M. Legaspi argues that we cannot understand the change in attitude towards the Old Testament in German universities in the 18th and 19th centuries without also considering the way in which classics departments in these same universities embraced ancient Greek literature. Legaspi writes,
German philhellenism was not simply a movement: it was a “faith”. To its proponents, it entailed the monumental task of replacing Christianity with a new form of life derived from an imaginative engagement with Greek antiquity. To say this is to indicate the kind of personal, intellectual, and creative investment that characterized philhellenists and inspired them to create journals, pioneer new forms of literature, undertake Mediterranean pilgrimages, adopt looser sexual mores, and abandon respectable careers. One of the pioneers in this field of study was J.J. Winckelmann (1717-1768), of whom Goethe hails as “the first great pagan of his time.” (Legaspi 2010, 56)
Winkelmann sought to throw off the shackles of Christianity, which he believed suppressed the human individual, and replace it with the beautiful, free, noble view of humanity he found in classical antiquity. Goethe continued Winckelmann’s project, “immersing himself in Greek literature and art and began the constructive enterprise of creating a pagan alternative to bourgeois Christian culture. This was the new gospel preached in Germany. Schiller argued that the best hope for humanity lay in “a new, hellenically inspired program of aesthetic ennoblement, the creation of a kind of “asesthetic state” to transcend the existing political and religious order.” (ibid.)
Almost contemporary with Winkelmann was another pioneer figure in the German university, J. D. Michaelis, who taught Old Testament at Gottingen. Michaelis approached the Old Testament from a purely literary perspective. The students taught by Michaelis and Winkelmann would dominate Biblical studies for the next century.