The Bias of 19th Century German Biblical and Assyriological Scholarship

Turns out even real scholars can be guilty of paleobabble when motivated by biases. They simply filter the data through a preconceived grid.

I’ve blogged before about how F. Delitzsch was influenced by racial theories of his day toward anti-Semitism, which in turn erased his objectivity about the Mesopotamian influence on the Old Testament (see, “Is Zecharia Sitchin Anti-Semitic?”). I don’t think Sitchin or others who blindly follow him are anti-Semitic. But they keep foisting exaggerated and misguided 19th century academic conclusions about Sumerian-Akkadian influence on the Old Testament on their readers. The fact is that today, in the real 21st (and 20th) century worlds of biblical studies and Assyriology, conclusions about such influence are far more tame and guarded. The issue is just more complex than 19th century scholars either knew or cared to admit. Many were propelled by racism.  Here’s another article on Delitzsch and this subject. It’s introduction and conclusion read in part (my highlights):

“Our concern in this essay is not with the role of Delitzsch’s work in the history of the disciplines of Assyriology and biblical studies per se. Instead we aim to take this centennial as an opportunity to refresh the guild’s memory concerning his presuppositions and the tragic turn observable in the lectures themselves.

At the centennial of the “Babel und Bibel” lectures, our intent has been to consider Delitzsch and his method in the context of his time and place in order to gain a heuristic depth perception after the passage of a full century. Delitzsch was a brilliant Assyriologist, one of the most distinguished scholars of the time. But beyond his philological accomplishments, he also left behind a legacy of uncritical political nationalism and questionable assumptions. In this light, Delitzsch stands as a singular reminder of the importance of the way in which we relate our research to our context.”

6 thoughts on “The Bias of 19th Century German Biblical and Assyriological Scholarship

  1. While I don’t dispute Delitzsch’s biases, I wonder about the method used here to “prove” them. For example, there are some Buddhist ideas (such as meditation) that I think are quite interesting; others, such as spinning prayer-wheels, I have no interest in. To seperate the two and claim that one is more applicable to my current condition than the other is hardly “racist”. Or is it? It seems roughly akin to Delitzsche’s argument. Again, I am not disputing that there were anti-Semitic elements in Delitzsche’s thinking (though I note the authors of the article were careful not to attempt to define what exactly “anti-semitic” means, thereby giving themselves a marvelously elastic net to catch their prey in). I just wonder how we can devise a proper method for evaluating such claims. It is always difficult to seperate one’s own personal spiritual quest from one’s academic work, as the authors of the article rightly point out (without, of course, identifying their own religious views).

    Furthermore: does it really matter? To call Delitzsche an anti-semite–or Sitchin, for that matter–tells us very little about what they believe. It seems as useless as Delitzsche’s own “Aryan” twaddle. Perhaps Delitzsche’s biases contributed, in some way, to the evils of Nazism, though that argument comes perilously close to the post hoc propter hoc fallacy. I just wonder how we can tighten these sorts of arguments up.

    In Sitchin’s case, he seems to think that the Abrahamic God was actually the alien who made the so-called Annunaki, standing in relation to Enki and the rest of his lot as they stood to us. Far from being anti-semitic, that position seems to re-assert the “higher status” of the Abrahamic god.

    Would it not be better to dispense with the “anti-semitic” accusations, and stick to the good old academic criteria of “right”, “wrong” , and “we need more funding to find out”?

  2. @ramapithecus: The comment about Delitzsch is understandable, given that the only frame of reference is this article (and perhaps the previous). There are whole scholarly works on the “Indo-European” controversy of the late 19th/early 20th century that serve as backdrop. Much of European scholarship was striving to “prove” that the Indo-European languages were derived from east Asia / India’s Sanskrit (the “Aryan” tongue). The idea that the east had a superior tradition about creation and primeval times, motivated in part by conclusions of the higher criticism of Genesis by other German scholars, resulted in a concerted push to dispense with the “Jewish” model of origins.

    Other than that, I doubt the authors (and I know myself) would say Delitzsch’s views were one-dimensional. But they certainly included this bias.

    Once cannot divorce motivations or influences from conclusions about “right” or “wrong” – all one needs to look for in that regard is the Ahnenerbe. But you are right about it being more than one-dimensional.

    For my own part, I don’t think Sitchin is an anti-Semite (as I have said in each of these posts). He’s just using arguments frame on the basis of flawed assumptions in a bygone era.

    For some good scholarly works on the Indo-European / Aryan mythology in high scholarship of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, here are two works I’d recommend:

    Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science

    Linguistics and the Third Reich: Mother-tongue fascism, race and the science of language

  3. Pingback: Is the Book of Genesis Plagiarized from Sumerian and Akkadian (Mesopotamian) Sources? | PaleoBabble

  4. The only thing left interesting about religion is how belief, i.e., ( identity ) leads to humans killing-each-other. I believe it is genetic just like a lion or a pit-bull-dog and therefore all humans are killers. Delusion is the main-work of the human-mind to keep this truth about ourselves buried deep in our sub-conscious.—NEWTKNUT—

    • this is kind of silly, given the extremely small contingent of religious believers who actually do this — and in Christianity’s case, do so without any religious (textual) instruction to do so (i.e., they simply politicize it against its own teachings).

  5. The main proof of humans being genetic two legged-killers is the love for the taste of blood-red-steak,( he has ) this is clearly genetic and is what makes a lion go-out for the kill, man is just his genetic killer cousin.—NEWTKNUT—-

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