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?