The Amber Witch and the Higher Criticism

The Amber Witch and the Higher Criticism May 11, 2018

In the early nineteenth century, German scholars launched an intellectual revolution that transformed attitudes to the Bible, and to Christian origins. Just how fundamental that change of attitude was is difficult for us to appreciate precisely because that revolution has today become so familiar and institutionalized. I want to describe a couple of contemporary literary responses to that transformation – partly because they raise interesting questions, but also because they are such fascinating items in their own right.

In the 1820s and 1830s, scholars like Friedrich Christian Baur studied the Bible with the critical tools that had long been applied to Classical texts. They claimed to identify layers of composition and editing, and to attribute texts to particular schools of thought. One early monument to this school was the Life of Jesus, Leben Jesu, of David Friedrich Strauss (1835), which controversially denied Jesus’s divinity, as well as many standard beliefs of Christian orthodoxy. (Strauss was Baur’s student). Christian pastors were alarmed to see the impact of such ideas on their faithful congregations, who regretfully accepted that they could not quarrel with cutting edge scholarship. You could respond to such challenges by thundering against the blasphemers and urging their suppression, but was this an acceptable solution for the educated and enlightened?

One conservative-minded pastor sought an alternative, if risky, response. He baited a trap for the Higher Critics.

A near-contemporary of Baur and Strauss was pastor Wilhelm Meinhold, the son of a Lutheran pastor on the Baltic island of Usedom. He followed his father into the clergy. In 1838, Meinhold published a book that created a literary sensation.* He claimed to have discovered an ancient vellum-bound manuscript that was supposedly written by the Rev. Abraham Schweidler in the mid-seventeenth century. Reportedly, Schweidler had almost lost his daughter to false witchcraft charges during the crisis of the Thirty Years War, in a case that Meinhold thought was one of the most remarkable such cases ever told. Meinhold thus printed the story of Maria Schweidler, The Amber Witch (Maria Schweidler, Die Bernsteinhexe).

In his preface, he explained his editorial decisions, listing the parts of the book he had purged. He faced one problem in that many of the middle parts of the manuscript were missing. Never mind, though, he said, he had filled in those parts, being careful to write in the exact style of the time. Or as he said,

I have therefore attempted, not indeed to supply what is missing at the beginning and end, but to restore those leaves which have been torn out of the middle, imitating, as accurately as I was able, the language and manner of the old biographer, in order that the difference between the original narrative and my own interpolations might not be too evident.

This should not be too much of a problem, he said, as Europe had so many fine critical scholars who had no difficulty in distinguishing between different parts of a manuscript:

This I have done with much trouble, and after many ineffectual attempts; but I refrain from pointing out the particular passages which I have supplied, so as not to disturb the historical interest of the greater part of my readers. For modern criticism, which has now attained to a degree of acuteness never before equalled, such a confession would be entirely superfluous, as critics will easily distinguish the passages where Pastor Schweidler speaks from those written by Pastor Meinhold.

As you may have guessed, Meinhold was not being truthful. He had found no ancient text, and had invented every word of his tale, although he had managed to write the story impeccably in the style and language of the seventeenth century. It was a historical novel, rather than an edited memoir. He was actually making a polemical point, and indeed (as I remarked) setting a trap. So people like Strauss and Baur thought they could identify different parts of Biblical books from two thousand years ago? Well, let’s see how they are at detecting an obvious modern forgery, and even better, one written in German. Note the irony in his comment about how modern higher criticism “has now attained to a degree of acuteness never before equaled.” That dripping sarcasm should have been a clue.

I would love to recount how the Biblical critics failed to spot the deceit, but I can’t, because I don’t know if they specifically ever read it. When Meinhold sent a copy to Strauss himself, baiting a deliberate trap, Strauss wisely refused to review it. What we can say is that educated readers in their many thousands loved the book, as did foreign readers. An 1844 English translation remained hugely popular for a century. It even became a Victorian opera. And most people accepted it as real history.

Meinhold himself became the victim of his own subterfuge. His book was so good, and so authentic – and its language so precisely right – that when he finally announced it was a forgery, people just did not believe him. Only very gradually did he establish his claim to be a novelist, rather than the lucky discoverer of an ancient treasure. Sadly, a disappointed and angry public showed him little sympathy, and denounced him as a forger and fraud.

In his way, he did make the point about how difficult it can be to date texts, or to sort between the work of different authors. He was perhaps being too subtle for his audience. The Amber Witch story was still being cited as authentic well into the twentieth century.

It’s interesting that Meinhold did not try to prove his point by forging a gospel or pseudo-scriptural work, as plenty of other writers did in that century.

You can find a complete English text of the Amber Witch at many sites on the Internet, and it is a terrific novel.

In a forthcoming post, I’ll mention another contemporary response to higher criticism, in the work of Robert Browning.


*This does not matter for present purposes, but reference books I consult, whether English or German, split down the middle on whether the book first appeared in 1838 or 1843. A disparity like that is unusual for a book that was so important in its time.


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