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.
- Strauss wrote his material long before modern
hypotheses of Gospel composition. Thus we find him working under
the assumption of the Griesbach hypothesis, which makes for some
interesting speculation as to how he would approach many of the
problems he cites if he were alive today -- for in spite of the
difference in hypothesis, he reaches some of the same conclusions
as today's advocates of Q/Markan priority.
Strauss is certainly useful as a classic example of critics working within a given paradigm -- and of how it isn't the literary hypothesis that makes for the ultimate decision of the development of Christian origins. Critics don't need Q/M to create their own facsimiles in that regard.
- A common method used by Strauss when arguing his points: He
will sometimes acknowledge that evidence points a certain way
favoring the Biblical narrative, and to circumvent this in favor of
his own preferences, say, in effect, "Well, it could have
happened another way." Thus he will admit that Acts ended as it
did because it was written before Paul's death; but to rescue his
theories will say that it "might have been the result of many other
causes" , though not one suggestion is made for critical
evaluation by the reader.
Thus he will dismiss the possibility of eyewitness testimony in the Gospels by saying that it "can never be proved"; thus he will say that the Apostles must have filled in gaps in their knowledge with things they made up, simply because they "must have been sorely tempted" to do so .
- Although not a bigot to the level of Ingersoll, Strauss does
show some hints of the 19th-century snobbery that dismissed the
backwards savages of ages past and the religious minds of the
present: "...to a mind still given to the recognition of the
marvelous (miraculous - JPH), if it once be carried away by the
tide of religious enthusiasm, all things will appear credible."
Needless to say, Strauss automatically dismissed anything miraculous reported in the Gospels. Elsewhere, concerning an issue where Matthew does not name himself in an incident, some suggest out of modesty, Strauss insists, "to say that he withheld this from modesty is to invest a crude Galileean of that age with the affectation belonging to the most refined self-consciousness of modern days." [321-2]
While it is true that we sometimes anachronize in this way, to suggest this for a common virtue in this manner is simply bigotry. So might other 19th-century Europeans have said of those who lived in ancient times or had a different tint of skin.
As it happens, though, such "modesty" was typical of even the "crudest" person in that day and place: This was an honor-shame society in which honor was considered a limited good; to make too much of one's self was to be offensive and seen as stealing honor from others. Matthew would indeed be modest, not as a matter of self-consciousness, but as a matter of group-consciousness.
- John Crossan's argument of Scripture-searching Christians who
invented details in the life of Jesus certainly had a predecessor
here: "In no case could it be easier for the person who first added
any new feature to the description of Jesus, to believe himself its
genuineness, since his argument could be: Such and such things must
have happened to the Messiah; Jesus was the Messiah; therefore such
and such things happened to him." 
In this regard, it should be noted that Strauss actually did believe that Jesus asserted himself to be Messiah (he considers that Jesus made this claim to be "indisputable fact" -- 284); but this sort of Scripture-searching is not only the reverse of normal Jewish procedure, it is also refuted by the many unusual Messianic features ascribed to Jesus that are not clearly derived from the OT and/or do not meet Messianic expectations of the period.
- How is it that Strauss determines whether or not a
given event recorded in the Gospels is historical? He offers these
criteria, which sound quite like those offered by some critics
- As noted above: If it contains miracles, it's false.
- If it records what seems (to Strauss at least) unusual feats,
then it's out the door. This includes, he says, memorization of
long discourses like those found in John's Gospel. However, Strauss was wrong in this regard: Ancient persons were capab;e of memorizing a great deal more material than we are, even if not exactly verbatim.
This is also applied to psychological "impossibilities" that Strauss detects; one example of this is that he finds the behavior of the Sanhedrin as depicted in the Gospels impossible (see here for that issue).
- Much -- very much, indeed -- is also made of various differences
in the Gospel accounts; see here and
for basic material addressing this issue. It may be said that by
far much of what Strauss objects to has to do with given
differences in the Gospels and his
profession that such differences are inconceivable, impossible,
etc. if the accounts are historical, and all attempts at
harmonization are simply dismissed as expediencies -- this is one
reason why despite the size of Strauss' volume, we are spending
relatively little space on him.
John's gospel is especially a victim here. But generally, while certain differences may indeed be attributed to literary or rhetorical rather than historical considerations, Strauss obviously performs no comparison to other parallel historical accounts to determine whether such variations are within the acceptable pale of ancient biography and historiography. Nor does he consider whether oral tradition, additional eyewitness accounts, or thematic matters come into play.
His examination is indeed far more atomizing than any I have ever seen, and that is perhaps why my Skeptical recommenders held Strauss in such high regard. But quantity is not the same as quality, and thus Strauss cannot be given any more regard here than any other critic who recites lists of differences in the Gospels.
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. 
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"  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?"  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.
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." 
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". 
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.
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." 
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." 
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:
- Is the "Levi" of the Gospel of Matthew identical with the
"Matthew" of Matthew 9:9? Strauss admits that the likeness of the
calls of Levi/Matthew support this idea, but he insists that
because Matthew is not doubly identified as Levi in apostolic lists
(Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13) as some others were, this proves
that they are not the same. 
Hardly so: The similarity in stories is FAR outweighed by this minor "name" problem -- and how does Strauss know that Matthew used the "Levi" appellation" with the same frequency/effect as the others with their dual names? (Witherington, commentary on Mark  makes the point: "...various ancients, including early Jews, had more than one name, though usually the second name of a Jew was a nickname [e.g. Simon and Cephas].")
- Of the episode of the call of Levi/Matthew, in which Jesus is
criticized by the Pharisees for feasting with a publican, Strauss
manufactures a number of "cardboard-cutout" objections:
How did the Pharisees know of Jesus' action? They surely weren't at the feast themselves. Agreed, but Strauss thinks that Matthew indicates this.
And they didn't wait around outside watching, did they? Maybe so, actually: The Pharisees considered themselves moral guardians of Israel, and apparently occupied themselves suppressing deviants; but even of not, what of it? News of such a gathering, and of the resignation of a key [and hated] tax official like Matthew would spread well enough throughout the town; it only takes one Pharisee to note what is happening, and only one loose mouth to start the gossip rolling. As Malina and Rohrbaugh note [Social Science commentary, 81], privacy was non-existent in an ancient village, and the social network would immediately spread the word and elicit comment from the Pharisees and everyone else.
One of the few things his objection shows us is that Matthew has telescoped the account considerably for the sake of brevity: The incident with the Pharisees likely occurred well after the party was over -- maybe even days after.
- The event of the rending of the Temple veil is dismissed as unhistorical in part because it is not mentioned in either Acts or Hebrews -- where Strauss thinks it surely ought to have been mentioned. Strauss perceives that this miracle would have had tremendous apologetic value, but aside from simply and groundlessly assuming an inconsistency of thinking on Luke for the sake of his theory, Strauss fails to realize that the rending could have no apologetic value by itself until Temple sacrifices were stopped. Otherwise, it would be useless to appeal to it as signifying the end of the old covenant terms.
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.