Textual Evidence

Adolph Harnack (1897)
on Textual Criticism

Review of: Adolf Harnack, Chronologie der altchristlichen Litteratur bis Eusebius,
(1897) pp. pp.viii-x, transl. Sir Frederic Kenyon, c. 1949

Page Index

Last Updated: Feb 19, 2009

Prologue: - Introduction to Adolf Harnack

Excerpt: - Harnack on 19th Century German Skepticism
    Modern Footnotes - courtesy of Nazaroo

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Adolf von Harnack , 1851-1930, German theologian and church historian. He was professor of church history successively in the universities of Leipzig, Giessen, Marburg, and Berlin. He was director (1905-21) of the Royal Library, Berlin, and president of the scientific research foundation, Kaiser Wilhelm-Gesellschaft.

His great work, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (4 vol., 1886-90; tr. The History of Dogma, 7 vol., 1895-1900), has exerted an important influence upon modern theological study. Other translated works include Monasticism (1895), What Is Christianity? (1901), The Apostles' Creed (1901), The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (2 vol., 1904-5), and Luke the Physician (1907).

- www.encyclopedia.com

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Harnack on
Textual Criticism

Excerpt taken from Sir Frederic Kenyon, The Bible and Modern Scholarship (1949), pp 8-9

On The Tubingen School
(of 19th century German Biblical Criticism)

"...Nevertheless, the best English scholars were not carried away by it [i.e., German Skepticism, e.g. the Tubingen School], and by the end of the [19th] century the reaction had well begun.

Bishop Lightfoot...and others, such as Driver, Sanday, Salmon, Westcott & Hort 1 , had shown the combination of common sense with learning which is characteristic of the best English work; and their conclusions were wholly in favour of the general soundness of the tradition [i.e., Christian historical accounts].

Even on the Continent [Europe] there was a strong trend in the same direction. The turn of the tide was definitely marked there by the declaration of Adolf Harnack in the preface to his monumental Chronologie der altchristlichen Litteratur bis Eusebius, (1897) pp. pp.viii-x, that,

" in all main points and in most details 2 the earliest literature of the Church is, from a literary-historical point of view, trustworthy and dependable. In the whole New Testament there is apparently only one single writing which can be called pseudonymous in the strictest sense of the term, namely the Second Epistle of Peter...

...The assumptions of the school of Baur, one can almost say, are now wholly abandoned; but there remains an indefinite lack of confidence in the criticism of the early Christian literature, a method which clings to all sorts of small details, 2 which it seeks to use as arguments against the clear and decisive evidence...

...The chronological framework in which the tradition has arranged the documents is, in all the principal points, from the Pauline Epistles to Irenaeus, correct, and compels the historian to abandon all hypotheses with relation to the historical course of things that are inconsistent with this framework."

- Harnack, preface

Harnack was universally recognized as the foremost scholar of his time in Biblical criticism and early Christian history, and could certainly not be accused of a bias in favour of orthodoxy; and, in spite of a belated recrudescence to which it will be necessary to refer later, his explicit declaration may be taken as marking the end of the vogue of the school of Baur.

"That time", as Harnack said, "is over. It was an episode during which science learnt much, and after which it must forget much."

-Sir Frederic Kenyon,
The Bible and Modern Scholarship (1949), pp 8-9

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Modern Footnotes

Footnotes courtesy of Nazaroo:

1. The list of British scholars Kenyon has chosen as representative here rightly represent a "middle-ground" of sorts, and Kenyon is careful even 40 years later not to align himself with extremists in either direction (i.e., skeptics or extreme fundamentalists).

Nonetheless, many conservative Christian scholars viewed the activities of Westcott & Hort and other 'middle-ground' academics as a case of excessive intellectualizing, with the result being an unhappy and very damaging compromise to the spirit of unbelief and the secular humanism of the age.

The proof for this complaint is found in the aborted Revised Version (1881), which slavishly followed Westcott & Hort's over-edited Greek NT, rejecting hundreds of traditional and familiar whole and half-verses from the NT. The English-speaking public were shocked and angered, and the field of NT Textual Criticism has never since recovered its credibility among believing Christians.

Kenyon himself, while here skipping over the famous efforts of conservative scholars like Dean John Burgon and Edward Miller, grudgingly concedes the essential correctness of Burgon's work elsewhere, for instance when discussing the embarrassing rejection of the infamous Revised Version of 1882:

"On the first appearance of the Revised New Testament it was received with much unfavourable criticism. Dean Burgon of Chichester, occupying towards it much the same position as Dr. Hugh Broughton in relation to the Authorised Version, assailed it vehemently in the Quarterly Review with a series of articles, the unquestionable learning of which was largely neutralised by the extravagance and intemperance of their tone.

The Dean, however, was not alone in his dislike of the very numerous changes introduced by. the Revisers into the familiar language of the English Bible, and there was a general unwillingness to adopt the new translation as a substitute for the Authorised Version in common use.

- Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient MSS, 4th ed. (1903) p 244,245

Kenyon rightly recognizes the accurate scholarship of Burgon, and notes almost ironically that it was Burgon's bombastic and sarcastic tone, not his factual evidences or any unsoundness in his logical rigour that apparently prevented others from accepting his arguments and adopting his more conservative view.

2. Its a pity that Kenyon didn't take to heart the full significance of his own observations in the case for instance of the Pericope de Adultera (John 7:53-8:11). This passage was rejected first by early 19th century German skeptics, whose ideas became popular in Britain. Yet both the original basis for the rejection was unsound, and the whole methodology was later discredited.

What was required at the close of the 19th century was a complete reassessment of unfounded rejection of the verses (along with their full reinstatement into the Gospel of John). Instead, as Kenyon and Harnack ironically observed, there remained a hyper-skeptical attitude toward the passage which was perpetuated for another 70 years, into the late 20th century, on no really good grounds or convincing argument.

It was the status quo in operation, what Tregelles had previously witnessed in a generation long past:

"If the last three hundred years have removed all feeling of question from many, it has not been from better grounds of certainty having been discovered, but from that kind of traditional inertness of mind, which has rendered many unconscious of what have been deemed the most manifest facts of criticism."

- Samuel P. Tregelles, An Account of the Printed Text... (1854), p.236f

The repeating and seemingly endless irony is remarkable.

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