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HandWiki. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 13 July 2024).
HandWiki. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed July 13, 2024.
HandWiki. "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" Encyclopedia, (accessed July 13, 2024).
HandWiki. (2022, November 03). The Quest of the Historical Jesus. In Encyclopedia.
HandWiki. "The Quest of the Historical Jesus." Encyclopedia. Web. 03 November, 2022.
The Quest of the Historical Jesus

The Quest of the Historical Jesus (German: Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, literally "History of Life-of-Jesus Research") is a 1906 work of Biblical historical criticism written by Albert Schweitzer during the previous year, before he began to study for a medical degree. The original edition was translated into English by William Montgomery and published in 1910. An expanded second German edition was published during 1913, containing theologically significant revisions and expansions. This expanded edition was not published in English until 2001.

historical criticism life-of-jesus leben-jesu-forschung

1. Presentation

In The Quest, Schweitzer reviews all prior work on the question of the "historical Jesus" starting with the late 18th century. He points out how Jesus' image has changed with the times and with the personal proclivities of the various authors. He concludes with his own synopsis and interpretation of what had been learned over the course of the previous century. He takes the position that the life and thinking of Jesus must be interpreted in the light of Jesus' own convictions, which he characterizes as those of "late Jewish eschatology", and that Jesus defies any attempt at understanding him by making parallels to the ways of thinking or feeling of modern men. In Schweitzer's view, Jesus genuinely believed that his ministry would bring about the end of history and did not see any prolonged period elapsing between his time on earth and God's final judgment.

The 1913 second edition of Quest included a rebuttal to the "mythicists" of his day, i.e. those scholars who maintain that no historical Jesus ever existed.[1]

1.1. The Position of the Subject at the Close of The Nineteenth Century

  • Oskar Holtzman.
  • Das Leben Jesu. Tubingen, 1901. 417 pp.
  • Das Messianitatsbewusstsein Jesu und seine neueste Bestreitung. Vortrag. (The Messianic Consciousness of Jesus and the most recent denial of it. A Lecture.) 1902. 26 pp. (Against Wrede.)
  • War Jesus Ekstatiker? (Was Jesus an ecstatic?) Tubingen, 1903. 139 pp.
  • Paul Wilhelm Schmidt.
  • Die Geschichte Jesu. (The History of Jesus.) Freiburg, 1899. 175 pp. (4th impression.)
  • Die Geschichte Jesu. Eriautert. Mit drei Karten von Prot. K. Furrer (Zurich). (The History of Jesus. Preliminary Discussions. With three maps by Prof. K. Furrer of Zurich.) Tubingen, 1904. 414 pp.
  • Otto Schmiedel.
  • Die Hauptprobleme der Leben-Jesu-Forschung. (The main Problems in the Study of the Life of Jesus.) Tubingen, 1902. 71 pp. 2nd ed., 1906.
  • Hermann Freiherr von Soden.
  • Die wichtigsten Fragen im Leben Jesu. (The most important Questions about the Life df Jesus.) Vacation Lectures. Berlin, 1904. 111 pp.
  • Gustav Frenssen.
  • Hilligenlei. Berlin, 1905. pp. 462-593: "Die Handschrift." ("The Manuscript"-in which a Life of Jesus, written by one of the characters of the story, is given in full.)
  • Otto Pfleiderer.
  • Das Urchristentum, seine Schriften und Lehren in geschichtlichem Zusammenhang beschrieben. (Primitive Christianity. Its Documents and Doc- trines in their Historical Context.) 2nd ed. Berlin, 1902. Vol. i., 696 pp.
  • Die Entstehung des Urchristentums. (How Primitive Christianity arose.) Munich, 1905. 255 pp.
  • Albert Kalthoff.
  • Das Christus-Problem. Grundlinien zu einer Sozialtheologie. (The Christ-problem. The Ground-plan of a Social Theology.) Leipzig, 1902.
  • Die Entstehung des Christentums. Neue Beiträge zum Christus-problem. (How Christianity arose. New contributions to the Christ-problem.) Leipzig, 1904. 155 pp.
  • Eduard von Hartmann.
  • Das Christentum des Neuen Testaments. (The Christianity of the New Testament.) 2nd revised edition of "Letters on the Christian Religion." Sachsa-in-the-Harz, 1905. 311 pp.
  • De Jonge.
  • Jeschua. Der klassische judische Mann. Zerstorung des kirchlichen, Enthullung des judischen Jesus-Bildes. Berlin, 1904. 112 pp. (Jeshua. The Classical Jewish Man. In which the Jewish picture of Jesus is unveiled, and the ecclesiastical picture destroyed.)
  • Wolfgang Kirchbach.
  • Was lehrte Jesus? Zwei Urevangelien. (What was the teaching of Jesus? Two Primitive Gospels.) Berlin, 1897. 248 pp. 2nd revised and greatly enlarged edition, 1902, 339 pp.
  • Albert Dulk.
  • Der Irrgang des Lebens Jesu. In geschichtlicher Auifassung dar- gestellt. (The Error of the Life of Jesus. An Historical View.) 1st part, 1884, 395 pp.; 2nd part, 1885, 302 pp.
  • Paul de Regla.
  • Jesus von Nazareth. German by A. Just. Leipzig, 1894. 435 pp.
  • Ernest Bosc.
  • La Vie esoterique de Jesus de Nazareth et les origines orientales da christianisme. (The secret Life of Jesus of Nazareth, and the Oriental Origins of Christianity.) Paris, 1902.[2]

2. Analysis

Schweitzer wrote that Jesus and his followers expected the imminent end of the world.[3][4] He became very focused on the study and cross referencing of the many Biblical verses promising the return of the Son of Man and the exact details of this urgent event, as it was originally believed that it would unfold. He noted that in the gospel of Mark, Jesus speaks of a "tribulation," with nation rising against nation, false prophets, earthquakes, stars falling from the sky, and the coming of the Son of Man "in the clouds with great power and glory." Jesus even tells his disciples when all this will happen: "Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done." (Mark 13:30) The same story is told in the gospel of Matthew, with Jesus promising his rapid return as the Son of Man, and again saying: "Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." Even St. Paul believed these things, Schweitzer observes (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4), and Schweitzer concludes that Christians of the first century theology literally believed in the imminent fulfillment of Jesus' promise.

Schweitzer writes that the many modern versions of Christianity deliberately ignore the urgency of the message that Jesus proclaimed. Each new generation hopes to be the one to see the world destroyed, another world coming, and the saints governing a new earth. Schweitzer thus concludes that the First Century theology, originating in the lifetimes of those who first followed Jesus, is both incompatible and very different from those beliefs later made official by the Roman Emperor Constantine in AD 325.

Schweitzer established his reputation further as a New Testament scholar with other theological studies including The Psychiatric Study of Jesus (1911) and his two studies of the apostle Paul, Paul and his Interpreters, and the more complete The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930). This examined the eschatological beliefs of Paul and (through this) the message of the New Testament.

3. Expanded Second Edition

Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, First translation of the 1913 2nd ed. (2001)

The Christ Myth was first published in 1909 by Arthur Drews on the Christ myth theory and the denial of the existence of a historical Jesus. To discuss Drews's thesis, Schweitzer added two new chapters in the 1913 second edition of his work, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. (Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, 2. Auflage, 1913)[5][6]

  • Ch. 22, (p. 451–499), "The New Denial of the Historicity of Jesus" (Die Neueste Bestreitung der Geschichtlichkeit Jesu) analyzes Drews's thesis, plus eight writers in support of Drews's thesis about the non-existence of Jesus: J. M. Robertson, Peter Jensen,[7] Andrzej Niemojewski, Christian Paul Fuhrmann,[8] W.B. Smith, Thomas Whittaker, G.J.P.J. Bolland, Samuel Lublinski. Three of them favor mythic-astral explanations.
  • Ch. 23 (p. 500–560), "The Debate About the Historicity of Jesus" (Die Diskussion über die Geschichtlichkeit Jesu), reviews the publications of 40 theologians/scholars in response to Drews, and mentions the participants in the Feb. 1910 public debate. Most of the publications are critical and negative. Schweitzer continues his systematic exposure of the problems and difficulties in the theories of the Bestreiter ("challengers') and Verneiner ("deniers") — the Dutch Radicals, J. M. Robertson, W. B. Smith and Drews – and the authenticity of Paul's epistles and Paul's historicity as well.

An examination of the claims for and against the historicity of Jesus thus reveals that the difficulties faced by those undertaking to prove that he is not historical, in the fields both of the history of religion and the history of doctrine, and not least in the interpretation of the earliest tradition are far more numerous and profound than those which face their opponents. Seen in their totality, they must be considered as having no possible solution. Added to this, all hypotheses which have so far been put forward to the effect that Jesus never lived are in the strangest opposition to each other, both in their method of working and their interpretation of the Gospel reports, and thus merely cancel each other out. Hence we must conclude that the supposition that Jesus did exist is exceedingly likely, whereas its converse is exceedingly unlikely. This does not mean that the latter will not be proposed again from time to time, just as the romantic view of the life of Jesus is also destined for immortality. It is even able to dress itself up with certain scholarly technique, and with a little skillful manipulation can have much influence on the mass of people. But as soon as it does more than engage in noisy polemics with 'theology' and hazards an attempt to produce real evidence, it immediately reveals itself to be an implausible hypothesis. (pp. 435–436)

4. Mistakes

"While Frazer did not doubt that Jesus had lived, or claim that Christians had invented the Jesus myth, his work became a source book of ideas and data for many who did. In fact, Schweitzer included Frazer in a list of scholars who 'contested the historical existence of Jesus'"[9] Similarly, John M. Robertson's position was clarified as being "The myth theory is not concerned to deny such a possibility [that Jesus existed as a human being]. What the myth theory denies is that Christianity can be traced to a personal founder who taught as reported in the Gospels and was put to death in the circumstances there recorded"[10]

5. Influence

This book established Schweitzer's reputation. Its publication effectively stopped for decades work on the Historical Jesus as a sub-discipline of New Testament studies. This work resumed however with the development of the so-called "Second Quest", among whose notable exponents was Rudolf Bultmann's student Ernst Käsemann.[11] Richard Webster writes that the messianic fantasies associated with the story of the crucifixion in the Gospels are perhaps still best understood by way of The Quest of the Historical Jesus.[12]


  1. Ehrman, Bart (2012). Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for the Jesus of Nazareth. HarperOne. p. 22. '
  2. Schweitzer, Albert; Burkitt, Francis Crawford (1910). "The Position of the Subject at the Close of The Nineteenth Century". The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. A. and C. Black. pp. 293–294. "Image of p. 293 & p. 294 at Google Books" 
  3. Ehrman, Bart D. (20 March 2012). Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. HarperCollins. pp. 11–. ISBN 978-0-06-208994-6. "I agree with Schweitzer’s overarching view, that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish prophet who anticipated a cataclysmic break in history in the very near future, when God would destroy the forces of evil to bring in his own kingdom here on earth." 
  4. "Review of "The Mystery of the Kingdom of God"". 
  5. error
  6. error
  7. Peter Christian Albrecht Jensen (1910). Hat der Jesus der Evangelien wirklich gelebt?: eine Antwort an Jülicher. Frankfurt am Main: Neuer Frankfurter Verlag. Google Books. 
  8. Fuhrmann, Christian Paul (1911) (in German). Der Astralmythos von Christus: Die Lösung der Christussage durch Astrologie. Mit 1 Sternkarte und 1 Sternskizze. Brandstetter. 
  9. "I especially wanted to explain late Jewish eschatology more thoroughly and to discuss the works of John M. Robertson, William Benjamin Smith, James George Frazer, Arthur Drews, and others, who contested the historical existence of Jesus." (Schweitzer, Albert (1931), Out of my life and thought: an autobiography, p. 125.) Bennett, Clinton (2001) In search of Jesus: insider and outsider images pg 205
  10. Robertson, Archibald (1946) Jesus: Myth or History?
  11. Zahl, Paul F.M. (2000). A Short Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan, United States: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 21. ISBN 0-8028472-9-3. 
  12. Webster, Richard (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press. p. 594. ISBN 0-9515922-5-4. 
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