The Historical Life of Jesus

Over a century ago, Albert Schweitzer wrote “The Historical Life of Jesus”, a review of the writings by German scholars from the 19th century on Jesus’ life.  In his review, he shows the various attempts by the historians and other scholars to reduce the life of Jesus to a purely historical event.  Miracles, resurrection, and eschatological teachings were all rejected and determined to be added later, or are reinterpreted.

For some of the scholars, Jesus was an Essene (and perhaps had studied Egyptian magic and Hinduism), intent on capturing the hearts of the Jews by putting on a charade.  Miracles are machinations to trick the people into believing in Jesus as Messiah.  Water was not turned into wine, but was actually wine that was hidden away, or Jesus the Hypnotist convinced them that the water was wine. The few fish and bread were kept near a cave entrance, where plenty of food was available to feed the 5000. Jesus did not die on the cross, but entered a trance and appeared dead, so that he could be secretly revived later by Joseph of Aramathea.

For others, Jesus really did die, but his resurrection was a rumor that successfully spread.

The scholars argued as to whether John or one of the Synoptic gospels came first. They doubted whether Jesus spoke of an after life, or whether his statements only applied to this life.

Their view of history required that nothing supernatural could occur or even be considered.  Schweitzer counters:

But why should whatever is incomprehensible to us be unhistorical? Would it not be better simply to admit that we do not understand certain connexions of ideas and turns of expression in the discourses of Jesus?

There is a way for historians to include miracles without either dismissing them or over indulging them. They can share history as it has been transmitted down to us, understanding that ancient peoples accepted the supernatural as something natural and acceptable.  As Schweitzer explains:

A division between the natural and supernatural in Mark is purely arbitrary, because the supernatural is an essential part of the history.

If we remove miracles, resurrection and the after life from the New Testament, there is little value remaining. Jesus no longer is the Messiah and Savior, but only an itinerant preacher.

But the historic Jesus and the Germanic spirit cannot be brought together except by an act of historic violence which in the end injures both religion and history.

Why can’t the doubting German scholars help us find the real Jesus by deconstructing his history in the Bible?

Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from Him and flows through our time also. This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery. It is the solid foundation of Christianity.

But Albert Schweitzer hits the mark on even a deeper level. Knowing the historical Jesus is important, but is not the message nor the central point of why a small cadre of men and women risked their lives to create a religion that now numbers in the billions of adherents.

But the truth is, it is not Jesus as historically known, but Jesus as spiritually arisen within men, who is significant for our time and can help it. Not the historical Jesus, but the spirit which goes forth from Him and in the spirits of men strives for new influence and rule, is that which overcomes the world.

When we reduce the writings of the Bible to only those things that can be experienced with the five senses and confine it within the bounds of mortality, then it becomes no more than literature.  Jesus becomes nothing more than a Jewish preacher, who met a violent and ignominious end. There is no hope for an after life for any of us, and there is no religion.  There is only philosophy and literature that one can glean from scripture: Ten Commandments that guide us on how to treat others, Beatitudes on how to live a humble life, and some history on Jerusalem and the surrounding area.

As with the historical Jesus, so it is with the Restored Gospel. Joseph Smith’s story is filled with miracles, visions, and incredible acts (bringing forth the Book of Mormon and other writings, building cities and temples, etc). Yet we see many modern “historians”, German or otherwise, who reduce the restoration down to the Spalding manuscript and polygamy. In doing so, they commit violence to the full story of the gospel restoration.

As with the German scholars who ignored the beauty of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection, many today refute the wonderful vision of the Father and Son, the amazing witness of the resurrected Christ in the Book of Mormon, and the eschatological hope of living with our families forever with God and Jesus in the Celestial Kingdom.

We seem to dwell so much on the controversial these days, and often our 24 hour news cycle seems to encourage it. Blogs often seek controversy so that they can get viewers and comments. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have a time when we can all stop being German scholars, attempting to reduce Jesus and the gospel to the skeletons in the closet, and instead rejoice and feast on the Good News that Jesus offers us all through his atonement, resurrection, and the restoration of the fullness of the gospel?



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About rameumptom

Gerald (Rameumptom) Smith is a student of the gospel. Joining the Church of Jesus Christ when he was 16, he served a mission in Santa Cruz Bolivia (1978=1980). He is married to Ramona, has 3 stepchildren and 7 grandchildren. Retired Air Force (Aim High!). He has been on the Internet since 1986 when only colleges and military were online. Gerald has defended the gospel since the 1980s, and was on the first Latter-Day Saint email lists, including the late Bill Hamblin's Morm-Ant. Gerald has worked with FairMormon, More Good Foundation, LDS.Net and other pro-LDS online groups. He has blogged on the scriptures for over a decade at his site: Joel's Monastery ( He has the following degrees: AAS Computer Management, BS Resource Mgmt, MA Teaching/History. Gerald was the leader for the Tuskegee Alabama group, prior to it becoming a branch. He opened the door for missionary work to African Americans in Montgomery Alabama in the 1980s. He's served in two bishoprics, stake clerk, high council, HP group leader and several other callings over the years. While on his mission, he served as a counselor in a branch Relief Society presidency.

21 thoughts on “The Historical Life of Jesus

  1. Completely agree. Which I why I haven’t shied away from indicating the ways in which I fell the spirit has influenced me. It’s a valid part of my history. Some may suspect I am merely unusually sensitive to the random ‘undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.’ However there’s no particular reason for me to alter my reality because others dismiss it.

  2. I don’t have a lot of time, but this idea of the Historical Jesus vs. the Miracle Jesus, while still present, is actually a minority view now. You see it more among the terminally atheist and lay historians than those who seriously study Jesus. It isn’t that they accept the Miracles, but more like what Albert Schweitzer said that rejecting them as part of study is itself unhistorical.

  3. But I think the point is that many who study Joseph Smith strip away all the miracles and power of the theology, attempting to distill the “restoration” down to gonadal impulses and chicanery.

  4. I understood his point, but as an Historical Jesus enthusiast I wanted to “set the record straight” about modern research. Maybe someday the same can be said about Joseph Smith studies, and Rough Stone Rolling is a book that has set up the possible parameters.

  5. Jettboy, yes many scholars today do not go to the extremes the German scholars did. However, there still are many that do push the edges of it all. The Minimalists are a powerful minority that question everything, including the existence of King David, Moses and Abraham. There are still scholars that attack the very premises of the New Testament. Most scholars accept the Documentary Hypothesis, that the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death by other than their namesakes, and that claim that many of the sayings and events are later additions. Questions regarding the Virgin Birth are asked by many of the key scholars, especially as they pick apart questionable parts of the “history” of the event – suggesting that it is also a later addition that has nothing to do with history.
    If you were in Europe, you would see that many “Christians” and their ministers doubt the resurrection, the miracles, etc. Even in the USA, where we still have a stronger basis in the spiritual, major religions are led by those who doubt.
    For example a major mover in the Episcopalian Church has been Bishop John Shelby Spong ( ). His 12 Points of Reform of Christianity include the following:
    -The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
    -The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
    -The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
    -Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.

    Sound familiar? Sounds like what the German scholars of the 19th century tried to push. They’ve destroyed faith in Europe, and it is now setting in here. Commandments are no longer commandments. Obedience is no longer required. Faith need only be lip service. Many doubt in miracles, or an afterlife. So, the issue is greater than you may think, JB. BTW, I’m also a historian, and I see historians monkey with history all the time. This is especially true in our day, when many historians are attempting to push an agenda (good or bad). For every “Rough Stone Rolling”, there is a “No Man Knows My History” filled with innuendo and hallucinations rather than visions.

  6. “Yet we see many modern “historians”, German or otherwise, who reduce the restoration down to the Spalding manuscript and polygamy. In doing so, they commit violence to the full story of the gospel restoration.”

    I completely agree. I would go a step further, though. We don’t have to go so far as the modern historians. Much of the work currently being produced by the Maxwell Institute at BYU is doing much to “reduce the restoration down” to the circumstances and currents of early 19th century Americana.

  7. Those who decide that the miraculous must be dismissed by rational people are doomed to consume nothing more than stale, dry bread and tepid water spiritually speaking. How grateful I am to have someone to be grateful to as I encounter daily miracles. The great miracles of the Atonement and the Restoration are the core elements of my gratitude prayers.

  8. “The German scholars of the 19th century” postulated a Jesus who only gradually evolved from a mortal and then completely dead mystic to a divine Savior who was worshipped. According to them it was the conversion of the gentiles who catalyzed this elevation of status. It was the gentiles who mixed the mysticism of their demigods, etc. with that of the Jewish Christians and voila: Jesus the divine. They were wrong. So much scholarship has since been done by so many of every shade of belief/unbelief that believers can be quite comfortable with the historical Jesus who was regarded as divine by his earliest followers. Jesus as God was not an evolution of belief, it was an explosion beginning with his first Jewish disciples. Their movement was apparently electrified by another event which seemed to have occurred almost immediately after the crucifixion. The core of the new Jewish Christian belief was embodied in the hymn or chant of seemingly earliest date and quoted by Paul at a much later time in Philippians 2:6-11. This coincidentally has been one of my favorite scriptures because it contains the phrase “every knee shall bow and tongue confess” which echoes both the Old Testament and later Doctrine and Covenants. The history of much of this is summarized in the 2005 book by Larry Hurtado (professor emeritus University of Edinburgh) entitled “How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?” It is an interesting book if one has only read religion from LDS authors in the past. I found that when I arrived at the last page (p.234) I was still not sure of Mr. Hurtado’s personal religious beliefs: certainly no testimony bearing here. He probably came closest to it in the Epilogue when he stated the following while discussing “revelatory religious experiences”: “However unfamiliar one might be with such experiences, they should be included in any adequate historical account of the emergence of devotion to Jesus.”

    If I were to summarize a few of the most important and historical facts about Jesus that believers of the New Testament can be assured, without resorting to any faith whatsoever, it would be the following. (These would seem to be agreed upon by a majority of atheist/agnostic/believing scholars).
    1. The man Jesus was an actual historical person who lived in Palestine.
    2. He taught religion and apparently was thought by many, friend and foe, to have performed supernatural acts.
    3. He was crucified in around 30 CE and actually died at that time.
    4. His body went missing. His followers and the Jewish authorities differed significantly in their opinion as to why his body went missing.
    5. At tremendous cost to themselves (ostracism, life, and limb) his Jewish followers alleged locally and then fanned out into the empire to proclaim that this Jesus was yet alive and that they had interacted with him in very tangible ways.

    The only time faith needs to be summoned is if one chooses to believe, or not believe, those early Jewish disciples who alleged the He had risen from the dead by their own personal experience. I have chosen to throw my lot in with them.

    An enjoyable series of podcasts addressing these and other New Testament issues is available via the FAIR organization and is entitled “Is the Bible an authentic source of truth?” It is not actually sponsored by them and seems non-denominational in origin. I highly recommend the series.

  9. RE: rameumptom I’m not so sure that three of those four points are good examples of your point. With respect to LDS “doctrine” they aren’t that far off.

    1. “-The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.”
    Certainly the LDS understanding of what the “virgin” birth means is very different than what is implied in “traditional” Christianity. The scriptures state Mary says how can this be seeing as I have known no man? She was then “overshadowed” – we teach that Christ’s birth on this Earth was the result of some type of actual interaction (unspecified) between Mary and God the Father. She is a “virgin” because she has a baby without knowing any *mortal* man.

    2.”-The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.”
    Certainly there is a strain in LDS thought (Talmage) that states particles simply obey whatever laws hold, and when God wants to do a miracle he simply invokes “higher” laws. Very Newtonian viewpoint.

    3. “-The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.”
    Both the spiritual price and the physical price (death of both) had to be paid. The cross alone would not have been sufficient. Our GA;s tend to focus on the Garden much more so than the cross. And as we know at many times in our Church’s history members were actively counseled not wear or display crosses.

    4. “-Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.”
    This one is problematic – it is not consistent with LDS doctrine. Without a resurrection the whole thing is pointless.

    I guess I write the above just to point out that LDS beliefs are also very much outside of what is acceptable to traditional Christianity as well.

  10. John,

    Mormons believe in a virgin birth. Even Catholics and Protestants agree that “something happened” between God/Holy Ghost and Mary.

    The term “supernatural” means “above or beyond nature”. So if nature normally does things in a certain way, and God invokes a higher law to perform a miracle, it still is considered supernatural, because the higher law may be one that we are not easily aware of even today. Reviving a dead person can be done via medical means today, but in Jesus’ day they did not have such means – therefore bringing Lazarus back to life after 3 days is a supernatural act.

    The belief in the cross still holds for LDS, as well as other Christians. In fact, recently LDS are giving more recognition of what occurred on the cross. Just look at recent General Conf talks by Elder Holland and others concerning the cross. The atonement of Christ, whether done on the cross, Gethsemane, or both, is rejected by unbelievers.

    Stephen, I have followed Larry Hurtado’s writings and teachings for several years. He is definitely one of the top experts in New Testament studies.

  11. N.T. Wright is also very good, and like Larry Hurtado hails from the British Isles. Via the Mormon Discussion Website (from Bill Reel) you can download 4 of his lectures posted in October. Personally, I found him more interesting and inspirational on that website than Bill’s discussion of the historical Jesus with David Bokovoy. Dan Peterson gave an excellent 4 days of lectures at BYU Education Week this year which is comparable to all of the above but unfortunately, though I have poor recordings of them for my own use, will not be published until he has the time to write a book on the topic. We did pick up some of it previously from him during our tour of Israel in 2013. All in all, my wife and I could spend the rest of our lives happily studying the topic in Israel if we didn’t have to worry about food and rent money.

  12. I am bemused by those members who claim that our Church ignores or downplays the crucifixion. It is not the cross so much as the effects of the process that we hold most sacred. Perhaps it is because of the sacred nature of our acknowledgement of the crucifixion that we say so very little about it.

  13. Pat, thanks for the input. I agree that N.T. Wright is very compelling, especially since he often goes off the conventional Christian reservation and veers into LDS theology territory.
    As for the cross, I do believe there was a long period in the last century where LDS sought to distinguish themselves from Protestants by focusing on works over faith/grace, and Gethsemane over the cross. It also seems we tended to separate the spiritual from the physical, focusing on the spiritual atonement being in Gethsemane, with the physical suffering on the cross – when I believe it was one long continuation of spiritual/physical.

  14. The root of all “german scholarship” is the denial that man is created in the image of God and can ascend to His right hand. The essence of Christ’s message (and the restoration) is that man is perfectable and can through the principles of the gospel overcome the world and inherit a seat on Christ’s throne.

  15. We eschewed focusing on the cross because it’s a bit like venerating a picture of the mangled car in which your beloved spouse/child was maimed, rather than focusing on the spouse/child.

    However, when the original LDS apostles were in Catholic countries where people would refuse to read something that didn’t bear the imprimature of the Catholic Church (which I think included a cross), they came up with something similar, to help people know that the Book of Mormon was a book about the Savior. I think I came across that tidbit from reading Samuel W. Taylor’s book about John Taylor, though it might have been something I learned when I was on my mission in Italy.

    I did once try to give a nun a Book of Mormon, and she flipped open the cover and handed it back to me, explaining that she would not accept it as it didn’t contain the imprimature. The priest I approached while he wasn’t busy at the confessional in Rome also didn’t take the Book of Mormon I offered him, but I forget what his reason was. He was very polite about it though.

  16. I have no problem with using the cross as a symbol, even of personal adornment. The reason that I don’t wear one is because Madonna does.

    How sure are we that Gethsemane and Golgotha were two entirely separate events as to purpose? Could they not perhaps be bookends of a single continuous event? I have long conceived of Jesus as beginning to take fully upon him our sins in the Garden, but like the scapegoat anciently (see Leviticus 16), he carried those sins with him back into and then later outside the walls of Jerusalem and there was no release until his ultimate death upon the cross. Certainly, if he was still carrying those sins he would not be feeling His Father’s presence on the cross, which was actually the case. The shedding of his blood can certainly be seen as beginning in the Garden, continuing, and then ending on the cross. I have even wondered (pure speculation) if perhaps the full weight of all sins was placed upon the head of the Savior in the Garden by the laying on of hands (one might ask “who” and I have no idea…but this would echo Leviticus 16). Why did this happen in the Garden and not the Temple, as described in Leviticus? Perhaps because by the middle of the last week of the Savior’s life the temple was “left unto them desolate,” to paraphrase.

    My wife and I had our BYU professor “headliner” cornered late one evening at the hotel in Jerusalem in 2013. I asked him if I was completely weird as I presented all the above as being a plausible, educated, but speculative course of events. His reply was that, yes, I was weird, but not because of that as he had the same thoughts. Perhaps he just said that so we could all just retire for the evening to our own rooms.

    Enos once asked “Lord, how was it done?” (paraphrased). I have thousands of questions I want to ask at some far future day to someone with a higher pay grade than a BYU professor. Out of all of them, questions on the atonement are at the top of my list. To me it is the culminating event of existence, the one that makes the concept of “added upon” so sublimely beautiful.

  17. Stephen,

    I would think that John 19:30 may support your thoughts:

    “When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.”

    “It is finished” would be the proper statement at the end of a long, encompassing process. And that was clearly stated on the cross.

  18. I’ve been on a major C. S. Lewis kick lately. He addressed the faith/works debate once by remarking that asking whether faith or works was more vital to salvation was a lot like asking which blade of a pair of scissors was more important.

    Perhaps it is just as fruitless to question whether Gethsemane or the Cross is more vital. They are both crucial events pertaining to the Atonement. Both are mentioned as Messianic prophecies in both the Old Testament and in the Book of Mormon.

    In times past, I think we LDS tried to do a lot to distinguish ourselves from our mainline Christian brothers and sisters, and we downplayed the Cross in order to give proper emphasis to the sacredness of what happened in Gethsemane. Perhaps with such emphasis, we often lose focus on other verities. I think things are in better balance now.

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