On David Strauss’ Life of Jesus

In Hermeneutics, Anthony Thiselton suggests that David Strauss was a disciple of Hegel and, as a result, this discipleship comes to bear on Strauss making a distinction between “representations” in religion and “critical concepts” in philosophy.[1] This Hegelian approach is exemplified in Strauss’s Life of Jesus, where, as Thiselton argues, “[Strauss] argued that the Gospels were largely mythical, not historical.”[2] From here, Thiselton cites Hans Frei’s essay on Strauss as it appears in the Nineteenth Century Religious Thought in the West. In this, as argued through Thiselton, Frei makes the following claim about Strauss: “myths are ideas presented in the form of narrative. Miracles and the supernatural are abandoned.”[3] So, for Strauss, particularly through his appropriation of Hegel, in order to truly and effectively interpret Biblical texts and the “life of Jesus,” it becomes important to separate history from myth, so that the mythological elements of Biblical narrative are uncovered.

Allow me to consider how David Jasper depicts Strauss. In A Short Introduction of Hermeneutics, Jasper denotes that Strauss’s Life of Jesus is the single most important book on the whole history of nineteenth-century hermeneutics and that, essentially, it embarks on “a hermeneutics of suspicion with a vengeance.[4] As a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” particularly if using Paul Ricoeur’s definition of the term, Strauss’s view of hermeneutics is focused on looking beyond the text. Just as Jasper suggests, Strauss’s approach to biblical interpretation is one of a critical study of literary methods evident in Biblical texts and a use of sources by the Biblical authors.[5] In this regard, Strauss, as Jasper further argues, “wished to free the reading of Scripture entirely from all religious and dogmatic presuppositions.”[6] In doing so, Jasper outlines Strauss’s study of the Gospels by way of two clear principles: miracles do not happen, and all ancient, whether it is sacred or profane, should be treated alike.[7] Essentially, for Strauss, the Bible should be treated as a text, and, more importantly, as a text that must be encountered not strictly by what is in the text, but what forces come to bear on the creation of that text. This, of course, means that Strauss is, as Jasper rightly contends, “shows an impatience with the Christian history of hermeneutics of faith.”[8] Because of this, Strauss, if arguing through Jasper, believes that “the task of the hermeneut is to unravel [the] primitive myth [in Biblical texts] and to discover the truth, which is accessible only by vigorous scientific inquiry.”[9] As such, Strauss’s Life of Jesus is devoted to “vigorous scientific inquiry.”

But, according to Karl Barth, the key to understanding Strauss is not just through Life of Jesus, but through what I will call later-Strauss, the Strauss of 1864. In Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, Karl Barth makes the following summarization of Strauss in 1864:

…Strauss thought that there was a historical core to the ‘life of Jesus,’ which was shrouded in a veil of myth. With John it was a thick veil, with the Synoptics not so thick, but on the whole it was not impenetrable. It was difficult but not quite impossible to distinguish the core as such. This core consists in a human personality which made actual to a high degree the religious disposition, and to this extent the disposition of man as such. Together with others of its kind[,] this personality should be assess by us not, indeed, as the basis, in the strict sense, for our achievement of our human destiny, but certainly as the means towards this end.[10]

In this admittedly lengthy quote, I find that Barth is not limiting his understanding of Strauss to the 1835-36 version of Life of Jesus, but suggesting that Strauss’s thought evolved in the nearly thirty years since the publication of Life of Jesus, culminating in a second edition. Barth’s point is two-fold. On one hand, by offering a view of later-Strauss, Barth is fully aware that later-Strauss differs from the Strauss of Life of Jesus. In this respect, Barth contends that, if Strauss had originally proposed that a mythological perspective to Biblical narrative is not all-encompassing, “[Life of Jesus] would definitely not have become famous, and it would not have cost its author his place at the university.”[11] So, if following Barth’s opinion of Strauss a bit further, not only is it evident that Barth describes Strauss as being no great theologian, but that Strauss has an ultimate goal to his mythological approach to Life of Jesus and other theological writing. As Barth offers in Strauss’s own words, “the only aim of all my theological writing was to free me from the black folds of the cassock; and in this it succeeded perfectly.”[12]


[1] Anthony C. Thiselton, Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 145.

[2] Ibid. 145-146

[3] Ibid., 145.

[4] David Jasper, A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 91.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 539-540.

[11] Ibid., 540 .

[12] Ibid., 552.


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