The socially inept know-it-all behind six thousand 'improvements' to the New Testament

16 June 2017

He was a black and white thinker, who failed to understand social codes and could not care less about status. He always wanted to have the last word. Are we talking about W.F. Hermans? Or Johan Cruijff? Or perhaps even Willem Oltmans? No, this is 19th-century theologian Jan Hendrik Holwerda, who was his own stumbling block and who has been brought to life by biographer Bart Kamphuis in his voluminous PhD thesis entitled 'Against All Authorities’. ‘His letters were waiting in Leiden for me to read them,’ says Kamphuis. He defended his doctoral thesis on Monday 19 June at the VU Amsterdam. His research was funded by the NWO programme Free Competition.

Jan Hendrik Holwerda (1805-1886).Jan Hendrik Holwerda (1805-1886). Foto: Archief KNAW.

While attending the grammar school in The Hague, it was already clear that Jan Hendrik Holwerda (1805-1886) had a talent for classical languages. He wanted to become a pastor and studied theology in Leiden. ‘He really enjoyed listening to vicars as a child,’ says Kamphuis.

Holwerda embraced the critical spirit that re-emerged amongst the classical linguists of the 18th-century. This perspective favoured a critical study of old manuscripts and texts. An obvious transcription mistake in the text that resulted in incomprehension or failed to make sense had to be corrected by the editor by means of a ‘conjecture’ – an assumption about what could have been meant in place of the mistake or the damage to the paper. An effort was made to deduce the original words by means of reasoning. According to the academic world you could do that for all classical texts… but not the New Testament.

Jan Hendrik Holwerda flouted that rule and gave conjectural criticism of the New Testament a crucial impulse, which in part enabled the VU Amsterdam researchers Jan Krans and Bart Kamphuis to compile an online data bank of almost 6000 conjectures on the New Testament.

Fragment of 1 Korintiërs 13 (the first letter of Paulus) on papyrus, in Greek.Fragment of 1 Korintiërs 13 (the first letter of Paulus) on papyrus, in Greek.

Putting his own student first

Holwerda became a pastor in Gorinchem, but by 1835 he had already lost his faith after reading the book Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus) by David Friedrich Strauss, in which the biblical life story of Jesus is viewed as a myth. Holwerda actually wanted to stop working as a minister and aspired to an academic career. His older friend Jacob Geel, a literary, philologist and librarian, encouraged him to succeed Wessel Albertus van Hengel as the professor of New Testament Studies in Leiden. Van Hengel however, wanted one of his students to succeed him, much to the displeasure of Holwerda who wrote ‘quite an offensive letter’ to him. ‘Unfortunately I do not have that letter,’ says Kamphuis. ‘However, I do have many other letters. They were waiting in Leiden to be read.’

In his publications, why did Holwerda so vehemently attack those who were established in the field? Why did he continuously dash his own chances? His character and the course of his life appeared to have played a role in this: he did not understand how to play the game and therefore failed to gain a foothold in the academic world. ‘His letters give the impression that he was somewhat autistic in character,’ suggests Kamphuis. ‘He might have suffered from Asperger's syndrome. He was a black-and-white thinker who failed to understand social codes and who could not care less about status. He always wanted to have the last word. He later said to his friends: "I did not handle things wisely. There is a perception now that I am against everybody". He was a tragic figure.’

The title of the doctoral thesis 'Against All Authorities' speaks volumes, but also refers to Holwerda's conjectures because in English a manuscript can also be called 'an authority'. Holwerda realised his extensive conjecture work within a period of scarcely tens years: from 1853 to 1862. After that he focused more on other Greek and Latin authors. Alongside his publications in this period he also continued to serve as a pastor, an agony after he had lost his faith in 1835. ‘He had a wife, seven children and a considerable sense of duty,' according to Kamphuis. ‘He betrayed his beliefs in order to guarantee an income. Eventually he became the rector of the grammar school in Gorinchem and withdrew from academic discussions.’

More information

B.L.F. (Bart) Kamphuis (1981) completed his doctoral thesis ‘Against All Authorities. The New Testament Conjectural Criticism of Jan Hendrik Holwerda (1805-1886)’ at the VU Amsterdam, Faculty of Theology within the project ‘New Testament Conjectural Emendation A Comprehensive Enquiry’, which was funded by the NWO programme Free Competition. His supervisors are Professor L.J. (Bert-Jan) Lietaert Peerbolte and Professor G. (George) Harinck.

Source: VU University Amsterdam