The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
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.