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D. F. Strauss' Life of Jesus Revisited

  • Van A. Harvey (a1)


An issue that inevitably appears in discussion concerning historical method is the degree to which a historian's philosophical presuppositions influence his historical work. It is not surprising that the matter is most heatedly discussed in the realm of New Testament interpretation, although the principles involved concern all historical work.



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1. It is significant that the so-called “demythologizing” debate initiated by Rudolf Bultmann has now become a more philosophical and theological debate concerning the presuppositions of historiography and hermeneutics.

2. London: Chatto & Windus, 1950, p. 220.

3. Das Leben Jesu, Kritisch bearbeitet, 2 Bde. (Tũbingen: C. F. Osiander Verlag, 1835). There were four major editions, beginning with the first in 1835 and ending with the fourth in 1840. The fourth edition, from which the famous English translation by George Eliot was made in 1848, was brought back again into conformity with the first and second editions after the revisions and the concessions made to Strauss’ critics in the third of 1838–1839. The third editon, Strauss explains in the preface to the fourth, “contained too much of compliance. The intermingling voices of opponents, crities, and fellow labourers, to which I held it a duty attentively to listen, had confused the idea of the work in my mind …” Less charitable interpreters have suggested that the revisions were made so that Strauss mught be invited to a chair in Dogmatics and that his reversion to the more radical view of the first edition was an expression of pique at not being allowed to accepot the appointment at Zürich. At any rate, although the fourth edition is in substance the same as the first, it does contain some important methodological materials which are not present in the first, especially sections 13–16 of the Introduction. I have worked primarily with the fourth edition (Tũbingen: C. F. Osiander Verlag, 1840) and utilized the translation of George Eliot, even though her translation unaccountably omits some of the German text and takes liberties with the footnotes (Cf. The life of Jesus Critically Examined [5th ed.; London: swan Sonnenschein & Co. Lted., 1961]). My references will be to the sections of the work, rather than to the pages, since these sections run consecutively from 1 to 152 throughout. Hereinafter the German edition will be referred to as DLJ.

4. barth, Karl, Die protestantische Theologie im 19. Jahrhundert, Ihre Vorgeschichte und ihre Geschichte (2. verb. Aufl.; Zollikon-Zürich: Evangelischer Verglag, 1952, p. 515. Cf. the abridged English translation, From Rousseau to Ritschl (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1959), p. 386. The German edition will hereinafter be referred to as pT19J.

5. Ibid., p. 513. Cf. Eng. trans., p. 387.

6. For an excellent discussion of the issues involved in the “new quest,” see Robinson, James M., A New Quest of the Historical Jesus (Naperville, III.: Alec R. Allenson, Inc., 1959). For a reassessment of Strauss, see Hartlich, Christian and Sachs, Walter, Der Ursprung des Mythosbegriffes in der modernen Bibelwissenschaft (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1952). See also Backhaus, Gunther, Kerygma und Mythos bei David Friedrich Strauss und Rudolf Bultmann (Hamburg: Herbert ReichEvangelischer Verlag, 1956).

7. Schweitzer, Albert, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, trans. Montgomery, William (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1952), p. 68. Hereinafter this work will be referred to as QHJ. Schweitzer adds, “He was not the greatest, and not the deepest, of theologians, but he was the most absolutely sincere. His insight and his errors were alike the insight and the errors of a prophet. And he had a prophet's fate. Disappointment and suffering gave his life its consecration. It unrolls itself before us like a tragedy, in whihc, in the end, the gloom is lightened by themild radiance which shines forth from the nobility of the sufferer.” The judgement concerning Strauss’ sincerity must, I think, be suspended, not only because the Scriptures forbid it, but also because the evidence is surely more cloudy than Schweitzer seems willing to admit. As Karl Barth takes some pains to show, Strauss hardly cuts a “tragic figure,” particularly in view of his willingness to make concessions to his critics for apparently prudential reasons and his readiness to retract them again. The only tendency Barth says he discerns in his life is the tendency of taking the “line of least resistance and of lashing out at theology or the church and justifying, again and again, his own departure from that gloomy kingdom” (pT19J., p. 495).

8. Ibid., p. 515.

9. DLJ., Sec. 151.

10. QHJ., p. 78.

11. Schweitzer notes that Strauss' book was in part responsible for rendering Schleiermacher's Life of Jesus so obsolete that it was not even published untill 1864. “For the questions raised by … [Strauss’ Life of Jesus] … Schleiermacher had no answer, and for the wounds which it made, no healing” (Ibid., p. 62).

12. Ibid., p. 95.

13. Cf. Cassirer, Ernst, The Problem of Knowledge: Philosophy, Science, and History since Hegel, trans. Woglom, William H. and Hendel, Charles W. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), Chap. XIII.

14. Collingwood, R. G., The Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946), p. 135. This work will hereinafter be referred to as IH.

15. Once is struck by the methodological self-consciousness reflected int hese early discussions concerning the various concepts of myth, legend, and the like. For example, Ullmann objected to the use of “myth” as applied to the New Testament. He preferred the concept of “legend” (sage) for the reason that “legend” did more justice to the element of historical fact int he stories. Cf. Barth's, Karl defense of “Sage” in his Kirchliche Dogmatik, Die Lehre von der Schöpfung, Bd. III, T1. 1 [Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1948], pp. 88 ff.) George, on the other hand, replied that he preferred to retain the concept “myth” since “legend” denotes the envisagement of an idea in a fact (or arising out of it), while “myth” denotes the creation of a fact out of an idea. Therefore, he continued, if the Gospels are mythical they embody, at least, the original ideas of the Christian community even if the stories are not factual; if the stories are legendary, on the other hand, the external facts are distorted and represented in a false light and the real nature of the life of Jesus is forever lost to the historian. In short, “myth” is a less prejudicial category than “legend” so far as factuality is concerned. Strauss' summary of the entire discussion is excellent and, interestingly, does not appear in the first edition. Cf. DLJ., Sec. 10.

16. Ibid., Sec. 11.

17. QHJ., p. 85.

18. DLJ., Sec. 14.

19. The patience with which Strauss deals with the rationalistic attempts to save the narratives is exceeded only by the dialectical skill with which he outrationalizes them. Not only does he effectively use the devastating rhetorical question — “Was it likely that the natural presages of the storm should have been better understood by Jesus, who had never been occupied on the sea, than by Peter, James, and John, who had been at home on it from their youth upwards?” — but the reductio ad absurdum as well. For example, to Olshausen's suggestion that Jesus was able to walk on water be cause he possessed a superior corporeality and was not subject to the law of gravity, Strauss responds by asking how Olshausen accounts for Jesus' submersion in the Jordan at his baptism; was he able to increase or reduce his “specific gravity by an act of the will?” (Ibid., Sec. 101).

20. Ibid., Sec. 14.

21. Ibid., Sec. 13.

22. Hartlich and Sachs, op. cit., Chap. V.

23. DLJ., Sec. 16. Interestingly enough, these rules are not found explicitly stated in the first edition. This may explain why Strauss never appeals to them as such in the body of the work, even in the fourth edition. They were probably drawn up in response to the controversy occasioned by the first. They are obviously implicit, however, in that work; Strauss is merely articulating more clearly what is everywhere presupposed.

24. Troeltsch, Ernst, “Historiography” in Hastings, James (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol VI (New York: Charles Scribmer's Sons, 1914).

25. IH., pp. 134–141.

26. Bradley, F. H., Collected Essays, Vol. I (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), pp. 14 f. Hereinafter this work will be referred to as CE., I.

27. IH., p. 138.

28. Ibid., p. 139.

29. Ibid.

30. CE., I., p. 25.

31. IH., pp. 249–282.

32. “In so far as an historian accepts the testimony of an authority and treats it as historical truth, he obviously forfeits the name of historian; but we have no other name by which to call him” (Ibid., p. 256).

33. Cf. the criticism of Walsh, W. H., Philosophy of History, An Introduction (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960), p. 24 and Appendix I.

34. CE., I., p. 29.

35. QHJ., p. 111.

36. DLJ., Sec. 14.

37. Ibid., Sec. 62. Strauss argues that Jesus was probably a disciple of John the Baptist at first, although the conviction grew upon him after John's death that he was the Messiah. Whether he thought of himself as pre-existent cannot be decided, although he evidently did expect restoration of the throne of David. This restoration was not to be accomplished politically but apocalyptically and supernaturally. His hope was neither purely political nor spiritual, but a “national theocratic hope, spiritualized and ennobled by his own peculiar moral and religious views” (Sec. 66). Those who shrink from such an interpretation, which seems to make Jesus an “enthusiast,” will do well to reflect, Strauss inserts, that these were long cherished views and closely corresponded to messianic ideas of his time. Indeed, this view makes intelligible Jesus' attitude towards the Mosaic Law. He did not intend to overthrow the Law; rather, he made a distinction between the authentic Mosaic institutes and their traditional amplifications (Sec. 67). Thus, Jesus was, on the one hand, a conservative who could argue that not one jot or tittled will be taken from the Law and, on the other, a radical who could stress the inner spiritual meaning of the Law in contrast to the externals. This radicalization is heightened by his expectation of an imminent end of the world, since this implies the temporal nature of the Law. This attitude accounts for the continuity between Jesus and Paul, the difference between them being that Jesus “anticipated the extinction of the Mosaic system as a concomitant of his glorious advent … while [Paul] believed its abolition permissible on the old, unregenerated earth, in virtue of the Messiah's first advent” (Ibid.).

38. QHJ., p. 92.

39. Ibid., p. 90.

40. pT19J., p. 492.

41. Collingwood, R. G., An Autobiography (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 31.

42. DLJ., Sec. 76.

43. Bultmann, Rudolf, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958), Chap. I.

44. See his Theology of the New Testament, 2 Vols., trans. Kendrick Grobel (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951, 1955). See also Das Evangelium des Johannes (4. Aufl.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1953).

45. Bultmann, , Theology of the New Testament, Vol I., Chaps. I and III.

46. See Bultmann's, “Das Problem der Hermeneutik,” Glauben und Verstehen, Vol. II (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1952). pp. 211–35.

47. pT19J., p. 515.

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