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The New religionsgeschichtliche Schule: Observations

April 12, 2019

As I indicated in my posting about the colloquium held here this week, the plan is to publish the finished form of the papers in a multi-author volume later this year.  In the meantime, I aim to present brief summaries of the papers on this blog site.  The presenters were not expected to produce abstracts, and so I am left to my own notes to give these summaries.

I start with my own paper:  “The New religionsgeschichtliche Schule at Thirty:  Observations by a Participant.”   In this brief paper, I take the title from the endorsement of the American edition (1988) of my book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism.  Hengel characterized the book as reflecting a number of scholars internationally who, he said, might be thought of as a “new religionsgeschichtlich Schule” (history of religion school).  I probe whom he might have had in mind, proposing scholars such as Alan Segal, Richard Bauckham, Jarl Fossum, and a few others, and then turn to the similarities and differences between this body of scholars and the earlier/original Schule (based in Goettingen, Germany in the early 20th century).  Essentially, I think that the questions are similar, but the approach, aims and results are different.

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 Bousset contended) 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 colloquium discussion illustrated this.

I stress that this devotion to Jesus is expressed both in confessional statements and, importantly, also in ritual/devotional acts.  These in particular are innovative.  Other “chief agent” figures in Jewish tradition of the time did not function so centrally in devotional practice.  In the larger Roman environment, the incorporation of multiple divine beings wasn’t unusual, of course.  But there is no similar exclusivity of one deity and one divine agent.  The “dyadic” pattern of earliest Jesus-devotion is distinctive, however you approach it.

Although some scholars have characterized the impact of the new Schule as constituting “a new history of religion perspective,” “a paradigm shift,” and a “a clear (though not unanimous) consensus,” there are scholars who criticize the work and dissent from it.  In the final part of the paper I engage briefly some of the most vocal and recent scholars in question, indicating why I don’t find their views valid.  These include Adela Yarbro Collins, Michael Peppard, Dieter Zeller, Daniel Kirk, and David Litwa.

I conclude by observing that, whatever the extent to which the work of the so-called new Schule is accepted, “the continuing flow of PhD theses and books on the origins and early development of Jesus-devotion, almost always showing engagement with the works of scholars who can be associated with the new Schule, surely shows that they have helped to shape the agenda of the investigation of Christian origins,” and “that, in itself, may be a sufficient contribution.”

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  1. Donld Jacobs permalink

    In terms of scholars who oppose the consesus you address, isn’t James Dunn a prominent example worth signalling? Especially in view of his book on early (non)worship of Jesus.

    • Yes, he is a worthy scholar. I chose to deal with some others whose stance has been much more polemical against the direction of the “new religionsgeschichtliche Schule.”

  2. John Mitrosky permalink

    I belong to that EHCC club, but for different reasons than you Larry, and for a different critique of Bousset.

    Jesus could have grown into his own characterization of himself as “the Son of man” in the primitive, Galilean and Judean communities and the synoptic gospels may give us a true impression of this growing change and realization in Jesus. The synoptic gospels might be a deposit of the primitive community’s, high “Son of Man” theology, that stems from Jesus himself. In other words, Jesus may have grown from identifying with “the Son of man” to make a point, to full out believing he is the one like “a Son of man” in Daniel, and that mysterious Son in the PE. Thus more “the Son of man” sayings in the gospels may be authentic than Bousset thought. And Jesus may have thought of the Son of man in titular eschatological terms, despite your belief that it only means “moi”.What if many of “the Son of man” sayings in Mark/Q/Thomas are Jesus himself reflecting on and creating his own highest Christology?

    • John: This is now yet another expression of your pet views. I think we all know them now. Can you give it a rest?

  3. M&f's Ace Lego movies permalink

    Larry, you shouldn’t omit to mention the other name of the New religionsgeschichtliche Schule: the EHCC.


    • Well, yes, but the EHCC (Early High Christology Club) is more an informal and half-humorous label that designates a flexible group that gets together at the annual Soc of Bib Lit meeting for sharing a bottle of single malt.

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