Hermann Samuel Reimarus (December 22, 1694 - March 1, 1768), was a German philosopher and writer of the Enlightenment who is remembered for his Deism, the doctrine that human reason can arrive at a knowledge of God and ethics from a study of nature and humanity's own internal reality, so that one does not need religions based on revelation. Reimarus denied all miracles and mysteries except the creation itself. He held that the essential truths of natural religion were the existence of a wise and good Creator and the immortality of the soul, truths which were discoverable by reason and could constitute the basis of a universal religion. He believed that a revealed religion could never become universal, because it could never be intelligible and credible to all men. Even supposing that a revealed religion could be universally intelligible and credible, the Bible did not present such a revelation. It abounded in factual errors; contradicted human experience, as reason and morals; and was a fabric woven of folly, deceit, enthusiasm, selfishness and crime. Moreover, the Bible was not a doctrinal compendium, or catechism, which a true revelation would have to be.
Reimarus is best known for his Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes (Apologia or Defense for the Rational Reverers of God), an analysis of the life of the historical Jesus which he circulated only among his close friends and left unpublished until after his death. Some writers, including Albert Schweitzer, credit Reimarus with initiating the scholarly investigation of the historical Jesus.
Reimarus was born in Hamburg, Germany, December 22, 1694. He was educated by his father and by the scholar, J. A. Fabricius, whose son-in-law he subsequently became. He studied theology, ancient languages, and philosophy at the University of Jena, became Privatdozent at the University of Wittenberg in 1716, and in 1720-21 visited the Netherlands and England. In 1723, he became rector of the high school at Wismar in Mecklenburg, and in 1727, was appointed professor of Hebrew and Oriental languages at his native city's high school. Although he was offered more lucrative positions by other schools, he held this post until his death.
His duties were light; and he employed his leisure in the study of philology, mathematics, philosophy, history, political economy, science, and natural history, for which he made large collections. His house was the center of the highest culture of Hamburg; and a monument of his influence in that city still remains in the Haus der patriotischen Gesellschaft, where the learned and artistic societies partly founded by him still meet. He had seven children, only three of whom survived him: the distinguished physician Johann Albrecht Heinrich, and two daughters, one of them being Elise, Lessing's friend and correspondent. He died on March 1, 1768.
Reimarus's reputation as a scholar rests on the valuable edition of Dio Cassius (1750-52) which he prepared from the materials collected by J. A. Fabricius. He published a work on logic (Vernunftlehre als Anweisung zum richtigen Gebrauche der Vernunft, 1756, 5th ed., 1790), and two popular books on the religious questions of the day. The first of these, and his first important philosophical work, was a collection of essays on the principal truths of natural religion, Abhandlungen von den vornehmsten Wahrheiten der natürlichen Religion (Treatises on the Principal Truths of Natural Religion, 1755, 7th ed., 1798), a Deistic discussion of cosmological, biological–psychological, and theological problems. The second, Betrachtungen über die Triebe der Thiere (1760, 4th ed., 1798), dealt with one particular branch of the same subject.
Reimarus is best known for his Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes (Apologia or Defense for the Rational Reverers of God), an analysis of the historical Jesus, which he left unpublished until his death. After his death, Lessing published certain chapters under the title of the Wolfenbütteler Fragmente (Fragments by an Anonymous Writer, known as Fragmentenstreit). The original manuscript is in the Hamburg town library; a copy was made for the university library of Göttingen, 1814, and other copies are known to exist. In addition to the seven fragments published by Lessing, a second portion of the work was issued in 1787, by C. A. E. Schmidt (a pseudonym), under the title Übrige noch ungedruckte Werke des Wolfenbüttelschen Fragmentisten, and a further portion by D. W. Klose in C. W. Niedner's Zeitschrift für historische Theologie, 1850-52. Two of the five books of the first part and the whole of the second part, as well as appendices on the canon, remain unprinted. But D. F. Strauss has given an exhaustive analysis of the whole work in his book on Reimarus.
Reimarus’ philosophical position was essentially that of Christian Wolff. The Apologie was written from a viewpoint of pure naturalistic deism, denying the existence of miracles and mysteries except the creation itself, claiming that all the ethical doctrines essential to the survival of human society could be arrived at through the use of reason, without the aid of revelation, and promoting natural religion as the absolute contradiction of revealed religion. Reimarus held that the essential truths of natural religion were the existence of a wise and good Creator and the immortality of the soul, truths which were discoverable by reason and could constitute the basis of a universal religion. A revealed religion, in contrast, could never become universal, because it could never be intelligible and credible to all humanity.
Even supposing that a revealed religion could be universally intelligible and credible, the Bible did not present such a revelation. It abounded in factual errors; contradicted human experience, as reason and morals; and was a fabric woven of folly, deceit, enthusiasm, selfishness and crime. Moreover, the Bible was not a doctrinal compendium, or catechism, which a revelation would have to be. The Old Testament said very little about the worship of God, and the little that it did say was worthless; the writers of the Old Testament were unacquainted with the second fundamental truth of religion, the immortality of the soul. The intention of the writers of the New Testament, as well as that of Jesus, was not to teach true rational religion, but to promote their own selfish ambitions with an amazing combination of conscious fraud and enthusiasm. It is important, however, to remember that Reimarus attacked atheism with equal effect and sincerity, and that he was a man of high moral character, respected and esteemed by his contemporaries.
Reimarus’ treatment of the life of Jesus made a theological impact as the beginning of critical research of the "historical Jesus." Reimarus claimed that Jesus was a human being with messianic illusions, and that after his death, his body was stolen by his disciples in order to maintain the myth of his resurrection.
Albert Schweitzer claimed that the development, among theologians and scholars, of a critical attitude towards orthodox concepts of the nature and mission of Jesus began with the work of Reimarus. In fact, the thought of Reimarus was representative of the way in which the Enlightenment regarded the life of Jesus. Enlightenment scholars believed that the books of the Bible should be studied just as other historical works were studied, and the facts of Jesus’ life should be drawn from them by critically examining the evidence in the Gospels.
"BEFORE REIMARUS, NO ONE HAD ATTEMPTED TO FORM A HISTORICAL CONCEPTION of the life of Jesus. Luther had not so much as felt that he cared to gain a clear idea of the order of the recorded events…. The only Life of Jesus written prior to the time of Reimarus which has any interest for us, was composed by a Jesuit in the Persian language.…The author was the Indian missionary Hieronymus Xavier, nephew of Francis Xavier, and it was designed for the use of Akbar, the Moghul Emperor, who, in the latter part of the sixteenth century, had become the most powerful potentate in Hindustan. In the seventeenth century the Persian text was brought to Europe by a merchant, and was translated into Latin by Louis de Dieu, a theologian of the Reformed Church, whose intention in publishing it was to discredit Catholicism. (Historia Christi persice conscripts simulqwe mvltis modis contaminata a Hieronymo Xavier, lat. reddita et animadd, notata a Ludovico de Dieu. Lugd. 1639.) It is a skillful falsification of the life of Jesus in which the omissions, and the additions taken from the Apocrypha, are inspired by the sole purpose of presenting to the open-minded ruler a glorious Jesus, in whom there should be nothing to offend him. Thus there had been nothing to prepare the world for a work of such power as that of Reimarus. It is true, there had appeared earlier, in 1768, a Life of Jesus by Johann Jakob Hess (Johann Jacob Hess, Geschichte der drei letzten Lebensjahre Jesu. (History of the Last Three Years of the Life of Jesus.) 3 vols. 1768ft.), written from the standpoint of the older rationalism, but it retains so much supernaturalism and follows so much the lines of a paraphrase of the Gospels, that there was nothing to indicate to the world what a master-stroke the spirit of the time was preparing. Not much is known about Reimarus. … His magnum opus, however, which laid the historic basis of his attacks, was only circulated, during his lifetime, among his acquaintances, as an anonymous manuscript. In 1774 Lessing began to publish the most important portions of it, and up to 1778 had published seven fragments, thereby involving himself in a quarrel with Goetze, the Chief Pastor of Hamburg
To say that the fragment on "The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples" is a magnificent piece of work is barely to do it justice. This essay is not only one of the greatest events in the history of criticism, it is also a masterpiece of general literature. The language is as a rule crisp and terse, pointed and epigrammatic—the language of a man who is not "engaged in literary composition" but is wholly concerned with the facts. At times, however, it rises to heights of passionate feeling, and then it is as though the fires of a volcano were painting lurid pictures upon dark clouds. Seldom has there been a hate so eloquent, so lofty a scorn; but then it is seldom that a work has been written in the just consciousness of so absolute a superiority to contemporary opinion. And withal, there is dignity and serious purpose; Reimarus' work is no pamphlet.
… this was the first time that a really historical mind, thoroughly conversant with the sources, had undertaken the criticism of the tradition. It was Lessing's greatness that he grasped the significance of this criticism, and felt that it must lead either to the destruction or to the recasting of the idea of revelation. He recognized that the introduction of the historical element would transform and deepen rationalism. Convinced that the fateful moment had arrived, he disregarded the scruples of Reimarus' family and the objections of Nicolai and Mendelssohn, and, though inwardly trembling for that which he himself held sacred, he flung the torch with his own hand.” Albert Schweitzer, 1968, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, Chapter II, “Hermann Samuel Reimarus”
Modern estimates of Reimarus may be found in the works of B. Punjer, Otto Pfleiderer and Harald Høffding. Pünjer states the position of Reimarus as follows: "God is the Creator of the world, and His wisdom and goodness are conspicuous in it. Immortality is founded upon the essential nature of man and upon the purpose of God in creation. Religion is conducive to our happiness and alone brings satisfaction. Miracles are at variance with the divine purpose; without miracles there could be no revelation" (Pünjer, History of Christian Philosophy of Religion since Kant, Engl. trans., pp. 550-57, which contains an exposition of the Abhandlungen and Schutzschrift).
Pfleiderer's critiques of Reimarus were that he ignored historical and literary criticism, sources of documents and the narratives that were said to be either purely divine or purely human. Pfleiderer felt Reimarus had no concept of an immanent reason (Philosophy of Religion, Eng. trans., vol. i. p. 102). Høffding also has a brief section on the Schutzschrift, stating its main position as follows: "Natural religion suffices; a revelation is therefore superfluous. Moreover, such a thing is both physically and morally impossible. God cannot interrupt His own work by miracles; nor can He favour some men above others by revelations which are not granted to all, and with which it is not even possible for all to become acquainted. But of all doctrines that of eternal punishment is most contrary, Reimarus thinks, to true ideas of God; and it was this point which first caused him to stumble" (History of Modern Phil, Eng. trans. 1900, vol. ii. pp. 12, 13).
Werner Georg Kümmel argues that Reimarus saw the need to distinguish between the proclamation of the historical Jesus and the proclamation of the Early Church and to ask to what extent Jesus himself is the origin of his followers' break with Judaism." Kümmel (The New Testament: The History of the Investigations of Its Problems, 1973, p. 89) quotes a letter of Reimarus wherein he states that he had set himself the task: "Completely to separate what the Apostles present in their writings" (i.e. the Gospel accounts and epistles) "from what Jesus himself actually said and taught during his lifetime."
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