Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus

The Quest of the Historical Jesus

A Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede

Albert Schweitzer is best known in theology for The Quest of the Historical Jesus.  He observes that the “greatest achievement of German theology is the critical investigation of the life of Jesus.”

In the 18th and 19th centuries, scientific principles of language analysis, historical analysis, psychological analysis, and textual analysis were developed for purposes of examining and analyzing ancient historical records to determine their authenticity and meaning.  The same tools were employed for the same purposes of “literary criticism” of the Bible.  As to examination of the literature in the gospels, it was noted that different gospels had some of the same characterizations and narrations of the life of Jesus, but they also conflicted on various point, sometimes of great consequence.  Before an objective view of the Jesus of the gospels could be obtained, scholars had first to confront dogma that had grown up about Jesus concerning his two natures as man and as Son of God.  Schweitzer noted,

This dogma had first to be shattered before men could once more go out in quest of the historical Jesus.  . . .  That the historical Jesus is something different from that Jesus Christ of the doctrine of the Two Natures seems to us now self evident.

It was believed that through the tools of literary criticism the historical Jesus could be revealed.

It was known that the Jews were expecting a Messiah according to their scriptures, i.e., the Christian Old Testament.  It was also known that eschatology, i.e. the religious belief concerning death, judgment, and what is to come in or after the final days, was then a vital part of Jewish Life.

However, early Biblical criticism lacked recognized standards; those took some considerable time to develop.  Reimarus and Bruno Baur wrote a life of Jesus, which Schweitzer characterized as “mere products of imagination.”  How, in a scientific world, could scholars account for miracles?  Were they supernatural events? Could there be a rational explanation? Or, was the report “mythological.“

Here, I must reveal my own understanding and bias as I consider Schweitzer’s use of the word, “mythological.”  I consider the word to be distinctive from “fabrication,” “invention,” “legend” or “rationalization.”  My view of myth is consistent with that of Joseph Campbell as revealed in his PPS interviews with Bill Moyers which resulted in Moyers’ his book, Joseph Campbell: The Power Of Myth, Moyers’ opens the series with the question, “Why myth?  Why should we care about myths?  What do they have to do with my life?”

Campbell answers,

One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit.   . . .  We have in our great tradition – Plato, Confucius, the Buddha – and others who speak of the eternal values that have to do with the centering of our lives.

. . .

Mythology is the song.  It is the song of the imagination, inspired by the energies of the body.. . .”

.. . Everything mythologyical has grown up in a certain society in a bounded field.

. . .  A god is a personification of a motivating power or a value system that functions in human life and in the universe . . .

. . . [T]here is the mythology that relates you to your nature and to the natural world, of which you are a part.  And there is the mythology that is strictly sociological, linking you to a particular society.  You are not simply a natural man, you are a member of a particular group. . . .

Now, the Biblical tradition is a socially oriented mythology. . .  Major religions are not attempts to control nature but to help you put yourself in accord with that.

. . .

We need myths that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet. . . .

Marcus Borg, a member of the Jesus Seminar, addresses the mythological, metaphorical nature of many New Testament sayings concerning Jesus’ life and his teachings.  He talks of an Indian story teller who began his story with, “Now, I don’t know if it actually happened this way, but I know it’s true.”

As used here, I do not believe that Schweitzer uses it in the same sense as the word is used by Joseph Campbell; rather he uses it to indicate that the account cannot be historically confirmed; it is likely fictitious.  However, Schweitzer addresses the methods of resolving the issues presented by a Biblical text: “On the one side we are offered a historical solution, on the other a literary.”  In the first, one asks, “Does the difficulty of explaining the historical personality of Jesus lie in the history itself, or only in the way in which it is represented in the sources?” In the latter, the theologian asks the question of whether it is consistent with the surrounding circumstances that are described in the text, or in other texts’ references on the same or similar subjects.  Later in his Quest, in his review of Strauss’ quest, it will become clear that he understand, myth as Campbell used and understood it.  There he articulates Strauss’ distinction of Christian myth from pagan myth, and of myth from legend.

Schweitzer notes that Reimarus was the first theologian to attempt an historical view of Jesus’ life.  His was a monumental work consisting of 4000 pages, much of it attacking the inherited faith of the church.  He not only embraces Reimarus’ tools of critical analysis, but he finds great humor in his writing, as well.  It is “one of the ablest, wittiest, and most acute which has ever been written.”

Reimarus finds no indication that Jesus intended to either do away with the Jewish law or to create his own religion.  It was righteousness in the Jewish sense that would mark the coming of the Kingdom of God.  However, Reimarus notes, Jesus forbade his disciples to share the news of the coming of the Kingdom with the gentiles.  Matthew 10:5.

Of the final act of the passion, as recorded in Mark, Reimarus notes,

“My God!  my God!  Why hast thou forsaken me? “

This avowal cannot, without violence, be interpreted otherwise than as meaning that God had not aided him in his aim and purpose as He had hoped.

Of Matthew 16:28, Reimarus notes that Jesus does not claim to be the Messiah, but promises that all messianic hopes will be realized before the end of that generation.  Jesus never said a word about his dying and rising again.

He concludes:

In order to get rid of the difficulty of the death of Jesus, they gave it the significance of a spiritual redemption, which had not previously entered their field of vision or that of Jesus Himself.

But this spiritual interpretation of His death would not have helped them if they had not also invented the resurrection.

The Parousia, or Second Coming, was delayed, however.  It did not occur during that generation to which Jesus spoke as he had predicted, nor has it in the 2000 years since.

. . .  Nevertheless it served the turn of the gospel so well that the simple early Christians, after the first believers had been bemused with it, and the period which was fixed had lapsed, the Christians of later generations, including Fathers of the Church, could continue ever after to feed themselves with empty hopes. .. .

. . .

. . .  The theologians of the present day skim lightly over the eschatological material in the gospels because it does not chime with their views. . . .  Inasmuch as the non – fulfillment of this eschatology is not an admitted, our Christianity rests upon a flaw. . . .

Schweitzer grants that Reimarus begins with undoubtedly genuine historical information in that he recognized two separate streams of messianic expectation in late Judaism.  He harmonized the gospels by focusing on the Synoptics but excluded the gospel of John.   He “rightly notes” that Christianity did not arise out of the teaching of Jesus and that baptism and the Lord’s Supper were not instituted by Jesus, but by the early Church.  He understood that to get to the historical Jesus he must combine the critical methods of historical analysis and literary criticism.

Schweitzer writes,

Still more remarkable is his eye for exegetical detail.  He has an unfailing instinct for pregnant passages like Matthew 10:23, and 16:28 which are crucial for the interpretation of large masses of the history.

Schweitzer further praises him,

There are some who are historians by the grace of God . . .   However, [i]n truth they are at best merely doing the preliminary spade work of history, collecting for a future historian the dry bones of fact . . .”

Reimarus was “before his time:” Schweitzer finds great value in his work which was not recognized by Reimarus’ contempories:

His work is one of the supremely great works which pass and leave no trace, because they are before their time; to which later generations pay a just attribute of admiration, but owe no gratitude.

Schweitzer then surveys the “Lives of Jesus” produced by other early rationalists, following Reimarus.  He characterizes that early rationalism as “wholly dissociated from a simple – minded Supernaturalism.  . . .  Here, to change the metaphor, rationalism surrounds religion without touching it . . .” He describes it as “half – developed rationalism.”

The early rationalists “thought of themselves as merely writing an historical supplement to the life of the God – Man Jesus.”  Their method was to accept the doctrine concerning the divinity of Jesus, explore its Biblical roots, and only then to explore the human side of Jesus.  Early rationalists tried to explain the miracles in natural ways; but, when they were unable to do so, they had no difficulty resorting to supernatural intervention.

Schweitzer describes Johan Jakob Hess (1741 – 1828) as “not a deep thinker, but was well read and not without ability.  As a man, he did splendid work.”

He paraphrased the four gospels in an attempt to make them coherent and agreeable together.  Where possible, he naturalized the miracles, but,

Above all, we must retain the supernatural birth and the bodily resurrection, because on the former depends the sinlessness of Jesus, on the latter the certainty of the general resurrection of the dead.

Hess characterized the temptation of Jesus as Satan’s test to determine if He was so extraordinary as to be a threat to Satan.  He finds the resurrection of Lazarus to be authentic, as though his acceptance of the death and resurrection of Jesus allowed for the supernatural resurrection of Lazarus as well.

Schweitzer finds his interpretation of the parables “barely recognizable” and “in the mummy-wrappings of his paraphrase.” He complains,

Of the peculiar beauty of the speech of Jesus not a trace remains.

The simplest occurrences give occasion for sentimental portraiture.  The saying ‘Except ye become as little children’ is introduced in the following fashion:  ‘Jesus called a boy who was standing near.  The boy came.  Jesus took His hand and told him to stand beside Him, nearer than any of his disciples, so that he had the foremost place among them.  Then Jesus threw His arm round the boy and pressed him tenderly to his breast.  The disciples looked on in astonishment, wondering what this meant.  Then he explained to them, . . . [etc.]

On the other hand, Schweitzer considers that the Life of Jesus by Reinhard (1753-1812) is on a “distinctly higher level.”

With all his philosophizing and rationalizing, however, certain pillars of the supernaturalistic view of history remains for him immovable.

Rationalists generally considered that many events of “raising from the dead” were merely cases of premature burial, which was believed to be frequent in the east.

Karle Agust Hase’s Life of Jesus was the first attempt to reconstruct the life of Jesus on a purely historical basis.  The results are strained, however.  He seeks to make the circumstances of the baptism intelligible by supposing the appearance of a meteor; he explains a number of other miracles in a fictitious manner of which participants were unaware at the time.

Of raising the dead, he is skeptical: a stringent proof that death had actually taken place cannot, according to Hase, be given, since there is no evidence that corruption had set in . . .

Schleiermacher’s Life of Jesus resorts to dogmatics rather than history.  He accepts without question that Jesus considered himself to be divine.  “The uniqueness of (Jesus’) divine selfconsciousness is not to be tampered with.”

He arranges the gospel miracles according to their probability of occurrence as reported. Of the Ascension he acknowledges that “something inexplicable did occur.”  Of the synoptic story of the temptation, it made no sense to him: ‘To change stones into bread, if there were need for it, would not have been a sin.’”  He dismisses out of hand the miracles of the birth and childhood of Jesus, likewise the reported miracles following the crucifixion he attributes simply to “poetic imagination.”

Whereas modern theologians and scholars consider that the Synoptic gospels were earlier and historically more accurate than the gospel of John, Schleiermacher considers the latter to be the only authoritative gospel.  He considers the Synoptic gospels to be variant interpretations of it.

Of David Friedrich Strauss, Schweitzer writes, “He was not the greatest, and not the deepest, of theologians, but he was the most absolutely sincere.”

Schweitzer writes of the graduation of Strauss and his friends from theological school, that they questioned how they would square their theological views “with popular beliefs which they were expected to preach.” I suspect that is a common challenge for any sincere student of theology who has prepared for the ministry.

Schweitzer notes that Strauss

struck the death blow of out-and-out rationalism; the half – and – half rationalism did not perish with it, but allied itself with the neo-Supernaturalism which Strauss’s treatment of the life of Jesus had called into being.

Strauss wrote of his dilemma,

What interests me in theology causes offense, and what does not cause offense is indifferent to me.  For this reason I have refrained from delivering lectures on theology.

He acknowledged that philosophy played a large part in his theology, and that he was inspired by the philosophy of Hegel.  That offended the philosophical faculty  at the university where he taught, and it curtailed his philosophy lectures.  “Strauss was forced back to theology.”

He published his Life of Jesus, which met with great criticism.  He looked to his friends, and only two or three dared to support him.  He returned to Stuttgart.  As he found public and academic opinion to improve, he continued to publish editions.  As Schweitzer describes it, “The historic personality of Jesus again began to take on intelligible outlines for him.”  Schweitzer classifies his Christian Theology as one of the most important contributions to theology.  In it, he reframes Christianity in the language and thought of Spinoza.  For him, religion is not concerned with the ordinary, everyday realities but,

with present spiritual realities which appear as ‘moments’ in the eternal being and becoming of Absolute Spirit. . . .  Immortality is not something which stretches out into the future, but simply and solely the present quality of the spirit, its inner universality, its power of rising above everything finite to the Ideal. . . .

Consistent with Schleiermacher and Hegel, he addresses the Christian notion of eternity:

In the midst of finitude to be one with the infinite. . . . [that] is all that one can say of ‘life after death,’ or of ‘heaven.’”

Schweitzer notes bitterness in Strauss’s writing and the influence of Darwin in which he asks, “How are we to understand the world?” And, “How are we to regulate our lives?

Theologians of his day failed to see his worth and he died an unhappy man.

Of Strauss’ Life of Jesus, Schweitzer writes that it

is one of the most perfect things in the whole range of learned literature. . . .  His analysis descends to the minutest details, but he does not lose his way among them.

Strauss is the first theologian to understand myth and to apply it consistently to the New Testament, writes Schweitzer:

Myth formed, to use Strauss’s illustration, ‘the lofty gateways at the entrance to and at the exit from the gospel history;’

. . .

Then, too, the offense of the word myth disappears for anyone who has gained an insight into the essential character of religious myth.  It is nothing else than the clothing in historic form of religious ideas, shaped by the unconsciously inventive power of legend, and embodied in a historic personality.

Myth, as used by Strauss, is to be distinguished from pagan mythology.  Strauss considered that by the time many of the gospels were written the stories of Jesus’ life had become infused with the theology of its predominantly gentile adherents so that they tended to abandon the historical Jesus for legend.

Of the impact of Hegel’s philosophy upon Strauss’s theology, Schweitzer seems to approve:

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.”

Strauss notes that the story of Jesus’ baptism in the gospel of John is,

woven on the pattern of Old Testament prototypes, with modifications due to messianic or messianically interpreted passages. . . .  It is certainly historical that the Baptist received a revelation of the messianic dignity of Jesus, otherwise he could not later have come to doubt this.

He suggests that Jesus may have been a follower of the Baptist.  But he questions whether John baptized Jesus, since his baptism was a sign of repentence and “Jesus cannot have felt Himself to be sinlessness when he submitted to it.”  He also finds the stories of the temptation, of the calling of his disciples, and of Peter’s draught of fish, fail the tests of authenticity.

The story of the demons’ recognition of Jesus as the Messiah “immediately arouses suspicion.” Legend becomes confused with what actually happened.  “The immediate healing of leprosy had its prototype in the story of Naaman and the Syrian;” the cures by touching and upon a spoken word at a distance, “have myth written on their foreheads.”

Concerning the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Strauss concludes,

We are forced on one horn of a 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.

Although Schweitzer admires Strauss’s skill in demonstrating the historical impossibility of some interpretations; nonetheless, the supernaturalistic account often “comes off much better than the rationalistic, the artificiality of which is everywhere remorselessly exposed.”

Schweitzer opines that Strauss at times may push the rationalistic too far, but it should be excused: ” Whoever discovered a true principle without pressing its application too far?”

Where Strauss sees conflict between the Synoptic gospels and the gospel of John, Schweitzer notes that he comes down on the side of the Synoptics and against John.  In the accounts of the triumphal entry of Jesus it into Jerusalem will, Strauss finds the conflicts irreconcilable.  He sees the account of Mark as “a mere satellite to Matthew with no independent light.”   He questions when Jesus recognized himself as Messiah, and the process leading to it.

Strauss considers that when Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, he uses it in the sense that

Daniel had ascribed to the Son of Man . . .  He looked forward to the abolition of Jewish law, and to the distinction between Jew and Gentile, but not now – in the future Kingdom.

Strauss was rejected by his own generation for destroying the supernatural view of miracles; however, in Schweitzer’s time, he was admired for presenting Jesus in a positive, historical way.

Schweitzer concludes:

Jesus’ claim to Messiahship is purely eschatological; in our time, he [Strauss] is seen, not in a negative sense as the destroyer of faith, but in a positive sense as prophet of advancing knowledge of Jesus.

Schweitzer reviews the impact of Strauss:

The fear of Strauss had, indeed, a tendency to inspire Protestant theologians with catholicising ideas.

Strauss examines the question of how much the people knew of Jesus’ claim of messiahship, of his betrayal, trial, and crucifixion.  When the demoniacs and the blind man identified Jesus as the Messiah, the crowds showed no recognition of the claim.  When Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus had instructed him to tell no one.  The rest of the disciples knew of his claim to the messiah ship only because Peter disobey Jesus and told them.

Schweitzer concludes the chapter on Strauss:

Jesus died because two of his disciples had broken his command of silence: Peter made known the secret of His Messiahship to the twelve at Ceasarea Phillipi a; Judas Iscariat by communicating it to the high priest.  But the difficulty was that Judas was the sole witness [against Jesus on that count].

. . .

. . . The betrayal and the trial can only be rightly understood when it is realized that the public knew nothing whatever of the secret of the messiahship.

It is the same in regard to the scene in the presence of Pilate.  The people on that morning knew nothing of the trial of Jesus but came to Pilate with the sole object of asking the release of a prisoner, as was the custom at the feast (Mark 15:6-8).

Schweitzer discusses various other theological questions and then makes some conclusions concerning what is left of Christian faith after the quest for the historical Jesus.  That will be the subject of my next post.

Links to my site:


Graphic Arts




Home Page


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s