Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Assassination and de Wette's Dismissal from Berlin

This is sort of strange.

In a very helpful article (full-text), the classics scholar Paul B. Harvey, Jr., and the Hebrew Bible scholar Baruch Halpern offer an English translation of and an introduction to the doctoral dissertation of Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette. (The translation is on pp. 73-85.) The original Latin of the dissertation--which is only about 20 pages long with 5 total footnotes!--was later reprinted in de Wette's Opuscula Theologica (Berlin, 1830), available full-text here, pp. 149-68.

The dissertation, written at Jena in 1804 and defended the following year, is famous as establishing--so it is often thought--that Deuteronomy was composed around the time of King Josiah. In fact, de Wette barely even suggests the possibility that Deuteronomy may have been the law book found by Josiah. This suggestion is found in about half of a sentence near the end of the long footnote 5 of the dissertation (= pp. 81-82 n. 59 of Harvey & Halpern). The suggestion itself is hardly original with de Wette, as Harvey & Halpern show (p. 48 n. 4). The full argument would appear the following year in the first volume of de Wette's Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Alte Testament (Halle, 1806), 175-79 (translated by Harvey & Halpern on pp. 63-65 of their article).

The part that I find strange is when Harvey & Halpern offer an explanation as to why de Wette was forced to leave his professorship at Berlin in 1819. They write:
Unfortunately, an assassination there motivated by conservative reaction to critical Biblical study drove de Wette into temporary retirement, until he found refuge in the more liberal theological environment of the University of Basel. (p. 59, no footnote)
This raised my interest quite a bit. I knew that tempers could run high when conservative Christians encounter critical biblical scholarship, and we have certainly seen plenty of dismissals from academic posts in recent years due to this, but this is the first account of a murder that I remember hearing about in relation to these issues.

But I can't find any corroboration for this statement. Oh, there was an assassination, to be sure, but the motivation does not seem to have been anything regarding critical biblical scholarship.

This from the Wikipedia article on de Wette:
He was, however, dismissed from Berlin in 1819 on account of his having written a letter of consolation to the mother of Karl Ludwig Sand, the murderer of Kotzebue.
You can follow the links to find out who those guys are. I'll give you the short version. Sand was a 25-year-old student who supported German nationalism and he perceived the playwright Kotzebue to be producing works that would hinder German unification (I think that's what was going on). Nothing in the Wikipedia articles mentions biblical scholarship.

Okay, you don't trust Wikipedia? How about John Rogerson's intellecutal biography of de Wette? He talks about this assassination on pp. 150ff. He introduces his account with this sentence:
On 23 March 1819, Sand assassinated the popular playwright Kotzebue in Mannheim. Kotzebue was regarded by the student unions as a Russian agent and traitor, and his murder was seen as an expression of loyalty to the fatherland
Rogerson never hints that this assassination had any relation with critical biblical scholarship. It was about nationalism. As for Wikipedia's assertion that the dismissal concerned a letter written by de Wette, this letter is discussed by Rogerson (pp. 153-56), but there was certainly a good deal more going on than just this letter. See Rogerson's entire discussion, pp. 145-59.

So, the bottom line is that critical biblical scholars can rest easy. Your work did not motivate an assassin in Berlin 194 years ago. But where do Harvey and Halpern get the idea that it did? Strange.

No comments: