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 common gospel consisted
of individual (oral) units: narratives, parables,
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 &
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,
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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