Wellhausen’s Presuppositions

Julius Wellhausen (May 17, 1844 – January 7, 1918)
Julius Wellhausen (May 17, 1844 – January 7, 1918)

In his 1871 work, Der Text der Bücher Samuelis, Julius Wellhausen displays his awareness that all scholars operate within a complex frame which contains, inextricably, both presupposition and truth:

»Man muß einen Vorbegriff haben von der Wahrheit, um sie zu finden«

“One must have a preliminary conception of the truth, in order to discover it.”

– Julius Wellhausen, Der Text der Bücher Samuelis, Göttingen 1871, p. 7.

And yet, how often do we see some people parading this observation as an allegedly recent and profound insight, even raising the point with the intention, ironically, to summarily dismiss rival positions that provoke discomfort for their own? Or in the words of Mancunian-cum-Scot, James Crossley, Senior Lecturer of New Testament studies at the University of Sheffield:

James Crossley
James Crossley

The more high profile scholarship on the present [i.e. on current ideologies in contemporary scholarship] would typically function by telling us that the proponents of the Cynic-like hypothesis were liberal Americans/Californians (/or variants), as if that disproves that and proves some other position, or the stunningly banal observation in New Testament studies, and one too often treated and repeated as a profound philosophical insight, that ‘we all have presuppositions’ (no shit!)…

I think there does need to be more ethical awareness of the things we do beyond repeating “we all have presuppositions” (or the like) before just going ahead and behaving as we would have done anyway. I don’t have too many suggestions how to do this beyond challenging the morally dubious (no bad thing perhaps) but I think mainstream scholarship, e.g. historical Jesus scholarship, debates on Pauline theology, as well anything else, from reception history to literary criticism, need to take seriously ideological criticisms.

– James Crossley, The Religion Beat

Of course, he would say that.

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