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

George A. Wells

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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.).

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