David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) was a theologian, philosopher, and pioneer in the development of study of the historical Jesus taking place in the course of the 19th century.
The First Quest for the Historical Jesus
The 19th century witnessed an increase of interests on behalf of scholars to provide a historically accurate biographical account of the historical Jesus. These interests formed what is known as the quest for the historical Jesus. Over the past two centuries there have been three such quests of which Strauss was a significant theorist within the first. The first quest is noted for its “hermeneutic of suspicion,” a phrase capturing the skeptical approach scholars had of the New Testament and gospel texts through which they learned about Christ. A number of scholars viewed the biblical texts, especially the gospels, as deceptive and containing religious falsehoods created by their authors, and they wished to discover authentic sayings and events original to Christ’s life and teachings by way of unmasking these deceptions. It was within this milieu that Strauss approached the gospels from a naturalistic framework, intending to tell,
“a new story of Jesus, excluding the divinity of Christ and attributing anything in the gospels that does not fit into a naturalistic framework to the mythologizing work of the early Christian community. The fundamental insight into the mythical element of the gospels, explosively controversial in the nineteenth century, would go on to become one of the core axioms in much contemporary biblical scholarship. This entails that Jesus could not have foreseen his death and did not see himself as Saviour or founder of a new religion, let along a person of the Trinity” (1).
The Life of Jesus Critically Examined
Where influential scholars such as Strauss had pointed the way, a number of others went. Strauss was influential given his reputation as a leader in the critical examination of the historical Jesus, and many saw his controversial work, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1856), as a major step in the progress of the critical study of the Bible. Strauss’ naturalistic approach was a source of great discomfort for Christians. Any passage or text within the gospels making reference to the supernatural could not be considered historical, and thus he challenged stories such as the accuracy of Christ’s birth stories, temptation by Satan, baptism by John, miracles, transfiguration, resurrection, and ascension. These are all events and doctrines central to the Christian religion which, should they be shown false, would leave Christianity and the faith of many people in ruins. Strauss argued against the historical value of the gospels accounts and described them as “historical myth.” They were a legendary embodiment of the primitive Christian community’s popular hopes. Christianity, he argued, was created due to wish-making in an attempt to fulfill the desires of the earliest Christian community, and thus generated myths which were claimed to be historical truths revealed by God. Strauss’ book did not go unchallenged. He received harsh criticism from partisans within the Christian camp, was dismissed from his position as a lecturer at Tübingen, and had his appointment as the chair of theology at the University of Zurich rebuffed.
Strauss believed that ancient people, which included those of the 1st century during the time of Christ, conceived of the world in mythical terms. The people of biblical times had not evolved a historical consciousness which viewed the world in historical terms, which led them to express themselves in ways consistent with their intellectual capacities. However, people today, Strauss reasoned, have evolved a consciousness which views the world in historical and scientific terms, and thus they should no longer hold to a mythical view of the world as did the ancients. This sat well within Strauss’ view that religion constitutes mythology and therefore is not objectively, empirically, and historically real in its essence. In his later work The Old Faith and the New (1872), Strauss attempted to replace Christianity with scientific materialism, believing that “everything that happens, or ever happened, happened naturally.”
Importantly, Strauss did not view that religion or the gospels were useless or of no value. He did hold that religion, despite being devoid of factuality in its essence, possessed capacities to inspire creativity and give rise to hope and aspirations. Where the gospels are concerned, despite its myths and legends, had moral and aesthetic value which provided an image of the good life which could be obtained in the modern age with all its scientific and technological advancements.
1. Howard, D. “Who Do You Say that I Am?”: Christians and Muslims Disputing the Historical Jesus. Neotestamentica: New Testament Society of Southern Africa. 49(2): 300-301