Heyne through Eichhorn

In his History of Biblical Interpretation: Volume 4, Henning Graf Reventlow discusses one of the two spheres of Johann Gottfried Eichhorn’s scholarly work is his research into myth. Eichhorn’s research into myth and his underlying judgment about the Old Testament, as Reventlow argues, is influenced by Gottlob Heyne. Reventlow notes Eichhorn’s participation in a seminar on ancient mythology held at Gottingen by Heyne, where Eichhorn, as a student, studied Heyne’s treatment of ancient poetic texts.[1] Reventlow describes Heyne’s work in the following manner:

Heyne treated ancient poetic texts, above all the poetic works of Homer and Hesiod, and he investigated the relationship between poetry and myth in classical antiquity. Previously the mythical material in these texts had been regarded simply as poetic invention, often with an allegorical intention. Heyne, however, explained it in a revolutionary new way as a typical form of expression for the childhood of humanity.[2]

In this, Reventlow sets the stage for Heyne’s influence on Eichhorn. For Heyne, according to Reventlow, myths were not to be explained through allegory but, instead:

[Myths] were a necessary means of expression for the ancient period, which was characterized by the absence of knowledge, by the scarcity of the capacity for verbalization, and by the inability to disconnect oneself directly from the impressions of the senses.[3]

In this regard, then, Heyne divided myths into two groups: historical myths and philosophical myths. As Reventlow would agree, Heyne’s approach to categorizing myths is essential to understanding Eichhorn’s hermeneutical leanings, particularly as they are expressed in Eichhorn’s Primeval History. But, more importantly, with Heyne in the background, Eichhorn takes a conservative perspective[4] in the work. This “conservative perspective,” as such, conceived of myths either historically as depicting of historical events, or philosophically as containing speculative ethical or natural explanations.[5] It becomes possible to suggest, then, that Eichhorn’s “conservatism” is the embodiment of an early hermeneutical movement in the history of interpretation. Reventlow addresses this by proposing that, along with Eichhorn’s student, Johann Philipp Gabler, Eichhorn are regarded in the history of interpretation as the founders of the “mythical school.” What arises from this “mythical school” is an application of Heyne’s understandings of myth to the interpreting the Bible –it is conceptualizing Biblical texts as being comprised of myths similar to those of classical antiquity.


[1] Henning Graf Reventlow, History of Biblical Interpretation: Volume 4: From the Enlightenment to the Twentieth Century, Translated by Leo G. Perdue (Atlanta, GA: The Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 211.

[2] Ibid., 211-212.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 213.

[5] Ibid., 212.


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