From Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus – Ancient Evidence For The Life Of Christ (in print at Amazon)

From the late eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries, both before and during the heyday of Protestant Liberalism, there were numerous attempts to formulate what Albert Schweitzer called the “fictitious lives of Jesus.” In his view, these volumes were chiefly characterized as the words of “a few imperfectly equipped free-lances.” Yet, in spite of the preponderance of fictional elements, Schweitzer considers them the first of the modern lives of Jesus.^1

Such works often attempted to invent Jesus’ internal motivations and speculate on other aspects of his life, even in areas where the Gospels are silent. The typical approach was to postulate the existence of a secret organization or association. Often this was the Essenes, who were portrayed as being leading, but secret, members of society, and hence were able to manipulate events and circumstances in Jesus’ life. But Schweitzer refers to these plot theses as “rather a sorry makeshift.”^2

Karl Bahrdt wrote one of the earliest attempts, a multi-volumed effort, from 1784–1792. For Bahrdt, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were Essenes who sought to keep secret their identity. At an early age, Jesus got involved with this clandestine order and later was viewed as a valued member. Through the efforts of this secret group, Jesus staged his “miracles.” Luke was particularly responsible for the healings. The Essenes also plotted Jesus’ death, and Luke administered drugs, causing Jesus to survive crucifixion. Afterwards, Jesus was nursed back to health, which allowed him to make several visits to his followers.^3

Perhaps the best known and most imitated of the fictitious lives of Jesus was written by Karl Venturini from 1800–1802. From his youth, Jesus was protected and trained by the Essenes. The “miracles” he performed during his public ministry were not really supernatural. His healings, for example, were effected by medicines. Venturini did not invent a plot surrounding Jesus’ death, and Jesus actually expected to die. But Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus noticed signs that Jesus might still be alive while they were preparing his body for burial. They signaled the Essenes, who later removed his body. After having recovered somewhat, Jesus was periodically seen by his disciples.^4

Later, fictitious lives by writers such as Gfrörer (written between 1831 and 1838), Hennell (1838) and Salvator (1838) all postulated that the Essenes were involved in many aspects of Jesus’ ministry. All three authors likewise asserted that Jesus was nursed back to health by the Essenes after his crucifixion so that he could visit his followers.^5

Each of these writers conjectured that Jesus did not die by crucifixion, but was nursed back to health by the members of a secret group, and recovered sufficiently enough to visit with his disciples. Such attempts to construct a speculative life of Jesus attracted very little scholarly attention. They were plainly based on supposition and thus could add little to more serious historical studies, as noted by Schweitzer.

1 See Schweitzer’s classic treatment, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, transl. by J.W. Montgomery from the first German edition of 1906 (New York: Macmillan, 1968), pp. 38–39.