Monday, July 20, 2015

Albert Schweitzer, Mythicist

Rudolf Augstein, who died a few years ago, was best known as the publisher and editor in chief of Der Spiegel, Germany's most influential news magazine. Augstein also wrote a huge bestseller, Jesus Menschensohn (Jesus Son of Man), first published in the 1970's, in which he both points out how the work of Biblical scholars has made room for doubts about whether Jesus existed at all, and accuses those scholars of saying different things to the public than what they say privately, or in academic writings which are so full of jargon that the general public can't understand them. Anyway, either Augstein misquotes Albert Schweitzer in this book, or Schweitzer was a mythicist (in the sense that Schweitzer was not entirely convinced that Jesus existed, which is how the term seems to be used by Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan); according to Augstein, Schweitzer, in his book Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, wrote:

"Das moderne Christentum muss von vornherein und immer mit der Möglichkeit einer eventuellen Preisgabe der Geschichtlichkeit Jesu rechnen." ("Modern Christianity, right from the beginning and always, must reckon with the possibility that the belief in the historicity of Jesus might eventually have to be abandoned.")

Crossan and Ehrman can't be unfamiliar with Schweitzer's book, can they? It's only just the most famous and standard work ever published in their field.

Ah, but they'll say that Bultmann settled it all, sometime after Schweitzer's magnum opus was published. Ask them where and when and how exactly Bultmann settled it all, and they'll get angry. And you won't get a sensible answer. You'll be told that it happened around the 1930's and to buzz off. You might well also be told that the sentence Augstein quoted from Schweitzer does not mean what it appears to mean.

Not that Crossan and Ehrman are any worse in this regard than most New Testament scholars. Maybe it's somewhat less cuckoo in some parts of Europe, because of popular books like Augstein's, and also because there might be more academic mythicists (defining mythicists as all the people who aren't entirely sure that Jesus existed, and say so right out loud in public) in Europe than in the US, although they're a minority over there as well. Apparently a poll of German adults in the 1990's found that 9% of them weren't sure that Jesus existed. Was that more or less than in the US?

Ah but of course there's always the confusion of the theological with the historical every time this topic is raised in public. Did those 9% mean that there never was a Jesus of Nazareth, that someone made him up, or just that Jesus wasn't the miracle-working, resurrected Son of God? In the debate I'm trying to have with people like Crossan and Ehrman -- trying, but they don't want to discuss it, they'd rather compare me to a conspiracy theorist or Holocaust denier -- approximately 100% of those on both side, both those who are sure that Jesus existed and those who aren't, believe that Jesus wasn't the miracle-working, resurrected Son of God. The stuff about God and the miracles, etc, all of that is a theological question. I'm talking about an historical one. If your answer is, "Sure, there was a dude named Jesus, but he wasn't the miracle-working, resurrected Son of God," then you're on Crossan's and Ehrman's side, and Schweitzer and Augstein and I are on the opposing side. Because we're not sure that there was a dude named Jesus who formed the basis of the New Testament stories even though he was completely non-magical. (I keep explaining the distinction between the theological and historical discussions over and over in this blog, because it seems that a very great many people see this historical discussion going on all over the place these days, and think it's the theological discussion. I have nothing against people having that theological discussion. It's just a different discussion than this one.)

It's cuckoo in part because it's the very same Biblical scholars such as Crossan and Ehrman, with their researches showing us how we have less and less reason to believe that the historical Jesus resembles the Jesus of the New Testament, who have led people to pose the perfectly reasonable question about whether Jesus existed at all. They've led us to that question, and now they're angry at us for asking it.

And in denial, apparently, about how Schweitzer asked the question 100 years ago. And about how David Friedrich Strauss practically came right out and asked it 180 years ago in his book Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (and was immediately asked to take a long, long vacation from his university post), even though Strauss' work has become much, much more popular and uncontroversial among Biblical scholars over the course of the past 180 years.

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