Kaiser, Christ, and Canaan
The Religion of Israel in Protestant Germany, 1871-1918
- ISBN: 9783161554964
- Published By: Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Company KG
- Published: November 2018
Paul Michael Kurtz’s Kaiser, Christ, and Canaan provides a window into the intellectual life of Protestant Germany during the Wilhelmine period. At the center of the book stand two trailblazing personalities for the field of Hebrew Bible research and beyond: Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) and Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932). Kurtz paints a picture of the lives and thought of two scholars who today stand as giants in the field of Hebrew Bible studies by bridging the geographic, temporal, cultural, and linguistic gaps between modern (especially anglophone) research and the Germanophone research of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ultimately, Kurtz’s juxtaposition of their biographies, methodologies, and intellectual underpinnings reveals significant similarities between the two that are not brought to present scholarly discussions.
At the core of Kurtz’s project is the attempt to take certain internal narratives in Hebrew Bible studies—that is, certain narratives in the field’s intellectual history that continue to be told “almost solely [from the perspective of] internal causation” (195)—and tell them instead as external narratives by contextualizing them within the larger intellectual and cultural movements of their time. At stake is the correction of how Hebrew Bible studies views its own history. In the case of Wellhausen and Gunkel, it has generally been as follows: Wellhausen’s work in the late 19th century sought to reconstruct the history of Israel in a scientific manner, through the identification and analysis of various sources in the present Hebrew Bible laws and narratives from various periods in Israel’s history. Emerging at the turn of the 20th century was his younger contemporary Gunkel, whose methodologies stood in direct contrast to Wellhausen’s. Gunkel pushed the discussion beyond the biblical texts and their hypothesized constituent sources and into the world behind and beyond the text by addressing the form, genre, and historical contexts of biblical and ancient Near Eastern literature and probing the thought-worlds of the authors.
The book is structured in two parts, the first focusing on Wellhausen and the second on Gunkel. Each part consists of three chapters, with the first detailing the respective scholar’s biographical context, the second focusing on their research and the methodological threads that bind the work together, and the third analyzing their works, methodologies, and biographic contexts to reveal the base assumptions and values that directed their academic pursuits.
Kurtz amasses a breathtaking amount of literature, not just the scholars’ publications but also private correspondences by them and their contemporaries, to correct the internal narrative through a contextualization of the two scholars. In this, Kurtz uncovers the various intellectual winds that blew upon and through Wellhausen, Gunkel, and their colleagues and continue to exert influence both explicitly and implicitly on the field of biblical studies today.
Kurtz’s biographical and intellectual analysis of the two men reads almost as a crescendo to the opening of the concluding chapter: although the two scholars are often caricatured as being at two opposite poles in Hebrew Bible scholarship, contextualization of them and their work reveals that they are not as dissimilar as the field’s internal narrative would suggest. Both are products of their time, sharing the same conceptions of history and religion typical of German Protestant thought at the turn of the 20th century. Both showed through their work a belief in the individuality of religion, the compatibility of religion and science, the primacy of the Christian religion, and the working of the divine—and divine revelation—through human history. Kurtz’s externalized narrative details how these beliefs run at the very core of the scholars’ works and highlights the need for modern scholarship’s recognition of these influences in ideas and theories that still stand at the heart of the field today.
Although not always explicated by the author, other “So what?”s of the book are of no little import: Kurtz constructs a critique of the perceptions of history by Wellhausen and Gunkel in their allowance of (characteristically German Protestant) religious thought to act as a guide (explicitly for Gunkel, implicitly and perhaps less so for Wellhausen) for their historical analysis and reconstruction. Given the influence that both still exert on modern biblical studies in their works themselves and the underlying methodologies, Kurtz ultimately poses the question of “whether that program itself can still function if certain parts no longer prove tenable” (256).
This comes at a time when traditional literary criticism of the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Europe, has moved away from Wellhausen’s legacy of the Documentary Hypothesis and toward modes of literary analysis more from Gunkel’s sphere of influence, prone to identifying cohesive textual units rather than dividing texts into antecedent parallel “sources.” Amid a field fraught with consensus decay, Kurtz’s contribution to the Forschungen zum Alten Testament series forces the reader to reflect on the intellectual underpinnings of a defining epoch for the discipline.
Kaiser, Christ, and Canaan is more than just an external contextualization of two giants in the field of Hebrew Bible and biblical studies at large. It brings its audience to reckon with their own ways of approaching ancient texts and reconstructing the past, and more broadly with their own understandings of history and religion and how the two are intertwined. By casting light on the influences and biases that shaped two of the great minds of Hebrew Bible scholarship at the turn of the century, Kurtz leads readers to reflect on their own influences and biases, whether from personalities great or small or the larger zeitgeist(s) of a 21st-century world.
John Will Rice is a PhD student in Hebrew Bible at Heidelberg University.John Will RiceDate Of Review:November 30, 2021