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David Friedrich Strauss: Conclusion, The Life of Jesus (c. 1835)

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Xenophon and Plato – who does not think of Matthew and John when he hears these names, but how unfavorable to the latter is the comparison. In the first place, the authors of the Socratic memorabilia, the two symposia, the Phaedo etc., were actual disciples of Socrates. By contrast, the authors of the first and fourth Gospel were not direct disciples of Jesus. If no external evidence had survived regarding the above-mentioned texts of the two Athenians, we would yet recognize them as the works of contemporaries and personal acquaintances of Socrates. In the case of the two Gospels, no matter how old and unanimous the testimony of their Apostolic authorship might be, we would not put our credence in it, for it is contradicted by the plainest appearance of the books themselves. Second, the two men who wrote about Socrates were quite intent on illustrating his uniqueness and worth as a human being, a citizen, a thinker, an educator of the youth. To be sure, our two Evangelists do the same in their own way. But that is not enough for them. Their Jesus, after all, is supposed to have been more than a man, a God-begotten miracle worker, indeed, according to one of them, the divine creative word incarnate. That is why their account not only contains a series of miraculous deeds and destinies alongside the activity of Jesus as a teacher, but this miraculous element is also intermixed with the teachings they place into his mouth, as a result of which they have Jesus say things about himself that no person of sound mind could possibly have uttered. Third, Plato and Xenophon are in agreement on all the essential things they report about Socrates. Some things they report in identical words; individual features that are unique to one still unite admirably into a single picture with those presented by the other. And when Xenophon, with respect to the philosophical importance of Socrates, often falls as much below his subject as Plato rises above it with his liberal inventions, and places Platonic speculations into the mouth of his Socrates, the two accounts correct each other through a comparison of the two authors, and the shortcoming is innocuous, on Xenophon’s part because it results from an unintended inadequacy, on Plato’s part because he makes no claim to being a historical writer in his Socratic dialogues. By contrast, we have seen how irreconcilable is the Christ of Matthew and that of John, and how earnestly the author of the fourth Gospel, in particular, asserts the truth of his account. But all the ways in which the accounts of Jesus that have come down to us are different – to their disadvantage – from those about Socrates with respect to historical accuracy, and they have their roots in the differences of time and nationalities. The pure air and bright light of Athenian culture and enlightenment, in which the image of Socrates appears so distinctly, contrasts with the thick, murky cloud of Jewish delusion and superstition and Alexandrine fanaticism, from which the form of Jesus looks out at us scarcely recognizable as human.

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