David Friedrich Strauss

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Portrait of David Strauss.

David Friedrich Strauss (January 27, 1808 – February 8, 1874), was a German theologian , writer, German-Protestant philosopher, and biographer whose use of dialectical philosophy, emphasizing social evolution through the inner struggle of opposing forces, broke new ground in biblical interpretation. Originally educated to be a clergyman, he left his post as a high school teacher in 1831 to study under Friedrich Schleiermacher and Georg Hegel in Berlin. Schleiermacher's lectures on the life of Jesus exercised a powerful influence upon him. In 1835, at the age of 27, he published Das Leben Jesu, explaining the New Testament accounts of Christ as myths, unintentionally created to fulfill Jewish messianic expectations. The book provoked a storm of controversy and marked turning point in the critical study of the life of Jesus.

Strauss was one of the first to make a clear distinction between Jesus the historical figure and Jesus the subject of Christian belief. Despite the flaws that are now apparent in his work, he was a pioneer in the historical investigation of Jesus. His other theological writings include Die Christliche Glaubenslehre (two vol., 1840–1841) and Der alte und der neue Glaube (1872; tr. The Old Faith and the New, 1873). Strauss was also the author of critical biographies of Ulrich von Hutten (three vol., 1858–1860) and Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1862).


Strauss was born at Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart on January 27, 1808. At age 12, 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 Ferdinand Christian 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, where G. W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Hölderlin, and F. W. J. von Schelling had studied. 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 taught 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 sought unsuccessfully for kindred spirits among the followers of Hegel. He had already conceived the ideas found in his two principal theological works, Leben Jesu ("Life of Jesus") and Christliche Dogmatik ("Christian Dogma"), but 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.

The Leben Jesu

The Life of Jesus Critically Examined was published in 1835, when Strauss was 27-years-old. His main thesis was that the Jesus presented in biblical writings is not the real historical person of Jesus, but a person transformed by the religious consciousness of Christians. Therefore, he declared, scientific methods can not be used to explain the basis of Christian belief and theology, because Christianity is based upon a myth. Furthermore, it is impossible to analyze the life of Jesus as a historical person and preserve his divine nature

The book was controversial because Strauss analyzed the miraculous elements in the gospels as "mythical" in character. The Leben Jesu closed a period in which scholars struggled to reconcile the miraculous nature of the New Testament with the rational views of the Enlightenment. One group of "rationalists" 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 dismissed the stories as actual events and read them solely as myths. Moving from miracle to miracle, he explained them all as products of the early church's use of Jewish expectations about the Messiah to reinforce the conviction that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

Life of Jesus Critically Examined created 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.

In 1837, Strauss replied to his critics with the book Streitschriften zur Verteidigung meiner Schrift über das Leben Jesu. In the third edition of the work (1839), and in Zwei friedliche Blätter ("Two Peaceful Letters") 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 novels.

The Hegelians in general rejected his "Life of Jesus," and in 1837 Strauss defended his work against them in a booklet entitled "In Defense of My LIFE OF JESUS against the Hegelians." The famous Hegelian scholar, Bruno 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 supported the young Nietzsche in every way he could

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 Glaubenslehre, Strauss took leave of theology for over twenty years. In August, 1841, he married Agnes Schebest, a cultivated and beautiful opera singer, 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 to the Frankfurt parliament, but was defeated by Christoph Hoffmann. He was elected to 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, sixth ed. 1895).

Later Works

In 1862, he returned to theology with a biography of Hermann Samuel Reimarus, and two years afterward (1864) published his Life of Jesus for the German People (Das Leben Jesu für das deutsche Volk) (thirteenth ed., 1904). It failed to produce an effect comparable with that of the first Life, but the responses to it were many, and Strauss answered them in his pamphlet Die Halben und die Ganzen (1865), directed specifically against Daniel Schenkel and Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg.

The Christ of Belief and the Jesus of History (Der Christus des Glaubens und der Jesus der Geschichte) (1865) was 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 an Afterword as Foreword (Nachwort als Vorwort) (1873). The same year, symptoms of a fatal illness appeared, and Strauss died in death followed on February 8, 1874.


Four Waves of Religious Rationalism

Beginning in the sixteenth century, religious rationalism spread quickly in Europe, and experienced several resurgences. It first appeared in England in the form of Deism. Deists accepted the existence of God, but rejected supernatural revelation. The earliest proponents of this school were Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583–1648), and the philosopher John Toland (1670–1722), who wrote Christianity Not Mysterious. The freethinker Anthony Collins (1676–1729) attacked revelation by maintaining that the prophecies of the Old Testament were never fulfilled, and Thomas Woolston (1670–1733) declared that the New Testament miracles, as recorded, were incredible. The Deists, who professed to be religious men themselves, challenged traditional religion and urged the exercise of reason.

The second wave of religious rationalism arose in France, and concerned itself with the problem of natural evil. Its main advocate was Voltaire (1694–1778), who had been impressed by some of the Deists during a stay in England. He was supported by Diderot (1713–1784), editor of the most widely read encyclopedia in Europe. The rationalism of these men and their followers was directed against both the religious and the political traditions of their time, and prepared the philosophical ground for the French Revolution. It also reflected a tendency towards atheistic materialism. Religious rationalism next emerged in Germany under the influence of Hegel, who maintained that a religious creed is the product of a reason that is still under the sway of feeling and imagination, and has not yet arrived at a mature philosophy. This is the theme that was taken up by David Strauss, who used internal inconsistencies in the Synoptic Gospels to prove these books to be unsatisfactory either as revelation or history. He then sought to demonstrate that an imaginative people with a Messianic expectation, deeply moved by a unique moral genius like Jesus, inevitably wove myths about his birth and death, and his miracles.

Strauss's religious thought was continued by the philosophical historian Ernest Renan (1823–1892) and his philosophy by the humanist Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872). Renan's Vie de Jésus (1863; Life of Jesus), though differing in character from Strauss’s work, affected France as he had affected Germany.

The publication in 1859 of Darwin's Origin of Species provoked a fourth resurgence of religious rationalism in Victorian England. The book was taken as a challenge to the authority of Scripture because there was a clear inconsistency between the Genesis account of creation and the biological account of man's slow emergence from lower forms of life. The battle raged with bitterness for several decades but died away as the theory of evolution gained more general acceptance.


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 vigorously, particularly his theory that the Christ of the gospels was the unintentional mythical creation of Christian Messianic expectations, but some of his critics declared that he 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.

Albert Schweitzer wrote in The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), that 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." In that same book, however, Schweitzer recognized 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. 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."

David Strauss made a permanent historical impact on Protestant theological scholarship. His motivation was not to destroy, but to clarify. For example, Strauss was bothered by the modern, scientific criticism of the virgin birth of Jesus. Strauss’s approach was to explain that 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.

Notes to his works

Strauss's works were published in a collected edition in 12 vols., by E. Zeller (1876-1878), without his Christliche Dogmatik. His Ausgewahle Briefe appeared in 1895. On his life and works, see Zeller, [David Friedrich Strauss in seinem Lebes und seinen Schriften (1874); Adolph Hausrath, D. F. Strauss und der Theologie seiner Zeit (two vols., 1876-1878); F. T. Vischer, Kritische Gänge (1844), vol. i, and by the same writer, Altes und Neues (1882), vol. iii; R. Gottschall, Literarische Charakterkopfe (1896), vol. iv; S. Eck, D. F. Strauss (1899); K. Harraeus, D. F. Strauss, sein Leben und seine Schriften (1901); and T. Ziegler, D. F. Strauss (2 vols, 1908-1909).

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