Saturday, March 08, 2008

Wrede's Analogy

William Wrede in his famous essay on "The Task and Methods of [so-called] New Testament Theology" complains that little attention is given to the social context of the New Testament and too much emphasis is given to a conglomeration of theologies or theological doctrines. He then offers this analogy:

Consider the following: suppose that we are living two thousand years from now and are interested in the social democratic movement in our nineteenth century. Most of the literature of social democracy is lost, but we do still have a reasonable number of sources - two popular biographies of Lassalle, an academic treatise of Marx, a few letters of Lasalle, Engels and one or two unknown workers active as agitators; then a few pamphlets two or three pages long and finally a social inflammatory writing describing the socialist picture of heaven upon earth, - i.e. a collection of literature something like the New Testament. Now suppose we want to use these documents to get a picture of the outlook, ideas and earliest development of social democracy. We proceed as follows: we establish the order in which they were written. We then treat each one on its own. Marx and Lassalle rank alongside all the rest, only are dealt with more fully. The same procedure is adopted in each case. We naturally ask what Marx understands by labour, production, surplus value, etc. But we also ask what the pamphlets and letters mean by the concepts of bourgeoisie, proletariat, by the idea of its 'disinheritance', and by the variation in the concepts of labour or co-operative. Perhaps we manage to establish that in one of the papers the concept of ownership means just the same as that of property, and that some of Lassalle's ideas and phrases can no doubt be found in the inflammatory writing, and also - remarkably enough - traces of Darwin's influence, and a little Nietzsche. There are four occurrences of 'struggle of existence', two of 'adaptation', and one of 'master morality'. Another author has a special preference for the idea of agitation - so he is clearly 'the socialist of agitation'. In this way we carefully catalogue the ideas of each writing, stolidly piling one investigation upon another, arranging it all attractively according to the main points of view. Then we call the whole thing 'The Ideas of Social Democracy in its Period of Origin' (in Morgan, p. 82).

Wrede's point is that a history-of-ideas approach ends up with a caricature rather than a genuinely historical account of the New Testament.


James Crossley said...

Yes, I find these sorts of (isolated) late C19/early C20 *very* interesting. Some of the socially concerned German scholars did try to look at social context in this period but it wouldn't last. My guess (/argument) is that the emergence of fascism in Germany led to a de-emphasis on social context (much would be Jewish after all) and the rise of the atheistic Soviet Union (Marxism was often tied in with social context and Soviet was hardly appealing) really made sure that is was *largely* off the cards. But even then isolated figures can be found.

Geoff Hudson said...

The real question is, how well do you understand the contemporary ideas? If politics drive social actions, then first century Jewish theology did even more so, that is unless you believe the bland Judaism of Sanders.

::aaron g:: said...


Geoff Hudson said...

Does anyone imagine that the War Scroll had nothing to do with Roman intervention in Judea? I laugh when I hear the so-called concensus view from such as Charlesworth, that the DSS were the writings of a benign Essene sect at Qumran.

And Wrede would have known nothing of the DSS.

Geoff Hudson said...

Nor did Wrede know about Mein Kampf or the Litle Red Book.

So how did the book of the Jesus movement come into being? How were all those individual books saved and gathered apparently from many different places of the Roman Empire? - the original books must surely have been written and sent to fewer places.

As in the example of The Little Red Book, was the extant NT imposed on society by the contemporary power brokers (the Flavians) as a means of people control? Was the Jesus movement an imposed Flavian reform of the Jewish prophetic movement, using original prophetic documents? Similarly, was the Jewish rabbinic movement an imposed Flavian reform of the Jewish priestly movement?