Johann Gottfried Herder   1744-1803 

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Eminent German pastor, philosopher, linguist, literary critic & cultural visionary who influenced the transition from the rationalism of the enlightenment to the organic worldview of the Romantic period. The son of poor Prussian parents, Herder became a student of Kant, a colleague of Goethe, a companion of princes, general superintendent of the national Lutheran church at Weimar (1776), & eventually a member of the German nobility. Yet he demonstrated an independent creative spirit that often anticipated future intellectual developments. When others were championing reason, Herder stressed feeling & reflection. While others focused on empirical phenomena, Herder called attention to the power of language, arguing with deliberate hyperbole:

A poet is the creator of the nation around him.
He gives them a world to see;
and he has their souls in his hand to lead them into that world.

His studies in Homer, Shakespeare, Luther, the NT and the folk literature of many languages led him to formulate a dialectic of language as the basis for a philosophy of history that anticipated the work of G. W. F. Hegel. Herder was the first to argue that the development of history follows a set of laws that balances the competing activities of individuals striving to distinguish themselves from their inherited world.

Herder applied his vast knowledge of literature & his sensitivity to oral culture to his study of Jesus & the gospels:

Before any of our gospels were written, the gospel was there in the (oral) preaching of Christ & the apostles....

The common gospel consisted of individual (oral) units: narratives, parables, sayings, pericopes. This is obvious from the very appearance of the gospels & from the different order of this or that parable or saga....

Our gospels are clearly composed according to principles set for them in the earlier oral gospel....

The whole idea of our evangelists as scribes gathering, enlarging, improving, collating, and comparing documents is foreign to and far from everything that ancient writings tell of their activities and even further from impressions formed by observing them themselves....

These insights led Herder to reject the hypotheses of Augustine & Griesbach and to propose instead that Mark is an earlier, independent gospel that is closer in style & content to the original oral tradition:

When this gospel writer is regarded as a frugal epitomizer of Matthew or as an equally cautious compiler of our Matthew & our Luke, and is read after Matthew --- as is usually the case --- almost all his value vanishes. But why is he read in this way? If Mark's gospel were to stand by itself (as it did, of course, when it was first composed), it would hold a high position because of the principle of simplicity.

Mark's gospel is not an abbreviation, but a gospel in its own right. Whatever the others have in a more expanded & different form has been added by them --- not "omitted" by Mark. Moreover, Mark is witness to an original briefer version. Whatever the others include above and beyond what is in this (gospel) is to be regarded as an addition.

Is this not the natural point of view? Is not the shorter, the unpolished, usually the more primitive to which, then, other circumstances add later explanation, elaboration, polishing?

These observations set the stage for the past two centuries of research on Mark & for research by 20th c. form critics on the oral tradition behind the gospels.

Though Herder himself was a sophisticated scholar & a leader of a national church, he was also one of the first to focus on the simplicity & universality of Jesus' own outlook:

The teaching of Jesus was simple & comprehensible to all:
God is your Father & you are all brothers of one another....

Therefore, (Christianity) the so-called religion about Jesus inevitably has to change with the passage of time into a religion of Jesus & do this imperceptibly & irresistibly. His God, our God! His Father, our Father!

Thus, Herder was a prophet of the quest of the historical Jesus & the humanistic, ecumenical development of mainstream modern Christianity.

[For fuller quotations, see W. G. Kümmel, The NT: The History of the Investigation of its Problems, ET (NY/Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972), pp. 79-83].

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last revised 15 November 2016

 

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