Bruno Bauer and Today (“Is This Not the Carpenter?” — chapter 2)

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by Neil Godfrey

This concludes my recent post on chapter 2 of Is This Not the Carpenter?, “The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer” by Roland Boer. That earlier post was an overview of Roland Boer’s explanation for the emergence of radical biblical criticism in Germany in the early nineteenth century and surveyed the landmark roles of Ludwig Feuerbach and David Strauss.

This post begins with Boer’s thoughts on the contributions and significance of Bruno Bauer and concludes with his observations on the significance of this nineteenth-century phenomenon in today’s world. Recall that a crucial point Boer is stressing is that the discussions in Germany over democracy, individual rights, press freedom, republicanism, etc were debated through works of biblical and theological criticism. Bible criticism had widespread social and intellectual relevance.


Bauer, Scepticism and Atheism

Roland Boer introduces Bruno Bauer as

  1. primarily a New Testament scholar
  2. sometime theologian
  3. sometime political commentator

Bauer appeared in the “first great wave” of critical Bible scholarship in Germany and always remained at its cutting edge “and beyond”. He was for a time widely regarded as the leader of the Young Hegelians (see previous post).

Bruno Bauer, deutscher Theologe, Bibelkritiker...
Bruno Bauer

His assiduous attention to the details of the biblical texts and their wider cultural contexts led him to conclude that

  • Christianity was a product of the second century
  • The Gospels are creative theological literature and as such contain virtually no history, and certainly no evidence for an historical Jesus
  • The Gospels are very largely Hellenistic literature, drawing upon the ideas of Stoicism, Philo and neo-Platonism.
  • The religious theme found in the Gospels was the struggle between “free self-consciousness” and “religious dogmatism”.

This latter point was intertwined in Bauer’s thought with his savage attacks on the leaden and repressive institutions of church and state in his own day. His book, Christianity Exposed (Das Endeckte Christenthum) was banned and not to be reprinted until 1927.


How Bauer approached the Gospels (What Karl Marx learned about the Bible)

1838 saw the publication of Bauer’s only work on the Hebrew Bible, the two-volume Critique of the History of Revelation: The Religion of the Old Testament Explained according to the Principles of Historical Development (Kritik Der Geschichte Der Offenbarung: Die Religion Des Alten Testaments in Der Geschichtlichen Entwicklung Ihrer Prinzipien Dargestellt).

Marx as a student

At this time (1839) Bruno Bauer also taught a young student, Karl Marx, at the Friedrich Wilhelm University, and it is in this context that Boer explains the thoughts on religion and the Bible that Bauer was working through (and teaching Marx):

In the summer of 1839 Marx would have heard the full brunt of Bauer’s theories on the Hebrew Bible and Isaiah in particular. In Die Religion des alten Testaments Bauer was developing his argument that religion, or rather, religious experience is the result of (a Hegelian) self-consciousness. Not only was such religious experience a transcendental affair, but one could also trace in a phenomenological fashion the development of the various forms of that experience. Following the assumption that the legalistic priestly material (designated by P) was the oldest literary source of the Hebrew Bible, he argued that this material lies at the earliest stage of such a development. Here we find an authoritarian deity who demands a law-bound subordination. In contrast to this largely external relation, the later prophetic books mark a much higher stage: over against the crass and oppressive particularity of the earlier material, here the universal is immanent in community. (From Marxism and Eschatology Reconsidered; this passage encapsulates Boer’s argument in this section of his chapter in Is This Not the Carpenter?; my emphasis)

Some of Roland Boer’s chapter appears unfortunately to be truncated or at least over-abbreviated: it is not uniformly easy for anyone not familiar with his argument to follow. I found Boer’s earlier online essay, Marxism and Eschatology Reconsidered, helpful for providing explanatory detail to some of the points he was making in “The German Pestilence”. He explains online more clearly the background of critical studies that influenced Bauer:

As for biblical criticism itself, scholars had begun to undermine, often in the face of much resistance, many of the traditional assumptions concerning the Bible and its authors. They argued against traditional interpretations and appeals to divine authority by focusing on the literal and grammatical sense of the text (in opposition to allegory), the internal evidence of the text, and the desire to reconstruct historical situations in order to understand the Bible. Much of the early energy was focused on the five books of Moses — the Torah or Pentateuch.

Characters such as

  • Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, who published his three-volume introduction to the Old Testament in 1780-83,
  • Wilhelm de Wette (1780-1849),
  • Johann Vater (1771-1826),
  • Heinrich Ewald (1803-75),
  • and Hermann Hupfeld (1796-1866) had argued that the Pentateuch was really a compilation of different sources or fragments not written by Moses, if he existed at all.

Amid much debate, they gradually came to agree, at least by the time Bauer was writing, that there were four sources that lay behind the Pentateuch — the Priestly (P), the Yahwistic (J), the Elohistic (E) and the Deuteronomic (D). In what was called the documentary hypothesis, P was felt to be the earliest and responsible for most of the laws (613 of them), the Yahwistic and Elohistic (based on two of the names of God) followed, with slightly higher views of religion, and D was responsible for Deuteronomy and the final editing of the first five books of the Bible.

Only later, after Bauer’s work, did Julius Wellhausen argue that P was the latest stage.

In fact, it was in the second half of the nineteenth century that historical criticism (as it was eventually called) carried the day in German academic biblical criticism.

Bauer came in at the earlier point, assuming that the Priestly material was the crassest and earliest. Religion struggles, they argued, to rise above this state until it reaches the prophets and then the New Testament. For these biblical critics, the prophets themselves comprise the high point of the Old Testament (Luther’s great liking for the prophets as a model for Protestant ministers has an obvious influence here). Rather than predictors of the future, they spoke the will of God to their immediate context. They were, it would soon be argued, forth-tellers and not fore-tellers. And their message was nothing other than “ethical monotheism,” of which Isaiah was one of the greatest exemplars. No longer were these texts of Isaiah concerned with foretelling the arrival of Christ or the age to come, but they told forth the great ideals of ethical life lived under monotheism. We couldn’t be further from the idea that the prophets were harbingers of the eschaton, that the end was nigh. (my formatting and emphases)

Boer’s argument in “The German Pestilence” can be followed through the online essay from which key sections of it were adapted.

This is the volatile context within which Marx entered his university years.

But let us return to the ever-active and fertile mind of Bauer. He gave these developments in biblical criticism and public debate his own spin. As far as the Hebrew Bible was concerned, he argued that even the prophetic texts of the Hebrew Bible had not yet arrived at the moment of overcoming the estrangement of externalized and legalistic religion. That, of course, would come with the New Testament, to which he was to direct all of his critical concerns from the beginning of the 1840s.

At this point in his thought he argued that the difference between the Old and New Testaments was that Christianity managed to free the religious consciousness from its limited and particular form in the Old Testament.

What his work on the Hebrew Bible enabled him to do was define his key idea of religious consciousness, namely the unmediated identity of particularity and the abstract universal, which he translated in terms of the immediate identity of the universal with a particular subject or community. (my formatting and emphases)

Now that last line, where “the particular” identified itself with the “universal”, essentially seems to mean that a specific person or group (Jesus, the king, the church) claimed to be “the exclusive representative of” a universal truth or fact (God, heaven). This was nothing other than an act of hubris on the part of the particular (church, individual).

This, Bauer argued, made oppression, tyranny, the wielding of brute power, inevitable. The Prussian state itself, led by “God’s representative on earth”, was itself a manifestation of this resultant brutality. It also meant Christian monotheism was an exclusivist force rather than a true universal. The supposed universals of heaven and God were alienated from people rather than truly united with them.

He argued that the church was ossified and dogmatic, for it claimed universal status for a particular person and group. In the same way that we find a struggle in the Bible between free self-consciousness and religious dogmatism, so also in Bauer’s own time the religious dogmatism of the church needed to be overthrown. In its place Bauer argued for atheism, democracy and republicanism.


Bauer’s conclusions about religion and the Gospels

The above views of Bauer developed as he worked from 1840 to 1842 on his analyses of the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John.

It was during this period that he “eventually recognized his own atheism”. True freedom required the freedom from all religious constraints and a need for social transformation. This argument was fully set out in Christianity Exposed, the work that was banned and hunted down to be destroyed.

The Gospels were not historical records and contained virtually no history at all. They are creative theological literature by persons unknown. Roland Boer reproduces in his chapter several extracts from the Introduction and Chapter 3 of his own book, Criticism of Earth: On Marx, Engels and Theology, including the following:

The Gospels themselves are a long way from historical records, being the products of creative and unknown individuals. Within the restrictions of the religious consciousness, these authors responded to the needs of the Christian communities for an understanding of their own nature and origins. So Mark, the earliest Gospel, presents a basic picture of Jesus’ adult life and death, while Matthew and Luke fill out that story with birth narratives, additional material and the resurrection. By the time we get to John we already have the full expression of a dogmatic monopoly. But why are these stories problematic? Here is Bauer:

The gospel reports are nothing other than free, literary products, whose soul is the simple categories of religion. What is specific to these categories, however, is that they reverse the laws of the real, rational world. They alienate the universality of self-consciousness, rend it violently away, and restore it in the form of representation as an alien, heavenly, or as an alien, limited, sacred history.

Christianity denied the truth that could only come from [a free] self-consciousness. . . .

Christianity claimed the “truth” was “out there”, alienated from humankind. Christianity may have been a good thing in “freeing people from the ties of nature, family and spirits, but it was also the highest form of alienation.”

How could one be liberated from such a religion and enjoy a truly free and truly universal self-consciousness? The answer lay in “criticism” — and the abolition of any church or state that laid claim to Christianity.



English: Bruno Bauer
Bruno Bauer

In 1839 Bruno Bauer published a scathing attack on his former teacher, Herr Dr Hengstenberg, who was also a Pietist “watchdog for orthodoxy” in the Friedrich Wilhelm University — “one of his less astute political acts” as Roland Boer puts it. It led to his dismissal.

He found a new post in Bonn, but it was not long before the Minister for Religious Worship, Education and Medicine (Eichhorn) revoked his teaching licence and the King ordered his dismissal (1842).

He bought a farm, ran a tobacco shop and wrote prolifically until his death in 1882.


Bauer’s reconstruction of Christian origins

For Bauer, the Christianity bequeathed to later generations was a crude amalgam of Philo’s neo-Platonism, Seneca’s stoicism and Roman imperial beliefs about the emperor as son of God. That’s not how it started, though.

Bauer argued that Christianity initially proved attractive to many at the bottom of society because of its promises of reversal. The poor and slaves were honoured above the wealthy, powerful and privileged. The most accurate window to this earliest Christianity was the Book of Revelation, a work he believed dated to the years just prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

The Book of Revelation drew upon the imagery of the Hebrew Bible. It taught the imminence of revenge against the oppressors. There were no Pauline sacraments like baptism or eucharist, no original sin, no holy spirit, no justification by faith and no grand narrative of a death and resurrection of Christ.


Comparing scholarship today

Roland Boer reminds readers that Bauer was reliant upon the scholarship of his time. But Boer also points out that the basic assumptions of the scholarship of Bauer remain the same today:

  • the Bible must only be very cautiously used for historical reconstructions since so much of it is unreliable (this is only recently returning to slowly to the same level of scepticism Bauer himself demonstrated);
  • the primary interest is origins — of Israel and Christianity;
  • archaeology is a necessary tool as an external control upon the texts;
  • there is much preoccupation with discussions of dates.

Bauer’s interest in the influence of Stoicism and the thoughts expressed in Philo’s works are also alive today:

  • Troels Engbeg-Pedersen: Paul and the Stoics (2000)
  • M. Lee: Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ (2006)
  • W. Loader: The Septuagint, Sexuality, and the New Testament: Case Studies on the Impact of the LXX in Philo and the New Testament (2004)
  • B. Winter (ed.): Philo and Paul among the Sophists (1997)

An addition to the above that I read recently is Th. D. Niko Huttunen: Paul and Epictetus on Law: a Comparison (2009).

Roland Boer strikes a chord with my own thinking by introducing Bauer as a forerunner of the “minimalists” today who have radically revised thinking about the Hebrew scriptures, and some of whom are applying their methods and findings to the later Jewish literature (i.e. the New Testament documents), too. Thus we have Thomas L. Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche contributing chapters to Is This Not the Carpenter?



Today the “radically sceptical biblical critic” is still not assured security in the academic world. Boer cites the case of Gerd Lüdemann. (Other evidence of this state of affairs has been cited from time to time in posts and comments on this blog. Even the R. Joseph Hoffmann in a former life pointed out that the absence of mythicist views in the guild today has more to do with issues of academic tenure than with the soundness of the arguments.)

Roland Boer finds relevance in Bauer’s and Strauss’s careers to questions around the compatibility of atheism with theological and biblical studies.

What interests me more are his reflections upon the implications of the role of myth in the New Testament, especially in relation to Jesus. Many have protested that David Strauss went too far and pleaded that there may “still” be some historical core (“whatever that is” — Roland Boer) behind the mythical tales. Boer further makes the similar (constructive) point one has read in the recent books and articles of Thomas L. Thompson — that “by pursuing the argument from myth (taken in its dual sense of fiction and an alternative genre and mindset) . . . gets us beyond the somewhat futile searches for the historical or unhistorical Jesus.” Boer would prefer to explore the functions of the myths about Jesus.

Engels in 1868
Engels in 1868

“Minimalism” might be seen as an attempt to return to the radical edge of scholarship found in Bauer, Boer suggests. But what he finds most strikingly enduring of Bauer’s thought is the argument that Christianity initially flourished as a result of attracting the poor and dispossessed, the slaves and impoverished freedmen and peasants. Conditions of oppression and destitution were exacerbated in many regions as a result of the “Pax Romana”. This view was actually carried forward by Marx’s colleague, Friedrich Engels, who was influenced by Bauer. This view has been sustained in scholarly traditions ever since among various New Testament scholars and sociologists.

The problem, of course, is that which faces any effort to find some firm ground in the New Testament: the lack of conclusive evidence.

Finally, Boer suggests that the geo-political context may also be considered as a backdrop. If Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer were products of a Germany economically and politically depressed, one might wonder if the current cracks in Western dominance over “misadventures” in the Middle East and an ongoing shift of dominance towards the East mark a time when Western scholars find it timely “to return to a more sceptical position in relation to the founding documents.”


Next in this series I will review Lester Grabbe’s chapter 3 discussing non-Christian early references to Jesus.


Friedrich Wilhelm University, now the Humboldt University (my photo)
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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Bruno Bauer and Today (“Is This Not the Carpenter?” — chapter 2)”

  1. Dear Neil, many thanks for this superb introduction to Bruno Bauer. Just from the summary you have provided, it appears that his rigour in demolishing the incoherence of the historicist paradigm serves as an excellent model which really should be translated into English.

    There are three points on which I wish to comment.

    1. Memetic structure of evolution of Christian doctrine through Mark.
    Genetics observes the existence of choke points in evolution. For example, if a species suffers catastrophe and only survives through one pregnant individual or a tiny group from whom all subsequent lines descend, this event structures the genetic record.

    Stephen Oppenheimer discusses the ‘mitochondrial Eve’ as the last African woman, some 150,000 years ago, from whom all humans today are descended. In similar fashion with the history of ideas, if a tradition owes its real concealed genesis to a single thinker such as Mark for Jesus of Nazareth, we will look in vain for independent corroboration, outside the actual causal facts that originated the idea. It would be like looking for evidence of Don Quixote outside Cervantes.

    Bauer appears to show that Mark, as literary inventor, is the memetic choke point for the historical Jesus. Ideas evolve by mechanical causality, through memes that are structurally analogous to genes. There may be similar ideas outside the causal line of descent, but the real path of transmission has to credit those who are really responsible for articulating the idea. Mark’s Jesus has more the character of a Don Quixote, a pure invention, than a Hamlet, who Shakespeare built upon older tales.

    2. Jewish messianism.
    I found your account of Bauer’s rejection of earlier messianism surprising. Bauer’s account of Mark’s inventive genius seems persuasive, but I don’t understand his apparent dismissal of how the Psalms, Isaiah and minor prophets contain a number of texts, such as the suffering servant, which indicate a longstanding Jewish cultural hope for a messianic saviour. Bauer’s rejection of Daniel’s prophecy of the Son of Man seems particularly hard to understand.

    3. Lazarus:
    Bauer wonders why this miracle only appears in the fourth gospel. A strong argument, presented by Gerald Massey, Tom Harpur and DM Murdock among others, sees John’s account of the raising of Lazarus as based on the Egyptian myth of Osiris. Lazarus is a lightly concealed renaming of Osiris as reborn king of the dead (El Azar = Osiris), Isis and Nephthys (the ‘Mertha’) are Mary and Martha, and Horus is Jesus.

    John’s Gospel incorporates this major ancient Egyptian cultural tradition into Christianity, giving life to the old gods in a new syncretic common era.

    The old forms of these Gods were not acceptable to the new wider Christian audience, so they had to put on a new appearance. This whole question of Christian dependence on Egyptian myth is sometimes regarded as distasteful, but there are many other examples, such as the parallel of the temptation in the wilderness with the war between Horus and Set, and similar continuities between Adam and Atum, Anubis and John the Baptist, Isis and Mary as perpetual virgin, and the salvific role of Horus as a Christ figure.

    John’s Gospel is expressing a concealed obeisance to a much older tradition of the sacred.

    1. The only point I want to comment on really is #2. The mere presence of a trope in texts that we know were only read by a relatively very small literate class is not evidence for what was on the minds and hearts of wider population, especially with respect to what social groups were anticipating in the near future.

      Point one about mimetic structure is based on metaphor and analogy. There is a much simpler and more well established (evidence-based) way of describing the same thing and you came closest to it in the final sentences of the last two paragraphs of your point 1.

      As for your Lazarus comment, this overlaps with what I have said before. General structural or thematic echoes of a story like this do not demonstrate direct borrowing. One may find similar tropes and things in the Mesopotamian literature, too. This strikes me as very woolly, very generalized and cloudy thinking. A lot more work needs to be done than simply suggesting Lazarus contains the name of Osiris. Even if it does, you have much work to do to demonstrate what I think you are wanting to argue.

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