08 mei 2011

Allard Pierson Continued - the Birth of Dutch Radical Criticism

In 1875 Pierson's Levensbeschouwing (Philosophy of Life) saw the light, written in Utrecht, just before he was to accept his appointment at the University of Amsterdam. Here he consolidates his positions - note that he is now forty four years of age. He seems to have consolidated a position of fundamental religiosity, in which nonetheless everything was open to critical inquiry. His religion is never fundamentalist or conservative, it is a matter of the heart that is beyond dispute, and which informs all his other interests, but is never threatened by his natural inquisitiveness. It should be noted also that besides his history of the Catholic Church, he attempted to do a survey of Protestantism, which remained essentially unfinished. The whole episode of his writing about the development of Christianity is funny in the sense that he seems to manage a level of objectivity that is enough at all times to offend both sides of the argument, but he just sticks to his very neutral course. While he appreciated much about the Catholic Church the way Protestantism opened the door to critical examination of the Bible and much else was clearly where he was comfortable, and as became clear when he left his congregation in Rotterdam, he became to critical and " modern" even for that church.

By 1877 there appears a book "A Study of the Writings of Israel's Prophets," it seems to be primarily a counter to the work of a then popular positivist thinker, Kuenen, and of less interest from the standpoint of Pierson's overall development. By 1878 it is time for some critical studies of the Jesus tradition as reported in the synoptic Gospels. Here his first evident doubt of the veracity of Paul begin to surface. His collaboration with the author of the biography on which I based this article starts in this time, first with a proofreading of his translation of Aeschylos' Oresteia, always a challenge because of the difficult Greek and the often less than perfect textual tradition. Out of that collaboration grows a joint study of the letters of Paul. Along with it they read a wide range of other classical writings in Latin and Greek. This study led to his work on six letters of Paul, titled Verisimilia, co-authored with his later biographer Naber, which was to appear in 1886 and which is a story of going back to the original texts for a full critical study, resulting in challenges to many accepted readings and assumptions.

The passages in Naber's biography, dealing with their joint study of Paul (p. 198 ff.), are priceless and worth reading in full, for here are two accomplished classical scholars, whose grasp of Greek is without equal, and even though Pierson is a theologian by training, his very independent spirit allows him to sit down for the first time and read Paul fresh, without bringing any framework of interpretation to his writings. Fundamentally they ended up with some forty major inconsistencies they found in Paul which threw up a lot of questions and were never resolved during the lifetimes of either Pierson, or his biographer. They were pulling their hair out, and studying all commentators and interpreters they could find, without ever finding much satisfaction on the issues that bothered them the most. The most difficult inconsistencies had been traditionally omitted from consideration. One of the more obvious ones was in the fact that when Paul when quoting the Old Testament quite evidently quotes from the Greek Septuagint translation, instead of from the Hebrew Bible, even while he is claiming Judaic ancestry, and from a Pharisaic lineage. The book enjoyed ample attacks and criticism, but the list of forty "tough nuts to crack," major unexplained inconsistencies, were never satisfactorily addressed by any of the critics. Fundamentally, here is a major start of the criticism of Paul, which is to become a central feature of the school of Radical Criticism in Holland as well as in Germany.

Meanwhile Pierson now has a difficult start at the University of Amsterdam, with a few very slow first years as an unpopular teacher, until he seems to find his right style of delivery for his Dutch students, and becomes quite a popular professor of Art History and Aesthetics. That part of the story is less relevant here, but the story up to the publication of Verisimilia  clearly shows how Pierson became a founding father of Dutch Radical Criticism, not to mention had a connection to the same circles in Germany. As so often much that is inconvenient gets forgotten quickly, so after the first polemics died down, the critical consideration of such traditional materials remains for the few who are not satisfied with the pat answers, and want to look for themselves. They are likely one day to re-discover these early explorers who never unlearned to feel free to question everything.

My reasons again for treating this material at some length on this blog are simply that I am aware that Kaiser was familiar with the thinking of the Radical Criticism. Specifically we find him citing the philosopher Bolland in his published work, and there were other circumstantial connections I am aware of. In short, while it seems to take forever for the Western world to understand the difference between the teachings of Jesus, which express universal ageless truth, and the Roman interpretation of his teachings, aka Christianity, which should fairly be known as the teachings of Paul. To a degree it was this type of critical thought which opened the way for the appearance of a teacher such as Kaiser, for whom it was very clear that he was a follower of Jesus, and bypassed the interpretations and speculations of Paul, whoever he was, and left them alone entirely, thereby liberating the message of Jesus from the Christian context that was retrofitted on to them posthumously.

From a more general scholarly point of view, this bit of history is important, to show how the internal inconsistencies made Paul's opus fall apart completely, and how that started happening long before the appearance of the Thomas Gospel and the understanding of the chronology of the early Gospels, including the fact that Paul would have pre-dated them made it clear for everyone to see that that none of the theological positions that define Christianity where present in the original Jesus material, but only in the later traditions which appeared after Paul. Naturally the eventual selection of the canon of the New Testament by Bishop Athanasius in 367 CE, was completely dominated by the needs of Christian orthodoxy, and by that time the Thomas materials, and much else besides, had for all intents and purposes already disappeared off the face of the earth, at least until the re-discovery of them started first through the Renaissance, but then really later through re-discovery of manuscripts starting in the late 19th century. Curiously, in our time it was the Talmudic scholar Hyam Maccoby who perhaps most convincingly showed Paul as the inventor of Christianity. Like Pierson, he stumbled over the inconsistencies of Paul's claimed Pharisaic heritage and his evident quoting from the Greek Septuagint. Meanwhile, it should also never escape our attention that Thomas Jefferson's production of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, from 1820, while hardly a scholarly attempt, still reflects the same inspiration that divorces what Jesus said from what Paul said he said.

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