Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Historical Jesus 1: Reimarus to Schweitzer

posted by xscot mcknight

Go to your local Barnes and Noble or Borders or any bookshop of fine taste and you will find a section on Jesus, and the books about Jesus make one subtle or not-so-subtle promise: the book will reveal who the real Jesus was and what the real Jesus was like. This week I’d like to follow up our New Perspective on Paul series with a short series on the historical Jesus.
On what does faith rest — and this is one big question for modernity — on the Gospels or on the believability of the Gospels? On what the Church has been led to believe about Jesus or on what we can construct as reliable the Gospels say? Do we believe in the Jesus of history or the Christ of the Gospels/the Christ of faith? (Of course these are dichotomous expressions — to bring out the force of the questions.)
Today we look at the rise of what can only be called the radical apocalyptic Jesus.
It begins at a time George Washington was galvanizing the American peoples into a new country, in 1776, and when Hermann Samuel Reimarus’s nephew, GE Lessing, published a book called Fragments of an Unknown Author. Those were the days when gamesmanship was the mood — the author was neither unknown and these were hardly just fragments. Reimarus, a lifelong resident and teacher at the high school in Mecklenburg, was a man of reputation. He chose not to make his real thoughts about Jesus known, so he nursed his doubts — and serious doubts they were — privately by writing out his ideas about Jesus. He died in 1768, and GE Lessing published the “fragments” in 1776. The seventh fragment was called “On the Intention of Jesus and His Disciples.”
Now the major points to be understood for the historical Jesus debate came into play at the time of Reimarus and have been with us ever since. They animate the books on the bookshelves today.
1. Critical thinking about Jesus meant analyzing both the orthodox faith (Nicene Creed) and the Gospel records on the basis of sifting the evidence.
2. Sifting the evidence meant sitting in judgment on the facts of the Gospels to see if Jesus really did say such and such and if he really did do such and such.
3. Once one had sifted through the evidence, one could salvage those parts that one thought were historically authentic and then compose a picture of Jesus on the basis of that sifted evidence.
4. The major result of this critical thinking process is that the Jesus of the Gospels is different from the Jesus of critical thinking. In other words, the Jesus of history is not the same as the Christ of faith.
This last point is the whole point of historical Jesus studies. Whatever you call him — historical or “real” Jesus — is not the same as the Gospels and not the same as the orthodox faith. Of course, there are soft historical Jesus books (all lives of Jesus from even orthodox Christians) and hard historical Jesus books (those in the wake of Reimarus).
This post is a little on the long side, and no other post this week will get this long, and you can read either about Reimarus or Schweitzer to get the big drift … but here goes….
What about Reimarus? What did he think the “historical” Jesus was like?
1. Jesus was aspired to be the messianic king on the throne of Jerusalem but he was a political pretender.
2. Jesus’ aspirations were frustrated by the outworkings of history and he died in despair crying out to God in wonder of why God had abandoned him.
3. The notion of a spiritual resurrected Messiah was invented by his disciples.
Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), famous for being a missionary doctor in Africa (Out of My Life) and for his “reverence for life,” had three earned doctorates — music, theology, and medicine — and it was his second one that got him in trouble with the religious authorities. When he sniffed the wind of opposition to his free-thinking about Jesus, he chose to spend his life in Africa in obscurity as he worked out his own ideas.
At the turn of the 20th Century, he published a book now called The Quest of the Historical Jesus that changed the scholarly approach to Jesus. Building on Reimarus and taking the form of a travelogue through the history of Jesus books, Schweitzer’s final chapters spelled out his own ideas on Jesus — and they were very similar to Johannes Weiss, a contemporary German scholar.
1. Jesus was an enthusiastic political aspirant who was absorbed in an apocalyptic mindset — the world was about to end.
2. So convinced was he that the end was imminent, he sent out his twelve to evangelize and was convinced the would not get back before the end of history: Matthew 10:23 (“you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes”).
3. When the twelve returned, Jesus was shocked.
4. So he reconfigured his ideas to see himself in terms of the suffering servant of Isaiah.
5. Jesus acted in the last week to force God to act in history to bring about the end.
Here are the haunting words of Schweitzer, words not found in the later editions of his work.
“There is silence all around. The Baptist apppears, and cries: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Soon after that comes Jesus, and 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 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” (370-371).

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Wolf N. Paul

posted August 13, 2007 at 1:50 am

Just a quick correction: “Fragments of an Unknown Author” is an unfortunate translation, and your comments about the title are not warranted by the original title which speaks of “Fragmente eines Ungenannten”, i.e. by one not named — not at all the same implication.
Also somewhat confusing:
to call him a “lifelong resident and teacher at the high school in Mecklenburg” is like calling you a “lifelong resident and teacher at the college in Illinois”.
He was a university lecturer at Wittenberg for four years, spent two years traveling in England and Holland, then taught at the high school in Wismar (Mecklenburg) for four years before moving back to his native Hamburg where he spent the remainder of his life teaching oriental languages at the “Akademisches Gymnasium” which was by no means an ordinary high school.
I hope you don’t perceive this as nitpicking — it irritates me no end when European authors and scholars comment on American situations while displaying their ignorance of the context, and I spend a lot of time and energy correcting them; so when I come across American authors doing the same in reverse I cannot but comment on it as well.

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Scot McKnight

posted August 13, 2007 at 6:33 am

Thanks for these clarifications. The translation of Reimarus has always been “unknown” and part of my point in saying he wasn’t unknown was to say that. I’ve not seen anyone translate this “unnamed.”

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Scott M

posted August 13, 2007 at 7:59 am

This reminds me of something that popped into my head when people mentioned the need for a “New Perspective on Jesus”. I believe the work of Wright and others applying the latest historical finds to the gospels is called the “Third Quest for the Historical Jesus”. And Wright’s Jesus is certainly orthodox if different than he has often been portrayed.

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posted August 13, 2007 at 8:41 am

Borg has some good information on this topic, but overall I am worried about the direction of this movement.

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posted August 13, 2007 at 8:44 am

I’m also curious about your dating. Does historical Jesus studies really being in the modern period in America in the 18th century? I would have thought that it could be traced at least as far back as the 17th century, with figures like Spinoza and the early Deists.

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Scot McKnight

posted August 13, 2007 at 9:00 am

Yep, one can easily do that. Some would trace it back to Richard Simon, but most start the historical Jesus quest with Reimarus and so I did … there’s no way we can develop the nuances of predecessors and lead-ups on a blog like this.

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posted August 13, 2007 at 9:06 am

Fair enough. The reason I raise it as an issue relates to the nature of the origin of the debate. It was, originally, a radical argument, and one that was not accepted as ‘critical'; it was, of course, pejoratively labelled ‘heterodox’. This fact may have some important consequences when looking in that debate’s subsequent history.

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posted August 13, 2007 at 9:59 am

I was hoping you’d do a Historical Jesus series, great! Looking forward to the rest of the week.

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posted August 13, 2007 at 10:19 am

…me too!

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Andrew Kenny

posted August 13, 2007 at 2:59 pm

Scott, I’m looking forward to your 4th search for the historical Jesus!I saw a DVD entitled ‘Saving Jesus’ which obviously impied that it was to save him from the slant put upon him by certain Christian groups such as Fundamentalists, evangelicals etc etc.However I was somewhat distraught at how liberal it was. At the end of one the episodes I commented to the group that I didn’t think we should take what say Dominic Crossan says as gospel.
However I’m afraid many found it a negative experience, one that built up their doubt (as opposed to their faith). Only that there were some watching who had studied some the arguments before and were therefore able to add a more conservative view point the discussion it might have ended with some losing all faith in the Bible at all.
THis is why I think it is so important for orthodox scholars to engage with the more liberal ones. If an ordinary Christian hears Dr So and So say that the gospels we have in the Bible can not be trusted and that the gospel of Peter is by far the most reliable, who are they to doubt him.

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posted August 13, 2007 at 3:58 pm

Reply to Wolf #1
Two words: brevity, medium. One should consider these before ranting on what’s missing or implied in another’s piece of writing.

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posted August 13, 2007 at 4:53 pm

Andrew@10: You might pass this: 10 Ways to Think for yourself on to those that would question their faith after watching a DVD. No slight meant, just #1 (If in doubt, ask a question) and #7 (Gather the facts), and especially #5 (Trust your feelings) would seem to be useful to those in your group.
setsnservice@11: Wolf posted a rant in #1? I respectively suggest you may be being a tad sensitive.

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posted August 13, 2007 at 4:59 pm

Rant was a poor word choice, apologies Wolf.

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Wolf N. Paul

posted August 14, 2007 at 9:31 am

knsheppard@#5: Historical Jesus studies may have begun in the 18th century, but NOT IN AMERICA. Reimarus lived in Germany, he made it to England for a few months but never to America.
That was part of what prompted my #1 response — to clarify that he lived in Germany — but I see now that my response didn’t make that any clearer than Scot’s original post.
Tom, no offence taken.

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Mike Clawson

posted August 14, 2007 at 10:45 pm

Hey Scot,
Thanks for doing this series. I confess that I’ve never looked into the “historical Jesus” stuff too closely. Here’s what I want to know: on what basis do they “sift” through the evidence, and, what evidence? What I mean is, what other historical data outside of the gospels are they using? And then also, when dealing with the biblical texts, by what criterion do they determine what to consider authentic and what is later interpolations?
Honestly, I’ve read accounts of the Jesus Seminar folks color-coding and voting and all that, but not once have I heard a clear explanation of the criterion and “evidence” they use to actually decide how to color code and which parts to vote for.
Any help here would be appreciated.

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Scot McKnight

posted August 14, 2007 at 10:49 pm

Thanks … I’ll be doing this tomorrow.

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Allen Galbraith

posted August 15, 2007 at 6:50 am

Andrew at number 12… Small world .. thanks for referencing my website.. I too read :)

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Randy Barnhart

posted August 15, 2007 at 6:56 am

Fairly early on in their work, the Seminar cataloged the criteria of authenticity. Check out the Westar Institutes’s Forum.
Among the many criteria that have been offered, the criterion of dissimilarity seems to take center stage most often. This was clearly true for Bultmann and his students, and in my opinion, remains so for many (though many Jesus scholars seem to want to distance themselves from appearing to lean too heavily on that criterion). Deciding authenticity using dissimilarity is like doing brain surgery with a shovel. You’ll get rid of the ‘bad’ stuff, but at what cost?
Kloppenborg offers a nice introduction to the criteria of authenticity at
As Kloppenborg says, A lot depends on which criterion gets center stage.

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posted August 21, 2007 at 10:36 am

In Defense of the Faith Apologetic Ministry » Blog Archive » The New Perspective on Paul and the Historical Jesus Quest

[…] Historical Jesus 1: Reimarus to Schweitzer Historical Jesus 2: Bultmann to the Jesus Seminar Historical Jesus 3: Jesus Seminar Historical Jesus 4: Third Quest Historical Jesus 5: Summing Up […]

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