Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

A Centennial Review of Friedrich Delitzch's "Bable Und Bibel" Lectures

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

A Centennial Review of Friedrich Delitzch's "Bable Und Bibel" Lectures

Article excerpt

Scholars interested in Hebrew Scriptures and comparative Near Eastern literature recently reached a significant milestone. January 13, 2002, marked the centennial of Friedrich Delitzsch's initial public lecture entitled "Babel and Bibel," which he delivered in the Singakademie of Berlin before the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft with Kaiser Wilhelm II in attendance.1 Delitzsch delivered a second lecture on the same topic one year later (January 12, 1903), again before the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft and a distinguished audience that included both the emperor and the empress.2 The second lecture was so controversial and created such an international uproar that Delitzsch's third and final lecture in the series was delivered in much less prestigious circumstances. On October 27 and 28, 1904, he delivered the third lecture before the literary societies of Barmen and Koln respectively. Rather than repeat the lecture at the royal palace in Berlin, Delitzsch gave a final presentation before the Verein fur Geographie and Statistik in Frankfurt am Main.3

Friedrich Delitzsch was a leading Semitist of his day, and it is no exaggeration to say that he was responsible for putting Assyriology on sound philological footing. Because of his many students and monumental publications, he has been called one of the founders of modern Assyriology.4 The last half of the nineteenth century had witnessed an explosion of knowledge and information from Mesopotamia, and many uncritical comparisons had been made with the more familiar biblical materials. In the lectures that are the focus of our attention, Delitzsch attempted to put the fledgling discipline of Assyriology on an equal footing with biblical studies and to champion Babylonian religion and culture over against that of the Hebrew Bible. The high esteem in which Delitzsch was held and the distinguished circumstances of these lectures were nearly unprecedented. This constituted more than a watershed in the history of Assyriology and biblical studies. His theme and conclusions also had significant political and sociological ramifications involving the kaiser and the leading intellectuals of Europe at the turn of the century, so that Delitzsch's views struck a chord with the deep-seated psychological interests rooted in German cultural and political life.

Our concern in this essay is not with the role of Delitzsch's work in the history of the disciplines of Assyriology and biblical studies per se.5 Instead we aim to take this centennial as an opportunity to refresh the guild's memory concerning his presuppositions and the tragic turn observable in the lectures themselves. To a lesser degree, we will make reference to his subsequent work.

I. Delitzsch as a Reflection of His Context

Delitzsch's lectures themselves are still easily available, and they have been admirably summarized elsewhere in the secondary literature.6 Our purpose here is not to repeat these summaries but to critique the lectures for their underlying assumptions. The anti-Semitism of Delitzsch's positions has often been discussed, and we hope to show how his views were stated at first subtly, and then with increasing boldness. In addition, we contend that the lectures expose other philosophical and theoretical presuppositions that are sometimes overlooked, and which illustrate further how Delitzsch mirrored his sociopolitical and cultural context. So, in addition to anti-Semitism, we encounter in Delitzsch's work unmitigated nationalism and anti-Christian sentiment.

German Nationalism

Delitzsch was a child of his time. The nationalism that emerged in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was for the first time based on a feeling of community among a people of common descent, language, and religion instead of dynastic ties in which citizens owed loyalty to church or ruling family. Whereas previous cultures had been concerned with clan, tribe, or village, now the nation-state became paramount as a means of realizing social, economic, and cultural aspirations. …

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