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no longer active as of 24th July 2019, Neil Godfrey]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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