Enlightenment Messiah, 1627-1778: Jesus in history, morality and political theology

Birch, Jonathan C.P. (2012) Enlightenment Messiah, 1627-1778: Jesus in history, morality and political theology. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Abstract

This is a study of intellectual encounters with the figure of Christ during the European
Enlightenment. In the first instance, it contributes to a body of research which has sought
to revise the customary view in New Testament studies, that the historical study of Jesus
began with the posthumous publication of Herman Samuel Reimarus's Von dem Zwecke
Jesu und seiner Jünger (1778), the last in a series of Fragments published by G. E. Lessing.
The thesis proposed here is that Reimarus’s writings on Jesus are a notable but relatively
late entry, by the German intellectual establishment, into arguments about Jesus and
Christian origins which had been raging across Europe for more than a century: arguments
concerning history, morality and political theology.
In my Introduction I explain the rationale for this study within the context of
contemporary scholarship and contemporary culture, giving a brief outline of my
methodology.
In Part I of the thesis I outline my project, its themes and methods. In Chapter One I
introduce the ‘quest for the historical Jesus’ as a major concern in modern New Testament
studies, and a persistent source of interest in wider intellectual discourse. I then take the
reader back into the eighteenth century, placing Reimarus’s seminal contribution to the
discipline within the context of the wider publishing controversy in which it featured (the
Fragmentenstreit). In Chapter Two I explain the historical, moral and political theological
dimensions of my analysis; in particular, I define the relationship between my history of
scholarship on Jesus, and the one offered by Albert Schweitzer in Von Reimarus zu Wrede
(1906), the single most influential work on the rise of historical Jesus studies. In Chapter
Three I outline my periodisation and interpretive stance on the main context for my study:
the European Enlightenment.
Part II of the thesis concerns history. In Chapter Four I review a range of literature on
the origins of historical Jesus studies, discussing the advances made since Schweitzer, and
sketching the contours of a new, more comprehensive interpretation. In Chapters Five and
Six I supplement that sketch with my own account of the emergence of the modern
historical-critical conscience within European intellectual culture during the
Enlightenment, and its application to the Bible. I profile some of the scholars who blazed
the trail for Reimarus, showing where, and by whom, he was anticipated in some of his
critical stances regarding Jesus and Christian origins.

Part III of the thesis addresses morality. In Chapters Seven and Eight I consider why
for so many thinkers in the Enlightenment, including Reimarus, morality came to be seen
as central to Jesus' historical mission and his most important theological legacy. I locate
this ethical turn within a long history of Western philosophical and theological
disputation, with origins in antiquity, culminating in early modernity with the reassertion
of moral-theological rationalism which was buttressed by an early modern Thomist
revival. I also argue for the influence of a particular vision of Christian reform which
prioritised freedom over predestination, and the moral example of Jesus and primitive
Christian piety.
Part IV of the thesis concerns political theology. In Chapter Nine I consider this
generally neglected dimension of Reimarus’ work, placing him in a tradition of
Enlightenment intellectuals who drew upon Jesus and primitive Christianity, in
conjunction with theological metaphysics, to give weight to their own particular
arguments for religious toleration.
In my Conclusion, as throughout this thesis, I argue that some of the writers who
paved the way of Reimarus’s writings on Jesus and Christian origins have their roots in
much older, theological preoccupations, and often in heretical versions of Christianity.
While these perspectives on Jesus and Christian origins constituted some of the most
radical challenges to mainstream religious thought during the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, they do not submit to a vision of Enlightenment characterised by a
straightforward process of overcoming theological worldviews through the emergence of
a new secular critique. For the most part, this tradition of scholarship is best understood
as a radicalisation of existing tendencies within the history of classical and Christian
thought, which continued to understand Jesus, or at least his teachings, as either a path to
personal salvation, or as a theologically authoritative court of appeal in the
Enlightenment’s protest against religio-political tyranny.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BR Christianity
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > Theology and Religious Studies
Supervisor's Name: Ridgeon, Dr. Lloyd
Date of Award: 2012
Depositing User: Dr Jonathan Birch
Unique ID: glathesis:2012-4240
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 09 May 2013 13:00
Last Modified: 16 May 2016 10:07
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/4240

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