Towards the end of the 19th century it became
possible for theologians to begin to look back at the many attempts, especially
in Germany, to discover an historical figure of Jesus.
Don Cupitt remarks that since then Albert Schweitzer in common with others
like Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud has lost a central place in
In each case the man has tended to become fixed in the public mind as he
was in his old age rather than as he was in his prime ... Schweitzer was
unlucky in living too long. An absurdly inflated personality cult grew up
around him, obscuring the real meaning of his life and thought.
He was a greatly talented music student, studying in France and producing an
early book on J S Bach. His interest in theology probably came from his
background as the son of a Lutheran pastor in the Franco-German territory of
Alsace. He studied enthusiastically under H J Holtzmann, the able professor of
New Testament studies at Strasburg University.
But Schweitzer was unusual in his approach to his career. Early on he decided
to plan his life. The first part, up to the age of 30, he decided would be taken
up by study and enquiry. After that, he would revert to his more naturally
activist, practical nature and devote himself to serving the good of the human
His critical, undogmatic approach was to serve him well. Focusing especially
on the works of H S Reimarus and W Wrede, Schweitzer took his place in the
public eye when he published his Quest of the Historical Jesus
in 1906 (the original German title was Von Reimarus zu Wrede). By that
time he had shown himself sceptical about the supernatural orientation of
traditional Christian teaching. Despite his reservations he was fascinated by
the person of Jesus. But he was less interested in the metaphysics of
Christianity and of religion in general than in its capacity to guide and direct
human energies and right behaviour.
The broad context of the Quest is important. The 19th century is
characterised by a conclusion that traditional, supernatural Christianity was
anti-rational. Many of its features like miracles and resurrection could no
longer be believed. What then of Jesus? Would we be forced to throw out the baby
with the bathwater?
A common conclusion was that the most appropriate response was to investigate
the person of Jesus using all the newly-found analytical tools of the
Enlightenment. This was best done by deconstructing the Bible as a literary
source of data. The latter had been corrupted over the ages. But it should be
possible, it was thought, to come up with an adequate biography of Jesus -
witness the large number of "lives of Jesus" which appeared in England, America,
France and Germany during the period.
The literary approach to the New Testament eventually bore the fruit of what
is known as "Form Criticism". This is the attempt to boil down the text of the
gospels into its constituent parts. From these parts can be identified, it is
thought, those pieces which are either the original words of Jesus or at least
the earliest oral renditions of those words.
Having reviewed the bulk of literature of the search for the historical Jesus
in the New Testament texts, Schweitzer concluded that the quest had failed. It
was not possible to do more than sketch a rough outline of Jesus. More than 200
years of scholarly endeavour had yielded precious little of real substance. The
evidence in the New Testament was too thin to support an account of Jesus in
terms of of history as a discipline. The Jesus of the New Testament does not
satisfy the normal standards of historical exploration. Nor is it possible,
thought Schweitzer, to produce a satisfactory biography in the normal sense of
The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who
preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven
upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any
existence. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by
liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in an historical garb.
I suspect that neither he nor many of those who subsequently acknowledged
Schweitzer's contribution could see the profound implications of this
conclusion. For if we acknowledge that our vision of so important a figure as
Jesus changes with time we must ask if "the truth" about him exists or can
exist. Jaroslav Pelikan is among those who suspects that the "real" Jesus cannot
be reached. All we have is a considerable number of versions of Jesus, each
dictated by the culture and priorities of the time it was produced
. It is worth noting that from here it is not far to
the trackless swamps of postmodernism.
Schweitzer has retained pride of place in New Testament studies less for his
examination of the original material, and more for this astute summary of the
state of scholarship in the 18th and 19th centuries. The work of New testament
scholars in the 20th century has, by-and-large, born out his conclusions.
Unfortunately, these conclusions have not yet adequately penetrated the
awareness of ordinary Christians. Very few are aware, for example, that
the long monologues of John's Gospel turn out to be the theological teaching of
the Gospel's author, not the verbatim words of Jesus. Even fewer know or much
care that we have only the sketchiest outline of the events of Jesus' life. His
sayings are too brief and too overlaid by later thought to give us the insight
into Jesus' thought and motivations required by a normal biography.
Schweitzer discovered that what had emerged instead of an historical figure
was a series of differing word portraits of Jesus, each reflecting the needs and
perceptions of their author. Two hundred years of more or less dispassionate
research had not yielded the much sought after consensus about Jesus. The quest
was in fact, thought Schweitzer, an attempt to manufacture a modern Jesus to fit
modern aspirations. In truth, the Jesus of the Bible is, he thought, an almost
totally alien figure to the modern world and most of the writing was therefore
The Jesus of traditional theology turns out to be a myth. He is the creation
of Christians, designed to support and perpetuate a traditional culture. It is
as though, wrote Schweitzer, that when we peer down to the bottom of a well
looking for Jesus, we see our own faces reflected in the water.
Many establishment scholars applauded Schweitzer's efforts. Perhaps they
hoped that the faithful would now be encouraged to return to the traditional
fold and to the authoritative certainties of biblical revelation. Others weighed
up the incontrovertible evidence which Schweitzer had produced about the failure
of the quest for an historical Jesus. They concluded just the opposite. The
Bible had been destroyed as a set of documents to be relied on and should be
treated as a collection of literary writings like any other.
But Schweitzer did not rest there. He took the matter further, to the dismay
of many Christians and the delight of as many humanists. He made plain that he
shared the view of D F Strauss and others that the dogmatic systems of tradition
have crippled and corrupted the perceptions of Western people. This was because
Jesus had to be interpreted in terms of eschatology - the traditional Jewish
concept of the "last things" which would usher in God's rule - rather than
morality. In taking this line he struck at the heart of the type of theology
that had guided much of the Western world during the previous century.
Jesus, said Schweitzer, believed that he was the Jewish Messiah. He had
instructed his followers to keep this conclusion secret from the authorities
(the so-called "Messianic Secret", a scholarly supposition which persists to
this day). Despite this, his God-given calling did get into the public domain in
various ways, not least because it was betrayed by Judas. Jesus thought that as
Messiah he had a close relationship with God and was supremely able to know
God's will. This idea is still current amongst those who agree that the "Jesus
is God" image of popular religion is bankrupt, yet who wish to maintain that
Jesus is the best thing since God.
It was through this relationship that Jesus knew that the Kingdom of
God - a new order on earth in which the powers of evil would be destroyed
- would come in his lifetime. Schweitzer thought that when Jesus concluded
that it wasn't happening as he had anticipated, he attempted to
precipitate things by entering Jerusalem as a "king" and challenging the
authority of the Temple.
Schweitzer maintained that Jesus can't be understood apart from his vision of
the approaching end of the world. This apocalyptic theology of the last things
coloured and conditioned every aspect of his teaching and attitudes towards
life. Schweitzer rightly remarked that this Jesus was radically different from
prevailing ideas. As a result, "... he comes to us as one unknown". He will
always "... be to our time a stranger and an enigma" .
Jesus paid the price and ended his life a bitter failure, dying as "one
unknown" - though a magnificent person for all that. This interpretation seems
to have made its way into the imagination of many Christians. They have been
caught up by the concept of Jesus as tragic hero. This contrasts with today's
growing consensus that Jesus died because Roman authority wished to nip a
potential uprising in the bud.
This negative conclusion about a Jesus of history is not to say, wrote
Schweitzer, that Jesus is therefore lost to us.
But the truth is, it is not Jesus as historically known, but Jesus as
spiritually risen within men, who is significant for our time and can help it.
This line has been taken by many since. In effect it claims that the essence
of being a Christian lies in our inner attitude towards Jesus. This attitude
derives from the action of God's Spirit within us, sparked perhaps by some human
intervention or natural event. That Jesus was a real person just like the rest
of us, that he lived and died just as we do, and that he worked things out for
himself as we must do, is diminished if not destroyed by Schweitzer's
conclusions. It leaves little place for the deliberate construction of a
Christian way of life on the basis of what is known about Jesus.
What Schweitzer called "Christ-mysticism" was based mainly on his study of
Paul. Following Romans 8 it was more important to have the spirit of Jesus than
anything else. In other words, it was better to believe as Paul had
believed on one hand, and on the other to live as Jesus had lived.
Paul must have had more knowledge of Jesus than he uses in his teachings
and polemics ... He does not appeal to the Master even when it might seem
inevitable to do so ... and in fact declares that as a matter of principle he
desires no longer to "know Christ after the flesh." 
This approach entailed on one hand practicing spiritual unity with God, and
on the other doing works which demonstrated a reverence for life. In this way,
Christ-mysticism does not involve losing oneself in God as our "ground of being"
(as in Eastern mysticism). It is an ethical way of life rooted in the person of
Jesus and thus allowing us to become children of God. True mysticism is like the
stalk of a flower which produces the blossom of ethical living.
Schweitzer is rightly recognised for his work on our search for the
"real" Jesus of history. But in his early work on the writings of Paul, he
found against the accusation that the thought and teaching of Paul had been
corrupted by pragmatic, humanistic Greek ideas. This accusation, he wrote,
... has been clearly answered by the history of Pauline study. The answer
is this: Paulinism and Hellenism have in common their religious terminology,
but, in respect of ideas, nothing. The Apostle did not Hellenise Christianity.
I doubt that this conclusion is shared by many scholars today. A broader and
more inclusive review of Paul's world has revealed a much less homogeneous
situation than previously thought. The Jewish culture of the time was deeply
penetrated by Greek and Roman cultures. Hebrew theology attempted to preserve an
image of pristine purity, uncontaminated by anything but God's word. But the
daily lives of ordinary Hebrews were in reality inextricably intertwined with
the cultures which had conquered them.
There is at present a debate about just how much Jesus was influenced by
Greek and Roman culture. Christian scholars, it must be admitted, have a
substantial investment in a Jesus who adopted and developed an exclusively
Hebrew world-view. A glance at New Testament studies of the past 60 years or so
reveals an assumption that because he was a Jew, Jesus paid no attention to
anything but a Hebrew understanding of God.
This perception fails to take into account certain realities of the cultural
situation in what we now call Palestine and Syria of the first century. For
example, Jesus was no more than an easy 90 minutes walk from Sepphoris - a town
of Greek and Roman foundation variously estimated as containing between 2 000
and 8 000 people. A day's walk would have brought him near to Gadara, on the
eastern side of the Jordan. This was an independent city of Greek foundation
which was sophisticated enough to produce several renowned Roman rhetoricians,
no mean feat in a culture which regarded rhetoric as a foundational skill. Add
to this many indications in the gospels that Jesus travelled widely throughout
the area and Schweitzer's thesis crumbles.
Having said that, Paul is clearly primarily a Hebrew thinker.
Particularly in his earlier letters, Paul shares the general Judeo-Christian
expectation that history would soon come to a close. The coming of Jesus in
power and glory would put matters to rights and impose God's direct rule. It
is true that apocalyptic expectations were important to early Christians. It
turns out to be false that they were important in Jesus' life and teaching.
Like us all, Schweitzer was not immune to contemporary influences. Friedrich
Nietzsche, who died a few years before the Quest was published, appears
to have been one who influenced him considerably. Schweitzer, despite a lifelong
commitment to nurturing life in all its forms, regarded the human situation
I am pessimistic in that I experience in its full weight what we conceive
to be the absence of purpose in the course of world happenings ... From this
community of suffering I have never tried to withdraw myself.
D L Edwards seems to equate this streak of pessimism with a secular
outlook on life:
... for all the religious heroism of his life, Schweitzer's view of the
world was essentially secular. Schweitzer did not share the Christian belief
that love is "the last word about life". 
Be that as it may, Schweitzer's life-plan took an important
step forward in his mid-30s. He was accepted by the Paris Missionary Society to
serve as a doctor in Gabon, where he built his famous jungle hospital a
Lambarene. In his later years sentimental Western media set him up as a
Franciscan-like saint of poor. In fact, he was driving and autocratic. Cupitt
remarks that he was "... wholly unlike the inoffensive weakling that people
normally expect a saint to be".
In his long ministry there, Schweitzer became famous for his
exposition of the the ethical imperative of "reverence for life" demonstrated by
his role as a "jungle doctor". His emphasis on reverence for life represented a
sharp break with a prevailing culture which epitomised what we today call
exploitation of the environment. This culture had been characterised by colonial
expansion and the idea that through science humanity is able to control nature
as an unlimited resource.
The profound implications of Schweitzer's orientation are
still being worked out today. Don Cupitt and others have begun to formulate a
theology of "life with a capital L" to replace theism .
Similarly, so-called New Age theology tends to stress preserving and sustaining
ecological systems. Popular Celtic spirituality in the West emphasises nature
and our affinity to the natural. God is increasingly being perceived as revealed
by nature, rather than by the Bible (an intriguing reversion to classical
Christian natural theology).
Schweitzer's negative vision of Jesus as a tragic figure,
deluded into thinking he had some special place in God's plan for the world, has
not stood the test of time. The eschatological Jesus has, I think, been revealed
as the creation of early Christian communities. The expectation of a new order
was solidified by Christian teaching and then inserted into the gospels through
the mouth of the scriptural Jesus.
Nevertheless, an eschatological expectation that the last
things were imminent has been clearly shown to have existed in those communities
founded and ministered to by Paul.
Christ will overcome all spiritual rulers, authorities and powers, and will
hand over the Kingdom to God the Father. For Christ must rule until God
defeats all his enemies and puts them under his feet. (1 Corinthians 15.24)
He later began to back-pedal on these expectations, but too
late to prevent their ongoing imposition on the Jesus of history by the
gospel authors and the Church.
Schweitzer's portrait of the Jesus whose expectations are not
realised is typical of his outlook. Jesus, he writes,
... lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on
that last revolution, which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It
refuses to turn ... and crushes him ... the wheel rolls onward, and the
mangled body ... is hanging upon it still. 
This vision, shared by so many today, reflects a perception of Jesus which
has lost its transforming power in the world. Jesus is no longer a heavenly
envoy from God, sent to improve our lot and save us from the torments of hell.
Instead, he is a mistaken quasi-hero. He is one who, though not insane, was
grossly misled by his own flawed vision. One biographer insists that Schweitzer
used the word "God" only to communicate his meaning with conventional
If so, Schweitzer's words in 1923 are meaningful:
Without understanding the meaning of the world I act from an inner
necessity of being ... I live my life in God, in the mysterious ethical divine
personality which I cannot discover in the world, but only experience in
myself as a mysterious impulse. 
The ongoing freshness of Schweitzer's Quest some 100 years later
is remarkable. While his own vision of Jesus appears flawed to us, his
analysis of the search for a Jesus of history which preceded him remains and
important contribution to the Christian life.
 The Sea of Faith, BBC, 1984
 The Quest of the Historical Jesus, A & C Black, 1910
 Jesus Through the Centuries, Yale University Press, 1999
 Paul and His Interpreters, A & C Black, 1912
 My Life and Thought, Allen & Unwin, 1954 quoted by Cupitt
 Religion and Change, Hodder & Stoughton, 1969
 The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech, SCM Press, 1999
 Civilisation and Ethics, 1923 quoted by D L Edwards