Strauss Publishes

Although not the first theologian to suggest that the miraculous and supernatural elements of the life of Jesus should be treated as myth, Strauss became immediately famous with his publication of The Life of Jesus Critically Examined and at the same time found his career in ruins.

Summary of Event

In 1835, David Friedrich Strauss, a twenty-seven-year-old professor at Tübingen University, published the first volume of the groundbreaking and controversial Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (1835-1836, 2 vols.; The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, 1846, 3 vols.). The second volume followed the next year. Strauss was born January 27, 1808, in the village of Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart, Württemberg, in modern-day Germany. At the age of twelve, he began theological study at Blaubeuren under Ferdinand Christian Baur, a well-respected classical and biblical scholar. He continued his study at Tübingen University and in 1830 took a position as pastor at a rural parish and professor of Latin and history at a high school in Maulbronn. A year later, he was drawn to Berlin to study with the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel Philosophy;Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel[Hegel]
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
[p]Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich;on history[History] . By 1832, Strauss found himself back at Tübingen, where he taught the history of philosophy, particularly Plato, and where he undertook the writing of The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. Life of Jesus Critically Examined, The (Strauss)
Strauss, David Friedrich
Jesus Christ
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Bible;and Jesus Christ[Jesus Christ]
[kw]Strauss Publishes The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835-1836)
[kw]Publishes The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Strauss (1835-1836)
[kw]Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Strauss Publishes The (1835-1836)
[kw]Jesus Critically Examined, Strauss Publishes The Life of (1835-1836)
[kw]Examined, Strauss Publishes The Life of Jesus Critically (1835-1836)
Life of Jesus Critically Examined, The (Strauss)
Strauss, David Friedrich
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Schleiermacher, Friedrich
Bible;and Jesus Christ[Jesus Christ]
[g]Germany;1835-1836: Strauss Publishes The Life of Jesus Critically Examined[1910]
[c]Religion and theology;1835-1836: Strauss Publishes The Life of Jesus Critically Examined[1910]
[c]Philosophy;1835-1836: Strauss Publishes The Life of Jesus Critically Examined[1910]
[c]Historiography;1835-1836: Strauss Publishes The Life of Jesus Critically

Baur, Ferdinand Christian
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
[p]Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich;on history[History]
Eliot, George
Reimarus, Hermann Samuel

Strauss was not the first person of his era to write a life of Jesus. The Enlightenment and the age of rationalism had brought new eyes to the study of biblical texts. The increase in rationalism and the discovery of ancient manuscripts led biblical scholars to engage in intense textual and source criticism: They carefully compared published editions of the Bible to each other and to the oldest manuscripts they could find. They began with the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) and then turned to the Gospels. As questions were raised about the process of biblical composition and the effects of composition upon meaning, the scholars’ work seemed to discredit Christianity.

Hermann Samuel Reimarus Reimarus, Hermann Samuel was one of the first scholars to treat the life of Jesus from a rationalist point of view. Ten years after Reimarus’s death, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim collected and edited his work into Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jünger: Noch ein Fragment des Wolfenbüttelschen ungenannten (1778; The Goal of Jesus and His Disciples, 1970). The book, published anonymously at first, employed rationalist principles to argue away all the miracles Miracles;and Jesus Christ[Jesus Christ] on the basis of natural phenomena and concluded that the Resurrection could be explained only by the disciples stealing and hiding the body of Jesus. Reimarus asserted that Jesus must be understood as a deluded eschatological visionary. The controversial book influenced other rationalist studies of the life of Jesus, including one by Heinrich Paulus (1828) and one by Karl August von Hase (1829).

Friedrich Schleiermacher.

(Library of Congress)

While in Berlin, Strauss had attended lectures by Schleiermacher on the life of Jesus that had first attracted him to the topic. (The 1832 version of these lectures would be posthumously published in 1865.) Schleiermacher differed from Reimarus Reimarus, Hermann Samuel and others in that he was primarily a systematic theologian, and he believed that the new approach to Scripture could be used in a positive way. Combining the new rationalism with Reformation fervor, he focused authority in the person of Jesus rather than on the Scripture itself. Strauss followed Schleiermacher in believing that he could rescue the critical study of Jesus for the good of the Church. However, Strauss’s later work Der Christus des Glaubens und der Jesus der Geschichte (1865; The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History: A Critique of Schleiermacher’s “Life of Jesus,” 1977) was critical of Schleiermacher’s notion that the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith could be combined.

Strauss’s approach was also influenced by the work of Hegel Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
[p]Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich;on history[History] . He had planned to study under the philosopher in Berlin, but Hegel died shortly after Strauss’s arrival. Hegel believed that history itself was rational and that it developed according to a dialectical logic Logic;dialectical such that each stage of history was an advance over the previous stage and each stage was necessary to the eventual achievement of a perfect society. In Hegel’s system, a particular social or ethical way of living (Sittlichkeit) eventually confronts itself with its own limitations. The aspect of that Sittlichkeit that is useful is retained, while the aspect that is detrimental is superseded. He referred to this process as the “overcoming” or “sublation” (aufheben) of the social structure. The same dialetical process applied to the history of ideas and the development of accurate concepts and knowledge as well.

Many subsequent German thinkers (most famously Friedrich Engels) modified Hegel’s system, in which each term of the dialectic confronts itself with its own inadequacies. Instead, they used a model in which each term, or thesis, is confronted with its precise opposite, or antithesis, and the two terms combine to create a third term, a synthesis. It was Strauss’s early teacher Ferdinand Christian Baur Baur, Ferdinand Christian who undertook to apply Hegel’s Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
[p]Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich;on history[History] ideas to Christian history. He saw the original thesis of a Jewish Jesus as countered by the antithetic Pauline gentile church, and the resulting synthesis was early Catholicism. For Strauss, this model was key in helping understand the role of the evangelists. They were not deceptive in their presentations of Jesus, as many of the rationalists had concluded. Rather, they were simply passing on the truths of the eternal Christ as couched in the language of the first century worldview (Weltanshauung). This first century language constituted during the nineteenth century an intervening layer that needed to be stripped away through critical historical methodology in order for an accurate understanding of Jesus to emerge.

Strauss referred to this approach as mythical in character. During the late eighteenth century, Christian Gottlob Heyne Heyne, Christian Gottlob had introduced the concept of myth to explain how preliterate people preserved their beliefs and ideas. Georg Lorenz Bauer in his Entwurf einer Hermeneutik des Alten und Neuen Testamentes (1799; outline of a hermeneutics of the Old and New Testaments) had then introduced the concept to New Testament study, arguing that careful analysis could lead to a discovery of a truth beyond the plain meaning of words. For Strauss, myth was present in the Gospels, in the messianic portrait that derived from the Old Testament, and in the aspirations of the early Christian community. The recovery of this mythical level of meaning from the Scriptures meant understanding the truth of Christianity.

Strauss’s approach to the historical Jesus thus attempted to find a middle ground between the rationalists, whom he criticized, and the orthodox traditionalists such as his colleague Johann Tobias Beck Beck, Johann Tobias at Tübingen who accepted the Gospels as historically accurate records. More than half of his work focused on the issues such as miracles Miracles;and Jesus Christ[Jesus Christ] and the Resurrection that posed particular problems for this middle-ground approach. To illustrate his method, one can look at the feeding of the five thousand described in all four Gospels. The rationalists had argued that this sort of thing just simply could not happen according to the laws of nature. Perhaps there had been a natural explanation, such as that the young boy who shared his few loaves and fish had inspired others to share their food as well. The traditionalists, however, held that there could only be a supernatural explanation.

Strauss rejected both views and argued that the meaning of the story can be found in the imagery borrowed from Exodus texts about feeding the multitude in the wilderness with manna from heaven. The purpose of the story in Strauss’s analysis, then, is not to describe what actually happened on a particular day but to present Jesus as the bread of life who feeds his followers with a spiritual food. The result of the publication of Strauss’s text was a healthy skepticism about what one could know about the historical Jesus. For Strauss, though, it did not matter. Behind the words of the Gospels existed Jesus the Messiah, and the spiritual meaning behind the words transcended any literal considerations about the use of the words themselves to understand temporal history.


Strauss’s work has often been characterized by the immediate negative reception it received in Europe. Contemporaries labeled Strauss as the new Judas Iscariot and referred to The Life of Jesus Critically Examined as a book originating in hell. Public outcry caused him to lose his teaching position at Tübingen. When he was offered another position at Zurich in 1839, a petition bearing forty thousand signatures was presented against him. The result was that he was offered a pension and never allowed to teach. He had a failed marriage to a famous opera singer, and he entered German politics for a time, taking rather conservative positions. Strauss retired to continue writing, producing several revisions of his book.

On the other hand, many modern scholars see Strauss’s work as beginning the modern era of critical New Testament study. It influenced the development of many German theologians, such as Adolf von Harnack, whose presentation of the moral core of Jesus’ teaching owes much to Strauss. Strauss’s influence went further than Germany, moreover. The Englishman Charles Christian Hennell’s An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity (1838) had many similarities to The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. In 1846, novelist George Eliot Eliot, George translated Strauss’s work into English, and its influence in Britain increased. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and other Anglicans followed German scholarship closely. In France, Ernest Renan published his own Vie de Jésus (1863; The Life of Jesus, 1864) after an archaeological expedition to the Holy Land. Again the similarities to Strauss’s approach were striking.

Ultimately, Strauss’s work led to Albert Schweitzer’s Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung (1906; The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, 1910), which was foundational for twentieth century Gospel study. Although Schweitzer was highly critical of Strauss, the work of the former continued that of the latter in several important points. Like Strauss, Schweitzer continued to be highly skeptical of what one could know about the historical Jesus. The methodology of following the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) more closely than that of John remained intact. Finally, Strauss’s characterization of Jesus primarily as an eschatological prophet became the hallmark of Schweitzer’s work.

Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined really was not a portrayal of the life of Jesus as such but rather an analysis that questioned whether such an undertaking was even possible. Schweitzer’s quest for the historical Jesus drew the same conclusions, as did the new quests for the historical Jesus that came about in the 1950’s and at the end of the twentieth century.

Further Reading

  • Borg, Marcus. “David Friedrich Strauss: Miracle and Myth.” The Fourth R 4, no. 3 (May/June, 1991). Focuses on the interpretation of miracles in Strauss.
  • 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.
  • Krentz, Edgar. The Historical-Critical Method. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975. Discusses the roots of modern historical criticism in the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment.
  • Neill, Stephen, and Tom Wright. Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1961. Rev. ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1988. Treatment of Strauss’s work and subsequent developments in New Testament interpretation.
  • Strauss, David Friedrich. The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. Edited by Peter C. Hodgson. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972. A twentieth century edition of the original George Eliot translation. Includes a thorough introduction.
  • Theissen, Gerd, and Annettte Merz. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1998. Comprehensive modern study of the historical Jesus.

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