Dutch Radical Criticism, Part 1: An introduction to their views

Just how far can skepticism go in the study of the New Testament? Many people are shocked at the idea that the existence of Jesus could reasonably be doubted. Thanks to the Internet and Youtube the views of Earl Doherty and other Jesus-mythers like Acharya Sen have become widely known. But few people know that another famous figure of early Christianity has come in for similar criticism over the years: the apostle Paul. There is a school of NT studies, with its roots in Tubingen under F.C. Baur and the Dutch Reformed Church, which denies the existence of the historical Paul or at least denies that he wrote any of his famous letters: Dutch Radical Criticism (even though this was not a label that its scholars applied to themselves, they soon positively appropriated it). This school included scholars such as Bruno Bauer, A.D. Loman, W.C. van Manen, and G.A. van den Bergh van Eysinga. Their most scholarly expositor and defender today is Hermann Detering, whose views I will be interacting with extensively in these posts (N.B.: scholars such as Robert Price and Darrell Doughty embrace certain insights of the radical critics, but instead of wholesale falsification they propose a complicated redaction history of Paul's letters with many layers of interpolations before reaching their canonical form. Nevertheless they raise arguments which are relevant to evaluating Dutch Radical Criticism and they will be cited as appropriate).

Most NT scholars know that F.C. Baur, the founder of the Tubingen school, only accepted 4 Pauline letters as authentic: Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Romans. His radical predecessors, however, thought he had not gone far enough in his skepticism. The question naturally arises, if one accepts only a few letters as authentic, on what reasoning this judgment was reached and whether it could equally be applied to the uncontested letters. Scholars such as Bauer, Loman, van Manen, etc. did just that, and arrived at the conclusion that all of Paul's letters date to the 2nd Century, even as their views diverged on who the real author of the epistles was (most, including Detering, propose Marcion or his followers), how the epistles have come to us in their present form and why the epistles were written in Paul's name and not someone else's (nobody really gives a satisfactory answer to this question, as we will see later on).

My aim here is not to give a history of the Dutch Radical movement. Those who are interested can consult the excellent article by Detering himself from whom I draw most of this information. I want rather to subject some of their arguments to critical scrutiny, to see whether they deserve the serious consideration which Detering complains has been lacking in the academy (he repeatedly insists that their work is 'scholarly' and that the radicals had a "sovereign command of the scholarly craft of the historical-critical method"). Because whatever our estimation of these scholars' arguments, it is undeniable that, as Detering insists, "the problems that [the radicals] raised and dealt with are certainly not marginal questions of New Testament scholarship, but lie at its very center." NT scholarship almost universally takes for granted that the epistles of Paul (at least the 7 'uncontested' ones) give us a sure point of contact with the Jesus movement of the mid-1st Century. Even Earl Doherty, the Jesus-mythicist, assumes as much (although the number of interpolations he recognizes in the epistles continues to mount; see here). But there are a number of thorny problems with the reception of Paul's letters in the 2nd Century which mainstream scholars rarely if ever deal with, so that the historical Paul ends up being a much more vulnerable target for skepticism than the historical Jesus. In the end I think their views suffer from a number of debilitating flaws, but this must be demonstrated, not simply assumed because of the marginal status of the Dutch Radicals.

Since I am not focusing on the history of the school, I will focus only on the explicit arguments put forward by Hermann Detering himself, in his article on the history of Dutch Radical Criticism and his book (available online; see bibliography), Falsified Paul: Early Christianity in the Twilight. I will give a brief summary of these arguments in this post, and then in later posts delve into them more extensively.

The arguments can be conveniently divided into argumenta externa, having to do with the external attestation for Paul's letters, and argumenta interna, which delve into the literary features of the letters themselves:

1. Argumenta externa
a) Detering points out that the reception of Paul's letters in 2nd Century Christianity is very curious given Paul's status as the great apostle to the Gentiles. Scholars have found "problematical not only the conspicuous absence of literary testimonies that would prove the influence of Paulinism in the early post-apostolic period, but also the striking circumstance that the first definite traces of Paulinism are to be found among the circles of the Gnosis and heretical Christianity." There seems to be a literary 'silence' regarding Paul in the early 2nd Century. Justin Martyr, for example, in his Dialogue with Trypho raises many issues which were already debated by Paul, yet nowhere mentions him explicitly. The earliest Church Fathers seem to have been suspicious of Paul because of the popularity of his epistles with the heretics. Did they suspect the authenticity of his letters for a long time before they were accepted (Detering points to Tertullian's curious statement that Marcion 'discovered by chance' (nactus) the epistle to the Galatians)?
b) Dutch Radical scholars were convinced that the earliest assumed witnesses to Paul and his letters, 1 Clement and the Ignatian epistles, along with Polycarp, are complete forgeries. If they are to support the traditional view of the 1st-Century letter-writing apostle, their authenticity must be re-examined.

2. Argumenta interna
a) There seem to be a number of anachronisms in the implied historical setting of the epistles which would better fit the 2nd Century:
-the continuing controversy (as attested by Justin Martyr) over Faith vs. Law
-the issue of the repudiation of Israel, e.g. in Romans 9-11, which most scholars would say arose with urgency after the two Jewish wars
-references to persecution of Christians for which there is no evidence until the 2nd Century
-doctrinal issues such as proxy baptism for the dead and the Pascha conflict reported by Eusebius
-"The implied theological level of the congregations of the Pauline Epistles assumes a longer period of incubation and could not possibly have been arrived at within two decades."
b) There are a number of points where Paul seems to betray a docetic or Marcionite theology, such as where he says that Jesus came down "in the likeness" of sinful men, rather than as a full human being (i.e. Romans 8:3), or where in Ephesians the removal of one little word makes a verse refer to the mystery of salvation being hidden 'from' the creator (i.e. demiurge) God rather than 'in' God (Ephesians 3:9).
c) Darrell Doughty points out that the letters as we have them seem to betray a number of seams where the apostle's train of thought inexplicable diverges, he begins to contradict himself, or where the apostle seems to be combating views which did not arise until the 2nd Century. Scholars have been unable to locate a coherent center to Paul's theology.
d)There may even be allusions to 2nd Century apocryphal literature (such as 1 Corinthians 15:32 where Paul mentions having fought 'wild beasts at Ephesus', a scene which appears in the Acts of Paul and Thecla).

All these arguments will receive examination in subsequent posts. That Detering highlights exegetical issues of real importance cannot be denied. Whether they are enough to warrant radical skepticism about Paul's epistles is another matter. Michael Williams, a scholar who has read some of Detering's work, concludes that it is mostly rubbish and a case of "a little bit of truth mixed with a boat load of fiction." (personal communication) Judge for yourselves whether that judgment is justified.

Bibliography on the Dutch Radicals (and Pauline skepticism in general)

-Hermann Detering, The Falsified Paul: Early Christianity in the Twilight
-Hermann Detering, The Dutch Radical Approach to the Pauline Epistles
-Hermann Detering, 1 Clement and the Ignatiana in Dutch Radical Criticism
-Eduard Verhoef, Van Manen and the Dutch Radicals

-Darrell J. Doughty, Pauline Paradigms and Pauline Authenticity
-Robert M. Price, The Evolution of the Pauline Canon

The only apologetic review of Detering's work that I am aware of is JP Holding's (I take a certain pride in having convinced him to do it myself:): Falsified Paul: Lunacy in a Package It's written with his trademark sarcasm, but he scores some devastating points and many of them will be made in subsequent posts.

Since Marcion is so important for the Dutch Radicals, it would be worth reading the following excellent articles on various aspects of his teaching and legacy in early Christianity:

-Christopher Price: Marcion, the Canon, the Law and the Historical Jesus
-Peter M. Head: The Foreign God and the Sudden Christ


Very informative post. Keep it up. I'm on one the members of this blog and plan to start posting againg.

Layman said…
Don't think you meant to set it up this way, but your OP shows quite clearly what an uphill battle they face. Not only do they have to show all of Paul's letters are fakes, but they have to show all of the early Christian writings referring to Paul's letters are also fake (Ignatius' seven, 1 Clement, Polycarp).

What do they do with 2 Peter's reference to Paul's letters? Even if they deny its Petrine authorship its still dated to the early second century. Do they concede that Paul wrote letters, just not any of the letters we have?

Amazing how Christians wrote next to nothing for over almost a hundred years.
Anonymous said…
Excellently put Layman.
I always wonder why people even waste their time trying to deconstruct every little bit of ground they stand on.

What will they do when Nothing's been left of the bible to deny?
It is just so ridiculous!

Isaiah 36:14
Quixie said…
I am studying these matters presently and found this post (belatedly) while googling around for refutations of the Tubingen/Dutch-Radical schools. I have searched around your blog trying to find the promised subsequent posts dealing with this subject. Did you ever follow up on this? I would really like to read that.


JD Walters said…
Hi Quixie,

Yes, it's been a long time since I wrote these posts, but as it happens I just now have the time again to go into it. I'm preparing my third post now, dealing with the external attestation of Paul's letters in the second century. Be patient:)
Layman said…

Don't forget that I have a number of resources on this.

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