Without citing any instances to support his claim, Bart Ehrman charged “mythicists” as sometimes guilty of dishonestly quote-mining Albert Schweitzer to make it sound as if Schweitzer supported the view that Jesus was not a historical person. Ehrman’s unsubstantiated allegation has been repeated by Cornelis Hoogerwerf on his blog (without any acknowledgement to Ehrman); Jona Lendering of Livius.org has reportedly alerted Jim West of Cornelis’s “observation” and Jim has in turn informed his readership of Cornelis’s “excellent post”.
Here’s an excellent post . . . on the way the Jesus mythicists misrepresent Schweitzer to further their unhinged, maniacal, idiotic goals. (From The Crazy ‘Jesus Mythicists’ Lie About Schweitzer the Way Trump Lies About Everything) [Link (https://zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com/2017/01/07/the-crazy-jesus-mythicists-lie-about-schweitzer-the-way-trump-lies-about-everything/) no longer active as of 24th July 2019, Neil Godfrey]
If anyone knows who has quoted Schweitzer to support a claim that Jesus did not exist please do inform me either by email or in a comment below. I am not suggesting that no-one has mischievously or ignorantly misquoted Schweitzer to suggest he had doubts about the historicity of Jesus but I have yet to see who these mythicists are of whom Ehrman, Hoogerwerf and West speak. I do know that my own blog post quotations of Schweitzer have been picked up by others and recycled but I was always careful to point out that Schweitzer was no mythicist, and indeed that was a key reason I presented the quotations: the strength of their contribution to my own point was that they derived from someone who argued at length against the Christ Myth theory.
So I would like to know the identities of the “quack historians” of whom Cornelis Hoogerwerf writes:
To no surprise for those who are a little bit familiar with the contrivances of quack historians, Albert Schweitzer is getting quote mined to bolster the claims of the defenders of an “undurchführbare Hypothese” (infeasable hypothesis), as Schweitzer himself called the hypothesis of the non-existence of Jesus (p. 564). Part of it is due to the English translation, but another part is certainly due to the fact that quotations of his work circulate without context, and moreover due to the lack of understanding of Schweitzer’s time and his place in the history of scholarship. Perhaps some light from the Netherlands, in between the German and the Anglo-Saxon world, could help to clarify the matter.
There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the Life of Jesus.
The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence.
. . . .
Now, without context, it seems that Albert Schweitzer rejects the whole project of historical Jesus research. But nothing is further from the truth, for Schweitzer criticises the liberal scholarship that was current in the nineteenth century, which, according to Schweitzer, tried to make the historical Jesus a stooge for their modern religious predilections. That Jesus had never any existence. Schweitzer’s own historical Jesus was the eschatological Jesus, who remained strange, even offensive, to our time.
(Misquoting Albert Schweitzer, my bolding in all quotations)
What is the source of this claim? Has Cornelis Hoogerwerf really read any post, article or book in which Schweitzer has been so quoted for such a dishonest purpose? He cites none. But his wording does have remarkable similarities to the text of Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist? when he made the same charge — also without citation of supporting sources.
To lend some scholarly cachet to their view, mythicists sometimes quote a passage from one of the greatest works devoted to the study of the historical Jesus in modern times, the justly famous Quest of the Historical Jesus, written by New Testament scholar, theologian, philosopher, concert organist, physician, humanitarian, and Nobel Peace Prize-winning Albert Schweitzer:
There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus.
The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence.
. . . .
Taken out of context, these words may seem to indicate that the great Schweitzer himself did not subscribe to the existence of the historical Jesus. But nothing could be further from the truth. The myth for Schweitzer was the liberal view of Jesus so prominent in his own day, as represented in the sundry books that he incisively summarized and wittily discredited in The Quest. Schweitzer himself knew full well that Jesus actually existed; in his second edition he wrote a devastating critique of the mythicists of his own time, and toward the end of his book he showed who Jesus really was, in his own considered judgment. For Schweitzer, Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who anticipated the imminent end of history as we know it. (Did Jesus Exist? p. f)
I hesitate to suggest that Ehrman’s accusations were made without substance but I have yet to find any “mythicists” quoting the above passage by Schweitzer for the intent that Ehrman and Hoogerwerf claim. Is this an entirely manufactured accusation? Is West alerting readers to Hoogerwerf’s “excellent” relaying of a baseless rumour?
Cornelis Hoogerwerf adds a second part to his post:
A second quote, only in (the translation of) the second edition, reads as follows (allegedly from p. 420 of the English translation of the second edition):
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.
Again, can anyone tell me of any “mythicist” who has quoted this passage by Schweitzer? The only person I know of who has quoted it is yours truly, me, on this blog. I doubt that Cornelis has ever heard of Vridar or that he would bother to respond to anything here even if he had. (I have always cited the passage coming from page 402 while Cornelis says it is “allegedly from p. 420”.)
But Cornelis does add a comment that I do appreciate. He objects to the translation “Thus the degree of certainty [of Jesus’ historicity] cannot even be raised so high as positive probability” and argues that the original German should read:
“Thus even an increase to the highest degree of probability is not possible.”
Not being skilled in German I can only defer to this translation as more reliable. In future I will therefore reference it if I ever use the quotation again.
But Cornelis proceeds to tell his readers that the context of Schweitzer’s words is one that is at odds with the context as it is translated in the English language in the Fortress edition.
Then, Schweitzer complains about writers (defending the existence of Jesus) who call on sound judgement for the ‘obvious’ fact that Jesus existed. That is, according to Schweitzer, fine for everyday language, but not a scholarly way to approach the matter.
Yes, true, but there really is more. In fact Schweitzer is protesting against those arguments against mythicism that insists it is “obvious” or “only common sense” to read any passages as “proofs” of the historicity of Jesus. Here is the preceding paragraph:
More than once in the writings directed against Drews 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. . . .
Schweitzer at this point directed readers to his earlier discussion of the evidence for Jesus as found in secular historians like Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius. One further thinks today of scholars pointing to “James the brother of the Lord” or “Jesus being born of a woman” or being “of the seed of David according to the flesh” and appealing to the “sense of reality” in readers to accept these as “sure proofs” of the historicity of Jesus.
It is at this point that our quotation enters the fray:
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. . . .
Schweitzer is protesting against the line of argument of several scholars today: that common sense and a plain reading of the evidence makes it obvious to any sensible person that Jesus historically existed. No, Schweitzer explains, the fact that all the earliest evidence for Jesus goes back to one single source, that of Christianity itself, means that there can never be any “obvious” or absolute certainty.
Schweitzer acknowledged the theoretical limitations of the historical method. He did not therefore deny the historicity of Jesus. Of course not. Everyone knows his second edition of Quest added additional chapters to argue against the Christ Myth theory. I think I have pointed that out, as far as I can recall, every time I quoted Schweitzer. What I have wished for is that more modern scholars would take two things to heart from Schweitzer’s discussion of the Christ Myth theory of his day:
- To maintain a scholarly tone that is a credit to our times;
- To acknowledge the theoretical limitations of the historical method, and the problem that necessarily arises from the fact that all reports of Jesus derive from the one source of tradition.
That is the point I have made in quoting the Schweitzer passage.
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. A theology which does not take account of the problem of the philosophy of religion exposes itself to the most incalculable contingencies and cannot claim that its method is scientific. It resembles an army which marches without cover and which can therefore be ambushed by even the smallest enemy forces.
Thus the problem which faces the philosophy of religion is far more important than any historical proof or refutation. Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.
To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent or history and of knowledge transmitted from the past, and which can be recreated afresh at every moment and in every religious subject. If it does not possess this direct and inalienable quality, then it is a slave to history and must live in a spirit of bondage, perpetually vulnerable and perpetually threatened.
And that is exactly what Thomas Brodie has done. It is what Paul-Louis Couchoud recommended in his admiration for the Christian faith.
Cornelis Hoogerwerf has been misled. He has not done his homework. Misguided, he protests:
It is obvious that this passage is not meant to give a judgement on the existence of the historical Jesus.
Indeed. And I know of no-one who has suggested otherwise. Of course Schweitzer believed in the historicity of Jesus. Would that more scholars today embrace his humility and scholarly nous in doing so — and his civil tone.
To date it appears that my appeal for these values through Schweitzer’s example has only resulted in dishonesty and crude hostility among a number of scholars.
I had thought to include links here to my earlier quotations of Schweitzer. But they are numerous and sorting out posts that are full discussions from those where there are passing mentions is time-consuming. I invite anyone interested to use the search option near the top of the side column to search on “Schweitzer” and “probability” or other keywords.
There is much more, of course, to Schweitzer’s arguments against the Christ Myth theory of his day, and I could take up some of his arguments for further criticism. I am not very interested in doing so mainly because he was generally addressing particular arguments, and a particular broader religious context, that were part and parcel of his own day.
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22 thoughts on “Albert Schweitzer on the Christ Myth Debate”
This appears to me to be another strawman that historicists like to drag out to fill their books when they have nothing else to offer to the debate. Who cares what Schweitzer or anyone else thinks? This must be decided on evidence and valid arguments. Historicists must be getting desperate when they spend so much time on this stuff.
>”unhinged, maniacal, idiotic goals”
Not long after I ceased to be a Christian, it became obvious to me that the only real front against Christianity is psychological.
I’m definitely very interested in the history and scholarship, but there isn’t enough substance (evidence) for it to be relevant in anti-theist work.
The strange thing is how these individuals, who are seemingly not Christian, suffer from the same psychological conditions that Christians suffer from, like this obvious case of projection.
I wasted my time trying to talk to people on James McGrath’s blog. That place is just a watering hole for lots of people who suffer from the same exact severe case of projection.
They all have to preface it with “I’m not an atheist but…” as if it doesn’t sound exactly like a racist saying “I’m not a racist but…”
McGraths blog is a disturbing place.
My blogpost alerts the unwary reader of anyone who tries to frame or bend Schweitzer’s work in such a way that it is suggested that he supported the mythicist case in some sense. I came accross someone who did precisely that (probably taking the quotes from this blog, I don’t know for sure, but that doesn’t matter).
The words Jim West used to refer to my blog wouldn’t be my words of choice (although there are crazy mythicists, just as there are crazy Christian apologists).
I could write a lengthy response to each point in the blogpost above, but I don’t have time for that. Instead I address two things.
1. You write: “No, Schweitzer explains, the fact that all the earliest evidence for Jesus goes back to one single source, that of Christianity itself, means that there can never be any “obvious” or absolute certainty.”
That is not correct. He writes that the fact that all the earliest evidence for Jesus goes back to one single source, that of Christianity itself, means that it is not possible, strictly speaking, to increase the probability to the highest degree. (Outside of the language of scholarship, it is fine to say that it is obvious or certain that Jesus did or did not exist.)
Today, scholars can be more confident than Schweitzer, because after thorough research it is generally accepted that Josephus mentioned Jesus at least once, and probably twice. In Schweitzer’s days Josephus was generally disregarded. Secondly, the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided a dramatic shift in the understanding of first-century Judaism. Was the eschatological/apocalyptical Jesus a quite new idea in Schweitzer’s days, now the sources in de DSS lend enormous contextual credibility to the figure of Jesus as he is generally reconstructed as an apocalyptic prophet. Therefore, historians can raise the probability of Jesus’ existence almost to the highest degree (if the highest degree is 1 between 0 and 1).
2. You write: “One further thinks today of scholars pointing to “James the brother of the Lord” or “Jesus being born of a woman” or being “of the seed of David according to the flesh” and appealing to the “sense of reality” in readers to accept these as “sure proofs” of the historicity of Jesus.”
Schweitzer probably would have listed these phrases among the insurmountable difficulties for the hypothesis that Jesus did not exist (see, for instance, p. 544 in the German edition). In the discussed quote, Schweiter’s point is that strictly speaking historians can only speak in terms of probability. If historians speak the way you describe to a general audience, that is fine I guess, but strictly speaking they have to say that these phrases make it almost inconceivable that Paul didn’t view Jesus as a historical person who really died on the cross.
Bozhe moi. Just because there were apocalyptic prophets and Jesus could be squeezed into that category, that alone raises the probability of his existence to near unity. Bozhe fucking moi.
Why are Josephus’s references now regarded as authentic? Why was Origen not aware of these references?
Josephus’ second reference to Jesus is mostly regarded as authentic because a hypothesis of interpolation or corruption is more complicated than the hypothesis of authenticity. Moreover, Origen quotes this reference.
Josephus’ first reference (the infamous Testimonium) is mostly regarded as corrupted, but parts of it show Josephan style and wording and therefore many scholars are persuaded that Josephus wrote a neutral or ironic/sceptic passage about Jesus. We don’t know whether Origen was aware of it, but if I had to guess I’d say that he know it in its authentic form but had no use for it anywhere in his writings as far as they have survived.
But the second reference is so short – what is so difficult about its being a later insertion. Longer later insertions exist – see, e.g., the last 12 verses of GMark.
As for the first reference, what changed in scholarly opinion between the 19th and 20th centuries so that scholars, working with the same text and same author, changed their minds?
2nd ref: For starters, there is no evidence that it is an insertion.
1st ref: Generally, a more conservative approach in textual criticism, new textual evidence, better stylistic analyses.
The Coincidences of the Emmaus Narrative of Luke and the Testimonium of Josephus by Gary J. Goldberg, Ph.D. does a good job of showing a literary relationship between the TF and Luke 24:19-27 after the Christianese is stripped off. He considers three possibilities for this:
1) Chance, which he rejects because of the number and the specificity of the coincidences.
2) That the TF was forged based on Luke 24:19-27, which he rejects because he doubts anybody back then could have imitated Josephus so well.
3) They had a common source, which he accepts.
But Luke 24:19-27 is a summary of the Gospel of Luke, which relied heavily on Mark so it makes no sense to conclude another source.
That takes us back to #2. The Testimonium Flavianum, Eusebius, and Consensus by Ken Olson shows that Eusebius used many Jospehus-like phrases in his other writings, even some from the “uncorrupted” part and from the “corruption”.
Eusebius has only been accused of forging the Testimonium Flavianum for about a thousand years.
So you came across someone who “tries to frame or bend Schweitzer’s work in such a way that it is suggested that he supported the mythicist case in some sense.”
Would you care to tell us where you read or heared that someone make such a statement?
In fairness, a case could be made that any scholar who undermines the 100% reliability of the Gospel accounts supports mythicism. Once you recognize that part X of the narrative is not true, then there arises the possibility that parts Y, etc., may not be true.
But in all seriousness, you raise a good point.
Such a simple, basic understanding of mythicism is far beyond the comprehension of even self-identified atheists who assert that no rational person could ever take mythicism seriously.
Desperate argumentum ad populum resting on a community who for the most part, due to their faith, cannot even entertain the possible non-existance of an historical Jesus, and for whom the credo quia absurdum is considered sound epistemology.
That s.g. “thorough research” is, of course, nothing more than confirmation bias, and has been refuted by the equal, if not more, thorough research of Doherty, et al., showing that: 1) once one removes the obvious Christian interpolations, the rest of the TF collapses upon itself; 2) a convincing provenance can be traced to the hand of Eusebius.
‘….’he is generally reconstructed as an apocalyptic prophet.
I thought the earliest Christians regarded him as a Messiah. Is there a difference between an apocalyptic prophet and a Messiah.
Why do the earliest Christian writings, that of Paul, contain no prophetic words by his Lord and Saviour?
In all fairness, RJohn has prophetic apocalypticism from Jesus – but the Jesus in that text is a heavenly revealer figure who identifies himself as the planet Venus!
It’s a jarring and implausible rail-switch from this ‘apocalyptic prophet’s’ mission of temporal upheaval, to the supposed benign soteriology preached immediately following his execution by his similarly apocalyptic, revolutionary disciples (who amazingly walked free, escaping arrest & execution themselves). Then yet another abrupt, fundamental change but a few years later to Paul’s ethereal Christ Iesu.
There were indeed apocalyptic prophets aplenty during the 1st Century, but not one of them either informed Paul, or lived a life that was the basis of the tale of Jesus of Nazareth as told in the gospels.
I would appreciate it if you could tell me where you saw someone doing “precisely that”. I have never seen anyone do it. To me Bart Ehrman (like some others before him) are raising a straw man. If someone has misapplied my words I would like the opportunity to correct them. Did you really write your post because of what you saw just one person wrote somewhere as a lone maverick? As I said, it is instructive that Ehrman offers no evidence at all for his claim about how “mythicists” use Schweitzer.
I accept your own statement about what S was saying but I do not believe it contradicts another point he was also making in the same chapter, the point to which I drew attention. He is discussing (in part) the problem of those who simply say we need to read the evidence with a bit of common sense. He then proceeds to explain the difficulties with the nature of the evidence itself. Common sense implies that it can be read in a way that gives certainty (highest degree of probability) to the view that Jesus existed. S is explaining — as you point out — that that is not so. It cannot reach “probability to the highest degree”.
I do not believe there is a contradiction between our respective view points. I agree with you and believe your revised translation actually makes better sense of the “common sense” issue S was addressing and that I was pointing out.
We can agree to disagree where. What has happened since S’s day is new challenges to historical Jesus studies and new attitudes towards Jews and Jewish sources and we can see changes in interpretations of the evidence (no new evidence). The “research” of which you speak is grounded in attempts to support the hypothesis that Josephus wrote of Jesus, yet we know that such an approach produces false-positives, confirmation bias, and that genuine critical inquiry must consider the full spectrum of arguments and see what can be disproved. I have attempted to study the progress of these changes in interpretation and discussed them elsewhere — it is a topic that requires more than part of a comment.
I agree (at least to the extent that for S and many others such passages are “insurmountable difficulties for the hypothesis that Jesus did not exist”. S does indeed speak of some of those details in just that way. That is why I made it clear that he was not a mythicist.
This is where the debate begins. But that’s not the topic of the post here. As you may have noticed by now I do not see this blog as a “mythicist blog” anyway — do check the About Vridar page. My interests may overlap with mythicist views but they are traveling their own path.
“Gegrammena” has chosen not to approve my response to his blogpost on his blog.
If you cannot enlarge that image here is what I wrote:
I also responded to Jim’s post but of course I did not expect him to approve my comment either.
So we see once again unsubstantiated accusations about mythicist arguments being left without corrective input where they are repeated.
Maybe it’s an internet thing, rather than a mythicist thing to misquote-mine Schweitzer. At a low-rent Christian apologetics site:
“Is Jesus of Nazareth a fictional character who deserves to be included in a list containing mystifying magicians, daring dragon slayers, and flying boy heroes? The world-famous medical doctor and lifelong critic of Christianity, Albert Schweitzer, answered with a resounding “yes” when he wrote:
‘The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in an historical garb (1964, p. 398). ‘ ”
In fairness, the same quote from Schweitzer is prominently featured on a well-known pop-mythicist site, without any qualifying explanation:
However, elsewhere on that page it is reported with emphasis that Schweitzer believed that Jesus died a disappointed man, and so, it is implied that Schweitzer believed that Jesus had lived. No attempt is made to reconcile the two quotes with a simple statement about Schweitzer’s views.
Interesting. Thanks for the feedback. So it’s one of the “historicists” who misunderstands and misquotes Schweitzer, not the “mythicists”. What remains of particular interest is that no-one claiming the mythicists misquoted S supplied any evidence for their claims.
I don’t see that there has to be any conflict with much of the critical study of Christian origins from “mythicists” because most “critical scholars” agree with S, that the gospel Jesus is a myth. The real question is explaining the origins of the mythical figure of Jesus who is found at the head of earliest Christianity (Paul and the gospels). And even some mainstream scholars do so without any need to draw upon a historical figure.