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The Quest of the Historical Jesus

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Karl Friedrich Bahrdt. Briefe fiber die Bibel im Volkston. Eine 'Wochenschrift von einem Prediger auf dem Lande. (Popular Letters about the Bible. A weekly paper by a country clergyman.) J. Fr. Dost, Halle, 1782. 816 pp.

Ausfuhrung des Plans und Zwecks Jesu. In Briefen an Wahrheit suchende Leser. (An Explanation of the Plans and Aims of Jesus. In letters addressed to readers who seek the truth.) 11 vols., embracing 3000 pp. August Mylius, Berlin, 1784- 1792. This work is a sequel to the Popular Letters about the Bible.

Die samtlichen Reden Jesu aus den Evangelisten ausgezogen. (The Whole of the Discourses of Jesus, extracted from the Gospels.) Berlin, 1786,

Karl Heinrich Venturini. Natiirliche Geschichte des grossen Propheten von Naza- reth. (A Non-supernatural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth.) Bethlehem (Copenhagen), 1st ed., 1800-1802; 2nd ed., 1806. 4 vols., embracing 2700 pp. The work appeared anonymously. The description given below is based on the 2nd ed., which shows dependence, in some of the exegetical details, upon the then recently published commentaries of Paulus.

IT IS STRANGE TO NOTICE HOW OFTEN IN THE HISTORY OF OUR SUBJECT a few imperfectly equipped free-lances have attacked and attempted to carry the decisive positions before the ordered ranks of professional theology have pushed their advance to these decisive points.

Thus, it was the fictitious "Lives" of Bahrdt and Venturini which, at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, first attempted to apply, with logical consistency, a non-supernatural interpretation to the miracle stories of the Gospel. Further, these writers were the first who, instead of contenting themselves with the simple reproduction of the successive sections of the Gospel narrative, endeavoured to grasp the inner connexion of cause and effect in the events and experiences of the life of Jesus. Since they found no such connexion indicated in the Gospels, they had to supply it for themselves. The particular form which their explanation takes — the hypothesis of a secret society of which Jesus is the tool — is, it is true, rather a sorry makeshift. Yet, in a sense, these Lives of Jesus, for all their colouring of fiction, are the first


which deserve the name. The rationalists, and even Paulus, confine themselves to describing the teaching of Jesus; Bahrdt and Venturini make a bold attempt to paint the portrait of Jesus Himself. It is not surprising that their portraiture is at once crude and fantastic, like the earliest attempts of art to represent the human figure in living movement.

Karl Friedrich Bahrdt was born in 1741 at Bischofswerda. Endowed with brilliant abilities, he made, owing to a bad upbringing and an undisciplined sensuous nature, a miserable failure. After being first Catechist and afterwards Professor Extraordinary of Sacred Philology at Leipzig, he was, in 1766, requested to resign on account of scandalous life. After various adventures, and after holding for a time a professorship at Giessen, he received under Frederick's minister Zedlitz authorisation to lecture at Halle. There he lectured to nearly nine hundred students who were attracted by his inspiring eloquence. The government upheld him, in spite of his serious failings, with the double motive of annoying the faculty and maintaining the freedom of learning. After the death of Frederick the Great, Bahrdt had to resign his post, and took to keeping an inn at a vineyard near Halle. By ridiculing Wollner's edict (1788), he brought on himself a year of confinement in a fortress. He died in disrepute, in 1792.

Bahrdt had begun as an orthodox cleric. In Halle he gave up his belief in revelation, and endeavoured to explain religion on the ground of reason. To this period belong the "Popular Letters about the Bible," which were afterwards continued in the further series, "An Explanation of the Plans and Aims of Jesus."

His treatment of the life of Jesus has been too severely censured. The work is not without passages which show a real depth of feeling, espe- cially in the continually recurring explanations regarding the relation of belief in miracle to true faith, in which the actual description of the life of Jesus lies embedded. And the remarks about the teaching of Jesus are not always commonplace. But the paraphernalia of dialogues of portentous length make it, as a whole, formless and inartistic. The introduction of a galaxy of imaginary characters — Haram, Schimah, Avel, Limmah, and the like — is nothing less than bewildering.

Bahrdt finds the key to the explanation of the life of Jesus in the appearance in the Gospel narrative of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. They are not disciples of Jesus, but belong to the upper classes; what role, then, can they have played in the life of Jesus, and how came they to intercede on His behalf? They were Essenes. This Order had secret members in all ranks of society, even in the Sanhedrin. It had set itself the task of detaching the nation from its sensuous Messianic hopes and leading it to a higher knowledge of spiritual truths. It had the most widespread ramifications, extending to Babylon and to Egypt. In order


to deliver the people from the limitations of the national faith, which could only lead to disturbance and insurrection, they must find a Messiah who would destroy these false Messianic expectations. They were therefore on the look-out for a claimant of the Messiahship whom they could make subservient to their aims.

Jesus came under the notice of the Order immediately after His birth. As a child He was watched over at every step by the Brethren. At the feasts at Jerusalem, Alexandrian Jews, secret members of the Essene Order, put themselves into communication with Him, explained to Him the falsity of the priests, inspired Him with a horror of the bloody sacrifices of the Temple, and made him acquainted with Socrates and Plato. This is set forth in dialogues of a hundred pages long. At the story of the death of Socrates, the boy bursts into a tempest of sobs which His friends are unable to calm. He longs to emulate the martyr-death of the great Athenian.

On the market-place at Nazareth a mysterious Persian gives Him two sovereign remedies — one for affections of the eye, the other for nervous disorders.

His father does his best for Him, teaching Him, along with His cousin John, afterwards the Baptist, about virtue and immortality. A priest belonging to the Essene Order, who makes their acquaintance disguised as a shepherd, and takes part in their conversations, leads the lads deeper into the knowledge of wisdom. At twelve years old, Jesus is already so far advanced that He argues with the Scribes in the Temple concerning miracles, maintaining the thesis that they are impossible.

When they feel themselves ready to appear in public the two cousins take counsel together how they can best help the people. They agree to open the eyes of the people regarding the tyranny and hypocrisy of the priests. Through Haram, a prominent member of the Essene Order, Luke the physician is introduced to Jesus and places all his science at His disposal.

In order to produce any effect they were obliged to practise accommodation to the superstitions of the people, and introduce their wisdom to them under the garb of folly, in the hope that, beguiled by its attractive exterior, the people would admit into their minds the revelation of rational truth, and after a time be able to emancipate themselves from superstition. Jesus, therefore, sees Himself obliged to appear in the role of the Messiah of popular expectation, and to make up His mind to work by means of miracles and illusions. About this He felt the gravest scruples. He was obliged, however, to obey the Order; and His scruples were quieted by the reminder of the lofty end which was to be reached by these means. At last, when it is pointed out to Him that even Moses had followed the same plan. He submits to the necessity. The influential


Order undertakes the duty of stage-managing the miracles, and that of maintaining His father. On the reception of Jesus into the number of the Brethren of the First Degree of the Order it is made known to Him that these Brethren are bound to face death in the cause of the Order; but that the Order, on its part, undertakes so to use the machinery and influence at its disposal that the last extremity shall always be avoided and the Brother mysteriously preserved from death.

Then begins the cleverly staged drama by means of which the people are to be converted to rational religion. The members of the Order are divided into three classes: The Baptized, The Disciples, The Chosen Ones. The Baptized receive only the usual popular teaching; the Disciples are admitted to further knowledge, but are not entrusted with the highest mysteries; the Chosen Ones, who in the Gospels are also spoken of as "Angels," are admitted into all wisdom. As the Apostles were only members of the Second Degree, they had not the smallest suspicion of the secret machinery which was at work. Their part in the drama of the life of Jesus was that of zealous "supers." The Gospels which they composed therefore report, in perfect good faith, miracles which were really clever illusions produced by the Essenes, and they depict the life of Jesus only as seen by the populace from the outside.

It is therefore not always possible for us to discover how the events which they record as miracles actually came about. But whether they took place in one way or another — and as to this we can sometimes get a clue from a hint in the text — it is certain that in all cases the process was natural. With reference to the feeding of the five thousand, Bahrdt remarks: "It is more reasonable here to think of a thousand ways by which Jesus might have had sufficient supplies of bread at hand, and by the distribution of it have shamed the disciples' lack of courage, than to believe in a miracle." The explanation which he himself prefers is that the Order had collected a great quantity of bread in a cave and this was gradually handed out to Jesus, who stood at the concealed entrance and took some every time the apostles were occupied in distributing the lormer supply to the multitude. The walking on the sea is to be explained by supposing that Jesus walked towards the disciples over the surface of a great floating raft; while they, not being able to see the raft, must needs suppose a miracle. When Peter tried to walk on the water he failed miserably. The miracles of healing are to be attributed to the art of Luke. He also called the attention of Jesus to remarkable cases of apparent death, which He then took in hand, and restored the apparently dead to their sorrowing friends. In such cases, however, the Lord never failed expressly to inform the disciples that the persons were not really dead. They, however, did not permit this assurance to deprive them of their faith in the miracle which thev felt thev had themselves witnessed.


In teaching, Jesus had two methods: one, exoteric, simple, for the world; the other, esoteric, mystic, for the initiate. "No attentive reader of the Bible," says Bahrdt, "can fail to notice that Jesus made use of two different styles of speech. Sometimes He spoke so plainly and in such universally intelligible language, and declared truths so simply and so well adapted to the general comprehension of mankind that even the simplest could follow Him. At other times he spoke so mystically, so obscurely, and in so veiled a fashion that words and thoughts alike baffled the understandings of ordinary people, and even by more practised minds were not to be grasped without close reflection, so that we are told in John vi. 60 that 'many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?' And Jesus Himself did not deny it, but only told them that the reason of their not understanding His sayings lay in their prejudices, which made them interpret everything literally and materially, and overlook the ethical meaning which •underlay His figurative language." Most of these mystical discourses are to be found in John, who seems to have preserved for us the greater part of the secret teaching imparted to the initiate. The key to the understanding of this esoteric teaching is to be found, therefore, in the prologue to John's Gospel, and in the sayings about the new birth. "To be born again" is identical with the degree of perfection which was attained in the highest class of the Brotherhood.

The members of the Order met on appointed days in caves among the hills. When we are told in the Gospels that Jesus went alone into a mountain to pray, this means that He repaired to one of these secret gatherings, but the disciples, of course, knew nothing about that. The Order had its hidden caves everywhere; in Galilee as well as in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem.

"Only by sensuous means can sensuous ideas be overcome." The Jewish Messiah must die and rise again, in order that the false conceptions of the Messiah which were cherished by the multitude might be destroyed in the moment of their fulfilment — that is, might be spiritualised. Nicodemus, Haram, and Luke met in a cave in order to take counsel how they might bring about the death of Jesus in a way favourable to their plans. Luke guaranteed that by the aid of powerful drugs which he would give Him the Lord should be enabled to endure the utmost pain and suffering and yet resist death for a long time. Nicodemus undertook so to work matters in the Sanhedrin that the execution should follow immediately upon the sentence, and the crucified remain only a short time upon the cross. At this moment Jesus rushed into the cave. He had scarcely had time to replace the stone which concealed the entrance, so closely had He been pursued over the rocks by hired assassins. He Himself is firmly resolved to die, but care must be taken that He shall not be


simply assassinated, or the whole plan fails. If He falls by the assassin's knife, no resurrection will be possible.

In the end, the piece is staged to perfection. Jesus provokes the authorities by His triumphal Messianic entry. The unsuspected Essenes in the council urge on His arrest and secure His condemnation — though Pilate almost frustrates all their plans by acquitting Him. Jesus, by uttering a loud cry and immediately afterwards bowing His head, shows every appearance of a sudden death. The centurion has been bribed not to allow any of His bones to be broken. Then comes Joseph of Ramath, as Bahrdt prefers to call Joseph of Arimathea, and removes the body to the cave of the Essenes, where he immediately commences measures of resuscitation. As Luke had prepared the body of the Messiah by means of strengthening medicines to resist the fearful ill-usage which He had gone through — the being dragged about and beaten and finally crucified — these efforts were crowned with success. In the cave the most strengthening nutriment was supplied to Him. "Since the humours of the body were in a thoroughly healthy condition, His wounds healed very readily, and by the third day He was able to walk, in spite of the fact that the wounds made by the nails were still open."

On the morning of the third day they forced away the stone which closed the mouth of the grave. As Jesus was descending the rocky slopes the watch awakened and took to flight in alarm. One of the Essenes appeared, in the garb of an angel, to the women and announced to them the resurrection of Jesus. Shortly afterwards the Lord appeared to Mary. At the sound of His voice she recognises Him. "Thereupon Jesus tells her that He is going to His Father (to heaven — in the mystic sense of the word — that is to say, to the Chosen Ones in their peaceful dwellings of truth and blessedness — to the circle of His faithful friends, among whom He continued to live, unseen by the world, but still working for the advancement of His purpose). He bade her tell His disciples that He was alive."

From His place of concealment He appeared several times to His disciples. Finally He bade them meet Him at the Mount of Olives, near Bethany, and there took leave of them. After exhorting them, and embracing each of them in turn, He tore Himself away from them and walked away up the mountain. "There stood those poor men, amazed — beside themselves with sorrow — and looked after Him as long as they could. But as He mounted higher, He entered ever deeper into the cloud which lay upon the hill-top, until finally He was no longer to be seen. The cloud received Him out of their sight."

From the mountain He returned to the chief lodge of the Brotherhood. Only at rare intervals did He again intervene in active life — as on the occasion when He appeared to Paul upon the road to Damascus. But,


though unseen. He continued to direct the destinies of the community until His death.

Venturini's "Non-supernatural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth" is related to Bahrdt's work as the finished picture to the sketch.

Karl Heinrich Venturini was born at Brunswick in 1768. On the completion of his theological studies he vainly endeavoured to secure a post as Docent in the theological faculty at Helmstadt, or as Librarian at Wolfenbiittel.

His life was blameless and his personal piety beyond reproach, but he was considered to be too free in his ideas. The Duke of Brunswick was personally well disposed towards him, but did not venture to give him a post on the teaching staff in face of the opposition of the consistories. He was reduced to earning a bare pittance by literary work, and finally in 1806 was thankful to accept a small living in Hordorf near Brunswick. He then abandoned theological writing and devoted his energies to recording the events of contemporary history, of which he published a yearly chronicle — a proceeding which under the Napoleonic regime was not always unattended with risk, as he more than once had occasion to experience. He continued this undertaking till 1841. In 1849 death released him from his tasks.

Venturini's fundamental assumption is that it was impossible, even for the noblest spirit of mankind, to make Himself understood by the Judaism of His time except by clothing His spiritual teaching in a sensuous garb calculated to please the oriental imagination, "and, in general, by bringing His higher spiritual world into such relations with the lower sensuous world of those whom He wished to teach as was necessary to the accomplishment of His aims." "God's Messenger was morally bound to perform miracles for the Jews. These miracles had an ethical purpose, and were especially designed to counteract the impression made by the supposed miracles of the deceivers of the people, and thus to hasten the overthrow of the kingdom of Satan."

For modern medical science the miracles are not miraculous. He never healed without medicaments and always carried His "portable medicine chest" with Him. In the case of the Syrophoenician woman's daughter, for example, we can still detect in the narrative a hint of the actual course of events. The mother explains the case to Jesus. After enquiring where her dwelling was He made a sign to John, and continued to hold her in conversation. The disciple went to the daughter and gave her a sedative, and when the mother returned she found her child cured.

The raisings from the dead were cases of coma. The nature-miracles were due to a profound acquaintance with the powers of Nature and the


order of her processes. They involve fore-knowledge rather than control.

Many miracle stories rest on obvious misunderstandings. Nothing could be simpler than the explanation of the miracle at Cana. Jesus had brought with Him as a wedding-gift some jars of good wine and had put them aside in another room. When the wine was finished and His mother became anxious, He still allowed the guests to wait a little, as the stone vessels for purification had not yet been filled with water. When that had been done He ordered the servants to pour out some of his wine, but to tell no one whence it came. When John, as an old man, wrote his Gospel, he got all this rather mixed up — had not indeed observed it very closely at the time, "had perhaps been the least thing merry himself," says Venturini, and had believed in the miracle with the rest. Perhaps, too, he had not ventured to ask Jesus for an explanation, for he had only become His disciple a few days before.

The members of the Essene Order had watched over the child Jesus even in Egypt. As He grew older they took charge of His education along with that of His cousin, John, and trained them both for their work as deliverers of the people. Whereas the nation as a whole looked to an insurrection as the means of its deliverance, they knew that freedom could only be achieved by means of a spiritual renewal. Once Jesus and John met a band uf insurgents: Jesus worked on them so powerfully by His fervid speech that they recognised the impiousness of their purpose. One of them sprang towards Him and laid down his arms; it was Simon, who afterwards became His disciple.

When Jesus was about thirty years old, and, owing to the deep experiences of His inner life, had really far outgrown the aims of the Essene Order, He entered upon His office by demanding baptism from John. Just as this was taking place a thunderstorm broke, and a dove, frightened by the lightning, fluttered round the head of Jesus. Both Jesus and John took this as a sign that the hour appointed by God had come.

The temptations in the wilderness, and upon the pinnacle of the Temple, were due to the machinations of the Pharisee Zadok, who pretended to enter into the plans of Jesus and feigned admiration for Him in order the more surely to entrap Him. It was Zadok, too, who stirred up opposition to Him in the Sanhedrin.

But Jesus did not succeed in destroying the old Messianic belief with its earthly aims. The hatred of the leading circles against Him grew, although He avoided everything "that could offend their prejudices." It was for this reason that He even forbade His disciples to preach the Gospel beyond the borders of Jewish territory. He paid the temple-tax, also, although he had no fixed abode. When the collector went to Peter about it, the following dialogue took place.

Tax-collector (drawing Peter aside). Tell me, Simon, does the Rabbi


pay the didrachma to the Temple treasury, or should we not trouble Him about it?

Peter. Why shouldn't He pay it? Why do you ask?

Tax-collector. It's been owing from both of you since last Nisan, as our books show. We did not like to remind your Master, out of reverence.

Peter. I'll tell Him at once. He will certainly pay the tax. You need have no fear about that.

Tax-collector. That's good. That will put everything straight, and we shall have no trouble over our accounts. Good-bye!

When Jesus hears of it He commands Peter to go and catch a fish, and to take care, in removing the hook, not to tear its mouth, that it may be fit for salting (!) In that case it will doubtless be worth a stater.

The time arrived when an important move must be made. In full conclave of the Secret Society it was resolved that Jesus should go up to Jerusalem and there publicly proclaim Himself as the Messiah. Then He was to endeavour to disabuse the people of their earthly Messianic expectations.

The triumphal entry succeeded. The whole people hailed Him with acclamations. But when He tried to substitute for their picture of the Messiah one of a different character, and spoke of times of severe trial which should come upon all, when He showed Himself but seldom in the Temple, instead of taking His place at the head of the people, they began to doubt Him.

Jesus was suddenly arrested and put to death. Here, then, the death is not, as in Bahrdt, a piece of play-acting, stage-managed by the Secret Society. Jesus really expected to die, and only to meet His disciples again in the eternal life of the other world. But when He so soon gave up the ghost, Joseph of Arimathea was moved by some vague premonition to hasten at once to Pontius Pilate and make request for His body. He offers the Procurator money. Pilate (sternly and emphatically): "Dost thou also mistake me? Am I, then, such an insatiable miser? Still, thou art a Jew—how could this people do me justice? Know, then, that a Roman can honour true nobility wherever he may find it. (He sits down and writes some words on a strip of parchment.) Give this to the captain of the guard. Thou shall be permitted to remove the body. I ask nothing for this. It is granted to thee freely."

"A tender embrace from his wife rewarded the noble deed of the Roman, while Joseph left the Praetorium, and with Nicodemus, who was impatiently awaiting him, hastened to Golgotha." There he received the body; he washed it, anointed it with spices, and laid it on a bed of moss in the rock-hewn grave. From the blood which was still flowing from the wound in the side, he ventured to draw a hopeful augury, and sent word to the Essene Brethren. They had a hold close by, and promised to watch


over the body. In the first four-and-twenty hours no movement of life showed itself. Then came the earthquake. In the midst of the terrible commotion a Brother, in the white robes of the Order, was making his way to the grave by a secret path. When he, illumined by a flash of lightning, suddenly appeared above the grave, and at the same moment the earth shook violently, panic seized the watch, and they fled. In the morning the Brother hears a sound from the grave: Jesus is moving. The whole Order hastens to the spot, and Jesus is removed to their Lodge. Two brethren remain at the grave—these were the "angels" whom the women saw later. Jesus, in the dress of a gardener, is afterwards recognised by Mary Magdalene. Later, He comes out at intervals ficm the hiding-place, where He is kept by the Brethren, and appears to the disciples. After forty days He took His leave of them: His strength was exhausted. The farewell scene gave rise to the mistaken impression of His Ascension.

From the historical point of view these lives are not such contemptible performances as might be supposed. There is much penetrating observation in them. Bahrdt and Venturini are right in feeling that the connexion of events in the life of Jesus has to be discovered; the Gospels give only a series of occurrences, and offer no explanation why they happened just as they did. And if, in making Jesus subservient to the plans of a secret society, they represented Him as not acting with perfect freedom, but as showing a certain passivity, this assumption of theirs was to be brilliantly vindicated, a hundred years later, by the eschatological school, which asserts the same remarkable passivity on the part of Jesus, in that He allows His actions to be determined, not indeed by a secret society, but by the eschatological plan of God. Bahrdt and Venturini were the first to see that, of all Jesus' acts, His death was most distinctively His own, because it was by this that He purposed to found the kingdom.

Venturini's "Non-supernatural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth" may almost be said to be reissued annually down to the present day, for all the fictitious "Lives" go back directly or indirectly to the type which he created. It is plagiarised more freely than any other Life of Jesus, although practically unknown by name.

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