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The Quest of the Historical Jesus!

By (October 8, 2013) No Comment

the quest of the historical jesusOur book today is Albert Schweitzer’s Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, translated into English as The Quest of the Historical Jesus by W. Montgomery over a century ago. Schweitzer published the book first in 1906 and then thoroughly rewrote it for a 1913 edition, and as editor John Bowden writes with little repressed horror, the Montgomery translation “has somehow gained a reputation for excellence.”He found it riddled with errors and set about cobbling together a heavy revision, which was published by Fortress Press out of Minneapolis in 2001.

Until we get a thoroughly from-scratch annotated translation from Penguin Classics, this edition is the closest we come to a true version of this book in English, and re-reading it really underscores both how learned it is and how strangely winning it is. Schweitzer spends 95 % of the thing in very technical call-and-rebuttal dialogue with a handful of great German philologists and Scriptural authorities of his generation and the two previous generations. He summarizes their points, analyzes them, rebuts many of them on very specific grounds, and all of it is done in the slightly close-shouldered tone of inter-academic note-sharing.

In other words, it shouldn’t be even remotely readable by a lay audience. And yet it is, mainly due to the aforementioned winning tone. Schweitzer is a very happy writer; he doesn’t shy away from exclamation points, he loves colorful language, and he has something of a stump-preacher’s effortless ability to zero in on whichever part of a passage or idea will best lend itself to helpful explanation. One of the main tasks he set himself was to sift through centuries of scholarly textual analysis in order to pin down as much as possible the core Jesus, the spine of the character stretching through the Gospels and the Apocrypha. Anybody who’s ever tried this kind of textual sifting will say the same thing to people who haven’t: it’s a genuinely thrilling, enjoyable thing to do – almost addictively so.

Schweitzer is so alive to this potential enjoyment that his book, against all odds, flows. I got drawn all over again into the many debates he’s conducting, and I found myself underling entirely different passages than I remember underlining in my original copy of the book (which, for reasons that need not detain us here, now lies at the bottom of Lough Neagh). On practically every page, there’s some insight to make you stop and think:

Jesus is best understood by contrasting him with John the Baptist. John was a preacher of repentance whose eyes were fixed upon the future. Jesus did not allow the thought of the nearness of the end to rob him of his simplicity and spontaneity, and was not crippled by the reflection that everything was transitory, preparatory, a mere means to an end. His preaching of repentance was not gloomy and forbidding; it was the proclamation of a new righteousness, of which the watchword was, “You shall be perfect, as your Father in heaven in perfect.”

Of course, one manifestation of Schweitzer’s playfulness wasn’t entirely appreciated in his own day: he can be wonderfully irreverent, or seem to be:

There are several details in the reported facts of Jesus’ life which could be interpreted as indicating insanity. His family explains that he is beside himself an for this reason tries to bring him home (Mark 3.21). The Pharisees maintain he is possessed (Mark 3.22 and 30). At his baptism he has optical and acoustical hallucinations (Mark 1. 10-11). Whether he as well as the disciples suffered from hallucinations on the mountain of the transfiguration, or whether it was only they who ‘saw’ and ‘heard’, is no longer clear in the reports we have of it. A negative attitude towards the family is to be observed, too, in certain psychotics; his saying about the men who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake (Matt. 4.39) and his cursing of the fig-tree (Mark 9/12-14) are indeed remarkable events. From the reports of his public actions it is in fact possible to gain the impression that Jesus was unstable and erratic, and this could be seen as indicating insanity.

The hinge on which his book turns is the concept of eschatology; the Jesus he portrays here is a preacher who’s not only certain the world around him is coming to a very immediate end (and not a metaphorical one, either – literally no more streets, no more farms, no more tax collectors or angry parents or anything) but is convinced he himself is the agent who will bring about that end. Schweitzer’s Jesus believes himself to be a divine singularity, the collapse-point of all time and history. And once Schweitzer begins reading such a mind frame back into the Gospels, he starts seeing deeper patterns – and echoing them in the scholars he’s studying:

Until the time of his arrest Jesus himself did not believe he was to die. But he was most profoundly disillusioned because the kingdom of God had not yet come. This sadness is expressed in the last supper which he celebrated with his disciples, at which he makes an oath to drink no more wine till his expectations are fulfilled. This indicates [Max Maurenbrecher writes]‘that he no longer felt the happiness a man feels as he leads his bride to the altar, and which has urged him till then to proclaim his great Now’. A tragic expectancy has replaced the happy one.

I half-way worried, approaching this new re-reading (of a nice copy bought at the bargain carts of my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course), that the book would seem somehow dated to me, but no – it’s still a feast for those of us who loved good searching Gospel study. Schweitzer may have drawn criticism elsewhere in his storied life – his reputation may be a bit tarnished in the very areas where he wanted it to shine most brightly – but in the writing of this book, he’s doing everything exactly right.