Bauer was the son of a painter in a porcelain factory, at Eisenberg in Saxe-Altenburg. He studied at Humboldt University, Berlin, where he attached himself to the "Right" of the Hegelian school under Philip Marheineke. In 1834 he began to teach in Berlin as a licentiate of theology, and in 1839 was transferred to the Iniversity of Bonn. In 1838 he published his Kritische Darstellung der Religion des Alten Testaments (2 vols.), which shows that at that date he was still faithful to the Hegelian Right. Soon afterwards his opinions underwent a change, and in two works, one on the Fourth Gospel, Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte des Johannes (1840), and the other on the Synoptics, Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte der Synoptiker (1841), as well as in his Herr Hengstenberg, kritische Briefe uber den Gegensatz des Gesetzes und des Evangeliums, he announced his complete rejection of his earlier orthodoxy. Bauer became associated with the radical Young Hegelians or "Left Hegelians". In 1842 the government revoked his license and he retired for the rest of his life to Rixdorf, near Berlin.
From then on, he took a deep interest in modern history and politics, as well as in theology, and published Geschichte der Politik, Kultur und Aufklärung des 18ten Jahrhunderts (4 vols. 1843?1845), Geschichte der französischen Revolution (3 vols. 1847), and Disraelis romantischer und Bismarcks' socialistischer Imperialismus (1882). Other critical works are: a criticism of the gospels and a history of their origin, Kritik der Evangelien und Geschichte ihres Ursprungs (1850-1852), a book on the Acts of the Apostles, Apostelgeschichte (1850), and a criticism of the Pauline epistles, Kritik der paulinischen Briefe (1850-1852). He died at Rixdorf on the 13th of April 1882.
His criticism of the New Testament was highly deconstructive. David Strauss, in his Life of Jesus, had accounted for the Gospel narratives as half-conscious products of the mythic instinct in the early Christian communities. Bauer ridiculed Strauss's notion that a community could produce a connected narrative. His own contention, embodying a theory of CG Wilke (Der Urevangelist, 1838), was that the original narrative was the Gospel of Mark; that this was composed in the reign of Hadrian; and that after this the other narratives were modelled by other writers. He, however, "regarded Mark not only as the first narrator, but even as the creator of the gospel history, thus making the latter a fiction and Christianity the invention of a single original evangelist" (Otto Pfleiderer).
On the same principle the four principal Pauline epistles were regarded as forgeries of the 2nd century. Bauer argued further for the preponderance of the Graeco-Roman element, as opposed to the Jewish, in the Christian writings. The writer of Mark's gospel was "an Italian, at home both in Rome and Alexandria"; that of Matthew's gospel "a Roman, nourished by the spirit of Seneca"; the Pauline epistles were written in the West in antagonism to the Paul of the Acts, and so on. Christianity is essentially "Stoicism triumphant in a Jewish garb." This line of criticism has found few supporters, mostly in the Netherlands. It certainly had its value in emphasizing the importance of studying the influence of environment in the formation of the Christian Scriptures. Bauer was a man of restless, impetuous activity and independent, if ill-balanced, judgment, one who, as he himself perceived, was more in place as a free-lance of criticism than as an official teacher. He came in the end to be regarded kindly even by opponents, and he was not afraid of taking a line displeasing to his liberal friends on the Jewish question (Die Judenfrage, 1843).
His attitude towards the Jews is dealt with in the article in the Jewish Encyclopedia. See generally Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopedie; and cf. Otto Pfleiderer, Development of Theology, p. 226; Karl Schwarz, Zur Geschichte der neuesten Theologie, pp. 142 if.; and F Lichtenberger, History of German Theology in the 19th Century (1889), pp. 374?378.