Strauss, David Friedrich

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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)

David Friedrich Strauss

views updated May 18 2018

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. □

Strauss, David Friedrich

views updated May 14 2018


Protestant theologian of the Tübingen school, the principal representative of the mythological interpretation of the Gospels through the application of the dialectic of G. W. F. hegel; b. Ludwigsburg, Germany, Jan. 29, 1808; d. there, Feb. 8, 1874. During his early years, Strauss embraced Hegelianism and made it the basis of all his subsequent speculative thought. His monumental two-volume work Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (Tübingen 183536) profoundly affected Gospel scholarship of the following century. Beginning with Hegel's rationalistic a priori philosophic tenets and prejudices against the supernatural, Strauss extended the mythological theory of W. de Wette to the Gospels by asking whether it is possible to accept their testimony as historical. Strauss answered in the negative. The Christ of faith exists as the product of a credulous mythcreating community. The Evangelical myth falls into two types: (1) pure myth arising from the messianic portrait of the OT and from the application of this portrait to Jesus; (2) historical myth consisting of highly mythologized stories embodying the popular aspirations of the community. Christianity is not destroyed in its internal essence, according to Strauss, by the Evangelical myth since all religion is based on ideas, not facts. These extreme views provoked a reaction that produced the liberal school (e.g.,J. E. renan, A. von harnack) that vainly attempted to recover the historical Jesus and ended in finding only an ideal, dynamic personality. In turn, there arose the eschatological school (still under the influence of Leben Jesu ) that forever lost hope of recovering the historical Jesus (e.g., A. Schweitzer). Other important works of Strauss were: Der alte und neue Glaube (Leipzig 1872) and Der Christus des glaubens und der Jesus der Geschichte (Berlin 1865) mit Nachwort (1873).

Bibliography: f. mussner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2 9:110809. e. schott, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 3 6:416417.

[j. e. lazur]

Strauss, David Friedrich

views updated May 21 2018

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.

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