Hermann Samuel Reimarus

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Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768): German Theologian.

Reimarus was a professor of Oriental languages in Hamburg whose fame increased dramatically after his death, when Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim brought his essentially private views on Christianity to the attention of the general public by publishing his Wolfenbüttel Fragments (1774-8). The most important of these was Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jünger. It is the first modern approach to the personality of Jesus, and its author is regarded as having initiated scholarly inquiry into the New Testament. A Deist and rationalist, he parted company from the canonical view of early Christianity. Jesus is seen as a failed Jewish reformer whose disciples re-invented the concept of the Messiah and established a church when it became clear to them that there would be no second coming of their prophet. In doing so, they consciously created an image of a savior that the public of the time could accept.

Doubts about the resurrection had been raised previously, for example by Toland, John in England, to whom Reimarus was indebted. But he went further and questioned the authority of the scriptures by actively searching for an unorthodox subtext. This in turn led to a weakening of the position of the churches in Germany, which began with Lessing's public and acrimonious exchange of views with the traditionalist faction, then represented by Pastor Goeze in Hamburg. Reimarus's work was continued in the nineteenth century by David Friedrich Strauss, and the effects can be felt in the twentieth century in the writings of Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, who also deny important portions of the gospels. The Reimarus controversy was an important influence behind Lessing's plea for universal tolerance in his last play, Nathan der Weise.

Further Reading:

H. S. Reimarus, The Goal of Jesus and His Disciples (trans. G. W. Buchanan), 1970.

A. Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress From Reimarus to Wrede (trans. W. Montgomery), 1910.

Sibylle Plassman