Schweitzer was 30 years old when the Quest was published, already working as the Principal of the theological college of St Thomas in Strasbourg. This is a scholarly book, but warm and lucid as hot coffee.
In approaching the task Schweitzer makes use of the idea of the distinction between "the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith". The core historical problem is that virtually all the records of Jesus were produced by Christians after Jesus had come to be revered as Christ. The question for the historian is: what historical reality lies behind this revered Christ figure? In this is also the deepest and most insoluble problem of the Quest - to go behind the Gospels is to venture into uncharted territory
His way of getting to the answer involved bringing together all the research and writing on the subject to date, working his way chronologically from the mid 1700s up to his own day. His portraits of the various writers are as generous and sympathetic as his analysis is sharp and critical. What he finds is not a project of objective historical analysis, but a set of works profoundly influenced by the passions and world views of their authors.
....it was not only each epoch that found its reflection in Jesus; each individual created Him in accordance with his own character. There is no historical task which so reveals a man's true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus. No vital force comes into the figure unless a man breathes into it all the hate or all the love of which he is capable. The stronger the love, or the stronger the hate, the more life-like is the figure which is produced....
The critical study of the life of Jesus has been for theology a school of honesty. The world had never seen before, and will never see again, a struggle for truth so full of pain and renunciation as that of which the Lives of Jesus of the last hundred years contain the cryptic record.
On his way through the history of this Quest he deals with issues like the use of the Gospels (is John the most reliable source, as believed by most critics in the 18th century? Is Mark the primary gospel, as he himself believed? In either case what use can be made of them as history?); the world view of first century Judaism (how much can be known about this, and of what relevance is it to Jesus?) and the interplay between Christian doctrine and free historical research (many of his heroes having been dismissed from their posts, or refused promotion, because of their conclusions). However, at the heart of the story are the world views of the authors.
There are the rationalists, who try to explain the events of Jesus' life in "naturalistic" terms. The healings are explained as the clever use of advanced medical knowledge. The raisings of the dead (including Jesus' own) are incidents of coma or premature burial. The expulsion of demons are acts of psychiatry. Schweitzer does his best to present this nonsense fairly, but sometimes his sharp tongue gets away from him.
He is similarly kind but even more dismissive of what he calls the "imaginative Lives of Jesus". In these works, which crop up in each period he reviews, Jesus is placed in a richly imagined but almost wholly fictional world. The work he regards as the model for all later works of this type is by Karl Heinrich Venturini, who protrays Jesus as the agent of a secret Essene cabal who guide and at times manipulate his actions in order to bring about their own political ends.
Venturini's "Non-supernatural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth" may almost be said to be reissued annually down to the present day, for all the fictitious "Lives" go back directly or indirectly to the type which he created. It is plagiarised more freely than any other Life of Jesus, although practically unknown by name.
Nor has the ensuing century seen any evidence of loss of enthusiasm for this kind of exercise.
Schweitzer is no less critical of the creators of liberal Lives of Jesus, who attempt to craft a Jesus for their own time, who seek in him a completely a-historical figure preaching a timeless message. All they acheive, says Schweitzer, is to make Jesus in the image of their own time, a "modern" high-minded German liberal.
As of old Jacob wrestled with the angel, so German theology wrestles with Jesus of Nazareth and will not let Him go until He bless it; that is, until He will consent to serve it and will suffer Himself to be drawn by the Germanic spirit into the midst of our time and our civilisation. But when the day breaks, the wrestler must let Him go. He will not cross the ford with us. Jesus of
Finally, through various byways, he comes to the skeptics, those who say that little can be told about Jesus one way or another. This, for Schweitzer, is at least an honest appraisal. Skeptical scholars attract his admiration because they refuse to compromise, they refuse to doctor evidence, they are relentlessly self-critical and refuse to impart on Jesus the rosy glow of their own philosophy.
Yet although he admires them, he does not follow them. Instead, he takes another path - the path of eschatology. Jesus, he says, proclaimed the end of the world. When he preached in Galilee, and when he sent his disciples out in pairs to proclaim the Kingdom, what he was saying was, in essence. "repent, for God is about to bring an end to history as we know it and usher in his Kingdom".
He initially expected this immediately. When he sent out his disciples to preach in Matthew 10, he expected that before the end of their mission the Kingdom would have come. This is why he talked in that passage about the suffering, pain and destruction which would accompany the Kingdom's inauguration. When this expectation was disappointed he revised his approach, and took on himself the duty of suffering in place of the people in order to hasten its coming. He expected that after doing so, God would in short order bring him back as the triumphant, conquering Messiah, and his disciples would rule the Kingdom with him.
After the length at which he analyses the views of others, his presentation of his own conclusion is tantalisingly brief. It leaves you wanting more. How, you want to know, was this Jesus transformed into the Christ of faith? What led the disciples to go on revering him as the Christ despite the continual postponement of his triumph? How did the Jesus of this history become the Christ of Paul and of John, the Hellenic Logos, the third person of the Trinity who came from and returned to the Father, from where he looks over us in our daily struggle?
Schweitzer does not answer these questions, but in his own conclusion he offers us this.
....it is a good thing that the true historical Jesus should overthrow the modern Jesus, should rise up against the modern spirit and send upon earth, not peace, but a sword. He was not a teacher, not a casuist; He was an imperious ruler. It was because He was so in His inmost being that He could think of Himself as the Son of Man. That was only the temporally conditioned expression of the fact that He was an authoritative ruler. The names in which men expressed their recognition of Him as such, Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, have become for us historical parables. We can find no designation which expresses what He is for us.
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.
In the end, Schweitzer took his own advice. Although he continued to write and speak, he abandoned what could have been a glittering academic career to become a medical missionary in Gabon, founding a hospital and rebuilding it after it was ravaged during World War 1, continuing to work there on and off into his 70s. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 and campaigned energetically against the deployment of nuclear weapons.
No doubt he could have given more on the Life of Jesus. Instead his book, and the horrors of war and depression, marked a temporary end to the Quest. Perhaps it had reached its logical conclusion. Or perhaps, as for Schweitzer so also for others, there were more pressing concerns. Those who were devoted to Jesus needed to leave their studies and allow Jesus to "set them to the tasks which He had to fulfil in their time".