The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 19 Hermann Samuel Reimarus: The Man Who Exposed the Apostles

View all episodes in the Cartoon History of Humanism series.

Hermann Samuel Reimarus: The Man Who Exposed the Apostles

In 2013 Reza Aslan published a book, Zealot, that contained the startling (to most) claim that Jesus thought of himself as primarily a temporal savior whose image and mission were recast by his followers after he failed so profoundly at revolution.  Indeed, not all of us were blown away by Aslan’s claim, given the tiny fact that his thesis was a by-the-numbers restatement of the work of eighteenth-century philologist and theologian Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768). That Aslan largely got away with the appropriation is a testament to how far Reimarus has sunk in the intellectual consciousness of the West.  The initial publication of mere fragments of his work was a Europe-wide academic scandal of the first order, and yet today, outside of the realm of Jesus historicity scholars, he is hardly ever quoted, his fascinating double-life as official theologian and hidden arch-skeptic rarely acknowledged.

HermannReimarusIn 1694, when Reimarus was born to a theologically-inclined Hamburg family, Germany was teetering on the edge of intellectual revolution. Prior to 1650, German thought was wrapped primarily in the mystical and dogmatic ponderings of a group of dour Lutherans and Calvinists doing their level best to ignore the disturbing philosophical trends of England, France, and the Dutch Republic. But you can only keep Descartes out for so long, and thanks to two philosophical superstars, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and Christian Wolff (1679-1754), reason and critical investigation had a place again at the table.  Their attempts to approach theology through reason, and to demonstrate the logical consistency of Christian belief, introduced new criteria of reasonableness into religious studies, and while their conclusions were largely orthodox, their methods represented a time bomb at the heart of German theology.

At first glance, nobody seems less likely than Hermann Reimarus to have touched off that explosion of critical theology.  A student of religion and ancient languages, he was taught by one of Christianity’s greatest apologists, Johann Albrecht Fabricius, who lived for compiling obscure early Christian texts and fighting vigorously all hints of biblical criticism. In 1728 Reimarus married Fabricius’s niece, and, to all outward appearances, lived precisely the life of any ordinary German theological scholar, publishing books on logic and the truths of natural religion.

But inside, Reimarus was seething with a churning doubt. In 1720 he left Germany for a tour through the Netherlands and England, both centers of religious radicalism.  Here, he had full access to the thoughts of Spinoza and English deists like John Toland and Anthony Collins, who had elaborated criteria for the rejection of miracles in Scripture and argued for the purely temporal nature of Jesus’s mission.  Returning to Germany, Reimarus ruminated on the evidence of internal contradiction in the Bible produced by the English, and investigated, using his knowledge of ancient languages, the validity of many of Christianity’s favorite apologetic claims, finding them all wanting.

He had decided that Christianity’s basic tenets were based on a set of self-serving fabrications constructed after Jesus’s failed bid for earthly power, but dared not speak his mind. Germany was not England, after all. J. Lorenz Schmidt had been arrested in 1735 for suggesting that revelation could be judged by reasonable investigation.  A decade earlier, Wolff himself had been exiled by the Prussian king in spite of his international fame. Not only that, but his father in law was Johann Fabricius, the strong right arm of orthodox theology, and a man who could easily have ruined Reimarus’s life if he felt that the young scholar had duped him to gain the hand of his daughter.

So, Reimarus praised Jesus in public and wrote the Apologie oder Schutzschrift fuer die vernuenftigen Verehrer Gottes in private. This mammoth work subjected the entirety of the Bible to a fierce rational critique, from the ubiquitous but sloppy miracles of the Old Testament to the massively contradictory accounts of Jesus’s life and message in the New Testament. Using his knowledge of linguistics, he traced the grammatical structures of different phrases to establish the original meaning of phrases that Christian apologists had deliberately muddied in order to make the Bible more internally consistent. His presentation of Jesus’s use of the word “generation” alone is a tour de force of reasoning that settled, for anybody of reasonable mind, the apostles’ belief in the imminent return of Jesus to Earth.

By unearthing the linguistic conventions of the Jewish community in Jesus’s time, Reimarus was able to explain the secular assumptions underlying Jesus’s announcement of the coming “kingdom of heaven” and trace how those assumptions shed light on Jesus’s later actions. This Jesus, Reimarus explains, was a man wholly in the model of previous Jewish zealots who had sought to overthrow the subjugation of the Jewish people, who had a good mind for popular psychology, but who spectacularly failed in his first real attempt to gain power. Jesus presented his purpose to the Jews in the familiar language of a new temporal kingdom, and his followers expected that they would sit next to him on the twelve thrones of earthly power he had promised.

Then, Jesus went and died having accomplished, by any objective criteria, nothing.  So, a rewrite of the narrative was in order. The apostles, who had grown used to acclamation and the idea that they would rule nations, suddenly found themselves faced with the option of either modifying Jesus’s message to make disaster appear as triumph, or of returning to the lowly jobs they had abandoned.  Not surprisingly, they chose the former, and started crafting a notion of Jesus’s resurrection, and of the universality of Jesus’s message.

Jesus was no longer a temporal savior who had failed, but a cosmic, spiritual savior who was taking his time on coming back because of how grievous his suffering on the cross had been. Those quotes of his where he quite explicitly said that he came to preach to the Jews, and that the preservation of Jewish customs was paramount? Forget about all that, the apostles said. Everybody’s invited now. As years passed and Jesus still didn’t return, the apostles pushed back the clock on his imminence, even resorting to the “a hundred years for us is just an hour for him, so he’s really not THAT late” argument that is somehow still in currency. In order to keep the religion going, after Jesus so fantastically made a hash of fulfilling the expectations of a Jewish Messiah, the apostles broadened the message to extend their potential base of power, and the results of that crass rebranding, from infant baptizing to transubstantiation to the Apocalypse, slowly became the basis for a new religion that had nothing whatsoever to do with what Jesus had initially attempted.

For a Germany that had just serenely convinced itself that religion either conformed to reason or was ethereally above its dictates, the posthumous publication of excerpts from Reimarus’s secret tome was a windmill kick wrapped in a thunderbolt. Between 1774 and 1778, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) published seven selections under the title Wolfenbuettel Fragments (Wolfenbuettel had been where J. Lorenz Schmidt had died in exile, so the title was likely an attempt to throw suspicion on Schmidt and away from Reimarus, whose family insisted on anonymity). They shocked the theological establishment so much for their radically impious approach to Jesus’s mission and the hypocrisy of the apostles that the state demanded that Lessing hand over the manuscript, and never publish any of it, or indeed anything like it, again.

He capitulated, and the full contents of the manuscript weren’t known again until David Friedrich Strauss wrote them up in his 1862 Hermann Samuel Reimarus und Seine Schutzschrift fuer die Venuenftigen Verehrer Gottes as part of his own attempt to critically reinvestigate the historicity of Jesus. Indeed, the publication of Reimarus’s full text in any language has been something of a cursed undertaking, resulting in the relegation of Reimarus’s name to the annals of important Jesus historians rather than the recognition of the daring contribution he made to religious studies generally.  Faced with a nation of morbidly somber religiosity, he played his part dutifully while composing a work that looked the holy, untouchable apostles directly in the face and didn’t flinch before calling them shameless fabricators of self-serving myths. He put Christian history on trial, demanding evidence that was consistent, asking questions of motivation that had been buried in false translations and shoddy narrative reworkings. His is a massively courageous book with a modest question at its core: Does the Bible make sense under a spiritual reckoning of Jesus? Reimarus refused the trite consolation of God’s “mysterious ways” and answered flatly, no, probably not.


Further Reading

Reimarus continues to be plagued by the unavailability of his works.  The main readily available book in English is Charles H. Talbert’s Reimarus: Fragments, which collects those parts of Reimarus that deal with Jesus’s self-conception and with the manipulations undertaken by the apostles. Going further, you can pick up David Strauss’s book on Reimarus in reprint editions. The ULAN press edition features mercifully large Frakturschrift, though the pixilation gets in the way at times, and there are (somewhat mystically) three copies of page 196.  Still, the summary of the other parts of Reimarus’s work is good to have. For those curious about just how similar the central thesis of Aslan’s Zealot and Reimarus’s Apologia are, here is Aslan’s summary of the purpose of his book:

“This book is an attempt to reclaim, as much as possible, the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity: the politically conscious Jewish revolutionary who, two thousand years ago, walked across the Galilean countryside, gathering followers for a messianic movement with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God but whose mission failed when, after a provocative entry into Jerusalem and a brazen attack on the Temple, he was arrested and executed by Rome for the crime of sedition.  It is also about how, in the aftermath of Jesus’s failure to establish God’s reign on earth, his followers reinterpreted not only Jesus’s mission and identity, but also the very nature and definition of the Jewish messiah.”

And this is Reimarus, over two hundred years earlier:

“Thus the existing history of Jesus enlightens us more and more upon the object of his conduct and teaching, which entirely corresponds with the first idea entertained of him by his apostles, that is, that he was a worldly deliverer… It also shows that the master, and how much more his disciples, found themselves mistaken and deceived by the condemnation and death [of Jesus], and that the new system of a suffering spiritual savior, which no one had ever known or thought of before, was invented after the death of Jesus, and invented only because the first hopes had failed.”