David F. Strauss: A Critique

Once a Skeptic recommended to me the work of David Friedrich Strauss entitled The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (SCM Press, 1971), calling it still one of the best Skeptical works addressing the Gospels he knew of. Perhaps it is, but that doesn't say much. It must be admitted, true, that this monstrous volume (nearly 800 pages!) is a very thorough, and oftentimes quite fair, critical review of the Gospels. And for a work written very early in the 1800s, one will find a surprising amount of data that many "modern" critics seem to be unaware of.

That said, we find many errors, notably of what I call the "cardboard cutout" variety -- objections that assume a two-dimensional view of history which forbids certain critics from considering historical problems in a holistic fashion.

Because Strauss' volume is so large, and because it does contain many of the same arguments that we have dealt with elsewhere, I will simply provide cases and examples of how Strauss operated and make some miscellaneous notes. These should serve well enough to show the average reader that Strauss is no threat to an informed Christian faith.

With that, we now turn to a few specific items dealt with by Strauss.

Birth Narratives

In the realm of things that Strauss finds too incredible to believe are several elements of the birth narrative, including the annunciation, with which we begin this comment:

...(I)t is inconceivable that the constitution of the celestial hierarchy should actually correspond with the notions entertained by the Jews subsequent to the exile; and that the names given to the angels should be in the language of this people.

Strauss bases his argument in part on a late date for Daniel, which is itself unwarranted; beyond that, however, he wonders about pagan nations who supposedly came across the concept of angels before the Jews did (though no examples are given for comparison) and asks whether this means that the concept was "discovered by an idolatrous nation sooner than by the people of God" or by "the light of reason alone" in these other nations. [96]

Again, since no hard data is offered for comparison, little can be said, but overall this is an example of the "cardboard cutout" view. The idea of divine messengers is not a difficult one for ancient civilizations to have come up with on their own; if we ask why they match so well NT descriptions of angels, we might ask how the critic expects that they would be different.

A less lucid example is Strauss' declaration that an angelic messenger would not be so "imperious" [97] as to strike John the Baptist's dad Zacharias dumb.

Really? Why not? How does Strauss know what limitations are placed on the deeds of angels? If the angel was a messenger of God, then he came with God's authority and direction; does Strauss know that this was not part of the orders given to the messenger?

This is a misguided objection, as is the one following, which asks why Zacharias was punished for doubt, whereas Mary was not for what Strauss calls the same question.

For one, note that the questions are not exactly the same:

Luke 1:18 Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."
Luke 1:34 "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

But more importantly, let's keep in mind what each person was actually asking. Zachariah had been told outright that he would have a child, and that was that: He knew God could do it, and should not have asked any questions. Mary's inquiry, however, is not one of doubt of power, but one of the mechanism whereby the conception would occur -- it had not been revealed to her until after this question that the conception wouldn't require any help from a man.

Strauss fails to see that the two questions are of a different order, despite their similarity.

Beyond this, Strauss objects that angels, being spiritual, are not capable of physical manifestations (how does he know this?); he objects that no such appearances happen today, where it seems they were common in the Bible, which suggests that the latter are merely fantasies.

Really? How many times over 4000-5000 years did such events occur in the Bible, and under what circumstances? Are there equivalent circumstances warranting such appearances today, like the birth of the Messiah?

Strauss also objects that there would be no need for angelic messengers, since God could deliver the message Himself That makes humans rather superfluous then, doesn't it, since God can do what we do as well?

Basically, Strauss offers nothing here but groundless objections based on his own preconceptions of how the universe ought to be ordered. Later he asks: "(D)oes this species of pomp exist in the real court of God, or only in the childish conception formed of it by antiquity?" [717] To which I ask in reply: Does this sort of observation find its source in actual evidence, or in the closed-minded deism of D. F. Strauss?

Closer to the realm of hard history, Strauss tenders a few of the common objections on the matter of the Magi. This includes the objections that the Slaughter of the Innocents is not recorded elsewhere, like in Josephus, and of which, he insists, it had to have been so horrible that Josephus would have practically been forced to record it had it happened. Where does Strauss' personal feelings on the matter enter into the picture?

It is objected that Herod should have easily been able to discover the Christ child in Bethlehem himself, without help from the magi; this "cardboard cutout" objection assumes that the child stayed in that village for the entire two years, something Herod clearly couldn't count on from that perspective. Strauss calls Herod an "astute monarch" who would figure these sorts of things out and foresee all possibilities...how this matches with the cruel, paranoid despot depicted in our sources, I cannot imagine. It seems to me that Strauss grants Herod unusual "astuteness" [and a lot of personal carte blanche] simply for the sake of creating a groundless argument.

Strauss also asks why Herod didn't simply take the magi into custody and conduct his own search, or else send spies with them posing as companions. Why not? Even in the early 19th century of Strauss, it would be a reckless move to imprison or detain representatives or important/wealthy citizens of a foreign nation; if as is often supposed these magi were Parthians, deadly enemies of Rome, Herod would have been in serious trouble. He might have been responsible for starting a war that would cost the Romans dearly. Even worse for him if he sent along representatives (secretly or otherwise) -- the Romans might interpret this as Herod doing his part to stir up rebellion.

Some of Strauss' errors here might be blamed on lack of knowledge, but not all of them -- some of what he writes here simply violates common sense, and is clearly written by someone who was not able to consider situations in a full-orbed fashion.

Typological Errors

Strauss rejects any typological use of the OT by the NT writers, although unlike many critics, he does know that it was a type of exegesis used by the rabbis. Nevertheless, he uses circular reasoning to disprove its use absolutely: Noting that Jesus used several OT cites in reference to his coming crucifixion, Strauss tells us that "a profound grammatical and historical exposition has convincingly shown, for all who are in a condition to liberate themselves from dogmatic presuppositions, that in none of these is there any allusion to the sufferings of Christ." [565]

Likewise, that there was solid Jewish background for this sort of exegesis does not bother Strauss: He simply attributes it to "the petty, prosaic spirit of Jewish interpretation". Those who do not agree today, and actually afford typological exegesis respect, "have not perfectly liberated themselves after the lapse of eighteen centuries". [684]

Note here that Strauss is quickly reduced to the simple level of name-calling those who adhere to a typological interpretation: If you believe it, you are enslaved to dogma; that's the best Strauss and the critics can do, since there is no way that typological interpretation can be absolutely disproved, or proved. I'm willing to admit this -- but critics like Strauss are not.

Fish Tales

A minor focus for Strauss involves the miraculous catch(es) of fish described in the Gospels, in which Jesus instructed Peter and his fellow fishermen to let down their nets for a catch after getting nothing all day -- and having them end up with a net full of fish. Strauss not unexpectedly dismisses the miraculous aspect: under the presumption that this was a miracle of direction (in essence, Jesus calling the fish over to be caught) he objects that the idea Jesus "could influence irrational beings is impossible to imagine out of the domain of magic." [316]

What makes this "impossible to imagine" is not explained, but one suggests that it is only the limits of Strauss' imagination. On the other hand, on the idea that Jesus just happened to know where to find the fish (making this a "knowledge" rather than a "power" miracle) Strauss objects to this miracle (and many others) on the grounds that it was too petty of a miracle for God to soil His hands with. "Was this the preparation for engrafting the true faith? Or did Jesus believe that it was only by such signs that he could win disciples?" Surely, Strauss says, Jesus would have been too overwhelmed by weightier thoughts to figure out where the fish were.

Really? Can the divine be overwhelmed thusly? What we have here is nothing more than Strauss' incredulous deism shining through. What matter is it if the catches of fish were the signs chosen to influence the disciples? They were fishermen -- this was something meaningful that they could relate to. In this day and age when actions spoke multitudes as messages, and when there would be much less surety where one's next meal was coming from, this was a highly appropriate "sign" to Peter and his friends to demonstrate Jesus' power. Strauss, in line with the god of deism and his position as a well-fed scholastic, simply did not recognize the significance of God being willing to descend to their level (is this not what the Incarnation involved?).

Strauss similarly rejects Jesus' concern for prophetic fulfillment on the cross as depicted by John by saying that "a man suspended on the cross in the agonies of death is not the one to occupy himself with such typological trifling". Why this is so is something we are again not told. Strauss makes declarations, but does not offer reasons or arguments.


Luke is the only one that records the Ascension directly (but cf. John 20:17). Strauss thought it "absolutely required" that the Ascension, had it happened, should have been reported in the other Gospels, even if it was a fact generally known in the church. Why? Because: "...the simple aesthetic interest which dictates even to an uncultivated author, that a narrative should be wound up with a conclusion, must have led every evangelical writer who knew of the ascension to mention it...in order to avoid the strange impression left by (Matthew and John), as narratives losing themselves in vague obscurity." [753]

Really? It seems to me that the missionary directives in Matthew and John (and perhaps Mark) serve perfectly well as endings that are both aesthetically pleasing and not causing any sort of "obscurity" whatsoever. The Gospels were written for Christians; why is it not appropriate that they choose to end on a missionary note?

In that sense, one might say that closing with the Ascension would dull the point. Unless, like Luke, you planned to continue your story with things that would encourage evangelizing (perhaps a clue to the ending with Paul?), the way the other Gospels end the story is just fine.

In the end, the aesthetic judgment is a subjective one by Strauss, who was neglectful of the point that the Gospels were written for people who were already Christians and who had already believed in the Ascension for quite some time.

Other than this, Strauss also finds hints of mythology in the 40-day period between Resurrection and Ascension that Luke describes. Well, what can we say? There was about a 50-day period between Passover and Shavuot (Pentecost); so the forty days is in there for the taking already; one hardly need offer tenuous connections to myth-making. Luke may well have rounded off the actual time period (47 days at most) for the sake of making an obvious point, but that's hardly any grounds to dismiss the events as mythical.

Let's close out with a few minor issues:


We have only scratched the surface of what Strauss has had to say, but it is enough for our present purposes to have highlighted a few of his unique ideas (or ones we've not seen here before). This critic, though more thorough than most and often fairer in judgment, is not much different from those in the present.