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A Forgotten Chapter:
the Radicals

 by Mr. A.J  Allan

 Translated from the Dutch by Frans-Joris Fabri

 

 

On the Weteringschans in Amsterdam, not faraway from the Leidseplein, four eye-catching buildings stand in juxtaposition to one another: the Vrije Gemeente (the Free Community), the municipal Detention Center, the Grammar School (the Barlaeus) and the School for Home Economics. Only the Grammar School is still in use as originally intended. The people of Amsterdam refer to these building as the Free Community, the unfree community, the single's community and the `betrothed' Community . It was in the premises of the Vrije Gemeente - much later well known all over the country as the pop-music center Paradiso - that on December 13th, 1881 an event of historic dimensions for modern theology took place. A mixed audience of liberal and orthodox theologians, but also of people just interested in the subject were listening to a lecture delivered by professor A. D. Loman of the Faculty of Divinity at Amsterdam University. His speech was entitled 'Earliest Christianity'. He therein stated that Jesus was not a figure of history and that all we know about him was fiction, written down in the 2nd century. In it, the spiritual thinking of the time had been incorporated. In light of his meticulous research work, he pleaded for a symbolic interpretation of the Gospels. His audience was quite unprepared for this kind of reasoning and deeply shocked. The pacifistic Loman did not seek to provocate, but simple to give an account to non-professionals of the contemporary state of scholarly investigation, was very much surprised by the emotional reaction of his audience. Even though what he had said was by no means new to scholars of theology, knowledge of the subject was still confined to the small circle of these fellow-theologians who in their specialized periodicals had discussions the matter -partly in Latin.

In the last  quarter of the 19th century there was a group of theologians in the Netherlands who continued to engage in bible criticism in the fashion of academic teachers such as Scholten, Opzoomer and Kuenen. Their names: Loman, Pierson, Van Manen, Meyboom, Bollanden and as the latest of the group G. A. van den Bergh van Eysinga. They have been almost completely been forgotten by our contemporary generation. A recently published book illustrates how thoroughly they have been forgotten: Tue volume, "Tussen geest en tijdgeest" (Between intellect and the temper of the time) only mentions this so-called 'Dutch Radical School' in passing.

Building of the ‚Vrije Gemeente’ (1967) Photo: Rev. E. Frater Smid

 

The Lectures Hall (1967) - Photo: Rev. E. Frater Smid

 

Among these radical theologians there were differences. Not all of them rejected Jesus' historicity. As the synoptic Gospels contain almost no starting-point for a discussion of history, the investigation focused on the question of the 'genuineness' of Paul's letters. Van den Bergh is said to have introduced his lectures by telling his students: Paul's letters were not letters, were not written by Paul and that, even if one employed the designation, letters, they were undeliverable. (Cfr. van den Bergh van Eysinga: 'Early Christianity's Letters" p. 10) At the end of the nineteenth century, VAN MANEN as well argued in his university course on Early Christian Literature, that Paul's letter to the Romans "was neither a letter, nor by Paul, nor addressed to the Romans."

Every reader of the Bible can see for himself that in Acts, though Paul's achievements are described in extenso, there is nowhere word of his letters. That's odd, as in these letters a person of great authority comforts, admonishes, instructs and criticizes his followers. Moreover 1 Cor. 14 : 26-40 obviously does not speak of a community recently founded by Paul, but of a Church that must already have had a long tradition at the time and in which for example at its meetings it was not unusual for women to address the members. The Radicals' concluded that Paul's letters were not written before de middle of the second century. They consequently differentiated between the historical Paul of Acts and the canonical Paul of the Epistles. Further they ascertained that the canonical Paul's native idiom was Greek and that his writings were embedded in the world of Hellenism. This, in turn, explained the clash in Paul's earliest communities -described in the Letter to the Galatians- provoking him to oppose those that wanted to stick to their Jewish-legalistic practices.

For these reasons, the Radicals considered the origin of Pauline Christianity in the Jewish-legalistic atmosphere of Jerusalem unacceptable. In their opinion the source of Christianity has to be looked for in the confluence of ideas of the Gnostic communities of Alexandria and of the Stoics in Rome. There the myth of redemption, alive in Gnosticism, was elaborated and connected with the Jewish idea of a Messiah, and it was this synthesis that brought the well-known figure of Jesus in Palestine into being. That is to say, gnosticism and Stoa were joined with the tradition of the Old Testament in the figure of Jesus.

 

Ds. Rev. Frater Smid delivering his lecture (1967) – Here on December 13th, A. D. Loman held his lecture on Earliest Christianity.
Photo: Rev. E. Frater Smid

 

 

The Lectures Hall (1967) Photo: Rev. E. Frater Smid

 

List of names of the Board - members of the association ‘De Vrije Gemeente’ (founded in Amsterdam on November 30th, 1877) Photo: Rev. Frater Smid

The limited space available to me in this journal does not permit an accurate account of all the shades of argumentation among the Radicals. Hence I'm limited to this more than rough draft. Those who are interested will find a full account in H. Detering's thesis which caused me to write down this summary. See his "Paulusbriefe ohne Paulus? Die Paulusbriefe in der holländischen Radikalkritik," Frankfurt/M, Berlin, Bern, New York, Paris, Wien: Peter Lang, 1992, ISBN ß7246366: 3-631-44787-6. In his book, he deals with each of the Radicals separately. He describes how their ideas were rejected and calumniated. Obviously the impact of their results were feared, for they were seen as an attack on Christian Faith. But then, most of the Radicals were pious parish ministers who - notwithstanding their denial of a Jesus of history - nonetheless wrote heart-stirring poems about Jesus. The most important fact, however - and I have accepted it only after a thorough investigation of the existing literature - is that up to the present day nobody has refuted the essential arguments the Radicals put forward in defense of their conclusions. Thus a reevaluation of the work of these Radicals should rightly be more than welcome.

 


[1]  Dutch: vrije-, onvrije-, vrijende en gevreeën.

Author's error: the School of Domestic Economy was not situated on the Weteringschans, but in the Zandpad which is at some distance.