David Friedrich Strauss

Miracle and Myth

Marcus Borg

The Fourth R
Volume 4-3
May–June 1991

Of all the books on the historical Jesus published in the nineteenth century, David Friedrich Strauss's The Life of Jesus (1835) has had the most enduring significance. It belongs with two others as landmarks in the early history of Jesus scholarship: Hermann Samuel Reimarus' The Aim of Jesus and His Disciples (1778), typically seen as marking the birth of modern historical study of Jesus; and Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), which brought the early phase of Jesus scholarship to a close and set the agenda for much of twentieth-century scholarship.

Strauss was a young man when he published his two-volume work of over 1,400 densely written pages. Born in 1808 in a village near Stuttgart, he studied theology at Tübingen and by age 22 was a vicar in a country church in southwestern Germany. Shortly thereafter, he went to the University of Berlin to study with Hegel, who died almost immediately after Strauss's arrival. In 1832, at age 24, Strauss was back at Tübingen as a tutor and lecturer, and at age 27 his magisterial work was published.

It was wildly controversial. One reviewer called it "the Iscariotism of our days" and another "the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell." The book went through several editions, and within ten years had been translated into English by Marian Evans, better known in English literature as George Eliot. It cost Strauss his university career. Dismissed from his position at Tübingen, he then secured an appointment at Zurich, only to be pensioned off before he gave his first lecture. He never again had a teaching appointment. During the rest of his life, he wrote a number of other books (including another "Life of Jesus" in 1864, aimed at a popular audience), entered into an unhappy marriage with an opera star in 1842, dabbled in politics, and died in 1874. At his own request, he was buried without Christian ceremony.

Strauss's The Life of Jesus ... was wildly controversial. One reviewer called it "the Iscariotism of our days" and another "the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell." ... It cost Strauss his university career.

What made his book so controversial was his treatment of much of the gospels (especially the miraculous elements) as "mythical" in character. To appreciate his contribution, we must set his argument in the context of the theological and biblical controversies of his day. In the decades prior to Strauss, theologians, scholars, and church people were struggling with the impact of the Enlightenment upon the Bible. Much of the struggle concerned how to understand stories of the miraculous. Two major positions — "rationalist" and "supernaturalist" — warred with each other. "Rationalist" scholars (many of whom were deists) claimed that violations of the laws of nature were impossible, that "miracles" could not happen, and hence sought a natural explanation of the miracle texts.[two_thirds]

Interestingly, the rationalists accepted a historical basis for the miracle stories in the gospels, but denied that miraculous causation was involved. For example, they affirmed that the disciples really thought they saw Jesus walking on the water, but in fact he was walking on a row of submerged rocks just below the surface of the water. Similarly, the disciples thought that Jesus stilled a storm on the Sea of Galilee, but what really happened is that the boat in which they were traveling rounded a headland which cut off the wind just as Jesus said, "Peace, be still." "Supernaturalists," on the other hand, defended not only the historical accuracy of the biblical accounts, but also the element of direct divine causation. For them, the miracles were exactly what they appeared to be: divine interventions into the natural order.

Strauss disagreed with both, and argued for a third approach. His method can best be illustrated by looking at his treatment of a particular miracle story, Jesus' feeding of 5,000 people with a few loaves and fishes. The story is found in both the synoptics (Mark 6:30–44, with parallels in Matt 14:13–21 and Luke 9:10–17), and in somewhat different form in John 6. Strauss attacked the rationalist approach. Noting that, according to John's version, a young boy contributes the five loaves and two fishes, the rationalists argued that the boy's example motivated others in the crowd to share the provisions which they had brought with them, and so 5,000 people were unexpectedly fed "in a desert place." For the rationalists, the "happenedness" of the story remains, but the miracle disappears. It becomes instead a story about the importance of sharing. Strauss argues that this approach destroys the plain meaning of the text: the text purports to report a miracle. Strauss also attacked the supernaturalist reading of the text, which asserted that taking the text seriously means believing that Jesus really multiplied five loaves and two fishes into an amount sufficient to feed 5,000 people.

Strauss invites us to enter into the scene by asking us to imagine when the multiplication could have occurred and what we might have seen if we had been there. He suggests a number of possibilities. First, Jesus could have multiplied the loaves and fishes all at once, so that if we had been there, we would have seen an enormous pile of bread and fish appearing all at once. Or the multiplication could have occurred as Jesus handed the loaves and fishes to the disciples, or as the disciples distributed the food to the crowd—and so we would have seen loaves and fishes miraculously being replaced in his hands or in their hands. Strauss finds all of these options impossible to imagine. As soon as the story is exposed to the sober light of history, he suggests, it disappears as a historical story.


David Friedrich Strauss. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Having rejected both the rationalist and supernaturalist approaches, Strauss then argues for a mythical approach. Rather than reporting something that really happened (with either a rational or supernatural explanation), the text has a different purpose. Namely, the text uses the imagery of the early church's inherited religious and literary tradition (the Hebrew Bible as a whole, and in this particular case, the story in Exod 16.13–36 of God feeding the people of Israel in the wilderness with manna) to make a statement about the spiritual significance of Jesus. That is, the point of the text is not to report what Jesus did on a particular day, but to make the claim that Jesus is 'the bread of life' who feeds his followers with "spiritual food' even to this day. Strauss follows this same procedure with text after text. The virgin birth, Jesus' vision at his baptism, the story of his transfiguration, the healing miracles—all are understood as the product of the early church's use of Jewish ideas about what the Messiah would be like in order to express the conviction that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

Two other characteristics of Strauss' work are worth noting, both of which in retrospect make his argument sound quite modern. First, he favored the synoptics as more historical than John. Second, like Weiss and Schweitzer some sixty years later, he attributed a strong eschatological expectation to Jesus.

Though Strauss's book was called The Life of Jesus, it actually says relatively little about the historical Jesus. Instead, his main concern was the nature of the texts themselves, rather than the history of the figure behind the texts. Some are classified as "evangelical myths," others as "historical myths," others as "legends." The effect was to undermine the historicity of much of the gospel story. The details of Strauss's argument, his use of Hegelian philosophy, and even his definition of myth, have not had a lasting impact. Yet his basic claims - that many of the gospel narratives are mythical in character, and that "myth" is not simply to be equated with "falsehood" - have become part of mainstream scholarship. What was wildly controversial in Strauss's time has now become one of the standard tools of biblical scholars.

Copyright © 1991 Polebridge Press. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. Ed. Peter C. Hodgson. Trans. George Eliot. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972.

The most extended and easily accessible secondary account is found in: Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. New York: Macmillan, 1968. Chapters seven through nine.