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The Quest of the Historical Jesus

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Groundbreaking study that established the reputation of the famed theologian traces the search for the historical person of Jesus. Schweitzer examines works of more than 50 18th- and 19th-century authors and scholars and concludes that many of the earlier historical reconstructions of Christ were largely fantasies. The criterion for all subsequent studies.

410 pages

First published January 1, 1905

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About the author

Albert Schweitzer

247 books318 followers
Albert Schweitzer, M.D., OM, was an Alsatian theologian, musician, philosopher, and physician. He was born in Kaisersberg in Alsace-Lorraine, a Germanophone region which the German Empire returned to France after World War I. Schweitzer challenged both the secular view of historical Jesus current at his time and the traditional Christian view, depicting a Jesus who expected the imminent end of the world. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for his philosophy of "reverence for life", expressed in many ways, but most famously in founding and sustaining the Lambaréné Hospital in Gabon, west central Africa.

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Profile Image for Tony Sunderland.
Author 5 books51 followers
January 20, 2018
In the 18th and 19th centuries, European academics not only tried to flesh out the historical Jesus, they also attempted to make sense of the Gospels as documents that at some level described natural events. Given that Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels are composed from much of Mark’s text and John’s Gospel portrays a purely divine incarnation of Christ, the rationalist theologians concentrated their efforts with events as they occurred in the Gospel of Mark. This pioneering research was inspired by the triumph of the rationalist enlightenment and culminated in the publication of The Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1906. Authored by Nobel Prize winner, Albert Schweitzer, this landmark work consolidated decades of investigation into finding some sort of coherent vision of the human Jesus based on fact rather than faith. Schweitzer concurred with the idea that Marks gospel is the only document that can give some degree of independent and original illumination to this quest. He states:

‘The Gospel of Mark is not an epitome; it is an original Gospel. What the others have, and he has not, 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.’

For Schweitzer, Jesus is very much a man of his time and that any attempt to understand him or his motives must be seen through the social /cultural context of first century sectoral Judaism. Jesus lived and died as a rebellious Jew who firmly believed that the end of days was imminent. Therefore, if some real historical truth about the life of Jesus can be gained from Mark, then the Gospel should be analysed holistically and from the context and perspective from which it was written. In the first century, miraculous cures, exorcisms and even bodily resurrection of the dead were seen as a natural part of history. For example, a person of this time would have not understood our modern distinctions between the conscious and sub conscious mind. They would view this idea simply as a type of demonic possession. Even sicknesses were attributed to divine or demonic forces. There was a complete blurring between the material and divine. Schweitzer puts this idea forward in his analysis of Mark:

‘A division between the natural and supernatural in Mark is purely arbitrary, because the supernatural is an essential part of the history. The mere fact that he has not adopted the mythical material of the childhood stories and the post-resurrection scenes ought to have been accepted as evidence that the supernatural material which he does embody belongs to a category of its own and cannot be simply rejected as due to the invention of the primitive Christian community. It must belong in some way to the original tradition.’

Schweitzer also acknowledges the dilemma with making Mark’s gospel the only historical reference point for anyone seeking to find a glimpse of Jesus as a real person. The fragmented narrative of Mark at best only sketches a rough and incomplete picture of Jesus. For example, the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem poses more questions than answers concerning both the man and his place in history. This is the moment of truth for Jesus and his followers; but there is no framing story behind it. The ending of Mark: 10 places Jesus in Jericho where he restores the sight of a blind man. The Gospel then jumps to his entry into Jerusalem where it is openly proclaimed that Jesus has divine authority and kingly aspirations. The triumphant entry has Jesus as the chosen man of the people. His popularity obviously disturbs the Jewish priestly authorities but we are not given any explanation as to how he lost the support of the people who had thrown their clothes for him. It also provides other concerns about the logical progression of the Gospel’s story. As Schweitzer concludes:

‘How did the Messianic entry come about? How was it possible without provoking the interference of the Roman garrison of occupation? Why is it as completely ignored in the subsequent controversies as if had never taken place? Why was it not brought up at the trial of Jesus? ‘The Messianic acclamation at the entry into Jerusalem.’

For Albert Schweitzer, any attempt to find the historical Jesus through the books of the New Testament is more like looking into a mirror rather than a window into the past. We are more likely to see a reflection of how we see him through our own lens of belief and perspective. For example, it is almost certain that convicted criminals who were crucified by the Romans would have been placed naked on the cross. However, there are few (if any) modern depictions of a naked Jesus. Our Western sensibilities can give us a Crown of thorns and even the bloodied piercing of his side, feet and hands; but we are unable to see the humiliated saviour naked. If we see any vision of the Jesus of history through our own personal gaze, then that perspective should be open and honest. Schweitzer concedes that the Gospel narratives are disjointed and inconsistent. They are told from a perspective of confusion that relies more on faith that logical expression. The quest to find an historical Jesus that fits modern sensibilities becomes a futile task. As Schweitzer again concludes:

‘But who could possibly have had in early times a clear conception of the Life of Jesus? Even its most critical moments were totally unintelligible to the disciples who had themselves shared in the experiences, and who were the only sources for the tradition. They were simply swept through these events by the momentum of the purpose of Jesus. That is why the tradition is incoherent.’

The actions of Jesus are those of an apocalyptic prophet embedded in his own time and culture. The life of the historical Jesus cannot be transposed to meet complex agendas set by modern theologians. It is for this reason that Mark’s Gospel has diminished in importance and relevant for many contemporary Christian churches. The modern theologian prefers the more abstract and high Christianity given to us in John’s Gospel. The other Synoptic Gospels of Luke and even Matthew are also preferred above Mark because they diminish the essential Jewishness of the historical Jesus. Like the famed explorer, James Cook, the rationalist theologians became more famous for what they did not find; they could not construct a Jesus of history that could survive the scrutiny of a modern world that craved objective truth above faith. Albert Schweitzer was an ordained minister and Physician. His ‘Quest of the Historical Jesus’ may reflect his own need to reconcile the duality of a material world of indifference and suffering with the spiritual promise of salvation and light.
In a final cry for hope Schweitzer tells us:

'But the truth is, it is not Jesus as historically known, but Jesus as spiritually arisen within men, who is significant for our time and can help it. Not the historical Jesus, but the spirit which goes forth from Him and in the spirits of men strives for new influence and rule, is that which overcomes the world.’

This book was not published fully in English until 2001!
Profile Image for Quo.
280 reviews
June 17, 2022
It has been said that Dr. Albert Schweitzer was a deeply religious non-believer. In reading The Quest of the Historical Jesus, we are confronted with Schweitzer's exhaustive study of scholarly research that occurred in 19th century Europe, with the aim of understanding who Jesus was in the historical context of his life.

The book does not attempt to explain Dr. Schweitzer's own religious belief but in appraising the work of other scholars, the conclusion is ultimately that the author's views were quite secular with regard to Christianity, preferring to focus on what he considered the ethical lessons of Christ's life on earth rather than his divinity.

In considering Schweitzer's own life, it must be noted that his father was a distinguished Lutheran minister and that Dr. Schweitzer himself served at a church as both an organist & a preacher prior to seeking a medical degree.

Interestingly, the church where Schweitzer served, offered services to both Roman-Catholics and to Lutherans at different times but using the same pulpit & altar, perhaps a key to Dr. Schweitzer eclectic religious stance & his lifelong interest in comparative religions, including his later study of beliefs that developed within India.

Schweitzer considered the greatest achievement of German theology the critical investigation of the life of Jesus, something that "cleared the site of a new edifice of religious thought, describing how the ideas of Jesus were taken possession of by the Greek spirit, tracing a growth that must necessarily become strange to us & has become strange to us."

It is Schweitzer's contention that "early Christianity focused on the Christ who was to come & to preserve the historic Jesus, included only detached sayings, a few miracles, His death & resurrection, handing down not biographies of Jesus but only gospels, an Idea & a Person with a minimum of historical & contemporary limitations."

Albert Schweitzer begins with a study of Hermann Samuel Reimarus, suggesting that prior to him, the only history of any interest was composed by a Jesuit in the Persian language. Much of The Quest of the Historical Jesus examines research by Reimarus & others in the 19th century that attempted to discern the nature of deism vs. theism, belief based on deductive reasoning rather than on divine revelation, with the latter coming up as insufficient. Schweitzer contends that:
This being so, the only way of arriving at a conclusion of any value is to experiment, to test, by working them out, two hypotheses--that Jesus felt Himself to be the Messiah, as the sources assert, or that He did not feel himself to be so, as His conduct implies; or else to try to conjecture what kind of Messianic consciousness His must have been, if it left His conduct & his discourses unaffected. The conclusion is that we possess no psychology of the Messiah.
Later, Schweitzer examines the research of two other scholars, Bahrdt & Venturini & comments that "from a historical point of view, testimony by the disciples on the life of Jesus offers no real explanations for the series of occurrences surrounding the life of Jesus, seeming to make Him subservient to a secret society, not acting with a perfect freedom but as showing a certain passivity, rather than someone who purposed to found a kingdom."

In effect, Jesus is explained as "the non-supernatural history of the Great Prophet of Nazareth." Beyond that, Schweitzer sees the story of the rise of Christianity as a "pastoral play" & Jesus as a "winsome teacher who offered forgiveness to all on the sole condition of loving Him".

According to the research of Renan, the French scholar, when in the midst of his ministry, Jesus returns to Galilee, "he had entirely abandoned his Jewish beliefs & a revolutionary ardor glowed in His heart." The moralist has become a "wonder worker" and "against His will, He is compelled to found his work upon a miracle." When He sets out for Jerusalem,
a strange longing for persecution & martyrdom had taken possession of Him. He has turned aside from His true path. The gentle, faithful, long-eyelashed mule bears Him amidst the acclamation of the multitude, through the gate of the capital.

The stage is dark & becomes constantly darker, until at last, through the darkness of the scene, there is faintly visible the figure of a woman--of her who in her deep grief beside the grave was by her vision to call to life again Him whom she loved. There is darkness too in the disciples & in that of the master. Did He regret His too exalted nature? Did He, a martyr to his own greatness, weep that he had not remained the simple carpenter of Nazareth? We do not know.
There is also a commentary on the fact that three languages met in Galilee in the time of Jesus--Hebrew, Aramaic & Greek, with the relation that each stood to each other, not completely known but perhaps the inherent cause of different & even contradictory translations of religious writings & religious instruction.

Aramaic was the language of ordinary people & Hebrew the "sacred language". Did the ordinary man learn a few verses, prayers & psalms? Or was Hebrew, as the language of religious worship, also current in wider circles? Scholars contend that it was not likely that synagogue discourses intended for the people can have been delivered in Hebrew or that Jesus taught other than in Aramaic.

The preface to The Quest for the Historical Jesus by F.C. Burkitt (Cambridge, 1910) suggests that: "we are bidden to choose between the Jesus of history & the Christ of dogma and that only a few scholars know what a protean & kaleidoscopic figure the Jesus is, for He has appeared in different forms to different minds. Thus, it may well be that absolute truth cannot be embodied in human thought & that its expression must always be clothed in symbols."

Albert Schweitzer is perhaps best known for his work at the hospital he founded at Lambarene in Gabon (West Africa) but he was a gifted organist who possessed both a PhD in philosophy as well as theology and a medical degree. Late in his long life, Albert Schweitzer fought for nuclear disarmament. Throughout his life, Dr. Schweitzer sought to comprehend the nature of theological belief, retaining a strong faith in humanity but without the formality of a specific religious creed.

The Quest of the Historical Jesus represents Dr. Schweitzer's long investigation into the nature of Jesus, his humanity and the claim that he was a Messiah & the Son of God. The book is not easy reading to be sure but it stands as a kind of case study of one man's deeply-considered personal quest to comprehend the nature of his own belief.
Profile Image for Onyango Makagutu.
266 reviews26 followers
November 27, 2014
I am more convinced than I was before I started reading this book that the Jesus of the gospels did not exist. Albert Schweitzer does a good job outlining the critical lifes of Jesus that have been written and arrives at the conclusion that the Jesus of history is a fiction but he has a message of hope for the believer. He tells them not to lose their belief, but to find in the words of Jesus a reason to continue believing.

This is a great read
Profile Image for Prickle.
31 reviews73 followers
January 20, 2023
Always interesting to read a historical work written before the First World War. I would honestly not recommend this book to about 99% of people, as even for its time it was really written for only a very select and specialized set of readers and not people who seek to be "entertained", but the historicity of Jesus is a topic that's long interested me and I thought I would go to one of the foundational texts on the subject. It certainly did not disappoint, even just for some meta-observations I made about the text. Most people may not pick up on it, but it is pretty amusing to see someone who would later be renowned as somewhat of an internationalist and arch-humanist taking underhanded swipes at the French and Catholics every time he's forced to bring them up. In fairness Schweitzer does point out their less than stellar track record as of 1905 of being unable to separate history and religious dogma. He does also in the very first pages make it clear that the project of historical inquiry into Jesus of Nazareth has almost exclusively been a German affair (that and he was born in a town called Kaiserberg in Elsass-Lothringen in 1875, so I do wonder what his thoughts were at eventually becoming a French citizen after WWI).

One can almost see the first part of this book as an Nietzschean exercise wherein Schweitzer reviews the prejudices, motives, and errors of earlier generations of researchers into the historical Jesus and calls them out appropriately. The conclusions drawn about Jesus from each school of inquiry from the post-Enlightenment rationalists to the later skeptics to the writers of the "liberal" lives of Jesus all invariably expose their own life and times in the process. It makes a sort of On the Genealogy of Historical Jesii so to speak. But similarly as Schweitzer points out the unconscious influences of the times on the portraits of Jesus, so one can indeed tell some of the influences of his time on Schweitzer as well. Indeed, was Nietzsche not a very current topic in the German intelligentsia in 1905? Much is made too on the contradictory "life-affirming" vs "life-denying" messages of Jesus which also seems have been a timely talking point of which Nietzsche would inevitably be associated with, though as Schweitzer points out that notion should rather extend more to Bruno Bauer instead who influenced and was an early supporter of Nietzsche.

Still, there is something interesting to be said of Schweitzer's high level of historical awareness, with on the one hand his blistering denunciation of the trend of "contemporizing" Jesus into something he never was and especially of trying to create a "German Jesus" for Germans, and on the other recognizing how up until 1905 almost no religious sect other than German Protestants have dared to touch the historical Jesus at such length and in such detail. Schweitzer is obviously proud of the German Protestant tradition but was highly dissatisfied at the contemporary state of investigations in Germany about Jesus in his own time which seems to have partly prompted his book. It is says a lot about the author I think that throughout his history he is sympathetic to the errors of past authors who are long dead and is willing to give them some leeway due to their historical circumstances, but is absolutely merciless in criticizing his own contemporaries who are still alive. Now there's someone who is not afraid of getting into the fray himself.

As I doubt many many people will ever pick up this book to read in full, I think he is worth quoting at length in this review, especially the excellent passage as follows:

"Since the [1860s] the critical study of the Life of Jesus in Germany has been unconsciously under the influence of an imposing modern-religious nationalism in art. It was been deflected by it as by an underground magnetic current. It was in vain that a few purely historical investigators uplifted their voices in protest. The process had to work itself out. [...] As of old Jacob wrested with the angel, so German theology wrestles with Jesus of Nazareth and will not let Him go until He bless it—that is, until He will consent to serve it and will suffer Himself to be drawn by the German spirit into the midst of our time and our civilisation. But when the day breaks, the wrestler must let Him go. He will not cross the ford with us. Jesus of Nazareth will not suffer Himself to be modernised. As an historical figure He refuses to be detached from His own time. He has no answer for the question 'Tell us Thy name in our speech and for our day!' But he does bless those who have wrestled with Him, so that, though they cannot take Him with them, yet, like men who have seen God face to face and received strength in their souls, they go on their way with renewed courage, ready to do battle with the world and its powers.

A time will come when our theology, with its pride in its historical character, will get rid of its rationalistic bias. This bias leads it to project back into history what belongs to our own time [...] The consequence is that it creates the historical Jesus in its own image, so that it is not the modern spirit influenced by the Spirit of Jesus, but the Jesus of Nazareth constructed by modern historical theology, that is set to work upon our race."
-pgs. 310-311

As an aside it is quite charming to find period-appropriate metaphors about trains and telegrams and such in this work that add a bit of historical flavor. Indeed one amusing metaphor advanced was that Jesus, a deeply religious man, died upon the cross with a despairing cry of "My God, why hast thou abandoned me?" because he was futilely awaiting a "telegram from heaven" that never came.

Some textual criticism I found interesting was when previous investigators hypothesized that the writers of the Gospels may have several times inadvertently let something approaching the historical truth slip through when they contradicted themselves. This is why the knowledge of the Messiahship plays such a large part in this book, as if Jesus was declaring himself the Messiah the entire time and any Jew of that time could have made the inference, then why have that whole passage with the confession of Peter where Jesus is forced to reveal himself as the Messiah to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi? Shouldn't it have been obvious if he was really saying up and down Palestine that he was the "Son of Man", which could have been interpreted no other way to those who know their Bible? Thus the Messianic secret and the revelation of the Messiahship at Caesarea Philippi bear the mark of historical authenticity, as there would be no reason to invent such a story if Jesus was really making it obvious he was the Messiah the entire time. Further supporting evidence is that no mention of the supposed Messianic entry into Jerusalem was made in Jesus's trial when that obviously should have been a huge deal and red flag to the authorities if it happened. The High Priest then should have had no problem calling up witnesses then to denounce him as a false Messiah, but it is instead Jesus who condemns himself. The above examples struck me as very comprehensible results of exegesis and historical inquiry, even if they are not air-tight and there are still heated disagreements about Messianic knowledge and the Messianic secret to this day.

If the first part formed a history of the Quests for the historical Jesus, the last 70 or so pages formed Schweitzer's own view. Much of it was formed on the basis of the changing Messianic consciousness of Jesus and how he viewed the Parousia to be imminent. Schweitzer’s interpretation of the historicity of the gospel is not without merit and is at least very thought provoking. By the end of his theory I was half expecting him to turn around and start criticizing himself and the errors in his own reasoning, but I guess he would leave that to future pedants. To put it simply, he believes that the whole narrative and history hinges on eschatology which he views as the only authentic part of first-century Jewish and early Christian tradition not later invented by the Church, which goes a long way in explaining unexplained occurrences in the Gospels such as the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi and why Jesus felt he needed to keep the Messianic secret: he felt the Parousia would be occurring in his own lifetime and doubted the people would believe him to be the Messiah, in fact Schweitzer argues it would be inconceivable to a first-century Jew to believe Jesus to be the Messiah, maybe a knowledgeable prophet or rabbi, but not the Messiah. Schweitzer views then that any teachings not associated with the eschatological view can be considered unhistorical, which explains also why Jesus sent out his 12 disciples with so little instruction in the way of teaching as he did not intend to teach spirituality to the people as such, but wanted them instead to spread the news that everyone must “Repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” When this didn’t happen is when Jesus decided to head to Jerusalem, solely to die—solely in order to bring about the Parousia himself and take the cross from those not strong enough to bear it and redeem the sins of the many.

"Soon after [the Baptist] comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign." -pgs. 368-369

It’s not an inelegant solution, especially compared to some of the utterly crazy ones proposed earlier in the Quest (Jesus was "acquainted with the art of treading water" and all that). Certainly Schweitzer’s explanation of Judas’s betrayal too is ingenious, as he argues that what he really betrayed was the Messianic secret to the Sanhedrin, thus allowing for Jesus's prosecution on charges of heresy.

Just for example, some of the previous historical theories often involved a conspiracy of an apocalyptic Essene sect or rationalistic explanations of miracles that in their mental gymnastics were almost as absurd as the miracles themselves. Even so one still somehow gets the impression that Jesus was a stage manager par excellence and a bit of an improvisor, who believed in at least one thing extremely strongly enough to die to prove it, but did not really intend to found a religion. In the end perhaps Reimarus, the first theorizer mentioned in the Quest, put it best when saying “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", referring to Jesus’s saying that the current generation would not die out before his Second Coming, which obviously did not come. Thus perhaps from a modern point of view, if I can digress a bit, many of the Quests for the historical Jesus and even Christianity itself exist as little more as a feeding of dead and continuously delayed hopes with the unwillingness to acknowledge the inevitable, that Jesus's prediction of the end times was a tragic mistake. It's no surprise then that there was a gradual evolution away from the eschatological origins of Jesus instead to one emphasizing spirituality by the early Church which made something like the Gospel of John possible. But then again, that expectant waiting is not so different to what the Jews have also been doing for many thousands of years without an explicit promise from an earthly Christ. I'm reminded of that one Walter Benjamin quote, that for Jews the future was by no means empty, "For every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might enter."

In any case the recounting of the many attempts at finding the historical Jesus were not without purpose, as Schweitzer shows how each iteration provided useful historical information and theories to be dissected and passed down to the next, from the rejection of miracles as historical to the Marcan priority to his own "thoroughgoing eschatology" from a position of almost total ignorance of the historical Jesus of just a century and a half prior.

He also goes to great length to show how past authors like David Strauss were determined to get their Lives of Jesus published, often to the personal and professional detriment of the authors themselves who swam against the tide of Church dogma and contemporary theology. Nothing was lost however, and no one struggled in vain. Even just as an afterthought it provided for an excellent opportunity for an eisegesis of Biblical exegesis.

It’s worth it to read the whole book through just to understand the last seven or so pages that make up the final chapter. They are so clear, well reasoned, and indeed still just the right level of controversial on the issues facing historical scholarship that one is surprised it was written so long ago, but not surprised that the same man went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize about 50 years later. One will have to wade through dense debunked theological exercises in the middle section I'm afraid, but I can't help but feel that Schweitzer was onto something and closely approaches the current consensus when observing about Jesus that:

"He will not be a Jesus Christ to whom the religion of the present can ascribe, according to its long-cherished custom, its own thoughts and ideas, as it did with the Jesus of its own making. Nor will He be a figure which can be made by a popular historical treatment so sympathetic and universally intelligible to the multitude. The historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma." -pgs. 396-397

And what are my personal views on the subject? I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait until my own 400 page treatise is published since obviously after reading this one book I consider myself now to be an authoritative expert on the subject.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
4,995 reviews1,104 followers
October 21, 2014
This volume had been sitting around on the shelves for years, but only read years after the completion of seminary.

Albert Schweitzer was a hero to my family. During his years as a medical missionary in Gabon, Schweitzer would do annual tours as an organist, raising money for his work. Mother and her family would attend his concerts in Oslo. By the time I was born Schweitzer was an old man and, as I recall, occasional guest on The Tonight Show, hosted then by Jack Paar. I remember him because Mom and Dad thought his appearances there so important that I was allowed to stay up to see the great man. Indeed, such was his influence that sometime during grade school I read his childhood reminiscences for a book report requirement.

The Quest for the Historical Jesus is a book of monumental importance to biblical scholarship. Today it is a bit dated so far as research is concerned, but as a general overview of the state of such research up until the time of its publication in 1906, the book was quite relevant. Even now it is a salutory exercise to follow with the author the varying interpretations of the historic Jesus, if only to give one pause before getting too wed to one picture oneself. Schweitzer himself eschewed much certainty on the matter but did pronounce his belief that Jesus was an eschatologist--and therefore, interestingly, wrong. Schweitzer remained a Christian despite this conviction.
Profile Image for Pierre E. Loignon.
129 reviews24 followers
December 23, 2012
Le protestantisme est un mouvement chrétien qui s’est formé en réaction aux abus de la tradition catholique, qui avait pratiquement remplacé les enseignements du Christ par l’établissement d’un système hiérarchique et d’une panoplie d’activités rituelles. En forçant le trait, on peut dire que la religion céleste était alors mise de côté aux profits d’une religion temporelle qui menaçait les populations et dirigeants sous son emprise de toutes les horreurs de l’enfer en cas d’insoumission.
Avec l’avènement de la réforme, c’est désormais la Bible qui servira d’autorité aux protestants, au lieu des traditions et de la hiérarchie chez les catholiques.
Mais, très vite, les développement de la science qui ont accompagnés la plus grande liberté d’esprit rendue possible par la réforme (aussi bien en territoire protestant que catholique (car il a bien fallu procéder à quelques ajustements)) et l’interprétation littérale de la Bible, qui imposait un joug encore plus sévère sur le quotidien que ne le faisait le catholicisme ont entraîné plusieurs à remettre en question la légitimité absolue de l’autorité spirituelle du livre sacré des chrétiens. Le protestantisme s’est ainsi développé vers une application toujours plus conséquente de ses principes.
Et si la Bible était elle-même le fruit d’une tradition et non pas la parole directement issue de la bouche du Christ? Ne doit-on pas écouter uniquement la voix de l’Esprit Saint et non celle des traditions et des hiérarchies? Jusqu’à quel point trouve-t-on le Jésus historique dans les Évangiles? Voilà le genre questions qu’on s’est alors posées.
Et Schweitzer fait ici, la synthèse des recherches les plus importantes qui ont été faites sur le sujet jusqu’en 1906, date de publication de ce classique incontournable pour quiconque prétend étudier sérieusement la Bible. Bien que les cent-six années de recherches bibliques qui se sont déroulées depuis constituent un trou important à combler, on ne peut trouver mieux comme point de départ.
Selon Schweitzer, les doctrines ecclésiastiques voilent bien l’histoire authentique de Jésus, mais les investigations historiques en font le prêcheur d’un royaume éthique terrestre qui n’a pas plus d’authenticité. Le seul moyen, selon Schweitzer, d’arriver à une conception juste du Christ consiste à croire en la possibilité de participer de manière spirituelle à l’essentiel de son message : « La personnalité historique concrète de Jésus demeure une inconnue pour notre époque, mais Son esprit, qui demeure caché derrière Sa parole, est compris dans la simplicité, et son influence est directe. »(399(ma trad.)) Il arrive ainsi bien près d’une herméneutique divinatrice à la Schleiermacher.
Pour ma part, il me semble que ce n’est donc ni la tradition, ni la hiérarchie, ni la lettre littérale, ni la critique historique qui compte vraiment pour Schweitzer, mais la participation vivante à la foi qui ressort de tout cela, peu importe la forme que cela doit prendre chez diverses individualités. Après tout, pour tout croyant véritable, n’est-ce pas à Dieu seul qu’il revient d’en juger?
Profile Image for Pete daPixie.
1,505 reviews3 followers
December 4, 2009
Albert the Alsatian looked very similar to that other Albert, the Einstein. Did anyone ever see them in the same room? Schweitzer's 'Quest' is an authoritative journey through European eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century studies on the historical Jesus. Schweitzer cuts a swathe through more than fifty authors and their ideas. The further I read into this book the more I enjoyed Schweitzer's writing style. Unfortunately, I've travelled backwards in time through this genre, which doesn't help. However, I found this 'quest' to really come on strong in it's later chapters, when the author reveals the eschatalogical nature of Jesus's agenda to initiate the end of times with his parousia. He puts strong points to highlight where the Baptist stood in this introduction of 'The Kingdom'.
My only crit is I'm never satisfied with all the post Easter treatments of the Historical Jesus. The back cover of this book states, 'The Quest of the Historical Jesus is essential reading for biblical scholars, theologians, pastors and serious Christians.' No mention of the historian.
Profile Image for Robert.
274 reviews12 followers
September 7, 2014
If you want to read a thorough overview and critique of the literature of the "historical Jesus" during the 1800's this is your book. Schweitzer's knowledge of those who came before him in this field is impressive. He introduces each author and their attempt at writing about a historical Jesus. He then tears apart each argument in turn, while cherry-picking those ideas that agree with his own ideas.

I found this very interesting, though occasionally tedious, reading. As a stickler for logic, I have to point out that Schweitzer makes the same fatal mistake as those he criticizes, which is overstating the certainty of his conclusions. Really, what all these theologians demonstrate most clearly is how ultimately fruitless it is to chase ones own tail.
Profile Image for Chris Little.
105 reviews2 followers
May 11, 2020
A book famous for being 'important' - make of that what you will - but not a straightforward read. It's a self-assured survey of mostly self-assured enlightenment thinkers whose self-assured positions extremely clever-dumb.

The people Schweitzer surveys are no intellectual midgets, but all hold to starting positions and interpretive shibboleths that are frequently flimsy in the extreme.

For example of an assumed starting position is the facile division between 'the Christ of faith' and 'the Jesus of history'. This seems to be pursuing 'neutral' historical truth - but no one is neutral, everyone is committed. There's no justification in the method of argument that a theological or doctrinal claim is automatically non-historical. Especially if the claim of the whole Bible, including gospels, is that they relate God's actions in history.

And example of an interpretive shibboleth is the way the theme of the so-called messianic secret is assumed to mean no-one anywhere thought of Jesus as the Christ, even as a possibility (exceptions to Peter, and later the other members of the Twelve). On this basis, other positions follow: there must not have been messianic thought on Palm Sunday's entrance, because none thought of Jesus that way; John the baptist did not ask about Jesus being the Christ, because he would not have used that term; etc. Again and again, these 'histories' explain away the only real evidence they have - the texts - in favour of their accepted agendas.

In many ways, the 'history' Schweitzer describes exemplifies the awful dead end of seeing sources as the 'real deal'. It's seen in 19th and 20th century literary criticism of the Bible, as well as this historical reconstructionism. It says, texts are only hints to the blurred reality behind them, which we can reconstruct! Hooray for us!

If that seems a harsh judgement, here are two things to say. Firstly, of course there are many fascinating and insightful things written in the histories referenced by Schweitzer. But secondly, pick up the tone of this survey as given in the very first paragraph, and expressed throughout:
When, at some future day, our period of civilisation shall lie, closed and completed, before the eyes of later generations, German theology will stand out as a great, a unique phenomenon in the mental and spiritual life of our time. For nowhere save in the German temperament can there be found in the same perfection the living complex of conditions and factors-of philosophic thought, critical acumen, historical insight, and religious feeling-without which no deep theology is possible.
45 reviews3 followers
August 7, 2018
I do not think I have ever felt so much satisfaction at having completed a book. I took a very long time with this book as it sat beside my bed buried deep within my oft battery drained nook. Still something pushed me to the end persisting throughout the deep weeds of German theology. The more I read the more rewarded I was even to the 45 pages of footnotes I perused at the end. In the meantime I picked up a biography on the amazing Schweitzer, a fantastic tome of itself, and read a historical perspective on Quest by a brilliant biographer up to the task of handling a Gibraltar of a person like Schweitzer. So what is so moving and impactful about Quest? Is it Schweitzer’s novel theory that Jesus was wholly mistaken in the view he held of his own ministry as an eschatological mission to bring the kingdom to fruition immediately? Largely yes, this stunning theory is unveiled at the end of the book only after the cataloguing of all German thought on the life of Jesus for the better part of two centuries during which the critical method evolved and then flourished. All of that material along with Schweitzer’s book are written in German and so otherwise inaccessible to the English speaker if not for this wonderful work. So where does that leave faith knowing that Jesus lacked the self awareness of his own mission, did not view his death as a sacrifice for the world let alone generations living millennia from the events?. The answer is one’s faith is provided a beautiful harbor large enough to accommodate Schweitzer himself who in addition to establishing a thriving African medical mission still expanding to this day, continued in his role as pastor to his congregation in west Africa to his dying breath. The details of that harbor I will refrain spoiling beyond any damage I have already sown. For me the rewards along the journey consisted of Schweitzer’s own brilliant exegetical insights which are scattered throughout, some of which involve rearranging the text to better replicate the underlying purposes of the oral tradition on which the gospels were based from the apostles and to eliminate the biases of the anonymous annotators. Some involve the prioritizing of the cannon itself to counteract the expansion of the story that manifested in later writing. These insights could only come from a learned and eminent mind such as Schweitzer’s that yield treasures that are sound. Now I look forward to revisiting the gospels equipped with some new insight into the mind of Jesus thanks to Schweitzer and the entire school of German higher criticism. I expect it will be a visit in which Jesus may cut a more three dimensional frame rather than the two dimensional flannelgram cut out i had previously superimposed based on theological supposition.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
96 reviews10 followers
November 28, 2012
REVIEW AND CRITIQUE Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. Translated by W. Montgomery. New York, MacMillan, 1968.

The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1968) is the English translation of Schweitzer’s original work in German, Von Reimarus zu Wrede (1906).

While the ecclesiastical doctrines had veiled the authentic history of Jesus the Nazareth, in Schweitzer’s view, the historical investigation of Jesus’s life throughout the nineteenth century had further disintegrated and distorted the image of Jesus into a preacher of an ethical earthly kingdom conforming to the expectations of modern interpreters. Such a “Jesus,” as Schweitzer concluded, “never had any existence (398).”

Schweitzer’s genius insight was that the life of Jesus, not just his preaching, could not be reconstructed coherently unless we accepted the apparent “mythical” elements in Jesus’s own mind, i.e., the belief that Jesus himself would be the Messiah who should immediately inaugurate the celestial Kingdom of God through his consecration unto death and triumphant resurrection and the Parousia. Following this new thread of historical investigation, Schweitzer believed that the more genuine Jesus “will not be a Jesus Christ to whom the religion of the present can ascribe…nor will he be a figure which can be made by a popular historical treatment;” “the historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma (398).” In conclusion, “the whole history of Christianity down to the present day…is based on the ‘delay of the parousia’, i.e., the fact that it did not take place, hence the abandonment of eschatology, and the resultant progressive de-eschatologizing of religion (360).”


The weaknesses of Schweitzer’s arguments become obvious from the retrospective hindsight of the twenty-first century: 1) Schweitzer’s understanding of Jesus’s eschatology and the eschatological expectations of Jesus’s Jewish backgrounds was unsophisticated and not nuanced. But his lack of use of early Judaism materials in historical reconstruction is now complemented by the “third quest.” 2) Schweitzer overlooked the significance of the OT in shaping the life of Jesus and the theologized presentation of his life in the NT. 3) Schweitzer was uncritical in the orientation of modern skepticism and operated too many speculative reasoning based on the “impossibility” of the biblical testimony about Jesus.

The eschatological orientation of Jesus, Paul, and the whole NT is no longer a novelty to scholars. But Schweitzer was not radical enough to see the fact that not only the life of Jesus, but the whole Christian religion that streams forth from the historical Jesus cannot be coherently explained unless we accept Jesus’s thoroughgoing supernaturalistic and eschatological orientation.
107 reviews3 followers
February 22, 2014
Really just about as good as had been told. Some of the endless accounting for previous scholarship was a little boring, but his conclusions and interactions with them are often witty and intriguing. I'd give it 5 stars, but I think his general reaction against this scholarship is a little myopic. Thoroughgoing eschatology is the answer to all...? Eh.
Profile Image for G0thamite.
89 reviews18 followers
February 3, 2014
Great review of the "historical Jesus studies movement" from the Enlightenment till Schweitzer's time. A must read for anyone interested in how the major figures of this movement interpreted the text - their presuppositions and conclusions. Goes into great detail on the main interpreters.
Profile Image for WT Sharpe.
143 reviews2 followers
October 28, 2014
Extremely informative, well-researched, and dry as a desert after a ten-year drought.
Profile Image for Gerald Jerome.
66 reviews
June 20, 2020
Man I'm glad I'm done with this one. You can thank the author's infatuation with his own writing for the endlessly long-winded and sentimental sentences. Yet another work of watching theologians creatively interpret things by cherry-picking elements to deconstruct and forcing their own meaning into it ("exegesis" is a convenient blanket term to conceal "eisegesis"). Then, by the next paragraph we're already treating these new postulates as axiomatic for our continued embellishments of theory.

If you want to disagree with the miracles of Jesus from a rational naturalistic perspective and disagree with the Biblical story of Jesus for good evidence of contradiction, go for it. But when you have to resort to picking something you don't like and saying "No Jew of the time would have said/done this." then it just reeks of desperation. For some reason, the very existence of books like these will continue to convince the layman that the case is settled, but I suppose we're all guilty of finding our biases wherever we can.

Two stars because the man at least did his research and put effort into writing about it.
Profile Image for Dave.
560 reviews7 followers
July 28, 2019
I was astounded! Schweitzer concludes, “The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence.” Published in 1911, this book is critically out-of-date with modern scholarship regarding the bible and Christianity. And yet, it is fascinating because it documents [beginning in the mid 1700’s] the history of critical German scholarship that led us to the place where we are today. It gave me an in depth looks at the roots of the scholarship in the books I have been reading lately.
It is a CHALLENGING book to read. Schweitzer is writing for scholars who are thoroughly familiar with the New Testament. As such there are many words and phrases in Hebrew, Greek and Latin without any translations. The vocab is academic and the style contains long, complex sentences that often required me to go back and reread. It has been a challenge, but it was worth it.
Profile Image for Diana Hall.
24 reviews2 followers
September 29, 2018
A long journey through 19th and early 20th centuries German thought processes to come to the conclusion that though they saw no historical grounds for a flesh and blood Jesus, they still found His work and words powerful for the rest individual.

Rated it this way because it bogg's down in its minutiae. Follows too much of the German intellect and early theology.
Profile Image for Adam Henry.
102 reviews
April 19, 2019
The reality about this book is that there aren’t enough facts to balance out the theories and hypotheses (many of which exceed the preposterousness of the resurrected Christ theory), and it’s quite a dull read. This actually brought the skeptic in me closer to confidence, which I know was the opposite intention of the writer.
Profile Image for Andrew Cress.
45 reviews1 follower
October 19, 2018
Very difficult to follow, but a necessary read for those entering into the historical study of Jesus
Profile Image for Waltenegus Dargie.
Author 9 books20 followers
March 20, 2021
A comprehensive and colorful review of two century of German liberal theology. The New Testament account of the life of Jesus is placed on the operating table. The theologians, most of whom from East Germany, graduates of University of Tübingen, have stepped forward to test the tempered parts, bringing with them various tools for the task (“philosophy”, “psychology”, "literature", and “science”, though, in truth, mere speculation). The four Gospels, mainly the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Mark, are mercilessly cut piece by piece in desperate attempts to “discover” the truth about the historical Jesus. The book is a testament of how Europe established a glorious villa of rational thinking up on, as it were, virtually nothing.
Profile Image for Christian Wright.
1 review3 followers
August 11, 2016
Schweitzer was definitely writing to his peers with this book: it is a heavy scholarly tome that requires a solid background in biblical criticism. Even if you have that it can be a challenging read. It's ultimately more about "the quest", that is, what scholars through the ages up to the author's time made of Jesus. Schweitzer's own assessment of him takes up two and a half chapters, while the rest of the work is him summarizing and criticizing his predecessors' conclusions. Because of that the general reader would likely find it quite boring. But Schweitzer writes with enough wit and candor to make it worthwhile.

Schweitzer's own conclusions are dated now; he makes assumptions about the sources characteristic of his own time that end up hurting his reconstruction (he's simultaneously conservative and not-conservative in his treatment of the Gospel of Mark for example). The fact that the Dead Sea Scrolls had not been discovered also means that some of the statements made here are in need of reassessment. Notwithstanding it is a book of great importance, and it helps one understand the conversation today, as ironically most of what liberal and conservative scholars say about Jesus today was already said back in 19th century Germany. All in all, worth reading.
Profile Image for Frederick.
Author 15 books10 followers
May 15, 2015
The famed humanitarian, theologian, and philosopher presents a chronicle of unbelief as he reviews the history of apostate German theology and philosophy that denied the resurrection of Christ or even that He existed at all. He presents all of the villains in this drama as, of course, heroes because he believed what they believed. Moving from Paulus who first denies all miracles and the supernatural as Schweitzer claims he goes through all of the major theologians and philosophers who denied the Bible and Christ and yet led universities that drew fundamentalists like R.A. Torrey to study in them. All miracles, "all must equally be abolished," in the words of Schweitzer's heroes. In the end he calls it negative theology, to profess in a humanistic Christianity without an Jesus other than what occupies the Christian philosopher's mind as an ideal. The damage that German theology did to nominal Christianity and worshipers of scholarship is immeasurable. Here, in this book is a list of the men who did the deed and a discussion of their major works. Worth the read to the student of the history of Biblical interpretation.
Profile Image for Arthur George.
Author 15 books25 followers
March 13, 2015
This book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the issues of the historical Jesus arising from the gospels, which issues are many and substantial. Schweitzer discusses the research and writings on this question up to his own time, which may obviate reading such prior works for most readers. His own theories, though written just over a century ago, are remarkably current, with the exceptions that the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi materials had not yet been discovered when he wrote. But readers familiar with these texts can adjust to this. In the end, Schweitzer concludes that viewing Jesus as an apocalypticist is the best way to reconcile the varying portrayals of him in the gospels. This, in fact, is how many or most current New Testament scholars (outside the fundamentalists/evangelicals) view the situation. But it is important to read Schweitzer first as a basis for understanding better the more contemporary literature on the subject.
Profile Image for Volkert.
863 reviews14 followers
December 27, 2013
I had to abandon this challenging work after reading about a third of it. Schweitzer discusses numerous retellings of the life of Jesus, written by German theologians, over the course of about 200 years. What I got out of my reading is that some choose to add to (or embellish) the story of Jesus, while others choose to take away (or diminish) aspects of the gospel accounts. In either case, we are left with a Jesus, and a Christ, other than what was handed down to us in the New Testament. These German theologians wrote in a climate that had abandoned Holy Tradition, more or less. I feel blessed to have been able to embrace Holy Tradition late in life, and through that tradition we see the Jesus Christ we need to embrace this Holy One and the life He offers.
Profile Image for AskHistorians.
918 reviews2,847 followers
September 24, 2015
Although weighed down by over-faithful English translations, Schweitzer's book is literally the beginning of all contemporary attempts to understand Jesus in a non-theological light, to the point that the historiography of historical Jesus research in split into 'quests', the first of which begins with Reimarus and ends with Wrede (and Schweitzer). This book is essentially a historiography of the Jesus question, and introduced one of the most enduring questions in Jesus research: was Jesus eschatologically minded?
323 reviews8 followers
March 18, 2012
A difficult book to read in some ways, perhaps because of the translation from German, but an interesting survey of over 100 years of various Germans trying to figure out who Jesus Christ really was. However, after all that, Schweitzer's conclusion is as follows: "It is not Jesus as historically known, but Jesus as spiritually arisen within men, who is significant for our time and can help it."
Profile Image for Justin Powell.
101 reviews38 followers
January 18, 2013
Interesting book, but I may have had too high of hopes for it. After hearing about it for so long, I expected something mind-blowing. I didn't really have that from reading it. The synopsis of Jesus studies throughout the majority of the book was interesting at parts, but a bit boring at others. The last part of the book was easily the best.
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