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The Quest of the Historical Jesus

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"Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Junger." Noch ein Fragment des Wolfenbuttelschen Ungenannten. Herausgegeben von Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Braun- schweig, 1778, 276 pp. (The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples A further Instal- ment of the anonymous Woltenbiittel Fragments. Published by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Brunswick, 1778.)

Johann Salomo Semler. Beantwortung der Fragmente eines Ungenannten ins' besondere vom Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jiinger. (Reply to the anonymous Fragments, especially to that entitled "The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples.") Halle, 1779, 432 pp.

BEFORE REIMARUS, NO ONE HAD ATTEMPTED TO FORM A HISTORICAL CONCEPTION of the life of Jesus. Luther had not so much as felt that he cared to gain a clear idea of the order of the recorded events. Speaking of the chronology of the cleansing of the Temple, which in John falls at the beginning, in the Synoptists near the close, of Jesus' public life, he remarks: "The Gospels follow no order in recording the acts and miracles of Jesus, and the matter is not, after all, of much importance. If a difficulty arises in regard to the Holy Scripture and we cannot solve it, we must just let it alone." When the Lutheran theologians began to consider the question of harmonising the events, things were still worse. Osiander (1498-1552), in his "Harmony of the Gospels," maintained the principle that if an event is recorded more than once in the Gospels, in different connexions, it happened more than once and in different connexions. The daughter of Jairus was therefore raised from the dead several times; on one occasion Jesus allowed the devils whom He cast out of a single demoniac to enter into a herd of swine, on another occasion, those whom He cast out of two demoniacs; there were two cleansings of the Temple, and so forth.[1] The correct view of the Synoptic Gospels as being interdependent was first formulated by Griesbach.

The only Life of Jesus written prior to the time of Reimarus which has any interest for us, was composed by a Jesuit in the Persian language.

[1] Hase, Geschichte Jesu, 1876, pp. 112, 113.


The author was the Indian missionary Hieronymus Xavier, nephew of Francis Xavier, and it was designed for the use of Akbar, the Moghul Emperor, who, in the latter part of the sixteenth century, had become the most powerful potentate in Hindustan. In the seventeenth century the Persian text was brought to Europe by a merchant, and was translated into Latin by Louis de Dieu, a theologian of the Reformed Church, whose intention in publishing it was to discredit Catholicism.[1] It is a skilful falsification of the life of Jesus in which the omissions, and the additions taken from the Apocrypha, are inspired by the sole purpose of presenting to the open-minded ruler a glorious Jesus, in whom there should be nothing to offend him.

Thus there had been nothing to prepare the world for a work of such power as that of Reimarus. It is true, there had appeared earlier, in 1768, a Life of Jesus by Johann Jakob Hess [2] (1741-1828), written from the standpoint of the older rationalism, but it retains so much supernaturalism and follows so much the lines of a paraphrase of the Gospels, that there was nothing to indicate to the world what a master-stroke the spirit of the time was preparing. Not much is known about Reimarus. For his contemporaries he had no existence, and it was Strauss who first made his name known in literature. [3] He was born in Hamburg on the 22nd of December, 1694, and spent his life there as a professor of Oriental Languages. He died in 1768. Several of his writings appeared during his lifetime, all of them asserting the claims of rational religion as against the faith of the Church; one of them, for example, being an essay on "The Leading Truths of Natural Religion." His magnum opus, however, which laid the historic basis of his attacks, was only circulated, during his lifetime, among his acquaintances, as an anonymous manuscript. In 1774 Lessing began to publish the most important portions of it, and up to 1778 had published seven fragments, thereby involving himself in a quarrel with Goetze, the Chief Pastor of Hamburg. The manuscript of the whole, which runs to 4000 pages, is preserved in the Hamburg municipal library.

The following are the titles of Fragments which he published:

The Toleration of the Deists.
The Decrying of Reason in the Pulpit.

[1] Historia Christi persice conscripts simulqwe mvltis modis contaminata a Hieronymo Xavier, lat. reddita et animadd, notata a Ludovico de Dieu. Lugd. 1639.

[2] Johann Jacob Hess, Geschichte der drei letzten Lebensjahre Jesu. (History of the Last Three Years of the Life of Jesus.) 3 vols. 1768ft.

[3] D. F. Strauss, Hermann Samuel Reimarus and seine Schutzschrift fiir die tierniinftigen Verehrer Gottes. (Reimarus and His Apology for the Rational Worshippers of God.) 1862.


The impossibility of a Revelation which all men should have good grounds for believing.
The Passing of the Israelites through the Red Sea.
Showing that the books of the Old Testament were not written to reveal a Religion.
Concerning the story of the Resurrection.
The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples.

The monograph on the passing of the Israelites through the Red Sea is one of the ablest, wittiest, and most acute which has ever been written. It exposes all the impossibilities of the narrative in the Priestly Codex, and all the inconsistencies which arise from the combination of various sources; although Reimarus has not the slightest inkling that the separation of these sources would afford the real solution of the problem.

To say that the fragment on "The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples" is a magnificent piece of work is barely to do it justice. This essay is not only one of the greatest events in the history of criticism, it is also a masterpiece of general literature. The language is as a rule crisp and terse, pointed and epigrammatic — the language of a man who is not "engaged in literary composition" but is wholly concerned with the facts. At times, however, it rises to heights of passionate feeling, and then it is as though the fires of a volcano were painting lurid pictures upon dark clouds. Seldom has there been a hate so eloquent, so lofty a scorn; but then it is seldom that a work has been written in the just consciousness of so absolute a superiority to contemporary opinion. And withal, there is dignity and serious purpose; Reimarus' work is no pamphlet.

Lessing could not, of course, accept its standpoint. His idea of revelation, and his conception of the Person of Jesus, were much deeper than those of the Fragmentist. He was a thinker; Reimarus only a historian. But this was the first time that a really historical mind, thoroughly conversant with the sources, had undertaken the criticism of the tradition. It was Lessing's greatness that he grasped the significance of this criticism, and felt that it must lead either to the destruction or to the recasting of the idea of revelation. He recognised that the introduction of the historical element would transform and deepen rationalism. Convinced that the fateful moment had arrived, he disregarded the scruples of Reimarus' family and the objections of Nicolai and Mendelssohn, and, though inwardly trembling for that which he himself held sacred, he flung the torch with his own hand.

Semler, at the close of his refutation of the fragment, ridicules its editor in the following apologue. "A prisoner was once brought before


the Lord Mayor of London on a charge of arson. He had been seen coming down from the upper story of the burning house. 'Yesterday,' so ran his defence, 'about four o'clock I went into my neighbour's storeroom and saw there a burning candle which the servants had carelessly forgotten. In the course of the night it would have burned down, and set fire to the stairs. To make sure that the fire should break out in the day-time, I threw some straw upon it. The flames burst out at the skylight, the fire-engines came hurrying up, and the fire, which in the night might have been dangerous, was promptly extinguished.' 'Why did you not yourself pick up the candle and put it out?' asked the Lord Mayor. 'If I had put out the candle the servants would not have learned to be more careful; now that there has been such a fuss about it, they will not be so careless in future.' 'Odd, very odd,' said the Lord Mayor, 'he is not a criminal, only a little weak in the head.' So he had him shut up in the mad-house, and there he lies to this day."

The story is extraordinarily apposite — only that Lessing was not mad; he knew quite well what he was doing. His object was to show how an unseen enemy had pushed his parallels up to the very walls, and to summon to the defence "some one who should be as nearly the ideal defender of religion as the Fragmentist was the ideal assailant." Once, with prophetic insight into the future, he says: "The Christian traditions must be explained by the inner truth of Christianity, and no written traditions can give it that inner truth, if it does not itself possess it."

Reimarus takes as his starting-point the question regarding the content of the preaching of Jesus. "We are justified," he says, "in drawing an absolute distinction between the teaching of the Apostles in their writings and what Jesus Himself in His own lifetime proclaimed and taught." What belongs to the preaching of Jesus is clearly to be recognised. It is contained in two phrases of identical meaning, "Repent, and believe the Gospel," or, as it is put elsewhere, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

The Kingdom of Heaven must however be understood "according to Jewish ways of thought." Neither Jesus nor the Baptist ever explain this expression; therefore they must have been content to have it understood in its known and customary sense. That means that Jesus took His stand within the Jewish religion, and accepted its Messianic expectations without in any way correcting them. If He gives a new development to this religion it is only in so far that He proclaims as near at hand the realisation of ideals and hopes which were alive in thousands of hearts.

There was thus no need for detailed instruction regarding the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven; the catechism and confession of the Church at its commencement consisted of a single phrase. Belief was not difficult: "they need only believe the Gospel, namely that Jesus was about to bring


in the Kingdom of God." [1] As there were many among the Jews who were already waiting for the Kingdom of God, it was no wonder that in a few days, nay in a few hours, some thousands believed, although they had been told only that Jesus was the promised prophet.

This was the sum total of what the disciples knew about the Kingdom of God when they were sent out by their Master to proclaim its coming. Their hearers would naturally think of the customary meaning of the term and the hopes which attached themselves to it. "The purpose of sending out such propagandists could only be that the Jews who groaned under the Roman yoke and had long cherished the hope of deliverance should be stirred up all over Judaea and assemble themselves in their thousands."

Jesus must have known, too, that if the people believed His messengers they would look about for an earthly deliverer and turn to Him for this purpose. The Gospel, therefore, meant nothing more or less to all who heard it than that, under the leadership of Jesus, the Kingdom of Messiah was about to be brought in. For them there was no difficulty in accepting the belief that He was the Messiah, the Son of God, for this belief did not involve anything metaphysical. The nation was the Son of God; the kings of the covenant-people were Sons of God; the Messiah was in a pre-eminent sense the Son of God. Thus even in His Messianic claims Jesus remained "within the limits of humanity."

The fact that He did not need to explain to His contemporaries what He meant by the Kingdom of God constitutes a difficulty for us. The parables do not enlighten us, for they presuppose a knowledge of the conception. "If we could not gather from the writings of the Jews some further information as to what was understood at that time by the Messiah and the Kingdom of God, these points of primary importance would be very obscure and incomprehensible."

If, therefore, we desire to gain a historical understanding of Jesus' teaching, we must leave behind what we learned in our catechism regarding the metaphysical Divine Sonship, the Trinity, and similar dogmatic conceptions, and go out into a wholly Jewish world of thought. Only those who carry the teachings of the catechism back into the preaching of the Jewish Messiah will arrive at the idea that He was the founder of a new religion. To all unprejudiced persons it is manifest "that Jesus had not the slightest intention of doing away with the Jewish religion and putting another in its place."

From Matt. v. 18 it is evident that Jesus did not break with the Law, but took His stand upon it unreservedly. If there was anything at all new

[1] The quotations inserted without special introduction are, of course, from Reimarus. It is Dr. Schweitzer's method to lead up by a paragraph of exposition to one of these characteristic phrases.—TRANSLATOR.


in His preaching, it was the righteousness which was requisite for the Kingdom of God. The righteousness of the Law will no longer suffice in the time of the coming Kingdom; a new and deeper morality must come into being. This demand is the only point in which the preaching of Jesus went beyond the ideas of His contemporaries. But this new morality does not do away with the Law, for He explains it as a fulfilment of the old commandments. His followers, no doubt, broke with the Law later on. They did so, however, not in pursuance of a command of Jesus, but under the pressure of circumstances, at the time when they were forced out of Judaism and obliged to found a new religion.

Jesus shared the Jewish racial exclusiveness wholly and unreservedly. According to Matt. x. 5 He forbade His disciples to declare to the Gentiles the coming of the Kingdom of God. Evidently, therefore. His purpose did not embrace them. Had it been otherwise, the hesitation of Peter in Acts x. and xi., and the necessity of justifying the conversion of Cornelius, would be incomprehensible.

Baptism and the Lord's Supper are no evidence that Jesus intended to found a new religion. In the first place the genuineness of the command to baptize in Matt. xxviii. 19 is questionable, not only as a saying ascribed to the risen Jesus, but also because it is universalistic in outlook, and because it implies the doctrine of the Trinity and, consequently, the metaphysical Divine Sonship of Jesus. In this it is inconsistent with the earliest traditions regarding the practice of baptism in the Christian community, for in the earliest times, as we learn from the Acts and from Paul, it was the custom to baptize, not in the name of the Trinity, but in the name of Jesus, the Messiah.

But, furthermore, it is questionable whether Baptism really goes back to Jesus at all. He Himself baptized no one in His own lifetime, and never commanded any of His converts to be baptized. So we cannot be sure about the origin of Baptism, though we can be sure of its meaning. Baptism in the name of Jesus signified only that Jesus was the Messiah. "For the only change which the teaching of Jesus made in their religion was that whereas they had formerly believed in a Deliverer of Israel who was to come in the future, they now believed in a Deliverer who was already present."

The "Lord's Supper," again, was no new institution, but merely an episode at the last Paschal Meal of the Kingdom which was passing away, and was intended "as an anticipatory celebration of the Passover of the New Kingdom." A Lord's Supper in our sense, "cut loose from the Passover," would have been inconceivable to Jesus, and not less so to His disciples.

It is useless to appeal to the miracles, any more than to the "Sacraments," as evidence for the founding of a new religion. In the first place,


we have to remember what happens in the case of miracles handed down by tradition. That Jesus effected cures, which in the eyes of His contemporaries were miraculous, is not to be denied. Their purpose was to prove Him to be the Messiah. He forbade these miracles to be made known, even in cases where they could not possibly be kept hidden, "with the sole purpose of making people more eager to talk of them." Other miracles, however, have no basis in fact, but owe their place in the narrative to the feeling that the miracle-stories of the Old Testament must be repeated in the case of Jesus, but on a grander scale. He did no really miraculous works; otherwise, the demands for a sign would be incomprehensible. In Jerusalem when all the people were looking eagerly for an overwhelming manifestation of His Messiahship, what a tremendous effect a miracle would have produced! If only a single miracle had been publicly, convincingly, undeniably, performed by Jesus before all the people on one of the great days of the Feast, such is human nature that all the people would at once have nocked to His standard.

For this popular uprising, however, He waited in vain. Twice He be- lieved that it was near at hand. The first time was when He was sending out the disciples and said to them: "Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes" (Matt. x. 23). He thought that, at the preaching of the disciples, the people would flock to Him from every quarter and immediately proclaim Him Messiah; but His expectation was disappointed.

The second time, He thought to bring about the decisive issue in Jerusalem. He made His entry riding on an ass's colt, that the Messianic prophecy of Zechariah might be fulfilled. And the people actually did cry "Hosanna to the Son of David!" Relying on the support of His followers He might now, He thought, bid defiance to the authorities. In the temple He arrogates to Himself supreme power, and in glowing words calls for an open revolt against the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees, on the ground that they have shut the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven and forbidden others to go in. There is no doubt, now, that He will carry the people with Him! Confident in the success of His cause, He closes the great incendiary harangue in Matt. xxiii. with the words "Truly from henceforth ye shall not see me again until ye shall say Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord"; that is, until they should hail Him as Messiah.

But the people in Jerusalem refused to rise, as the Galilaeans had refused at the time when the disciples were sent out to rouse them. The Council prepared for vigorous action. The voluntary concealment by which Jesus had thought to whet the eagerness of the people became involuntary. Before His arrest He was overwhelmed with dread, and on the cross He closed His life with the words "My God! my God! why


hast Thou forsaken me?" "This avowal cannot, without violence, be interpreted otherwise than as meaning that God had not aided Him in His aim and purpose as He had hoped. That shows that it had not been His purpose to suffer and die, but to establish an earthly kingdom and deliver the Jews from political oppression — and in that God's help had failed Him."

For the disciples this turn of affairs meant the destruction of all the dreams for the sake of which they had followed Jesus. For if they had given up anything on His account, it was only in order to receive it again an hundredfold when they should openly take their places in the eyes of all the world as the friends and ministers of the Messiah, as the rulers of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus never disabused them of this sensuous hope, but, on the contrary, confirmed them in it. When He put an end to the quarrel about pre-eminence, and when He answered the request of the sons of Zebedee, He did not attack the assumption that there were to be thrones and power, but only addressed Himself to the question how men were in the present to establish their claims to that position of authority.

All this implies that the time of the fulfilment of these hopes was not thought of by Jesus and His disciples as at all remote. In Matt. xvi. 28, for example, He says: "Truly I say unto you there are some standing here who shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." There is no justification for twisting this about or explaining it away. It simply means that Jesus promises the fulfilment of all Messianic hopes before the end of the existing generation.

Thus the disciples were prepared for anything rather than that which actually happened. Jesus had never said a word to them about His dying and rising again, otherwise they would not have so played the coward at His death, nor have been so astonished at His "resurrection." The three or four sayings referring to these events must therefore have been put into His mouth later, in order to make it appear that He had foreseen these events in His original plan.

How, then, did they get over this apparently annihilating blow? By falling back upon the second form of the Jewish Messianic hope. Hitherto their thoughts, like those of their Master, had been dominated by the political ideal of the prophets — the scion of David's line who should appear as the political deliverer of the nation. But alongside of that there existed another Messianic expectation which transferred everything to the supernatural sphere. Appearing first in Daniel, this expectation can still be traced in the Apocalypses, in Justin's "Dialogue with Trypho," and in certain Rabbinic sayings. According to these — Reimarus makes use especially of the statements of Trypho — the Messiah is to appear twice; once in human lowliness, the second time upon the


clouds of heaven. When the first systema, as Reimarus calls it, was annihilated by the death of Jesus, the disciples brought forward the second, and gathered followers who shared their expectation of a second coming of Jesus the Messiah. In order to get rid of the difficulty of the death of Jesus, they gave it the significance of a spiritual redemption — which had not previously entered their field of vision or that of Jesus Himself.

But this spiritual interpretation of His death would not have helped them if they had not also invented the resurrection. Immediately after the death of Jesus, indeed, such an idea was far from their thoughts. They were in deadly fear and kept close within doors. "Soon, however, one and another ventures to slip out. They learn that no judicial search is being made for them." Then they consider what is to be done. They did not take kindly to the idea of returning to their old haunts; on their journeyings the companions of the Messiah had forgotten how to work. They had seen that the preaching of the Kingdom of God will keep a man. Even when they had been sent out without wallet or money they had not lacked. The women who are mentioned in Luke viii. 2, 3, had made it their business to make good provision for the Messiah and His future ministers.

Why not, then, continue this mode of life? They would surely find a sufficient number of faithful souls who would join them in directing their hopes towards a second coming of the Messiah, and while awaiting the future glory, would share their possessions with them. So they stole the body of Jesus and hid it, and proclaimed to all the world that He would soon return. They prudently waited, however, for fifty days before making this announcement, in order that the body, if it should be found, might be unrecognisable.

What was much in their favour was the complete disorganisation of the Jewish state. Had there been an efficient police administration the disciples would not have been able to plan this fraud and organise their communistic fellowship. But, as it was, the new society was not even subjected to any annoyance in consequence of the remarkable death of a married couple who were buried from the apostles' house, and the brotherhood was even allowed to confiscate their property to its own uses.

It appears, then, that the hope of the Parousia was the fundamental thing in primitive Christianity, which was a product of that hope much more than of the teaching of Jesus. Accordingly, the main problem of primitive dogmatics was the delay of the Parousia. Already in Paul's time the problem was pressing, and he had to set to work in 2 Thessalonians to discover all possible and impossible reasons why the Second Coming should be delayed. Reimarus mercilessly exposes the position of the apostle, who was obliged to fob people off somehow or other. The


author of 2 Peter has a much clearer notion of what he would be at, and undertakes to restore the confidence of Christendom once for all with the sophism of the thousand years which are in the sight of God as one day, ignoring the fact that in the promise the reckoning was by man's years, not by God's. "Nevertheless it served the turn of the Apostles so well with those simple early Christians, that after the first believers had been bemused with it, and the period originally fixed had elapsed, the Christians of later generations, including Fathers of the Church, could continue ever after to feed themselves with empty hopes." The saying of Christ about the generation which should not die out before His return clearly fixes this event at no very distant date. But since Jesus has not yet appeared upon the clouds of heaven "these words must be strained into meaning, not that generation, but the Jewish people. Thus by exegetical art they are saved for ever, for the Jewish race will never die out."

In general, however, "the theologians of the present day skim lightly over the eschatological material in the Gospels because it does not chime in with their views, and assign to the coming of Christ upon the clouds quite a different purpose from that which it bears in the teaching of Christ and His apostles." Inasmuch as the non-fulfilment of its eschatology is not admitted, our Christianity rests upon a fraud. In view of this fact, what is the evidential value of any miracle, even if it could be held to be authentic? "No miracle would prove that two and two make five, or that a circle has four angles; and no miracles, however numerous, could remove a contradiction which lies on the surface of the teachings and records of Christianity." Nor is there any weight in the appeal to the fulfilment of prophecy, for the cases in which Matthew countersigns it with the words "that the Scripture might be fulfilled" are all artificial and unreal; and for many incidents the stage was set by Jesus, or His disciples, or the Evangelists, with the deliberate purpose of presenting to the people a scene from the fulfilment of prophecy.

The sole argument which could save the credit of Christianity would be a proof that the Parousia had really taken place at the time for which it was announced; and obviously no such proof can be produced.

Such is Reimarus' reconstruction of the history. We can well understand that his work must have given offence when it appeared, for it is a polemic, not an objective historical study. But we have no right simply to dismiss it in a word, as a Deistic production, as Otto Schmiedel, for example, does; [1] it is time that Reimarus came to his own, and that we should recognise a historical performance of no mean order in this piece of Deistic polemics. His work is perhaps the most splendid achieve-

[1] Otto Schmiedel, Die Hauptprobleme der Leben-Jesu-Forschitng. Tubingen, 1902.


ment in the whole course of the historical investigation of the life of Jesus, for he was the first to grasp the fact that the world of thought in which Jesus moved was essentially eschatological. There is some justification for the animosity which flames up in his writing. This historical truth had taken possession of his mind with such overwhelming force that he could no longer understand his contemporaries, and could not away with their profession that their beliefs were, as they professed to be, directly derived from the preaching of Jesus.

What added to the offence was that he saw the eschatology in a wrong perspective. He held that the Messianic ideal which dominated the preaching of Jesus was that of the political ruler, the son of David. All his other mistakes are the consequence of this fundamental error. It was, of course, a mere makeshift hypothesis to derive the beginnings of Christianity from an imposture. Historical science was not at that time sufficiently advanced to lead even the man who had divined the fundamentally eschatological character of the preaching of Jesus onward to the historical solution of the problem; it needed more than a hundred and twenty years to fill in the chasm which Reimarus had been forced to bridge with that makeshift hypothesis of his.

In the light of the clear perception of the elements of the problem which Reimarus had attained, the whole movement of theology, down to Johannes Weiss, appears retrograde. In all its work the thesis is ignored or obscured that Jesus, as a historical personality, is to be regarded, not as the founder of a new religion, but as the final product of the eschatological and apocalyptic thought of Late Judaism. Every sentence of Johannes Weiss's Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes (1892) is a vindication, a rehabilitation, of Reimarus as a historical thinker.

Even so the traveller on the plain sees from afar the distant range of mountains. Then he loses sight of them again. His way winds slowly upwards through the valleys, drawing ever nearer to the peaks, until at last, at a turn of the path, they stand before him, not in the shapes which they had seemed to take from the distant plain, but in their actual forms. Reimarus was the first, after eighteen centuries of misconception, to have an inkling of what eschatology really was. Then theology lost sight of it again, and it was not until after the lapse of more than a hundred years that it came in view of eschatology once more, now in its true form, so far as that can be historically determined, and only after it had been led astray, almost to the last, in all its historical researches by the sole mistake of Reimarus — the assumption that the eschatology was earthly and political in character. Thus theology shared at least the error of the man whom it knew only as a Deist, not as an historian, and whose true greatness was not recognised even by Strauss, though he raised a literary monument to him.


The solution offered by Reimarus may be wrong; the data of observation from which he starts out are, beyond question, right, because the primary datum of all is genuinely historical. He recognised that two systems of Messianic expectation were present side by side in Late Judaism. He endeavoured to bring them into mutual relations in order to represent the actual movement of the history. In so doing he made the mistake of placing them in consecutive order, ascribing to Jesus the political Son-of-David conception, and to the Apostles, after His death, the apocalyptic system based on Daniel, instead of superimposing one upon the other in such a way that the Messianic King might coincide with the Son of Man, and the ancient prophetic conception might be inscribed within the circumference of the Daniel-descended apocalyptic, and raised along with it to the supersensuous plane. But what matters the mistake in comparison with the fact that the problem was really grasped?

Reimarus felt that the absence in the preaching of Jesus of any definition of the principal term (the Kingdom of God), in conjunction with the great and rapid success of His preaching constituted a problem, and he formulated the conception that Jesus was not a religious founder and teacher, but purely a preacher.

He brought the Synoptic and Johannine narratives into harmony by practically leaving the latter out of account. The attitude of Jesus towards the law, and the process by which the disciples came to take up a freer attitude, was grasped and explained by him so accurately that modern historical science does not need to add a word, but would be well pleased if at least half the theologians of the present day had got as far.

Further, he recognised that primitive Christianity was not something which grew, so to speak, out of the teaching of Jesus, but that it came into being as a new creation, in consequence of events and circumstances which added something to that preaching which it did not previously contain; and that Baptism and the Lord's Supper, in the historical sense of these terms, were not instituted by Jesus, but created by the early Church on the basis of certain historical assumptions.

Again, Reimarus felt that the fact that the "event of Easter" was first proclaimed at Pentecost constituted a problem, and he sought a solution for it. He recognised, further, that the solution of the problem of the life of Jesus calls for a combination of the methods of historical and literary criticism. He felt that merely to emphasise the part played by eschatology would not suffice, but that it was necessary to assume a creative element in the tradition, to which he ascribed the miracles, the stories which turn on the fulfilment of Messianic prophecy, the universalistic traits and the predictions of the passion and the resurrection. Like Wrede, too he feels that the prescription of silence in the case of miracles of healing


and of certain communications to the disciples constitutes a problem which demands solution.

Still more remarkable is his eye for exegetical detail. He has an unfailing instinct for pregnant passages like Matt. x. 23, xvi. 28, which are crucial for the interpretation of large masses of the history. The fact is there are some who are historians by the grace of God, who from their mother's womb have an instinctive feeling for the real. They follow through all the intricacy and confusion of reported fact the pathway of reality, like a stream which, despite the rocks that encumber its course and the windings of its valley, finds its way inevitably to the sea. No erudition can supply the place of this historical instinct, but erudition sometimes serves a useful purpose, inasmuch as it produces in its possessors the pleasing belief that they are historians, and thus secures their services for the cause of history. In truth they are at best merely doing the preliminary spade-work of history, collecting for a future historian the dry bones of fact, from which, with the aid of his natural gift, he can recall the past to life. More often, however, the way in which erudition seeks to serve history is by suppressing historical discoveries as long as possible, and leading out into the field to oppose the one true view an army of possibilities. By arraying these in support of one another it finally imagines that it has created out of possibilities a living reality.

This obstructive erudition is the special prerogative of theology, in which, even at the present day, a truly marvellous scholarship often serves only to blind the eyes to elementary truths, and to cause the artificial to be preferred to the natural. And this happens not only with those who deliberately shut their minds against new impressions, but also with those whose purpose is to go forward, and to whom their contemporaries look up as leaders. It was a typical illustration of this fact when Semler rose up and slew Reimarus in the name of scientific theology.[1]

Reimarus had discredited progressive theology. Students — so Semler tells us in his preface — became unsettled and sought other callings. The great Halle theologian — born in 1725 — the pioneer of the historical view of the Canon, the precursor of Baur in the reconstruction of primitive Christianity, was urged to do away with the offence. As Origen of yore with Celsus, so Semler takes Reimarus sentence by sentence, in such a way that if his work were lost it could be recovered from the refutation. The fact was that Semler had nothing in the nature of a complete or well-articulated argument to oppose to him; therefore he inaugurated

[1] Doderlein also wrote a defence of Jesus against the Fragmentist: Fragments und Antifragmente. Nuremberg, 1778.


in his reply the "Yes, but" theology, which thereafter, for more than three generations, while it took, itself, the most various modifications, imagined that it had finally got rid of Reimarus and his discovery.

Reimarus — so ran the watchword of the guerrilla warfare which Semler waged against him — cannot be right, for he is one-sided. Jesus and His disciples employed two methods of teaching: one sensuous, pictorial, drawn from the sphere of Jewish ideas, by which they adapted their meaning to the understanding of the multitude, and endeavoured to raise them to a higher way of thinking; and alongside of that a purely spiritual teaching which was independent of that kind of imagery. Both methods of teaching continued to be used side by side, because there were always contemporary representatives of the two degrees of capability and the two kinds of temperament. "This is historically so certain that the Fragmentist's attack must inevitably be defeated at this point, because he takes account only of the sensuous representation." But his attack was not defeated. What happened was that, owing to the respect in which Semler was held, and the absolute incapacity of contemporary theology to overtake the long stride forward made by Reimarus, his work was neglected, and the stimulus which it was capable of imparting failed to take effect. He had no predecessors; neither had he any disciples. His work is one of those supremely great works which pass and leave no trace, because they are before their time; to which later generations pay a just tribute of admiration, but owe no gratitude. Indeed it would be truer to say that Reimarus hung a mill-stone about the neck of the rising theological science of his time. He avenged himself on Semler by shaking his faith in historical theology and even in the freedom of science in general. By the end of the eighth decade of the century the Halle professor was beginning to retrace his steps, was becoming more and more disloyal to the cause which he had formerly served; and he finally went so far as to give his approval to Wollner's edict for the regulation of religion (1788), His friends attributed this change of front to senility — he died 1791.

Thus the magnificent overture in which are announced all the motifs of the future historical treatment of the life of Jesus breaks off with a sudden discord, remains isolated and incomplete, and leads to nothing further.

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Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.