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Nietzsche and the Historical Jesus

Posted on: September 26, 2021

Category: Theology

Nietzsche and the Historical Jesus

Friedrich Nietzsche lived from 1844 to 1900, and the historical Jesus lived in the early first century. They probably did not have a lot in common. As most critically minded people know, determining what Jesus actually said is a question of probabilities narrowed down by methodology, whereas determining what Nietzsche said is a question of opening one of his books. Finding similarities between the two, then, is somewhat speculative.

There are two arguments that suggest Nietzsche was, in fact, inspired by the Jesus of history as opposed to the Christ of faith. Nietzsche did know and very likely read David Friedrich Strauss’s book, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835). Even if he did not read this book, he was a consistent friend and dialogue partner with Franz Overbeck, who did read the book. Neither Overbeck nor Nietzsche liked Strauss. They rejected Strauss’s attempt to reformulate religion in The Old Faith and the New (1872). Nevertheless, despite their disagreement they both agreed with Strauss on one thing. They both agreed that the Jesus of history is different from the Christ of faith.

The second argument in favour of Nietzsche being inspired by the Jesus of history lies in Nietzsche’s acceptance of Overbeck’s theology. Overbeck was a professor of New Testament at the University of Basel, where Nietzsche had also been a professor until his illness forced him to retire. Overbeck is not read very often outside of Germany, but he did have the strong opinion that Christianity was more or less an impossible religion, created after the life of Jesus, that had little to do with Jesus. Nietzsche’s understanding of Jesus was much like this. While the historical figure of Jesus was worth knowing, the Christ of Christianity was a different question. Standing against Christ, being the Antichrist, was for Nietzsche the appropriate response to Christianity.

When one looks at what Nietzsche highlighted about Jesus, the “Jesus” who Nietzsche loved (he also had versions of Jesus he hated) is a teacher cut from the same cloth as the Q Sayings Gospel. Though Nietzsche did not know enough biblical criticism to recognize that much of what he thought Jesus said are things Jesus never said, Nietzsche still clued in about Jesus being primarily a figure of wisdom. As a wisdom teacher, Jesus had a metaphorical mind. Reality was not literal. Discovering life and its joys meant employing metaphors to meld with the moment, the energy, of now. Nietzsche regarded Jesus as a master of metaphor.

One would not think, at first blush, that the place where Jesus as a master of metaphor would appear is in a book called The Antichrist. Yet, it is in this book, at section 32 and following, that Nietzsche presents his Jesus. Here, Jesus, who brings glad tidings, is explained as the one who has overcome opposites. For readers of Nietzsche, “overcoming” (Überwindung and Selbstüberwindung) should stand out as a key concept. Nietzsche’s Jesus overcomes.

Jesus lived without opposites. Jesus overcomes the distinction between heaven and earth. The earth is a metaphor of heaven and vice-versa. To live on earth is to live in heaven. Such a view, Nietzsche says, does not live with anger and does not bring the sword. It does not prove itself with scripture. Rather, a life in which heaven and earth are indistinguishable is its own miracle and its own proof. Nietzsche considered the “son” of God to be an expression of transfiguration where the human and divine are united, are the same. And God the father metaphorically is the very unity, the symbol, of the undivided. To Nietzsche Jesus was the supreme symbolist who was beyond religion, all religion. Jesus, in Nietzsche, was ironically the Antichrist. Jesus was the one who stood against Christian redeemer theology.

Nietzsche’s Jesus does not align perfectly with the Jesus Seminar. However, there are similarities worth noting. The Jesus Seminar identified the language of Jesus as metaphorical. This is one of its key insights when it comes to interpreting parables and aphorisms. It is an insight that rests on the work of Amos Wilder. Parables are always about daily life at the same time that they are never about daily life. The parables overcome the opposition between the “kingdom of God” and life in the world. Nietzsche got that right.

Another similarity is the way Nietzsche considered the Christ image as the betrayal of Jesus. The Jesus Seminar never stated such directly, but it likewise indicated that “Christ” was a mythological word inappropriate for the historical person. Nietzsche rejects Christ because Christ is metaphysics: it is part of redeemer theology. The Jesus Seminar did not explicitly “reject” the word Christ, but the Seminar did offer insight into how “Christ” eventually became an image of Roman imperial theology. By the fourth century, the word Christ lost all the strangeness of a crucified God and gained all the power of a conquering force. Nietzsche was right on that point.

Nietzsche, of course, has lots of problems when we read him today. He is, and remains, a nineteenth century figure. Nevertheless, Nietzsche got some things right, and concerning Jesus, he was right that Jesus spoke in metaphor. Metaphors eliminate opposites. They combine two realities, like heaven and earth, into one reality. They uncover humour. They make life lighter. Metaphors help us think about ourselves and about the ways we interpret reality. Is it not better, both Nietzsche and Jesus say, to take your life with a grain of salt? Try to see that right now you are in the kingdom of God.

-- ©By David Galston

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