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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Strauss, David Friedrich (1808-1874)
"If there be a mind that, not perceiving in the narratives we have compared the fingermarks of tradition, and hence the legendary character of these evangelical anecdotes, still leans to the historical interpretation, whether natural or supernatural; that mind must be alike ignorant of the true character both of legend and of history, of the natural and the supernatural."

-- David Friedrich Strauss

David Friedrich Strauss was a German theologian and writer.

He was born at Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart. At twelve he was sent to the evangelical seminary at Blaubeuren, near Ulm, to be prepared for the study of theology. Amongst the principal masters in the school were Professors Kern and FC Baur, who taught their pupils a deep love of the ancient classics and the principles of textual criticism, which could be applied to texts in the sacred tradition as well as to classical ones.

In 1825, Strauss entered the University of Tübingen. The professors of philosophy there failed to interest him, but he was strongly attracted by the writings of Schleiermacher. In 1830 he became assistant to a country clergyman, and nine months later accepted the post of professor in the high school at Maulbronn, where he would teach Latin, history and Hebrew.

In October 1831 he resigned his office in order to study under Schleiermacher and Georg Hegel in Berlin. Hegel died just as he arrived, and, though he regularly attended Schleiermacher's lectures, it was only those on the life of Jesus that exercised a very powerful influence upon him.

Strauss tried to find kindred spirits amongst the followers of Hegel, but was not successful. While under the leading of Hegel's distinction between Vorstellung and Begriff, he had already conceived the ideas found in his two principal theological works: the Leben Jesu ("Life of Jesus") and the Christliche Dogmatik ("Christian Dogma"), the Hegelians generally would not accept his conclusions.

In 1832 he returned to Tübingen, lecturing on logic, Plato, the history of philosophy and ethics with great success. However, in the autumn of 1833 he resigned this position in order to devote all his time to the completion of his Leben Jesu. It was published in 1835, when he was 27 years old.

Since the Hegelians in general rejected his, "Life of Jesus", in 1837 Strauss had to defend his work against the Hegelians in a booklet entitled, "In Defense of My LIFE OF JESUS against the Hegelians." The famous Hegelian scholar, Bruno Bauer, led that attack on Strauss. Bauer continued to attack Strauss in academic journals for years. When a very young Friedrich Nietzsche began to write criticisms of David Strauss, Bruno Bauer gave the young Nietzsche every support he could afford.

The Leben Jesu
The Life of Jesus Critically Examined was a sensation. One reviewer called it "the Iscariotism of our days" and another "the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell." When he was elected to a chair of theology in the University of Zürich, the appointment provoked such a storm of controversy that the authorities decided to pension him before he began his duties. According to at least one authority, the Slovenian scholar Anton Strle, Friedrich Nietzsche lost his faith around the time he was reading Leben Jesu.

What made his book so controversial was his analysis of the miraculous elements in the gospels as being "mythical" in character. The Leben Jesu closed a period in which scholars wrestled with the miraculous nature of the New Testament in the rational daylight of the Enlightenment. One group consisted of "rationalists", who found logical, rational explanations for the apparently miraculous occurrences; the other group, the "supernaturalists", defended not only the historical accuracy of the biblical accounts, but also the element of direct divine intervention.

Strauss dispels the actuality of the stories as "happenings" and reads them solely on a mythic level. Moving from miracle to miracle, he understood all as the product of the early church's use of Jewish ideas about what the Messiah would be like, in order to express the conviction that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. With time the book created a new epoch in the textual and historical treatment of the rise of Christianity.

In 1837, Strauss replied to his critics with the book Streuschriften zur Verteidigung meiner Schrift über das Leben Jesu. In the third edition of the work (1839), and in Zwei friedliche Blättler, he made important concessions to his critics, which he withdrew, however, in the fourth edition (1840). In 1846 the book found an outstanding English translator in George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), who later wrote Middlemarch and other great novels.

It was her first published book and has recently been republished (see Reference). In 1840 and the following year Strauss published his On Christian Doctrine (Christliche Glaubenslehre) in two volumes. The main principle of this new work was that the history of Christian doctrines has basically been the history of their disintegration.

Interlude, 1841 - 1860
With the publication of his Glaubenslehre, Strauss took leave of theology for over twenty years. In August 1841, he married Agnes Schebest, a cultivated and beautiful opera singer of high repute, who was not suited to becoming the wife of a scholar and literary man like Strauss. Five years afterwards, after two children had been born, they agreed to separate. Strauss resumed his literary activity by the publication of Der Romantiker auf dem Thron der Cäsaren, in which he drew a satirical parallel between Julian the Apostate and Frederick William IV of Prussia (1847).

In 1848 he was nominated member of the Frankfurt parliament, but was defeated by Christoph Hoffmann. He was elected for the Württemberg chamber, but his actions were so conservative that his constituents requested him to resign his seat. He forgot his political disappointments in the production of a series of biographical works, which secured him a permanent place in German literature (Schubarts Leben, 2 vols., 1849; Christian Morklin, 1851; Nikodemus Frischlin, 1855; Ulrich von Hutten, 3 vols., 1858-1860, 6th ed. 1895).

Later works
In 1862, with a biography of H.S. Reimarus, he returned to theology, and two years afterward (1864) published his Life of Jesus for the German People (Leben Jesu für des deutsche Volk) (13th ed., 1904). It failed to produce an effect comparable with that of the first Life, but the replies to it were many, and Strauss answered them in his pamphlet Die Halben lend die Ganzen (1865), directed specially against Schenkel and Hengstenberg.

His The Christ of Belief and the Jesus of History (Christus des Glaubens und der Jesus der Geschichte) (1865) is a severe criticism of Schleiermacher's lectures on the life of Jesus, which were then first published. From 1865 to 1872 Strauss lived in Darmstadt, and in 1870 he published his lectures on Voltaire.

His last work, Der alte und der neue Glaube (1872; English translation by M Blind, 1873), produced almost as great a sensation as his Life of Jesus, and not least amongst Strauss's own friends, who wondered at his one-sided view of Christianity and his professed abandonment of spiritual philosophy for the materialism of modern science. To the fourth edition of the book he added a Afterword as Forword (Nachwort als Vorwort) (1873). The same year symptoms of a fatal malady appeared, and death followed on the 8th of February 1874.

Strauss's approach was analytical and critical, without philosophical penetration or historical sympathy; his work was rarely constructive. His Life of Jesus was directed against not only the traditional orthodox view of the Gospel narratives, but likewise the rationalistic treatment of them. He criticized the manner of Reimarus, whose book The Aim of Jesus and His Disciples (1778) is often marked as beginning the historical study of Jesus and the Higher criticism, and that of Paulus.

Strauss applied his theories with merciless vigour, especially his mythical theory that the Christ of the gospels, whose life was built upon the meagerest of details, was the unintentional creation of early Christian Messianic expectations. His operations were based upon fatal defects, positive and negative. Strauss also held a narrow theory as to the miraculous, and a still narrower one as to the relation of the divine to the human. He has been criticized as having had no true idea of the nature of historical tradition. F. C. Baur once complained that his critique of the history in the gospels was not based on a thorough examination of the manuscript traditions of the documents themselves.

As Albert Schweitzer wrote in The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), Strauss's arguments "filled in the death-certificates of a whole series of explanations which, at first sight, have all the air of being alive, but are not really so."

Nevertheless, in that same book, Albert Schweitzer admitted that there are two broad periods of academic research in the quest for the historical Jesus, namely, "the period before David Strauss and the period after David Strauss."

Marcus Borg has suggested that "The details of Strauss's argument, his use of Hegelian philosophy, and even his definition of myth, have not had a lasting impact (see Links). Yet his basic claims -- that many of the gospel narratives are mythical in character, and that "myth" is not simply to be equated with "falsehood" -- have become part of mainstream scholarship."

Nevertheless, it is appropriate to note that David Strauss made a historical impact on Protestant theological scholarship for all time for positive reasons. For example, Strauss was bothered by the modern, scientific criticism of the virgin birth of Jesus. The approach that Strauss took to respond, his 'Demythologization,' was reminicent of the German Rationalist movement in Protestant theology, but perhaps clearer and more direct.

According to Strauss, the legend of Jesus' virgin birth was added to the biography of Jesus in order to honor him in the way that Gentiles most often honored their greatest historical figures. However, they didn't realize at that time that they were at the same time insulting Joseph, the rightful father of Jesus. By recognizing the virgin birth as a legend, then, we are presented with the correct historical facts of the biography of Jesus -- that Joseph was his legitimate father.

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