Albert Schweitzer and The Quest of the Historical Jesus—One Hundred Years On

George A. Wells

In the fifty years since the death of Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), his famous The Quest of the Historical Jesus has lost none of its releva nce. Originally published in 1906 and revised and extended in 1913 and later, Quest gives a comprehensive account of life-of-Jesus research from Reimarus in the eighteenth century to the author’s own time. A long-overdue English translation of the book in its final form, based on the ninth German edition of 1984, was published by SCM in London in 2000. Its editor, the Rev. John Bowden, called it “beyond question the greatest twentieth-century book on Jesus”; in a foreword, the New Testament scholar Dennis Nineham gives a lucid summary and appraisal of Schweitzer’s position.

Jesus declared that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Schweitzer, Nineham says, was right in his contention that Jesus mistakenly expected the more-or-less immediate future to usher in this kingdom “in roughly the form in which it was pictured in contemporary expectations”—that is, in the Jewish apocalyptic literature of the time—according to which the imminent arrival of the kingdom would be heralded by a period of cosmic tribulation after which the present world would come to an end. “The sun will be darkened, the moon will no longer give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven. . . . Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass away until all these things be accomplished” (Mark 13:24f., 30). It is now widely agreed, as the New Testament scholar D. C. Allison Jr. stated in his 2003 essay “The Eschatology of Jesus,” that “ancient Jewish sources regularly depict the birth of a better world as accompanied by terrible labor pains,” and “the sort of disasters catalogued in chapter 13 of Mark can be found in many documents, Jewish and Christian.”

Nineham adds that few scholars now dispute that Jesus’s “thinking and teaching were carried on in first-century Jewish categories,” hence, that he was “a culturally conditioned figure,” not “the timeless Christ of orthodoxy.” In Schweitzer’s words, “the historical Jesus is a stranger and an enigma to our time.” His ethical teaching is “limited by Jewish-particularist ideas, ” an “interim ethic,” inextricably linked with his conviction that the whole world will shortly come to a catastrophic end, and, hence, uncompromisingly severe—sinners are to be thrown into hell where “the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43–48)—and replete with sayings appropriate for an emergency situation, such as the directive to abandon family and possessions for the sake of the gospel (Mark 10:29f.).

If Jesus was, as Nineham says, “mistaken in his unquestioning conviction that the kingdom of God and the end of the world would come within a few years of the time when he was speaking,” then he was a false prophet. Yet he himself denounced false prophets in the harshest terms, as ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15).

The Oxford theologian T. W. Manson complained in 1956 that “in spite of the moving eloquence with which the story is told by Schweitzer, there is no escape from the fact that its hero was a deluded fanatic.” And William Temple, the archbishop of Canterbury who died in 1944, thought he would have to consider renouncing Christianity if he believed that Jesus held such views as Schweitzer supposed. Unsurprisingly, then, many theologians have considered Schweitzer’s assessment to be completely wrong. In 1980, G. B. Caird dismissed his conclusions as “facile” and his mind as “pedestrian,” in that he took literally Jesus’s eschatological statements when really they were all mere metaphor. Caird thus typifies the usual refuge of apologists in a society that has outgrown its sacred books. Similarly, N. T. Wright, until recently bishop of Durham, holds that Schweitzer, with “the great majority” of later New Testament scholars, “misunderstood the nature of apocalyptic” and that passages in both Jewish and Christian documents about the stars falling from heaven and the son of man coming with angels on clouds were really mere images expressing the view that God would shortly vindicate his people.

Other scholars dispose of such eschatological passages in the Gospels by regarding them as having been added to Jesus’s originally non-eschatological teachings by later Christian communities. Against such views, the Finnish New Testament scholar Heikki Räisänen has said that “to understand the rise and early development of Christianity, one cannot just dispose of an eschatological Jesus.” Paul, for instance, believed that Christ would return in the near future to judge the world, and that only the faithful would be saved. The whole creation will be affected (Rom. 8:18ff.). Marius Reiser, professor of New Testament at Mainz (Germany), calls a recent depiction of Jesus as a “teacher of popular wisdom”—indeed any such non-apocalyptic portrayal of him—“a fantastic construction.” He finds that “on the main point Schweitzer was right,” in that, if eschatology is deleted from Matthew and Mark, there remains “only a text cut to ribbons which is of no good use for anything.”

By the third century, it had become clear that a prompt arrival of the kingdom in the eschatological sense of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew could no longer be expected, and most of the Fathers followed Origen in reinterpreting God’s kingdom to mean no more than his reign in human hearts. This is still the position held by many Christians, for whom the kingdom is an ethical ideal perhaps to be realized in the modern church. Groups that are more fundamentalist retain the original sense of the coming kingdom but reinterpret it to mean that it will shortly come in their own lifetimes, not in that of Jesus; many today are confidently expecting to be “raptured” just prior to the great tribulation—spirited away from Earth to join Christ in the sky as he descends, in accordance with the promise of 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

What in Schweitzer’s account has rightly found little acceptance is, as Nineham notes, his “detailed reconstruction of the development of Jesus’s outlook and expectations” that “goes far beyond the evidence.” Schweitzer supposed that Jesus originally believed that the great tribulation and the end would occur as early as the time of his own missionary activity in Galilee; in chapter 10 of Matthew, he sends the disciples out as itinerant missionaries not only to preach that “the kingdom is at hand” but also to do so in the conviction that they “will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of man comes”—an instruction recorded only in Matthew. The Messiah-son of man is a supernatural personage expected to come down from the clouds at the end of time (Mark 13:26f.). As Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as the son of man, he obviously, said Schweitzer, expected to be changed into this personage and “to be recognized as such when the Kingdom of God arrives.”

Schweitzer envisaged the disciples making a hasty tour of the towns, running from one to another before being overtaken by persecution, which would form the onset of the final tribulation. Even Matthew’s text, to which alone Schweitzer can here appeal, does not support this interpretation but clearly refers to preachers who are to stay in one area long enough to found a Christian community there. When they are persecuted in one town, they are to flee into the next (verse 23). No universal persecution is expected but rather harassment of individual missionaries who, if not safe in one town, can reckon on safety, at least for a time, in another. If, as most scholars suppose, Matthew was writing near the end of the first century, such sporadic persecution had begun to be a real possibility, and it is quite intelligible that a ruling to pr
eachers not to court martyrdom but to move on when harassed should have been put into Jesus’s mouth.

Although a number of passages in Mark and Matthew imply that the end will come soon, it is only Matthew’s chapter 10 that Schweitzer can adduce for his theory that Jesus originally believed the end would come in a matter of weeks. And Jesus’s whole speech here cannot be an authentic early missionary speech by him, for even when Schweitzer wrote, it had been seen to be compounded with material from other speeches that in the Gospels were made at a later stage in Jesus’s life.

In actuality, the end did not come, and the disciples returned safely from their mission (Mark 6:30). Schweitzer believed that Jesus’s disappointment at this nonfulfillment of his prediction led him to revise his view of the coming tribulation and to conclude—from meditation on passages about the suffering servant of Yahweh in Isaiah 53—that if he alone suffered and died, God would spare mankind any general tribulation and would inaugurate the kingdom.

This alleged psychological reorientation on Jesus’s part outstrips anything suggested in the texts. It is ironic that Schweitzer, who repeatedly and justly complained that many scholars seem to know far more about Jesus than the Gospels themselves do, should have laid himself open to the same charge. Moreover, his interpretation of what is actually stated in both Matthew and Mark presupposes that these two Gospels are reliable “down to the smallest detail.” “Either Jesus did not exist or he was just as Mark and Matthew, understood literally, depict him.” Schweitzer held that both Gospels originated in Palestine around 70 CE and rest on a common source that, “as well as the special material in Matthew, go back to men who were present during the ministry of Jesus. They have . . . a clear conception of the order of events and give a reliable report of the speeches of Jesus” (Nineham here quotes from another of Schweitzer’s books). As Nineham observes, other scholars had already shown that there were much stronger grounds than Schweitzer appreciated for contending that “even the earliest evangelists—and indeed the pre-Gospel tradition—were as much interested in theological interpretation as in accurate chronicling.”

However, Schweitzer stressed that his findings give no endorsement of conventional Christian beliefs: “Those who are fond of talking about negative theology can find their account here. There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the Life of Jesus.” Quite apart from the way Schweitzer construes the ideas governing Jesus’s ministry, his brief remarks on the resurrection are not encouraging. Against the commonly held view that if the tomb had not been empty, the Jewish authorities would have at once refuted resurrection claims by producing the body, he noted that the disciples came forward with the “Easter message” only at Pentecost, after a lapse of weeks (by which time no body would have been identifiable). And he was scornful of the ambiguous way in which, then as now, many apologists treated the resurrection: “The art of preserving credit for all sides by indistinct statements which comply with every change of wind is becoming more and more highly rated, and is practised with ever-growing virtuosity.”

Yet, for all his negative results, Schweitzer still found that “Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from him and flows through our time also. This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery.” If Jesus is to be regarded as merely one element in religion, then the danger of narrowing it to a purely historical base will have been avoided. What matters about him is that he attempted to impose his will on his situation, believing that his action would bring about the kingdom. Hence he can bring the hopes and longings inherent in us “to heights and to a clarity we would not achieve . . . without the influence of his personality.” The limitations of his outlook fall away “once his will as such is transposed into our own world-view.”

These statements that religion needs in essence to be independent of historical fact—since even the best historical scholarship may in time need revision—were made at a time when the Breslau New Testament scholar William Wrede had set aside even Mark, the earliest of the canonical Gospels, as a theological fiction that provides information about the author’s own theology, not about Jesus. Even more alarmingly, Arthur Drews in Germany and John M. Robertson in England were, among others, already maintaining that there had been no historical Jesus at all. Schweitzer did not accept that they had made a convincing case, but he did allow that “modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus” and must have a metaphysic in readiness for such a contingency, so as to base religion on mind, not on history. He appealed to the German metaphysical tradition and seems to have had particularly in mind Schopenhauer’s view of the primacy of the will as a transcendent reality at the basis of self-consciousness. On this view, consciousness can furnish unmediated, immediate certainties; hence, what we learn from it is not fallible in the way in which what we learn from observation of the external world is fallible. Against such a claim the British empirical tradition has insisted, as Alexander Bain famously wrote in his The Emotions and the Will (1859), that “there is a very large amount of fallibility in both the one and the other.”

Schweitzer concluded by conceding that our relation to Jesus is “ultimately of a mystical kind.” We are to establish community with him by sharing his will to “put the kingdom of God above all else,” although what this kingdom means to us (if anything at all) is not what it meant for him.

What we cannot accept in Schweitzer’s account should not obscure what is truly significant in it. Nineham notes that in 1941, in a book that won Schweitzer’s approval, the Bernese New Testament scholar Martin Werner “sought to show that the whole development of Christian doctrine in the first four or five centuries can be made much more intelligible on the basis of Schweitzer’s account of Christian origins,” for this development was “profoundly affected by the ever-increasing delay in the appearance of the expected parousia,” the return of Jesus at his second coming. This thesis “deserves far more attention than it has generally received.”

Finally, we should not overlook that in 1913 Schweitzer gave up his academic career to care for the natives of French equatorial Africa at the hospital of Lambarene, and that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. As Nineham notes, in his autobiography he declared that “the real subject of Jesus’s teaching was love”; only its “structural framework” was provided by first-century eschatology.

Further Reading

Details concerning the books of the various authors mentioned in this article, and references to the relevant passages in them, are given in my Cutting Jesus Down to Size (Chicago: Open Court, 2009), which also includes a detailed account of the development of the view that Jesus was an eschatological prophet, from Reimarus to Johannes Weiss and Schweitzer and beyond.


George A. Wells is emeritus professor of German at the University of London and a former chairman of the Rationalist Press Association. He writes frequently for Free Inquiry: his last article, “The Eucharist and the Origin of Magical Ideas,” appeared in the June/July 2014 issue.

George A. Wells

George A. Wells is emeritus professor of German at the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the origins of Christianity and on German intellectual history.


Schweitzer’s very influential critical account of Jesus includes much of importance that more recent scholarship accepts, as well as elements that have undertsandably found little favor.

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