(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

When David Friedrich Strauss published The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, there were two ways in which the life of Jesus was commonly interpreted. The traditional approach, followed by many, including J. T. Beck at the University of Tübingen in Germany, was to simply take the Gospels at face value. Even though many of the events in the Gospels were contrary to modern understandings of the natural world, readers were called on to accept them through faith. Therefore the supernatural events in the Gospels, such as virgin birth, miracles, and the resurrection of the dead, were taken literally.

The second approach was a rationalist one that often led to an outright rejection of the Gospels. In 1778, Hermann Samuel Reimarus’s Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jünger (The Goal of Jesus and His Disciples, 1970) began with the assumption that the supernatural events mentioned in the Gospels were simply incorrect perceptions or mistaken interpretations. Therefore the virgin birth must be explained by a young woman trying to cover up an unwanted pregnancy; the miracle of Jesus’ walking on water by confusion caused by fog hiding the shoreline, and the resurrection by the disciples’ removal of the body of Jesus. Reimarus sought to show that the aim of the disciples was a grand deception and that the role of Jesus was that of a deluded eschatological visionary. Heinrich Paulus followed in 1828 with his own rationalist life of Jesus, as did Karl Hase in 1829.

In The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Strauss sought a middle ground between the traditional literalist view and the Enlightenment rationalist view. Four years earlier he had traveled to Berlin to study with the systematic theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, who stressed that critical scholarship could be employed for the Church in a positive way. The key was to focus authority on the person of Jesus rather than on Scripture itself. As Schleiermacher’s Das Leben Jesu (1864; The Life of Jesus, 1975) would not be published for another thirty years, Strauss was the first to publish a major work incorporating this approach.

Strauss had hoped to study with the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, but he arrived in Berlin in 1831 to news that the philosopher was on his deathbed, and his goal was never fulfilled. One of Strauss’s earlier teachers, Ferdinand Christian Bauer, had taken Hegel’s dialectical approach to explain the...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Borg, Marcus. “David Friedrich Strauss: Miracle and Myth.” The Fourth R 4, no. 3 (May/June 1991). Borg treats the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes to illustrate Strauss’s approach to miracle and myth.

Grant, Robert M., and David Tracy. A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible. Rev. ed. London: SCM, 1996. Historical survey of approaches to biblical interpretation. Chapters 12 and 13 treat the nineteenth century.

Harris, Horton. David Friedrich Strauss and His Theology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1973. Described by the author as a theological biography with a survey of Strauss’s career and an assessment of his theology. Includes numerous quotations from correspondence of Strauss’s contemporaries.

Krentz, Edgar. The Historical-Critical Method. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975. Discusses the roots of modern historical criticism in the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. Strauss is treated briefly.

Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Edited by John Bowden. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2001. Originally published in 1906, this is considered the next significant work on the life of Jesus after that of Strauss, which is critiqued directly in chapters 7 and 8.