Reimarus takes as his starting-point the question regarding the content of the preaching of Jesus
|November 24, 2011||Posted by webmaster under All text of Schweitzer Quest Jesus, chapter two||
The monograph on the passing of the Israelites through the Red Sea is one of the ablest, wittiest, and most acute which has ever been written. It exposes all the impossibilities of the narrative in the Priestly Codex, and all the inconsistencies which arise from the combination of various sources; although Reimarus has not the slightest inkling that the separation of these sources would afford the real solution of the problem.
To say that the fragment on “The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples” is a magnificent piece of work is barely to do it justice. This essay is not only one of the greatest events in the history of criticism, it is also a masterpiece of general literature. The language is as a rule crisp and terse, pointed and epigrammatic—the language of a man who is not “engaged in literary composition” but is wholly concerned with the facts. At times, however, it rises to heights of passionate feeling, and then it is as though the fires of a volcano were painting lurid pictures upon dark clouds. Seldom has there been a hate so eloquent, so lofty a scorn; but then it is seldom that a work has been written in the just consciousness of so absolute a superiority to contemporary opinion. And withal, there is dignity and serious purpose; Reimarus’ work is no pamphlet.
Lessing could not, of course, accept its standpoint. His idea of revelation, and his conception of the Person of Jesus, were much deeper than those of the Fragmentist. He was a thinker; Reimarus only a historian. But this was the first time that a really historical mind, thoroughly conversant with the sources, had undertaken the criticism of the tradition. It was Lessing’s greatness that he grasped the significance of this criticism, and felt that it must lead either to the destruction or to the recasting of the idea of revelation. He recognised that the introduction of the historical element would transform and deepen rationalism. Convinced that the fateful moment had arrived, he disregarded the scruples of Reimarus’ family and the objections of Nicolai and Mendelssohn, and, though inwardly trembling for that which he himself held sacred, he flung the torch with his own hand.
Semler, at the close of his refutation of the fragment, ridicules its editor in the following apologue. “A prisoner was once brought before the Lord Mayor of London on a charge of arson. He had been seen coming down from the upper story of the burning house. ‘Yesterday,’ so ran his defence, ‘about four o’clock I went into my neighbour’s storeroom and saw there a burning candle which the servants had carelessly forgotten. In the course of the night it would have burned down, and set fire to the stairs. To make sure that the fire should break out in the day-time, I threw some straw upon it. The flames burst out at the skylight, the fire-engines came hurrying up, and the fire, which in the night might have been dangerous, was promptly extinguished.’ ‘Why did you not yourself pick up the candle and put it out?’ asked the Lord Mayor. ‘If I had put out the candle the servants would not have learned to be more careful; now that there has been such a fuss about it, they will not be so careless in future.’ ‘Odd, very odd,’ said the Lord Mayor, ‘he is not a criminal, only a little weak in the head.’ So he had him shut up in the mad-house, and there he lies to this day.”
The story is extraordinarily apposite—only that Lessing was not mad; he knew quite well what he was doing. His object was to show how an unseen enemy had pushed his parallels up to the very walls, and to summon to the defence “some one who should be as nearly the ideal defender of religion as the Fragmentist was the ideal assailant.” Once, with prophetic insight into the future, he says: “The Christian traditions must be explained by the inner truth of Christianity, and no written traditions can give it that inner truth, if it does not itself possess it.”
Reimarus takes as his starting-point the question regarding the content of the preaching of Jesus. “We are justified,” he says, “in drawing an absolute distinction between the teaching of the Apostles in their writings and what Jesus Himself in His own lifetime proclaimed and taught.” What belongs to the preaching of Jesus is clearly to be recognised. It is contained in two phrases of identical meaning, “Repent, and believe the Gospel,” or, as it is put elsewhere, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus
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