My response to Cornelis Hoogerwerf’s post on Γεγραμμένα, Misquoting Albert Schweitzer, has raised the question of the intended meaning of Schweitzer’s words in relation to historical probability, common sense, and more. Cornelis has said my own explanation of S’s words is wrong; I attempted to explain why I disagreed. But rather than leave the discussion hanging with as a “you are wrong; no I am not wrong” exchange I copy a fairly large section of the relevant section from the Fortress Press edition of Schweitzer’s Quest so that readers can hopefully have a more secure handle on the evidence in order to make up their own minds about the meaning and significance of S’s words.
Before I do let me comment on a new post by Bart Ehrman in which he explains that “some” biblical scholars are also “historians”. The gist of his explanation appears to me to be that if a scholar chooses to study and write about “history” then s/he can be called a historian. Of course that makes perfect sense. But is such a scholar any better at “doing history” than an amateur historian without training or background knowledge in the philosophy and methods of historical research and history writing? I have found that some of the best history writing about “biblical times” has come from those pejoratively labelled “minimalists”. It is their work, and in particular their explanations of their methods, that resonates with the best historical research I read among those writing in other (non-biblical) areas. Most significantly, (a) they do not begin with the assumption that a text’s provenance can be understood entirely from its own self-testimony; (b) they understand the importance of independent confirmation of its contents in order to establish its degree of reliability; and (c) they “take seriously” the question of genre and wider literary matrix of the text prior to deciding how to interpret it, and do not assume that its content is essentially a window through which readers can look to see “true history” in the shadow of its narrative. These may sound like simple basics but they are very often overlooked by many biblical scholars who aspire to write “history” from the Gospels. Unfortunately Bart Ehrman fails on all three of those points. Among some of the best historians working with the “Old Testament” texts are, in my view, Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas L. Thompson and Russell Gmirkin. There are a few names I would consider genuine historians among later biblical-related history, Steve Mason being one.
It is in that context that I read with interest Schweitzer’s words. Even though Schweitzer was not a mythicist and argued extensively against the Christ Myth theory, he did acknowledge the theoretical importance of the above historical principles, especially point (b).
To return to Cornelis’s post, I do see that he has since acknowledged his debt to Bart Ehrman for the views and complaint he expressed in the first part of his post. Given his failure to cite a single “mythicist” who has misquoted Schweitzer in an attempt to mislead readers into thinking S himself presented an argument against the historicity of Jesus, I conclude that no-one has done so and that efforts from certain quarters to mislead readers and repeat baseless rumours related to my own quotations of S are entirely mischievous.
In our recent discussion on my post Albert Schweitzer on the Christ Myth Debate other differences arose. Cornelis believes that scholarship since Schweitzer’s day has indeed raised the level of probability that Jesus was historical to as close to 1.0 as one might wish. Again, his reasons unfortunately indicate a poor grasp of how historical methods and epistemology is understood outside the field of biblical studies.
Schweitzer, pages 400-402
I have highlighted some sections and inserted Cornelis’s translation of a critical passage.
Thus the result was a narrow and impoverished form of religion. All statements had to be based on history and the ‘experience’ that it suggested. Direct thinking about being and living, the finite and the infinite, God and the First Cause, man and mankind, the world and its destiny, were eliminated. A religion had been discovered which its adherents alleged could dispense with the need and the power to search for the final synthesis of all understanding and desire. But in fact it is only by working towards this synthesis that it is possible to arrive at an elementary metaphysic and a religious orientation such as each generation and each individual must create anew.
It was the self-sufficiency of this attitude which theology considered to be its strength and greatness. It did not notice that it had lost all links with the wider thought of its time and that for all its noble and pure desires it no longer understood and was no longer understood by those with whom it wished to have some influence.
Those who entered theology at the beginning of the 1890s, which was the time when this new direction was being determined, and who preserved a sober judgment, had the uneasy sensation that the instruction of future clergy mainly consisted of critical and historical scholasticism, so that although they were well schooled in historical research and judgment, the idea that history was everything caused a distortion of their religious thinking.
On all sides there was evidence of a new philosophy which, although it often revealed a lack of depth, was linked intrinsically with the classical German philosophy, venturing to invigorate it with the knowledge and thinking gained from natural sciences and giving a strong emphasis to metaphysical and religious needs. But theology sought no contact with it, continuing on its own way and choosing merely to settle with the Kantian scholasticism to which the majority of the official representatives of philosophy had retreated. So it avoided having the religion it had distilled from history disrupted by discussion with materialistic and speculative ideas. But at what a price!
Its main activity consisted in popularizing its ‘reliable’ and ‘assured’ historical conclusions together with the reflections that these involved. It was hoped thus to regenerate the masses. But the result was merely a protectorate which became more and more oppressive as time went on.
As for the basic problem of religious thinking, on these it maintained a firm silence, and did not seem to notice that it was precisely these points which most needed clearing up. Thus with its unmetaphysical religion it gave stones to the hungry in place of bread. Finally, in the latter stages of popularization, even the real study of religion was unable to produce much of real worth. How little the last twenty years have given us in the way of really important historic research into the origins of Christianity!
The evidence put forward by Wrede and thoroughgoing eschatology to
show that these historical conclusions were not correct at first aroused indignation. It was not easy to abandon a view of history which could be translated so comfortably into religion, nor to admit the philosophical objections to a purely historical religion. But gradually, while conventional theology happily continued its popularization of history, it came to be realized in certain quarters that the big problem of the relationship between religion and history must indeed finally be tackled seriously, and that some agreement must be reached in the philosophy or religion about the relation of the historical Jesus to modern Christianity.
Before this line of thinking could produce any far-reaching results, Drews’ work appeared, and theology was compelled to enter the controversy over the historicity of Jesus.
Apart from J. Weiss and C. Clemen, the theologians who undertook to refute Drews belonged chiefly to the group which was so confidently popularizing. They concentrated chiefly on a historical refutation, attracted by the weaknesses evident in his historical hypothesis. They refrained from raising the problem of the philosophy of religion, not only because it lay beyond their range of vision but also because it would have brought the untenable aspects of their own position to light. What could they say about the hypothetical possibility of a total renunciation of the historical Jesus when a generation of modern dogmatists had attempted to enforce the fiction that all the doctrines of modem Christianity went back to him and were upheld by him! So they kept within the limits of a historical refutation.
However, the effect would have been far greater and more impressive if at the same time theology could have demonstrated that should its own views on the personality of Jesus prove untenable, much indeed but not everything would be lost, and free-thinking Christianity would then continue on the basis of the spiritual insight and energies of immediate religion which is independent of any historical foundation. But this was an argument it could not present, for it had prepared the ground too thoroughly for a historical foundation to its religion, and had paid too little attention to spiritual needs. As things lay then, it would have lost everything by giving up the historical Jesus.
Thus there is a false note in all this confident work of refutation. That theology should have to defend to the death its assertion that Jesus is historical because its religion depends on it is depressing.
In any case, neither the positive nor the negative can be demonstrated conclusively if we are to meet the requirements of strict scholarship. Every historical assertion depending upon evidence from the past which is no longer directly verifiable must ultimately remain a hypothesis. To assert that the historicity or unhistoricity of Jesus has been proved is a way of speaking which, though common enough in everyday conversation, in the sphere of strict scientific
thought means no more than that according to the available evidence the one is very probable whereas the other is not.
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. 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.[“Thus even an increase to the highest degree of probability is not possible.” — Cornelis Hoogerwerf] 9
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 then 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 of 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.10
. . . . .
Endnote 9 directs readers to the remarks about evidence for Jesus in secular history on pages 358-62.
The Quest of the Historical Jesus
them with new meaning and a deeper sense by eliminating the peculiarities of each particular tradition and finally trying to discover in all of them one and the same idea of redemption.
This new knowledge of the past led scholars to believe that those who had hitherto been studying religion had been working with too narrow a concept of Gnosticism by using it to summarize the aspirations and attempts of the church fathers of the second century of Christianity and their followers. New research seemed to justify interpreting the entire development of oriental religions, myths and cults as Gnostic, and to view the reconciliation of ideas of very different origins and the progress from exoteric to esoteric as typical of the evolution of religious ideas.
It is easy to see how historical research, which had been tracing the rise of Christianity with no adequate consideration of the ancient oriental religions, was bound to come into disrepute as a narrow-minded and backward discipline. All emphasis was laid on the history-of-religions method as the key to solve all problems. The creation stories of the Old Testament and late-Jewish and Christian eschatology were studied for their relation to mythical ideas, and the yield was high. Even the earliest christology linked to the figure of Jesus was considered to reveal or at least imply the most varied connections with the redeemer figures of mythology.
The theology which developed along these lines revelled in discovery. Paul came to appear more and more as the product of Graeco-Oriental Gnosticism. The history of Christian sacraments seemed to be illuminated by extensive analogies both ancient and modern to sacramental eating and drinking ceremonies and to washing ceremonies of the cults. It was felt that that the form taken by the forces which had influenced the shaping of early Christianity could be determined and measured quite clearly by the religions generally.6
These new impulses brought the history-of-religions trend in academic theology to the point where to some extent it assumed that Christianity had a double origin. It took the first origin to be the appearance of the historical Jesus; it found the other in the Gnostic and syncretistic ideas with which the disciples and Paul raised that figure to the level of the dead and risen saviour, creating a mystery religion which in the course of time was to surpass all others. The idea of early Christianity as first and foremost a movement within Judaism became more and more neglected. In the face of this situation, the Synoptic writers’ report of what Jesus did and taught become less and less significant. The Jesus of the Gospels evidently had nothing to contribute to an explanation of the rise of early Christianity: the latter, represented by Paul, was almost exclusively concerned with expounding the death and resurrection of the divine Saviour, and seemed to have no use for such facts as were known about the Galilean master’s public ministry and his teaching.
The more the Jewish-eschatological limitations within which Jesus appeared
and early Christianity arose were left unconsidered, the more the natural association between the two was weakened. In the end, the reports of the Synoptic writers came to be seen merely as a kind of prologue to the rise of Christianity, which was declared to owe its origin to general principles and the evolution of thought. And because these reports were difficult to accommodate within the wider framework laid down by the history of religion, they were bound by a certain necessity to become historically suspect.
Thus the ground was prepared for doubt. Added to this, attestation of the existence of Jesus in secular history was by no means abundant, and what there was of it seemed fairly easy to question.
In the Antiquities of Josephus, as handed down to us by Christian copyists, Jesus is mentioned twice. The first instance, Antt. 18, 3, 3, can be translated as follows:
About this time arose Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it be lawful to call him a man. For he was a doer of wonderful deeds and a teacher of men who gladly accept the truth. He drew to himself many both of the Jews and of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, on the indictment of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not cease to do so, for he appeared to them again alive on the third day, the divine prophets having foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things about him. And even to this day the race of Christians, who are named from him, has not died out.
This note is either inauthentic or so extravagantly interpolated that it can no longer be presented as credible evidence.7
The other mention of Jesus does not raise such grave doubts. Josephus reports in Antt. 20, 9, 1 that the high priest took the brother of Jesus, ‘the so-called Christ’, James by name, together with some others, and accused them of violating the law, condemning them to be stoned. Whether this passage is genuine cannot be determined with certainty. In any case, Josephus is ruled out as a reliable secular witness to Jesus.
Tacitus reports in the Annals (XV, 44), written in the time of Trajan in about AD 110-120, that Nero, in order to still the rumour that he had set Rome on fire, ‘fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin,’ he continues, ‘suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.’8 This testimony can hardly be questioned. What is said of the Christians here does not suggest that it was the result of Christian interpolation.
Suetonius, writing in Hadrian’s time, mentions in his Life of Claudius (ch.2.5) that disturbances broke out among the Jews at that time and attributes them to a certain ‘Chrestus’.9 He probably means Christus. The details are not clear. It almost seems as if Suetonius, who can be accused elsewhere of not checking his information as thoroughly as he might, held the view that the man he named had himself been present in Rome and had participated in the disturbances.
Whether these mentions of Christus or Chrestus by Tacitus and Suetonius are authentic or inauthentic is of no great interest. Even if they do belong to the original texts – which could well be so – they can hardly be considered reliable evidence that the Lord was a historical figure. Neither of these Roman historians indicate that they have original and direct information about Jesus. They report what the Christian communities of their time were handing down. At best, therefore, they attest that at the beginning of the second century the church believed in Jesus’ existence and his death by crucifixion.
Why there is so little secular evidence of Jesus’ existence can be explained in various ways. That the original Josephus text probably did not name Jesus could perhaps indicate that the Jewish writer held him in veneration; if he had hated him and the movement which resulted from him he is likely to have intimated as much to his Roman readers, choosing his words so that Judaism itself would not be compromised. It is also conceivable that he did not mention the Galilean teacher and what became of him because he wished to say as little as possible about the messianic expectations of the people.
As for the silence of the Roman and Greek writers, it can be asserted that as only part of their literature has survived, it is feasible that there was further mention of Jesus in lost writings. But it can also quite fairly be pointed out that the condemnation and crucifixion of a Galilean who had no political importance either before or after his death was an event of no great interest to those studying secular history, even if they did hear of it. And even though his execution gained a certain significance over the course of time because of the religious movement which it brought about, the Roman historian had no reason to make any special research into his early history, trial and sentence. Besides, even if they had wished to do so, they were hardly in a position to undertake such a study, for there were no documents available and no eyewitnesses to question. Thus they were fulfilling their duty quite conscientiously when, like Tacitus, they simply reported the information which came to them from the Christian community.
It would be possible to make a more or less objective evaluation of the little evidence there is in secular history of Jesus’ ministry and fate by studying generally the extent to which historiographers, in both ancient and modern times, mention the appearance of unpolitical religious figures. Italy has two outstanding messiahs of the nineteenth century, Oreste de Amicis (182.4-89), the ‘Christ of the Abruzzi’, and David Lazzaretti (1834-78), whom the carabinieri shot on the highway as he led a procession.10 To take these two typical cases,
what reports of their actions and their fate have come down to us through contemporary historical writing? What would we know about them if these reports were all we had, and we were forced to take no account of the direct and indirect information transmitted to us by their followers? This does not even allow for the fact that these Messiahs were active for years and had time to bring themselves to the notice of all sorts of people, even those indifferent to them, whereas Jesus’ public life lasted only a few months.11
Once attention had come to be focussed on the fact that we possess no evidence for Jesus which is definitely independent of the Christian tradition, the thought must automatically have arisen that there was a formal possibility that the narrative about him might be eliminated from general history. Anyone who felt so disposed might play the game. Those who wished to take it further might also elaborate on the consequences and difficulties which would arise. And if someone could go so far as to forget that Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius no more prove that Jesus was unhistorical than that he was historical, then he could feel justified in leading this course of operation.
A further attraction in denying the existence of Jesus was that it was not possible to gain a clear picture of his public ministry merely from the information provided by the two earliest Synoptic writers. Of his teaching, too, much had remained obscure. The question whether there were real facts taken from the course of a man’s life was therefore to some degree justifiable; attempts to make a fresh interpretation of the reported facts should not be rejected out of hand.
Finally, however, these theoretical possibilities would not have sufficed in themselves to attract some scholars to revive the old method with the aid of the new knowledge of mythology if interests of a practical nature had not existed as well. They risked the attempt because, as they understood it, religion and philosophy of religion were peremptorily demanding an end to the veneration of the historical Jesus as practised in more liberal Protestantism.
Even with Hegel the relationship between the theoretical interpretation of religion and the historical appearance of Jesus as a religious authority is such that the latter is either superfluous or an irritant. However, the problem is concealed by the fact that Hegel did not gain his idea of Jesus empirically but created and moulded it in conformity with his own view of things.
But, as historical research became independent, it was natural that religion on the one hand and the person and teaching of Jesus on the other should fall further and further apart. It was perceived that religion evolved by its own inner laws, and that the authoritative figures which might arise within it from time to time could not anticipate later developments. So it had to be concluded that those who identify the worship of a Jesus whom they consider to have historical significance with their religion are flying in the face of progress. They are disregarding the importance of the higher redeemer religion which is proclaimed in
the ancient myths and which is latent in the fundamental thinking of any time as the ultimate knowledge. They believe that religion can be derived historically from some doctrine, and fail to see that it is timeless and is perpetually renewed and deepened by that yearning and acknowledgment which men address to the infinite universe.
The problem here is the difference between absolute and historical religion, which Schleiermacher had recognized but immediately obscured again, and which the practically-minded modern liberal theologies, having lost all living contact with philosophy and thought in the last decades of the nineteenth century, either wilfully avoided or chose to enwrap in empty phrases.
Their attitude, too, towards the eschatological view in the teaching and ministry of Jesus was basically determined by the desire to avoid this wider problem, though this was not admitted in the debate. They would not accept the most self-evident statements for fear of having to acknowledge a strange Jesus, a Jesus who moreover could no longer be presented, as in the past, as the authority behind modern Christianity and the absolute religion which was more or less identified with it.
But in the long run this game of hide-and-seek and the policy of shrewd scrupulousness which was practised in the philosophy of religion could not work. Those who wished to sever modern Christianity from the figure of Jesus could choose one of two alternatives: they could either try to prove that from an objective viewpoint the historical personality of Jesus was by no means the moral and religious ideal he had been made out to be in the history of theology; or else they resolved to deny his historical existence.
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