David Strauss

David Strauss
Portrait of David Strauss.

David Friedrich Strauss (or Strauß) (January 27, 1808, Ludwigsburg – February 8, 1874, Ludwigsburg) was a German theologian and writer. He scandalized Christian Europe with his portrayal of the "historical Jesus," whose divine nature he denied. His work was connected to the Tübingen School, which revolutionized study of the New Testament, early Christianity, and ancient religions. Strauss was a pioneer in the historical investigation of Jesus.



Strauss was born at Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart. At twelve he was sent to the Protestant (evangelische Gr.)seminary at Blaubeuren, near Ulm, to be prepared for the study of theology. Amongst the principal masters in the school were Professors Friedrich Heinrich Kern (1790–1842) and Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860), who taught their pupils a deep love of the ancient classics and the principles of textual criticism, which could be applied to texts in the sacred tradition as well as to classical ones. In 1825 Strauss entered the University of Tübingen. The professors of philosophy there failed to interest him, but he was strongly attracted by the writings of Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834). In 1830 he became assistant to a country clergyman, and nine months later accepted the post of professor in the Evangelical Seminaries of Maulbronn and Blaubeuren, where he would teach Latin, history and Hebrew.

In October 1831 Strauss resigned his office in order to study under Schleiermacher and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) in Berlin. Hegel died just as he arrived, and, though Strauss regularly attended Schleiermacher's lectures, it was only those on the life of Jesus that exercised a powerful influence upon him. Strauss tried to find kindred spirits amongst the followers of Hegel, but was not successful. While under the influence of Hegel's distinction between Vorstellung and Begriff, Strauss had already conceived the ideas found in his two principal theological works: Das Leben Jesu (Life of Jesus) and Christliche Dogmatik (Christian Dogma). Hegelians generally would not accept his conclusions. In 1832 Strauss returned to Tübingen, lecturing on logic, Plato, the history of philosophy and ethics with great success. However, in the autumn of 1833 he resigned this position in order to devote all his time to the completion of his Das Leben Jesu, published when he was 27 years old. The full original title of this work is Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (Tübingen: 1835-1836), and it was translated from the fourth German edition into English by George Eliot (Marian Evans) (1819–1880) and published under the title The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (3 vols., London, 1846).

Since the Hegelians in general rejected his Life of Jesus, Strauss defended his work in a booklet titled Streitschriften zur Verteidigung meiner Schrift uber das Leben Jesu und zur Charakteristik der gegenwartigen Theologie (Tübingen: E. F. Osiander, 1837), which was finally translated into English by Marilyn Chapin Massey and published under the title In Defense of My 'Life of Jesus' Against the Hegelians (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1983). The famous scholar Bruno Bauer (1809–1882) led the attack of the Hegelians on Strauss, and Bauer continued to attack Strauss in academic journals for years. When young Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche ( 1844–1900 ) began to write criticisms of Strauss, Bauer gave Nietzsche every support he could afford. In the third edition (1839) of Das Leben Jesu, and in Zwei friedliche Blatter (Two Peaceful Letters), Strauss made important concessions to his critics, some of which he withdrew, however, in the fourth edition (1840) of Das Leben Jesu.

Das Leben Jesu

Strauss's Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined) was a sensation. Carl August von Eschenmayer wrote a review in 1835 called "The Iscariotism of our days" (a review which Strauss characterised as 'the offspring of the legitimate marriage between theological ignorance and religious intolerance, blessed by a sleep-walking philosophy'). The Earl of Shaftesbury called the 1846 translation by Marian Evans "the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell." When Strauss was elected to a chair of theology in the University of Zürich, the appointment provoked such a storm of controversy that the authorities decided to pension him before he began his duties.

What made Das Leben Jesu so controversial was Strauss's characterization of the miraculous elements in the gospels as being "mythical" in character. Strauss's Das Leben Jesu closed a period in which scholars wrestled with the miraculous nature of the New Testament in the rational views of the Enlightenment. One group consisted of "rationalists", who found logical, rational explanations for the apparently miraculous occurrences; the other group, the "supernaturalists", defended not only the historical accuracy of the biblical accounts, but also the element of direct divine intervention. Strauss dispels the actuality of the stories as "happenings" and reads them solely on a mythic level. Moving from miracle to miracle, he understood all 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. With time the book created a new epoch in the textual and historical treatment of the rise of Christianity.

In 1840 and the following year Strauss published his On Christian Doctrine (Christliche Glaubenslehre) in two volumes. The main principle of this new work was that the history of Christian doctrines has basically been the history of their disintegration.

Interlude (1841–1860)

With the publication of his Christliche Glaubenslehre, Strauss took leave of theology for over twenty years. In August 1841, he married Agnese Schebest (1813–1869), a cultivated and beautiful mezzo soprano of high repute as an opera singer. Five years afterwards, after two children had been born, they agreed to separate.

Strauss resumed his literary activity by the 1847 publication in Mannheim of Der Romantiker auf dem Thron der Cäsaren ("A Romantic on the Throne of the Caesars"), in which he drew a satirical parallel between Julian the Apostate and Frederick William IV of Prussia. The ancient Roman Emperor who tried to reverse the advance of Christianity was presented as "an unworldly dreamer, a man who turned nostalgia for the ancients into a way of life and whose eyes were closed to the pressing needs of the present" [1] - a thinly veiled reference to the contemporary Prussian King's well-known romantic dreams of restoring the supposed glories of feudal Medieval society.

In 1848 he was nominated a member of the Frankfurt Parliament, but was defeated by Christoph Hoffmann (1815–1885). He was elected for the Württemberg chamber, but his actions were so conservative that his constituents requested him to resign his seat. He forgot his political disappointments in the production of a series of biographical works, which secured him a permanent place in German literature (Schubarts Leben, 2 vols., 1849; Christian Morklin, 1851; Nikodemus Frischlin, 1855; Ulrich von Hutten, 3 vols., 1858–1860, 6th ed. 1895)

Later works

David Strauß in 1874

In 1862, with a biography of H.S. Reimarus, he returned to theology, and two years afterward (1864) published his Life of Jesus for the German People (Das Leben Jesu für das deutsche Volk) (13th ed., 1904). It failed to produce an effect comparable with that of the first Life, but the replies to it were many, and Strauss answered them in his pamphlet Die Halben und die Ganzen (1865), directed specially against Daniel Schenkel ( 1813–1885 ) and Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg ( 1802–1869 ).

His The Christ of Belief and the Jesus of History (Der Christus des Glaubens und der Jesus der Geschichte) (1865) is a severe criticism of Schleiermacher's lectures on the life of Jesus, which were then first published. From 1865 to 1872 Strauss lived in Darmstadt, and in 1870 he published his lectures on Voltaire. His last work, Der alte und der neue Glaube (1872; English translation by M Blind, 1873), produced almost as great a sensation as his Life of Jesus, and not least amongst Strauss's own friends, who wondered at his one-sided view of Christianity and his professed abandonment of spiritual philosophy for the materialism of modern science.[citation needed] To the fourth edition of the book he added an Afterword as Foreword (Nachwort als Vorwort) (1873). The same year symptoms of a fatal malady appeared, and death followed on the 8th of February 1874.


F. C. Baur once complained that Strauss's critique of the history in the gospels was not based on a thorough examination of the manuscript traditions of the documents themselves.

As Albert Schweitzer wrote in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906; ET 1910), Strauss's arguments "filled in the death-certificates of a whole series of explanations which, at first sight, have all the air of being alive, but are not really so." He adds that there are two broad periods of academic research in the quest for the historical Jesus, namely, "the period before David Strauss and the period after David Strauss." Marcus Borg has suggested that "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."[2]

One of the more controversial interpretations that Strauss introduced to the understanding of the historical Jesus, is his interpretation of Virgin Birth. In the Demythologization[verification needed], Strauss's response was reminiscent of the German Rationalist movement in Protestant theology. According to Strauss, Jesus' Virgin Birth was added to the biography of Jesus, as a legend in order to honor him in the way that Gentiles most often honored their greatest historical figures. However, Strauss believed that greater honour would be given to Christ if the Virgin Birth were not present and Joseph recognised as the legitimate father of Christ.


Strauss's works, without Christliche Dogmatik, were published in a collected edition in 12 volumes by Eduard Zeller. Strauss's Ausgewählte Briefe appeared in 1895.


  1. ^ Christopher Clark, "Iron Kingdom", P. 446
  2. ^ Marcus Borg, David Friedrich Strauss:Miracles and Myth.
  •  Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). "Strauss, David Friedrich". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.  This work in turn cites:
    • Zeller, David Friedrich Strauss in seinem Leben und seinen Schriften (1874)
    • Adolph Hausrath, D. F. Strauss und der Theologie seiner Zeit (2 vols., 1876–1878)
    • F. T. Vischer, Kritische Gänge (1844), vol. i
    • F. T. Vischer, Altes und Neues (1882), vol. iii
    • R. Gottschall, Literarische Charakterköpfe (1896), vol. iv
    • S. Eck, D. F. Strauss (1899)
    • K. Harraeus, D. F. Strauss, sein Leben und seine Schriften (1901)
    • T. Ziegler, D. F. Strauss (2 vols, 1908–1909)

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