Religionsgeschichtliche Schule is a term that has dominated the study of Christianity in academic circles for 150 years. It is translated from the German as “History of Religions School.” In this case it means ‘school of thought’ rather than a physical place, and is a reference to a group of influential scholars. They are important because most of their core ideas are still going strong on the internet and are currently taught in the Religious Studies Departments of many universities.
A number of bad ideas got their start with the religionsgeschichtliche Schule, including “Pagan origins” of Bible stories and the idea that the divinity of Jesus developed late in the history of the Christian movement.
A colloquium was held at the University of Edinburgh a few weeks ago, titled “Varieties of Theism in Antiquity,” and amounted to a series of new scholarly papers presented by a group of academics who celebrate the countervailing views that have debunked the ideas of the original religionsgeschichtliche Schule.
One of the keynote presentations was by Larry Hurtado, and was titled “New religionsgeschichtliche Schule at Thirty: Observations by a Participant.” The term “New religionsgeschichtliche Schule” has been used for the past twenty years or so to refer to the scholars who have been pushing back against the original religionsgeschichtliche Schule.
So one of the core members of this group of intrepid scholars dates the beginning of the push-back scholarship to the 1980s. Which reveals that the original religionsgeschichtliche Schule had their ideas accepted in academic circles for well over a century before solid scholarship began to catch up to them. Part of the reason for this was that many Christian scholars had abandoned secular academia and chose instead to teach in seminaries. Another reason is that a lot of the evidence cited by the original religionsgeschichtliche Schule was hard to access in order to verify findings. Much more evidence is now available that conflicts with the theories of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule.
History of the “History of Religions School”
In the early nineteenth century a number of non-Christian papers were published that criticized the Bible as a collection of fables. This was an outcome of the Enlightenment; the Christian West had all agreed to discard their blasphemy laws.
By mid-century several authors with academic credentials were describing their conjectures as “scholarship.” Several Germans began calling themselves religionsgeschichtliche Schule. Albert Schweitzer published A Quest for the Historical Jesus in 1906. He reviewed a lot of the work of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule papers from the previous century, and criticized some for faulty logic or lack of evidence, but he gave his approval to some of them. His stature and fame boosted the anti-Christian cause.
A German professor named Rudolf Bultmann became a hugely influential Bible critic, who wrote of “demythologizing” the New Testament in the 1920s and continued to advance anti-Christian New Testament scholarship into the 1960s.
There were a few scholars who criticized the religionsgeschichtliche Schule, but who failed to get traction in academic circles. Mainly they were brushed off because they were Christians. Anti-Christians said that the findings of Christian scholars should be held in low regard in academic study of Christianity.
In the 20th century there was a proliferation of universities, and by the 1960s most of them wanted a religious studies program. Specifically, they wanted anti-religion Departments of Religious Studies, in which religion was studied as an anthropological discipline, from the point of view that ‘no religion is true, but all religions reveal something about human life and culture.’ Nearly every university today has highly-credentialed professors whose business it is to spread the work of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule. They earnestly study liberal theology and evangelize Secularism.
Beginning in the early 1980s, the ideas of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule were promoted by a group of theologically liberal American scholars who named themselves the “Jesus Seminar.” Most of those heretics claimed to be Christian, but spent all their energy writing that Jesus is not divine, did not rise from the dead, and should just be considered a misunderstood prophet.
Renewed energy kept these ideas in circulation when the “New Atheists” became publishing and media darlings in the 1990s.
Pop religionsgeschichtliche Schule and ‘Pagan Origins’
It was not long ago that I saw yet another Atheist saying on a popular blog site that Christian teachings in the New Testament were derived from Pagan ideas in the surrounding cultures. That was one of the principle teachings of the original religionsgeschichtliche Schule. Books to this effect have been published in a steadily-growing stream for the past hundred years. All sorts of “Pagan origins” theories can be found going around on the internet.
Also there are many books from theological liberals who are preaching their self-developed moral code as superior to the moral teachings found in the Bible. Theological liberals are also working in the wake of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule, which taught that much of the Bible was man-made traditions put into a fictitious “thus saith the Lord” form.
New religionsgeschichtliche Schule
For about forty years, a small but steady stream of solid scholarship from dedicated historians have thoroughly debunked the “Pagan origins” tales. About twenty-five years ago a group of these scholars jokingly called themselves the “High Early Christology Club.” By that they meant that they had sifted the evidence and concluded that the idea that ‘Jesus is deserving of worship along with God’ is an idea that sprang up right at the very beginning of the Christian movement, arguably within a year or so of the Crucifixion/Resurrection, and not generations later as has been alleged by a number of the “Pagan origins” proponents.
These scholars find a very early pattern of worship among the Christians of the first two decades after the Resurrection. This was a very Jewish monotheistic worship pattern, but it elevated Jesus alongside God as the recipient of worship, which these historians express as “high Christology.”
Some of the material that the ‘New religionsgeschichtliche Schule’ is working with is an explosion of new evidence. Beginning a hundred years ago new caches of ancient manuscript fragments came out of Egypt. Though they have been known for a century, it is only in very recent decades that high quality photography of these fragments has become widely available for scholarly study. Previously, a scholar had to travel to a dozen cities spread all over the world to track down relevant manuscripts or papyrus fragments. Even then, some important pieces of evidence were just not available at all. Researchers had to rely on the initial descriptions and initial transcriptions of those sources.
For example, an academic paper about a very early manuscript of the Gospel of Mark was just published last month, though it had been unearthed in an archaeological dig in Egypt in the nineteen oughts.
One thing that has happened is that in recent years a number of bad transcriptions or bad translations have been corrected. Also, dating has improved, and new discoveries made about the relationships of some fragments to each other.
Larry Hurtado summarized a couple of main findings of the New religionsgeschichtliche Schule:
The two main conclusions of the newer Schule are these:
(1) a remarkable devotion to Jesus as in some way sharing in divine honor and status, and also in ritual practices, erupted initially among Jewish believers and in Judean settings, not (as [Wilhelm] Bousset contended [in 1913]) in diaspora settings; and
(2) in the context of second-temple Judaism and the wider Roman environment, this Jesus-devotion is historically novel and noteworthy. Differences of emphasis and particular points remain among scholars who agree on these points, however, and the [“Varieties of Theism in Antiquity,”] colloquium discussion illustrated this.
Christian origins are Jewish, not Pagan
Christianity began as a movement within Judaism. Its roots are Jewish, its first adherents and proponents were Jewish, their appeal was to Jewish scriptures, and their concepts of morality, worship and the afterlife are derived from Jewish ideas, not Pagan ideas.
The divinity of Jesus is indicated from the very earliest record of the early Christians, who worshipped Jesus together with God but kept this worship as an exclusive “monotheist” practice.
I am really happy to see solid scholarship that grounds Christian history where it belongs.