" Man Or cod"
From a Correspondent
Owing to the sudden way in whfth my wanderings were ended and I was brought into the Church. I never went through a proper course of preparatory reading, so have always been more tongue-tied than most when asked the familiar question : What hooks would you recommend to an enquirer after the truth? But that is perhaps hardly a sufficient defence of my action in recommending to an agnostic friend one of the most destructive books on the Gospels ever penned.
The book was the masterpiece of Albert Schweitzer, theologian, musician, and afterwards medical missionary. Its title in its English translation is The Quest of the Historical Jesus. I recommended it in my early days in the Church, when my sense of the part it had played in my own spiritual liberation was still vivid.
A Critical Masterpiece
The book consists of a survey of a long series of attempts at reconstructing the life and character of Jesus from the Gospels. It is concerned only with those made on a " critical" basis (by which Schweitzer meant rationalistic) and includes, if I remember right, some fifty of them, going back for a hundred years. Vividly and skilfully it analyses each in turn and shows that they have certain things in common underlying their obvious differences. None of them portrays a consistent character without doing violence to the Gospels on which it professes to be based. Each of them depends on selecting certain passages from the Gospels and rejecting or slurring over the rest. In no two cases have the writers of the Lives selected the same passages, and in every case the result has been a portrait of Jesus reflecting the writer's own religious ideal or critical standpoint.
Thus Renan portrayed a sentimental Frenchman with liquid brown eyes. Isiarnacte's Jesus was imbued with the ideals of German Liberal Protestantism. An opposed school of critics, demanding a strictly " historical portrait, that is to say, one limited to the outlook of the Jews of Christ's day, produced a gallery of deluded fanatics as
the " real Jesus." Then, having demonstrated the common error in these fifty portraits, Schweitzer ends the book by perpetrating precisely the same error himself in a fifty-first.
The Scales Fall
I read this book in, I think, the third summer of the Great War. Up to that point my religion as a conscientious objector had led me to a purely humani
tarian view of Jesus. I had become a Bible-reader, or at leaSt a Gospel-reader again, though an entirely rationalistic .one, and had 'discovered in Jesus a pacifist Englishman,' thus perfectly exemplifying Schweitzer's thesis: I had even spent a good deal of time in making new translations of the Gospels from the Greek into common and sometimes vulgar English designed to convey this portrait to the common people.
One reading of Schweitzer swept this view of the Gospels away for ever. Never again could I unquestioningly think of the Jesus of the Gospels as a mere man, or as a mere humanitarian. T regarded it as proved that every portrait on these Lives must contradict itself or the Gospels somewhere. I read the Gospels again, particularly the Gospel of St. Mark; and this Gospel, which I had previously selected for my translations because (on the current view) it was the most primitive Gospel showing most traces of " the human Jesus," now revealed a new aspect. As if scales had fallen from my eyes, I suddenly saw the portrait in St. Mark as the portrait of a god.
I drew the conclusion that I still think perfectly logical, granted my premises. " Since," I argued to myself, " the earliest Gospel is the portrait of a god, and since no one can be god and man at the same time, Jesus never lived and the Gospels are the embodiment of a myth."
Though Schweitzer's book was not responsible for the bitter reaction against the religious accompaniments of my pacifism that followed the war, it was certainly the cause of it taking the form of a determination to expose the whole story of Christianity as a tissue of myth-making from beginning to end.
One Road to Rome
" All roads lead to Rome," and this is hardly one of the most direct. Yet this sharp turn was necessary and salutary for me. It cleared my mind once and for all of by far the most tenacious error of " the modern mind " about the Gospels, and substituted an error that contained a truth that 1 had rejected, as I thought finally, years before. The suggestion that Jesus might be God Incarnate would have encountered unyielding resistance. The suggestion that He might be a God (in a myth) led me to take note of phrases and episodes in the Gospels which I had either simply not noticed before or else dismissed as interpolations on a priori grounds.
At the same time .1 never surrendered completely to the view that Jesus had had no historical existence. My historical training helped me there. I inclined to think that there was some historical person on whom a mythology compounded of Jewish prophecies and pagan saviour gods had been hung. Three years after reading Schweitzer and a few months before my conversion, 1 had sufficient hold on the possibility that Jesus had lived to reply to a clergyman friend who had quoted His teaching upon a great question: " If Jesus said that he was wrong "!