Waiting at Nemi: Wellhausen, Gunkel, and the World Behind Their Work

19 Mar 2019

In the first edition of his now fabled Golden Bough, James George Frazer began with the tale of an unnamed priest-king waiting for his slayer and successor in the sacred grove at Nemi. “A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest,” wrote the armchair anthropologist, “and having slain him he held office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier.” Scholars of the Hebrew Bible have often cast their own history in these terms: if the established August Dillmann or Franz Delitzsch fell to a trailblazing Julius Wellhausen, Wellhausen himself succumbed to a pathfinding Hermann Gunkel. For the period after “the triumph of Wellhausen”—to use language from John Rogerson's classic history—the scope then usually narrows, with Wellhausen and Gunkel forming legendary foils. Which of them, exactly, has rightful claim to the crown or represents the true hierarch of the Hebrew Bible muse depends upon the narrator's own disposition. Indeed, experts in biblical studies have long juxtaposed the two as intellectual opposites. In the process, they appear, ofttimes, as almost mythic figures, largely bereft of context—historical milieu otherwise being a crucial component of biblical scholarship for well over a century.