About

My research centers on intellectual culture in Germany from 1795 to 1920, with a focus on the history of the humanities – especially classical, biblical, and orientalist scholarship. While thus far I have concentrated on representations of ancient Judaism and their embeddedness in modern cultural, political, and religious complexes, my latest research investigates the history of philology across the human sciences. These inquiries contribute, more broadly, to historiography, history of ideas, history of knowledge, German studies, Jewish studies, and religious studies.
 
My work appears in premier journals of history, religion, and culture, such as History & TheoryCritical Inquiry, Central European History, and Harvard Theological Review. My first monograph, on the historiography of ancient Israel in the German Empire, was published by Mohr Siebeck in 2018.
 
I am now a Fellow of the Research Foundation–Flanders (FWO) at Ghent University. Previously, I have been a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Cambridge, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Göttingen.
 
In addition to the FWO, I have secured funding from the European Commission (Horizon2020), Fulbright Program, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and American Schools of Oriental Research.

Education

Dr. phil., summa cum laude, History (University of Göttingen, 2016)

 

Publications

KEY PUBLICATIONS

Kaiser, Christ, and Canaan: The Religion of Israel in Protestant Germany, 1871–1918. Forschungen zum Alten Testament I/122. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018.

This monograph investigates to what extent, in an age of allegedly disinterested ‘historical science,’ the very enterprise of reconstructing ancient Israel was shaped by liberal Protestant theology. The book scrutinizes what biblical scholars, philologists, and historians of religion considered ‘religion’ and ‘history’ to be, how they sought to access past religious life, and why they undertook their inquiries in the manner they did. To do so, it focuses on two key representatives of two different approaches: Julius Wellhausen, with a source criticism orientated towards the history of nations, and Hermann Gunkel, with a comparative procedure aimed at the world behind the literature. This inquiry reveals, on the one hand, a “Protestantization of the past,” where an interior, moral conception of religion defined the essence of ancient Israel, as embodied by its prophets, and, on the other, a conception of history as a meaningful, unified process held together by a metaphysical force—a teleology of the human past that converged in the present to serve as the basis for a progressive future. It further argues that despite highly technical labor putatively neutral and non-theological in nature and despite dramatic shifts in specific methods of historical analysis, such an understanding of religion and history remained fundamentally the same in the story told by dominant historians of ancient Israel.

 

“The Philological Apparatus: Science, Text, and Nation in the Nineteenth Century.” Critical Inquiry, forthcoming 2021 (47/1).

Philology haunts the humanities, through both its defendants and its detractors. This article examines the construction of philology as the premier science of the long nineteenth century in Europe. It aims to bring the history of philology up to date by taking it seriously as a science and giving it the kind of treatment that has dominated history of science for the last generation: to reveal how practices, instruments, and cooperation create illusions of timeless knowledge. This historical inquiry therefore asks how one modality of text-interpretation could morph into an integrated complex of knowledge-production, which ostensibly explained the whole human world. Ultimately, it advances a central argument: philology operated as a relational system, one that concealed diversity and disunity, projected unity and stability, and seemed to rise above the material conditions of its own making. The essay scrutinizes the composition of philology as a heterogeneous ensemble, the functioning of philology comparable to other sciences, whether human or natural, and the historical contingency in the consolidation of philology.

 

“How Nineteenth-Century German Classicists Wrote the Jews out of Ancient History.” History & Theory 58/2 (2019): 210–32.

This essay considers why Jewish antiquity largely fell outside the purview of ancient historians in the Germanies for over half a century, between 1820 and 1880, and examines the nature of those portraits that did, in fact, arise. To do so, it interrogates discussions of Jewish antiquity in this half-century against the background of those political and national values that were consolidating across the German states. Ultimately, the article claims that ancient Jewish history did not provide a compelling model for the dominant (Protestant) German scholars of the age, which then prompted the decline of antique Judaism as a field of interest. This investigation into the political and national dimensions of ancient history both supplements previous lines of inquiry and complicates accounts that assign too much explanatory power to a regnant anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism in the period and place. First, the analysis considers why so little attention was granted to Jewish history by ancient historians in the first place, as opposed to its relative prominence before ca. 1820. Second, the essay examines representations of ancient Judaism as fashioned by those historians who did consider the subject in this period. Surveying works composed not only for the upper echelons of scholarship but also for adolescents, women, and the laity, it scrutinizes a series of arguments advanced and assumptions embedded in universal histories, histo- ries of the ancient world, textbooks of history, and histories dedicated to either Greece or Rome. Finally, the article asserts the Jewish past did not conform to the values of cultural ascendancy, political autonomy, national identity, and religious liberty increasingly hal- lowed across the Germanies of the nineteenth century, on the one hand, and inscribed into the very enterprise of historiography, on the other. The perceived national and political failures of ancient Jews—alongside the ethnic or religious ones discerned by others—thus made antique Judaism an unattractive object of study in this period.

 

“Is Kant among the Prophets? Hebrew Prophecy and German Historical Thought, 1880–1920.” Central European History, forthcoming 2021 (54/1).

This article examines the interpretation of Hebrew prophecy by German Protestant scholars in the era of 1880–1920. Though overlooked by commentators, these scholars exalted the prophets for more than ethical monotheism: namely, for their historical understanding. It argues, first, that Old Testament interpreters valued the prophets since they presented God as the guiding force behind human history and, second, that these theologians cum philologians saw the prophetic conception of history as anticipating their own understanding of God in the world. The inquiry bases this argument on a reading of numerous exegetes, both leading lights and forgotten figures. Moreover, it traces this interpretative tendency across a range of sources, including specialist studies, theological monthlies, critical and literary journals, popular works, public speeches, and pedagogical literature. Rather than leave the prophets in the past, these exegetes also ushered them into the present, employing their historical teachings to shore up the Christian faith. In doing so, they identified Hebrew prophecy with German Protestantism and in contrast to Judaism. 

 

“The Silence on the Land: Ancient Israel versus Modern Palestine in Scientific Theology.” In Negotiating the Secular and the Religious in the German Empire: Transnational Approaches, 56–97. Edited by Rebekka Habermas. New York: Berghahn Books, 2019.

This essay analyzes the study of ancient Israel as colonial knowledge. It examines an intellectual irony in the German Empire: Protestant biblical scholars, semitists, and early church historians could spend their entire lives studying Palestine and yet show little interest in the dynamic events in contemporaneous Palestine. Focused less upon intention than effect, it explores how concern for the ancient, biblical past and a corresponding disregard for other material, geographical, and ethnic continuities ultimately effected an appropriation of Palestine’s past and present alike – a colonisation of history that obscured current events on the ground. First, the inquiry considers histories of ancient Israel as an historiographical corpus and discerns two fundamental claims: a rift between Israel and Judaism and the culmination of Israelite history and religion in the Christian faith, which then moved Europeward. Whatever the real divergences apparent in this corpus – from the beginning or end of Israel’s history through the value of certain sources to interpretations of specific biblical texts – the genealogy of Israel and Christianity remained a constant. Second, the examination interrogates the institutionalisation of researches abroad – amidst the foundation of foreign institutes, the establishment of publication organs, and the contest among nations – and scrutinizes the religious dimensions part and parcel of these developments. It concentrates on the objectives and operations of the German Society for the Exploration of Palestine (DPV) and the German Protestant Institute for Ancient Study of the Holy Land (DEIAHL). Finally, the analysis reveals how both the historiography of Israel and the archaeological work of institutes abroad factors into questions of colonial knowledge. It locates the discourse of these endeavours within several larger discussions: the colonisation of Jewish history, where Christian authors arrogated unto themselves the historiography of Christian origins and antique Judaism, the issue of a ‘deep orientalism’, where claims already advanced in ancient sources echoed in modern historiography, and the process of transfer and nontransfer in knowledge production, where a silencing occurred. This appropriation of Palestine’s ancient past for the history of Christian Europe together with this attraction to the modern land expressly for the sake of the biblical past therefore dissolved the integrity of past and present and ultimately obstructed a view of contemporary space. Through such production of knowledge, the past eclipsed the present. 

 

“Defining Hellenistic Jews in 19th-Century Germany: The Case of Jacob Bernays and Jacob Freudenthal.” Erudition & The Republic of Letters, forthcoming 2020.

Hellenic language and culture occupy a deeply ambivalent place in the mapping of Jewish history. If the entanglement of the Jewish and the Greek became especially conflicted for modern Jews in philhellenic Europe, nowhere was it more vexed than in the German-speaking lands of the long nineteenth century. Amidst the modern redefinition of what it meant to be Jewish as well as doubts about the genuine Jewishness of Hellenistic Judaism, how did scholars identify Jewish authorship behind ambiguous, fragmented, and interpolated texts – all the more with much of the Hebraic allegedly deprived by the Hellenic? This article not only argues for the contingency of diagnostic features deployed to define the Jewish amidst the Greek but also maintains the embeddedness of those features in nineteenth-century Germany. It scrutinizes the criteria deployed to establish Jewish texts and authors of the Hellenistic period: the claims and qualities assumedly suggestive of Judaism. First, the inquiry investigates which characteristics German Jewish scholars expected to see in Greek-speaking Jewish writers of antiquity, interrogating their procedures and their verdicts. Second, it examines how these expectations of antiquity corresponded to those scholars’ own modern world. The analysis centers on Jacob Bernays (1824–1881) and Jacob Freudenthal (1839–1907), two savants who helped establish the modern study of Hellenistic Judaism. Each overturned centuries of learned consensus by establishing an ancient author – Pseudo-Phocylides and Eupolemus, respectively – as Jewish, rather than Christian or pagan. This article ultimately reveals the subtle entanglements as well as the mutually conditioning forces not only of antiquity and modernity but also of the personal and academic, manifest both in the philological analysis of ancient texts and in the larger historiography of antique Judaism in the Graecophone world.  

 

“The Spirit of Jewish Poetry: Why Biblical Studies Has Forgotten Duhm’s Psalter Commentary,” forthcoming 2020.

This essay addresses the generation and perpetuation of interpretative modalities in academic communities. Analysing how one biblical commentary – hailed as epoch-making – fell into oblivion, it argues that the historicist revisionism of Duhm’s commentary on the Psalms entailed moral, historical, and aesthetic conclusions unacceptable to most of his contemporaries in Christian biblical scholarship. In the end, he assigned such Hebrew poetry to specifically ‘Jewish’ history, which curtailed its reception and caused its demise in disciplinary memory. This analysis not only provides a new explanation for the fate of Duhm’s work but also offers methodological guidance for the history of scholarship.

 

“Waiting at Nemi: Wellhausen, Gunkel, and the World Behind Their Work.” Harvard Theological Review 109/4 (2016): 567–85.

This article investigates the individual, intellectual, and institutional oppositions of Julius Wellhausen and Hermann Gunkel both in history and in historiography. It demonstrates why disciplinary history must move its analysis beyond a strict focus on scholars and their methods to understand transformations in the field.

 

“Of Lions, Arabs, & Israelites: Some Lessons from the Samson Story for Writing the History of Biblical Scholarship.” Journal of the Bible and Its Reception 5/1 (2018): 31–48.

This article follows a thread of evidence employed across many languages and lands, genres and generations to defend the historicity of the Samson story. It reveals why histories of modern scholarship should broaden their conventional chronological, geographic, and linguistic scope.

 

“Thou Shalt Not Kill, Unless…: The Decalogue in a Kaiserreich at War.” In The Mobilization of Biblical Scholarship, 111–34. Edited by Andrew Mein, Nathan MacDonald, and Matthew Collins. T&T Clark Library of Biblical Studies. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.

This article examines the diversity of interpretations that addressed the biblical commandment not to kill during the First World War. Considering an array of religious traditions and national affiliations, a spectrum of ethnic, gender, and sexual identities, and a range of social and political positions, it shows the centrality of the Bible as a symbol of law, a touchstone for morality, and an emblem of civilization as well as the abiding interest in religious questions at a time often characterized as increasingly secular in nature. 

Paul Michael Kurtz

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