Sunday, April 30, 2006

Philosophical Issues and Methodology in Jesus Research (Part 2)

Picture on left of is of Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768)

(Be sure to read Part 1)

1.2. Methodical Doubt and Early Historical-Critical Approaches
The Nominalist insistence on the unintelligibility of faith paved the way for Luther’s position that faith was a matter of certainty of assertions. However, coinciding with the rise of the Reformation was a renewed interest in Greek skepticism, which traced itself back to Pyrrho (circa. 360-270 B.C.E.). Pyrrho is known through the writings of Diogenes Laertius and Sextus Empricus, who wrote during the second century C.E.[1] At first, skepticism was used by Catholic apologists against the Reformers, however Protestants soon found it useful in their own attack on the notion of the infallibility of the Magisterium.[2] In the view of these skeptics reason and experience were unreliable.[3] Colin Brown explains that for the “new” Pyrrhonists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the consequence of this skepticism left religion with only two options: “utter skepticism or fideism.”[4]

Skepticism was instrumental in shaping Descartes’ method. Descartes wanted to take on the Pyrrhonists on their own terms, attempting to show that there is something that cannot be doubted, namely, one’s own existence.[5] The Rationalist movement which followed him tried to demonstrate that reality could be understood as a “rational” whole. The attempt was therefore made at giving science and religion a common basis in reason.[6] It wasn’t long, however, before faith was simply devalued altogether as “unreasonable.”

Baruch Spinoza played a pivotal role, pioneering a kind of hermeneutic of “doubt.” Spinoza asserted that whereas philosophy pursues knowledge, “religion has obedience for its sole object.”[7] In this Spinoza gave priority to philosophy and deprived religion of truth claims.[8] As a result, Scripture should not be accepted as true on the basis of faith alone—theological prejudices must be discarded.[9] Furthermore, interpretation must be carried out in freedom from ecclesiastical authority.[10]

Moreover, Spinoza believed that when one encounters supernatural elements in the text of the Bible—miraculous events, divine revelations, etc.—one should approach them in terms of the historical meaning they had in their original cultural context, not as matters of “truth.”[11] The point of the story of Moses at the burning bush, therefore, is not whether or not God appeared as a fire but that Moses believed that God had.[12] In addition to this Spinoza believed that one should look for natural explanations to explain miracles.[13]

Spinoza thus laid out three rules for Scripture study. First, Scripture study must pay attention to the use of different languages and figures of speech used by the biblical writers. Second, the contents of each book should be arranged and laid out, with special attention to passages which are ambiguous, obscure or contradictory. Wherever passages conflict with reason they must be understood as metaphors. Finally, the historical contexts of the books must be considered.[14]

For Spinoza, the principle aim of Scripture study was not arriving at theological truth but rather its primary goal was historical knowledge.[15] Joel Weinsheimer writes, “There is in fact only one kind of interpretation for Spinoza, and that is historical.”[16] Spinoza explained that the study of Scripture “does not widely differ from the method of interpreting nature—in fact, it is almost the same.”[17] Its truth can only be determined through strict scrutiny.[18]

This type of "critical" approach to Scripture was picked up by the English Deists of the seventeenth century. The man recognized as the father of Deism is Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648). Herbert argued that religion must be studied historically and judged by what he saw as five common notions present in all religions.[19] Many of these thinkers wrote accounts of the life of Jesus, in which they denied traditional Christian doctrines such as the Hypostatic Union and the Trinity.[20] Attempts were made to strip Jesus of his uniqueness. In this vein, Charles Blount (1645-93) published a book on the life of Appollonius, a man who lived about the same time of Jesus and who was also reported to have been a holy man who worked miracles.[21] We should also here mention the work of Anthony Collins (1676-1729) who argued that many of the Old Testament prophecies traditionally viewed being fulfilled in Christ, had actually been fulfilled in historical events which took place within the lifetime of the prophets.[22]

The most influential advocates of this type of early “historical-criticism” was undoubtedly Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768). During his lifetime Reimarus had struggled with reconciling the doctrines of Christian faith with reason.[23] After he died, parts of his now famous Apology were published as various essays by Gotthold Lessing. The work is one of the most influential works in the history of Jesus research.

Reimarus argued that Jesus was not intent on founding a new religion. Jesus’ message was thoroughly Jewish; in his preaching he called for a return to Jewish piety and, later, he predicted the coming of a political kingdom.[24] After his death, Jesus’ disciples made up the story that he had risen from the dead and appeared to them. Reimarus’ thus set forth two of the principle tasks that has henceforth become hallmarks of scholarly treatments of Jesus: understanding Jesus’ preaching within the Judaism of his day and distinguishing the teaching of Jesus from that of the early Church.[25] Reimarus’ work, of course, gained prominence later on through Albert Schweitzer’s work.

In their day, Spinoza, the Deists and Reimarus were fighting an uphill battle. Reimarus kept his reconstruction of Jesus a secret—even from his own wife.[26] He writes,

“A time will come for a division between two groups: believers in revelation, and the despised advocates of reason. . . . This writing is and remains a true apology and defense against imposing a faith on us. Preserve it as a secret treasure. . . . until it pleases God to give rational religion a path toward open, healthy freedom, then draw you to responsibility for it.”[27]
However, by the time of Immanuel Kant and the beginning of the Enlightenment project which held that all judgments must be subjected to critical reason, traditional Christian faith began to lose its influence over the intellectual and cultural elite. The rise in prominence of the natural sciences (especially the publication of Darwin’s, The Origin of the Species) and the French Revolution were also important factors in this regard.

Part 3 continued here...
[1] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers (Loeb Classical Library; trans. R. D. Hicks, M.A.; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1925; repr., 1950); 2:475-519; Sextus Empricus (4 vols.; Loeb Classical Library; trans. R. G. Bury; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938; repr., 1955).
[2] Brown, Christianity and Western Thought, 161.
[3] Sextus writes that the skeptics use their skepticism, “only of things inaccessible to the senses and investigated by the way of dogma.” Cited in Edwyn Bevan, Stoics and Sceptics (Clarendon Press, 1913; repri., New York: Barnes and Noble, 1959), 127.
[4] Brown, Christianity and Western Thought, 168-9.
[5] Brown, Christianity and Western Thought, 184: “He was accepting the premises of the Pyrrhonian skeptics who had already done this and was answering them with their own weapon.”
[6] Brown, Christianity and Western Thought, 174.
[7] Benedict Spinoza, The Chief Works of Spinoza (vol. 1; trans. by R. H. M. Elwes; New York: Dover Publications, 1951), 9.
[8] Joel C. Weinsheimer, Eighteenth-Century Hermeneutics: Philosophy of Interpretation in England from Locke to Burke (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 48.
[9] Spinoza, The Chief Works of Spinoza, 99.
[10] Spinoza, The Chief Works of Spinoza, 10.
[11] Spinoza, The Chief Works of Spinoza, 99.
[12] Spinoza, The Chief Works of Spinoza, 102. Weinsheimer, Eighteenth-Century Hermeneutics, 63.
[13] Brown, Christianity and Western Thought, 189.
[14] Spinoza, The Chief Works of Spinoza, 101-103.
[15] Roy A. Harrisville and Walter Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture: Theology and Historical-Critical Method from Spinoza to Käsemann (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1995), 42:“The accent is on historical understanding; religious claims are studiously avoided.” Also see
[16] Weinsheimer, Eighteenth-Century Hermeneutics, 58.
[17] Spinoza, The Chief Works of Spinoza, 99.
[18] Spinoza, The Chief Works of Spinoza, 9.
[19] Brown, Christianity and Western Thought, 203.
[20] See Colin Brown, Jesus in European Protestant Thought, 1778-1860 (Studies in Historical Theology 1; Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1985), 29-33.
[21] Brown, Christianity and Western Thought, 203-4.
[22] Brown, Jesus in European Thought, 38-39.
[23] Harrisville and WalterSundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture, 60.
[24] Harrisville and WalterSundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture, 60.
[25] Harrisville and WalterSundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture, 62. In addition, Reimarus identified the problem of the “delay” of the Lord within early Christian thought.
[26] Harrisville and WalterSundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture, 56.
[27] Cited in Carl Moenckeberg, Hermann Samuel Reimarus und Johann Christian Edelmann (Hamburg: Gustav Eduard Notle, 1867), 123.

1 comment:

Josh Peterson said...

Wow, these first two parts have been interesting. I can't wait for the rest of the story.

I do have a question about Reimarus though. How does he argue that the disciples made up the story about Jesus' resurrection? I've heard a few theories about this (the disciples went to the wrong tomb, they stole the body, Jesus didn't actually die, he just fainted and woke up later, etc.), but none of them seem to make sense.

I realize this is a rather simple issue in the midst of a complex philosophical argument by Reimarus, but sometimes the simplest things cause the biggest problems.

Anyway, I would be interested to hear his argument.

Thanks for the blog, I really enjoy it!

Josh