In the interest of promoting close study and discussion of this always relevant book, I will attempt a synopsis of each chapter. Feedback, assistance, and clarification are welcome.
Knowing no German, I often adhere closely, but not entirely, to the exact language of the English text, especially on controversial points (eg, “the Gospel writers were simple Christians without literary gift”). At other places, I use my own words to make the point concise.
Chapter I: The Problem
1. The critical investigation of the life of Jesus is a great achievement of modern German theology (1778-1901), and the most vital thing in world history.
2. The “real truth” of this history is something we experience within ourselves.
3. This history is not yet finished, but moves towards an unknown future goal.
4. Jesus destroyed the world into which he was born.
5. The idea of Jesus as historical could not have been introduced into the faith of earliest Christianity without destroying its hope in the eschaton/parousia, and therefore was rightly excluded from it—hence the absolute indifference of Paul to the life of Jesus.
6. Earliest Christianity preserved only isolated sayings, a few miracles, and the doctrine of Jesus’ death and resurrection; therefore we have only Gospels, not biographies of Jesus; we possess the idea and the person, but with minimal information about his concrete historical situation. And that’s a good thing.
7. After the demise of hope in the eschaton, Gnosticism, Logos theology, and Greek theology caused indifference to Jesus’ historical particularity.
8. The historical Jesus, concealed within the synoptic Gospels, survived total oblivion by good fortune, despite the Church’s embrace of the 4th Gospel. The Chalcedonian doctrine of the dual nature of Jesus Christ both closed off Jesus’ historical particularity until well after the Reformation, and preserved the idea of it for modern investigation.
9. It was necessary for moderns to destroy the Church’s dogma of Jesus Christ before anyone could grasp the thought of the historical Jesus’ existence. Thus the historical investigation of the life of Jesus arose, not from disinterested historical research, but from the struggle of modern Christians against the tyranny of dogma.
10. The modern biographies of Jesus written in the 19th century both reflect and are vitiated by the individuality and historical-cultural concerns of each biographer. Each biographer’s hate and love were in fact necessary conditions for the task. The most historically insightful investigators—Reimarus, Strauss, Bauer—were insightful because of their hate.
11. The investigators and biographers who acted from love waged a painful struggle between faith and honesty.
12. The investigation of the life of Jesus is not the concern of professional history, but of theology. The standards, canons, and methods of historical research are insufficient for the task; therefore historical theology must create its own methods for itself.
13. The proper method for such theological investigation into the life of Jesus is continuous experimentation, guided ultimately by intuition.
14. The sources for the life of Jesus are limited but not unworkable, and compare favorably with those of any other character of antiquity. Our access to Jesus is improved by the fact that the Gospel writers were simple Christians without literary gift.
15. Five problems stand out in the investigation of the life of Jesus—
- The synoptic accounts are irreconcilable with the 4th Gospel.
- All the Gospels lack order and inner connection concerning the facts of Jesus’ life; their narratives are plagued by yawning gaps, and contain only collections of anecdotes.
- The sources confine themselves to outward facts, and give no hint of the character of Jesus’ self-consciousness.
- Each Gospel presents us with the contradiction that Jesus both felt himself to be the Messiah, and never publicly claimed to be the Messiah. Only relentless experimentation with hypotheses can hope to yield a valuable conclusion as to whether Jesus actually claimed to be the Messiah, or was merely believed to have been the Messiah by the earliest Christians.
- Our information about the nature of Jewish thought in Jesus’ time is unsatisfactory. The Hebrew prophetic, Jewish apocalyptic, and post-Pauline Christian outlines of what it would have meant to await the Messiah are individually meagre and collectively irreconcilable. It cannot be known whether expectation of the Messiah was generally current in the 1st century, or merely the faith of a sect. And even if we did have a theory of the hoped for messiah in Jesus’ time, it would be not be terribly significant given our ignorance of what Jesus thought about himself. We have no psychology of the Messiah.
17. Schweitzer’s narrative follows a meandering course, guided more by the clarification of problems than by specific reconstructions of historical data, all of which are in the end fanciful.
18. Miracles were the central problem until Strauss (1835), who reduced them to mythical elements in the sources. Historical intelligibility was impossible so long as 19th century biographers tried to harmonize the 4th Gospel with the synoptics. The significance of eschatology for the thought of Jesus was glimpsed by Reimarus, but forgotten until Johannes Weiss.
19. The question at time of writing is whether one can explain the contradiction between Jesus’ non-Messianic words and actions, and his Messianic self-consciousness, by means of a conception of his Messianic belief which will make it appear that he could not have acted otherwise than as the Evangelists describe. Was Jesus merely a prophet misrepresented by the early church, or did he hold himself to be the Messiah?
20. The history of investigation into Jesus’ life must be understood before new contributions can be evaluated; but this history was mostly neglected until the present study.