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
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
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
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.
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.
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 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. 
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