The earlier days of the search for an historical Jesus were heady.
Reimarus, like many others of his time, thought that truth could be discovered
by reason alone. He was part of what we now often call the "Enlightenment" - a
term drawn from the German aufklarung ("making clear") and the French
les lumieres ("the lights").
He was born in Hamburg and studied theology at Jena. He was one of many
German thinkers in the forefront of the "enlightened" approach to the Christian
faith. He and others wondered if the Church had placed a wrong emphasis on the
person of Jesus. He thought that Jesus may have been a simple religious teacher
rather than the divine figure of traditional doctrine.
The questions raised by Reimarus are still being asked in the 21st century.
Some perhaps find it surprising that traditional teachings should have been
doubted in these terms quite so many years ago.
Reimarus took his initial inspiration from the philosopher Christian Wolff
(1679-1754), a German rationalist. Wolff's strength was less in original
thought, and more in his ability to formulate contemporary philosophy into a
coherent system. His system aimed to contain nothing that didn't follow from
self-evident axioms or preceding truth.
Reimarus earned his living as a university lecturer (Wittenberg) and as a
teacher of oriental languages at the Johannes Gymnasium in Hamburg. He began his
serious writing only at the age of 60. Perhaps for that reason he wrote in a
relatively simple style which was unusual for his time.
In an age and country where philosophy was thought by many to be a path to
certainty, Reimarus thought that mathematics was the only valid and complete
system of knowledge. He tried to simplify the tortuous propositions of formal
logic. Knowledge, he said, is a function of common sense. Life can't be
explained using mechanical formulae or propositions.
Perhaps his most important work was in what we today term biology. He
attempted to classify the instincts of animals. He thought that their simple
schemes of inherited behaviours might be the basis for human morality.
Philosophy for Reimarus has a moral aim - the promotion of the happiness and
perfectibility of humans. He was among the first of a long line of German
philosophers and theologians who concluded that the essence of Christianity was
its moral lessons.
Reimarus constructed an essentially secular Jesus using the same New
Testament evidence which had provided the traditional theological portrait of
Jesus. His study of the Bible lead him to point out discrepancies between, and
within, the Old and New Testaments. He refused to accept the Bible as the
revealed Word of God. His radical refutation of revelation - the fundamental
basis of traditional theology in his times as today - differed from similar
contemporary approaches. Many attacked traditional teachings in a speculative,
superficial way. Others used inadequate historical arguments. Reimarus
scholarship was much more historically sound.
He argued that the Gospels were not history but theological exposition by
their authors. The accounts of the miracles of Jesus and his resurrection were,
he thought, forgeries by the Apostles. The term "forgery" assumes an intent to
defraud. We now recognise that this was not a motive of those who wrote the
Gospels. Rather, they thought about truth in a way very different to our own,
and to that of Reimarus.
The authors of the Gospels had little or no concern with history. They were
mainly interested in providing and then elucidating a theological meaning of
Jesus of Nazareth. He wrote:
I find great cause to separate completely what the apostles say in their
own writings from that which Jesus himself actually said and taught, for the
apostles were themselves teachers and consequently present their own views.
Indeed, they never claim that Jesus himself said and taught in his lifetime
the things they have written.
Reimarus thought that if one goes behind the theological constructions of
the Gospel authors, one would find the simple, human Jesus with whom we can all
identify. There's a real sense in which his thinking began the search for an
Reimarus eventually became convinced that Christianity was untrue, concluding
that Jesus was in fact a Jewish revolutionary. After analysing the language of
the Gospels, Reimarus maintained that Jesus was actually a Jewish apocalyptic
preacher who, as the cry from the cross witnessed, realised at the last that he
As Albert Schweitzer later remarked, Reimarus was correct to think that Jesus
had no intention of bringing the Jewish faith to an end in favour of his own
teachings. But his disciples, says Reimarus, dismayed that none of his
predictions had come true, stole his body after the crucifixion and adapted his
teachings into the forms we now see in the New Testament. They were helped in
this by Paul.
Reimarus was afraid of the controversy his book, An Apology for the
Rational Worshipper of God, would stir up in what was then a deeply
religious society. He decided not to publish. His manuscript was acquired after
his death by G E Lessing who published parts of it in 1774 as Fragments of an
Lessing (who was a librarian) pretended he had discovered the work hidden
among the contents of a library. One of the supposed fragments attacked the
historicity of the resurrection. Another proposed that there is a radical
difference between what Jesus had originally taught and the doctrines of the
On the Aims of Jesus and His Disciples was published in 1778. Reimarus
proposed in it that Jesus was human and no more, and that the gospel authors had
deceived the faithful. He proposed that the deception began with the invention
by Jesus' disciples of a spiritual redemption. This took the place of his actual
political vision in which Israel would be liberated by God from its Roman
oppressors. They then invented the resurrection to cover up their embarrassment
when Jesus was crucified by those same oppressors.
Albert Schweitzer summarised Reimarus thus:
Only those who carry the teachings of the catechism back into the preaching
of the Jewish Messiah will arrive at the idea that he was the founder of a new
religion. To all unprejudiced persons it is manifest that Jesus has not the
slightest intention of doing away with the Jewish religion and putting another
in its place. 
I find it noteworthy that this view still finds considerable support with a
significant number of scholars nearly 250 years later.
Reimarus' importance lies in his attempt to understand Jesus as an historical
person, rather than as a divine being about whom only the Church knows the full
truth. His work made a strong impression on the German theological scene in the
latter 18th century.
 Quoted by M H Smith in Profiles of Jesus, Polebridge
 The Quest of the Historical Jesus, A & C Black, 1910