Strauss's Life of Jesus has been demonized until this day, and the responses to it are as polarized today as they were in Strauss's own life time. The publication of The Life of Jesus, received such a strong negative reaction that he disqualified from employment by all the Universities and the Church. If he lived today, Strauss may have been a bishop in the Episcopal Church, so it may have been better for him, but it may have been worse if he lived in Calvin's Geneva! (I love Calvin, don't worry!)
D.F. Strauss is a disciple of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and the Life of Jesus, Critically Examined is dependent on Schleiermacher's A Critical Essay on the Gospel of St. Luke and on Dr. Heinrich Paulus (1761 – 1851) with almost every page containing a citation from Schleiermacher or Dr. Paulus. Schleiermacher wrote his own Life of Jesus and believed that the Gospel of John had priority over the other gospels, and that the Gospel of Luke was the preferred synoptic gospel (I've previously reviewed Schleiermacher's Life of Jesus) and this presupposition is assumed by Strauss. Today, the priority of the Gospel of Mark is assumed by the academic community, contra Schleiermacher, and this isn't seen as undermining Strauss' critical work, but ricocheting Strauss's criticism of the synoptics to Strauss's favored Fourth Gospel.
Soon, two hundred years will have passed since the first printing of Strauss' Life of Jesus, so there are other more important and recent works on the Quest for the Historical Jesus. My personal favorites are Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus and N.T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God. In retrospect, the pendulum swung to far toward rationalism in Strauss's Life of Jesus and has swung back towards, as Anselm might say, fides quaerens intellectum ("faith seeking understanding"). Strauss has fallen into the very chasm he wished to free himself, because he exchanged the historical Jesus for the enlightened, exulted Jesus of Rationalism. Then again, I am falling into the hyper critical response to Strauss without appreciating the help he has provided us in knowing Christ. I believe in the resurrection, as the creed says, so the rational program that dismisses supernatural has an a priori presupposition against the object of my faith. Even if Strauss has been rendered a Judas, Judas' betrayal facilitated the death and resurrection of Jesus! (pace. the Gospel of Judas).
I was traveling from Indian side of the Himalayas to Seattle today, and I sat next to a girl from Germany, and asked her if she was familiar with Friedrich Schleiermacher or D.F. Strauss, and she said everyone in Germany knows Schleiermacher and Strauss (but not Barth!). I explained to her that the Bible is polarized today between the Inerrantists and Rationalists. It's like a soldier who has an infected wound on his arm, where the Inerrantist (Biblicist) denies that the infected exists and the Rationalists (Strauss) chooses to amputate the arm!
Today, John Dominic Crossan's The Historical Jesus and Robert Funk's (of the Jesus Seminar) The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus may be my contemporary equivalents of D.F. Strauss on the extreme skeptical-rational side, and one of my favorite Roman Catholic theologians Raymond E. Brown on the 'orthodox' Catholic side in his books The Birth of the Messiah and The Death of the Messiah. Crossan once compared himself to Brown by saying that he believed that the Bible represented 20% historicity and Brown 80%. Although Raymond E. Brown and N.T. Wright may be more relevant today, it was Strauss's method that initiated the historical-critical method that has been so productive until this day.
Strauss's Life of Jesus is an 800 page behemoth that is reminiscent of Tatian's Diatessaron in that Strauss has combined and reduced the four Gospels into a single biography of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. It's helpful to remember that as Tatian's Diatessaron came to the pinnacle of its popularity the Church rejected it in order to retain the four witnesses. My point is that we should never allow a compendium or assimilation of the kerygmatic witnesses to replace the Gospels themselves. Strauss' thorough combing over of the four Gospels demonstrate all the problems that exist in the text, but a warning should always follow that the problems uncovered are due to reading the Scriptures in a way that they were not intended, no matter how productive it may be.
In the following long quotation from the Introduction of The Life of Jesus, Strauss explains his historical-critical method. It provides several examples, that I will quote at length instead of providing selections from the book. It's a better explanation in Strauss' own words than I planned to summarize:
§16 Criteria By Which To Distinguish The Unhistorical In The Gospel Narrative
Having shown the possible existence of the mythical and the legendary in the Gospels, bob on extrinsic and intrinsic grounds, and defined their distinctive characteristics, it remains in conclusion to inquire how their actual presence may be recognized in individual cases?
The mythus presents two phases: in the first place it is not history; in the second it is fiction, the product of the particular mental tendency of a certain community. These two phases afford the one a negative, the other a positive criterion, by which the mythus is to be recognized.
Negative. That an account is not historical – that the matter related could not have taken place in the manner described is evident,
First. When the narration is irreconcilable with the known and universal laws which govern the course of events. Now according to these laws, agreeing with all just philosophical conceptions and all credible experience, the absolute cause never disturbs the chain of secondary causes by single arbitrary acts of interposition, but rather manifests itself in the production of the aggregate of finite causalities, and of their reciprocal action. When therefore we meet with an account of certain phenomena of events of which it is either expressly stated or implied that they were produced immediately by God himself (divine apparitions – voices from heaven and the like), or by human beings possessed of supernatural powers (miracles, prophecies), such an account is in so far to be considered as not historical. And inasmuch as, in general, the intermingling of the spiritual world with the human is found only in unauthentic records, and is irreconcilable with all just conceptions; so narratives of angels and of devils, of their appearing in human shape and interfering with human concerns, cannot possibly be received as historical.
Another law which controls the course of events is the law of succession, in accordance with which all occurrences, not excepting the most violent convulsions and the most rapid changes, follow in a certain order of sequence of increase and decrease. If therefore we are told of a celebrated individual that he attracted already at his birth and during his childhood that attention which he excited in his manhood; that his followers at a single glance recognized him as being all that he actually was; if the transition from the deepest despondency to the most ardent enthusiasm after his death is represented as the world of a single hour; we must feel more than doubtful whether it is a real history which lies before us. Lastly, all those psychological laws, which render it improbable that a human being should feel, think and act in a manner directly opposed to his own habitual mode and that of men in general, must be taken into consideration. As for example, when the Jewish Sanhedrim are represented as believing the declaration of the watch at the grave that Jesus was risen, and instead of accusing them of having suffered the body to be stolen away whilst they were asleep, bribing them to give currency to such a report. By the same rule it is contrary to all the laws belong to the human faculty of memory, that long discourses, such those of Jesus given in the fourth Gospel, could have been faithfully recollected and reproduced.
It is however true that effects are often far more rapidly produced, particularly in men of genius and by their agency, than might be expected; and that human beings frequently act inconsequently, and in opposition to their general modes and habits; the two last mentioned tests of the mythical character must therefore be cautiously applied, and in conjunction only with the tests.
Secondly. An account which shall be regarded as historically valid, must neither be inconsistent with itself, not in contradiction with other accounts.
The most decided case falling under this rule, amounting to a positive contradiction, is when one account affirms what the other denies. Thus, one gospel represents the first appearance of Jesus in Galilee as subsequent to the imprisonment of John the Baptist, whilst another Gospel remarks, long after Jesus had preached both in Galilee and in Judea, that “John was not yet cast into prison.”
When on the contrary, the second account, without absolutely contradicting the first, differs from it, the disagreement may be merely between the incidental particulars of the narrative; such as time, (the clearing of the Temple,) place, (the original residence of the parents of Jesus;) number, (the Gadarenes, the angels at the sepulchre;) names, (Matthew and Levi;) or it may concern the essential substance of the history. In the latter cases, sometimes the character and circumstance in one account differs altogether from those in another. Thus, according to one narrator, the Baptist recognizes Jesus as the Messiah destined to suffer; according to the other, John takes offence at his suffering condition. Sometimes an occurrence is represented in two or more ways, of which one only can be consistent with the reality; as when one account Jesus calls his first disciples from their nets whilst fishing on the sea of Galilee, and in the other meets them in Judea on his way to Galilee. We may class under the same head instances where events or discourses are represented as having occurred on two distinct occasions, whilst they are so similar that is impossible to resist the conclusion that both the narratives refer to the same event or discourse.
It may be here asked: is it to be regarded as a contradiction if one account is wholly silent respecting a circumstance mentioned by another? In itself, apart from all other considerations, the argumentum ex silentio is of no weight; but it is certainly to be accounted of moment when, at the same time, it may be shown that had the author known the circumstance he could not have failed to mention it, and also that he must haven known it had actually occurred.
Positive. The positive character of legend and fiction are to be recognized sometimes in the form, sometimes in the substance of the narrative.
If the form be poetical, if the actors converse in hymns, and in a more diffuse and elevated strain than might be expected from their training and situations, such discourses, at all events, are not to be regarded as historical. The absence of these marks of the unhistorical do not however prove the historical validity of the narration, since the mythus often wears the most simple and apparently historical form: in which case the proof lies in the substance.
If the contents of a narrative strikingly accords with certain ideas existing and prevailing within the circle from which the narrative proceeded, which ideas themselves seem to be the product of preconceived opinions rather than of practical experience, it is more or less probable, according to circumstances, that such a narrative is of mythical origin. The knowledge of the fact, that the Jews were fond of representing their great men as the children of parents who had long been childless, cannot but make us doubtful of the historical truth of the statement that this was the case with John the Baptist; knowing also that the Jews saw predictions everywhere in the writings of their prophets and poets, and discovered types of the Messiah in all the lives of holy men recorded in Scriptures; when we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of these prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical.
The more simple characteristics of the legend, and of additions by the author, after the observations of the former section, need no further elucidation.
Yet each of these texts, on the one hand, and each narrative on the other, considered apart, will rarely prove more than the possible or probable unhistorical character of the record. The concurrence of several such indications is necessary to bring about a more definite result. The accounts of the visit of the Magi, and of the murder of the innocents at Bethlehem, harmonize remarkably with the Jewish Messianic notion, built upon the prophecy of Balaam, respecting the star which should come out of Jacob; and with the history of the sanguinary command of Pharaoh. Still this would not alone suffice to stamp the narratives as mythical. But we have also the corroborative facts that the described appearance of the star is contrary to the physical, the alleged conduct of Herod to the psychological laws; that Josephus, who given in other respects so circumstantial an account of Herod, agrees with all other historical authorities in being silent concerning the Bethlehem massacre; and that the visit of the Magi together with the flight into Egypt related in the one Gospel, and the presentation in the temple related in another Gospel, mutually exclude one another. Wherever, as in this instance, the several criteria of the mythical character concur, the result is certain, and certain in proportion to the accumulation of such grounds of evidence.
It may be that a narrative, standing alone, would discover but slight indications, or perhaps, might present no one distinct feature of the mythus; but it is connected with others, or proceeds from the author of other narratives which exhibit unquestionable marks of a mythical or legendary character is restricted to those features of the narrative, upon which such character is actually stamped; and whether a contradiction between two accounts invalidate one account only, or both? That is to say, what is the precise boundary line between the historical and the unhistorical? – the most difficult question in the whole province of criticism.
In the first place, when two narratives mutually exclude one another, one only is thereby proved to be unhistorical. If one be true the other must be false, but though the one be false the other may be true. Thus, in reference to the original residence of the parents of Jesus, we are justified in adopting the account of Luke which places it at Nazareth, to the exclusion of that of Matthew, which plainly supposes it to have been at Bethlehem; and, generally speaking, when we have to choose between two irreconcilable accounts, in selecting as historical that which is the least opposed to the laws of nature, and has the least correspondence with certain national or party opinions. But upon a more particular consideration it will appear that, since one account is false, it is possible that the other may be so likewise: the existence of a mythus respecting some certain point, shows that the imagination has been active in reference to that particular subject; (we need only refer to the genealogies;) and the historical accuracy of either of two such accounts cannot be relied upon, unless substantiated by its agreement with some other well authenticated testimony.
Concerning the different parts of one and the same narrative: it might be thought for example, that though the appearance of an angel, and his announcement to Mary that she should be the Mother of the Messiah, must certainly be regarded as unhistorical, still, that Mary should have indulged this hope before the birth of the child, is not in itself incredible. But what should be excited this hope in Mary’s mind? It is at once apparent that that which is credible in itself is nevertheless unhistorical when it is so intimately connected with what is incredible that, if you discard the latter, you at the same time remove the basis on which the former rests. Again, any action of Jesus represented as a miracle, when divested of the marvelous, might be thought to exhibit a perfectly naturally occurrence; with respect to some of the miraculous histories, the expulsion of devils for instance, this might with some limitation, be possible. But for this reason alone: in these instances, a cure, so instantaneous, and effected by a few words merely, as it is described in the Gospels, is not psychologically incredible; so that, the essential in these narratives remain untouched. It is different in the case of the healing of a man born blind. A natural cure could not have been effected otherwise than by a gradual process; the narrative states the cure to have been immediate; if therefore the history be understood to record a natural occurrence, the most essential particular is incorrectly represented, and consequently all security for the truth of the otherwise natural remainder is gone, and the real fact cannot bet discovered without the aid of arbitrary conjecture.
The following examples will serve to illustrate the mode of deciding win such cases. According to the narrative, as Mary entered the house and saluted her cousin Elizabeth, who was then pregnant, the babe leaped in her womb, she was filled with the Holy Ghost, and she immediately addressed Mary as the mother of the Messiah. This account bears indubitable marks of an unhistorical character. Yet, it is not, in itself, impossible that Mary should have paid a visit to her cousin, during which everything went on quite naturally. The fact is however that there are psychological difficulties connected with this journey of the betrothed; and that the visit, and even the relationship of the two women, seem to have originated entirely in the wish to exhibit a connexion between the mother of John the Baptist, and the mother of the Messiah. Or when in the history of the transfiguration it is stated, that the men who appeared with Jesus on the Mount were Moses and Elias: and that the brilliancy which illuminated Jesus was supernatural; it might seem here also that, after deducting the marvelous, the presence of two men and a bright morning beam might be retained as the historical facts. But the legend was predisposed, by virtue of the current idea concerning the relation of the Messiah to these two prophets, not merely to make any two men (whose person, object and conduct, if they were not what the narrative represents them, remain in the highest degree mysterious) into Moses and Elias, but to create the whole occurrence; and in like manner not merely to conceive of some certain illumination as a supernatural effulgence (which, if a natural one, is much exaggerated and misrepresented), but to create it at once after the pattern of the brightness which illuminated Moses on Mount Sinai.
Hence is derived the following rule. Where not merely the particular nature and manner of an occurrence is critically suspicious, its external circumstances represented as miraculous and the like; but where likewise the essential substance and groundwork is either inconceivable in itself, or is in striking harmony with some Messianic idea of the Jews of that age, then not the particular alleged course and mode of the transaction only, but the entire occurrence must be regarded as unhistorical. Where on the contrary, the form only, and not the general contents of the narration, exhibits the characteristics of the unhistorical, it is at least possible to suppose a kernel of fact actually exists, or in what it consists; unless, indeed, it be discoverable from other sources. In legendary narratives, or narratives embellished by the writer, it is less difficult, – by divesting them of all that betrays itself as fictitious imagery, exaggeration, etc. – by endeavoring to abstract from theme every extraneous adjunct and to fill up every hiatus – to succeed, proximately at least, in separating the historical groundwork.
The boundary line, however, between the historical and the unhistorical, in records, in which as in our Gospels this latter element is incorporated, will every remain fluctuating and unsusceptible of precise attainment. Least of all can it be expected that the first comprehensive attempt to treat these records from a critical point of view should be successful in drawing a sharply defined line of demarcation. In the obscurity which criticism has produced, by the extinction of all lights hitherto held historical, the eye must accustom itself by degrees to discriminate objects with precision; and at all events the author of this work, wishes especially to guard himself in those places where he declares he knows not what happened, from the imputation of asserting that he knows that nothing happened.
Strauss, David Friedrich, tr. George Eliot. The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. Cambridge: CUP, 2010. 87-92. Print.