At the age of 21, after studying in Paris, Berlin and Strasbourg, Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) decided to devote the first 30 years of his life to art and learning; after that, he vowed, he would serve humanity.
The son of a Lutheran pastor, Schweitzer himself was licensed as a curate in 1899. In that same year he took his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, where he later taught in the theological college until 1913; as a theologian, he published a series of influential books on the world of the Gospels. During this period, Schweitzer also became known as a leading authority on Johann Sebastian Bach—about whom he wrote a biography—and as an organist and organ designer.
In 1905, Schweitzer began to prepare for his “other life”: He studied medicine, earned his degree in 1913 and left for west Africa with his wife, a nurse, to establish a missionary hospital in Gabon. Except for a few short-lived interruptions, Schweitzer spent his remaining 50 years in Africa fighting leprosy and sleeping sickness—a period of prodigious philanthropy that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.
As original a theologian as he was heroic in his humanitarianism, Schweitzer lived at a time when biblical scholarship had undergone a revolution. Historical-critical scholars of the 19th century, such as David Friedrich Strauss (The Life of Jesus, 1836), had argued that the Gospels could not be read as straightforward accounts of what Jesus actually did and said; rather, the evangelists and later redactors and commentators, influenced by their religious beliefs, had made use of myths and legends that rendered the gospel naratives, and traditional accounts of Jesus’ life, unreliable as sources of historical information.
Schweitzer came to a different conclusion. In his The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) and other books on the Gospels and the apostle Paul, Schweitzer observed that Jesus’ apocalyptic message was simply too foreign and strange to be grasped by rationalistic, Enlightenment-influenced historical-critical scholars. Where they saw the creation of a new mythology, he saw an inspired prophet—an agent of God who proclaimed his own divinity and the imminence of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ parables, ethics and religious teachings, Schweitzer argued, were all conditioned by the belief that the apocalypse would occur during or shortly after Jesus’ lifetime. If we don’t know this, he wrote, then we know nothing at all about Jesus.
Schweitzer’s view of a thoroughly eschatological Jesus has dominated much 20th-century
New Testament scholarship. In recent decades, however, a group of scholars, notably those associated with the Jesus Seminar, have challenged Schweitzer’s view; they see Jesus as a religious reformer, a wise teacher who taught his followers how to live, not how to die. These scholars argue that the Gospels’ eschatological sayings were added later on to serve the interests of the early Church.
But now Schweitzer’s sense of Jesus’ essential apocalypticism is making a resurgence. A number of scholars, such as Dale Allison in the accompanying article, point out that not all of the Gospels’ apocalyptic statements are demonstrably later insertions. Moreover, the Gospels seem at home in the world of contemporaneous apocalyptic writings, such the Book of Daniel and the apocryphal 1 Enoch (both from the mid-second century B.C.E.). Schweitzer’s eschatological Jesus is here to stay, these scholars claim, though the nature of the apocalypse—what exactly did Jesus mean by “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 10:7); when did he believe the millennium would occur, and how—will remain the subject of lively debate.