David Friedrich Strauss, 3

The following is excerpted from Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, published in 1906: a scholarly yet readable introduction to the field of New Testament studies from a modern viewpoint. Schweitzer’s ninth chapter is titled “Strauss’s Opponents and Supporters”:


DF Strauss


Scarcely ever has a book let loose such a storm of controversy; and scarcely ever has a controversy been so barren of immediate result. The fertilising rain brought up a crop of toad-stools. Of the forty or fifty essays on the subject which appeared in the next five years, there are only four or five which are of any value, and even of these the value is very small.

If his opponents made no effort to understand him rightly—and many of them certainly wrote without having carefully studied the fourteen hundred pages of his two volumes—Strauss on his part seemed to be stricken with a kind of uncertainty, lost himself in a maze of detail, and failed to keep continually re-formulating the main problems which he had set up for discussion, and so compelling his adversaries to face them fairly.

Of these problems there were three. The first was composed of the related questions regarding miracle and myth; the second concerned the connexion of the Christ of faith with the Jesus of history; the third referred to the relation of the Gospel of John to the Synoptists.

It was the first that attracted most attention; more than half the critics devoted themselves to it alone. Even so they failed to get a thorough grasp of it. The only thing that they clearly see is that Strauss altogether denies the miracles.

The fear of Strauss had, indeed, a tendency to inspire Protestant theologians with catholicising ideas. One of the most competent reviewers of his book, Dr. Ullmann in the Studien und Kritiken, had expressed the wish that it had been written in Latin to prevent its doing harm among the people. An anonymous dialogue of the period shows us the schoolmaster coming in distress to the clergyman. He has allowed himself to be persuaded into reading the book by his acquaintance the Major, and he is now anxious to get rid of the doubts which it has aroused in him. When his cure has been safely accomplished, the reverend gentleman dismisses him with the following exhortation:

“Now I hope that after the experience which you have had you will for the future refrain from reading books of this kind, which are not written for you, and of which there is no necessity for you to take any notice; and for the refutation of which, should that be needful, you have no equipment. You may be quite sure that anything useful or profitable for you which such books may contain will reach you in due course through the proper channel and in the right way, and, that being so, you are under no necessity to jeopardise any part of your peace of mind.”

Immediately after the appearance of Strauss’s book, which, it was at once seen, would cause much offence, the Prussian Government asked Wilhelm Neander to report upon it, with a view to prohibiting the circulation, should there appear to be grounds for doing so. He presented his report on the 15th of November 1835, and, an inaccurate account of it having appeared in the Allgemeine Zeitung, subsequently published it. In it he censures the work as being written from a too purely rationalistic point of view [Schweitzer refers to the naïve “rationalistic” attempts to explain miracles away], but strongly urges the Government not to suppress it by an edict. He describes it as “a book which, it must be admitted, constitutes a danger to the sacred interests of the Church, but which follows the method of endeavouring to produce a reasoned conviction by means of argument. Hence any other method of dealing with it than by meeting argument with argument will appear in the unfavourable light of an arbitrary interference with the freedom of science.”

The pure rationalists found it much more difficult than did the mediating theologians, whether of the older or younger school, to adjust their attitude to the new solution of the miracle question. Strauss himself had made it difficult for them by remorselessly exposing the absurd and ridiculous aspects of their method, and by refusing to recognise them as allies in the battle for truth, as they really were.

Paulus [the major exponent of “rationalism” of the time] would have been justified in bearing him a grudge. But the inner greatness of that man of hard exterior comes out in the fact that he put his personal feelings in the background, and when Strauss became the central figure in the battle for the purity and freedom of historical science he ignored his attacks on rationalism and came to his defence. In a very remarkable letter to the Free Canton of Zurich, on “Freedom in Theological Teaching and in the Choice of Teachers for Colleges,” he urges the council and the people to appoint Strauss because of the principle at stake, and in order to avoid giving any encouragement to the retrograde movement in historical science. It is as though he felt that the end of rationalism had come, but that, in the person of the enemy who had defeated it, the pure love of truth, which was the only thing that really mattered, would triumph over all the forces of reaction.

Accordingly Hengstenberg’s Evangelische Kirchenzeitung hailed Strauss’s book as “one of the most gratifying phenomena in the domain of recent theological literature,” and praises the author for having carried out with logical consistency the application of the mythical theory which had formerly been restricted to the Old Testament and certain parts only of the Gospel tradition. “All that Strauss has done is to bring the spirit of the age to a clear consciousness of itself and of the necessary consequences which flow from its essential character. He has taught it how to get rid of foreign elements which were still present in it, and which marked an imperfect stage of its development.”

Hengstenberg’s only complaint against Strauss is that he does not go far enough. He would have liked to force upon him the role of the Wolfenbiittel Fragmentist [Reimarus], and considers that if Strauss did not, like the latter, go so far as to suppose the apostles guilty of deliberate deceit, that is not so much from any regard for the historical kernel of Christianity as in order to mask his attack.

Even in Catholic theology Strauss’s work caused a great sensation. Catholic theology in general did not at that time take up an attitude of absolute isolation from Protestant scholarship; it had adopted from the latter numerous rationalistic ideas, and had been especially influenced by Schleiermacher. Thus, Catholic scholars were almost prepared to regard Strauss as a common enemy, against whom it was possible to make common cause with Protestants. In 1837 Joseph Mack, one of the Professors of the Catholic faculty at Tübingen, published his “Report on Herr Dr. Strauss’s Historical Study of the Life of Jesus.” In 1839 appeared “Dr. Strauss’s Life of Jesus, considered from the Catholic point of view,” by Dr. Maurus Hagel, Professor of Theology at the Lyceum at Dillingen; in 1840 that lover of hypotheses and doughty fighter, Johann Leonhard Hug, presented his report upon the work.

Even French Catholicism gave some attention to Strauss’s work. This marks an epoch—the introduction of the knowledge of German critical theology into the intellectual world of the Latin nations. In the Revue des deux mondes for December 1838, Edgar Quinet gave a clear and accurate account of the influence of the Hegelian philosophy upon the religious ideas of cultured Germany. In an eloquent peroration he lays bare the danger which was menacing the Church from the nation of Strauss and Hegel. His countrymen need not think that it could be charmed away by some ingenious formula; a mighty effort of the Catholic spirit was necessary, if it was to be successfully opposed. “A new barbarian invasion was rolling up against sacred Rome. The barbarians were streaming from every quarter of the horizon, bringing their strange gods with them and preparing to beleaguer the holy city.

With Strauss begins the period of the non-miraculous view of the life of Jesus; all other views exhausted themselves in the struggle against him, and subsequently abandoned position after position without waiting to be attacked. The separation which Hengstenberg had hailed with such rejoicing was really accomplished; but in the form that supernaturalism practically separated itself from the serious study of history. It is not possible to date the stages of this process. After the first outburst of excitement everything seems to go on as quietly as before; the only difference is that the question of miracle constantly falls more and more into the background. In the modern period of the study of the Life of Jesus, which begins about the middle of the 1860s, it has lost all importance.

Few understood what Strauss’s real meaning was; the general impression was that he entirely dissolved the life of Jesus into myth. The only writer who really faced the problem in the form in which it had been raised by Strauss was Ch. G. Wilke in his work Tradition and Myth. He recognises that Strauss had given an exceedingly valuable impulse towards the overcoming of rationalism and supernaturalism and to the rejection of the abortive mediating theology.

“In making the assertion,” concludes Strauss, “that the truth of the Gospel narrative cannot be proved, whether in whole or in part, from philosophical considerations, but that the task of inquiring into its truth must be left to historical criticism, I should like to associate myself with the ‘left wing’ of the Hegelian school, were it not that the Hegelians prefer to exclude me altogether from their borders, and to throw me into the arms of other systems of thought—only, it must be admitted, to have me tossed back to them like a ball.”

In regard to the third problem which Strauss had offered for discussion, the relation of the Synoptists to John, there was practically no response. The only one of his critics who understood what was at stake was Hengstenberg.

But there is no position so desperate that theology cannot find a way out of it. The mediating theologians simply ignored the problem which Strauss had raised. As they had been accustomed to do before, so they continued to do after.

In this respect Strauss shared the fate of Reimarus; the positive solutions of which the outlines were visible behind their negative criticism escaped observation in consequence of the offence caused by the negative side of their work; and even the authors themselves failed to realise their full significance.

David Friedrich Strauss, 2

The following is excerpted from Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, published in 1906: a scholarly yet readable introduction to the field of New Testament studies from a modern viewpoint. Schweitzer’s eight chapter is titled “Strauss’ first Life of Jesus”:

DF Strauss

The distinction between Strauss and those who had preceded him upon this path consists only in this, that prior to him the conception of myth was neither truly grasped nor consistently applied.

The principal obstacle, Strauss continues, which barred the way to a comprehensive application of myth, consisted in the supposition that two of our Gospels, Matthew and John, were reports of eyewitnesses.

The main distinction between Strauss and his predecessors consisted in the fact that they asked themselves anxiously how much of the historical life of Jesus would remain as a foundation for religion if they dared to apply the conception of myth consistently, while for him this question had no terrors. He claims in his preface that he possessed one advantage over all the critical and learned theologians of his time without which nothing can be accomplished in the domain of history—the inner emancipation of thought and feeling in regard to certain religious and dogmatic prepossessions which he had early attained as a result of his philosophic studies. Hegel’s philosophy had set him free, giving him a clear conception of the relationship of idea and reality, leading him to a higher plane of Christological speculation, and opening his eyes to the mystic interpenetration of finitude and infinity, God and man.

He sees evidence that the time has come for this undertaking in the condition of exhaustion which characterised contemporary theology. The supernaturalistic explanation of the events of the life of Jesus had been followed by the rationalistic, the one making everything supernatural, the other setting itself to make all the events intelligible as natural occurrences. Each had said all that it had to say. From their opposition now arises a new solution—the mythological interpretation. This is a characteristic example of the Hegelian method—the synthesis of a thesis represented by the supernaturalistic explanation with an antithesis represented by the rationalistic interpretation.

In the stories prior to the baptism, everything is myth. The narratives are woven on the pattern of Old Testament prototypes, with modifications due to Messianic or messianically interpreted passages. Since Jesus and the Baptist came into contact with one another later, it is felt necessary to represent their parents as having been connected. The attempts to construct Davidic genealogies for Jesus, show us that there was a period in the formation of the Gospel History during which the Lord was simply regarded as the son of Joseph and Mary, otherwise genealogical studies of this kind would not have been undertaken. Even in the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple, there is scarcely more than a trace of historical material.

In the narrative of the baptism we may take it as certainly unhistorical that the Baptist received a revelation of the Messianic dignity of Jesus, otherwise he could not later have come to doubt this. But if the baptism of John was a baptism of repentance with a view to “him who was to come,” Jesus cannot have held Himself to be sinless when He submitted to it.

We have, therefore, in the Synoptists several different strata of legend and narrative, which in some cases intersect and in some are superimposed one upon the other.

The story of the temptation is equally unsatisfactory, whether it be interpreted as supernatural, or as symbolical either of an inward struggle or of external events (as for example in Venturini’s interpretation of it, where the part of the Tempter is played by a Pharisee) ; it is simply primitive Christian legend, woven together out of Old Testament suggestions.

The call of the first disciples cannot have happened as it is narrated, without their having known anything of Jesus beforehand; the manner of the call is modelled upon the call of Elisha by Elijah. The further legend attached to it—Peter’s miraculous draught of fishes—has arisen out of the saying about “fishers of men,” and the same idea is reflected, at a different angle of refraction, in John xxi. The mission of the seventy is unhistorical.

Whether the cleansing of the temple is historical, or whether it arose out of a Messianic application of the text, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” cannot be determined. The difficulty of forming a clear idea of the circumstances is not easily to be removed. How freely the historical material has been worked up, is seen in the groups of stories which have grown out of a single incident; as, for example, the anointing of Jesus at Bethany by an unknown woman, out of which Luke has made an anointing by a penitent sinner, and John an anointing by Mary of Bethany.

As regards the healings, some of them are certainly historical, but not in the form in which tradition has preserved them. The recognition of Jesus as Messiah by the demons immediately arouses suspicion. One cure has sometimes given rise to three or four narratives. Sometimes we can still recognise the influences which have contributed to mould a story. When, for example, the disciples are unable to heal the lunatic boy during Jesus’ absence on the Mount of Transfiguration, we are reminded of 2 Kings iv, where Elisha’s servant Gehazi tries in vain to bring the dead boy to life by using the staff of the prophet. The immediate healing of leprosy has its prototype in the story of Naaman the Syrian. The story of the ten lepers shows so clearly a didactic tendency that its historic value is thereby rendered doubtful.

The cures of blindness all go back to the case of the blind man at Jericho. But who can say how far this is itself historical? The cures of paralytics, too, belong rather to the equipment of the Messiah than to history. The cures through touching clothes, and the healings at a distance, have myth written on their foreheads. The fact is, the Messiah must equal, nay, surpass, the deeds of the prophets. That is why raising from the dead figure among His miracles.

The nature miracles, over a collection of which Strauss puts the heading “Sea-Stories and Fish-Stories,” have a much larger admixture of the mythical. His opponents took him severely to task for this irreverent superscription.

The repetition of the story of the feeding of the multitude arouses suspicion regarding the credibility of what is narrated, and at once invalidates the hypothesis of the apostolic authorship of the Gospel of Matthew. Moreover, the incident was so naturally suggested by Old Testament examples that it would have been a miracle if such a story had not found its way into the life of Jesus. An explanation on the analogy of an expedited process of nature, is here, as in the case of the miracle at Cana also, to be absolutely rejected. Strauss allows it to be laughed out of court. The cursing of the fig-tree and its fulfilment go back in some way or other to a parable of Jesus, which was afterwards made into history.

More important than the miracles heretofore mentioned are those which have to do with Jesus Himself and mark the crises of His history. The transfiguration had to find a place in the life of Jesus, because of the shining of Moses’ countenance. In dealing with the narratives of the resurrection it is evident that we must distinguish two different strata of legend, an older one, represented by Matthew, which knew only of appearances in Galilee, and a later, in which the Galilaean appearances are excluded in favour of appearances in Jerusalem. In both cases, however, the narratives are mythical. In any attempt to explain them we are forced on one horn of the dilemma or the other—if the resurrection was real, the death was not real, and vice versa. That the ascension is a myth is self-evident.

Such, and so radical, are the results at which Strauss’s criticism of the supernaturalistic and the rationalistic explanations of the life of Jesus ultimately arrives. In reading Strauss’s discussions one is not so much struck with their radical character, because of the admirable dialectic skill with which he shows the total impossibility of any explanation which does not take account of myth. On the whole, the supernaturalistic explanation, which at least represents the plain sense of the narratives, comes off much better than the rationalistic, the artificiality of which is everywhere remorselessly exposed.

In section after section Strauss cross-examines the reports on every point, down to the minutest detail, and then pronounces in what proportion an alloy of myth enters into each of them. In every case the decision is unfavourable to the Gospel of John. Strauss was the first to take this view. Strauss does not scruple even to assert that John introduces imaginary characters. If this Gospel relates fewer miracles, the miracles which it retains are proportionately greater; so great, indeed, that their absolutely miraculous character is beyond the shadow of doubt; and, moreover, a moral or symbolical significance is added.

Here, therefore, it is no longer the unconscious action of legend which selects, creates, or groups the incidents, but a clearly-determined apologetic and dogmatic purpose.

On this point, he contents himself with remarking that if Jesus had really taught in Jerusalem on several occasions, it is absolutely unintelligible how all knowledge of this could have so completely disappeared from the Synoptic tradition; for His going up to the Passover at which He met His death is there represented as His sole journey to Jerusalem. From the triumphal entry to the resurrection, the difference between the Synoptic and Johannine narratives is so great that all attempts to harmonise them are to be rejected.

The most decisive evidence of all is found in the farewell discourses and in the absence of all mention of the spiritual struggle in Gethsemane. The intention here is to show that Jesus not only had a foreknowledge of His death, but had long overcome it in anticipation, and went to meet His tragic fate with perfect inward serenity. That, however, is no historical narrative, but the final stage of reverent idealisation.

The question is decided. The Gospel of John is inferior to the Synoptics as a historical source just in proportion as it is more strongly dominated than they by theological and apologetic interests.

The Synoptic discourses, like the Johannine, are composite structures, created by later tradition out of sayings which originally belonged to different times and circumstances, arranged under certain leading ideas so as to form connected discourses. The sermon on the mount, the discourse at the sending forth of the twelve, the great parable-discourse, the polemic against the Pharisees, have all been gradually formed like geological deposits. “From the comparison which we have been making,” says Strauss in one passage,

we can already see that the hard grit of these sayings of Jesus (die kornigen Reden Jesu) has not indeed been dissolved by the flood of oral tradition, but they have often been washed away from their original position and like rolling pebbles (Gerolle) have been deposited in places to which they do not properly belong.

And, moreover, we find this distinction between the first three Evangelists, viz. that Matthew is a skilful collector who, while he is far from having been able always to give the original connexion, has at least known how to bring related passages aptly together, whereas in the other two many fragmentary sayings have been left exactly where chance had deposited them, which was generally in the interstices between the larger masses of discourse. Luke, indeed, has in some cases made an effort to give them an artistic setting, which is, however, by no means a satisfactory substitute for the natural connexion.

It is in his criticism of the parables that Strauss is most extreme. He starts out from the assumption that they have mutually influenced one another, and that those which may possibly be genuine have only been preserved in a secondary form. The tendency of the work to purely critical analysis, the ostentatious avoidance of any positive expression of opinion, and not least, the manner of regarding the Synoptists as mere bundles of narratives and discourses, make it difficult—indeed, strictly speaking, impossible—to determine Strauss’s own distinctive conception of the life of Jesus, to discover what he really thinks is moving behind the curtain of myth.

From all this it may be seen how strongly he had been influenced by Reimarus, whom, indeed, he frequently mentions.

Strauss’s Life of Jesus has a different significance for modern theology from that which it had for his contemporaries. For them it was the work which made an end of miracle as a matter of historical belief, and gave the mythological explanation its due.

We, however, find in it also an historical aspect of a positive character, inasmuch as the historic Personality which emerges from the mist of myth is a Jewish claimant of the Messiahship, whose world of thought is purely eschatological. Strauss is, therefore, no mere destroyer of untenable solutions, but also the prophet of a coming advance in knowledge.

David Friedrich Strauss, 1

The following is excerpted from Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, published in 1906: a scholarly yet readable introduction to the field of New Testament studies from a modern viewpoint. Schweitzer’s seventh chapter is titled “David Friedrich Strauss – The Man And His Fate”:

DF Strauss

In order to understand Strauss one must love him. he was not the greatest, and not the deepest, of theologians, but he was the most absolutely sincere. His insight and his errors were alike the insight and the errors of a prophet. And he had a prophet’s fate. Disappointment and suffering gave his life its consecration. It unrolls itself before us like a tragedy, in which, in the end, the gloom is lightened by the mild radiance which shines forth from the nobility of the sufferer.

After being for a short time Deputy-professor at Maulbronn, he took his doctor’s degree with a dissertation on the apokatastasis (restoration of all things. Acts iii. 21). This work is lost. From his letters it appears that he treated the subject chiefly from the religious-historical point of view.

In October 1831 he went to Berlin to hear Hegel and Schleiermacher. On the 14th of November Hegel, whom he had visited shortly before, was carried off by cholera. Strauss heard the news in Schleiermacher’s house, from Schleiermacher himself, and is said to have exclaimed, with a certain want of tact, considering who his informant was: “And it was to hear him that I came to Berlin!”

Strauss felt himself called upon to come forward as an apostle of Hegel, and lectured upon Hegel’s logic with tremendous success. “In my theology,” he writes in a letter of 1833, “philosophy occupies such a predominant position that my theological views can only be worked out to completeness by means of a more thorough study of philosophy, and this course of study I am now going to prosecute uninterruptedly and without concerning myself whether it leads me back to theology or not.” Further on he says: “If I know myself rightly, my position in regard to theology is that what interests me in theology causes offence, and what does not cause offence is indifferent to me. For this reason I have refrained from delivering lectures on theology.”

Considering its character, the work was rapidly produced. He wrote it sitting at the window of the Repetents’ room, which looks out upon the gateway-arch. When its two volumes appeared in 1835 the name of the author was wholly unknown, except for some critical studies upon the Gospels. This book, into which he had poured his youthful enthusiasm, rendered him famous in a moment—and utterly destroyed his prospects. Among his opponents the most prominent was Steudel, a member of the theological faculty, who, as president of the Stift, made representations against him to the Ministry, and succeeded in securing his removal from the post of “Repetent.” The hopes which Strauss had placed upon his friends were disappointed. Only two or three at most dared to publish anything in his defence.

Towards the end of the ’thirties he became conscious of a growing impulse towards more positive views. The criticisms of his opponents had made some impression upon him. The second volume of polemics was laid aside. In its place appeared the third edition of the Life of Jesus, 1838-1839, containing a series of amazing concessions. These inconsistencies he removed in the next edition, acknowledging that he did not know how he could so have temporarily vacillated in his point of view.

For a moment it seemed as though his rehabilitation would be accomplished. In January 1839 the noble-minded Hitzig succeeded in getting him appointed to the vacant chair of dogmatics in Zurich. But the orthodox and pietist parties protested so vehemently that the Government was obliged to revoke the appointment. Strauss was pensioned off, without ever entering on his office.

About that time his mother died. In 1841 he lost his father. When the estate came to be settled up, it was found that his affairs were in a less unsatisfactory condition than had been feared. Strauss was secure against want. The success of his second great work, his Christian Theology (published in 1840-41), compensated him for his disappointment at Zurich. In conception it is perhaps even greater than the Life of Jesus; and in depth of thought it is to be classed with the most important contributions to theology. In spite of that it never attracted so much attention as the earlier work. Strauss continued to be known as the author of the Life of Jesus. Any further ground of offence which he might give was regarded as quite subsidiary.

And the book contains matter for offence in no common degree. At the end of the second volume, where battle is joined on the issue of personal immortality, all these ideas play their part in the struggle. Personal immortality is finally rejected in every form. It is not the application of the mythological explanation to the Gospel history which irrevocably divides Strauss from the theologians, but the question of personal immortality.

At the very time when Strauss was beginning to breathe freely once more, had turned his back upon all attempts at compromise, and reconciled himself to giving up teaching; and when, after settling his father’s affairs, he had the certainty of being secure against penury; at that very time he sowed for himself the seeds of a new, immitigable suffering by his marriage with Agnese Schebest, the famous singer. After some years they procured a divorce, custody of the children being assigned to the father. The lady took up her residence in Stuttgart, and Strauss paid her an allowance up to her death in 1870.

What he suffered may be read between the lines in the passage in The Old Faith and the New where he speaks of the sacredness of marriage and the admissibility of divorce. The wound bled inwardly. His mental powers were disabled. At this time he wrote little. Only in the apologue “Julian the Apostate, or the Romanticist on the throne of the Caesars”—that brilliant satire upon Frederic William IV, written in 1847—is there a flash of the old spirit.

He had no practice in speaking without manuscript, and cut a poor figure as a debater. When, subsequently, the President of the Chamber called him to order for asserting that a previous speaker had “concealed by sleight of hand” (wegeskamotiert, “juggled away”) an important point in the debate, he refused to accept the vote of censure, resigned his membership, and ceased to attend the diets. As he himself put it, he “jumped out of the boat.” Then began a period of restless wandering, during which he beguiled his time with literary work. He wrote, inter alia, upon Lessing, Hutten, and Reimarus, rediscovering the last-named for his fellow-countrymen.

At the end of the ’sixties he returned once more to theology. His Life of Jesus adapted for the German People appeared in 1864. In the preface he refers to Renan, and freely acknowledges the great merits of his work.

His last work, The Old Faith and the New, appeared in 1872. Once more, as in the work on theology published in 1840-1841, he puts to himself the question. What is there of permanence in this artificial compound of theology and philosophy, faith and thought? But he puts the question with a certain bitterness, and shows himself too much under the influence of Darwinism, by which his mind was at that time dominated. The Hegelian system of thought, which served as a firm basis for the work of 1840, has fallen in ruins. Strauss is alone with his own thoughts, endeavouring to raise himself above the new scientific worldview. His powers of thought, never, for all his critical acumen, strong on the creative side, and now impaired by age, were unequal to the task. There is no force and no greatness in the book.

To the question, “Are we still Christians?” he answers, “No.” But to his second question, “Have we still a religion?” he is prepared to give an affirmative answer, if the assumption is granted that the feeling of dependence, of self-surrender, of inner freedom, which has sprung from the pantheistic world-view, can be called religion. It was a dead book, in spite of the many editions which it went through, and the battle which raged over it was, like the fiercest of the Homeric battles, a combat over the dead.

The theologians declared Strauss bankrupt, and felt themselves rich because they had made sure of not being ruined by a similar unimaginative honesty. Friedrich Nietzsche, from the height of his would-be Schopenhauerian pessimism, mocked at the fallen hero.

Before the year was out Strauss began to suffer from an internal ulcer. For many months he bore his sufferings with quiet resignation and inner serenity, until on the 8th of February 1874, in his native town of Ludwigsburg, death set him free.

He was buried on a stormy February day.

Hermann Samuel Reimarus

The following is excerpted from a classic in Christological studies, Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, published in 1906: a scholarly yet readable introduction to the field of New Testament studies from a modern viewpoint. Schweitzer’s second chapter is titled “Hermann Samuel Reimarus”:

Hermann_Samuel_Reimarus

“Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Junger.” Noch ein Fragment des Wolfenbuttelschen Ungenannten. Herausgegeben von Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Braun- schweig, 1778, 276 pp. (The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples: A further Instalment of the anonymous Woltenbiittel Fragments. Published by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Brunswick, 1778.)


Before Reimarus, no one had attempted to form a historical conception of the life of Jesus. Luther had not so much as felt that he cared to gain a clear idea of the order of the recorded events. Speaking of the chronology of the cleansing of the Temple, which in John falls at the beginning, in the Synoptists near the close, of Jesus’ public life, he remarks: “The Gospels follow no order in recording the acts and miracles of Jesus, and the matter is not, after all, of much importance. If a difficulty arises in regard to the Holy Scripture and we cannot solve it, we must just let it alone.”

When the Lutheran theologians began to consider the question of harmonising the events, things were still worse. Osiander (1498-1552), in his “Harmony of the Gospels,” maintained the principle that if an event is recorded more than once in the Gospels, in different connexions, it happened more than once and in different connexions. The daughter of Jairus was therefore raised from the dead several times; on one occasion Jesus allowed the devils whom He cast out of a single demoniac to enter into a herd of swine, on another occasion, those whom He cast out of two demoniacs; there were two cleansings of the Temple, and so forth. The correct view of the Synoptic Gospels as being interdependent was first formulated by Griesbach.

Thus there had been nothing to prepare the world for a work of such power as that of Reimarus. It is true, there had appeared earlier, in 1768, a Life of Jesus by Johann Jakob Hess (1741-1828), written from the standpoint of the older rationalism, but it retains so much supernaturalism and follows so much the lines of a paraphrase of the Gospels, that there was nothing to indicate to the world what a master-stroke the spirit of the time was preparing.

Not much is known about Reimarus. For his contemporaries he had no existence, and it was [David Friedrich] Strauss who first made his name known in literature. He was born in Hamburg on the 22nd of December, 1694, and spent his life there as a professor of Oriental Languages. He died in 1768. Several of his writings appeared during his lifetime, all of them asserting the claims of rational religion as against the faith of the Church; one of them, for example, being an essay on “The Leading Truths of Natural Religion.” His magnum opus, however, which laid the historic basis of his attacks, was only circulated, during his lifetime, among his acquaintances, as an anonymous manuscript.

In 1774 Lessing began to publish the most important portions of it, and up to 1778 had published seven fragments, thereby involving himself in a quarrel with Goetze, the Chief Pastor of Hamburg. The manuscript of the whole, which runs to 4000 pages, is preserved in the Hamburg municipal library.

The following are the titles of [some] Fragments which he published:

• The Passing of the Israelites through the Red Sea
• Showing that the books of the Old Testament were
not written to reveal a Religion
• Concerning the story of the Resurrection
• The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples

The monograph on the passing of the Israelites through the Red Sea is one of the ablest, wittiest, and most acute which has ever been written. It exposes all the impossibilities of the narrative in the Priestly Codex.

To say that the fragment on “The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples” is a magnificent piece of work is barely to do it justice. This essay is not only one of the greatest events in the history of criticism, it is also a masterpiece of general literature. The language is as a rule crisp and terse, pointed and epigrammatic—the language of a man who is not “engaged in literary composition” but is wholly concerned with the facts. At times, however, it rises to heights of passionate feeling, and then it is as though the fires of a volcano were painting lurid pictures upon dark clouds. Seldom has there been a hate so eloquent, so lofty a scorn; but then it is seldom that a work has been written in the just consciousness of so absolute a superiority to contemporary opinion. And withal, there is dignity and serious purpose; Reimarus’ work is no pamphlet. This was the first time that a really historical mind, thoroughly conversant with the sources, had undertaken the criticism of the tradition.

[Chechar’s note: Because the Christians destroyed all copies of Porphyry’s book, we don’t really know if Porphyry’s anti-Christian polemic was also “thoroughly conversant with the New Testament sources.” From a few fragments discovered by the end of the 20th century I believe it was. One could barely imagine the revolution in thought that could have occurred since the later phases of the Roman Empire and the Early Middle Ages had Porphyry’s biblical criticism been allowed to survive 1,300 years before Reimarus…]

It was Lessing’s greatness that he grasped the significance of this criticism, and felt that it must lead either to the destruction or to the recasting of the idea of revelation. He recognised that the introduction of the historical element would transform and deepen rationalism. Convinced that the fateful moment had arrived, he disregarded the scruples of Reimarus’ family and the objections of Nicolai and Mendelssohn, and, though inwardly trembling for that which he himself held sacred, he flung the torch with his own hand.

Reimarus takes as his starting-point the question regarding the content of the preaching of Jesus. “We are justified,” he says, “in drawing an absolute distinction between the teaching of the Apostles in their writings and what Jesus Himself in His own lifetime proclaimed and taught.” What belongs to the preaching of Jesus is clearly to be recognised. It is contained in two phrases of identical meaning, “Repent, and believe the Gospel,” or, as it is put elsewhere, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

Jesus shared the Jewish racial exclusiveness wholly and unreservedly. According to Matt. x. 5 He forbade His disciples to declare to the Gentiles the coming of the Kingdom of God. Evidently, therefore, His purpose did not embrace them. Had it been otherwise, the hesitation of Peter in Acts x. and xi., and the necessity of justifying the conversion of Cornelius, would be incomprehensible.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are no evidence that Jesus intended to found a new religion. In the first place the genuineness of the command to baptize in Matt. xxviii. 19 is questionable, not only as a saying ascribed to the risen Jesus, but also because it is universalistic in outlook, and because it implies the doctrine of the Trinity.

The “Lord’s Supper,” again, was no new institution, but merely an episode at the last Paschal Meal of the Kingdom which was passing away, and was intended “as an anticipatory celebration of the Passover of the New Kingdom.” A Lord’s Supper in our sense, “cut loose from the Passover,” would have been inconceivable to Jesus, and not less so to His disciples. Miracles have no basis in fact, but owe their place in the narrative to the feeling that the miracle-stories of the Old Testament must be repeated in the case of Jesus, but on a grander scale. It is useless to appeal to the miracles, any more than to the “Sacraments,” as evidence for the founding of a new religion…

For [a] popular uprising, however, He waited in vain. Twice He believed that it was near at hand. The first time was when He was sending out the disciples and said to them: “Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt. x. 23). He thought that, at the preaching of the disciples, the people would flock to Him from every quarter and immediately proclaim Him Messiah; but His expectation was disappointed. The people in Jerusalem refused to rise, as the Galilaeans had refused at the time when the disciples were sent out to rouse them.

All this implies that the time of the fulfilment of these hopes was not thought of by Jesus and His disciples as at all remote. In Matt. xvi. 28, for example, He says: “Truly I say unto you there are some standing here who shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” There is no justification for twisting this about or explaining it away. It simply means that Jesus promises the fulfilment of all Messianic hopes before the end of the existing generation.

Thus the disciples were prepared for anything rather than that which actually happened. Jesus had never said a word to them about His dying and rising again, otherwise they would not have so played the coward at His death, nor have been so astonished at His “resurrection.” The three or four sayings referring to these events must therefore have been put into His mouth later, in order to make it appear that He had foreseen these events in His original plan.

Inasmuch as the non-fulfilment of its eschatology is not admitted, our Christianity rests upon a fraud.

Such is Reimarus’ reconstruction of the history. We can well understand that his work must have given offence when it appeared, for it is a polemic, not an objective historical study. But we have no right simply to dismiss it in a word, as a Deistic production, as Otto Schmiedel, for example, does; it is time that Reimarus came to his own, and that we should recognise a historical performance of no mean order in this piece of Deistic polemics. His work is perhaps the most splendid achievement in the whole course of the historical investigation of the life of Jesus, for he was the first to grasp the fact that the world of thought in which Jesus moved was essentially eschatological.

In the light of the clear perception of the elements of the problem which Reimarus had attained, the whole movement of theology, down to Johannes Weiss, appears retrograde. In all its work the thesis is ignored or obscured that Jesus, as a historical personality, is to be regarded, not as the founder of a new religion, but as the final product of the eschatological and apocalyptic thought of Late Judaism. Every sentence of Johannes Weiss’s Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes (1892) is a vindication, a rehabilitation, of Reimarus as a historical thinker.

Even so the traveller on the plain sees from afar the distant range of mountains. Then he loses sight of them again. His way winds slowly upwards through the valleys, drawing ever nearer to the peaks, until at last, at a turn of the path, they stand before him, not in the shapes which they had seemed to take from the distant plain, but in their actual forms. Reimarus was the first, after eighteen centuries of misconception, to have an inkling of what eschatology really was.

The sole mistake of Reimarus—the assumption that the eschatology was earthly and political in character. Thus theology shared at least the error of the man whom it knew only as a Deist, not as an historian, and whose true greatness was not recognised even by Strauss, though he raised a literary monument to him.

The solution offered by Reimarus may be wrong; the data of observation from which he starts out are, beyond question, right, because the primary datum of all is genuinely historical. He recognised that two systems of Messianic expectation were present side by side in Late Judaism. But what matters the mistake in comparison with the fact that the problem was really grasped?

The attitude of Jesus towards the law, and the process by which the disciples came to take up a freer attitude, was grasped and explained by him so accurately that modern historical science does not need to add a word, but would be well pleased if at least half the theologians of the present day had got as far.

Further, he recognised that primitive Christianity was not something which grew, so to speak, out of the teaching of Jesus, but that it came into being as a new creation, in consequence of events and circumstances which added something to that preaching which it did not previously contain; and that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in the historical sense of these terms, were not instituted by Jesus, but created by the early Church on the basis of certain historical assumptions.

Still more remarkable is his eye for exegetical detail. He has an unfailing instinct for pregnant passages like Matt. x. 23, xvi. 28, which are crucial for the interpretation of large masses of the history. The fact is there are some who are historians by the grace of God, who from their mother’s womb have an instinctive feeling for the real. They follow through all the intricacy and confusion of reported fact the pathway of reality, like a stream which, despite the rocks that encumber its course and the windings of its valley, finds its way inevitably to the sea. No erudition can supply the place of this historical instinct, but erudition sometimes serves a useful purpose, inasmuch as it produces in its possessors the pleasing belief that they are historians, and thus secures their services for the cause of history.

In truth they are at best merely doing the preliminary spade-work of history, collecting for a future historian the dry bones of fact, from which, with the aid of his natural gift, he can recall the past to life. More often, however, the way in which erudition seeks to serve history is by suppressing historical discoveries as long as possible, and leading out into the field to oppose the one true view an army of possibilities. By arraying these in support of one another it finally imagines that it has created out of possibilities a living reality. This obstructive erudition is the special prerogative of theology, in which, even at the present day, a truly marvellous scholarship often serves only to blind the eyes to elementary truths.

Reimarus’ work was neglected, and the stimulus which it was capable of imparting failed to take effect. He had no predecessors; neither had he any disciples. His work is one of those supremely great works which pass and leave no trace, because they are before their time; to which later generations pay a just tribute of admiration, but owe no gratitude.

Thus the magnificent overture in which are announced all the motifs of the future historical treatment of the life of Jesus breaks off with a sudden discord, remains isolated and incomplete, and leads to nothing further.

Schweitzer’s book

The following is excerpted from a big classic in Christological studies, Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, published in 1906: a scholarly yet readable introduction to the field of New Testament studies from a modern viewpoint. Schweitzer’s first chapter is titled “The Problem”:


Quest-of-the-Historical-Jesus

When, at some future day, our period of civilization shall lie, closed and completed, before the eye of later generations, German theology [Schweitzer means what today is called exegesis] will stand out as a great, a unique phenomenon in the mental and spiritual life of our time. For nowhere save in the German temperament can there be found in the same perfection the living complex of conditions and factors—of philosophical thought, critical acumen, historical insight, and religious feeling—without which no deep theology is possible.

And the greatest achievement of German theology is the critical investigation of the life of Jesus. What it has accomplished here has laid down the conditions and determined the course of the religious thinking of the future…

When at Chalcedon the West overcame the East, its doctrine of the two natures dissolved the unity of the Person, and thereby cut off the last possibility of a return to the historical Jesus. The self-contradiction was elevated into a law. But the Manhood was so far admitted as to preserve, in appearance, the rights of history. Thus by a deception the formula kept the life prisoner and prevented the leading spirits of the Reformation from grasping the idea of a return to the historical Jesus.

This dogma had first to be shattered before men could once more go out in quest of the historical Jesus, before they could even grasp the thought of His existence. That the historic Jesus is something different from the Jesus Christ of the doctrine of the Two Natures seems to us now self-evident. We can, at the present day, scarcely imagine the long agony in which the historical view of the life of Jesus came to birth…

But it was not only each epoch that found its reflection in Jesus; each individual created Him in accordance with his own character. There is no historical task which so reveals a man’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus. No vital force comes into the figure unless a man breathes into it all the hate or all the love of which he is capable. The stronger the love, or the stronger the hate, the more life-like is the figure which is produced. For hate as well as love can write a Life of Jesus, and the greatest of them are written with hate: that of Reimarus, the Wolfenbiittel Fragmentist, and that of David Friedrich Strauss.

It was not so much hate of the Person of Jesus as of the supernatural nimbus with which it was so easy to surround Him, and with which He had in fact been surrounded. They were eager to picture Him as truly and purely human, to strip from Him the robes of splendour with which He had been apparelled, and clothe Him once more with the coarse garments in which He had walked in Galilee.

And their hate sharpened their historical insight. They advanced the study of the subject more than all the others put together. But for the offence which they gave, the science of historical theology would not have stood where it does to-day. “It must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh.” Reimarus evaded that woe by keeping the offence to himself and preserving silence during his lifetime. His work, The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples, was only published after his death, by Lessing. But in the case of Strauss, who, as a young man of twenty-seven, cast the offence openly in the face of the world, the woe fulfilled itself. His Life of Jesus was his ruin…

It was easy for them, resolved as they were to open the way even with seeming blasphemy. But the others, those who tried to bring Jesus to life at the call of love, found it a cruel task to be honest. The critical study of the life of Jesus has been for theology a school of honesty. The world had never seen before, and will never see again, a struggle for truth so full of pain and renunciation as that of which the Lives of Jesus of the last hundred years contain the cryptic record.

Schweitzer’s niglets

Or

The superiority of Nietzschean apostasy
vis à vis semi-apostasy


Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was a New Testament scholar and medical missionary in Africa. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life,” expressed in many ways but most famously in founding and sustaining the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné in Gabon, Africa.

I am absolutely indebted to Schweitzer and the other Germans that started a secularized research on the New Testament texts since the 18th and 19th centuries. Hadn’t the works of the exegetes whose work Schweitzer so aptly summarizes in The Quest of the Historical Jesus been written, I would probably still be trying to exorcize from my mind my father’s doctrine of eternal damnation (see for example this entry as an introduction to the subject of New Testament exegesis from a non-Christian point of view).

Schweitzer’s book was one of the first books that I purchased in California when I was “struggling with the Daimon” in a mental warfare that almost drove me mad (cynic commenters will say that it actually drove me mad!). But even as I must be eternally grateful to people like Schweitzer and their exegetical works, I must say that the biography of this extremely intelligent man depicts what is wrong with those who abandon Christianity only to become Secular Christians so to speak (“liberals” they are called today).

First of all I must quote a page I stole from a Swede that used to comment at Gates of Vienna:

Our progressivist paradigm is based on Christian ethics. The Left is all about Christian ethics. What the left-wing is doing is not destroying Western civilization, but completing and fulfilling it: what I call “The Finish of the West.” The current order is the last and terminal phase of Western Christian civilization.

It’s the Western Christian civilization that feeds all these processes. So the Western Christian civilization is in fact the worst enemy of what I call European civilization: another reason for wanting the Western Christian civilization to go away. For the very same reason that Christian ethics abhors infanticide, [presently] it causes the population explosion in the world.

Christian ethics cannot stand the sight of little brown children dying. They must help them, or they will freak out. According to Christian ethics it is forbidden and unthinkable to think in terms of not saving every little brown child across the planet.

with-niglets

But the consequences of this mindset are catastrophic, not only to us but also to them, as I have already explained. But since people are so programmed according to Christian ethics, what I’m saying does not seem to enter their heads. The thought is too unthinkable to be absorbed. It’s an utter taboo.

This is derived from the deepest moral grammar of Christianity. The population explosion is not caused by liberalism, it is caused by Christianity in its most general form.

The following is the crux of the Swede’s gospel. It explains why, once you research honestly the New Testament texts to the point of becoming skeptical about the historicity of the narratives, you will find yourself not a Christian anymore but instead looking for the downtrodden, like Schweitzer with his niglets in the above pic, to fulfill a form of secularized Christianity:

With Christ as part of the equation, the Christian ethics of the Gospels became balanced. Humans were seen as imperfect and it was Christ who covered for us with his self-sacrifice. In Secular Christianity each person has to be like Jesus himself [my emphasis], doing self-sacrifice, since there’s no other way to realize Christian ethics. On top of that, with the Industrial Revolution and the surplus it created in our societies, we came to the point where all the good deeds of Christian ethics could finally be executed by giving off our surplus to all the poor and weak foreign people around the world: food, Western medicine, and other aid.

We should remember that our progressivist paradigm, which is always going left, is based on Christian ethics. And Christian ethics means the inversion of values [my emphasis]. So it’s the weak that is considered good, while the strong is considered evil.

The keynote of Schweitzer’s personal philosophy, which he considered to be his greatest contribution to mankind, was the idea of Reverence for Life (Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben). Like millions of secular liberals today, Schweitzer inverted healthy Aryan values when he de facto abandoned Christianity to elaborate an ethical foundation for his new tables. Instead of helping the crown of the evolution in Germany, Schweitzer used all of his will to help the cloaca gentium of Africa.

According to online encyclopedias, for Schweitzer mankind had to create a new moral structure of civilization that showed respect for life and that led the individual to live in the service of other people—yes, non-whites included. Such was the new set of values which Schweitzer sought to put into practice in his own life as he departed for Africa in 1913 to work as a medical doctor in the Paris Missionary Society’s mission at Lambaréné, in what is now Gabon. The site was nearly 200 miles (14 days by raft) upstream from the mouth of the Ogooué at Port Gentil.

In 1917, exhausted by over four years’ work and by tropical anemia, Schweitzer was taken to Bordeaux. By 1920, his health recovering, he was giving organ recitals and doing other fund-raising work to repay borrowings and raise funds for returning to Gabon.

In 1955 Schweitzer was made an honorary member of the Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II, another deranged altruist. (Remember how the first Puritans and Spaniards that arrived to the New World celebrated the fact that Amerinds started to die of viral infections that whites were already immune. The central point in the Swede’s analysis of the axiology that is killing us is that in Secular Christianity—what I call Neochristianity—Christian out-group altruism is not abandoned but reinforced in the new tables.)

Schweitzer was also a chevalier of the Military and Hospital Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem. He died in 1965 at his beloved hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon. His grave, on the banks of the Ogooué River, is marked by a cross he made himself. This, in spite of the fact that from the times of his most famous book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, it is clear that he had ceased to believe in the historicity of the New Testament stories.

But the cross was appropriate: internally Schweitzer never gave up Christian ethics, only Christian dogma. Like millions of westerners today—many white nationalists included—, he was a semi-apostate from Christianity, not a full apostate.

White-Hand-African-Child2

What is the moral that we should learn from Schweitzer’s life and work? Well, who needs the Jews when we got Christianity and Neochristianity? Only total apostasy from Christianity will save whites from extinction. And by “total” I mean what Nietzsche said when criticizing the Neochristian Anglos, which also applies to other secular men (like Schweitzer himself I would say):

In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there. —We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet.

Hitler, not Christ, saves. Unlike the white nationalists we must say Umwertung aller Werte (my bold type).

The historical Jesus

and the Platonic Fallacy



When back in 1985-1988 I was struggling to give up Christianity, with the fear of eternal damnation driving me mad, an article by Cullen Murphy summarized handsomely the extensive reading on the subject about the search for the historical Jesus I had been undertaking by myself.

As I recount elsewhere, I lived in San Rafael, California when struggling against my parental, religious demons. Presently, unlike the Murphy article I would only recommend a thoroughly secular approach of this fascinating field of research to those who are still suffering the agonies of apostasy.

I have already quoted Joseph Hoffmann (pic below) at length in my entry about my favorite philosopher, Porphyry: whose works were destroyed by the Christians in the centuries when the Romans committed cultural suicide. Tonight I would like to reproduce a piece Hoffmann wrote as a response to the Jesus Seminar, “The Historical Jesus and the Platonic Fallacy”:





Crouching somewhere between esthetic sound byte and historical detail is Michelangelo’s famous statement about sculpture. “The job of the sculptor,” Vasari attributes to il Divino,” is to set free the forms that are within the stone.” It’s a lovely thought—poetic, in fact. If you accept the theory of Renaissance Platonism, as Michelangelo embodies it, you also have to believe that “Moses” and “David” were encased in stone, yearning to be released—as the soul yearns to be set free from the flesh in the theology of salvation. You will however be left wondering why such a theory required human models with strong arms and firm thighs, and why the finished product bears no more resemblance to real or imagined historical figures than a drawing that any one of us could produce. We may lack Michelangelo’s skill and his deft way with a rasp and chisel, but we can easily imagine more probable first millennium BC heroes—in form, stature, skin-tone, and body type—than the Italian beauties he released from their marble prisons. In fact, the more we know about the second millennia BC, the more likely we are to be right. And alas, Michelangelo didn’t know very much about history at all. And what’s more, it made no difference to his art, his success, or to his reputation. That is why idealism and imagination are sometimes at odds with history, or put bluntly, why history acts as a control on our ability to imagine or idealize anything, often profoundly wrong things.

If we apply the same logic to the New Testament, we stumble over what I have (once or twice) called the Platonic Fallacy in Jesus research. Like it or not, the New Testament is still the primary artifact of the literature that permits us to understand the origins of Christianity. It’s the stone, if not the only stone. If we possessed only gnostic and apocryphal sources as documentary curiosities and no movement that preserved them, we would be hard-pressed to say anything other than that at some time in the first and second century a short-lived and highly incoherent religious movement fluoresced and faded (many did) in the night sky of Hellenistic antiquity. The Jesus we would know from these sources would be an odd co-mixture of insufferable infant a la the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a hell-robber, like the liberator of the Gospel of Nicodemus, a mysterious cipher, like the unnamed hero of the Hymn of the Pearl, or an impenetrable guru, like the Jesus of the gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Despite the now-yellowed axiom we all learned as first year divinity students of a certain generation and later in graduate school (the one where we are taught that “no picture of early Christianity is complete without availing ourselves of all the sources”), I will climb out on a limb to say that these sources are not so much integral to a coherent picture of early Christianity as they are pebbles in orbit around the gravitational center we call the canon. They are interesting—fascinating even—in showing us how uniformity of opinion and belief can wriggle out of a chaos of alterative visions (maybe the closest analogues are in constitutional history), but they are not the stone that the most familiar form of Christianity was made from. That recognition is as important as it is increasingly irrelevant to modern New Testament discussion.

So, how do we approach the New Testament? What kind of rock is it? We know (to stay with the metaphor) that it’s “metamorphic”—made of bits and pieces formed under pressure—in the case of the New Testament, doctrinal and political pressure to define the difference between majority and minority views and impressions, once but now unfashionably called “orthodoxy” and “heresy.”

Whatever the root-causes of canon-formation, canon we have. The Platonic Fallacy comes into play when New Testament scholarship labors under assumptions that emanated from the literary praxis of Renaissance humanists and then (in methodized form) fueled the theological faculties of Germany well into the twentieth century (before a staggering retreat from “higher criticism” by neo-orthodox, and then existentialist, postmodern, and correctness theologians).

The sequence of Jesus-quests that began before Schweitzer (who thought he was writing a retrospective!)—and the succession of theories they produced were honest in their understanding of the metamorphic nature of the canon and the textual complexity of the individual books that composed it. The legacy, at least a legacy of method, of the early quests was a healthy skepticism that sometimes spilled over into Hegelianism, as with F. C. Baur, or mischievous ingenuity, as with Bruno Bauer. But what Left and Right Hegelians and their successors—from Harnack to Bultmann to the most radical of their pupils—had in common was a strong disposition to approach the canon with a chisel, assuming that if the historical accretions, misrepresentations, and conscious embellishment could be stripped away, beneath it all lay the figure of a comprehensible Galilean prophet whose life and message could be used to understand the “essence” (the nineteenth-century buzzword) of Christianity.

Whether the program was demythologizing or structuralist exegesis, the methods seemed to chase forgone conclusions about what the Gospels were and what the protagonist must “really” have been like. Judged by the standards of the chisel-bearers of the Tübingen school, Schweitzer’s caution that the Jesus of history would remain a mystery (“He comes to us as one unknown…”) was both prophetic and merely an interlude in the effort to excavate the historical Jesus. If it was meant to be dissuasive, it was instead a battle cry for better chisels and more theorists. In the latter part of the twentieth century, it has involved a demand for more sources as well—not to mention cycles of translations, each purporting to be “definitive” and thus able to shed light on a historical puzzle that the previous translation did not touch or failed to express. Judas, Philip, and Mary Magdalene have achieved a star-status far out of proportion to anything they can tell us about the historical Jesus, let alone consideration of literary merit or influence on tradition. When I say this, I am not asking modern scholarship to embrace the opinions of “dead orthodox bishops” or “winners,” but to get behind the choices the church’s first intellectuals made and their reasons for making them. The politicization of sources, the uninformative vivisection of historically important theological disputes into a discussion of outcomes (winners, losers) may make great stuff for the Discovery channel or the Easter edition of Time, but it is shamelessly Hollywood and depends on a culture of like-minded footnotes and a troubling disingenuousness with regard to what scholars know to be true and what they claim to be true.

Moreover, it is one of the reasons (I’m loathe to say) why a hundred years after the heyday of the “Radical School” of New Testament scholarship—which certainly had its warts—the questions of “total spuriousness” (as of Paul’s letters) and the “non-historicity of Jesus” are still considered risible or taboo. They are taboo because of the working postulate that has dominated New Testament scholarship for two centuries and more: that conclusions depend on the uncovering of a kernel of truth at the center of a religious movement, a historical center, and, desirably, a historical person resembling, if not in every detail, the protagonist described in the Gospels. This working postulate is formed by scholars perfectly aware that no similar imperative exists to corroborate the existence (or sayings) of the “historical” Adam, the historical Abraham, or Moses, or David—or indeed the prophets—or any equivalent effort to explain the evolution of Judaism on the basis of such inquiry.

The Platonic Fallacy depends on the “true story” being revealed through the disaggregation of traditions: dismantle the canon, factor and multiply the sources of the Gospels, marginalize the orthodox settlement as one among dozens of possible outcomes affecting the growth of the church, incorporate all the materials the church fathers sent to the bin or caused to be hidden away. Now we’re getting somewhere. It shuns the possibility that the aggregation of traditions begins with something historical, but not with a historical individual—which even if it turns out to be false, is a real possibility. Even the most ardent historicists of the twentieth century anticipated a “revelation” available through historical research; thus Harnack could dismiss most of the miracles of the Gospels, argue for absolute freedom of inquiry in gospels-research (a theme Bultmann would take up), insist that “historical knowledge is necessary for every Christian and not just for the historian,” all however in order to winnow “the timeless nucleus of Christianity from its various time bound trappings.”

The Jesus Seminar was perhaps the last gasp of the Platonic Fallacy in action. Formed to “get at” the authentic sayings of Jesus, it suffered from the conventional hammer and chisel approach to the sources that has characterized every similar venture since the nineteenth century, missing only the idealistic and theological motives for sweeping up afterward. It will remain famous primarily for its eccentricity, its claim to be a kind of Jesus-vetting jury and to establish through a consensus (never reached) what has evaded lonelier scholarship for centuries.

The Seminar was happy with a miracle-free Jesus, a fictional resurrection, a Jesus whose sayings were as remarkable as “And how are you today, Mrs. Jones?” It used and disused standard forms of biblical criticism selectively and often inexplicably to offer readers a “Jesus they never knew,” a Galilean peasant, a cynic, a de-eschatologized prophet, a craftsman whose dad was a day-laborer in nearby Sepphoris (never mind the Nazareth issue, or the Joseph issue). These purportedly “historical” Jesuses were meant to be more plausible than the Jesus whose DNA lived on in the fantasies of Dan Brown and Nikos Kazantzakis. But, in fact, they began to blur. It betimes took sources too literally and not literally enough, and when it became clear that the star system it evoked was resulting in something like a Catherine Wheel rather than a conclusion, it changed the subject. As long ago as 1993, it became clear that the Jesus Seminar was yet another attempt to break open the tomb where once Jesus lay—I’m reminded of a student’s gospel paraphrase of Luke 24.5, with 24.42 [“They gave him a piece of cooked fish…”] in view—to find a note that read “Gone Fishing,” in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. It was then that I commented in a popular journal that “The Jesus of the Westar Project is a talking doll with a questionable repertoire of thirty-one sayings. Pull a string and he blesses the poor.” I was anticipated in this by none other than John Dominic Crossan (a Seminar founder) who wrote in 1991, having produced his own minority opinion concerning Jesus, “It seems we can have as many Jesuses as there are exegetes… exhibiting a stunning diversity that is an academic embarrassment.” And Crossan’s caveat had been expressed more trenchantly a hundred years before by the German scholar Martin Kaehler: “The entire life of the Jesus movement,” he argued, was based on misperceptions “and is bound to end in a blind alley… Christian faith and the history of Jesus repel each other like oil and water.”

If we add these to the work of the Jesus Seminar, the “extra-Seminar Jesuses,” magicians, insurgents, bandits [the author is probably referring to the work of Morton Smith and Hyam Maccoby], we end up with a multiplicity that “makes the prospect that Jesus never existed a welcome relief.”

Bruce Chilton is one of a number of scholars who comes away from the Jesus Seminar sadder but wiser and hopes that the Jesus Project will not be another stuttering attempt to break rocks and piece them back together to create plausible Jesuses, as Michelangelo created a plausible Moses for the Italians of the sixteenth century. His challenge to the Project is fair enough. In fact, one of the benefits we inherit from the Seminar is a record of success and failure. It raised the question of methodology in a way that can no longer be ignored, without however providing a map for further study. Its legacy is primarily a cautionary tale concerning the limits of “doing” history collectively, and sometimes theologically, and the Jesus Project must take this seriously.

Let me add to this commentary a special concern as I watch the Project unfold. Jesus-research—biblical research in general—through the end of the twentieth century was exciting stuff. The death of one of the great Albright students last year, and a former boss of mine at the University of Michigan, David Noel Freedman, reminds us that we may be at the end of the road. Albright’s careful scholarship and research, and his general refusal to shy away from the “results” of archaeology, were accompanied by a certain optimism in terms of how archaeology could be used to “prove” the Bible. In its general outline, the Bible was true; there was no reason (for example) to doubt the essential biographical details of the story of Abraham in Genesis. Albright’s pupils were less confident of the biblical record and as William Dever observed in a classic 1995 article in The Biblical Archaeologist. His central theses have all been overturned, partly by further advances in Biblical criticism, but mostly by the continuing archaeological research of younger Americans and Israelis to whom he himself gave encouragement and momentum. The irony is that, in the long run, it will have been the newer “secular” archaeology that contributed the most to Biblical studies, not “Biblical archaeology.” New Testament archaeology is a different house, built with different stones. To be perfectly fair, the biblical appendix lacks the geographical markers and vivid information that suffuse the Hebrew Bible. If the Old Testament landscape is real geography populated by mythical heroes, the New Testament trends in the opposite direction. For that reason, New Testament scholars in my opinion have tried to develop an ersatz-“archaeology of sources” to match the more impressive gains in Old Testament studies.

The reasons for the “new sources” trend in New Testament research are multiple, but the one I fear the most is Jesus-fatigue. There is a sense that prior to 1980 New Testament scholarship was stuck in the mire of post-Bultmannian ennui. Jesus Seminars and Jesus Projects have been in part a response to a particular historical situation. Five gospels are better than four. The more sources we have the more we know about Jesus. Q (a) did exist, (b) did not exist, or (c) is far more layered and interesting than used to be thought. Judas was actually the primary apostle. No, it was Mary Magdalene.

When we considered developing the Jesus Project, it was not out of any malignant attempt to “prove” that Jesus did not exist. (The press releases have done an immeasurable disservice by harping on this as the agenda). As a Christian origins scholar by training, I am not even sure how one would go about such a task, or be taken seriously if it were undertaken. Yet the possibility that Christianity arose from causes that have little to do with a historical founder is one among many other questions the Project should take seriously. Inevitably, scholars and critics (if not always the same people) will ask, And just how do you go about doing that?, and neither the answer “Differently” or “Better” will suffice. The demon crouching at the door, however, is not criticism of its intent nor skepticism about its outcome, but the sense that biblical scholarship in the twentieth century will not be greeted with the same excitement as it was in Albright’s day. Outside America, where the landscape is also changing, fewer people have any interest in the outcomes of biblical research, whether it involves Jericho or Jesus. The secularization of world culture, which will eventually reach even into the Muslim heartlands, encourages us to value what matters here and now. As one of our members, Arthur Droge (Toronto) mentioned at the recent meeting of the Project in Amherst, NY, most of us were trained in a generation “that believed certain questions were inherently interesting.” But fewer and fewer people do. Jesus-fatigue—the sort of despair that can only be compared to a police investigation gone cold—is the result of a certain resignation to the unimportance of historical conclusions.

Reaching for the stars and reaching back into history have in common the fact that their objects are distant and sometimes unimaginably hard to see. What I personally hope the Project will achieve is to eschew breaking rocks, and instead learning to train our lens in the right direction. Part of that process is to respond to Droge’s challenge: Why is this important? And I have the sense that in trying to answer that question, we will be answering bigger questions as well.

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(Original article: here)