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

With his first major work of biblical criticism, The Life of Jesus (1835), the Protestant theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) created a stir by postulating that Christ was a mortal elevated to divine status through Gospel accounts. While the book was consistent with the growing secularization of the time, it cost Strauss his position at the University of Tübingen and prevented his tenure at the University of Zurich in 1839.

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Concluding observation.

Now that we have arrived at the end of our critical endeavor, this insight is all the more welcome, the more thoroughly the conviction is thrust upon us that our historical knowledge of Jesus is faulty and uncertain. After removing the mass of various kinds of mythical creepers that have wound themselves around the tree, we see that what we previously thought were the branches, leaves, color, and shape of the tree itself were instead largely part of these creepers; and instead of the tree being returned to us in its true shape and appearance after the these plants have been removed, we discover that the parasites have stripped it of its leaves, sucked out its sap, and withered its branches and limbs, and that its original shape thus no longer exists at all. Every mythical feature that was added to the picture of Jesus not merely covered up a historical one, which means that the removal of the former would have brought the latter back to light, but a good many historical features have been entirely consumed by the mythical ones that were overlaid upon them, and have been utterly lost.

It is not agreeable to hear, and [is] therefore disbelieved, but anyone who has examined the subject seriously and wishes to be honest knows as well as we do that there are few great men in history of whom our knowledge is as insufficient as that of Jesus. How incomparably more lucid to us is the figure of Socrates, who is four hundred years older. To be sure, we know just as little about his youth and education; but we know precisely what he was in his mature years, what he wanted, and what he did. The figures of his students and friends stand before us with historical clarity, and we are completely informed about the causes and the unfolding of his condemnation and his death. Above all, however, even though a few anecdotal additions are not lacking, his life was spared the mythical elaboration in which the historical figures of no small number of Greek philosophers, Pythagoras being one, have nearly disappeared, much like the figure of Jesus. Socrates owes the preservation of his image to the circumstance that he lived in the most educated city of Greece at a time of the most brilliant intellectual enlightenment and the highest flowering of literature; moreover, several of his students were distinguished writers and made their teacher the subject of some of their works.

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