Hermann Samuel Reimarus

Hermann Samuel Reimarus

Hermann Samuel Reimarus (December 22, 1694, Hamburg - March 1, 1768, Hamburg), was a German philosopher and writer of the Enlightenment who is remembered for his Deism, the doctrine that human reason can arrive at a knowledge of God and ethics from a study of nature and our own internal reality, thus eliminating the need for religions based on revelation. He denied the reality of miracles and is credited by some with initiating historians' investigation of the historical Jesus.


Reimarus was educated by his father and by the scholar J. A. Fabricius, whose son-in-law he subsequently became. He studied theology, ancient languages, and philosophy at the university of Jena, became "Privatdozent" at the University of Wittenberg in 1716, and in 1720-21 visited the Netherlands and England. In 1723 he became rector of the high school at Wismar, and in 1727 professor of Hebrew and Oriental languages at his native city's high school. Although he was offered more lucrative positions by other schools, he held this post until his death.

His duties were light; and he employed his leisure in the study of philology, mathematics, philosophy, history, political economy, science and natural history, for which he made large collections. His house was the center of the highest culture of Hamburg; and a monument of his influence in that city still remains in the "Haus der patriotischen Gesellschaft", where the learned and artistic societies partly founded by him still meet. He had seven children, only three of whom survived him - the distinguished physician Johann Albrecht Heinrich, and two daughters, one of them being Elise, Lessing's friend and correspondent. He died on March 1 1768.


Reimarus's reputation as a scholar rests on the valuable edition of "Dio Cassius" (1750-52) which he prepared from the materials collected by J. A. Fabricius. He published a work on logic ("Vernunftlehre als Anweisung zum richtigen Gebrauche der Vernunft", 1756, 5th ed., 1790), and two popular books on the religious questions of the day. The first of these was a collection of essays on the principal truths of natural religion ("Abhandlungen von den vornehmsten Wahrheiten der natürlichen Religion", 1755, 7th ed., 1798); the second ("Betrachtungen über die Triebe der Thiere", 1760, 4th ed., 1798) dealt with one particular branch of the same subject. But his main contribution to theological science was his analysis of the historical Jesus, which he left unpublished. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing revealed part of it as "Fragments by an Anonymous Writer" ("Wolfenbütteler Fragmente"(1774-1778), giving rise to what is known as the "Fragmentenstreit"). This had a deep impact as the beginning of critical research of the "historical Jesus" (see below).

Philosophical position

His philosophical position is essentially that of Christian Wolff. But he is best known by his "Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes" (carefully kept back during his lifetime), from which, after his death, Lessing published certain chapters under the title of the "Wolfenbütteler Fragmente". The original manuscript is in the Hamburg town library; a copy was made for the university library of Göttingen, 1814, and other copies are known to exist. In addition to the seven fragments published by Lessing, a second portion of the work was issued in 1787 by C. A. E. Schmidt (a pseudonym), under the title "Übrige noch ungedruckte Werke des Wolfenbüttelschen Fragmentisten", and a further portion by D. W. Klose in C. W. Niedner's "Zeitschrift für historische Theologie", 1850-52. Two of the five books of the first part and the whole of the second part, as well as appendices on the canon, remain unprinted. But D. F. Strauss has given an exhaustive analysis of the whole work in his book on Reimarus.

The standpoint of the "Apologie" is that of pure naturalistic deism. Miracles and mysteries are denied and natural religion is put forward as the absolute contradiction of revealed. The essential truths of the former are the existence of a wise and good Creator and the immortality of the soul. These truths are discoverable by reason, and are such as can constitute the basis of a universal religion. A revealed religion could never obtain universality, as it could never be intelligible and credible to all men. Even supposing its possibility, the Bible does not present such a revelation. It abounds in error as to matters of fact, contradicts human experience, reason and morals, and is one tissue of folly, deceit, enthusiasm, selfishness and crime. Moreover, it is not a doctrinal compendium, or catechism, which a revelation would have to be. What the Old Testament says of the worship of God is little, and that little worthless, while its writers are unacquainted with the second fundamental truth of religion, the immortality of the soul (see sheol). The design of the writers of the New Testament, as well as that of Jesus, was not to teach true rational religion, but to serve their own selfish ambitions, in promoting which they exhibit an amazing combination of conscious fraud and enthusiasm. It is important, however, to remember that Reimarus attacked atheism with equal effect and sincerity, and that he was a man of high moral character, respected and esteemed by his contemporaries.


Modern estimates of Reimarus may be found in the works of B. Punjer, Otto Pfleiderer and Harald Høffding. Pünjer states the position of Reimarus as follows: "God is the Creator of the world, and His wisdom and goodness are conspicuous in it. Immortality is founded upon the essential nature of man and upon the purpose of God in creation. Religion is conducive to our happiness and alone brings satisfaction. Miracles are at variance with the divine purpose; without miracles there could be no revelation" (Pünjer, "History of Christian Philosophy of Religion since Kant", Engl. trans., pp. 550-57, which contains an exposition of the "Abhandlungen" and "Schutzschrift").

:God cannot interrupt His own work by miracles; nor can He favour some men above others by revelations which are not granted to all, and with which it is not even possible for all to become acquainted. But of all doctrines that of eternal punishment is most contrary, Reimarus thinks, to true ideas of God; and it was this point which first caused him to stumble" ("History of Modern Phil.", Eng. trans. (1900), vol. ii. pp. 12, 13).

The work of Reimarus is highly praised in Albert Schweitzer’s "Von Reimarus zu Wrede" (translated by W. Montgomery as "The Quest of the Historical Jesus"). While calling the views expressed in the Fragments mistaken in some respects and one-sided, Schweitzer describes the essay on “The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples” as not only “one of the greatest events in the history of criticism” but also “a masterpiece of general literature”. The Third Fragment “On the Passing of the Israelites Through the Red Sea” is said to be “one of the ablest, wittiest and most acute which has ever been written”. Richard N. Soulen ("Handbook of Biblical Criticism", Atlanta 1981, pp. 166-7) points out that Reimarus: "is treated as the initiator of "Lives of Jesus Research" by Schweitzer and accorded special honor by him for recognizing that Jesus' thought-world was essentially eschatological, a fact overlooked until the end of the 19th cent.

Werner Georg Kümmel argues that Reimarus saw the need to distinguish between the proclamation of the historical Jesus and the proclamation of the Early Church and to ask to what extent Jesus himself is the origin of his followers' break with Judaism".

Further reading

See the "Fragmente" as published by Lessing, reprinted in vol. xv. of "Lessings Werke", Hempel's edition; D. F. Strauss, "H. S. Reimarus und seine Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes" (1862, 2nd ed. 1877); Charles Voysey, "Fragments from Reimarus" (London, 1879) (a translation of the life of Reimarus by Strauss, with the second part of the seventh fragment, on the "Object of Jesus and his Disciples"); the "Lives of Lessing" by Danzel and G. E. Guhrauer, Sime, and Zimmern; Kuno Fischer, "Geschichte der neuern Philosophie" (vol. ii. pp. 759-72, 2nd ed. 1867); Eduard Zeller, "Geschichte der deutschen Philosophie" (2nd ed., 1875, pp. 243-46). Charles H. Talbert, ed., "Reimarus: Fragments" (Fortress Press, 1970) (Contains "On the Intention of Jesus and His Teaching", translated by Ralph S. Fraser).

External links

* [http://homepages.which.net/~radical.faith/thought/reimarus.htm Radical Faith - exploring faith in a changed world: "Hermann Reimarus"]
* [http://homepages.which.net/~radical.faith/thought/lessing.htm Radical Faith - exploring faith in a changed world: "G. E. Lessing"]
* [http://www.ccel.org/php/disp.php?authorID=schaff&bookID=encyc12&page=402&view New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. XII, pp. 402-403: "Wolfenbüttel Fragments"]
* [http://homes.rhein-zeitung.de/~ahipler/kritik/reimarus.htm "Fragmente eines Ungenannten (Hrsg. Lessing"] (Note that the common engl. translation "Fragments by an Unknown Author" is misleading; the German adjective "ungenannt" means "anonymous".)
* [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/schweitzer/chapter2.html Peter Kirby, "The Quest of the Historical Jesus: Chapter II: Hermann Samuel Reimarus"]
* [http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9063095 Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service: "Reimarus, Hermann Samuel"]
*http://www.gkoehn.com/dynamic/reimarus.htm (English translation of the Third Fragment "Passing of the Israelites Through the Red Sea")----

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