In this blogpost, James Carleton Paget discusses his article ‘Albert Schweitzer and the Jews‘, which was published in Harvard Theology Review in July 2014 (107/3).

In spite of the fact that Albert Schweitzer’s life and work have elicited a mass of secondary comment, no one has devoted a study to his attitude towards Jews and Judaism. This is strange on a number of counts. First, Schweitzer’s work on the New Testament, which continues to stimulate discussion and should be considered as his most substantial contribution to scholarship, is striking for its own time in seeking to interpret the theology of Jesus and Paul through the categories of Jewish eschatology. Secondly, and from a personal point of view, Schweitzer was married to a baptized Jew whose family were inevitably affected by anti-Jewish prejudice, culminating in the disastrous events of the Holocaust. The article seeks to examine Schweitzer’s relationship to Judaism through a reading of his writings, concentrating on those on the New Testament, and his interaction with Jews during his lifetime.

When compared with the liberal German theological tradition in which he had been educated, Schweitzer’s strongly Jewish reading of Jesus and Paul appears distinctive, as does his general avoidance of starkly judgmental comments about the religious world out of which Jesus emerged. Schweitzer shows some awareness of this anti-Jewish tradition but only fleetingly accounts for it. Interesting in this respect is the fact that in his analysis of the history of the quest of the historical Jesus, he fails to mention the work on the subject by scholars of the Wissenschaft des Judentums school, who were at pains to condemn the anti-Jewish prejudice of much contemporary work on Jesus in Germany, especially that of liberal Protestant theologians and seek to account for it. Also worthy of note is Schweitzer’s minimal acquaintance with Jewish sources, not least rabbinic ones, for which he occasionally expresses a probably inherited prejudice. As far as he is concerned Judaism consists in eschatological Jewish texts and little else. This lack of interest in the Jewish religion more generally, not least its contemporary manifestation, is reflected in Schweitzer’s later work on what might be termed comparative religion where interest in Buddhism, Hinduism and Chinese religions dominate but Judaism has no role, save as the tradition which gave Christianity its singular qualities (here one might argue that Schweitzer is supersessionist in the view that ancient Judaism reaches its inevitable flowering in Christianity). To some extent this position is reflected in Schweitzer’s correspondence with the famous Jewish philosopher and writer, Martin Buber, where Buber’s views on what he takes to be the non-Jewish bits of Christianity and his own Jewish religiosity are rarely discussed by either correspondent.

Schweitzer’s encounter with Judaism in his own life raises more controversial questions. He came from Alsace, which boasted a relatively high population of Jews; and one of the seminal stories of his own account of his childhood, written in the early 1920s, relates to his participation in the baiting of a Jewish agricultural worker and his subsequent repentance of his actions, though in his account of this event the reality of anti-semitism is not a subject of discussion. He was a regular visitor to Paris during the Dreyfus affair during which time he befriended Theodore Reinach, who was a prominent Jewish politician and strong advocate of Dreyfus’ cause, as well as his wife, Fanny, who became Schweitzer’s only child’s god-mother. But the most important ‘Jewish’ relationship of his life was with his wife, Helene. She had been born into a Jewish family but had been baptized a Christian in her early teens, a decision which was not hers but her father’s, the distinguished medieval historian, Harry Bresslau. Although he was the first Jew to be made the rector of a German university, in this case the University of Strassburg, the early part of his career had been blighted by anti-Jewish prejudice and he didn’t want his children to suffer the same difficulties he had encountered. Such a background makes the absence of any comment on contemporary Judaism and indeed anti-Semitism by Schweitzer odd. Most strikingly, and in spite of pleas from a number of sources, including Max Planck and members of his family, he never spoke out against Nazi persecution of Jews. It is clear that this was not because he had any sympathy for the Nazis – quite the opposite; or because he was himself anti-Jewish – after all, his work on the New Testament was strikingly lacking in signs of such prejudice and we can locate no evidence of such a viewpoint elsewhere in his writing. But his failure to do so elicited, the article contends, a certain amount of retrospective guilt in Schweitzer, seen most clearly in the preface he wrote to the much-discussed play of Rolf Hochhuth, entitled, Stellvertreter, published in 1963, in which he roundly condemned the silence of Pope Pius over the Holocaust.

The article, then, shows up the complex, even contradictory, elements in Schweitzer’s relationship with the Jews and in so doing contributes to a more complex account of this icon of the twentieth century.


  1. Many thanks for your insightful article, which I have read with great interest, deeply impressed by your careful work.

  2. Like many German Protestant theologians, the well-educated Schweitzer was anti-Nazi and he was out of the reach of the Nazis in western Africa. Lambarene was a lot closer to the Free French garrison at Brazzaville. Had Schweitzer been caught in occupied Europe, he would have been sent to Dachau and would have died there.

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