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

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