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Strauss, David Friedrich


STRAUSS, DAVID FRIEDRICH (18081874), German biblical critic, man of letters, and freethinker. Strauss is best known for his monumental book The Life of Jesus (1835). In some fifteen hundred pages, half of which are devoted to an analysis of the miracle and the death-resurrection stories in the New Testament, he argued that neither a supernaturalistic nor a rationalistic interpretation of them is credible. Rather, these narratives should be regarded as the results of a naive, primitive mentality whose natural form of expression is myth. Under the flush of religious enthusiasm, messianic fervor, and the personal influence of Jesus, the early Christians applied specifically messianic myths and legends to Jesus. In short, the "logic" of the New Testament narratives is this: "When the expected messiah comes, he will do all these miraculous things; Jesus is the messiah; therefore, Jesus must have done these things." In a concluding section of the book, Strauss explored the implications of his historical-critical work for Christian theology. He argued that it is contradictory and untenable to attribute divine predicates to a single person, Jesus, but not to the entire species, humanity. It is humanity as a whole in which the infinite incarnates itself.

The book was an immediate sensation and provoked a century-long "quest for the historical Jesus" involving much controversy over the New Testament sources and the historical inferences legitimately to be drawn from them. It is often regarded as a watershed in the development of New Testament criticism, as well as the earliest significant statement of the importance of the eschatological element in the preaching of Jesus. Even though Strauss made concessions to his critics in two later editions of the book, he bitterly withdrew these in the final, fourth edition after being denied a professorship. For a brief period in the late 1830s, he identified himself with the Young Hegelians by contributing to Arnold Ruge's journal Hallische Jahrbücher, but he soon became disillusioned with their political radicalism.

Even though theologically radical, Strauss was always politically conservative and unhappy with the revolutionary tendencies in German society that erupted in 1848. "A nature such as mine was happier under the old police state," he once wrote. He briefly engaged in political affairs as a member of the Württemberg Landtag but resigned after a parliamentary dispute. He wrote several biographies of well-known historical figures, and in 1864 published a more popular Life of Jesus for the German People, which he expected would bring him acclaim but did not. He became increasingly more nationalistic and a supporter of German unification under Bismarck.

In his last book, The Old Faith and the New (1873), Strauss set forward his own worldview, which he believed to be representative of his time. He argued that an educated person can no longer be Christian but can be religious in the sense of having a piety toward the cosmos. He proposed a humanistic ethic compounded with his own conservative social views. The book was attacked by Christians but even more savagely by the young Nietzsche, who thought it to be the epitome of German cultural philistinism.


The standard German collection of Strauss's works is Gesammelte Schriften, 12 vols., edited by Eduard Zeller (Bonn, 18761878). Only three of Strauss's books are readily available in English. A new edition of George Eliot's famous translation of the fourth German edition of The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, edited, with critical notes and an introduction, by Peter C. Hodgson (Philadelphia, 1972), discusses and compares the various editions of the work. In Defense of My "Life of Jesus" against the Hegelians (Hamden, Conn., 1983) is a translation, with a very useful introduction, by Marilyn C. Massey of several of Strauss's polemical writings defending his famous work. The third is The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History: A Critique of Schleiermacher's The Life of Jesus, translated and edited, with an introduction, by Leander E. Keck (Philadelphia, 1977). A New Life of Jesus, 2 vols., was translated anonymously in 1865 (London), and The Old Faith and the New, translated by Mathilde Blind, appeared in 1874 (New York); both these works have long been out of print. The most extensive and eloquent discussion of the significance of Strauss's Life of Jesus for nineteenth-century theology and biblical criticism is found in Albert Schweitzer's famous work The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, translated by William Montgomery, 2d ed. (London, 1911). A useful short discussion of Strauss's significance for the Young Hegelians appears in William J. Brazill's The Young Hegelians (New Haven, 1970). The best biography of Strauss in English is by Horten Harris, David Friedrich Strauss and His Theology (Cambridge, 1973).

Van A. Harvey (1987 and 2005)

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