A False Theory to Defend

When we peruse the analysis [David Friedrich Strauss] gives of the different Gospel narratives, we cannot but wonder at the exceeding patience and ingenuity which must have presided over their formation. Let us take, by way of illustration, the first that occurs in his book—the annunciation and birth of the Baptist. According to Strauss, this was got up in the following way. An individual had in his mind a compound image blended from scattered traits respecting the late birth of distinguished individuals as recorded in the Old Testament. He thought of Isaac, whose parents were advanced in their days when they were promised a son, and this suggested that John’s parents should be the same. He remembered how doubtingly Abraham asked, when God promised him a seed which should inherit Canaan, “How shall I know that I shall inherit it?” and hence he made Z[a]charias ask, “Whereby shall I know this?”—he called to mind that the name of Aaron’s wife was, according to the LXX., Elizabeth, and this suggested a name for John’s mother. Then he bethought him of Samson’s birth being announced by an angel, and accordingly he provided an angel to announce that of John also—he glanced at popular Jewish notions regarding angels visiting the priests in the temple, and thence obtained a locality for the angelic apparition to Zacharias—he got back next to Samson, and from his history supplied the instructions which the angel gives respecting John’s Nazaritic education, as well as the blessings which it was predicted that John’s birth would confer upon his country—he next went to the history of Samuel, and borrowed thence the idea of the lyric effusion uttered by Zacharias on the occasion of his son’s circumcision—he then fixed upon a significant name for the prophet, calling him John, after the precedent of Israel and Isaac—the command to Isaiah to write the name of his son, Mahershalal-hash-baz, upon a tablet, recalled to him the necessity of providing Zacharias also with something of the same sort; and as for the dumbness of the priest, it was suggested by the fact that the Hebrews believed that when any man saw a divine vision, he usually lost for a time one of his senses. “So,” exclaims Dr. Strauss, after a long enumeration of all these particulars, “we stand here upon purely mythical-poetical ground!” Indeed! then must the people of that mythical-poetical age have been deeply versed in all those artifices of composition, by which in these later times men of defective powers of fancy continue to construct stories by picking and stealing odds and ends of adventure from those who have written before them. No hero of the scissors-and-paste school ever went more unscrupulously to work than did this unknown composer of the story of John’s birth. And, after all, he made it look so natural and so apparently, original, that it required a German philosopher of the nineteenth century to find out for the first time, that it was a mere piece of Mosaic from bits of the antique—a “mere thing of shreds and patches!” I blush for the degeneracy of the age. The most practised of booksellers’ hacks now-a-days is far, very far behind this skillful literary man of a mythical-poetical age.

Such are some of the logical inconsistencies into which Dr. Strauss is betrayed by his theory. I adduce them not as against him, but as against it. They are not the slips of a careless or inconsistent reasoner; they are the errors into which a man of much acuteness and dexterity has been led by having a false theory to defend.

William Lindsay Alexander, Christ and Christianity: A Vindication of the Divine Authority of the Christian Religion, Grounded on the Historical Verity of the Life of Christ

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