Sabbatical: Alfred Loisy and the New Testament’s Jewish Context


I’ve been working away on my Loisy book, and progressing nicely—actually, I began the work prior to July 1, so I’ve spent much of the summer working on it—and I thought I’d share some interesting finds. This is from his (in)famous L’Évangile et l’Église (The Gospel and the Church), which landed Loisy in a bit of trouble. The book was censured, placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, and it certainly contributed to his eventual excommunication six years later. In fact, many see this work as having “precipitated” the Modernist Crisis–I think that phrase is from C.J.T. Talar, but I don’t have on hand which of his many works he wrote that in. Loisy’s ecclesiological vision, his view of the Church, is the main topic of a paper I’ll be presenting this upcoming November in Atlanta at the meeting of La Société Internationale d’Études sur Alfred Loisy, in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature. It will also form part of one of the later chapters of my book.

In my rereading of L’Évangile et l’Église earlier this summer, I was struck by how Loisy emphasized again and again the Jewish context to the New Testament, and particularly Jesus’ Jewish context (and that of Paul et al). For many of you, perhaps most of you, this wouldn’t seem odd at all. We take it for granted that of course Jesus was Jewish, Paul was Jewish, and the New Testament should be read in its Second Temple Jewish context. And yet, even now, the Jewish context to Paul and the New Testament (if not the “historical” Jesus) is questioned frequently. I remember when my friend Brant Pitre came out with his Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, and one of the criticisms he received was his use of Jewish sources. Granted, Brant was using later rabbinic Jewish sources (Midrashic, Mishnaic, Talmudic, etc.), but even these later sources incontestably contain earlier traditions—the obvious question/debate is how much of their traditions are Second Temple or earlier. I recall last November’s meeting of La Société Internationale d’Études sur Alfred Loisy, which I chaired, the question my doctoral advisor Bill Portier (responses to whose fine work, Divided Friends: Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the U.S., occupied the first session) asked the final presenter, Belgian scholar Danny Praet about the absence of a discussion of the Jewish context to the New Testament in the correspondence between Franz Cumont and Alfred Loisy on the matter of Christian origins. The Cumont-Loisy correspondence began in 1908, the year Loisy was excommunicated, and I think we can detect a development in Loisy’s work from after his excommunication. It seems to me that Loisy’s later work, within the History of Religions (although now more influenced by Cumont than Hermann Gunkel, by whom I think he was more influenced prior to beginning his correspondence with Cumont). It was pretty clear that Post-correspondence with Cumont, Loisy was less inclined to situate the New Testament in its Jewish context, and more in a Greco-Roman context.

But, Loisy was early-on influenced by 19th century German scholarship (which for him was contemporary), and such scholarship was increasingly de-emphasizing, in fact, often denying, not only the Jewish context of the New Testament, but of Jesus (historical or otherwise) as well. This became something of a no-brainer with the push for Markan priority (which Loisy followed, but which we should bear in mind was relatively new…really getting going with a following in the 1880s when Loisy was studying biblical criticism [under Ernest Renan beginning in 1882] and Assyriology [under Arthur Amiaud also beginning in 1882]). Mark contains no genealogy for Jesus, and is arguably the least Jewish of the 4 Gospels. In light of this context, Loisy’s comments in L’Évangile et l’Église at the very dawn of the 20th century (1902 and in the expanded 2nd revised edition of 1903) are rather striking.

So, here are two quotations from L’Évangile et l’Église [from Alfred Loisy, The Gospel and the Church, trans. Christopher Home (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), which is an English trans. of the 2nd revised and expanded edition of 1903]:

“To seek in the gospel an element that shall be entirely new in regard to the religion of Moses and the prophets, is to seek a thing that Jesus had no desire to set there, a thing that on His own statement does not exist there” (65).

“The Gospel, appearing in Judaea and unable to appear elsewhere, was bound to be conditioned by Judaism. Its Jewish exterior is the human body, whose Divine Soul is the spirit of Jesus. But take away the body, and the soul will vanish in the air like the lightest breath” (121).

One could attribute some of this to the fact that he was explicitly responding to Adolf von Harnack, who famously desired the removal of the Old Testament from Christian Scripture (in Marcionite fashion). But, having read quite a bit of Loisy’s earlier works, I don’t think this is sufficient to explain these comments. I think Loisy was convinced of their Jewish context at that point, even if he changed his mind later on.

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