2 Ibid., p. 38.

3 Ibid., pp. 39–44.

4 Ibid., pp. 44–47.

5 Ibid., pp. 161–166.

The Classical Period

The nineteenth century was the classical period of Protestant Liberalism. Often dated from the publication of Schleiermacher’s On Religion^7 in 1799 until World War I, these decades probably produced the largest number of “lives of Jesus.” In fact, this period of thought is sometimes characterized by these volumes.

However, Jesus was not depicted as he was portrayed in the Gospels. The emphasis in the majority of these studies was on Jesus as a great example for living, with the implication that we should pattern our lives after his. But at least two key elements in the Gospels were usually either denied or ignored. Supernatural aspects such as Jesus’ miracles were treated as nonhistorical. Further, dogmatic theology was eschewed, especially the doctrine of Jesus’ deity. It was assumed that, while Jesus was an outstanding moral pattern, he was only a man.

An example may serve to illustrate the liberal methodology. In the early phase of the movement, the predominant approach to Jesus’ miracles was to rationalize them, most often by explaining how something that the Gospel writers considered to be supernatural could really be understood better as the normal operation of nature. This was a carryover from the deistic thinking of the previous century.^8 In his life of Jesus, published in 1828, Heinrich Paulus treated a fair amount of the New Testament text as historical, but he supplied naturalistic explanations of the miraculous elements. He thought that understanding the secondary causes behind the purported miracles would serve to explain what “really” happened.^9

David Strauss’ Life of Jesus, published just a few years later in 1835, presented a serious and influential challenge to Paulus’ classic approach. Strauss supplanted the rationalistic replacement method with a mythical strategy that questioned many reports about the historical Jesus. He held that the Gospels were chiefly mythological documents that utilized normal description in order to depict transcendental ideas in seemingly historical garb. The overall purpose of the New Testament language was to express essentially inexpressible truths in a manner that allowed them to be more readily applied to life.^10

7 Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, transl. by John Oman (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958).

8 An example of deistic diatribe against Jesus’ miracles is Thomas Woolston’s “A Defence of the Discourses on Miracles” (1729), included in Peter Gay, ed., Deism: An Anthology (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1968).

9 Schweitzer, Quest, chapter V.

10 David Strauss, A New Life of Jesus, 2 vol. (Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1879).

Most obviously, the mythical approach popularized by Strauss and others denied the basic historicity of the Gospels, thereby challenging the orthodox position. Not as evident, however, is how this method even undermined the earlier rationalistic strategies of those such as Paulus, inasmuch as they, too, relied on a certain amount of factual reliability in the Gospel accounts of Jesus.