M.G. Piety

Kierkegaard and the Wolfenbüttler Fragmente

In Kierkegaard and the Jews on July 19, 2011 at 5:23 pm

I promised some time ago to post something on the chapter from Peter Tudvad’s book Stadier på antisemismens vej: Søren Kierkegaard og jøderne (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) that dealt with the theological view of Jews in Kierkegaard’s day. The chapter, which is a hundred pages long, is an extraordinarily rich resource for information about the theological view of Jews throughout European history.

Tudvad provides a detailed account of Luther’s vehement anti-Semitism and emphasizes, through references to later theologians, that Luther’s views provided the foundation for the theology of the countries of Northern Europe. Kierkegaard, in particular, he observes, had to have been familiar with Luther’s views on Jews and Judaism because he would have been required to read Luther as part of his theological studies at Copenhagen University. Scholars are familiar with the fact that Kierkegaard is often critical of Luther. His criticisms of Luther relate, however, to other aspects of Luther’s thought, not to his anti-Semitism.

One of the more interesting parts of the chapter concerns Kierkegaard’s take on what was know as the Fragmentenstreit (the dispute over the fragments)  The Fragmentenstreit  refers to the controversy created by Lessing’s publication of a manuscript he claimed to have found in a library in Wolfenbüttel in Braunschweig and which was subsequently referred to as the Wolfenbüttler Fragmente. The manuscript had actually been written by the Enlightenment thinker Hermann Samuel Reimarus. Reimarus, had argued, to quote Tudvad, “that Jesus understood himself in agreement with the worldly expectations the Jews had of him that he would reestablish the David’s kingdom with all its power and authority in order that God and God’s law would rule over the world through the agency of the Jewish people” (p 236).

Tudvad observes that “Kierkegaard was also aware of the fact that Jesus’ disciples appear to have had the same expectations” (p. 236). He thus needed to find an explanation for the fact that they “suddenly, after [Jesus’] death, gain the courage to risk life and limb for his sake” (p. 236). He finds this explanation, Tudvad asserts after reading the first part of the Wolfenbüttler Fragmente in 1849. Jesus had to die, he decides, in order for the apostles to give up their worldly hopes. “One sees,” writes Kierkegaard, “how unreasonable is the objection (found also in the Wolfb. Fragm: I, § 32 and 33) that the apostles changed their view [of Jesus], and only after his death made him into the savior of the world rather than the worldly messiah they first considered him to be. That’s correct, of course, but the fault is not Christ’s. He’d explained himself. They just couldn’t understand him” (SKS 22, 66, 20-25). That is, Tudvad asserts that it was important to Kierkegaard to make clear that Christ and Christianity were something “completely different from the Messiah, Israel and Judaism” (p. 236).

To be fair to Kierkegaard, however, it should be pointed out that he cannot have been unaware that Christianity, as the apostles understood it, even after the death of Jesus, was a sect of Judaism. It was only later that becoming a Christian did not necessitate first converting to Judaism. Kierkegaard was also, of course, aware that Jesus had himself been a Jew who, as Tudvad points out, “came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it” (p. 236).

My own view of Kierkegaard’s reaction to the Wolfenbüttler Fragmente is thus that he was concerned not so much to distinguish Judaism from Christianity as something negative and opposed to it as to defend Christianity against the charge that it was based on a manipulation, or misrepresentation, of historical fact.

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  1. The self is a relation which retaels itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation [which accounts for it] that the relation retaels itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but [consists in the fact] that the relation retaels itself to its own self. Uncle ClimacusThe Sickness Unto DeathKierkegaard only wished he could write with this kind of clarity

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