Goethe’s (1749–1832) use of the Bible is exceptionally difficult to trace because it is so pervasive in his language. From his earliest years the Bible served him as a source of instruction, of stories, of pictures, of the play for his first puppet theater. It is mentioned 17 times in his autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811; Eng. trans., Poetry and Truth, 1987), more times than the poets of classical antiquity combined, and more broadly distributed over all four parts of the work. His mother was a pious Lutheran, and her dear friend, Susanna von Klettenberg, with whom Goethe was close in his early twenties, was a Pietist. Given this environment together with his innate linguistic talent, it is not surprising that he was “Bibelfest,” that is to say, he could recognize any passage and could quote from the Lutheran Bible at will. Scholars have identified in his works more than 600 references to 300 different passages in the Old Testament and Apocrypha (more than a third of which are to the Pentateuch), and some 500 to 285 different passages in the New Testament (see Sauder, 2001, p. 122, for more detailed information).
Although he eschewed all religious orthodoxy from his mid-twenties on (Heinrich Heine dubbed him “the great pagan” in his essay on the romantic school), and despite his wide reading in Latin, Italian, French, and (to a lesser extent) English, the language of the Luther Bible remained the substrate of Goethe’s later mature and very varied style. The influence is most obvious in his masterpiece Faust, which is, after all, set in the late sixteenth century, the period of Luther’s initial great influence on the language. Yet from his earliest to his latest works the Bible was a major source of motifs, images, metaphors, phrases, and plot elements. Often Goethe drew deliberately on the Bible for particular effects, whether serious or ironic; at other times the usage seems less particularly targeted or seems even unconscious.
Literary and Philological Context.
Born in 1749 and educated at home by his father, Goethe read voraciously and precociously in theology and in the newly emerging disciplines of philology and textual criticism as they applied both to the classical literatures and to the Bible. The notion that the Bible was an edited rather than a revealed text had begun with Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), a hero of Goethe’s from his late adolescence on, and was taken increasingly seriously in the eighteenth century. Comparable trends in classical studies were getting established in Germany at the University of Göttingen, where Goethe wanted to study. Although his father insisted he go to Leipzig and Strasbourg to study law instead, Goethe nevertheless developed his philological interests through his lifelong friendship begun in 1770 in Strasbourg with the theologian and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), who introduced him to the interest in both Homer and the Bible as primitive poetry as it had developed in England in the preceding decades. Goethe was also familiar with modern religious epic in the form of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Klopstock’s Messias, which he had read already in his childhood.
After Goethe moved to Weimar in 1775 he became acquainted with the most influential voice in Bible criticism in Germany, Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752–1857), theologian, orientalist, and literary historian at the University of Jena (1775–1788) and then Göttingen, who validated the emerging theory that Genesis was an edited compilation of material and established the principle that the Bible must be read text-critically, a methodology already advanced by Johann Salomo Semler in his Abhandlung von der freien Untersuchung des Kanons (Treatise on the Free Investigation of the Canon) of 1771. Goethe read Eichhorn’s work and remained in contact with him for the rest of his life.
Engagement in Theological Questions.
Goethe took an interest in theological and specifically interpretive questions about the Bible from an early age. In his autobiography, the primary source for much of our information about Goethe and his relation to the Bible, he describes how his Hebrew lessons from 1762 to 1765, begun at his own request because of his interest in the Old Testament, rapidly turned into, again at his own instigation, discussions with his teacher Johann Georg Albrecht (1694–1770), rector of the Barfüßer Gymnasium in Frankfurt, about questions of textual logic and consistency. Among his earliest publications are “Zwo bisher unerörterte biblische Fragen” (Two Previously Uninterpreted Biblical Questions) and “Brief des Pastors zu *** an den neuen Pastor zu ***” (Letter from the Pastor of *** to the New Pastor of ***). Both texts, published in 1773, plead for a more individual religion of the heart against a rule-based orthodoxy under the guise of correcting previously misread passages in the Bible. His later essay, “Israel in der Wüste” (Israel in the Desert), written in 1797 but published only in 1819, draws on the influence especially of Eichhorn and has a more specifically historical-critical focus with its argument that the Israelites could only have wandered two years in the desert rather than the traditional forty.
Goethe later returned to study of the Bible in 1811–1812 as he worked on his autobiography, and again in 1816 as he began work on the West-östlicher Divan (West-eastern Divan), a collection of poetry composed in response to his reading of the famous Persian poet Hafez (1326–1390) in its first German translation of 1814. It was in the appendix to this collection that he first published the essay on Israel in the desert. The historical focus remains uppermost from this essay on; to the end of his life the Bible remained for him an especially precious document of human history.
Relation to Religion.
As the topics and range of the above essays suggest, Goethe’s relation to religion in general and Christianity in particular was unorthodox. The autobiography stages different versions of religious practice at different periods of his life (to the age of 25, when it breaks off), none having anything to do with being in a church. Christian practice was important for him only as a system of morality. He once characterized himself as “neither un-Christian nor anti-Christian but as decidedly not-Christian” (letter to Lavater, 29 July 1782). The basis for morality, as for what can be loosely referred to as religious belief, lay for him primarily in a Spinozistic understanding of nature, and also in the text of the Bible. He identifies especially the Old Testament repeatedly and explicitly from at least 1811 to the end of his life as the embodiment of a serene patriarchal world uncomplicated by the pace, violence, and hyperconsciousness of the modern world—in short as an idyllic golden age that never really existed. That ideal status enabled it to be the “book of all books,” the basis of morality in our culture.
Use of Biblical Material in the Literary Works.
This highly generalized relation to the Bible as both historical document and moral paradigm explains why it is so present in his writing that its influence can scarcely be profiled. Nevertheless, a few generalizations are possible. Brief biblical allusions and quotations may be found everywhere in Goethe’s works, even in works based on classical models. Most of the works that deal with explicitly biblical themes belong to the early period and have not survived. Dichtung und Wahrheit I, 4 refers to a Joseph narrative; a letter to his sister Cornelia (10 October 1767) mentions a Belsazar, a Thronfolger Pharaohs, Isabel, Ruth, and Selima. The only work of this period to survive is “Poetische Gedanken über die Höllenfahrt Jesu” (Poetic Thoughts on Jesus in Hell) a rhymed poem in 16 stanzas of 10 lines each written in 1765. A translation of the Song of Songs (evidently based on paraphrases, 1775–1776) has also been lost, while the set of parables, “Salomons, König von Israel und Juda, güldene Worte von der Ceder bis zum Ysop” (The Golden Words of Solomon, King of Israel and Judea) from the same period, was recovered from unpublished papers. Not based on the Bible but related are the surviving fragments of the doggerel epic, Der ewige Jude (The Wandering Jew), begun in 1774, continued in 1786, and summarized in Dichtung und Wahrheit III, 15 in 1813.
In the works that survive and involve more than passing allusions, biblical material is not retold but rather reformed. Faust, Part 1 has a “Prologue in Heaven” based on the first chapter of Job, but the relationship between God and the devil is chatty and ironic in tone; the issue is not theodicy, and Faust is hardly virtuous on the model of Job. The parallel structures the entire play, for at the end of Part 2 Mephistopheles ludicrously compares himself to Job as angels rescue Faust’s soul from his clutches. In similar fashion the poem “Groß ist die Diana der Epheser” (Great Is the Diana of the Ephesians) of 1812 invents a new character in the narrative of the riots against Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19:23–41), a goldsmith who remains quietly at work during the riot because he believes in freedom of conscience. Or in “Epiphaniasfest” (Epiphanias, 1885) of 1781 the three kings are charming but helpless travelers who love to eat and drink but not to pay their bills. In none of these texts is the Bible or even biblical values attacked. The Bible functions rather as a cultural inheritance to be absorbed, elaborated, and reformed for essentially any purpose, even simple conviviality.
The novels of education, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795–1796; Eng. trans., Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1824) and its sequel, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (1821; Eng. trans., Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, 1989), add a visual layer of biblical allusion. Goethe informs the readers of Dichtung und Wahrheit up front (I, 1) that his first encounter with the Bible was through the famous illustrations of Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593–1650): the passage signals the importance of biblical iconography in Goethe’s texts, especially that of the Renaissance and Baroque, both marked and unmarked. The opening of the Wanderjahre is organized around the traditional sequence of paintings of the life of St. Joseph; later in the novel children are introduced to history through frescoes that juxtapose scenes from the Old Testament with scenes from Greek mythology, and a new series with scenes from the New Testament. In the Lehrjahre, as also in Faust, especially the second part, the tendency is more for characters to appear in poses familiar from Italian, French, and German painting. Such allusions have as yet been barely explored. In another of Goethe’s latest works, “Novelle” of 1828 (Eng. trans., A Tale, 1832), a gypsy child brings about the momentary ultimate reconciliation of society and nature, and of all conflicts within society, by pacifying an escaped lion in a sort of natural temple in a conflation of motifs from Job, Androcles and the lion, and Mozart’s Magic Flute. It thus reiterates Goethe’s tendency to see the Bible as the typical universal primitivist—and therefore both historicist and moral—expression of a generalized religiosity associated with art and nature.
Scholarship on Goethe and the Bible is relatively scarce, for reasons that should now be clear. Identifying every reference to the Bible in Goethe’s language is probably not possible or else would involve such a large proportion of it as to eliminate any possibility of drawing distinctions. The commentaries in the two recent complete editions identify much of what has been noted.
Discussions of the topic prior to World War II are driven first by the principle to identify as many allusions to the Bible as can be recognized (e.g., Eberhard, 1932), and second, to celebrate and defend Goethe’s essential humanity, religiosity, and even Christianity in the face of his evident unorthodoxy and also of claims for his position as an anti-Semite (for a more modern view of the problem of Goethe and anti-Semitism see Schutjer, 2004, and Schutjer, 2007).
None of this satisfied Ernst Cassirer, who in 1940 still registered the lack of an important book on Goethe and the Bible. Since then there have been thoughtful studies of Goethe’s religious and moral views, especially in the 1950s, but little on the Bible in the context of his poetic work. What there is follows two trains of thought—local interpretation of each allusion in a work independent of the others (e.g., Durrani, 1977) or trying to read the implications of biblical allusions for organizing the underlying structure and therefore less obvious implications of a work (Kaiser, 1984; Schutjer, 2004; Schutjer, 2007; Brown, 1986).
More recently scholars have turned to Goethe’s interest in the Bible for illumination of his theories of language and poetics (e.g., Linder, 1998). Gerhard Sauder’s fine survey of Goethe’s relation to the Bible against the Enlightenment context also offers a clear summary of the work on the topic to the date of his essay.
The many different directions currently practiced are most clearly illustrated in Goethe und die Bibel (2005). Its introduction by Johannes Anderegg and Edith Anna Kunz offers a succinct overview of the scholarship on the topic, and its collection of essays a broad sense of the questions currently being asked about Goethe and the Bible. Its topics cover the role of the Bible for Goethe’s ideas about the nature of language, for poetology, for the construction of particular styles at particular periods of his career, for his concept of text as such, and for his concept of nature. Several of the essays explore the relation of Goethe’s characteristic use of intertextuality in specific relation to the biblical substrate in his language in order to explore how biblical allusions construct the meanings of particular texts and also how biblical iconography and liturgical references participate in the same process. To varying degrees these essays also have in common an awareness of the tension in Goethe’s thought and practice between his secularist historicizing tendency and at the same time his insistence on the special importance of the Bible as a moral text and one that is, though not the revealed word of God, nevertheless still a carrier of sacral significance, a significance that its language transmits to literature and art, the new carriers of spirit in secular modernity.
[See also ROMANTIC LITERATURE.]
- Anderegg, Johannes, and Edith Anna Kunz, eds. Goethe und die Bibel. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2005.
- Brown, Jane K. Goethe’s Faust: The German Tragedy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986.
- Durrani, Osman. Faust and the Bible: A Study of Goethe’s Use of Scriptural Allusions and Christian Religious Motifs in Faust I and II. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 1977.
- Eberhard, Raimund. Goethe und das alte Testament. Vienna: C. Barth, 1932.
- Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Sämtliche Werke. 45 vols. Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1985–2013.
- Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Sämtliche Werke nach Epochen seines Schaffens. Münchner Ausgabe. 33 vols. Munich: Hanser, 1985–1998.
- Kaiser, G. “Faust und die Bibel.” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 58 (1984): 391–413.
- Linder, Luz-Maria. Goethes Bibelrezeption: Hermeneutische Reflexion, fiktionale Darstellung, historisch-kritische Bearbeitung. Frankfurt and New York: Peter Lang, 1998.
- Sauder, Gerhard. “Aufklärerische Bibelkritik und Bibelrezeption in Goethes Werk.” Goethe Jahrbuch 118 (2001): 108–125.
- Schutjer, Karin. “Beyond the Wandering Jew: Anti-Semitism and Narrative Supersession in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre.” German Quarterly 77 (2004): 389–407.
- Schutjer, Karin. “German Epic/Jewish Epic: Goethe’s Exodus Narrative in Hermann und Dorothea and ‘Israel in der Wüste.’ ” German Quarterly 80 (2007): 165–184.
Jane K. Brown