Friedrich Schleiermacher’s The Life of Jesus

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is arguably the most famous and influential Liberal Protestant Theologian, and the influence of his Systematic Theology The Christian Faith cannot be understated. Schleiermacher's On Religion was a wild success and is still read in many universities as an excellent introduction to his ideas, which was birthed out of lectures and discussions he had advocated to defend the Christian Church despite the criticisms of Liberal Protestantism. I've discussed both The Christian Faith and On Religion but have recently taken up a third, popular and influential book, titled The Life of Jesus

The Life of Jesus was assembled from Schleiermacher's lectures in 1832. Schleiermacher never published a Life of Jesus, but conducted several lecture series on this topic. The Life of Jesus that was published was constructed by Schleiermacher's notes that resembled journal entries that are expanded by including the lecture notes captures by his students that listened to Schleiermacher teach and expand on what was outlined in the notes. Schleiermacher's The Life of Jesus is consequently much easier to read due to the nature of it being second hand information (and a translation too) than the other works by Schleiermacher.

The Lives of Jesus

Many, many Lives of Jesus were written. What is a "Life of Jesus"? It's a critical biography of Jesus. Rationalism, Naturalism and other philosophies that developed out of the Enlightenment are incompatible with much of the content in the Bible, and the supernatural events like miracles and angelic appearances were attributed to mythos or legend. Liberal Protestant Theologians returned to the bible with a penknife and new lenses and attempted to purge the bible of its accretions and try to explain the events of Jesus' exceptional life in a way that was compatible with the philosophies of the 19th century. Each event in Jesus' life was reassessed and reexplained without the elements that were odious to the Philosophers of that age as such. The Lives of Jesus varied in the amount of redaction, which the most critical of all being David Strauss's Life of Jesus: Critically Examined. Strauss was deeply indebted to Schleiermacher's Life of Jesus as a foundation for his work, a work that disqualified Strauss from holding a position at any seminary at Europe and did much damage to all who read it at that time. 

An example from a Life of Jesus would be to discuss a miraculous sign such as the feeding the five thousand by presupposing that supernatural replication of the fish and loaves as an impossibility that was exaggerated by the Apostles or the Church, and to state that the original event involved Jesus providing an unknown food source to the people, and describe how the event may still be significant and had been altered into the version now standing in our bibles. A full understanding of Form Criticism came much later, so many of the two-source hypothesis and other current biblical criticism and textual criticism are not fully employed. 

Schleiermacher's Life of Jesus 

Schleiermacher, although not as critical as Strauss, wrote his Life of Jesus under the same Rationalistic and Naturalistic rubric. Schleiermacher, however, believes he is doing the Church a favor and consequently does not spill his ink in hatred. Much of his writings are constructive and give a fresh perspectives on the possible motives that the biblical characters may have entertained.

Schleiermacher begs the question of how Judas was chosen by Jesus and Schleiermacher's back-and-forth discussion asked many questions that indicated that Jesus couldn't have selected a disciple who was entirely evil, because Judas wasn't exposed as a devil until the night he was betrayed. Schleiermacher believed that Judas couldn't have fooled Jesus by hiding his corrupt character, for Jesus' genius would have seen through the facade. Yet, with Jesus' knowledge of Judas' betrayal, he believed that there must have been surprise that Jesus experienced when he discovered that Judas determined to betray him.

Lecture 58 (August 10, [1832]). The last discourses in [The Gospel of] John and the farewell rites of the Lord's Supper and foot-washing show that, despite this hesitation, CHrist clung to the conviction that this festival would mark his end. A parenthetical discussion of how John presents the matter. It is always difficult to combine John's silence about the Lord's Supper and its general introduction into the church at an early date. We cannot maintain that Christ's confident expectation depended only on Judas's project. We also cannot know how it came about that the fact about Judas's individual steps became known. It is improbable that he had always been a thief with the knowledge of the others. Their opinion seems to have been that Judas's decision was determined definitively by Christ's saying at the supper in Bethany. Christ could still have prevented the betrayal by going elsewhere. However, he would still have been found on the road to the Mount of Olives or some-where else in the neighborhood. The quiet and the inner strength that John describes are in sharp contrast to the prayer that has often been used to show Christ in a state of weakness that is not far from sin. No doubt he could have been concerned about the incompleteness of his disciples and could have wished for their sake to live longer, but not according to the discourses of John 16 or the prayer of John 17.

page 388, Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Life of Jesus (Lives of Jesus Series), ed. Leander E. Keck

This quotation is from Schleiermacher's own notes, and in it reveals that Schleiermacher did not have a need for the Cross or Justification and saw the death of Christ as something that may have been avoided. Also there's a bit of sympathy for Judas that also turns up in Karl Barth's Dogmatics, where Barth says the other disciples are guilty of the same thoughts and desires as Judas (imagine a little kid saying "so and so did it too.") It also reminds me of the so-called Gospel of Judas recently discovers which tries to define Judas as the Disciple whom Jesus Loved (irony since Schleiermacher uses the Gospel of John as his foundation) that is similar to the above sentiments. 

Schleiermacher constantly exposes our Docetic interpretation of Christ (almost to the error of Ebionism.) This demonstrates that we constantly interpret the bible in a way that denies Jesus' true humanity and all the fullness of humanity requires Jesus to have experienced doubt, grieve, dread, uncertainty, faith, hope, and a plethora of emotions and thoughts that a divine superman would not experience. This brings Christology to the center of our consideration of everything Jesus had done that is often simply attributed to miraculous signs. 

Another similar discussion is Schleiermacher's assessment of Jesus' relation to John the Baptist. Despite the birth narratives and the interaction between Mary and Elizabeth, when John the Baptist sees Jesus for the first time before he is to baptise Jesus, the Gospel of John indicates that John did not recognize or know Jesus. 

Lecture 22 (June 20, [1832]). The marvelous as related only to John and as not involving Christ is actually no concern of ours. The promise given to John can also be explained on the assumption that by it he was directed to observe the one who would eventually appear, and so he may have been wrong in believing that it was fulfilled by that appearance, whose connection with the saying of God rested only on his interpretation of it. [Accordingly perhaps also the later question, leaving its wholly spiritual interpretation out of consideration, that is involved in the words "he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit."] What is marvelous can be explained by the opening of heaven and the light of the apocryphal gospels as a light phenomenon. The reference tot he dove can be understood as a gentle indication either of form or of movement, and the statement that it would remain can only be interpreted as a gradual disappearance on Christ.

The idea that the baptism was an inauguration has obtained much support from the fact that the story of the baptism is followed by that of the temptation. The temptation story cannot be harmonized with the account in John's Gospel, unless we assume that these forty days were located between Christ's baptism and the message to John and that Jesus returned after the temptation to the area in which John was carrying on his work -- an assumption that runs counter to the narrative as we have it in Luke's Gospel. Since only Christ can have told the story, the variation in order in the different accounts is difficult to explain. (Elsewhere in our Gospels sayings of Christ exhibit the fewest differences.) We should have to assume that Christ had given separate accounts of the different temptations. However, even the separate temptation narratives are not to be viewed as historical accounts. The changing of stones into bread, if it were necessary, would not have been a sin. The casting of himself down from a pinnacle of the temple could have had no attraction for Christ.

pages 141-142, Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Life of Jesus (Lives of Jesus Series), ed. Leander E. Keck

I'd like to include one last quotation on Schleiermacher's assessment of Jesus's last words regarding "Forgive them for they know not what they have done" from the lecture notes taken by the students as a sample of what the expanded lecture content in the book resembles:

I should like to say a few words about another of Christ's sayings,for recently I have noticed a misunderstanding of it. It has been said that Christ's prayer, "Father, forgive them, for they known not what they do," can only refer to the men who personally took part in Christ's crucifixion, to the soldiers, but not to the actual authors of the act. This seems to me to be a very strange limitation of the meaning of Christ's words. Nothing had to be forgiven the soldiers, for no judgment of the morality or the legality of the execution could be passed by them. They could have their own personal feelings on the matter, but these could not influence their actions. They acted only in accordance with their profession. THey only carried out a mission that they were commanded by their superiors to perform. They had no right to avoid the duty thrust upon them. So it could not have been the soldiers whom Christ asked to be forgiven. On the contrary, they would have been open to blame if they had not done what they were bidden to do. No one could say that, in terms of the morality of their act, they did not known what they did. If they had had a feeling that Christ was treated unjustly, they could have done nothing more than fulfill the duty of their station against their will. So Christ could not have been referring to them as those who stood in need of forgiveness. It is impossible to deny this on the grounds that Christ's opponents did know what they were doing. They really did not know it, for they did not proceed on the presupposition that Christ was the Messiah. If they had had a conviction of what they were doing, their way of acting would not have appeared as it did. On the contrary, if they had regarded him as the Messiah, they would not have acted as they did. They would have let the matter take its natural course if they had not had the concern that actually determined their actions. 

pages 425-426, Friedrich Schleiermacher, notes of K. A. Rutenick, The Life of Jesus (Lives of Jesus Series), ed. Leander E. Keck

The above quotation goes on to say that the soldiers are also not guilty for crucifying the thieves next to Jesus. This interpretation makes great sense in light of Two Kingdoms understanding of God's endorsement of Governments (cf. Romans 13:1f.). 

The recorded notes from the lectures that follow each of the lecture notes are not as reliable and conflict with each other in the way in the common ways described by Textual Criticism. An interesting consequent is that the last lectures about the Resurrection and Ascension do not have hand written outlines like the rest of the book. It's notable that on pg 454 of my edition, the footnote says that although the lecture text affirms that Chapter 21 of John is authentic in Schleiermacher's recorded lecture, in a previous work Introduction to the New Testament presented a few months before, Schleiermacher wrote that he did not consider John 21 to be original but a later appendix. In the following sections, the Lecture notes clearly state that Schleiermacher believed that the resurrection was not just a resuscitation, but due to the second hand nature, this view of Schleiermacher cannot be verified. Albert Schweitzer wrote in his The Quest of the Historical Jesus that Schleiermacher believed only in a resuscitation to the chagrin of the editor Jack C. Verheyden of my edition. Verheyden was confident in the foot notes that Schleiermacher did believe in the resurrection.    


I suppose if you read Schleiermacher as an experiment to learn what may be learned by setting aside the supernatural to understand what more may be ascertained from the biblical testimonies, this book may be helpful in the end. However, I once read a quote that "It was the exalted Jesus, not the Historical Jesus that changed the world" and that's where the Lives of Jesus end. As Albert Schweitzer's critiques in his The Quest of the Historical Jesus made clear, Jesus cannot be removed from his apocalyptic discourses and Jesus was never a simple teacher of moral maxims and anyone who reads Jesus as the Historical Jesus will find the Jesus of History lost to them forever.

Reading the Lives of Jesus today is more of a historical lesson of what was once learned the hard way, and history has revealed that through the questers for the Historical Jesus, that the so-called Historical Jesus never existed, and the true Christ of Faith is the exhaled Jesus who continues to confound the wisdom of the age.

This probably explains why my paperback fell apart at the end and each page starting at the end tore off the page before until almost all the pages were gone.  A suiting parable in conclusion.

Related: , , , , , , , , , ,