Dutch Radical Critcism

Dutch Radical Critcism is the usual name for a trend of thought arising in the 19th century within the New-Testamentary discipline in the Netherlands, whose representatives disputed

  1. the historical existence of Jesus and/or
  2. 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 academical 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 presented hereby sets itself the task

  1. to reproduce the scholarly work of the Dutch critics, almost totally forgotten at home and abroad, with specific attention paid to the Pauline Epistles and
  2. to make this work comprehensible from the scholarly- and religious-historical context of its time.

This examination makes it evident that there is no reason to qualify the findings of the Radicals‘ scholarly work as „unscholarly“, or to consider it a „wrong track“ of scholarly examination. It should rather be ascertained that the majority of the problems and aporias thrown in by the Dutch Radicals have up to now remained unsolved. Moreover, a glance at the present-day state of the New-Testamentary discipline shows that a series of points of reference and contact exists that could give occasion to test the radical critical theses with more patience and less prejudice than this was often the case in the past.

The examination starts off with an introduction and a few remarks on the concept of the Dutch Radical School.

Then follows the inquiry into the historical assumptions and roots from which Dutch Radical Criticism originated. In doing so a look is cast at three scholars,

  1. the Tübingen New Testament scholar F.C. BAUR
  2. the New Testament scholar and philosopher BRUNO BAUER, who was deprived of his office in 1842; he was the first scholar in Germany to contradict the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth, and
  3. the Englishman E. EVANSON, who in his principal work (The Dissonance…) was the first to deny the authenticity of the so-called Principal Epistles (Rom., I/II Cor. and Gal.).

The second part of the first chapter deals with both the Dutch Radical School as an entity and its representatives, who are introduced one by one in chronological order.

The biographic-historical orientation is followed by a review of the radical critical overall conception of the history of the origin of Christianity. The majority of the Radicals do not regard Palestine, or respectively the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, as the starting-point of the religious movement that later on was called Christianity; for them the starting-point was Alexandria and the Gnosis at home here (and in the area of Syria and Samaria) and its Redeemer or respectively Christ-Myth. For Dutch Radical Criticism the pivot on which the history of second-century Christianity concentrates is Rome. In the Christian congregation here an exceptional coalition came into being between a denomination formed of Roman-Stoical thinking and a Jewish-Christian one; a coalition that later on was defined as Catholicism. The Roman congregation is the decisive and responsible factor for historicizing the (gnostic) myth of the Redeemer. This process became necessary first of all because of propaedeutic-pedagogical and practical motives. The Roman congregation had realized that a docetic phantom, as taught by Gnosticism, was ill-suited as a foundation of a nascent universal church, which could build its power only on the basis of tradition and 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 Radicals such as BOLLAND and VAN DEN BERGH VAN EYSINGA have tried to conceive all the Pauline Epistles as products of the Christian consciousness of the second century, which probably flowed towards the Church from Marcionite circles. True, there were also Radicals such as e.g. VAN MANEN and LOMAN whose conception differed more or less strongly from the one just briefly traced, and who in spite of their denying the authenticity of the Pauline Epistles stuck to Jesus‘ historicity. This shows us that the widespread opinion that the radical criticism of the Pauline Epistles only served the Radical Dutchmen’s denial of Jesus‘ historicity, does not hold true.

The very first starting-point the Dutch Radicals chose in their criticism of the Epistles of Paul was the always observed poor external evidence with regard to these Epistles (argumenta externa). The first Letter of Clement was no more acknowledged by the Radicals as a testimony for the existence of Paul’s Epistles in the early part of the second century than were the seven Letters of Ignatius. And they could not, because they rejected these Letters as unauthentic. In doing so the Dutch Radicals joined the criticism of the Tübingen critics with important arguments that have as yet met with far too little interest. Nor can Justin in the middle of the second century, in their view, be regarded as a witness for the existence of Epistles of Paul. The peculiar fact that in Justin – as in Aristides – associations of Pauline Epistles are occasionally found, although they themselves are never explicitly mentioned, rather allows, say the critics, that Justin and Aristides either did not know the Pauline Epistles as Epistles, but did know them as general theological treatises, or saw in them gnostisizing, Marcionite forgeries. This surmise is in fact also hardened by Marcion, the heretic who was at a later date excluded from the Church and who was the first to bring to light a collection of Pauline Epistles. Moreover, the literary criticism of the Pauline Epistles, especially the one to the Galatians, is able to make it clear that the Marcionite version represents the older and more original form of the text. That is why the radical critics assumed that „Paul“ was a symbolic figure of Marcionitism. Thus it projected its theology and doctrine into the apostolic past of the first century, in order to legitimate itself in the theological wrestling of the second century. Only by means of a Catholic revision were the Epistles wrested from the hands of the Marcionites and by their canonization were they definitively turned into property of the Church. This Catholic revision can be distinguished from the Marcionite original text of the Epistles. It is characterized by certain anti-ascetic and anti-docetic theological points of view, as well as by association with the Old-Testamentary tradition and by introducing Jewish-nomistic ideas. Adverse to the external evidence of the Pauline Epistles is finally also the testimony of the entire New Testament, especially the silence of the Acts about the literary activities of the Apostle, whose image is in addition obviously different from that in the Epistles.

Irrespective of the argumenta externa the assertion that all the Epistles of Paul are unauthentic is supported by the Dutch Radicals with a series of argumenta interna. The latter appear mainly when the literary character of the Epistles published under the name of Paul is contemplated. Neither the (for a normal letter dating from Antiquity) abnormal length, nor the form of the letter used by the author, nor the frequent literary rifts and leaps allow us to see authentic documents in the Pauline Epistles. The fictive character of the form of the Epistles can be pointed out and made plausible by the Dutch Radicals in the light of many details;

  1. the historical cause for the Epistles
  2. the image of the congregations appearing from the Epistles
  3. the Apostle’s relations to this image of the congregations,

remain just as vague, pale, misty and conflicting as the descriptions of Paul’s opponents; neither do they give access to a clear historical arrangement. The Jewish descent of the author of the Epistles, too, is questionable for the majority of the Radicals, as there are many indications that he does neither think nor speak from a Jewish tradition, as could be expected of the Jew Paul. The fictive character has in particular and over and over again been shown in the light of the chapters one and two of the Epistle to the Galatians. Under the critical eyes of the Dutch Radicals its historical presentation is exposed as pseudo-historical. Yet one more argument for the unauthenticity of the Pauline Epistles is finally their mutual dependence. This is especially evident in the relation of the Epistle to the Galatians to that to the Romans, the former for the Radicals being clearly dependent on the latter.

Repeatedly radical criticism has been reproached for being dependent on certain historical-theoretical premisses or philosophical aprioris, e.g. on the philosophy of HEGEL. Upon closer examination this reproach does not hold true. The methodical requirements of Dutch Radical Criticism are not different from those of modern historical criticism. Not in their methods, but only in their results do the Radicals differ from other New-Testamentary scholars.

Yet it cannot be disputed that the philosophical-theological consequences drawn by some Dutch Radicals from their work are in harmony with Neo-Hegelian and idealistic thinking. The elimination of the historical Jesus is celebrated by VAN DEN BERGH VAN EYSINGA as a message of rejoicing, which leads the Christian from the collar of history into the freedom of the Idea.

First a general view of the reception Dutch Radicalism met with leads to the conclusion that its results have until now sooner been suppressed or ignored than really refuted by the remaining New-Testamentary discipline. Finally a comparison of Dutch Radical Criticism with the results of the modern scholarly examination of Paul shows that the majority of the problems thrown up by the Radicals have remained current,

  1. the poor external documentation of the Pauline Epistles
  2. the historical development of Paulism, and
  3. the faulty literary unity of the Pauline Epistles, to which explicit attention has been paid, among the modern scholars, by W. SCHMITHALS in his scholarly work.

These and many other open questions show that the problems pointed out by the Radical Critics have remained current up to this day. It goes without saying that the conclusions and models of explanation with which these problems are met now, are as a rule quite different. Whether they are better in every case remains yet to be seen. That is why those working in the field of modern examination would do wise to establish their own position also up against the radical critical position, which has until this very day been far too much neglected.


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