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The Quest of the Historical Jesus

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Johann Jakob Bess. Geschichte der drei letzten Lebensjahre Jesu. (History of the Last Three Years of the Life of Jesus.) 3 vols., 1400 pp. Leipzig-Zurich, 1768-1772; 3rd ed., 1774 ff.; 7th ed., 1823 ff.

Franz Volkmar Reinhard. Versuch liber den Plan, welchen der Stifter der christlichen Religion zum Besten der Menschheit entwarf. (Essay upon the Plan which the Founder of the Christian Religion adopted for the Benefit of Man- kind.) 500 pp. 1781; 4th ed., 1798; 5th ed., 1830. Our account is based on the 4th ed. The 5th contains supplementary matter by Heubner.

Ernst August Opitz. Preacher at Zscheppelin. Geschichte und Characterziige Jesu. (History of Jesus, with a Delineation of His Character.) Jena and Leipzig, 1812. 488 pp.

Johann Adolph Jakobi. Superintendent at Waltershausen. Die Geschichte Jesu fiir denkende und gemiitvolle Leser, 1816. (The History of Jesus for thoughtful and sympathetic readers.) A second volume, containing the history of the apostolic age, followed in 1818.

Johann Gottfried Herder. Vom Erioser der Menschen. Nach unsern drei ersten Evangelien. (The Redeemer of men, as portrayed in our first three Gospels.) 1796. Von Gottes Sohn, der Welt Heiland. Nach Johannes Evangelium. (The Son of God, the Saviour of the World, as portrayed by John's Gospel.) Accompanied by a rule for the harmonisation of our Gospels on the basis of their origin and order. Riga, published by Hartknoch, 1797. See Herder's complete works, ed. Suphan, vol. xix.

THAT THOROUGH-GOING THEOLOGICAL RATIONALISM WHICH ACCEPTS ONLY so much of religion as can justify itself at the bar of reason, and which conceives and represents the origin of religion in accordance with this principle, was preceded by a rationalism less complete, as yet not wholly dissociated from a simple-minded supernaturalism. Its point of view is one at which it is almost impossible for the modern man to place himself. Here, in a single consciousness, orthodoxy and rationalism lie stratified in successive layers. Here, to change the metaphor, rationalism surrounds religion without touching it, and, like a lake surrounding some ancient castle, mirrors its image with curious refractions.


This half-developed rationalism was conscious of an impulse — it is the first time in the history of theology that this impulse manifests itself — to write the Life of Jesus; at first without any suspicion whither this undertaking would lead it. No rude hands were to be laid upon the doctrinal conception of Jesus; at least these writers had no intention of laying hands upon it. Their purpose was simply to gain a clearer view of the course of our Lord's earthly and human life. The theologians who undertook this task thought of themselves as merely writing an historical supplement to the life of the God-Man Jesus. These "Lives" are, therefore, composed according to the prescription of the "good old gentleman" who in 1829 advised the young Hase to treat first of the divine, and then of the human side of the life of Jesus.

The battle about miracle had not yet begun. But miracle no longer plays a part of any importance; it is a firmly established principle that the teaching of Jesus, and religion in general, hold their place solely in virtue of their inner reasonableness, not by the support of outward evidence.

The only thing that is really rationalistic in these older works is the treatment of the teaching of Jesus. Even those that retain the largest share of supernaturalism are as completely undogmatic as the more advanced in their reproduction of the discourses of the Great Teacher. All of them make it a principle to lose no opportunity of reducing the number of miracles; where they can explain a miracle by natural causes, they do not hesitate for a moment. But the deliberate rejection of all miracles, the elimination of everything supernatural which intrudes itself into the life of Jesus, is still to seek. That principle was first consistently carried through by Paulus. With these earlier writers it depends on the degree of enlightenment of the individual whether the irreducible minimum of the supernatural is larger or smaller.

Moreover, the period of this older rationalism, like every period when human thought has been strong and vigorous, is wholly unhistorical. What it is looking for is not the past, but itself in the past. For it, the problem of the life of Jesus is solved the moment it succeeds in bringing Jesus near to its own time, in portraying Him as the great teacher of virtue, and showing that His teaching is identical with the intellectual truth which rationalism deifies.

The temporal limits of this half-and-half rationalism are difficult to define. For the historical study of the life of Jesus the first landmark which it offers is the work of Hess, which appeared in 1768. But it held its ground for a long time side by side with rationalism proper, which failed to drive it from the field. A seventh edition of Hess's Life of Jesus appeared as late as 1823; while a fifth edition of Reinhard's work saw the light in 1830. And when Strauss struck the death-blow of out-


and-out rationalism, the half-and-half rationalism did not perish with it, but allied itself with the neo-supernaturalism which Strauss's treatment of the life of Jesus had called into being; and it still prolongs an obscure existence in a certain section of conservative literature, though it has lost its best characteristics, its simple-mindedness and honesty.

These older rationalistic Lives of Jesus are, from the aesthetic point of view, among the least pleasing of all theological productions. The sentimentality of the portraiture is boundless. Boundless, also, and still more objectionable, is the want of respect for the language of Jesus. He must speak in a rational and modern fashion, and accordingly all His utterances are reproduced in a style of the most polite modernity. None of the speeches are allowed to stand as they were spoken; they are taken to pieces, paraphrased, and expanded, and sometimes, with the view of making them really lively, they are recast in the mould of a freely invented dialogue. In all these Lives of Jesus, not a single one of His sayings retains its authentic form.

And yet we must not be unjust to these writers. What they aimed at was to bring Jesus near to their own time, and in so doing they became the pioneers of the historical study of His life. The defects of their work in regard to aesthetic feeling and historical grasp are outweighed by the attractiveness of the purposeful, unprejudiced thinking which here awakens, stretches itself, and begins to move with freedom.

Johann Jakob Hess was born in 1741 and died in 1828. After working as a curate for seventeen years he became one of the assistant clergy at the Frauminster at Zurich, and later "Antistes," president, of the cantonal synod. In this capacity he guided the destinies of the Church in Zurich safely through the troublous times of the Revolution. He was not a deep thinker, but was well read and not without ability. As a man, he did splendid work.

His Life of Jesus still keeps largely to the lines of a paraphrase of the Gospels; indeed, he calls it a paraphrasing history. It is based upon a harmonising combination of the four Gospels. The matter of the Synoptic narratives is, as in all the Lives of Jesus prior to Strauss — with the sole exception of Herder's — fitted more or less arbitrarily into the intervals between the Passovers in the fourth Gospel.

In regard to miracles, he admits that these are a stumblingblock. But they are essential to the Gospel narrative and to revelation; had Jesus been only a moral teacher and not the Son of God they would not have been necessary. We must be careful, however, not to prize miracles for their own sake, but to look primarily to their ethical teaching. It was, he remarks, the mistake of the Jews to regard all the acts of Jesus solely from the point of view of their strange and miraculous character, and to


forget their moral teaching; whereas we, from distaste for miracle as such, run the risk of excluding from the Gospel history events which are bound up with the Gospel revelation.

Above all, we must retain the supernatural birth and the bodily resurrection, because on the former depends the sinlessness of Jesus, on the latter the certainty of the general resurrection of the dead. The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness was a stratagem of Satan by which he hoped to discover "whether Jesus of Nazareth was really so extraordinary a person that he would have cause to fear Him." The resurrection of Lazarus is authentic.

But the Gospel narrative is rationalised whenever it can be done. It was not the demons, but the Gadarene demoniacs themselves, who rushed among the swine. Alarmed by their fury the whole herd plunged over the precipice into the lake and were drowned; while by this accommodation to the fixed idea of the demoniacs, Jesus effected their cure. Perhaps, too, Hess conjectures, the Lord desired to test the Gadarenes, and to see whether they would attach greater importance to the good deed done to two of their number than to the loss of their swine. This explanation, reinforced by its moral, held its ground in theology for some sixty years and passed over into a round dozen Lives of Jesus.

This plan of "presenting each occurrence in such a way that what is valuable and instructive in it immediately strikes the eye" is followed out by Hess so faithfully that all clearness of impression is destroyed. The parables are barely recognisable, swathed, as they are, in the mummy-wrappings of his paraphrase; and in most cases their meaning is completely travestied by the ethical or historical allusions which he finds in them. The parable of the pounds is explained as referring to a man who went, like Archelaus, to Rome to obtain the kingship, while his subjects intrigued behind his back.

Of the peculiar beauty of the speech of Jesus not a trace remains. The parable of the Sower, for instance, begins: "A countryman went to sow his field, which lay beside a country-road, and was here and there rather rocky, and in some places weedy, but in general was well cultivated, and had a good sort of soil." The beatitude upon the mourners appears in the following guise: "Happy are they who amid the adversities of the present make the best of things and submit themselves with patience; for such men, if they do not see better times here, shall certainly elsewhere receive comfort and consolation." The question addressed by the Pharisees to John the Baptist, and his answer, are given dialogue-wise, in fustian of this kind:—The Pharisees: "We are directed to enquire of you, in the name of our president, who you profess to be? As people are at present expecting the Messiah, and seem not indisposed to accept you in that capacity, we are the more anxious that you should declare your-


self with regard to your vocation and person." John: "The conclusion might have been drawn from my discourses that I was not the Messiah. Why should people attribute such lofty pretensions to me?" etc. In order to give the Gospels the true literary flavour, a characterisation is tacked on to each of the persons of the narrative. In the case of the disciples, for instance, this runs: "They had sound common sense, but very limited insight; the capacity to receive teaching, but an incapacity for reflective thought; a knowledge of their own weakness, but a difficulty in getting rid of old prejudices; sensibility to right feeling, but weakness in following out a pre-determined moral plan."

The simplest occurrences give occasion for sentimental portraiture. The saying "Except ye become as little children" is introduced in the following fashion: "Jesus called a boy who was standing near. The boy came. Jesus took his hand and told him to stand beside Him, nearer than any of His disciples, so that he had the foremost place among them. Then Jesus threw His arm round the boy and pressed him tenderly to His breast. The disciples looked on in astonishment, wondering what this meant. Then He explained to them," etc. In these expansions Hess does not always escape the ludicrous. The saying of Jesus in John x. 9, "I am the door," takes on the following form: "No one, whether he be sheep or shepherd, can come into the fold (if, that is to say, he follows the right way) except in so far as he knows me and is admitted by me, and included among the flock."

Remhard's work is on a distinctly higher level. The author was born in 1753. In 1792, after he had worked for fourteen years as Docent in Wittenberg, he was appointed Senior Court Chaplain at Dresden. He died in 1812.

"I am, as you know, a very prosaic person," writes Reinhard to a friend, and in these words he has given an admirable characterisation of himself. The writers who chiefly appeal to him are the ancient moralists; he acknowledges that he has learned more from them than from a "collegium homileticum." In his celebrated "System of Christian Ethics" (5 vols., 1788-1815) he makes copious use of them. His sermons — they fill thirty-five volumes, and in their day were regarded as models — show some power and depth of thought, but are all cast in the same mould. He seems to have been haunted by a fear that it might some time befall him to admit into his mind a thought which was mystical or visionary, not justifiable by the laws of logic and the canons of the critical reason. With all his philosophising and rationalising, however, certain pillars of the supernaturalistic view of history remain for him immovable.

At first sight one might be inclined to suppose that he frankly shared the belief in miracle. He mentions the raising of the widow's son, and of


Lazarus, and accepts as an authentic saying the command of the risen Jesus to baptize all nations. But if we look more closely, we find that he deliberately brings very few miracles into his narrative, and the definition by which he disintegrates the conception of miracle from within leaves no doubt as to his own position. What he says is this: "All that which we call miraculous and supernatural is to be understood as only relatively so, and implies nothing further than an obvious exception to what can be brought about by natural causes, so far as we know them and have experience of their capacity. A cautious thinker will not venture in any single instance to pronounce an event to be so extraordinary that God could not have brought it about by the use of secondary causes, but must have intervened directly."

The case stands similarly with regard to the divinity ot Christ. Reinhard assumes it, but his "Life" is not directed to prove it; it leads only to the conclusion that the Founder of Christianity is to be regarded aa a wonderful "divine" teacher. In order to prove His uniqueness, Reinhard has to show that His plan for the welfare of mankind was something incomparably higher than anything which hero or sage has ever striven for. Reinhard makes the first attempt to give an account of the teaching of Jesus which should be historical in the sense that all dogmatic considerations should be excluded. "Above all things, let us collect and examine the indications which we find in the writings of His companions regarding the designs which He had in view."

The plan of Jesus shows its greatness above all in its universality. Reinhard is well aware of the difficulty raised in this connexion by those sayings which assert the prerogative of Israel, and he discusses them at length. He finds the solution in the assumption that Jesus in His own lifetime naturally confined Himself to working among His own people, and was content to indicate the future universal development of His plan.

With the intention of "introducing a universal change, tending to the benefit of the whole human race," Jesus attaches His teaching to the Jewish eschatology. It is only the form of His teaching, however, which is affected by this, since He gives an entirely different significance to the terms Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God, referring them to a universal ethical reorganisation of mankind. But His plan was entirely independent of politics. He never based His claims upon His Davidic descent. This was, indeed, the reason why He held aloof from His family. Even the entry into Jerusalem had no Messianic significance. His plan was so entirely non-political that He would, on the contrary, have welcomed the severance of all connexion between the state and religion, in order to avoid the risk of a conflict between these two powers. Reinhard explains the voluntary death of Jesus as due to this endeavour. "He


quitted the stage of the world by so early and shameful a death because He wished to destroy at once and for ever the mistaken impression that He was aiming at the foundation of an earthly kingdom, and to turn the thoughts, wishes, and efforts of His disciples and companions into another channel."

In order to make the Kingdom of God a practical reality, it was necessary for Him to dissociate it from all the forces of this world, and to bring morality and religion into the closest connexion. "The law of love was the indissoluble bond by which Jesus for ever united morality with religion." "Moral instruction was the principal content and the very essence of all His discourses." His efforts "were directed to the establishment of a purely ethical organisation."

It was important, therefore, to overthrow superstition and to bring religion within the domain of reason. First of all the priesthood must be deprived for ever of its influence. Then an improvement of the social condition of mankind must be introduced, since the level of morality depends upon social conditions. Jesus was a social reformer. Through the attainment of "the highest perfection of which Society is capable, universal peace" was "gradually to be brought about."

But the point of primary importance for Him was the alliance of religion with reason. Reason was to maintain its freedom by the aid of religion, and religion was not to be withdrawn from the critical judgment of reason: all things were to be tested, and only the best retained.

"From these data it is easy to determine the characteristics of a religion which is to be the religion of all mankind: it must be ethical, intelligible, and spiritual."

After the plan of Jesus has been expounded on these lines, Reinhard shows, in the second part of his work, that, prior to Jesus, no great man of antiquity had devised a plan of beneficence of a scope commensurate with the whole human race. In the third part the conclusion is drawn that Jesus is the uniquely divine Teacher.

But before the author can venture to draw this conclusion, he feels it necessary first to show that the plan of Jesus was no chimera. If we were obliged to admit its impracticability Jesus would have to be ranked with the visionaries and enthusiasts; and these, however noble and virtuous, can only injure the cause of rational religion. "Visionary enthusiasm and enlightened reason — who that knows anything of the human mind can conceive these two as united in a single soul?" But Jesus was no visionary enthusiast. "With what calmness, self-mastery, and cool determination does He think out and pursue His divine purpose?" By the truths which He revealed and declared to be divine communications He did not desire to put pressure upon the human mind, but only to guide it. "It would be impossible to show a more conscientious respect


and a more delicate consideration for the rights of human reason than is shown by Jesus. He will conquer only by convincing." "He is willing to bear with contradiction, and condescends to meet the most irrational objections and the most ill-natured misrepresentations with the most incredible patience."

It was well for Reinhard that he had no suspicion how full of enthusiasm Jesus was, and how He trod reason under His feet!

But what kind of relation was there between this rational religion taught by Jesus and the Christian theology which Reinhard accepted? How does he harmonise the symbolical view of Baptism and the Lord's Supper which he here expounds with ecclesiastical doctrine? How does he pass from the conception of the divine teacher to that of the Son of God?

This is a question which he does not feel himself obliged to answer. For him the one circle of thought revolves freely within the other, but they never come into contact with each other.

So far as concerns the presentation of the teaching, the Life of Jesus by Opitz follows the same lines as that of Reinhard. It is disfigured, however, by a number of lapses of taste, and by a crass supernaturalism in the description of the miracles and experiences of the Great Teacher.

Jakobi writes "for thoughtful and sympathetic readers." He recognises that much of the miraculous is a later addition to the facts, but he has a rooted distrust of thoroughgoing rationalism, "whose would-be helpful explanations are often stranger than the miracles themselves." A certain amount of miracle must be maintained, but not for the purpose of founding belief upon it: "the miracles were not intended to authenticate the teaching of Jesus, but to surround His life with a guard of honour." [1]

Whether Herder, in his two Lives of Jesus, is to be classed with the older rationalists is a question to which the answer must be "Yes, and No," as in the case of every attempt to classify those men of lonely greatness who stand apart from their contemporaries, but who nevertheless are not in all points in advance of them.

Properly speaking, he has really nothing to do with the rationalists, since he is distinguished from them by the depth of his insight and his power of artistic apprehension, and he is far from sharing their lack of taste. Further, his horizon embraces problems of which rationalism, even in its developed form, never came in sight. He recognises that all attempts to harmonise the Synoptists with John are unavailing; a conclusion which he had avowed earlier in his "Letters referring to the Study

[1] This is perhaps the place to mention the account of the life of Jesus which is given in the first part of Plank's Geschichte des Christentums. Gottingen, 1818.


of Theology." [l] He grasps this incompatibility, it is true, rather by the aid of poetic, than of critical insight. "Since they cannot be united," he writes in his "Life of Jesus according to John," "they must be left stand- ing independently, each evangelist with his own special merit. Man, Ox, Lion, and Eagle, they advance together, supporting the throne of glory, but they refuse to coalesce into a single form, to unite into a Diatessaron." But to him belongs the honour of being the first and the only scholar, prior to Strauss, to recognise that the life of Jesus can be construed either according to the Synoptists, or according to John, but that a Life of Jesus based on the four Gospels is a monstrosity. In view of this intuitive historical grasp, it is not surprising that the commentaries of the theologians were an abomination to him.

The fourth Gospel is, in his view, not a primitive historical source, but a protest against the narrowness of the "Palestinian Gospels." It gives free play, as the circumstances of the time demanded, to Greek ideas. "There was need, in addition to those earlier, purely historical Gospels, of a Gospel at once theological and historical, like that of John," in which Jesus should be presented, not as the Jewish Messiah, "but as the Saviour of the World."

The additions and omissions of this Gospel are alike skilfully planned. It retains only those miracles which are symbols of a continuous permanent miracle, through which the Saviour of the World works constantly, unintermittently, among men. The Johannine miracles are not there for their own sakes. The cures of demoniacs are not even represented among them. These had no interest for the Graeco-Roman world, and the Evangelist was unwilling "that this Palestinian superstition should become a permanent feature of Christianity, to be a reproach of scoffers or a belief of the foolish." His recording of the raising of Lazarus is, in spite of the silence of the Synoptists, easily explicable. The latter could not yet tell the story "without exposing a family which was still living near Jerusalem to the fury of that hatred which had sworn with an oath to put Lazarus to death." John, however, could recount it without scruple, "for by this time Jerusalem was probably in ruins, and the hospitable family of Bethany were perhaps already with their Friend in the other world." This most naive of explanations is reproduced in a whole series of Lives of Jesus.

In dealing with the Synoptists, Herder grasps the problem with the same intuitive insight. Mark is no epitomist, but the creator of the archetype of the Synoptic representation. "The Gospel of Mark is not an epitome; it is an original Gospel. What the others have, and he has not,

[1] Briefe das Stadium der Theologie betreffend, 1st ed., 1780-1781; 2nd ed., 178S- 1786; Verke, ed. Suphan, vol. x.


has been added by them, not omitted by him. Consequently Mark is a witness to an original shorter Gospel-scheme, to which the additional matter of the others ought properly to be regarded as a supplement."

Mark is the "unornamented central column, or plain foundation stone, on which the others rest." The birth-stories of Matthew and Luke are "a new growth to meet new needs." The different tendencies, also, point to a later period. Mark is still comparatively friendly towards the Jews, because Christianity had not yet separated itself from Judaism. Matthew is more hostile towards them because his Gospel was written at a time when Christians had given up the hope of maintaining amicable relations with the Jews and were groaning under the pressure of persecution. It is for that reason that the Jesus of the Matthaean discourses lays so much stress upon His second coming, and presupposes the rejection of the Jewish nation as something already in being, a sign of the approaching end.

Pure history, however, is as little to be looked for in the first three Gospels as in the fourth. They are the sacred epic of Jesus the Messiah, and model the history of their hero upon the prophetic words of the Old Testament. In this view, also, Herder is a precursor of Strauss.

In essence, however, Herder represents a protest of art against theology. The Gospels, if we are to find the life of Jesus in them, must be read, not with pedantic learning, but with taste. From this point of view, miracles cease to offend. Neither Old Testament prophecies, nor predictions of Jesus, nor miracles, can be adduced as evidence for the Gospel; the Gospel is its own evidence. The miracles stand outside the possibility of proof, and belong to mere "Church belief," which ought to lose itself more and more in the pure Gospel. Yet miracles, in a limited sense, are to be accepted on the ground of the historic evidence. To refuse to admit this is to be like the Indian king who denied the existence of ice because he had never seen anything like it. Jesus, in order to help His miracle-loving age, reconciled Himself to the necessity of performing miracles. But, in any case, the reality of a miracle is of small moment in comparison with its symbolic value.

In this, therefore, Herder, though in his grasp of many problems he was more than a generation in advance of his time, belongs to the primitive rationalists. He allows the supernatural to intrude into the events of the life of Jesus, and does not feel that the adoption of the historical standpoint involves the necessity of doing away with miracle. He contributed much to the clearing up of ideas, but by evading the question of miracle he slurred over a difficulty which needed to be faced and solved before it should be possible to entertain the hope of forming a really historical conception of the life of Jesus. In reading Herder one is apt to fancy that it would be possible to pass straight on to Strauss. In reality,


it was necessary that a very prosaic spirit, Paulus, should intervene, and should attack the question of miracle from a purely historical standpoint, before Strauss could give expression to the ideas of Herder in an effectual way, i.e. in such a way as to produce offence. The fact is that in theology the most revolutionary ideas are swallowed quite readily so long as they smooth their passage by a few small concessions. It is only when a spicule of bone stands out obstinately and causes choking that theology begins to take note of dangerous ideas. Strauss is Herder with just that little bone sticking out — the absolute denial of miracle on historical grounds. That is to say, Strauss is a Herder who has behind him the uncompromising rationalism of Paulus.

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