Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

1729-1781. German writer and dramatist. Son of a Saxon pastor, he became librarian to the duke of Brunswick (1774-78), during which period he published a series of Fragments of an Unknown Writer. He claimed to have discovered them in the ducal library at Wolfenbüttel (hence their popular name of Wolfenbüttel Fragments). In reality they were extracts from a massive unpublished manuscript by H.S. Reimarus.* The work was a defense and restatement of skeptical Deism. The last of the Fragments was entitled The Goal of Jesus and His Disciples, and claimed to expose the gospel accounts of Jesus as a piece of fraud on account of their alleged unfulfilled eschatological predictions. Jesus had promised the imminent coming of the kingdom of God, and it had not come. On His death the disciples had cunningly postponed it indefinitely, claiming that Jesus had risen from the dead and had gone to heaven. In the meantime, people have failed to notice that Christianity is built on unfulfilled fraudulent claims.

The ensuing controversy raged fiercely. Among those who replied were J.M. Goeze, J.C. Döderlein, J.D. Schumann, and J.S. Semler. Lessing did not commit himself, feigning ignorance of the author's identity and replying to critics in a series of pamphlets ostensibly trying to put the debate into perspective, while adding fuel to the fire. He adopted an enlightened attitude to religion, maintaining ambiguously that religion is not true because the apostles taught it; they taught it because it is true. Historical evidence is insufficient basis for religious belief, for the accidental truths of history can never become proof for the necessary truths of reason. The truth and value of a religion are to be apprehended in experience. Those who live right will show that they have true religion. This was the message of the dramatic poem Nathan the Wise (1779) and the essay on The Education of the Human Race (1780). Lessing also wrote an essay in gospel criticism, New Hypothesis on the Evangelists considered as merely human historical Writers (1788), which posited a single Hebrew or Aramaic source behind the gospels, portraying Jesus as a purely human messiah.

See H. Chadwick, Lessing's Theological Writings (1956), and G. Pons, Gotthold Ephraïm Lessing et le Christianisme (1964).