Wellhausen and Nietszche

Wellhausen’s big idea was that through a careful analysis of the OT, the natural history of Israel’s religion could be recovered.  Wellhausen’s method appears to be grounded in science and therefore theologically neutral.  But Wellhausen’s conclusions betray a decidedly negative bias against the church and the synagogue.  This can be seen particularly clearly in the writings of Nietzsche, who dared to speak out loud what Wellhausen only whispered.  To see the connection between the two authors, it might be helpful to begin with a brief consideration of the philosophy of Nietzsche.

Nietzsche writes with approval of Israelite religion in ancient times.  In the early day’s, Israel’s god was both good and evil and was still a part of the material universe – just like other deities worshiped in the ANE.  But then the Jews were exiled to Babylon and priests assumed the power once held by kings.  The priests condemned the natural, spontaneous customs of their ancestors and invented instead a legalistic, ritualistic religion.  They also began to think of God as a helper of the poor and afflicted, a God of outcasts and slaves.  For that was what Israel had become in Babylon!  The Christian Church inherited the ideas of post-exilic Judaism and so the victory of Christianity over Paganism was the victory of a weak and unnatural ‘religion of the masses’ over the aristocratic and life affirming religion of the pagans.

Nietzche’s philosophy is predicated on a radical reinterpretation of the Pentateuch that assigns most of the Pentateuchal laws to the post-exilic period which is exactly what Wellhausen did.  I suspect that Nietzsche must have read Wellhausen or at least been exposed to his main ideas.   Wellhausen published his Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel in 1883 although apparently an earlier edition was published in 1878.   Nietzsche wrote his most controversial works, Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist five years later, in 1888.  To see how much Wellhausen and Nietzsche shared in common, it is worth considering briefly how Wellhausen explained the evolution of Israel’s sacrificial system.

Wellhausen taught that the original purpose for the sacrifice was to provide meat for a communal meal. This meal was quite similar to the Greek symposium.  Wellhausen even suggests that Hannah’s drunkenness at the tabernacle at Shiloh was probably in keeping with the nature of the feast.

Religious worship was a natural thing in Hebrew antiquity; it was the blossom of life, the heights and depths of which it was its business to transfigure and glorify.

In the early days, worship arose out of the midst of ordinary life, and was in most intimate and manifold connection with it. A sacrifice was a meal, a fact showing how remote was the idea of antithesis between spiritual earnestness and secular joyousness.

However, in Josiah’s day, the sacrifice was removed from the high places and centeralized in Jerusalem.   The sacrifice was still conceived of as a communal meal but by destroying its local nature, the sacrifice soon morphed into nothing more than a symbol of worship.

If formerly the sacrifice had taken its complexion from the quality of the occasion which led to it, it now had essentially but one uniform purpose—to be a medium of worship. The warm pulse of life no longer throbbed in it to animate it; it was no longer the blossom and the fruit of every branch of life; it had its own meaning all to itself. It symbolised worship, and that was enough. The soul was fled; the shell remained, upon the shaping out of which every energy was now concentrated. A manifoldness of rites took the place of individualising occasions; technique was the main thing, and strict fidelity to rubric.  (96)

In the final stage of its evolution, the main form of sacrifice became the burnt offering whose only purpose was to provide for the atonement of sin.

There was no such thought as that a definite guilt must and could be taken away by means of a prescribed offering. When the law discriminates between such sins as are covered by an offering and such sins as relentlessly are visited with wrath, it makes a distinction very remote from the antique; to Hebrew antiquity the wrath of God was something quite incalculable, its causes were never known, much less was it possible to enumerate beforehand those sins which kindled it and those which did not.1 An underlying reference of sacrifice to sin, speaking generally, was entirely absent. The ancient offerings were wholly of a joyous nature,—a merrymaking before Jehovah with music and song, timbrels, flutes, and stringed instruments (Hos. ix. i seq.; Amos v. 23, viii. 3; Isa. xxx. 32). No greater contrast could be conceived than the monotonous seriousness of the so-called Mosaic worship.

Wellhausen clearly sees the focus on sin and atonement in the Law (which he attributes to ‘P’ = Priests) as both a negative and late development.  Wellhausen writes,

The connection of all this with the Judaising tendency to remove God to a distance from man, it may be added, is clear. (97)

Both Wellhausen and Nietzsche saw Judaism as a very decadent and corrupt form of religion.  Simon Shecter is exactly right when he states that, “Higher Criticism is a higher form of anti-Semitism.”  It might be argued that Wellhausen is more favourable towards Christianity but it is clear from his writings that he did not like the Church any more than he did Judaism.

The Mosaic “congregation” is the mother of the Christian church; the Jews were the creators of that idea.

In its nature it [Judaism] is intimately allied to the old Catholic church, which was in fact its child.  As a matter of taste it may be objectionable to speak of the Jewish church, but as a matter of history it is not inaccurate, and the name is perhaps preferable to that of theocracy, which shelters such confusion of ideas.  (441)

It seems to me that the anti-Semitism implicit in Wellhausen’s writings is not connected with suppersessionism (the belief that the Church has replaced Israel).  Neither did it have anything to do with Wellhausen’s Protestant background.  The works of Wellhausen and Nietzsche reflect a broader cultural shift that was then occurring in Germany.

Heinrich Heine, in his book, On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany published in the mid to late 1800’s, makes a strong case that Germany in the late 18th to early 19th centuries underwent a revolution far more radical than the French Revolution.  In France the Jacobins destroyed the Roman Catholic church and erected in its place a cult to the supreme being but in Germany the very idea of god was put to death.  (Heine was the first to make this declaration, not Nietzsche, although Heine retracted it in an afterword to his book written shortly before his death)  The revolution in Germany was quiet and peaceable at first, led by the diminutive professor, Emmanuel Kant.  But the man who lived his life with mechanical precision proved to be a far more deadly foe of European Christian civilization than any of the crazed, foaming at the mouth, French revolutionaries.

Kant’s most distinguished student was Fichte.   Whereas Kant destroyed the old ideas about God, Fichte sought to build up a new structure in its place.  Heine calls Fichte’s philosophy “the most colossal error ever concocted by the human spirit.  It is more godless and damned than the crudest materialism.  What, here in France, is called the atheism of the materialists would still be, as I could easily show, something edifying, something pious in comparison with the results of Fichtean transcendental idealism.”  (102)

After a rough start as a failed tutor, Fichte was finally given a teaching position at the university of Jena.  The influence he exerted there can be gauged from the posthumous letters of Johann Herder, a minister in the church (who was by no means orthodox!), who recounts the “difficulties he had with candidates of theology, who, after they studied in Jena, came to him in Weimar to be examined as Protestant preachers.  He no longer dared to ask in his exams about Christ, the Son, he was happy enough when the existence of the Father was admitted.”

Fichte eventually lost his teaching position after being accused of promoting atheism in what has been called the ‘Atheism Controversy’.  The author and poet, Goethe, lamented that Fichte gave away his hand and openly expressed his atheism instead of disguising it in obscure language – the usual method of German rationalists teaching in Lutheran seminaries.

The philosophy of Kant and Fichte led to the resurrection of old Germanic beliefs.  Nature was deified and subsumed into the World Soul.  This is the world that Wellhausen and Nietzche grew up in.  It is a world that idealized the natural religion of the pagans even as it rejected the moral and spiritual life of Christianity.

Click here for more on the resurrection of pantheism in Germany as recounted by Henriech Heine.


Nietzsche, F. W. (2004). Twilight of the idols ; and, The Antichrist. Mineola, N.Y., Dover Publications.

Heinrich, H. The Religion and Philosophy of the Germans,http://www.archive.org/stream/religionandphilo011616mbp/religionandphilo011616mbp_djvu.txt

Baal on Mt Carmel

As early as the Late Bronze Age, Egyptian traders called Carmel ‘the holy cape’ and a Greek traveller writing under the pseudonym of Scylax (6th century BC Greek geographer) referred to it as the “promontory of Zeus“.   In the Greek pantheon, Zeus was a mountain and storm deity who dwelled on Mt. Olympus so it was natural for the Greeks to equate Zeus with the Semitic weather god Baal Shamem (Lord of the Heavens) who dwelled on Sapanu (Gk. – Mt Cassius; Heb. – Tsaphon).

The Roman historian Seutonias tells us that Vespasian traveled to Carmel to inquire of ‘the god of Carmel’ before taking up the siege of Jerusalem.

When he consulted the oracle of the god of Carmel in Judaea, the lots were highly encouraging, promising that whatever he planned or wished however great it might be, would come to pass…

Tacitus also makes references to this event and tells us that there was no temple or statue on Carmel – just an altar.   However, a statue must have been erected at a later date, the pedestal of which was discovered in an ancient monastery located on the top of Carmel.  In the 1950’s M. Avi Yonah published a short article on the statue base discovered among a collection of antiquities belonging to the Carmelite monastery.  The marble statue base dates to the 3rd century AD and would have stood twice life size.

Carmel statue Baal Jupiter Heliopolitanus
The base of a statue of Jupiter Heliopolitanus found near the Carmelite monastery on Mt. Carmel. (Avi Yonah 1959) Based on the size of the foot, the statue would have stood twice life size.   (Avi Yonah, 1952)

The base of the statue contains the following inscription:

(Dedicated) to Heliopolitan Zeus (god of) Carmel (by) Gains lulius Eutychas colonist (of) Caesarea

This inscription indicates that Baal, in his Greco-Roman form, the Heliopolitan Zeus, was worshipped on Carmel in the 3rd century AD.    Jupiter was worshipped at Heliopolis (a city in Lebanon aka. Baalbek) alongside the Syrian fertility goddess Atargatis and their son, Mercury.    Thus the Roman colonist who dedicated the statue to Baal of Heliopolis had adopted the god of the region.  This was the usual practice for colonists.

The Bible makes frequent mention of the worship of Baal, although it is sometimes difficult to know when the word is used to refer to the deity and when it is used as a title meaning ‘lord’ or ‘master’. [1] When ‘baal’ appears in the names of Israelites or in their place names, it does not necessarily refer to a foreign deity – although it may!   Baal was not listed among the foreign gods worshipped by Solomon, even though Ashtoreth (as Sidonian goddess) was.  It would seem that only after Baal worship was made a state religion by king Ahab (under the influence of Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon) was the word ‘baal’ consistently used with reference to a foreign deity and it was around this time that Judeans (and perhaps also most Israelites) stopped naming their children with the ephitet ‘baal’.   In the time of Jeremiah, the word often appears in the plural as a generic reference to ‘foreign gods (baalim)’.   At a later date, and only in a few cases, scribes changed the names of people in the Bible who had the theophoric element ‘baal’ in their names by replacing ‘baal’ with ‘boshet’ – which means ‘shame’. Thus Meriv-baal (Baal contends) became Mephiboshet (from the mouth of shame).   This not so subtle emendation was a means of expressing disdain for the thing named.   A similar phenomenon occurred when the Massoretes (9th-10th centuries AD) used the vowels from ‘boset’ (the Hebrew word for shame) and attached them to the names of pagan deities and cultic items.  Some examples of the ‘boset vocalization’ are ‘Molech’, Ashtoreth’, and ‘Tophet’.

The confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Carmel provides some information about the nature of Baal worship in Elijah’s day.  Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal by asking them if perhaps their god was perhaps sleeping.  This may be an allusion to Baal’s ‘death’ and subsequent journey to the underworld – an event connected with the disappearance of rain in the summer months.

In order to obtain a favourable answer from Baal, the priests cut themselves in a frenzy with swords and lances ‘as was their custom’.  This custom is likewise referred to in a cuneiform tablet from Late Bronze Age Ugarit.  According to the story recorded on this tablet, when the goddess Anat discovers that Baal, her brother / consort, was dead she began to cut herself in grief.

She [ploughed] her collar-bones,
she turned over like a garden her chest,
like a valley she ploughed her breast.
‘Baal is dead!
What has become of the Powerful One?
The Son of Dagan!
What has become of Tempest?  (Wyatt, 2006)

The practice of cutting is also attested at Syrian temples in the Roman period.  For example, Lucian of Samasota describes how the priests of Atargatis in Hierapolis would cut themselves during a religious festival.  Lucian writes:

On certain days a multitude flocks into the temple, and the Galli in great numbers, sacred as they are, perform the ceremonies of the men and gash their arms and turn their backs to be lashed. Many bystanders play on the pipes the while many beat drums; others sing divine and sacred songs.  (Lucian, De Dea Syria)

Lucian goes on to describe how spectators would sometimes lose control and join in the frenzied worship of the goddess by castrating themselves and then running wildly through the streets!  This was the only way to become a priest (Galli) of the goddess.

Baal worship was just one aspect of a ‘fertility’ religion whose central tenet may be summarized in the Latin phrase do ut des – ‘I give so that you might give’.  The goal of the sacrifice was to get something in return.  Through proper ritual, the priests who officiated in the temple ensured fertility and prosperity of the land.  The proper performance of the ritual was all important. [3]   The degraded nature of Canaanite religion is seen in the fertility rituals that served also for the gratification of lust.  The cult of the state and the fertility cult are both completely humanistic constructs.  But that is the subject for another post.


[1] Likewise, Adon, which means ‘Lord’ was used as an epithet of YHWH.  It also appears as the name of the Greek god Adonis, who was imported from Semites.

[2] Even today, in Papua New Guinea, a relative of the deceased will cut off a finger as a sign of mourning.  More often, they will stage a show of intending to cut off the finger while their friends and family are expected hold them back.

[3] Plutarch writes,

It is usual with the Romans to recommence their sacrifices and processions and spectacles, not only upon such a cause as this [the disruption of a festival], but for any slighter reason.  If but one of the horses which drew the chariots called Tensae, upon which the images of their gods were places, happened to fail and falter, or if the driver took hold of the reins with his left hand, they would decree that the whole operation should commence anew’ and, in later ages, one and the same sacrifice was performed thirty times over, because of the occurrence of some defect or mistake or accident in the service.  Such was the Roman reverence and caution in religious matters.  (Plutarch, Life of Coriolanus)



Avi-Yona, M. Mount Carmel and the God of Baalbek. Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1952), pp. 118-124

Teixidor, Javier, The Pagan God: Popular Religion in the Greco-Roman Near East. Princeton, 1977

Wyatt, N. Religious Texts from Ugarit, Sheffield Academic Press, 2006

Child Sacrifice at Tophet

I know that the topic of child sacrifice is not exactly light reading – or uplifting.  But it is an important topic when it comes to Biblical history, especially as it relates to the Conquest and the Judean Exile.  A friend of mine has observed that when we hear of an execution, the first question that usually comes to mind is, “What was the crime?”    In the book of Jeremiah, ‘the Crime’ was child sacrifice at Tophet.   It also features prominently among the sins attributed to the Canaanites.

But there is another reason why this topic is important.  It tends to be one of those match point issues that reveals the rift between those who think that all cultures and religions share the same DNA and have evolved together and those who do not think this.

I’ve spent some time working through a paper I wrote on the subject some time ago and have added some graphics, etc.  The paper can be accessed here.

End the Death Penalty
New York – Central Park.  Barbaric?  The answer is here.



This little story is from Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  (Spoiler alert: Don’t read any further if you plan to read the book!)  It is about Easter so I thought I would share it here.


Natasha loved to dance and sing, and run barefoot across the grounds of her father’s vast estate.  She would accompany her brother on wolf hunts, much to the annoyance of the old boys in the hunting club.  And during the long winter nights she and her friends went for rides in their three horse sleigh across the vast, empty steppe, illuminated only by the moon.  In short, Natasha loved life.  And when Prince Andrey came into her life, she was pretty sure she loved him too.  He was known to be a brave officer and a good lord whose reforms made life much easier for his serfs. In short, Prince Andrey was the most eligible bachelor in the land.  Natasha was thrilled when he asked her to marry him.  It seemed like a perfect match.  Everyone thought so.  News of their engagement became the gossip of all of Russia.  But before they could marry, Prince Andrey was forced to travel abroad for a year.   He promised Natasha that the would be married when he returned if she would still have him.

During his absence, Natasha went to St. Petersburg with her father and her friend, Sonya.  This was her first time in the city.  She thought the opera was absurd with its extravagant costumes and fake smiles.  But she was easily swayed by the opinions of others and unconsciously she began to conform to their expectations.  Natasha also became aware of the attention of a certain Anatole Kuragin who was undoubtedly the most handsome man she had ever met.   Anatole played her like a violin and Natasha was captured.  Prince Andrey seemed like a distant mirage when she looked into the passionate eyes of Anatole.  She agreed to run off with him but before she could get away, her faithful friend, Sonya, discovered the plot.  Horrified at the idea, Sonya pled with Natasha not to go through with it.  How could she fall for that awful man!  But Natasha had made up her mind.  In desperation, Sonya betrayed everything to Agrafena, the strong willed matriarch who was their host in St. Petersberg.   Agrafena sent her servants to intercept Anatole at the arranged meeting place and Anatole barely got away with his life.  Natasha’s secret love affair was published to the world.

But even then, Natasha remained defiant.  She was certain that Anatole would find a way to come for her.  It was only when she discovered that Anatole was already secretly married to a Polish girl – a forced marriage – that Natasha began to see Anatole for what he was.  And it only got worse.  There were rumors that Anatole had maintained an incestuous relationship with his sister – rumors that were probably true.   Anatole was both stupid and a coward and everyone seemed to have known it except Natasha.   Her defiance turned to complete brokenness.  When Prince Andrey returned, she begged him to forgive her but he refused to speak with her and returned all of her letters.

Natasha lay sick in bed for weeks.  The words of Agrafena replayed over and over again in her mind, “You have disgraced yourself like the lowest wench!”   Her father paid for the very best doctors and paid outrageous sums for the medicine they prescribed but Natasha was wasting away, her spirit crushed.

She did not merely shun every external form of amusement – balls, skating, concerts, and theatres – but she never even laughed without the sound of tears behind her laughter.  She could not sing.  As soon as she began to laugh or attempted to sing all by herself, tears choked her: tears of remorse; tears of regret for that time of pure happiness that could never return; tears of vexation that she should so wantonly have ruined her young life, that might have been so happy.  Laughter and singing especially seemed to her like scoffing at her grief.  She never even thought of desiring admiration; she had no impulse of vanity to restrain.

When the week of Lent came around, Agrafena asked Natasha if she would accompany her to the 3 AM service at a distant chapel.  No one would see her there.   And there Natasha began to pray.

She listened to the words of the service, and tried to follow and understand them.  When she did understand them, all the shades of her personal feeling blended with her prayer; when she did not understand, it was still sweeter for her to think that the desire to understand all was pride, that she could not comprehend all; that she had but to believe and giver herself up to God, Who was, she felt, at those moments guiding her soul.  She crossed herself, bowed to the ground, and when she did not follow, simply prayed to God to forgive her everything, everything, and to have mercy on her, in horror at her own vileness.  The prayer into which she threw herself heart and soul was the prayer of repentance…. It was only at her prayers that she felt able to think calmly and clearly either of Prince Andrey or of Anatole, with a sense that her feelings for them were as nothing compared with her feeling of worship and awe of God… the joy of “communication,” as Agrafena Ivanovna liked to call taking the Communion, seemed to her so great that she fancied she could not live till that blissful Sunday [Easter].

But the happy day did come.  And when on that memorable Sunday Natasha returned from the Sacrament wearing a white muslin dress, for the first time for many months she felt at peace, and not oppressed by the life that lay before her.

The countess and the doctors didn’t understand what happened to Natasha.  They thought that is was the powders the doctors had prescribed.

The doctor came that day to see Natasha, and gave directions for the powders to be continued that he had begun prescribing a fortnight ago.  “She must certainly go on taking them morning and evening,” he said, with visible and simple-hearted satisfaction at the success of his treatment.  “Please, don’t forget them.  You may set your mind at rest, countess,” the doctor said playfully, as he deftly received the gold in the hollow of his palm.  “She will soon be singing and dancing again.  The last medicine has done her great, great good.  She is very much better.”  The countess looked at her finger-nails and spat, to avert the ill-omen of such words, as with a cheerful face she went back to the drawing room.

But it wasn’t the powders.  Natasha had learned how to forgive and be forgiven.

Tolstoy alludes to one of the central themes of the Bible.  Natasha is as innocent as Eve before she falls for Anatole.  But when Anatole captures her heart, she becomes unyielding and cruel.  We hardly believe that it is the same girl we met with earlier in the novel.  Our reaction is one of horror because we already know what a bad character Anatole is.  Run away Natasha!  And that was exactly the message of the prophets and apostles who saw beyond appearances to the spiritual reality that lies at the center of all life.

“Who has heard the like of this? The virgin Israel has done a very horrible thing.”  (Jer 18:13)

Israel has forsaken the fount of living waters and hewed out cisterns for themselves that do not hold water.

The words of Agrafena tore at Natasha’s soul.

So I will be to them like a Lion, Like a Leopard I will lurk beside the way.  I will fall upon them like a bear robber of her cubs, I will tear open their breast, And there I will devour them like a lion, As a wild beast would rend them.  (Hosea 13:4-8)

Natasha’s parents sent for the best doctors in St Petersburg but the doctors do not have the power to heal the soul.

“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?

Natasha begins to recover only when she learns to pray.  And it was only through the encouragement of Agrafena, whose words had seemed so cruel.

Come let us return to the Lord; For he has torn, that He may heal us; He has stricken, and he will bind us up.  After two days He will revive us; On the third day He will raise us up, That we may live before Him.  Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord; His going forth is sure as the dawn; He will come to us as the showers; As the spring rains that water the earth.  (Hosea 5:16-6:3)

The third day became the eighth day.  Resurrection Sunday arrived.  Natasha takes the sacrament believing that the atoning sacrifice of Christ has taken away her sin and that, in Christ, she too is raised up to a new life.   When Natasha leaves the church she is wearing a white dress and for the first time she is smiling and laughing again.   Spring has arrived, and a gentle rain waters the earth.

Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!  Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. Jer. 31:4

Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. (Hos 2:14-15)

May we also find the peace and joy that comes from knowing Christ, our atoning sacrifice.