The Social Context of the 19th Century Historical Jesus

Many Germans in the last part of the 19th century held the position that German Christianity should get rid of any Jewish influence ; Jesus ought to become more German. In order to make a plausible argument for this position some scholars turned to the suggestion of a mixed population in Galilee. They proposed that Jesus was not a Jew, but that he descended from this mixed population. The ultimate result was that Jesus maybe was an Aryan (Heschel 2007)! What made this such a dangerous idea was the growth of racial thinking in the end of the 19th century. From this viewpoint Jews did not only belong to a specific religious group, but to a separate race. This position was held by respected New Testament scholars in the 20th century, and they became actually supporters of the policies of killing Jews by the Nazi regime.

See Also: Jesus and the Rise of Nationalism: A New Quest for the Nineteenth Century Historical Jesus (I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2018).

By Halvor Moxnes
Professor Emeritus
Faculty of Theology
University of Oslo
May 2018

The 19th century studies of the historical Jesus seem to be of little interest today. They belong to the early phases of the studies of the historical Jesus and are read only by the historians of that research. Thus, these studies belong to the internal history of theological scholarship, which of course does not attract much interest beyond the specialists. Historical Jesus studies were for a long time the domain of Western theology. Most of its practitioners were from Northern Europe and North America. Since these groups were dominant, they tended to perceive of their own Jesus studies as universal, independent of local interests. The authoritative history of Jesus scholarship in the 19th century was Albert Schweitzer’s magisterial work, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906/1913), which still is regarded by many as an example of objective analysis. In Jesus and the Rise of Nationalism, I have attempted a new quest for the Historical Jesus in the 19th century (Moxnes 2012), reading studies of Jesus in light of the social and political context of nationalism in that century.

Together with most theologians today I hold that all theology by necessity is contextual. The initial documents in the New Testament were shaped by the contexts of experiences of their authors and hearers/readers. In the same way modern historical studies are formed by the contexts of the authors and their audiences. The contextual theologian, Stephen B. Bevans, says that the context of modern theologians has at least four aspects: “present human experience, social location, one’s cultural identity and change within a context (globalization, democratization” (Bevans, n.d).

I suggest exploring 19th century histories of Jesus in light of these aspects as examples of contextual theology. I will discuss three representatives of early Historical Jesus studies, two Germans, Friedrich Schleiermacher and D.F. Strauss, and one Frenchman, Ernest Renan.

The 19th century in Europe was a period of colonial expansion and empire-building when white Westerners came in closer contact with ethnic and religious “others.” In several regions in Europe the political situation changed from absolute monarchies and states based on princely rules to nation states based on participation by the people. That transition also reflected more recognition of “the people” as the source of cultural identities. Furthermore, natural sciences started raising the question of “the origin of the species”. That question was also addressed by the humanities, in terms of the beginnings of language and culture. As part of this general trend also the question of the origin of Christianity was raised, with the idea of going back to the historical Jesus, beyond the Christ proclaimed by the churches. After this brief sketch of some of the contexts of the 19th century, I will discuss how these three Jesus scholars responded to these contexts.

Jesus and his mission to the totality of the Jewish Land.

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) probably was the most influential theologian of the 19th century, since he shaped modern protestant thinking. He was a professor at the Berlin University (later known as the Humboldt University after its founder), where he gave his lectures on the historical Jesus regularly from 1819 until 1832 (Schleiermacher 1864, Moxnes 2012, 61-93). Schleiermacher framed them explicitly as a biography with the purpose of writing the life of Jesus as the life of a human person. His goal was to place Jesus within the context of his own time; he said that he wanted to place Jesus in interaction with “his time, age and people.” Schleiermacher’s purpose was to make the lectures relevant for his contemporaries; he wanted Jesus to be “an exemplary character” for his audience.

By choosing biography as the form for his life of Jesus Schleiermacher used a literary form that was very popular among the bourgeois elite in Germany in the 19th century. From the 18th century this social class became very influential, and biographies served to establish the bourgeois as ideals for people and to form their character. In addition to biographies of contemporaries, biographies of historical persons became popular. Schleiermacher presented Jesus as a model to be imitated. However, Schleiermacher met with criticism by theologians that he presented Jesus as a human being. He defended himself, not by using specifically theological arguments, but by describing Jesus as “a great man,” a term well known by 19th century audiences. It was a popular theory in the 19th century that history was driven forward by heroic individuals. Schleiermacher used this idea, but made it more democratic, in that he emphasized that not only did Jesus influence people, Jesus was himself influenced by the people. Thus, by describing Jesus in terms of a human biography, he broke with the dogmatic picture of Christ who was above people.

During much of the 19th century scholars discussed whether John or the Synoptic gospels was the most reliable source for the history of Jesus. One should think that this was a purely literary question, but it turned out also to be influenced by its context. Schleiermacher held that the Synoptics were mere “chronicles,” that is, collections of separate events. In John, however, he found a story that corresponded to his ideal of history: it presented a unity with an “inner meaning” to it. Schleiermacher found this inner meaning in Jesus’ relationship to the Jewish people, which he called a “nation.” This relationship was a result of what Jesus’ perceived as his main mission: to proclaim the gospel to the totality of the Jewish people. This perception of Jesus’ “inner calling” corresponded to his external activities. Since he was sent to all the Jewish people, his travels must take him to all parts of the land: Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee. Schleiermacher spoke of this as the “totality of the Jewish land.”

Here Schleiermacher saw a correspondence between Palestine at the time of Jesus and Germany of his own time. The Romans had split up the kingdom of Herod the Great and divided various territories of the kingdom between his three sons. Likewise, Germany at the time of Schleiermacher did not exist as a single state. There were many different states, ruled by various rulers. However, among philosophers and poets the idea of Germany as one people, one language and one land took hold, before the actual political unification in 1871. Schleiermacher took part in this first phase, arguing for the unity of the German lands, in a similar way as he presented Jesus’ mission to the totality of the Jewish land.

Jesus and a split nation

David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) was a young theologian when he published The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (Strauss1835-36, Moxnes 2012, 95-120). His main thesis was that the Gospel stories were not history, but myths that originated among early Christian communities. The result was that the book effectively undercut the very idea that it was possible to write a life of Jesus! Albert Schweitzer recognized the book as the most significant book on the historical Jesus in the 19th century. It became a reference point for modern New Testament studies, and prefigured the work of Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1986) on demythologization.

The book caused an immediate uproar; It had not only theological, but also strong political repercussions. Strauss’ thesis struck at the intersection between religion and politics. His criticism of the historical Jesus affected both Christology and the monarchy. The idea of Christ as a heavenly king had served as a legitimation of the power of kings and princes. Strauss’ book came at a time with intellectual and symbolic changes in the conception of politics. There was a transformation from seeing politics linked to God/Christ and monarchy to see it in terms of citizenship and people. It is doubtful that this was Strauss’ intention. But his main idea, that the image of Jesus in the gospels was myths created by local communities, was picked up by the radical nationalist movement in Germany as an argument against state authority. Therefore, the conservative political establishment in Prussia attacked the book. They perceived Strauss’ language as a criticism of the underpinning of the monarchy, especially of Hegel’s philosophy that promoted the idea that authority was vested in the sovereign, not in the people.

Thirty years later Strauss wrote a much more traditional book where he accepted the possibility of writing a biography of Jesus, The Life of Jesus for the German People (Strauss 1864). This was a more popular book than the first; that is reflected in the title of the English translation: The Life of Jesus. For the People.

But this translation does not catch the “for the German people” in the German title, which placed the book within the context of German politics at the time. In the introduction to the book Strauss describes how the study of the historical Jesus was a fulfilment of the original intention of the Reformation. The unification of Germany was an important part of that intention, and that identified Strauss’ historical Jesus as a Protestant project.

Also in the case of Strauss the question of the sources for the life of Jesus had political consequences. Strauss was influential in the discussion of whether the Synoptics or John’s gospel were the best sources for the historical Jesus, a discussion which ended with the Synoptics as the majority decision. This result turned out to have great consequences for the presentations of Jesus. At issue was the construction of the geographic locations of Jesus’ ministry. In John’s Gospel Jesus walked across all the various regions of Palestine, for Schleiermacher, that meant that he belonged to “the totality of the Jewish land.” The Synoptics placed Jesus for most of his ministry in Galilee, which welcomed him, whereas the end in Jerusalem signaled rejection and death. On this basis Strauss and many later scholars built their Lives of Jesus around a conflict between Galilee and Jerusalem. This was a contrast that could be transferred to many areas: between a peasant population and Pharisees and Scribes, between South and North, and eventually between Galileans and Jews.

For Strauss this contrast was also transferred to North and South in Germany, that is, between the Protestant North and the Roman Catholic South. Strauss had identified the search for the historical Jesus with the Reformation. His Jesus “for the German people,” in fact, was Jesus for the Protestant German people. Therefore, Strauss’ writings about Jesus played into the biggest political discussion of the time: the model for the unification of Germany. Should it be a “small German” (kleindeutsch) union based on the Northern, mostly Protestant states, or a “large German” (grossdeutsch) union, with its centre in the Catholic Austria? Strauss’ Northern, Galilean Jesus of course served to support the “small German” model that became a reality when the German Empire was established in 1871.

There was another aspect of the distinction between Galilee and Judea/Jerusalem that turned out to have grave social and political consequences. Strauss found one of the reasons for the openness of the Galileans to accept Jesus in their mixed population, and in the lack of recognition from the “full Jews” in the South. The notion of a mixed population in Galilee was a hypothesis by historians of the Assyrian Empire and its politics in ancient Israel. They suggested that when, in 722 BC the Assyrians deported Jews from the Northern Kingdom to Babylon, they moved other ethnic groups into Galilee. In the 19th century many scholars regarded mixed “races” to have an advantage over “pure” races. As a result, while Galileans were supposed to be open-minded, people from Jerusalem, who were “pure” Jews, were regarded as close-minded.

After Strauss these ideas took a nasty turn. Many Germans in the last part of the 19th century held the position that German Christianity should get rid of any Jewish influence ; Jesus ought to become more German. In order to make a plausible argument for this position some scholars turned to the suggestion of a mixed population in Galilee. They proposed that Jesus was not a Jew, but that he descended from this mixed population. The ultimate result was that Jesus maybe was an Aryan (Heschel 2007)! What made this such a dangerous idea was the growth of racial thinking in the end of the 19th century. From this viewpoint Jews did not only belong to a specific religious group, but to a separate race. This position was held by respected New Testament scholars in the 20th century, and they became actually supporters of the policies of killing Jews by the Nazi regime.

Reading the descriptions of Jesus travels in the Synoptic gospels seems like an innocent activity. But the history of interpretation has shown that the contrasts between Galilee and Jerusalem can be brought out of their literary context and developed into political positions with very dangerous consequences.

Jesus as the ideal European

Among the 19th century Lives of Jesus Strauss’ Life of Jesus, Critically examined had the largest influence on historical Jesus studies in the next generations. But The Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan (1823-1892) (Renan 1863/ 1927, Moxnes 2012, 121-147) had the largest popular impact. It sold in large numbers and it is still regularly reprinted. It was easily accessible, written in the form of a biography and travel narrative. It caused strong reactions, both protests and acceptance. Many scholars, for instance Albert Schweitzer, dismissed it is a lightweight. Many church members found its description of Jesus and his disciples wandering around Galilee in endless sunshine lighthearted and blasphemous.

But I think that a different reading is possible, taking into consideration the context of Renan. He wrote the book while he was in Syria and Palestine on an expedition to collect material for the Museum of Louvre, protected by French warships. Such expeditions were typical of European colonialism, Their purpose was to build classical collections in European capitals, to secure the cultural heritage from classical Greece, Rome, the Holy Land and Egypt. The great European powers claimed their rights to be the true heirs of classical societies. They did not think that the present inhabitants of these societies represented their ancient cultures.

It was this contrast between classical heritage and present conditions that Renan found when he travelled in Syria and Palestine. Renan was in a unique position to describe this contrast and to influence political and cultural perceptions. He was a prominent philologist and played a central role in establishing a classification of the languages of the world in two main groups: the Indo-European (or Aryan) group and the Semitic group. The Indo-European group included the classical languages of Greek and Latin, and modern European languages. The Semittic group (e.g. Hebrew and Arabic) represented the Orient. Renan defined the Indo-European languages as “living languages” whereas the Semitic languages were “dead.” These definitions applied also to the people speaking these languages, and that put Europeans and Westerners in a superior position to the Orientals. In his influential book Orientalism Edward Said has argued that it was Renan who established Orientalism, that is, a description of the Orient as “the other,” perceived as the negative image of the West (Said 1978, 131-50).

So where does Jesus belong in Renan’s classification scheme? We noticed that German theologians in the last part of the 19th century attempted to separate Jesus from a Jewish heritage by claiming that as a Galilean he came from a mixed, maybe even Aryan background. Renan, too, discusses the mixed population in Galilee where people of various races converted to Judaism. He concludes that it is therefore “impossible to raise here any question of race, and to seek to ascertain what blood flowed in the vain of him who has contributed most to efface the distinction of blood in humanity “(my italics, Renan, 1927, 83). This cryptic message is illuminated by a later passage where Renan describes Jesus’ controversy with the Jewish leaders in the temple. Renan describes the position of the leaders as that of “the pride of blood,” that is, of their race and identity that separated them from other peoples. Jesus represents the opposite; Renan says: “He proclaimed the rights of man, not the rights of the Jew; the religion of man, not the religion of the Jew.” And Renan concludes: “the religion of humanity, established not upon blood, but upon the heart, was founded” (Renan, 1927, 218).

Renan finds that Jesus represents “man” and “humanity” in inclusive terms, not limited to a particular group or race. In a later, very influential lecture on “What is a nation?” from 1882 Renan presents similar views: a nation is not based on the particularity of race, which is a model of the past; progress, on the other hand, includes all of humanity (Renan 1996). In this perspective Jesus represents the future ideal, so to speak “the European man.”

From the viewpoint of Orientalism, which saw the Orient as «the other, » Renan describes Jewish leaders at the time of Jesus as typical representatives of what he considered negative: they were fanatical and single-minded. This is reflected also in the way Renan described the nature of Judea as he observed it during his travels: the mountains were dark and foreboding. This was in contrast to the nature of Galilee that was filled with light. Jesus’ own religion was inspired by this open and smiling nature: his was a God of love. To Renan, Jesus was close to nature and to the original meaning of life. In that way Jesus represented a challenge to Europe, he challenged the negative sides of civilization: an artificial lifestyle, distanced from natural life. However, at the same time Jesus represented the progress of humanity that Renan saw as typical of Europe.

Conclusion: what has the social context made us see?

It was Albert Schweitzer who in his review of historical Jesus scholarship in the 19th century gave it a bad name. His main criticism was that Jesus scholars in the 19th century painted Jesus in their own image. Later scholars in this field accepted his criticism and set up as a goal that historical Jesus scholarship should be objective, and not influenced by subjective biases. Today most scholars will agree that an objective position is not possible; we all see and write from a particular place and we are influenced by our various contexts. Therefore, instead of lamenting over the subjective images of Jesus by 19th century scholars, we should ask: what has a larger awareness of their contexts made us see? Bevans pointed to several aspects of contexts: “present human experience, social location, one’s cultural identity and change within a context (globalization, democratization).” “Change within a context” may take first place. Here we may think of the dramatic changes that led to political rearrangements in Europe, especially nationalism. The process towards nationalism both culturally and politically affected the social location of populations. There was a change in the relations that people had to kings and princes in the states where they lived: people were no longer considered as subjects, but as citizens, not only with responsibilities but also with rights. The historical Jesus could be seen as an initiator of this process. Nationalism was also important for expressions of cultural identity. Here images of Jesus played important roles. In Germany there was a desire to make Christianity more German; this wish supported presentations of a non-Jewish, Galilean Jesus. For Renan, a Galilean Jesus became the ideal for a religion that represented a new humanity, breaking with the particular identity of Judaism.

It is always easier to see the influence of context at a distance, but these examples from the 19th century should make us aware of the influence of context in historical Jesus research even today.


Stephen B. Bevans, “Contextual Theology,” n.d. (article for the forthcoming New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology),…, downloaded 05.15. 2018.

Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus. Christianity, Nazis and the Bible (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

Halvor Moxnes, Jesus and the Rise of Nationalism. A New Quest for the Nineteenth-Century Historical Jesus (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012).

Ernest Renan, The Life of Jesus (New York: Modern Library, 1927). French orig. Vie de Jésus, 1863.

Qu’est-ce qu`une nation? What is a Nation? Transl. W.R. Taylor (Toronto: Tapir, 1996). French orig. 1882.

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