Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Strauss's Life of Jesus: Publication and the Politics of the German Public Sphere

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Strauss's Life of Jesus: Publication and the Politics of the German Public Sphere

Article excerpt

The furor which greeted David Friedrich Strauss's The Life of Jesus upon its publication in 1835 has always been something of a mystery. Many of the book's most striking claims had already been made by other theologians: Johann Gottfried Eichhorn and Johann Philipp Gabler had argued in the 1790s that biblical accounts of angels and miracles were not historical but mythical, and Georg Lorenz Bauer subsequently described the Immaculate Conception and transfiguration of Christ in the same terms. By the 1830s, even Friedrich Schleiermacher, the eminence grise of academic theology in Germany, acknowledged that the birth and infancy stories contained in the Gospels were fictitious.1 Yet within weeks of the book's publication, Strauss was sacked from his post at the seminary at Tübingen, theologians across Germany had taken up their pens to denounce him, and Prussian authorities were considering censorship. Twelve years later, the theologian Ferdinand Christian Baur, the leading figure of the Tübingen school of biblical criticism, was still puzzling over the reaction:

If there is any book which is constructed as much as possible only on the work of predecessors, which simply summarizes a string of various investigations long ago conducted by so many others, which merely, but consistently draws the last conclusion from premises about which one has already been agreed, then it is Strauss's Life of Jesus - what then, in the whole work, is new and unprecedented? . . . When one considers Strauss's work from this side then one in fact has trouble finding it conceivable how it caused such an extraordinary sensation in its first appearance.2

Of course, even scholarly books need not be novel to stir controversy. To take an especially famous case: some of the most radical aspects of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, including the fundamental idea that the universe is governed by a materialistic, evolutionary force, were anticipated by Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.3 But if the shock of the new fails to explain why particular books elicit outrage at particular historical moments, what does? In the case of The Life of Jesus, the ferocity of the reaction can be explained only in part by Strauss's relentlessly ironic style, which deconstructed the ostensible subject of the book without offering an alternative narrative.4

At least as significant is a factor that historians have surprisingly neglected: Strauss's contravention of a widely shared expectation that theological scholarship would and should be read exclusively by academic theologians. To an extent that may be difficult to appreciate from the vantage point of the present day, with its thoroughly capitalistic literary marketplace, the question of who read what in nineteenth-century Germany was constrained not only by supply and demand, but by deeply felt beliefs concerning the nature of scholarly knowledge, the ends of intellectual specialization, and the purview of the public sphere. The controversy provoked by Strauss's book consequently owed at least as much to the identity, real and imagined, of its readers, as to the content and expression of the ideas embedded within it.

To consider social expectations, beliefs, and identities in relation to the act of reading - that is, as constraints upon the agency of individual readers - is to depart somewhat from a longstanding tendency among historians of reading to emphasize readers' creativity and autonomy.5 As Roger Chartier has observed, the freedom of readers to derive their own meanings from texts is in fact far from absolute: "there are norms and conventions of reading that define, for each community of readers, legitimate uses of the book."6 Although Chartier did not make this explicit, the influence of "norms and conventions" is not restricted to defining the proper way to read a given text. They also classify certain texts or genres as appropriate for some communities of readers and altogether inappropriate for others. …

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