Historical Jesus 1: Reimarus to Schweitzer
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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