Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus is in many ways one of the most important books of the twentieth century, although my guess is that few people would care to read it today. Perhaps because of the popularity of N. T. Wright, Schweitzer as a Historical Jesus scholar has seen something of a renaissance in recent years. Despite the overly-dramatic connotations, describing a search for the historical Jesus as a “Quest” has passed into common use in NT studies.
Schweitzer wrote his book as a critique of the “Lives of Jesus” movement in Germany. He surveys virtually every possible “life” that was written beginning with Remarius and subjects them to scathing criticism. For most contemporary readers, Quest for the Historical Jesus is the only way to read (in summary) the work of such German Protestants as Karl Bahrdt, who argued that Joseph of Arimetha and Nicodemus were Essenes. The Essenes were a shadowy “secret society” which took care of Jesus from childhood, taking him to Babylon from Egypt, where he was trained in medical skills and given a special “eye-cure” which he used to pretend to do miracles. The real problem is that Bahrdt lived nearly 100 years before the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, so he had little idea what the Essenes were.
Schweitzer argued the “Lives of Jesus” writers ignored the apocalyptic elements of Jesus’ teaching. They assumed a priori that Jesus was not interested in making apocalyptic statements, therefore these are dismissed out of hand. Against nearly the entire body of scholarship of the nineteenth century, Schweitzer argued that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who announced the end of the world was coming soon. This is perfectly acceptable if we understand the Jewish apocalyptic texts of the second temple period, which all seemed to look forward to the Messiah and his reign in the world. Of course, for Schweitzer, Jesus was a failed messianic prophet. He arrived at Jerusalem expecting the Kingdom to come and when it did not, he “threw himself on the wheels of history” and was crucified.
That Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet is essentially N. T. Wright’s view, except Wright defines apocalyptic better than Schweitzer and Wright does not see Jesus as a “failed prophet.” The death and resurrection is the ultimate vindication of Jesus as the Messiah. In fact, Schweitzer’s description of Jesus is not unlike my own approach. Jesus must be understood against the background of Second Temple Period Judaism, which certainly had apocalyptic and messianic elements.
Did Schweitzer succeed? In the years following the publication of The Quest, it is possible to say that he had little or no influence on the course of scholarship. In fact, post-World War scholarship drifted even further into skepticism with Rudolf Bultmann. Schweitzer’s real influence was on a generation of scholars who had at their disposal the Dead Sea Scrolls and wider range of Jewish literature of the Second Temple Period. As this material became widely available, there was more evidence that Jesus could be accurately described as an apocalyptic prophet.
Is it possible Schweitzer has more influence on contemporary “quests” for Jesus than most realize? Stanley Porter argued the much-debated Criterion of Authenticity are present in Schweitzer’s work and that the original Quest has “had a far more constructive impact than most have realized.” (Porter, “A Dead End or New Beginning?” page 34 in Jesus Research). I think Porter is correct; with the exception of N. T. Wright, few NT scholars recognize their debt to Schweitzer.