Julius Wellhausen

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Julius Wellhausen

Julius Wellhausen (born May 17, 1844 in Hameln , † January 7, 1918 in Göttingen ) was a German Protestant theologian and orientalist who had a lasting influence on research on the Old Testament and early Islamic history.

He was one of the founders of the historical-critical method in biblical studies. Wellhausen's basic thesis is that the early religious history of Israel must be understood without the cult law (the priestly code) and that this only shaped the post-exilic religion of Judaism. Wellhausen put forward some theses that are still discussed today, including the newer document hypothesis , which were worked out especially by his students Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth .


Youth and apprenticeship in Hanover and Göttingen

Julius Wellhausen was the son of the second parish priest of Hameln, August Wellhausen (1808–1861). When he was baptized, he was given the name Julius, after his father's older brother of the same name, who worked as a surgeon at the Welf court in Hanover . The father became nervous and unable to work early on and died in 1861 at the age of 52. The mother also died before the age of sixty after a severe nervous disease, arteriosclerosis and almost total deafness.

Wellhausen graduated from the Lyceum in Hanover and then studied theology in Göttingen from 1862 . At an early age he set himself apart from his father's orthodox - Lutheran attitude. Determining his studies was the interest in Old Testament writings, especially in the prophet Elijah, from his student days . In 1863 he read Heinrich Ewald's history of the people of Israel , which was to have a decisive influence on his further studies.

Through Ewald, Wellhausen found a view of the whole of religious history, which initially had a practical effect as he learned not only Hebrew but also Aramaic and Arabic . While Wellhausen was able to benefit from the teacher's comprehensive claim, he also had to set itself apart from Ewald's authoritarian habitus. The anecdote has been handed down that the teacher showed the pupil the door after the pupil had refused to adopt the teacher's political views in such a way that he should have publicly called Chancellor Bismarck a villain with him . Nevertheless, such an episode only caused a temporary discord.

Wellhausen then worked as a private tutor in Hanover, where he met Albrecht Ritschl in 1867 . Ritschl recommended Karl Heinrich Graf's Old Testament theses to him , who was primarily concerned with the assumption that the law was younger than the prophets. The Graf's theses were to occupy Wellhausen from now on. Added to this were the works by Wilhelm de Wettes and Wilhelm Vatke , which went in the same direction . The influence of Ritschl himself on Wellhausen was to remain small. In 1868 Wellhausen became a repetent at the Göttingen Theological Foundation, which gave him the opportunity to prepare for his doctorate and habilitation in 1870. After that, Wellhausen worked as a private lecturer in Göttingen.

As a professor for the Old Testament in Greifswald

Through August Dillmann , a student of Ewald, Wellhausen was given the full professorship for the Old Testament in Greifswald in 1872 , where Hermann Cremer and Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff also taught. Wellhausen was later on friendly terms with both of them. Theodor Mommsen , Wilamowitz's father-in-law, became Wellhausen's role model as a historian. In contrast to Leopold von Ranke's supposed objectivity, Mommsen's concept of history was hermeneutically oriented.

In 1872 Wellhausen's work on the book of Samuel was published . In 1874 he published The Pharisees and the Saducees and in 1878 the 4th edition of the introduction to the Old Testament (founded by Friedrich Bleek ), which Wellhausen later called The Composition of the Hexateuch , and the History of Israel (Volume I), which from the second edition Prolegomena on the history of Israel was called. A heated debate arose among the scholars of the time, especially against the latter work, especially by August Dillmann and Franz Delitzsch . Other conservatives, such as Wolf Graf Baudissin and Rudolf Kittel Sen., but also the Dutchman Abraham Kuenen and the Scot William Robertson Smith joined Wellhausen's position.

Marie and Julius Wellhausen

On June 25, 1875, Wellhausen married Marie Limpricht (1856–1925), the eldest daughter of the chemist Heinrich Limpricht . Marie was already a well-known pianist at the time. Later she increased her fame especially as a student of Max Reger . To the regret of the Wellhausen family, however, the marriage remained childless.

As a practical consequence of his research, Wellhausen asked the Prussian minister of education, Friedrich Althoff, for a transfer to the philosophy faculty in 1880 so that no more students had to be prepared for church service. After the minister had ignored this request for two years, Wellhausen resigned his professorship in Greifswald in 1882 and completed his habilitation in Semitic philology in Göttingen.

As a professor for Semitic languages ​​in Halle and Marburg

The minister then appointed him extraordinary professor for oriental languages ​​at the Philosophical Faculty in Halle , and in 1885 full professor for oriental languages ​​at the same faculty at the University of Marburg (until 1892). During this time Wellhausen got to know Wolf Baudissin and Wilhelm Herrmann , Adolf Jülicher , Benedikt Niese and Ferdinand Justi , who were later friends with him .

As early as 1881 Wellhausen published an article on Israelite history in the Encyclopædia Britannica , which appeared in German in 1884 as an outline of the history of Israel and Judas . In the part about the prophets, Wellhausen approached the view of his friend Bernhard Duhm . In 1883 Wellhausen was in Edinburgh at the invitation of William Robertson Smith , where he met Thomas Carlyle , whom he admired and who was then Lord Rector of the university. In 1887, The Remnants of Arab Paganism was created . The quarrel with Eduard Meyer about his book The Origin of Judaism (Halle 1896) , which was later often perceived as annoying, also fell during this time .

Return to Göttingen as a professor

When Paul de Lagarde , Ewald's successor , died in Göttingen in 1891 , calls from the public and from his friend Rudolf Smend prompted Wellhausen to accept the offer of the orphaned chair for oriental languages. Theodor Nöldeke had previously refused. Wellhausen began his lectures in Göttingen in the winter semester of 1892. In the same year Wellhausen became a member of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen . For health reasons, however, he left in 1903. Since 1900 Wellhausen was also a corresponding member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences .

The Israelite and Jewish History was published in 1894 . In 1902 he prepared the processing of the Gospels. In 1903 there was a commentary on Mark, in 1904 on Matthew and Luke, and in 1905 an introduction to the first three Gospels. Wellhausen wrote the New Testament works without including any scientific literature. This is where their limit and size lies to this day. In 1908 the comment on Johannes followed, whose heterogeneity Wellhausen had already established in the preliminary work. Discussions with Eduard Schwartz in particular were reflected in this. During this time Albert Schweitzer was also influenced by Wellhausen - like Rudolf Bultmann later . Max Weber took over Wellhausen's name for the Israelite society during the time of the judges (i.e. before the time of the kings ) as "Confederation".

During his time in Göttingen, Wellhausen also wrote several important works on the history of early Islam, such as "The religious-political opposition parties in ancient Islam" in 1901 about the Charijites and the beginnings of the Shia and in 1902 the Arab Empire and its overthrow about the reasons for the Fall of the Umayyad dynasty .

Wellhausen's scientific work was based on the sentence “that it is best to simply present your opinion and the reasons for it, or, as Ewald put it, always to say the right thing right away”. He was reluctant to do research on cuneiform script and the religious history school . Today, the discussion with Eduard Meyer is seen primarily as one between Wellhausen's national historical perspective and Meyer's universal historical perspective. Nevertheless, he supported, for example, Wilhelm Bousset's controversial admission to the Royal Society of Sciences in Göttingen.

His physical constitution, consistent with his parents' legacy, was weak. Persistent gastric illnesses, insomnia and arteriosclerosis are reported that made writing almost impossible for him in his later years. He was also deaf when he was around sixty. Nevertheless, Wellhausen was always described as a happy, balanced person with a rustic charm and appearance that went beyond learned, professorial airs. Wellhausen died on January 7, 1918 in Göttingen.


The Academy of Sciences in Göttingen has been holding a Julius Wellhausen lecture since 2007. Foreign speakers are invited to give generally understandable lectures on classical studies in memory of a scholar who researched Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Criticism of Wellhausen

The Wellhausen School met with criticism mainly in North America (and after 1948 in Israel ), but also in Germany. One of the best-known American critics was the archaeologist William Foxwell Albright . Newer authors take up some of the theses of the Wellhausen School by comparing them with the results of archaeological research. In Germany, the theses of the Wellhausen School have been questioned by conservative apologetics since the late 19th century (e.g. Eduard Rupprecht ).


Wellhausen's studies are listed by Rudolf Smend : Julius Wellhausen, a pioneer in three disciplines. (= Topics. 84). Siemens Stiftung, Munich 2006, ISBN 3-938593-04-0 , p. 64 f.


Biographical abstracts

Individual biographical aspects

  • Ernst Bammel: Judaism, Christianity and Paganism. Julius Wellhausen's letters to Theodor Mommsen 1881–1902. In: Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 80, 1969, pp. 221-254.
  • Ernst Barnikol : Wellhausen's letters from his time in Greifswald (1872–1879) to the other Heinrich Ewald pupil Dillmann. In: God's is the Orient. Festschrift for Otto Eißfeldt on his 70th birthday. Berlin 1959, pp. 28-39.
  • Alfred Jepsen : Wellhausen in Greifswald. A contribution to the biography of Julius Wellhausen. In: Festschrift for the 500th anniversary of the University of Greifswald. Volume 2, 1956, 47-56; again in: ders .: The Lord is God. Essays on Old Testament Science. 1978, pp. 254-270.
  • Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff : Memories 1848–1914. 2nd Edition. Koehler, Leipzig 1928, pp. 186 ff. And 223.

Scientific appreciation

  • Walter Baumgartner : Wellhausen and the current state of Old Testament science. In: Theologische Rundschau. NF 2 (1930), pp. 287-307.
  • Friedemann Boschwitz: Wellhausen's motives and standards of his historiography. Dissertation, University of Marburg 1938, reprinted 1968.
  • Hermann Gunkel : From Wellhausen's latest apocalyptic research. Some general discussions. In: Journal for Scientific Theology. 42, 1899, pp. 581-611; again in: K. Koch u. a .: Apokalyptik , 1982, pp. 67-90.
  • Herbert F. Hahn: Wellhausen's Interpretation of Israel's Religious History. A Reappraisal of his Ruling Ideas. In: JL Blau (Ed.): Essays in Jewish Life and Thought Presented in Honor of Salo Wittmayer Baron. New York 1959, pp. 299-308.
  • John B. Harford: Since Wellhausen. A Brief Survey of Recent Pentateuchal Criticism. Ripon 1926.
  • Adolf Hilgenfeld : Johannes and Jesus after Julius Wellhausen's presentation. In: Journal for Scientific Theology. 41, 1898, pp. 481-501.
  • Adolf Hilgenfeld: The Evangelist Marcus and Julius Wellhausen. In: Journal for Scientific Theology. 47, 1904, pp. 180-228, 289-332 and 462-524.
  • Horst Hoffmann: Julius Wellhausen. The question of the absolute standard of his historiography. Dissertation, University of Marburg 1967.
  • William A. Irwin: The Significance of Julius Wellhausen. In: Journal of Bible and Religion. 12, 1944, pp. 160-173.
  • Martin Kegel: Come on from Wellhausen! A contribution to the reorientation of Old Testament science. Bertelsmann, Gütersloh 1923.
  • Douglas A. Knight (Ed.): Semeia 23 (1985), special issue: Julius Wellhausen and His Prolegomena to the History of Israel .
  • Hans-Joachim Kraus : History of the historical-critical research of the Old Testament. 3. Edition. Neukirchen 1982, pp. 255-274.
  • Paul Michael Kurtz: Kaiser, Christ, and Canaan: The Religion of Israel in Protestant Germany, 1871-1918 . Research on the Old Testament I / 122. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018.
  • Gerd Lüdemann , Martin Schröder: The school of religious history. A documentation. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1987.
  • Eduard Meyer : Julius Wellhausen and my work "The emergence of Judaism". A reply. 1897, Neudr. 1965 (in: ders .: The emergence of Judaism. A historical investigation. )
  • Lothar Perlitt : Vatke and Wellhausen. Historical-philosophical prerequisites and historiographical motifs for the representation of the religion and history of Israel by Wilhelm Vatke and Julius Wellhausen. Alfred Töpelmann, Berlin 1965.
  • Rolf Rendtorff : The image of post-exilic Judaism in German Old Testament science from Wellhausen to von Rad. In: ders .: Canon and theology. Preparatory work for an Old Testament theology. Neukirchner Verlag, Neukirchen-Vluyn 1991, pp. 72-80.
  • Eduard Rupprecht : The view of the critical school Wellhausen from the Pentateuch. Your value and the way to the self-assertion of the church towards her - a scientifically founded testimony of faith to the present, especially our young theological generation. Erlangen, Leipzig 1893.
  • Johannes Schreiber: Wellhausen and Wrede. A methodological difference. In: Journal for New Testament Science 80, 1989, pp. 24–41.
  • Andreas Urs Sommer : Friedrich Nietzsche's “The Antichrist”. A philosophical-historical commentary. Basel 2000. (very detailed on Nietzsche's important Wellhausen reception, in particular von Wellhausen's image of ancient Judaism)
  • Harold M. Wiener: Some essential errors in Wellhausen's view. ( Memento from February 10, 2013 in the web archive archive.today ). In: Monthly for the history and science of Judaism 71, 1927, pp. 353–364. On the focus on Islam
  • Carl Heinrich Becker : Julius Wellhausen. In: Islam. IX (1918), pp. 95-99; again in: ders .: On the becoming and essence of the Islamic world. (= Islam Studies, 2 ). Quelle Verlag, Leipzig 1932, pp. 474-480.
  • Josef van Ess : From Wellhausen to Becker. The Emergence of Cultural History in Islamic Studies. In: Malcolm H. Kerr: Islamic Studies. A Tradition and Its Problems. Undena Publications, Malibu 1980, pp. 27-51.
  • Johann Fück : The Arabic Studies in Europe up to the beginning of the 20th century. Harrassowitz, Leipzig 1955, pp. 223-226.
  • Joseph Henninger: Arabica Sacra. Essays on the religious history of Arabia and its peripheral areas. (= Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis. 40). Freiburg, Göttingen 1981.
  • Kurt Rudolph : Wellhausen as an Arabist. (= SAL. Meeting reports of the Saxon Academy of Sciences in Leipzig. Philological-historical class. Volume 123. Issue 5). Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 1983.
  • Hans Heinrich Schaeder : Orient research and the occidental view of history. In: World as a story. 2, 1936, pp. 377-396.

Web links

Wikisource: Julius Wellhausen  - Sources and full texts

Individual evidence

  1. See the note on his leaving school in 1862 (No. 5) from Heinrich Ludolf Ahrens : Schulnachrichten des Lyceum zu Hannover. Easter 1864. Ms. Culemann, Hannover 1864, p. 74.
  2. Different date (1872) in Hartkopf (1992), probably erratum .
  3. ^ Christa Schäfer: City State and Confederation. Max Weber's Analysis of Pre-Exilic Society. In: Max Weber's study of ancient Judaism. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1980, p. 95.
  4. ^ Foreword to the 2nd edition of the Prolegomena on the History of Israel. Second edition of the history of Israel, Volume 1, Verlag G. Reimer, Berlin 1883, p. VII .