December 2 Death of Ferdinand Christian Baur, pioneering student of “Jewish Christianity”
“It was Baur who gave lucid expression to the central questions in the study of Jewish Christianity” (Oscar Skarsaune)
Ferdinand Christian Baur laid the foundations, and much of the structure, of modern historical-critical study of the New Testament. His provocative thesis that the original believers in Jesus were in fact what later generations of the institutional church considered heretical, continues to challenge and dismay both scholars and regular church-goers alike.
Ferdinand Christian Baur (21 June 1792 – 2 December 1860) was a German Protestant theologian and founder and leader of the (new) Tübingen School of theology (named for the University of Tübingen where Baur studied and taught). Following Hegel’s theory of dialectic, Baur argued that second century Christianity represented the synthesis of two opposing theses: Jewish Christianity (Petrine Christianity) and Gentile Christianity (Pauline Christianity). This and the rest of Baur’s work had a profound impact upon higher criticism of biblical and related texts.
Baur was prepared to apply his theory to the whole of the New Testament; in the words of H. S. Nash, “he carried a sweeping hypothesis into the examination of the New Testament.” He considers those writings alone genuine in which the conflict between Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians is clearly marked. In his Kritische Untersuchungen über die kanonischen Evangelien, ihr Verhältniss zu einander, ihren Charakter und Ursprung (1847) he turns his attention to the Gospels, and here again finds that the authors were conscious of the conflict of parties; the Gospels reveal a mediating or conciliatory tendency (Tendenz) on the part of the writers or redactors. The Gospels, in fact, are adaptations or redactions of an older Gospel, such as the Gospel of the Hebrews, of Peter, of the Egyptians, or of the Ebionites. The Petrine Matthew bears the closest relationship to this original Gospel (Urevangelium); the Pauline Luke is later and arose independently; Mark represents a still later development according to Baur; the account in John is idealistic: it “does not possess historical truth, and cannot and does not really lay claim to it.”
Baur’s theory starts with the supposition that Christianity was gradually developed out of Judaism. Before it could become a universal religion, it had to struggle with Jewish limitations and to overcome them. The early Christians were Petrine-Jewish-Christians, to whom Jesus was the Messiah. Paul, on the other hand, represented a breach with Judaism, the Temple, and the Law. Thus there was some antagonism between the Jewish apostles Peter, James and John, and Paul the “Apostle to the Gentiles”, and this struggle continued down to the middle of the 2nd century. In short, the conflict between Petrinism and Paulinism is, as Karl Schwarz puts it, the key to the literature of the 1st and 2nd century.
Baur’s views were revolutionary, but “one thing is certain: New Testament study, since his time, has had a different colour” (H.S. Nash).
Some quotes from Baur
“The greater the conceptual significance of a literary product, the more it should be assumed that it is based on an idea that determines the whole, and that the deeper consciousness of the time to which it belongs is reflected in it.”
“Without philosophy, history is always for me dead and dumb.”
“If historical-criticism has at all the task to search out everything as precisely as possible with regard to writings whose origin and character it investigates, it cannot be satisfied with merely their outward appearance, but must attempt also to penetrate their inner nature. It must inquire not merely about the circumstances of the time in general, but in particular about the writer’s position with regard to these things, the interests and motives, the leading ideas of his literary activity. The greater the conceptual significance of a literary product, the more it should be assumed that it is based on an idea that determines the whole, and that the deeper consciousness of the time to which it belongs is reflected in it. Even with regard to the New Testament writings, therefore, historical criticism would not completely fulfill its task if it did not endeavor to investigate more precisely the conceptual character which they themselves bear, the concerns of the time under whose influence they originated, the direction they pursue, the basic perspective to which the particular subordinates itself — if it did not make any attempt at all to penetrate as far as possible their inner nature, and likewise to peer into the creative conception of the thoughts in the mind of the writer from which these writings went forth.”
Baur expounds a theory of the origins of Christianity in which Jewish Christianity is primary, prior and heterodox. Using the Hegelian method of thesis, antithesis and synthesis (but not wholly dependent on it), Baur proposed a construal of the development of early Christianity summarized here by Karl Barth – an admirer and critic of this founding father of modern historical-critical method:
In applying this method Baur, to mention some of his most important historical results, saw in Christianity the higher union of paganism and Judaism; he regarded primitive Christianity from the perspective of an opposition between a Jewish-Christian-Petrine Christianity and a Gentile-Christian-Pauline Christianity, both of which are transcended in a Johannine Christianity; he understood Galatians as the thesis, Corinthians as the antithesis and Romans as the synthesis; starting from the gospel of John as synthesis, among the gospels he saw the Jewish-Christian-Matthew (as the earliest gospel) and the Gentile-Christian Luke as the oppositions that were overcome in this synthesis, while Mark was an earlier form of the Johannine unity; church history he divided into the period before the Reformation as the time of affirmation and the period after the Reformation as the negative time of the Church losing itself in the world – the third, higher time of the Church he evidently believed to have dawned in the present. (Karl Barth. Protestant Theology in the 19th Century. Eerdmans, 2002 new ed., 490-1. )
Baur’s legacy continues today, and deeply influences the self-perception of Messianic Judaism, and of the approaches to them adopted by Jewish and Christian scholars, and the communities they represent.
Prayer: Thank you Lord, for the scholarship and wisdom of Ferdinand Christian Baur, his pioneering research, his critical rigour, and his philosophical approach to the nature of Christianity and its Jewish origins. Thank you for the challenges he posed, and the way his work has been further discussed and developed. Now at the beginning of the 21st century we can see the need for even greater understanding of what it meant then, and means today, to be Jewish and believe in Yeshua as Messiah, Saviour and Lord. Please help us tread the path of humility in our scholarship, seeing this also as an act of true discipleship and spiritual worship. In our Messiah’s name, Amen.
Skarsaune’s discussion of the origin of the term “Jewish Christianity”
The contention of this section of the paper must remain skeletal, but in briefit is this: that the origins of the serious study of Jewish Christianity, and in particular its role in the history of earliest Christianity, are to be located in Britain; that many of the neuralgic points of study were aired either in the works of Toland and Morgan, or in the debate that followed the publication of their books, in particular Nazarenus; and that perhaps through Semler, these ideas found their way into the writings of Baur.
To posit the influence of English deists upon German theologians is not to do something eccentric. Such influence is widely accepted and well documented. Such a thesis may in turn explain the origins of the German term “Judenchrist”—it constituted a translation either of the term “Christian Jew” or “Jewish Christian,” understood in terms of Jewish converts to Christianity who continued to observe certain Jewish laws (and in the case of Morgan, understood to have an anti-Pauline aspect), both of which appeared in Toland’s and Morgans respective works, and had already appeared in English long before these works.
- Various Definitions since Baur
It is not my intention to give an account of Baur’s work on Jewish Christianity. (3 3) What is clear is that in pungent and detailed form he attributed to JewishChristianity a vital place in what was a “total” account of Christian origins, and that it was precisely the comprehensiveness and the detail of his account that rendered his work so significant. It was Baur who gave lucid expression to the central questions in the study of Jewish Christianity. In this context one recalls in particular his discussion of evidence for the opposition between the Christianity of Paul and that of the apostles, in particular Peter, and especially his use of what he took to be second century literature, in particular the Pseudo-Clementines, in his assessment of this question. One also recalls his attempts to align Ebionite views with those of the earliest Jewish Christians and his attempt to explain the date of individual New Testament writings in relation to their tendency (Jewish Christian, Pauline, Catholic), and to understand the canon as a kind of diplomatic document evidencing the coming together of Jewish and Gentile Christian in the form of early Catholicism. All of this had been hinted at in previous work, as we have shown, but none of it had been expounded with the same lucidity and as part of a unified narrative of Christian development. 3 4 The principal concern of this essay is to discuss the question of the various definitions scholars have adopted in their discussions of Jewish Christianity. Interestingly, Baur, the expositor par excellence, one might think, of the term, does not in any of his works dedicate a detailed discussion to defining it. The term simply appears as a given, assuming, as was implied above, an agreed definition. Implicitly, of course, Baur does define the term, and that definition is in some sense determined by what it opposes, namely Pauline Christianity. Where Pauline Christianity was universal and spiritual (here picking up on a significant aspect of Jesus’ own ministry3 5 ), Jewish Christianity was particular/national and legalistic. In essence, Jewish Christianity was Judaism plus the belief that Jesus was the messiah (a belief that in its conception was Jewish). As he wrote in his Paulus:
“The only thing that divided them (Jewish Christians) from the rest of the Jews was the conviction at which they had arrived, that the promised messiah had appearedto Jesus of Nazareth.” 3 6
A strong commitment to the Jewish law, in particular circumcision, and the Jewish nation over against the Gentiles, with a concomitant anti-Paulinism, are the central aspects of Jewish Christianity. At times in his narrative, Baur hints at divisions within the body he calls “Jewish Christian,” implying the existence of a more liberal wing who did not oppose Paul, 3 7 but this is never fully developed in his later writings where he becomes bolder in his assertion of Paul’s opposition to the views of the apostles. Of course,for Baur’s view of Christian origins to be convincing, he had often to indulge in arguments from silence in order to prove the anti-Paulinism of a particular document (see especially in this regard his discussion of Revelation), and to demonstrate that Jewish Christians changed their opinions, and it is in his discussion of this transformation that he hints at an understanding of Jewish Christianity as in some senses a mentality that went beyond simple legalism and nationalism and bound itself up with a type of moralism, with apocalypticism, a hierarchical view of religion, and an over-reliance on Old Testament categories, 3 8 element s of which were to find their new expression in the Catholicism of the second century. 3 9