DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768)
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 all the things they have written.[1]

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 historical Jesus.

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 had failed.

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 Unknown Writer

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 Church.

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. [2]

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.
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[1] Quoted by M H Smith in Profiles of Jesus, Polebridge Press, 2002
[2] The Quest of the Historical Jesus, A & C Black, 1910

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