04 May, 2006

Lives of Jesus: books

Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Life of Jesus, 1832.
David Strauss, The Life of Jesus, 1835.
Ernest Renan, The Life of Jesus, 1863.

Biographies of the Christ from the nineteenth century: the perpetual suggestion of unreligious experience. I was curious to see how these compared. Readers be warned, it's going to be a long one.

I began with the Frenchman, whose work was translated anonymously almost immediately after publication. A trained Catholic priest, Renan was more interested in philology, social science and liberal politics, and came to promote an Erasmian position of piety without dogma; he explicitly argues that dogmatism is out of place in a work of history. Renan denies the truth of Christ's miracles, calling the supernatural accounts in the Gospels "a violence done to him by his age, a concession forced from him by a passing necessity"—but he refuses to deny (or affirm) the Resurrection itself. His Life glows with a humanist sensibility: from its Ruskinian periods and literary rhapsodies on the natural beauty of Galilee, to its focus on the sociohistorical contexts of Christ's life. Most of all, like a good and self-aware humanist, Renan insists on the value of rhetoric and myth-making (this is response to Strauss); he questions the dogmatic reliance on a scientific standard of truth, or the equation of the true and the good. Thus, although much was fabricated by the Evangelists, ultimately "nothing great has been established which does not rest on a legend". Similarly, although he is himself a moderate, he appreciates the significance of appropriate radicalism: "All the great things of humanity have been accomplished in the name of absolute principles". Thus, Renan's Christ is a fiery Romantic hero, and also the prophet of a religion of humanity, the culminating development of the religious principle in history. Much ink is spilt in condemnation of the legalistic Jews—this, of course, in the great tradition.

Renan's work encapsulates its intellectual context: mid-century high imperialism, its doctrine of moral progress deriving from a Hegelian historicism shorn of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. It has much the same flavour as British works of the period, polemical, idealistic but not naive about religious matters. The works of Schleiermacher and Strauss also reflect their milieu: the tradition of German academic philosophy, moving away from the formal metaphysics of Kant and Hegel, and towards the rising disciplines of philology (Franz Bopp and Friedrich Diez) and Higher Criticism (W. M. L. De Wette and Georg Heinrich Ewald). Thus the two German texts are written in a dry, methodical style, concentrating on methodological problems without any of Renan's lyrical outpourings, or any of his politics.

Schleiermacher was one of the first to give historical lectures on the New Testament; Strauss, as Albert Schweitzer would put it, "filled in the death-certificates of a whole series of explanations which, at first sight, have all the air of being alive, but are not really so." These explanations were the orthodox supernaturalist accounts of Christ's miracles, and the fashionable rationalist claims that the miracles could be explained away as normal events misunderstood. Strauss' work was the watershed: we see its importance even in its translators, as George Eliot put it into English (1846), and the great lexicographer Emile Littré rendered the French (1840). And though Strauss took issue with the conclusions of Schleiermacher, it is evident that the latter had the Pisgah sight of the former's breakthrough.

The central problem for Schleiermacher was that of describing historically an individual whose historicity is decidedly ambiguous. We understand most historical figures as affected (even created) by their social and cultural context; our insight into their character must therefore come from an intuition based on contextual knowledge. But Christ is unchanging, the hypostasis of an eternal God; how can he be affected at all by the vicissitudes of human context? Schleiermacher concludes that for the sake of a history, we must treat him as if human, that 'as if' being the characteristic of a post-Kantian writer, who accepts the hypothetical, suspended nature of his claims. Kantian too is the refusal to accept the Chalcedonian human-divine conjunction on faith: either the human or the divine nature of Christ must collapse into the other, just as with Kant's metaphysical antinomies (eg. free will / determinism). Once beyond these methodological issues, Schleiermacher ploughs through the Gospels, demonstrating inconsistencies and impossibilia; he accepts the Gospel of John as authentic, and always trusts this over the others. His Christ can do miracles, though these are occasional and of a moral rather than thaumaturgical character; Christ need not speak aloud to calm the storm. Schleiermacher invokes grammatical analysis, for instance to explain Pilate's use of the word basileus (king) to Christ, suggesting that the actual word had been rex, without religious connotations. And he foresees Strauss' symbolic analysis in his account of the rending of the temple veil at Christ's death; had this actually happened, he reasons, the priests would have covered it up and nobody would have known. Thus the eyewitness account must have been symbolic, misunderstood as the literal truth. Schleiermacher's Jesus ends up as an ideal of humanity, to be taken as the perfect man, rather than as the Son of God.

Strauss' own Life was clearly inspired by Schleiermacher's example. He begins with a different methodological problem, giving a historical account of the conflict between simple, 'untheological' faith and the developing rationalism of complex societies; hence the Alexandrians on Homer's pantheon, Philo on the Old Testament, Origen on the New Testament, and Euhemerus, down to the scholars of modern Germany. Kant, like William of Ockham and other sceptics, had famously 'denied knowledge to make room for faith'. The orthodox dogmatists would not accept reason and historical method, and the rationalists could not harmonise their beliefs with a genuine faith; their Christianity was no Christianity at all. Strauss wanted to harmonise faith and reason, and found himself unable to do so. Thus at the beginning of his Life he draws up a series of methods for detecting the unhistorical elements of the Gospels, searching for the impossible and inconsistent; at every turn he concludes that the unhistorical is no mistake, not the blindness of simple minds, but a calculated and cynical effort to construct rhetorically a Christ who would tally with messianic expectations from the Old Testament, so as to promote belief. Thus the narrated events become symbolic, or rather mythical, in the classical sense of the term. Strauss expends 700 pages accounting for every event of the Gospels in terms of this basic theory, and at the end of it, he still admits defeat at reconciling faith and reason, though he denies the success of those before him. Ultimately, Strauss' Christ can only be a useful fiction, propagated for the purposes of converting a primitive audience to a doctrine which would be historically beneficial. The Hegelian emerges here: as modern, Enlightened thinkers, we no longer need the simple fictions of the Scriptures to embrace a true religion of the Spirit.

See here for Jesus in the cinema.


John Cowan said...

Frye points out that Renan points out that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth, the reference to his being born in Bethlehem being inserted to satisfy a scriptural prophecy, but Frye then ripostes that the reference to his growing up in Nazareth is only inserted to satisfy a scriptural prophecy.

You can't win.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Certainly not!