Appendix B: Schweitzer’s Jesus in:

Steuart Campbell

The Rise and Fall of Jesus, page 239 - 244

A Complete Explanation for the Life of Jesus and the Origin of Christianity

3. Edition 2019, ISBN print: 978-3-8288-4346-2, ISBN online: 978-3-8288-7327-8,

Tectum, Baden-Baden
Bibliographic information
Appendix B: Schweitzer’s Jesus There is a widespread belief that, although Albert Schweitzer believed in a historical Jesus, he left virtually nothing certain about him. In fact, although he claimed that Jesus would remain a puzzle to the modern world, he believed that he had solved the puzzle and he came to very definite conclusions regarding Jesus’ purpose and mission. Although his most famous work is the Quest (1954), his own views figure only briefly in it. Schweitzer’s conclusions about Jesus are fully expounded in lesser known works, viz. The Mystery of the Kingdom of God (1925) and The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity (1968). The former was written as part of a university treatise in 1901, well before the Quest. The latter was not published (in German) until two years after his death. It is remarkable that, despite the span of half a century between the writing of these two books, Schweitzer’s fundamental view, that only an eschatological interpretation can make sense of Jesus’ life, hardly changed. In only one respect did he revise his earlier, youthful outlook: he rejected the idea that Jesus had a concept of his atonement (1968:128). We must dispose of the impression that the name of Schweitzer may be invoked effectually by mythicists. The Mystery and the Quest were both written about the time that the world reeled to the views of powerful mythicists, at the dawn of the twentieth century. The works of Robertson, Kalthoff, Smith and Drews came too late for Schweitzer to comment on them in the above works and his opinion on the matter did not appear in print until the publication in 1924 of his Christianity and the Religions of the World. With evident incredulity, he pointed out that some had ‘gone so far’ as to cast doubt upon the originality of Christianity and asked ‘how can men who think seriously come to the conclusion that the ideas of Christianity do not go back to Jesus, but merely represent a transformation of ideas that stirred religious circles in the then heathen world?' Affirming his conviction that Christianity was certainly the creation of Jesus and that the uniqueness of its teach- 239 ing of a coming kingdom of God could not be traced back to the mystery religions, he declared that ‘the attempt to prove that Christianity is derived from these mystery-religions of redemption does not lead to positive results’ (1924:19). In the introduction to the third German edition of the Quest (in 1950), Schweitzer referred again to the Jesus Myth Theory. He claimed that the book dealt with ‘practically all conceivable arguments against the historicity of Jesus’ (it also gave a brief history of mythicism). To be in any way scientific, he claimed, the mythical theory must not only explain Jesus’ origin, which is difficult enough, but also show how this fictitious non-Jewish figure was introduced into the Judaism of the early Roman Empire –’a hopeless undertaking’. He continued to argue that, while previously it was possible to maintain that historical research could produce a credible picture of Jesus only by discarding parts of Matthew and Mark as inauthentic, now that a true understanding of these Gospels was made possible by eschatology, subsequent attempts to disprove his existence would be much more difficult. Nevertheless, while the Jesus Myth Theory had been dealt a deathblow, he expected further attempts to revive it. D A King drew attention to the fact that Schweitzer was not a Christian in the conventional sense; he rejected all supernatural or transcendental elements in the Gospels and interpreted the phenomenon of Jesus only in terms of its historico-political milieu. Schweitzer was too embedded in the ecclesiastical structure to separate himself from it and he preferred to express his unorthodox views from within the Church rather than outside it. But this made him anathema to everyone; Christians ignored or misunderstood him, while rationalists passed him over as ‘Just another Christian’ (1964). The Mystery, subtitled ‘the Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion’, was part of a treatise called ‘the Lord’s Supper in connection with the Life of Jesus and the History of Early Christianity’. Schweitzer was convinced that the personality and life of Jesus had become grossly obscured by the rash of conflicting theories put forward by those who thought they were clarifying the life of the man from Galilee and he considered that Christian theology had lost the basic simplicity of Jesus. He suggested that it might be more profitable to examine Jesus’ life Appendix B: Schweitzer’s Jesus 240 beginning, not at his birth, but at his death. He also addressed the question –’why did Jesus keep his Messiahship secret?' Schweitzer’s great achievement was the discovery that Jesus’ worldview was not ours. Placing Jesus firmly in the beliefs and teachings of his own time, he was able to show that Jesus’ eschatological beliefs coloured every pronouncement. At the time, contemporary liberal theology interpreted Jesus’ life in terms of early twentieth century thought. Schweitzer showed that no sense would be made of the Gospels until it was recognized that they came from another world – a world that expected an imminent end of all things, a world that was created by God in six days and that would be rolled up in an instant. It was a world that anticipated the imminent appearance of ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ – the kingdom of God. Eschatology was the key to understanding Jesus’ life and death. He was not a man born out of his time revealing previously hidden truths to mankind; he was a child of his time brought up in its beliefs and trapped like his contemporaries in the philosophy of his age. Somehow Jesus came to believe that he was or was to be the Messiah of the Jews. Schweitzer recognized in Jesus a dual personality, for Jesus spoke of himself in the third person as ‘the Son of Man’, an Aramaicism for ‘a man’, but also an allusion to the Messiah in Daniel. But this conviction was kept from all but his closest disciples and even they only had a hazy idea of Jesus’ self-imposed mission. In Schweitzer’s view, Jesus, like John the Baptist, proclaimed the imminent kingdom and tried to prepare Judaea for it. But when it failed to appear, Jesus concluded that he himself must bring about the kingdom. Schweitzer claimed that Jesus was stunned by the death of John, whom he secretly believed to be Elijah, whom Jews expected to return before the kingdom, and had to ask himself why this had happened. Jesus’ answer, according to Schweitzer, was that, instead of requiring the whole of Israel to suffer a pre-kingdom affliction, only token sacrifices were required. ‘Elijah’ had died at the hand of Herod, the king of Galilee and Peraea, and now Jesus too had to die, but at the hands of the ruler of Judaea representing the supreme Earthly power. By this course, by suffering on behalf of his people, Jesus would avoid a general tribulation. In fact, at one time he might have believed that his disciples were to suffer on behalf of the people, but when they returned to him unscathed, he concluded that he would have to suffer ‘a ransom for many’, Appendix B: Schweitzer’s Jesus 241 the ‘many’ being either the disciples or the people of Israel, not the entire world population. Jesus thought that his death would initiate the kingdom and that afterwards he would be resurrected to rule de facto as the Messiah, the Son of Man. From that moment on, everything Jesus did was Messianic; it was part of the pre-determined, but not predestined, life of the Messiah-to-be. He arranged his triumphal entry into Jerusalem as described by the Scriptures, but without explaining to the surprised population who he was, and he invited arrest, trial and execution in a melodramatic atmosphere of secrecy and innuendo. Expecting prompt resurrection to a position of power and authority surpassing even that of Caesar, he saw no reason to explain his mission to those around him. For a 26-year-old student, this was a remarkable insight into the gospel problem and it would be unfair to regret that he made the mistake of believing that Jesus was condemned for blasphemy, that he made no examination of Jewish and Roman court procedure and that he showed no interest in the reason for Judas’ betrayal. Schweitzer called it ‘a realistic account of the life of Jesus’; it was certainly more realistic than most of those with which he was surrounded. But even as a Jewish aspirant to the Messianic throne, as a man convinced that he was on a divine mission, Schweitzer’s Jesus in the Mystery appears as a heroic figure. Stripped of his divinity, this Jesus was still a superman, the author of a new moral order and worthy of mankind’s worship. While Schweitzer devoted most of his life to medicine at Lambarene, he never completely set aside work on the life of Jesus. Barred by his radical views from preaching or teaching, he nevertheless pursued his own eschatological theory of Jesus’ life. About 1950 he began the Kingdom, which was to deal with the ancient Hebrews’ concept of and quest for the heavenly kingdom on Earth. After his death, the unfinished manuscript was found among his papers, together with drafts of further chapters. The published work covers the Old Testament prophets, Jesus and Paul, but he intended to continue his study into the Roman Empire of the post-Gospel era and into later eras. This was Schweitzer’s ‘theological testament’, the result of many years’ contemplation of the problem of Christian origins. He traced Jewish eschatological concepts back to Zoroaster, whose ideas were incorporated into the book of Enoch. Touching again on mythicism, he Appendix B: Schweitzer’s Jesus 242 pointed out that the historicity of Jesus is supported by the fact that the basic gospel does not attribute to Jesus any view different from those of the late Jewish expectation of the kingdom and the Messiah. The trustworthiness of Mark and Matthew, he claimed, is further demonstrated by the fact that they record words and acts of Jesus that of necessity remain incomprehensible to those who heard and saw them and also by the fact that they quote prophecies that were not fulfilled. Contrary to the current view that little in the Gospels is historical, Schweitzer regarded it as a miracle that so true a record of Jesus has been preserved. Returning to his theme of fifty years before, he emphasized that Jesus’ Messianic consciousness was futuristic; he did not come forward as the Messiah, but as a person who would later be revealed as God’s Chosen One. Jesus, he showed, had solved a problem that late Jewish scribes could not – how was Messiah to be both Son of David and supernatural. Jesus’ ingenious solution was that a man born as a descendant of David in the last generation of mankind would be revealed as the Messiah in his supernatural existence at the coming of the kingdom. According to Schweitzer, Jesus was original in combining for the first time, into one man, the Messiah and the Son of Man. Schweitzer’s Jesus constructed a new Messiah, one who had to go through life as a man before he could reign in the kingdom. Rejecting his earlier view, that Jesus felt the need to offer his life as a sacrifice on behalf of his people, Schweitzer now concluded that Jesus believed he could bring about the kingdom by suffering death. He scorned the traditional view that Jesus sensed growing opposition and resigned himself to death. ‘In what way’, he asked, ‘did Jesus’ death benefit others or help the cause of the kingdom?' In itself it achieved nothing, an embarrassing fact that Christianity has tried to avoid for nearly two millennia. But if Jesus believed that he was destined to be the Messiah, the sooner he died the sooner he would be resurrected as the Son of Man and could establish the kingdom. Therefore his Passion was not a noble sacrifice on behalf of millions of future believers nor the antidote to Original Sin; it was an essential step in the progress of his own personal career. This explains Jesus’ resignation in the face of hostility and how, by handing himself over to the authorities, he believed that he was actually advancing the kingdom of God. Appendix B: Schweitzer’s Jesus 243 That none of Jesus’ hopes were fulfilled, that he was not revealed in glory in Galilee, that the kingdom did not appear, was to Schweitzer testimony as to the reliability of the Gospel accounts. Why would anyone invent such a poor deluded figure? Why would they show that he expected change when no such change occurred? Jesus was no longer a hero to Schweitzer; he was a pathetic victim of religion and its bigotry. Like an author condemned to perform in his own tragedy, he was ignorant of the fact that he played the part of a character who only existed in his imagination. While Schweitzer did not spell out the consequences for Christianity, it is obvious that his Jesus has nothing in common with the ecclesiastical Christ. The unspoken conclusion was that Christianity had grossly misunderstood its founder and worshipped a figure of its own creation. Schweitzer was a rationalist like those he reviewed in the Quest, especially radicals like Reimarus and Strauss, to whom he owed a great debt. With them he stands above all others who have attempted to make sense of the life of Jesus. Like them he understood that comprehension of a historical figure can only come from an understanding of the beliefs and circumstances with which such a person was surrounded. He made the further discovery, in the case of Jesus, that these beliefs and circumstances explain some Gospel statements that are otherwise inexplicable, so confirming their historicity. Schweitzer’s Jesus was neither mythical nor unknown; he was certain, not only that Jesus existed, but that only by eschatology can we explain his life and death. Schweitzer’s Jesus was a real man caught in the web of Pharisaic Judaism and doomed to follow his own trail. Like a man unrolling a carpet, Jesus trod a path of his own invention, convinced that by so doing he fulfilled prophecy. Schweitzer pushed Jesus back to where he belongs: in first century Palestine. Jesus has no message for the modern world; he has no message for mankind. Appendix B: Schweitzer’s Jesus 244

Chapter Preview



What really happened to Jesus? Did he rise from the dead, and if not why do Christians believe that he did? Did he have a plan and, if so, what was it? Did he accomplish his purpose or did the plan fail? If it failed, what were the consequences?

Steuart Campbell, once a Christian, takes a rationalist look at the problem of Christian origins and shows that no previous writer has completely solved the riddle of Jesus. Here he shows us a new hypothesis, one that explains Jesus‘ curious behaviour.

Here is Jesus in historical context, the leader of an obscure Jewish sect which believed that it was fulfilling a divine plan revealed in the Scriptures. This plan required the Messiah to die and rise again to become the king of Israel, throwing the Romans out of Judaea and even replacing the Emperor as ruler of the known world. Read how Jesus expected to accomplish this.

The author displays immense knowledge of the Bible and the history of the Jews and he explains many mysteries. He builds on the work of many other authors and constructs what is surely the true explanation for the origin of Christianity. This should be the last word on the historical Jesus. It is certainly an excellent review of the many attempts to solve the mystery.