Albert Schweitzer’s Quest

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.

SchweitzerSchweitzer 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.


11 thoughts on “Albert Schweitzer’s Quest

  1. Interesting article, Phillip. Good to see Schweitzer getting some of his academic “due”. I’ve been disappointed (but not surprised) in surveying a few 20-something co-workers (and maybe some a bit older) to see if they even know who he was. That’s because, as your “Life Magazine” cover indicates, in and around the 50s and 60s, his was nearly a household name. He got the Nobel Piece Prize in 1952 for his philosophy expressed in “Reverence for Life” plus his long years of sacrificial medical service, administration, etc. in Africa and elsewhere.

    I don’t know if theologically he’s considered (by scholars) more a “liberal”, a maverick or just what. I personally don’t try to put him in a category, but he certainly was a remarkable, multi-accomplished (organist, organ builder, music scholar, medical doctor, missionary, biblical scholar, philosopher) and devoted, self-sacrificing man, well beyond his youthful days of writing “Quest…”

    The main thing I’d like to note here is that he wrote a sort of “sequel” to “Quest” about 45 (!) years later, entitled “The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity. I read it carefully a couple years ago and reviewed it on my blog. I had TRIED to read The Quest… and given up about 1/3 way thru, skimming other parts… very historical and technical, even for those of us with some pertinent background. The other book (not his only of the intervening years but the most “biblical”) was published only after his 1965 death, first in German (about 1966?) and in Eng. in about 1967. Now IT is a very readable book… so for an intro to the thought (and amazing insights) of Schweitzer I recommend it much more than the Quest book (tho it was indeed more of a seminal and “breakthrough” book).

    If one reads the later book (written in 1951 and set aside), it reveals that he apparently didn’t change many significant opinions or positions, but one he does note (in an extended footnote) is that about Jesus’ own view of his approaching death. Here is how I’ve earlier worded it (which I have to depend on rather than my memory):

    “…That point is a change in Schweitzer’s view of Jesus’ understanding of his death. He notes that while writing the various editions of his The Quest… he had believed that Jesus, ‘… in accordance with the [Suffering] Servant passages, regarded his vicarious sacrifice as an atonement. As the result of further study of late Jewish eschatology and the thought of Jesus on his passion, I find that I can no longer endorse this view.’ (p. 128…). He does develop reasons for this understanding in the text.

    It would be interesting to hear what you may know about the influence of this later book on scholarship on both the historical Jesus and on apocalyptic and Christian origins (esp. as related to “Kingdom of God” issues). I’ve not encountered much one way or another. It wasn’t written for a mainly scholarly audience… and is readable, as I say… but obviously a LOT of thought and study went into it. The man was a true genius, but not the type that obviously “knows it”. Whatever he saw in Jesus he seemed to emulate quite well.

    • I made a conscious effort to read through Quest before starting my PhD program since I thought no one doing Jesus research should be ignorant of the book. No one can devastate an opponent like a German scholar!

      Schweitzer wrote quite a few other books of interest to biblical studies, one on the psychology of Jesus and the Mysticism of Paul. (I just spent a few moments looking for my copy of his book on the Kingdom of God and it is not where I remember it….I hate misplaced books!) The later book, if I am not mistaken, was not very influential, but by the time it came out in English the world had moved on to literary studies.

  2. Albert Schweitzer’s book, “The Quest for Historical Jesus” has had a very large impact on the contemporary quests for Jesus. In his book, Albert published the first scholarly response to the “Lives of Jesus” which critiqued the authority of Jesus and tried to explain that the stories of Jesus were just myths and not theological practices. I didn’t know much about this book before I started doing research on it and I found that it wasn’t very popular right when it was published. The book, “Lives of Jesus” was much more popular even after his book was published. In fact, Professor Long explained that: “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”. This can be seen in a lot of cases, but this book made a large impact on how we see Jesus today. Looking back, it is hard to see that this scholarly response wasn’t as popular as it is today. I’m not saying that I believe every point that has been made in this book, but it is a great scholarly defense of Jesus’ authority. As explained, Albert Schweitzer was one of the first authors to show Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. I think Albert took the first few steps in proving the Historical significance of Jesus and his works. The only problem that I have with Schweitzer’s position is that he explained Jesus as a “failed prophet” because he was crucified. But there is so much proof that the death of Jesus was a part of God’s perfect plan. For example, the prophecy in Isaiah proves it by saying, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). I think by saying that Jesus is a failed prophet, means that he wasn’t meant to be crucified but it was all a part of God’s plan. All in all, Schweitzer took large steps that were very influential for our contemporary quest for Jesus.

  3. With my limited knowledge of Schweitzer’s scholarly work (mainly his last-published book, in 1967 – English lang.), I’m wondering if that latter book, as a sort of “sequel” to “The Quest…” may have had scholarly impact or if it was looked at as more a novelty or as something by a man past his prime? (He was around 76 at its writing… fairly old in that day, and dead before it was published.) Do you know much about how it was received and if it did have much influence on anyone in particular? (I found it both very readable and very educational, loaded with long Bible quotations… as a theologically-educated, biblically-informed lay person.)

    • As far as I know, his biblical studies are oft-quoted and rarely read outside of the Quest. The same is true for Bultmann, though.

      In my mind, he was seriously rehabilitated by N. T. Wright, who set up his Jesus and the Victory of God as two paths, one following Wrede through Bultmann to the Jesus Seminar, and the other from Schweitzer to W. D. Davis, Sanders, and the New Perspective on Paul, and finally his work. Basically, was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet or not? Schweitzer through Wright said he was, Wrede through the JS say no.

      I would throw Dale Allison (Constructing Jesus) on the Apocalyptic side, and may others.

      • Thanks Phillip. It seems unless one places oneself seriously in the flow of a given set of issues (even more specific than just works on the historical Jesus) and reads extensively, it is tough to know who really influences whom, or influences an entire field or sub-field. That is whether one is a formal student (PhD track) and/or a professor, or is an “amateur”.

        Am I right to presume that much of where one falls re. “apocalyptic prophet” or not relates to whether one sees much of Jesus’ actual voice coming through in the Gospels (and the tiny bit or inferences from Paul)? Seeing little as coming through, and most as later “putting words in his mouth” by the early believers and Gospel writers moves one away from the Apocalyptic position? Is this the core of the issue?

        I definitely lean to the Apol. side, but I do doubt seriously that the “predictions” of the fall of Jeru. and destr. of the Temple were said like that by Jesus. Maybe, but seems too tempting to have interjected that back in after the fact… “earth-changing” as it was. (And I seriously doubt that Jesus’ direct disciples survived the war, at least as living in Palestine or around the Gospel writers, to have either validated or challenged such “quotations”…. Paul uses that kind of validation re. “appearances” of Jesus to original disciples/Apostles… tho not necessarily bodily ones… but that was before the troubles heated up sometime after 62 and particularly after the siege of Jeru. began in 69.)

  4. Looking at this in two different aspects, either Jesus was a failed prophet, as Schwietzer thought, or he truly was the Messiah that he was.When humans try to figure some thing like this out they will always fall short because human reasoning has nothing to do with faith, which obviously Schwiezer did not have.

    • Donorongg, Just what do you mean that “obviously Schwei[t]zer did not have [faith]”? On what basis do you know that? And regarding what aspect of faith? For example, what have you read of his writings or about his life?

      Whether or not Schwietzer’s faith was of the content or “type” as any of us, I think it’s pretty hard to deny that he lived a life of powerful faith (and devotion, self-sacrifice).

    • Actually, he had a quite vibrant faith that led him to be a pioneering medical missionary! I also think he was wrong on that point, but his “faith” is not an issue

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