romans, as clearly revealed by the Dutch Radicals.

Radical Criticism has repeatedly been reproached for being dependent on certain historical-theoretical premisses or philosophical aprioris, e.g. on the philosophy of HEGEL. Upon closer examination, however, this reproach is groundless. The methodical requirements of Dutch Radical Criticism are no different from those of modern historical criticism. Only in their results do the Radicals differ from other New Testament scholars—not in their methods.

Yet it cannot be disputed that the philosophical-theological consequences resulting from the work of some Dutch Radicals are in harmony with Neo-Hegelian and idealistic thinking. For example, VAN DEN BERGH VAN EYSINGA celebrated the elimination of the historical Jesus as a message of rejoicing, as something leading the Christian from the fetter of history into the freedom of the Idea.

At first blush, the reception accorded Dutch Radicalism leads one to the general conclusion that its results have been suppressed or ignored by the New Testament guild rather than actually refuted. Furthermore, upon close examination, a comparison of Dutch Radical Criticism with the results of the modern scholarly examination of Paul shows that the majority of the problems exposed by the Radicals remain unsolved:

– the poor external documentation for the Pauline Epistles
– the historical development of Paulism, and
– the false literary unity of the Pauline Epistles (explicitly addressed by W. SCHMITHALS, among others).

These—and many other—unsolved riddles show that the problems pointed out by the Radical Critics remain current to this day. While the methods and hermeneutics with which these problems are now met are as a rule quite different from when the Dutch Radicals were active, it remains to be seen whether they are any better. That is why those working in the field of New Testament studies would be wise to consider the work of the Dutch Radical School—even to test their conclusions against Radical Criticism, which has until this very day been far too neglected.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website


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