How God became a lawgiver

How Konrad Schmid, Professor of Theology at the University of Zurich, researches the Hebrew Bible, what he discovers and why the findings from his ERC Project are of great significance far beyond theology. A report by Rolf Probala.

Konrad Schmid sweepingly opens the door and enters the bright interior of St. Peter. The church of the Old Town near the Lindenhof is one of Zurich’s landmarks and an important station in the biography of the theologian Konrad Schmid. St. Peter stands for the liberal, true-to-life theology of the reformed Zurich, which has been cultivated here for generations and which has shaped Konrad Schmid’s work and life. His grandfather was pastor at St. Peter, his father was Professor for Old Testament Studies and rector of the University of Zurich and both of them were known as being liberal-minded, critical theologians. «I grew up in a household that was not very religious but intellectually attentive, and the Protestant tradition was implicitly very present, » Konrad Schmid tells us while guiding us through the church and reporting on his grandfather’s work. Grandfather theologian, father theologian; what was Schmid’s personal motivation to study theology? «The family background and influence has certainly played a role. However, the decisive factor was my interest in the great connections within the intellectual history. Why do people think in the categories they are thinking in? What were the answers of the people living in different eras to the big questions of their existence? I considered theology the ideal discipline to practice a kind of archeology of the human intellectual history.» We stand below the large wooden pulpit at the front of the church. On a pedestal, the church edition of the Zurich Bible lies randomly opened at the passage in the Book of Exodus that describes how God gave Moses the laws for the people of Israel. Konrad Schmid laughs and says: «Here you see the topic of my ERC Project!»

The achievement of theology as a scientific discipline

Konrad Schmid unlocks the glass door which leads from the Faculty of Theology in the former canons building to the cloister of the Great Minster (Grossmünster). Previously, we walked a short distance though the Old City from St. Peter to the epicentre of the Zurich Reformation. The small cloister charmingly mirrors the turn of an era caused by the Reformation. The figurines and animal scenes carved into the stones of pillars and arches remind of the Middle Ages. The plants growing in the garden of the courtyard were described by the Zurich natural scientist and Renaissance polymath Conrad Gessner in his botanical works. Gessner was one of the contemporaries of the Zurich Reformation leader Ulrich Zwingli and a pioneer of the modern natural sciences. During our short tour of the cloister Konrad Schmid describes how the Faculty of Theology originated from Zwingli’s «Theological School» which was later incorporated into the newly founded University of Zurich. «We are the smallest of the seven faculties of the University, but, in the traditional order, we are still the very first, » Konrad Schmid concludes his observations about the role of theology in the development of the modern university. What are the achievements of theology today, we ask, besides the education of pastors?

«It is still an important discipline because it asks the fundamental question of the relationship between what is within our own power and what is not. Even though today’s culture often creates a different impression, we as humans are probably still much more characterised by what we cannot control than by what is within our ability to control. Our existence is completely accidental. We cannot choose the time or the place in which we are born and our existence is finite. These two issues, the randomness and the finite nature of human existence, have been powerful drivers of culture throughout the history of humanity and today’s theology deals with these fundamental questions of human existence by reference to a specific tradition.»

The «specific tradition» Konrad Schmid refers to is the Jewish-Christian view of the world and of humankind as conveyed by the writings of the Bible. As a specialist for Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism, Konrad Schmid researches the development of religious thinking in ancient Israel and the emergence and interpretation of the scriptures of the Bible’s Old Testament. However, he does not consider himself to be a «text interpreter» alone. He is highly interested in the political, social and cultural context that leads to the development of the «Holy Scriptures» of the Hebrew Bible. «I am interested in the thoughts that certain texts convey. But I am equally interested in the origin of these thoughts and how they came to be,» he explains, while we are taking the stairs up to the first floor inside the building of the Faculty of Theology.

How scientific theology proceeds

Konrad Schmid opens the seminar room and we sit down at the long table intended for meetings. Looking through the window, we can see the Great Minster. We turn on our recording device and ask Konrad Schmid how he proceeds when immersing into his scientific work. «This research is based on texts and I work methodically like a literary scholar and cultural historian. This means that on one hand I deal with the reconstruction and interpretation of a text. However, on the other hand, if the text expresses a certain position, I also ask where this position comes from. Today we know that ancient Israel was not the centre of the ancient world at the time, even though the Bible suggests so due to its tremendous literary reception. The historical circumstances were quite the opposite. Israel and Judah were small states and engaged in lively cultural and intellectual exchange with Egypt and Mesopotamia. Many stories and concepts in the Bible, such as the Creation Account and others, are intellectual historical imports from the surrounding advanced societies that were much mightier, older and more sophisticated than Israel and Judah. The image of the Near and Middle East of ancient times conveyed by historical research coincides only little with the image painted by the Bible. Moses was most likely a historical figure; however, he presumably did not write anything down. There was no Hebrew and no written culture at the time in which the Bible settles Moses. The Old Testament is a library of 39 books that was established over the course of almost 1,000 years. Oral prestages are probably even several hundred years older. Yet, the texts of the Hebrew Bible were written by many different anonymous authors and adapted to the changing circumstances and ideologies across the centuries.»

Just like an archaeologist carefully digs through layers of earth and classifies the objects found, Konrad Schmid works his way through the texts of the Hebrew Bible, searching for reference clues that allow for dating the parts of the text and allocating them to eras, and he compares the statements with other text sources and findings from the time.

How God became a lawgiver

One topic he has been concerned with for a long time is the role of God as lawgiver that runs as a theme through the entire Old Testament. The Book of Exodus tells how God gave Moses the laws for the people of Israel. Roughly half of the texts of the first five books of the Bible – the Torah – describe these divine laws in detail. This image of «God as the source of law», however, completely contrasts the legal enactment of the ancient world, in which kings were the highest legislative authority. Ancient legal documents, such as the Code of Hammurabi, which was composed about 1800 BC, served as decision-making guidance for jurisdiction. However, they were no normative documents. It was the king who made the final ruling, he was the living law. «Why, then, is God the lawmaker in the Hebrew Bible?» we ask Konrad Schmid. «Ancient Israel was part of the ancient Near Eastern culture in terms of its cultural and legal history. If you analyse the laws of the Torah in great detail, you will find that many passages were literally taken from the Code of Hammurabi. But the Torah was written during a long process between the 9th and 4th century BC. During the course of this development history, the old oriental legal clauses that were also valid in Israel and Judah had been re-interpreted radically and God was made lawgiver. God gave his laws to Moses who passed them on to his people, as goes the fiction of the Torah. The development of this concept was probably also influenced by the traumatic experiences of the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 720 BC by the hands of the Assyrians and of the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 587 BC by the Babylonians. However, the intellectual Judean elite did presumably not catch on to the concept of God as lawgiver until their Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC.»

Three years ago, Konrad Schmid submitted the project «DIVLAW – How God Became a Lawgiver» to the European Research Council and was awarded an ERC Advanced Grant. Since January 2020, he has been researching together with four postdocs the question of which intellectual, religious and socio-political settings have created the notion of God as a lawgiver and the effects thereof. The results of this research are of importance far beyond theology. God as the source of laws and law itself has become an influential concept in Judaism, Christianity and Islam over the course of history and determines religious and political thinking and conduct until the present day.

The impacts of theological research

What are the social impacts Konrad Schmid hopes to see from the results of his scientific work? «For me, one key aspect is the historical clarification. The theologian David Friedrich Strauss once said, ‘The true critique of dogma is its history.’Once we know how something has come to be, it helps to critically observe supposedly unchangeable matters and to deal with them. I personally also consider these research projects important to remedy the widespread religious illiteracy of our time, which often coins the distanced and undenominational members of our society. Religions are historically developed cultural orientation systems that influence us even if we do not expect or perceive it. I therefore hope that our research can contribute to pointing out the long-term effects of our own history of religion.»

It is almost five o’clock in the afternoon and Konrad Schmid asks if we would like to have coffee. While starting the coffee machine, the postdocs Lida Panov, Dylan Thomas and Anna Angelini of the «DIVLAW» team are installing their laptops. Their colleague Peter Altmann will shortly join the Zoom meeting from Reno in the United States. The preliminary meeting for an important conference is about to begin in this seminar room. Each team member is specialised in an individual field and works independently on a partial aspect of the project. During a two-day conference in June, the «DIVLAW» team will present its first findings to three experts from Yale, Austin and Princeton, who will critically review them.

The «DIVLAW» Project ends in 2024. What are Konrad Schmid’s plans afterwards? «My next project will probably focus on the discovery of an egalitarian anthropology in the Bible,» he tells us while we are waiting for the Zoom connection to Reno. «The Hebrew Bible appears to be the first document in human history which frames a uniform opinion of the human species. The ancient orient distinguished between kings, slaves and free people. The category ‘human being’ did not exist. The idea to define a uniform term of ‘human being’ across social classes appears to be phrased for the first time in the opening chapter of the Bible, which states that all humans, man and woman, are created in God’s image. I would like to find out more about which driving forces lead to the development of this concept that evidently successfully established itself in the course of human history.»

We say goodbye and Konrad Schmid hurries to his team meeting.

Interview with Konrad Schmid (in German)
Konrad Schmid

Konrad Schmid studied Theology at the Universities of Zurich, Greifswald and Munich. After a Vicariate, he worked as Assistant and Senior Assistant at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Zurich between 1991 and 1999. From 1999 to 2002, he was Associate Professor of Old Testament at the Faculty of Theology of the Heidelberg University. In 2002, Konrad Schmid was appointed Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Zurich. From 2008 to 2010, he also served as Dean of his Faculty. He was a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute of Advanced Study) from 2020 to 2021.

Horizon 2020 Project

DIVLAW: How God Became a Lawgiver: The Place of the Torah in Ancient Near Eastern Legal History

  • Programme: ERC Advanced Grant
  • Duration 1. January 2020 – 31. December 2024 (60 months)
  • Contribution for University of Zurich: 2’500’000 €