Schweitzer’s comments on the historical-mythical Jesus debate

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by Neil Godfrey

Albert Schweitzer argued against those who denied the historicity of Jesus, but he also had a few things to say about the way in which the debate between mythicists and historicists was conducted in his day. This post lists some of those thoughts that I believe are still relevant. His advice about what mythicists need to do also resonates well with my own reflections that I have attempted to express at times in this blog and on other discussion boards.

The tone in which the debate about the existence or non-existence of Jesus has been conducted does little credit to the culture of the twentieth century. (p.394, the 2001 Fortress edition of Quest throughout)

Schweitzer squarely laid the blame on the “mythicists” of his day: they gratuitously provoked “mainstream biblical scholars”, and the latter in return “generally answered in an unfortunately similar manner.” Today the situation is reversed. It is mainstream scholars who have initiated the bloodletting today. I witnessed this around ten years ago on the Crosswalk discussion list when Earl Doherty made an appearance, and then some time later, René Salm.

But even then on that first Crosswalk discussion list there were academics who did their profession more credit. As in Schweitzer’s day, it is true to say

However, there was no lack of attempts to establish a peaceful and worthy discussion. (p.395)

Dilettantes and Fathers

It is not surprising that the dilettantism of the [mythicists’] presentation received full, indeed sometimes immoderate, coverage in the debate . . . .

Refutations were almost too prompt and numerous.

For impartial observers it was all most instructive. The proceedings gave them some notion of the Gnostic battles of the middle of the second century AD. The mentality of many free-thinking theologians began to reveal a strange and bitter resemblance to that of the fathers who battled against heresy at that time. Like them, they felt themselves called upon to protect the spiritual welfare of the defenceless masses who were in danger of being craftily deluded.(p.395)

One might see the same happening today also in relation to agnostic and atheistic bible scholars who feel a need to protect the “intellectual integrity” of their audiences.

Thus H. Weinel added a ‘practical appendix’ . . . to his book Is the Liberal Picture of Jesus refuted?, which was intended to instruct clergymen on the logic and facts with which they could best confound Drews and his companions at public meetings. (p.395)

This has its modern counterpart with the abundance of web pages professing to give their readers lists of counter-arguments against Doherty’s web and print publications.

Superficial responses

As the polemical works for and against the historicity of Jesus were on the whole written rather quickly and were intended to be within the intellectual grasp of a wide, in fact the widest possible, readership, their level of scholarship was not generally very distinguished, and sometimes, in view of the authority of the writer, remarkably low.

We again see this so often today. So often a “mainstream scholar” will dismiss an argument from a “mythicist” with a reply that he would surely never dare expect to share with his peers. Arguments and presumptions that are widely treated as working hypotheses are presented as absolute facts. As a layman I came to learn that when I read a scholarly article apologizing that a particular point had not been extensively researched, it as often as not seemed to mean that it had not been researched at all. I also came to see how certain interpretations changed in line with more general social and cultural developments through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was not hard to see that some assumptions and interpretations reflect wider political developments rather than any new evidence or methodologies. Many scholars know all this, of course. But some among the field of biblical studies seem to overlook it all when it comes to exchanges with “mythicists”.

When I was studying in depth the Jesus passages in Josephus, I sought out scholarly articles in the literature, both new and old, and read all I could that offered any sort of depth to the discussions. When on Crosstalk I pointed to a fallacy or weakness in a common argument for “a Josephan core” reference to Jesus, I was advised by one good doctor of biblical studies to seek out and read Bruce’s single page dot-point summary of the “core” argument. This, I was assured, would bring my knowledge of the discussion up to the required standard to participate in a discussion with the learned ones. In other words, one had to have the correct conclusions to participate.

One also reads arguments that declare without qualification that there was a widespread and single form of popular Jewish expectation of a messiah at the turn of the century in connection with these discussions. Yet such scholars surely know that such a concept is nowhere to be found or repeated in their literature that deals specifically with this question. (Fitzmyer included, aspects of whose work I have discussed here and on other sites.)

These and other similar personal experiences eventually led me to wonder if some academics themselves rely merely on such summary tracts or undergraduate introductions when referencing supporting assumptions to their main works.

In the main the strategy of the debate has been to reveal the opponent’s mistakes. Those who deny the historicity of Jesus point out the many and profound weaknesses which the thoughtless popularism of modern theology has displayed for ears and which have made theology particularly vulnerable; the defenders of the traditional view fasten on the shortcomings of the philological and historical hypotheses of their opponents. But on both sides, as in the Gnostic struggles, only the most superficial and obvious aspects of the problem have in fact been considered. No attempt has been made to tackle the full extent of the question. (pp.395-6)

One bible scholar has repeatedly pointed me and others to chapter 2 of Weaver’s book, The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century: 1900-1950, to read when and where the “mythicist” case has been repeatedly rebutted and is no longer worth discussing. It seems that such a scholar is satisfied that so long as someone has published a counter argument, and so long as the question has been effectively ignored by the mainstream, then the case has been “rebutted”, and that long ago and ‘many times’. When I respond with actual citations from Weaver and some of those so-called rebutters themselves, and some of the responses their arguments have elicited, and with these citations open his assertions to question, the discussion invariably comes to an end and he withdraws for a time. A reply and a bypass do not equate with a rebuttal. (I know there have been several “replies”, but I also see that they are in the main echoes of one another, and are substantially the one reply that for most part addresses twigs, straw men and red herrings.)

Addressing the complexity of the problem

The complexity of the problem is such that there are four main questions to be considered: these concern the philosophy of religion, the history of religion, the history of doctrine and the history of literature. (p. 396)

1. Philosophy of religion question

Schweitzer raises here what must surely be “a hard saying” for many Christians. He saw the resolution of this question as having the potential to render the debate irrelevant for Christianity itself.

What position, seen purely theoretically, does the personality of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels hold in the Christian religion, or in a religion which is to a greater or lesser extent Christian? To what degree is it the foundation of this religion, or an element in it? What consequences would the loss of this historical figure involve, should modern religious thought feel him to be unsatisfactory or alien, or if his existence should generally be doubted? (p. 396)

In other words, is Christianity big and strong enough to sustain any credibility as an idea without a literal human Christ as its foundation?

One suspects that if it were, it would be a religion that would find no place for the bigotries and thought controls associated with its past history. But then again, does not most religion always profess the most exalted sentiments regardless of what happens among its adherents on earth?

2. History of religion question

Secondly, in the field of the history of religion, it must be discussed whether at the turn of the era there could have been an oriental-Graeco-Jewish syncretistic movement involving the idea of a dying and rising redeemer god which proceeded to endow him with the historical existence portrayed in the Gospels. (p. 396)

Studies in areas related to this concept have moved on since the Schweitzer wrote that. And mythicist ideas — or near-mythicists ideas — among the likes of Price and Thompson, Wells and Doherty, have kept in step. My understanding is that much work still needs to be done in this area. I can imagine Thompson’s discussion of the ancient Middle East’s ideological and literary heritage will not be embraced widely without much exhaustive analysis. Doherty has raised new possibilities with his thoughts on the role of Middle Platonism. Price has revisited some of the older idea that never really quite died out with the Dutch radicals, and reinvigorated them with refreshingly incisive responses to the conclusions of Jonathan Z. Smith that seemed for a time to put an end to any possibility of comparisons between early Christianity and Hellenistic religious beliefs.

3. History of doctrine question

the assumptions which follow such an interpretation of the rise of Christianity must be analysed, to see whether they can be brought into harmony with the established facts of the further development of his teachings and his views.

This question I will leave to the clerics. As a “free thinker” (the term widely and officially used in Singapore for anyone who does not adhere to any religion) the idea of “doctrines” has no appeal to me at all.

4. The literary question

For this an objective decision must be reached on whether the reports of the Gospels can be considered traditions handed down to us about the activity of a historical late-Jewish personality, or whether they have been artificially constructed, and are myths or symbolic narratives crystallized into history. (p.396)

Ah, I highlight this one because it is my area of personal special interest. (It was the basis of my recent post analysing the source of the temple episode in the gospels.)

I am particularly interested in the many recent works on intertextuality and mimesis, and comparing possible implications of the arguments with those that assume derivation from “oral traditions”. It seems to me to be an area of potential interest to mythicist studies that has been overlooked. At least till Thompson’s The Messiah Myth appeared.

The fault of the mythicists

The fact that in the debate so far these problems have all been confused is chiefly the fault of those who deny the historicity of Jesus. They have followed no pre-conceived plan in the presentation and development of their theories, and have been more concerned with the effective marshalling of their criticisms and assertions than with a real exploration of what is involved or the principles underlying it. It is remarkable that none of their opponents put an end to the confusion by pressing for a distinction between these two different aspects of the problem. Scholarly discussion is possible only when first the more general and then subsequently the more particular issues are considered. (p.396)

I think Doherty has made some steps in the right direction here. But there is still a long way for mythicist argument to go. I am thinking of the approach initiated by the so-called “minimalists” when they opened their critique of Albrightianism and simultaneously advanced the foundations for a new way of interpreting both the literary and archaeological evidence pertaining to ancient Israel.

Doherty’s approach through “12 pieces of the puzzle” is fine for popularizing his thesis, and for introducing it in overview format for first-timers. He does go beyond dot-pointism, of course. But the works for scholarly discussion are only beginning to be written, it seems, with Thompson and Price. And neither of these presents a comprehensive look at the real foundations of the question. As I see it, they are still tackling the superstructure of the debate. If Jesus is not an historical figure, this is a spin-off from their discussions, not their central thesis. It is no crime to write about one’s special area of interest. But the hard work of addressing the fundamental foundations of the argument in a comprehensive way has yet to be taken up, I think. (But I have not read Doherty’s new book yet, so cannot comment on how much further he has taken the argument since his first publication.)


This hard task will begin with addressing the nature of historical enquiry itself. It will discuss the nature of historical evidence in the way Niels Peter Lemche discussed it in relation to studies of ancient Israel. The nature of literary evidence itself, the questions of provenance, these have not been discussed in a significant way as the undergirding of a case for a mythical Jesus figure. I have attempted to touch on these questions in some of my posts, but again it is always as a side-issue.

The folly of calling upon sound judgment

It is slightly amusing to see debaters insisting that their particular reading of a single passage in the Bible is the only “common sense” interpretation, and accusing their opponents of “wilful stupidity” for not accepting “the obvious”.

More than once in the writings directed against [a mythicist] it is stated that even what is self-evident can nevertheless be made clear only if the will is there to be swayed by the evidence available. The writers call on ‘sound judgment’, a ‘sense of reality’, or even on the ‘aesthetic feeling’ of the man whose views they are opposing, that is, if they do not console themselves with the idea that nothing can be revealed to him who will not see. In reality, however, these writers are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability.

So nothing is achieved by calling on sound judgment or on whatever else one likes to ask for in an opponent. Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. (p.402)


Albert Schweitzer, Etching by Arthur William H...
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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Schweitzer’s comments on the historical-mythical Jesus debate”

  1. Neil,

    Thanks for a very fine post. There is a serenity about it that is refreshing.

    Once again, however, it is jarring to see Schweitzer “introduce” scholars like Doherty, Lemche, and Thompson. Schweitzer felt no need to mistreat the mythicists and minimalists of his day. So far so good.

    Unlike two-bit apologists of our day, he knew that his faith was founded on a more secure basis than more or less probable historical inferences.

    On the other hand, Schweitzer was serenely convinced that the evidence in hand allows us to say all kinds of things about Jesus and the teaching of Jesus with a reasonable degree of certainty. This puts him light-years away from mythicists and minimalists.

    Would Schweitzer have been impressed by the historical methodologies of today’s mythicists and minimalists? No. He would be as unimpressed by their methodologies as he was of those of mythicists, minimalists, and maximalists of his day. This is the long and short of it. Put another way: minimalists and maximalists are mirror-images of each other.

    It is also safe to predict that the so-called middle ground will continue to be the pole of greatest attraction. I can’t think of sound reasons why it should be otherwise.

  2. Middle ground?

    You mean people like me who say there is a prima facie case in Paul for the existence of a historical Jesus?

    On the other hand, Schweitzer was serenely convinced that the evidence in hand allows us to say all kinds of things about Jesus and the teaching of Jesus with a reasonable degree of certainty.

    Including the idea that Jesus , just before he was betrayed, told his followers how to obtain access to his body and blood in a ritual cultic meal?

  3. Neil, Excellent post. You are becoming one of my favorite people to listen to. And I actually do listen to you, i convert your blog items to mp3 with my mac text to speech feature, and listen to them as I drift off to bed at night. Thanks for all the effort.

    Cheers! Rich Griese

  4. John, what Schweitzer personally thought about Jesus is another matter from what I was addressing and from what Schweitzer himself was addressing in this section of Quest. One can argue from authority that Jesus must be historical, but that is not the point. My appeal to Schweitzer is an appeal to authority, but in respect to attitude and intellectual honesty in dealing with the ongoing (since the 1790’s) mythical Jesus argument.

    One can misuse S’s authority and simply declare that there is no more case to be answered after S has spoken. But this, I am sure, is also contrary to the spirit of S.

    (Besides, if the former can be done, then why is it not done decisively — pull out that page or paragraph from S that squashed any new mythicist argument — and surely case closed? But no, some biblical scholars prefer to simply pronounce as it is is a fact that arguments have been dealt with long ago. This is a lazy cop out from having to face the arguments themselves, I suspect.)

    What we see today among some of the “mainstream bible scholars” is ridicule and smear in place of argument. This from the a major sector of the leaders and influencers of public opinion and attitudes!

    Evolutionists do not win against creationists by theses tactics. They win court cases and public respect by laying out professionally responses that engage with the arguments — as S himself attempted to do.

    I have even seen obscene comparisons drawn between “mythicists” and “holocaust deniers”. If I want to “save” someone from holocaust denial I would not insult them. I would do a bit of work, find out why they think the way they do, and present an argument that I would hope would be persuasive.

    These sorts of tactics inevitably lead some to wonder if they are smokescreens for some sort of vulnerability that must be denied at all costs.

    But I am wondering if what you are suggesting in your post is that you do feel scholars today have some sort of justification to treat mythicists differently from the way S did?

  5. Sorry if this is too far afield from your general points, but I followed your link to Doherty’s “Twelve Pieces” and found him to be making several claims about the Epistle to the Hebrews with which I cannot agree. He first includes it among the general group of epistles which he claims have nothing to say about a human Jesus (in spite of Heb 7:14), then in a later “piece” he claims that Heb 8-9 shows J’s human sacrifice to have occurred in the heavenly sanctuary mentioned in those chapters. This is not consistent with my own reading, which is that J’s sacrifice occurred prior to (and was justification for) his entrance into the “divine sanctuary”. (Please note that I am not a Christian, so I am not injecting any faith perspective into my reading of Hebrews. I just think that Doherty’s interpretation is wrong.)

    1. Maybe you would like to take up your disagreements with Doherty and see what he has to say. I find Doherty’s arguments have a lot more going for them than some people are willing to credit them. But Doherty and I do have our differences, and always have had. He’s quite willing to discuss if you disagree with him, from my experience.

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