Misquoting Albert Schweitzer

To no surprise for those who are a little bit familiar with the contrivances of quack historians, Albert Schweitzer is being quote mined to bolster the claims of the defenders of an “undurchführbare Hypothese” (infeasable hypothesis), as Schweitzer himself called  the hypothesis of the non-existence of Jesus (p. 564). Part of it is due to the English translation, but another part is certainly due to the fact that quotations of his work circulate without context, and moreover due to the lack of understanding of Schweitzer’s time and his place in the history of scholarship. Perhaps some light from the Netherlands, in between the German and the Anglo-Saxon world, could help to clarify the matter.

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One quotation is from the beginning of the conclusion (English p. 398):

There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the Life of Jesus.

The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in an historical garb.

This is a translation of the first edition. Compared to the second German edition (p. 631), the translation seems fine, except for the phrase “there is nothing more negative”, which is an exaggeration of “… den Ertrag der Leben-Jesu-Forschung … ist negativ”, i.e. “the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus is negative”.

Now, without context, it seems that Albert Schweitzer rejects the whole project of historical Jesus research. But nothing is further from the truth. First of all, Schweitzer wrote more than a century ago. But even more importantly,  he criticised a specific form of historical Jesus research, namely the liberal scholarship that was current in the nineteenth century, which, according to Schweitzer, tried to make the historical Jesus a stooge for their modern religious predilections. That Jesus had never any existence. Schweitzer’s own historical Jesus was the eschatological Jesus, who remained strange, even offensive, to our time.[1]

Apart from his criticism on the specific approach and method of most of the scholarship before him, Schweitzer has this to say about the Leben-Jesu-Forschung (p. 632):

Man kann es nicht hoch genug anschlagen, was die Leben-Jesu-Forschung geleistet hat. Sie bedeutet eine einzigartig große Wahrhaftigkeitstat, eines der bedeutendsten Ereignisse in dem gesamten Geistesleben der Menschheit.

In English (p. 399):

But it is impossible to over-estimate the value of what German research upon the Life of Jesus has accomplished. It is a uniquely great expression of sincerity, one of the most significant events in the whole mental and spiritual life of humanity.

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“Wieder auf den schönen Orgel. 29-5-’52 Albert Schweitzer”.
Inscription (1952) in the music stand of the Van Hagerbeer Organ, St Peter’s Church, Leiden. (Photo A.L. Boon/Wikimedia.)

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A second quote, only in the second edition, reads as follows (allegedly from p. 402 of the English translation of the second edition):

In reality, however, these writers are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability.

So nothing is achieved by calling on sound judgment or on whatever else one likes to ask for in an opponent. Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical.

This corresponds to p. 512 of the German edition. I doubt whether the translation “so high as positive probability” is correct; it certainly can leave a misleading impression. The German has the following text:

Es ist also nicht eimal eine Steigerung bis in die allerhöchsten Grade der Wahrscheinlichkeit möglich.

That is: “Thus even an increase to the highest degree of probability is not possible.”

Again, it is important to note the context of this quotation. On p. 511, Scheitzer argues that every historical statement must remain a hypothesis. When someone says that the (non-)historicity of Jesus is certain, such a statement is precise enough (“hinreichend präzis”) for everyday language, but from a scholarly point of view one can only speak about a certain degree of probability. Then, Schweitzer complains about writers, defending the existence of Jesus, who call on sound judgement (“Appell an den gesunden Menschenverstand”) for the ‘obvious’ fact that Jesus existed. That is, according to Schweitzer, fine for everyday language, but not a scholarly way to approach the matter. After that follows the quotation above. So Schweitzer makes a theoretical point, namely, that, just as in the case of every historical statement, the existence of Jesus must remain hypothetical. This theoretical point then serves to underpin the theological/philosophical idea that the historical Jesus cannot be the fundament of religion, but that the fundament of religion has to be fully independent of history.

It is obvious that this passage is not meant to give a judgement on the probability of the existence of the historical Jesus. It only clarifies the theoretical conditions of historical propositions. Schweitzer’s own conclusion can be found on p. 564:

Es ist also zu schließen, daß die Annahme, Jesus habe existiert, überaus wahrscheinlich, ihr Gegenteil aber überaus unwahrscheinlich ist.

In English (own translation): “Therefore, it has to be concluded that the assumption that Jesus existed is extremely likely, but its opposite extremely unlikely.” In everyday language: it is certain that Jesus existed.

Schweitzer summarises the arguments for this conclusion in the same paragraph. These arguments are that the problems for the hypothesis of Jesus’ non-existence are far more numerous, and in the end insurmountable and unanswerable. Further, the various hypotheses about the non-existence of Jesus until the publication of Schweitzer’s book stood in the sharpest opposition to each other.

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To conclude, people who use Albert Schweitzer’s work to bolster claims about Jesus’ non-existence, either did not do their homework or are intentionally deceptive.

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Albert Schweitzer, Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 21913 [1906].

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[1] After publication of this blogpost, it has been pointed out that this paragraph bears some resemblance to Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist, pp. 12-13. I didn’t consult it for the writing of this post, but it probably subconsciously influenced the content and my writing style. Anyhow, a reference to Ehrman is appropriate here.

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