Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


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Published in Monatshefte 95:3 (Fall 2003), pp. 393-409. Copyright © 2003 by The Board of Regents of The University of Wisconsin System. Used by permission.
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Lessing's Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (EdM) first appeared, albeit in incomplete form, appended to the fourth of Lessing's Gegensätze zu Reimarus in 1777. It constitutes part of Lessing's response to the rationalistic polemic Lessing's "Ungenannter," Hermann Samuel Reimarus, directed against many of the fundamental dogmas of orthodox Christianity, and seeks to define a position which preserves the authority of reason, while at the same time defining a legitimate historical role for revealed religion. I wish to investigate here the hermeneutical model Lessing puts forward in the EdM in the context of his response to Reimarus. We will see that while Lessing defines a progressive and teleological framework for his hermeneutics in contrast to Reimarus' static model, he nevertheless agrees with Reimarus that an interpretation which projects more into the words than they can contain is to be rejected. In other words, Lessing puts forward a hermeneutical model which requires that the interpretation of the Bible change over time (in opposition to Reimarus), but sets limits to this process using arguments similar to those Reimarus employs in his criticism of the allegorical Scriptural exegesis practiced by certain Jewish sects after the Babylonian Captivity. We will also consider here the sources Lessing drew upon, in particular Wolffian semiotics, in order to explain the reasoning behind both the dynamic flexibility and the restrictions characteristic of the hermeneutical model Lessing employs in the EdM.