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.