First in this line was Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), a philosopher and writer who leaned, like many U.S. Founding Fathers, toward Deism. In a small work originally circulated only among friends, he argued that Jesus was a Jewish political preacher who proposed a worldly new order. Pointing out differences between Jesus’ preaching and that of the apostles, Reimarus deemed Christianity an invention of the disciples, who stole Jesus’ body to fake his resurrection.
Reimarus set scholars off to the races on a new kind of research. The general public became involved only when David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) published his 1835 attempt at a historical portrayal in his Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined). The work instantly earned a reviewer’s sobriquet of “Iscariotism of our days” (a reference to Judas Iscariot), setting off a European scandal.
Originally a seminary student, Strauss later studied at the University of Tubingen, an association that makes him one of the first academics known in theological circles as the “wild boars” who came roaring out of the Black Forest. He studied for a year in Berlin under Schleiermacher and Hegel before returning to Tubingen.
In his Life of Jesus, Strauss did not go so far as to deny Jesus’ existence, but he called the miracles in the New Testament “mythical” additions. At the time, biblical scholars were divided between rationalists, who found logical and rational explanations for the seemingly miraculous, and supernaturalists, who defended the historical accuracy of biblical accounts and their claims of direct divine intervention. Strauss took a third way: he explained miracles as myths developed by early Christians as their faith in Jesus developed. This ushered in what was then an entirely new textual and historical approach to the rise of Christianity, which he called the theory of “demythologization.”
Strauss was excoriated by the traditional elements of society (Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, called Das Leben Jesu “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell”) and their supernaturalist academic cohorts as well as by the rationalists, notably Hegel fellow alum Bruno Bauer. The latter, also known for his association with Karl Marx and later Friedrich Nietzsche, was chosen by Hegelians to refute Strauss in their Journal of Philosophical Criticism, in which Bauer debunked Strauss’ claims to draw on Hegel, showing that they came from Schleiermacher instead.
The first academic movement of demythologization went far beyond the arcane disputes between Strauss and Bauer. It is best described by the title of a 1906 work by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, a ground-breaking history of early modern biblical studies. What matters for the purposes of faith is not so much the original rumblings and battles of debunkers as their effect on most serious biblical interpreters—except the most literalist.
Between the 1830s and the end of the 19th century, Schleiermacher’s approach expanded into entire fields of study. These started with textual criticism, or an examination of the text to identify its origin and trace its history, often by spotting errors that crept in as generations of scribes copied manuscripts.
Another skein is source criticism, which looks for the sources behind a biblical book or passage. Using this approach, traceable to 17th-century French priest Richard Simon, one of the most influential 19th century biblical scholars, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), developed a now widely accepted four-source documentary theory about most of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, attributed to Moses.
Wellhausen collated bits and pieces of various scholars’ theories about the Pentateuch. He expanded on source criticism to study the texts’ internal consistency (redaction criticism) and how various passages are woven together (form criticism) and arrived at four sources identifiable in the text by their characteristics. Scholars gave the sources, authors or schools of scribes the following names:
- Jehovist (J), also called Yahwist (Jahwist in German), estimated to have been composed around 850 BCE, calls God Yahweh and includes much of Genesis and parts of Exodus and Numbers.
- Elohist (E) from the use of the Hebrew name for God, Elohim, starts with Gen. 15, overlaps with J and dates to about 750 BCE.
- Deuteronomist (D), identified originally by Wilhelm de Wette as material found only in Deuteronomy, believed to be composed around 621 BCE.
- Priestly (P), a source split off from E that gave us material from Gen. 1 through Moses’ death at the end of Deuteronomy, probably written down around 500 BCE.
Although the four-source theory has enjoyed broad consensus, in recent years some elements have been called into question. Still, it provides very useful insight to readers who are not scholars.
For example, the current text of the story of the universal flood in Genesis 6 through 9 contains two distinct interwoven narratives (J and E). Why did the rabbis of the 5th and 6th century BCE weave them together? Because both were ancient and revered narratives retold by people of faith the rabbis did not feel authorized to undercut. This helps the nonscholar begin to grasp that biblical texts cannot be read as glibly as the morning newspaper or a religion blog.
Biblical criticism also stumbled, in the New Testament, with what is known as the Synoptic Problem: how is it that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke can be read as more or less parallel (in Greek, synoptikos) accounts, yet sometimes disagree in content, wording (including occasional key sayings) and order? Most of Mark is found in Matthew, but only about half of Mark is in Luke; in Matthew and Luke some 235 verses (someone actually counted) are very similar.
The answer, scholars still say, is the two-source theory. Introduced in 1838 by Christian Hermann Weisse (1801-1866), it was not widely accepted among German academics until 1863, when Heinrich Julius Holtzmann (1832-1910) endorsed it. This united what had been a denominational divide among scholars. Before Holtzmann, Catholic scholars tended toward a theory dating to the school of St. Augustine of Hippo, that Matthew was the basis for Mark, which Luke used, along with Matthew. Protestant biblical scholars sided with the early biblical critic Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812), who argued that Matthew begat Luke who begat Mark.
Weisse, however, argued for two sources only. The first is Mark, which almost everyone now agrees is the earliest gospel. The second is a hypothetical lost collection of “sayings of Jesus,” a document known as Q, from the German Quelle (source).
There are, of course, numerous other questions and theories debated by biblical scholars and many other tools of criticism. The research has also bred innumerable arguments among Christians, some of which are best left for later. For now, it’s enough to have an inkling of what it means when a discussion of the Bible includes the words “scholars say.”