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).