Friday, March 23, 2012
Von Harnack, 19th century liberal scholarship, and implications for the text of Scripture
Image: Adolph von Harnack (1851-1930)
Adolph von Harnack (1851-1930) was a leading, liberal German church historian and New Testament scholar. I have been reading his The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (German original 1902; Harper Torchbook, 1962).
I am struck by von Harnack's declarations of the historical-critical scholarly stance of the day which sought to distance the historical Jesus and his teaching from "later" church development. So, for von Harnack, Jesus did not envision a mission to the Gentiles, but this mission was created by the apostles and post-apostolic figures. Thus, he writes, regarding "syncretism" in early Christianity: "Christianity was not originally syncretistic itself, for Jesus Christ did not belong to this cirles of ideas, and it was his disciples who were responsible for the primitive shaping of Christianity" (p. 35). The "universalism" of the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20) is "neither genuine, nor a part of the primitive tradition" (p. 37). Thus: "The conclusion must be that Jesus never issued such a command at all, but that this version of his life was due to the historical developments of a later age, the words being appropriately put into the mouth of the risen Lord" (p. 41). Von Harnack expresses admiration for "the primitive apostles" who took on a mission that Jesus "had never taught them" (p. 61).
In this work, von Harnack expresses his noted skepticism regarding the historical value of the Gospel of John in particular, attributing authorship of the Johannine corpus not to the son of Zebedee but to the post-apostolic "John the Presbyter" (pp. 81-82). John's writings would reflect much too developed and orthodox a Christology to be primitive, in von Harnack's view. He likewise dismisses the traditional ending of Mark (16:9-20) as an "unauthentic appendix" (p. 38).
Why am I reading this? For one thing, I am trying to get a better feel for the scholarly environment in which the traditional text of Scripture came to challenged and overthrown in both Germany and Britain (and then America). It is certain that the drive to achive a modern critical text was not an "orphan" movement, without father or mother. The thesis: The desire to reach a more "primitive" Biblical text reflected a desire to reach a more primitive Jesus, free from the pious barnacles of orthodoxy. So, the God of nineteenth century liberal scholarship is more unitarian, its Jesus more Arian, and its prefered Bible, based on "the most ancient and reliable manuscripts," reflected these convictions.