Thursday, January 20, 2011

Happy Belated Birthday to Dr. Albert Schweitzer

Dr. Mark Goodacre's entry on the 14th reminded me, shamefully, of the birthday of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Most know Dr. Schweitzer either as the medical missionary who worked in the Congo or as the Noble Prize winning humanist who fought hard to ban nuclear testing. But he was also a renown philosopher, theologian, and biblical studies scholar. For my own part it's his work in religion, specifically concerning the historical Jesus that was of most importance to me when I was in undergrad. Most scholars in the few centuries prior to Schweitzer reconstructed the historical Jesus essentially according to their own individual inclinations at the time which with some variation usually entailed an emphasis on the ethics of Jesus with a rationalist explanation of the miracles attributed to him by the gospels (though some such as David Friedrich Strauss [1808-1874] went further and suggested that the miracles were simply mythical constructs).

Schweitzer basically demolished these previous studies in a published work entitled The Quest of the Historical Jesus which did two things: (1) exhibited how prior scholars had reconstructed the historical Jesus in their own image and (2) offered it's own interpretation and analysis with "late Jewish eschatology" as the essential paradigm in which to reconstruct the historical Jesus. Schweitzer's reconstruction of the historical Jesus resulted in a deluded apocalyptic fanatic who believed his preaching would bring about the "end". But when this failed Jesus thought he could then force the "end" to come by taking upon himself the Messianic woes (which according to some of the post-exilic Hebrew literature usually was thought to precede the end times) which took the form of being crucified. However, the "end" did not come and so in this sense Jesus' mission was a failure. But for Schweitzer, who remained very religious for the rest of his life, this did not mean that Jesus no longer had any significance for he famously concluded his reconstruction of the historical Jesus with the following:

"He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words, "Follow thou me!", and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is." (The Quest of the Historical Jesus, p 403)

Now Schweitzer's reconstruction of the historical Jesus has many problems but its key component, namely, the emphasis on the Jewish eschatological (apocalyptic) milieu as the paradigm for any reconstruction of the historical Jesus remains, in my opinion, unassailable. Schweitzer's work on the historical Jesus would go on to influence generations of scholars including the likes of E.P. Sanders (on whose work I have blogged about here, here, here, and here), Dale Allison, NT Wright, John Meier, et al. But eventually, Schweitzer went on to abandon his scholarly ruminations on the historical Jesus (though he did continue to dabble from time to time in Pauline studies) to become the great humanist that most remember him. He was certainly a great man and though I don't want to disparage his humanist activities it is somewhat unfortunate that he never contributed further insights to the field of historical Jesus studies. The irony here is that I too, at least for an indefinite period of time, have abandoned my own original field of study, namely, biblical studies and specifically the historical Jesus to work on other historical interests. Regardless, Albert Schweitzer was an amazing figure of history whose impact will continue to be felt. It is his memory that I wish to, belatedly, celebrate today.

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