The Quest of the Historical Jesus

I finally got around to reading book I have been interested in for some time: The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer.  Schweitzer (1875-1965) was an incredible individual with doctorates in theology, medicine and music.  This is an older book (published in 1906) but it still has a very important role in the quest for the historical Jesus, describing what is called the “First Quest.”  This book is basically an overview of German New Testament scholarship in the nineteenth century with one chapter on Schweitzer’s own views (although he does critique other scholars throughout the book).  German New Testament scholarship at the time was extremely critical, reacting to an authoritarian church culture, everything became negotiable and almost everything was doubted.  I found this book very helpful for a book I am currently writing as the theories that Schweitzer interacts with still pop up today.  Schweitzer certainly was not particularly conservative and he doubted a lot of what we take for granted today and yet he still remains useful for modern historical Jesus scholarship. I will share a little of what I found.

The first major scholar to claim that Jesus did not exist was Bruno Bauer (1809-1882). Bauer was a German scholar who lived at a time when the traditional views of the Bible and Jesus were under intense scrutiny. Every action or word of Jesus was up for question and new “Lives of Jesus” were published regularly that seemed to have little in common with the church’s traditional presentation. Bauer began with the intention of the others of his time, “to save the honour of Jesus and to restore His Person from the state of inanition to which the apologists had reduced it, and hoped by furnishing a proof that the historical Jesus could not have been the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, to bring Him into a living relation with history.” As Bauer continued in his research, his conclusions became more and more radical. Albert Schweitzer comments on the results of Bauer’s research:

The result is negative: there never was any historical Jesus. While criticizing the four great Pauline Epistles, … Bauer shows, however, his inability to lay a positive historic foundation for his view of the origin of Christianity. The transference of the Epistles to the second century is effected in so arbitrary a fashion that it refutes itself.

Like some of the later deniers of the historical Jesus, Bauer’s views were not purely scientific but were also based on competing religious views. Schweitzer goes on to explain:

Bruno Bauer hates not only the theologians, but Christianity, and hates it because it expresses a truth in a wrong way. It is a religion which has become petrified in a transitional form. A religion which ought to have led on to the true religion has usurped the place of the true religion, and in this petrified form it holds prisoner all the real forces of religion.

It takes deep philosophical conviction to ignore the historical data that is accepted by the majority of scholars.

Albert Kalthoff (1850-1906) followed in Bauer’s footsteps in his extreme skepticism about the historical Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth never existed; and even supposing He had been one of the numerous Jewish Messiahs who were put to death by crucifixion, He certainly did not found Christianity. The story of Jesus which lies before us in the Gospels is in reality only the story of the way in which the picture of Christ arose, that is to say, the story of the growth of the Christian community.

For Kalthoff, the Gospels are the result of the interaction of Jewish apocalyptic ideas with the social conditions of the Roman Empire.

Regarding the quality of historical evidence for Jesus, Schweitzer made this comment:

It is not that the sources are in themselves bad. When we have once made up our minds that we have not the materials for a complete Life of Jesus, but only for a picture of His public ministry, it must be admitted that there are few characters of antiquity about whom we possess so much indubitably historical information, of whom we have so many authentic discourses. The position is much more favourable, for instance, than in the case of Socrates; for he is pictured to us by literary men who exercised their creative ability upon the portrait. Jesus stands much more immediately before us, because He was depicted by simple Christians without literary gift.

Albert Schweitzer notes that unlike other appearances of Jewish apocalyptic literature, there was not historical event to precipitate it. There was no Antiochus Epiphanes attempting to stamp out Judaism, no initial appearance of the Roman Empire, no destruction of the Temple. Schweitzer then goes on to make this conclusion about Jesus, perhaps pessimistic for most Christians, but definitely an assertion of Jesus’ solid grounding in history:

[Jesus] in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign.

Most Christians would say that Jesus is much more than this, but he certainly was nothing less. One of Schweitzer’s famous quote is this:

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.

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3 thoughts on “The Quest of the Historical Jesus”

  1. I read this website because I’m doing online research for my New Testament class.

    I like Schweitzer conclusion, “The sufferings which they shall pass through His fellowship, and, as in ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

    edited by: Charymane

  2. I liked Schweitzer’s conclusions as well and I respect Schweitzer as a scholar and as someone who put his faith into action. However, having read the book, it is hard at times to see how he got from his historical Jesus to his Christ of faith.

    Where are you studying New Testament?

  3. A professor of mine in a New Testament class replied to a query about how you could believe in Christianity if you didn’t accept the validity of the literal truth of the Bible: “You have a problem. If I show you one thing in the Bible that is not true, you have nothing left. But I am saved by my relation with Jesus the Christ, so it does not matter what is or is not literally true.” I think that’s what Schweitzer was talking about.

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