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Friedrich Schleiermacher's
Luke: A Critical Study

Translation, with an Introduction by Connop Thirlwall. With Further Essays, Emendations and Other Apparatus by Terrence N. Tice. Schleiermacher: Studies and Translations, Volume 13.

The Edwin Mellen Press 1993

Reviewed by Robert M. Price



This most welcome volume is an augmented reprinting of the 1825 A Critical Essay on the Gospel of St. Luke, itself a translation of Über die Schriften des Lukas (1817). Schleiermacher's own source-critical monograph on Luke forms the inmost of three concentric circles, with translator Thirlwall's introductory essay and editor Tice's Introduction, Appendices and Apparatus surrounding it. Each growth ring of this mighty tree will repay study. The reader, understandably eager to plunge right into Schleiermacher's deliberations, will be well advised nonetheless to pause and linger over the surrounding Mishna and Gemara.

We live in a time when the great work of the classic critics seems mostly swept beneath the rug of comfortable conventionalism. We do not so much assume the insights of earlier generations as we feel entitled to forget them and the questions they raised, the directions they set. Thus the vital importance of reissuing works like this one. They enable yesterday's voices to speak afresh to new climates, some eerily similar to those in which the works were first issued. And indeed it will become evident that Schleiermacher's study still has much to say to us.

Terrence N. Tice has long been one of the great advocates of Schleiermacher study, and we already owe him a great debt for his previous work in the field. Indeed, one of the strengths of this new edition is the helpful scholarly aids Tice has here provided for use not only in connection with Schleiermacher's Luke, but with previous Schleiermacher translations as well. He has provided, for example, an index to scholars cited in the Life of Jesus, which for some reason lacked it. There is also a cross-referencing system between Lukan references in this monograph and those in Schleiermacher's sermons as well as in the Life of Jesus.

More important still is the placing of the work of Schleiermacher and Thirlwall in their historical and theological context. It is not so much that any of Schleiermacher's insights into Luke are thus enhanced (though sometimes they are) as that Tice thus enables us to look through Luke as a window into the early Nineteenth Century and the dawn of the Higher Criticism. With a genuine sensitivity to Schleiermacher's own later hermeneutical program, that subsequently taken up by Wilhelm Dilthey, Tice treats the Lukan monograph not only as a lamp illuminating the biblical text but also as an expression of the human spirit, a monument of a particular culture, in a particular fascinating period of history. And despite the criticisms to which Schleiermacher's later "psychological" hermeneutic has been subjected, Tice shows how the reader in a later day may indeed enter into the sensibility and mindset of an earlier century. The Schleiermacher text, with Tice's polishing, is thus able to function both as mirror and as window. It raises the question of which the monograph is "really" about: Luke's gospel or Schleiermacher and his world. Of course, the answer is "both."

Translator Connop Thirlwall, himself a remarkable figure whose biography Tice has gone to the trouble to provide in engaging detail, seeks in his essay to relate Schleiermacher's observations to a wider variety of then-contemporary critical hypotheses, some of them home-grown in England and thus not treated by Schleiermacher. Thirlwall treats in turn a veritable Valhalla of forgotten theories about the gospels, the most intriguing of which, however, are German hypotheses, those of Gieseler, Eichhorn, and Semler. These are theories mostly forgotten today, though here and there their vestiges and echoes are still evident. And Thirlwall's discussion sheds interesting light on these latter-day traces.

Much of his essay is taken up with a scrutiny of various opinions on whether the sources for the canonical gospels were primarily written or oral in nature. Among the former is the theory of Gieseler that the Synoptic Gospels are based directly on oral tradition of the preaching of the apostles which naturally and spontaneously attained eventual standardized form. Eichhorn, on the other hand, posited one original written gospel outlining the most important words and deeds of Christ, drawn up by the apostles for use in preaching the gospel. The extent of this proto-gospel Eichhorn determined by extracting the overlapping portions of the gospels. Both Thirlwall and Schleiermacher return to this theory again and again, demonstrating amply that it answers nothing and only raises more questions.

Mere mention is made of Semler's interesting theory that the Synoptic Gospels once existed in less similar forms and that their present extent of agreement is the artificial yet accidental product of the assimilating tendencies of scribes. Textual evidence of such assimilation, e.g., of Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer to Matthew's, represents only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the mischief would have been done in the textual tunnel-period for which no evidence survives.

To those of us who are comfortable with currently popular theories of Synoptic relations, whether the Mark-Q paradigm (as I am) or the Griesbach-Farmer paradigm, Thirlwall's deliberations can be quite arresting. These old theories may seem like false starts, failed attempts clearing the way for our own favorite theory, but one wonders, for instance, if there might be some real value in applying some of these considerations to the Gospel of Thomas, where scholars seem to rehearse some of the same points and still cannot agree whether Thomas represents an independent oral tradition or rather some sort of memory-quote assimilation of half-remembered gospel readings, or even loose rewriting of Luke and/or Matthew, or some combination of all these ideas.

One irony in contemporary gospel scholarship becomes evident in Thirlwall's tour of the Elephant's Graveyard of critical theories, and that is that some scholars have somehow wound up combining incompatible bits and pieces of otherwise forgotten hypotheses. For instance, it seems that conservative evangelicals have by and large embraced the Mark-Q hypotheses as a critical axiom, while sticking to an over-optimistic estimate of the fidelity of oral tradition that would make the Mark-Q solution superfluous. The latter model seemed necessary, as even conservative evangelical accounts of it make quite clear, only because, as Thirlwall observes, it just seems impossible for long oral transmission to preserve verbatim sameness for very long. Two texts as similar down to the wording as Matthew and Luke are must have common written sources, the theory runs, because such similarity could never survive spontaneous oral repetition. And yet, when in the apologetical mode, the same scholars defend the notion of near-perfect word-of-mouth transmission of gospel pericopae for decades until Mark. But then whence the need for written sources behind and between our gospels?

Indeed both Thirlwall and Schleiermacher, in criticizing theories that the gospels enshrine the tradition of the preaching of the apostles, have occasion for many remarks that might be taken just as seriously today in evaluating not only the apologetics of R.T. France, I. Howard Marshall, George Ladd, and others, but the suggestions of Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson as well. Is it really likely that the first apostles busied themselves with providing materials for later historians and apologists? Why recount the events of the life of Jesus at all when presumably these were fresh in people's minds? And as Schleiermacher notes, it would make much more sense to locate the gathering of the Jesus-tradition precisely among those who were not eye-witnesses and did not know what had happened before the cross and resurrection. (And of course by the same token they would hardly be in a position to evaluate what they heard.)

Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson thought that perhaps the gospel tradition stemmed from the circle of Jesus' apostles who "like a plastered cistern, lost not a drop" of the teaching committed to them, on analogy with the practices attested for somewhat later rabbis. Many criticisms of this theory are well known, but to them we may add the observation that the sheer volume of the sayings and stories clustered about Jesus should invalidate the rabbinic analogy. Most of the rabbis are credited with a very few memorable gnomoi, a few apophthegms. Not Jesus. This alone ought to make us seek some other Sitz-im-Leben, shouldn't it?

As Thirlwall notes, Gieseler's theory of oral tradition as the direct source of the gospels entails what it tries to avoid: the idea that the gospel pericopae were the distillation of a careful process of artificial and conventional standardization. Only by eventual appeal to liturgical, formulaic transmission of tradition can Gieseler make accurate oral transmission look likely. But then his point (and one would think that of today's maximal conservative apologists as well) is sunk: such formulae are already at a far remove from the vivid recollections of the great by their associates. They are sacred lore. It is really a simple point of form-criticism: do genuine recollections and bits of table-talk ­look like­ what we see in the gospels? Like D.E. Nineham, I cannot bring myself to think so (though, as we will see, Schleiermacher could).

Even if we suppose the extant gospel formulae/pericopae to represent a reduction from living memory, how are we to envision this process? ­Whose­ recollection or recounting, among many available, was chosen for the norm? Whose became the official version? And once there is a single official version, you are no longer talking about real oral history, memory reports. Surely the transition from living memory to short pericope-units is a more wrenching mutation than that "from oral to written gospel" outlined by Werner Kelber. Flesh is made word. The transition from the buzzing chaos of the lived world dies away into artificial, unidirectional simplicity when we embalm the facts in a narrative world.

Schleiermacher's own attempt at a solution to the Synoptic problem was a creative ­via media­ between Gieseler and today's theories that some of our extant gospels used each other (Schleiermacher knew and rejected some such theories). He envisions and endeavors to solve a miniature Synoptic problem with every set of matching pericopes. There may be a different solution every time, with different combinations of various written reports available to each evangelist, some better accounts, some inferior, at each point in the narrative. Schleiermacher envisions a process whereby the amino acids of oral tradition, some from eye-witnesses, some at a further remove, first formed unicellular organisms (individual written episodes). Some of these then formed multicellular creatures, so to speak, when they were collected thematically (Luke's Central Section, the journey to Jerusalem, being one such transitional form). The canonical evangelists then collected these bits and short digests, shaping them into final form, the gospel species seen today. In his view, Luke had both the best sources and the best historical judgment, with the result that his gospel is nearly the equal of the eye-witness gospel (as he deemed it) of John.

Schleiermacher's highly dubious results notwithstanding, his general manner of procedure may yet commend itself to our use, the more as some of us become less certain of any current Synoptic solution. He is essentially paralleling the procedure of eclectic text critics who give exclusive preference to no one manuscript or family thereof but rather judge each variant reading on its own seeming merits. Perhaps, agnostic about inter-synoptic relations, we may one day settle on this procedure. We may deem this or that particular gospel as generally superior (as Schleiermacher preferred Luke) but remain open to the possibility that Matthew's version of, say, the fig tree story, is superior to Mark's. The oldest version of Peter's confession may survive, perhaps, in John.

Everywhere intermingled with his source-critical judgments is Schleiermacher's tendency toward historicization and harmonization. Like Strauss in The Life of Jesus Critically Examined  Schleiermacher is found to be fighting on two fronts, defining his approach against traditional orthodox exegetes on the one hand and rationalists like Paulus on the other. Though he avoids the most extreme excesses of both, it may be startling to today's reader how far he will stretch to justify a piece of gospel tradition as an authentic account from the life of Jesus. But unlike his rationalist and orthodox competitors, it is only Luke whom Schleiermacher repeatedly vindicates, not all the gospels.

Unable to bring himself to dismiss either John or Luke, convinced that each embodies reliable tradition for all their differences, Schleiermacher actually resorts to the expedient of two Triumphal Entries. And though today few quail at admitting that the Sermon on the Mount/Plain is a redactional compilation already in Q (and thus, one might suppose, just the same sort of pre-gospel collection Schleiermacher himself posits for the Lukan Central Section), Schleiermacher cannot bear to part with it as a genuine discourse, since that would make Luke's chronology artificial. So he admits the composite nature of the speech but makes it a genuine digest compiled and recited by Jesus himself, who is envisioned as reminding the crowd of his most important teachings, a Jesus-Deuteronomy. 

Schleiermacher stands closer to Gieseler than one might at first expect. (Thirlwall in a letter to Julius Hare: "There is so much appearance of truth in both their arguments that I should be unwilling to think them incompatible." p. 337) In every case Schleiermacher prefers the Lukan to the Markan and Matthean versions, assuming each used different parallel "reports" (though sometimes the same ones, hence their occasional verbatim agreements), not simply because one has "more primitive tradition," as more recent critics are wont to say, but rather because, he is sure, Luke's reports are choice accounts of well-positioned eye-witnesses, while Matthew's are not. For instance, Luke's account of the Gerasene demoniac is superior to Matthew's because it must stem from one of Jesus' companions who accompanied him all the way to shore, while Matthew's derives from the account of one left sitting in the boat!

In such sometimes unwittingly hilarious reconstructions one can perhaps trace a trajectory all the way back to the special pleading of the orthodox apologists, still alive and well today: all the gospels present us with eye-witness testimony, their differences being understandable as analogous to the perspectival differences of various witnesses of an auto accident. Schleiermacher wanted to stick as close as he could to eyewitness origins for the gospel traditions. None of the evangelists is too­ far wrong, and his chiefest criticism of Matthew and Mark is that they have mixed up the true sequence of events.

Once one sees in Schleiermacher such a vital survival of the harmonizing tendency of the apologists, it becomes easier to detect it in later critics like T.W. Manson and A.M. Hunter, who sought to ameliorate the implications of German criticism by a steadfast tendency to invoke source criticism to keep redaction criticism at bay. Manson almost always preferred to chalk up a difference between Mark and Matthew to a different M tradition that Matthew preferred to Mark, rather than seeing it as a free alteration of one evangelist by another. This way, faced only with a relatively innocent divergence between "variant traditions," the door might be left open to the "perspectival" harmonization technique used by Schleiermacher and the apologists. Poor "M" was perhaps no less an eye-witness than Mark's informant, he had just stepped out to the privy and missed something. Or like the Sadducee standing at the edge of the crowd in Monty Python's Life of Brian, he thought he heard "Blessed are the cheese-makers." Schleiermacher had intended the present monograph as volume one of a study "of the writings of Luke," but like the fabled sequel to Acts in which Luke would have gotten round to the death of Paul, Schleiermacher did not get to complete the project. And yet we are often reminded of Acts in these pages. Schleiermacher's treatment of the Central Section of Luke is startlingly reminiscent of the theory of a "We-Source" in Acts. By this device Schleiermacher is able to attribute most of the material in this section to an eye-witness, defending even the improbable chronology which has Jesus taking weeks to make the short journey. Whenever he hits a stubborn snag he retreats to the explanation that the reporter was temporarily absent and that either he or Luke himself had to fill in the gaps from hearsay. In light of the work of Vernon K. Robbins, who adequately accounts for the "we" passages in Acts as a convention of ancient sea-voyage narratives, may we not recognize and dismiss the tired old "We-Source" as another harmonizing device of the same type?

Anyone who expects to read in this book a commentary on Luke will be disappointed. That is not Schleiermacher's goal at all. He is engaged in what we would call source criticism, and the ultimate aim of his efforts is to vindicate the superiority of Luke as the next best thing to an eye-witness account. What exposition there is of the meaning of individual passages is that made necessary in order to historicize, to make the saying or story seem to fit into the day's events as Luke lists them. The results can be quite surprising, as when Schleiermacher makes the saying about those who enter the kingdom of God violently into a criticism of the Pharisees who supposedly sought, in order to facilitate the advent of the Kingdom of God as they understand it (nationalistically), to make an alliance with Herod Antipas by closing an eye to his violence against the divorce commandment. This is the only way he can rationalize the sequence of the woe on the Pharisees (16:14-15), the saying about John as the launchpad of the Kingdom (v. 16), that about the eternal endurance of the Law (v. 17), and the saying on divorce (v. 18).

Schleiermacher once (p. 234) notes that the ironing out of sequential difficulties admittedly has no bearing on the meaning of a pericope in its own right, but in fact it would seem to have everything to do with it. "It must after all be left to the reader's feeling, after these hints, to conceive the unity which exists in this passage, and to form a lively idea of the way in which all this may have been spoken consecutively" (p. 196). And in so conceiving we may be construing the text to mean all kinds of things no one of the pericopae by itself would ever suggest. Here I think Schleiermacher has proven himself the precursor of modern Reader-Response criticism.  Schleiermacher the reader has become a collaborator with Luke in telling a new story, connecting the dots that Luke left unconnected. And Schleiermacher, like Wolfgang Iser, invites every reader to do the same.

As a literary critic, then, Schleiermacher was perhaps far ahead of his time. But as a historian the same may not be said of him. Though it is true that Schleiermacher was a ideal practitioner of Collingwood's historical method in that he sought in his researches to reconstruct the mental operation of the ancient author/compiler, to think his thoughts after him, in another important sense Schleiermacher seems to me to have remained at Collingwood's pre-modern stage of historiography, "scissors and paste" history-writing. Here the historian has come to the point of realizing that his sources cannot simply command his assent. He must cross-examine them first; only after he does, he still yields credulity to those left standing, believing himself to have at least plausibly identified the true authorities and to have eliminated the spurious ones, like the  Corinthians whom Paul exhorted to reject false apostles but to obey the true one implicitly. Schleiermacher satisfies himself that he need not take Matthew and Mark over-seriously, but he swears fealty to John and to Luke, and to the specific reports Luke wisely chose to incorporate. These he proceeds to use as sturdy building blocks for constructing a historical Jesus (as we see in his Life of Jesus), at least an examination of how much, if anything, might be validly claimed regarding the historical person of the Redeemer. He begins to harmonize, industriously applying as much mortar of historicizing explanation as needed to fill the gaps between the bricks.

Strauss and Bultmann later would come to Collingwood's stage of genuinely critical history-writing. For them no gospel pericope or source is anything but a bit of data construed as "evidence for" whatever the historian decides, based on his composite picture of the past, a picture derived from a kind of hermeneutical circling between paradigms and evidence, each revising the other. Schleiermacher, it is true, seeks to fit the gospel pericopae into the working pattern of a past-picture as Collingwood says, but it is that handed him by the gospels read at face value: here is the life of Jesus. It seemingly does not occur to him to doubt their word as historical authorities. By contrast, Bultmann and the form-critics would see that despite the overt claim of the texts to inform us about the life and teaching of Jesus, they are really telling us about the disputes and the life and faith of the early Jesus movement. The texts are no longer authorities to be taken at face value, none of them.

Schleiermacher tries ingeniously to reconstruct a Sitz-im-Leben Jesu for every passage whose authority he acknowledges. So the gospel version he finds easiest to use for this purpose, Luke's, he deems closest to an eye-witness authority. But, again, he is only able to proceed by harmonizing historicization. Thus he is still bound with the chain that constricted Paulus more closely: Schleiermacher must still save the appearances of the gospel stories, though no longer is he bound to save all of them. And he does not resort to rationalizing the miracles in Paulus' style. He prefers to posit the unwitting concretizing of poetry or parable--and yet in The Life of Jesus he does opt for the Scheintod or Swoon Theory. What he cannot yet bring himself to see is that the proper home of the gospel materials is Sitz-im-Leben Kirche.

Ironically, it is just what limits Schleiermacher as a historical critic that makes him appear so much like the post-historical-critical literary critics of our own day. The search for the original historical Zusammenhang is abandoned (in Schleiermacher's case, simply unsuspected), and the reader-critic proceeds instead to a midrashic rewriting of the text, supplying his own connections and (sometimes, it is to be feared) confusing the result with the author's intent.

To view or purchase on Amazon.com:
Luke: A Critical Study (Schleiermacher Studies and Translations, Vol 13)


CopyrightŠ2007 by Robert M Price
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