Skip to main content
Select Source:

David Friedrich Strauss

David Friedrich Strauss

David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), the German historian and the most controversial Protestant theologian of his time, was one of the first to make a clear distinction between Jesus the historical figure and Jesus the subject of Christian belief.

David Strauss was a highly intelligent student at the famous Tübinger Stift, the school at which G. W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Hölderlin, and F. W. J. von Schelling had studied. As a theologian, he employed the dialectical method of Hegel. In 1835-1836 he wrote the book on the subject which was to concern him for the greater part of his life, the Life of Jesus. His main thesis was that the Jesus of biblical writings is not the real Jesus of history but a person transformed by the religious consciousness of Christians. Therefore, he stated that the basis of Christian belief and theology cannot be explained by scientific methods since Christianity is not based upon historical knowledge but upon a myth. Furthermore, it is impossible to analyze the life of Jesus under the aspects of a historical person and save his divine nature.

This book was a challenge to the entire Protestant theology of the time, and Strauss became intensely involved in polemics and discussions. Due to his reputation he was unable to obtain a teaching position at any university. He defended his theological position in many pamphlets, yet began to compromise to satisfy his critics. However, in a new book, Christian Doctrine in Its Historical Development and Its Struggle against Modern Science (1840-1841), he again stressed the scientific point of view in evaluating the Bible, the Church, and dogmas. He was convinced that the positions of Church and science could not be unified.

After 1841 he separated from his wife, withdrew from theology, and began a career as a writer. He concentrated on biographies of poets from southern Germany and history. Among his elegantly written biographies we find essays on A. J. Kerner, Eduard Mörike, J. L. Uhland, C. F. Schubart, and Voltaire. During the French-German war in 1870-1871, he corresponded with the French historian Ernest Renan. These letters were published and publicly discussed.

In 1864 Strauss again tried to cope with the problem of the life of Jesus but in a more moderate way. He accepted many of the arguments of his earlier enemies. But this new Life of Jesus was not challenging and did not attract the same attention as his work of 1836. In 1872 he again attacked the basis of Christian theology. His last book, The Old and New Faith, ordered his thoughts under four questions: Are we still Christians? Have we still religion? How do we conceive the world? How do we arrange our life? He denied that Christianity had any relevance for a modern, educated man. For religious feelings he substituted worship of the universe. The world should be understood in a scientific and materialistic way. Human life should be ordered by a concern for the good of man. This book was rejected almost unanimously by friends and opponents. The most famous attack was led by Friedrich Nietzsche. This reaction was the disappointment of Strauss's last years. He died in Ludwigsburg, the place of his birth, on Feb. 8, 1874.

Further Reading

Recommended for the study of the life and thought of Strauss are the relevant chapters in the following works: Sidney Hook, From Hegel to Marx (1936); Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, translated by W. Montgomery (1948); Karl Barth, Protestant Thought: From Rousseau to Ritschl, translated by B. Cozens (1959); and Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth-century Thought, translated by David E. Green (1964).

Additional Sources

Cromwell, Richard S., David Friedrich Strauss and his place in modern though, Fair Lawn, N.J., R. E. Burdick 1974. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"David Friedrich Strauss." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"David Friedrich Strauss." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/david-friedrich-strauss

"David Friedrich Strauss." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/david-friedrich-strauss

Strauss, David Friedrich

Strauss, David Friedrich (1808–74). German Protestant theologian and biblical critic. In 1835 he produced Das Leben Jesu Kritisch Bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, tr. 1846). This, it has been said, produced both fame and ruin: its radical ideas prevented any future employment (he was appointed to a chair at Zurich but could not actually exercise the post). His Christliche Glaubenslehre (1840, Christian Faith) was a hostile account of the unfolding of Christian doctrine; and Der alte und der neue Glaube (1872, The Old Faith and the New) expressed more of his disillusion and unhappiness, rejecting, for example, any hope of immortality. When he died, he was buried according to the instructions of his will, without any religious ceremony. In his Life of Jesus, Strauss exploited Hegel's distinction between ‘idea’ and ‘fact’, with ‘idea’ being the significance which transcends mere occurrence. Religions are communities of ‘meaning-making’, or, to use Strauss' own term, of myth-making. Myth did not mean (as it has come to mean colloquially) something false, but rather a way in which significance and meaning can be shared. Whatever happened in the case of Jesus, incomparably more important than his biography is the way in which his followers used the mythological opportunities in the Bible to expound his significance. Thus he was not ‘explaining away’ the supernatural, as he is often accused of doing; he was trying to show how the life of Jesus is embedded in the mythological codes of the time as a language of explication.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Strauss, David Friedrich." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Strauss, David Friedrich." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/strauss-david-friedrich

"Strauss, David Friedrich." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/strauss-david-friedrich

Strauss, David Friedrich

David Friedrich Strauss (dä´vēt frē´drĬkh shtrous), 1808–74, German theologian and philosopher. In Berlin he studied (1831–32) Hegelian philosophy. As tutor at Tübingen he lectured on Hegel, modern philosophy, and Plato. His Das Leben Jesu (2 vol., 1835–36) aroused much interest because it applied the "myth theory" to the life of Jesus, treated the Gospel narrative like any other historical work, and denied all supernatural elements in the Gospels. It was translated into English in 1846 by George Eliot. In 1839, Strauss was appointed to a post at the Univ. of Zürich, but public opposition prevented him from taking it. His other theological writings include Die Christliche Glaubenslehre (2 vol., 1840–41) and Der alte und der neue Glaube (1872; tr. The Old Faith and the New, 1873). His writings mark a turning point in the critical study of the life of Jesus. Strauss was also the author of critical biographies of Ulrich von Hutten (3 vol., 1858–60) and Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1862).

See study by H. Harris (1974).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Strauss, David Friedrich." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Strauss, David Friedrich." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/strauss-david-friedrich

"Strauss, David Friedrich." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/strauss-david-friedrich