Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History

By Maurice Goguel (1926)



Bayle relates that one of the greatest scholars of the Renaissance, Laurentius Valla, during a banquet, said one day to Antoine Panormita, who was as much scandalized as shocked by the remark, that he had in his quiver weapons against the Messiah himself.[1] Did he mean by this to throw doubt upon the manner in which tradition presented the Gospel history? Or did he go so far as to question the historical reality of the person of Jesus?

The manner in which the conversation is related does not permit us to decide the point.

Up to the eighteenth century the authority of the Gospels was unquestioned. Each one contented himself by paraphrasing with more or less freedom the data of the accounts. So long as Protestants, equally with Catholics, continued to be dominated by the principle of the literal inspiration of Scripture it could not be otherwise.

The sole problem which existed was that concerning the arrangement and disposition of the parallel records. From the sixteenth up to the eighteenth century, from Osiander to Griesbach, marvellous ingenuity had been displayed to coordinate these in such a manner that, according to the very words of Osiander,[2] no word of any record should be omitted,

[1] Bayle, Dictionnaire historique et critique, article "Valla."

[2] See his Harmonie, published in Basle in 1537.


that nothing foreign should be added, and that the order of no evangelist should be modified.[1]

If this "reconciling" was not yet a true critical study of the life of Jesus, it at all events, owing to the complexity and improbability of the hypotheses it was compelled to construct, helped to show that the problem as then presented remained insoluble, and that in consequence it was necessary to transfer it to another field.

It was during the eighteenth century that this transference took place. This revolution, the consequences of which were only gradually revealed, took place almost simultaneously in England under the influence of the Deists, in France under that of Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists, in Germany under that of the School of Enlightenment (Aufklärung), which received the adhesion of Reimarus and Lessing.[2]

The first scientific essay on the life of Jesus is that published by Lessing between 1774 and 1778. It consists of seven fragments obtained from a voluminous manuscript left by Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768). The author of this had for his object the justification of natural religion in showing that Christianity had but a feeble base of support.

In the opinion of Reimarus, Jesus had never thought of founding a new religion. His preaching, exclusively eschatological and terrestrial, had solely in view His manifestation as Messiah, the son of David.

Jesus perished at Jerusalem at the time that He attempted to get Himself proclaimed King. After His death His disciples imagined the idea of a second coming of the Messiah and of a spiritual redemption through His death.

Reimarus has a double merit. He from the first recognized the importance of eschatology in the thought of Jesus, and tried to discover a natural connection of cause and effect, not only in the history of Jesus, but also in that of primitive Christianity.

[1] Concerning L'Harmonistique, see M. Goguel, Introd., i, pp. 49. seq.

[2] Concerning the beginnings of the critical history of the life of Jesus, see Albert Schweitzer, Geschichte der Leben Jesu-Forschung, Tübingen, 1913, pp. 13-26; also Chas. Guignebert, Le problème de Jésus, Paris, 1914, pp. 7-21. The part played by English Deists and French writers, completely ignored by Schweitzer, has been well emphasized by Guignebert.


By the manner in which he presents the life and the teaching of Jesus, Reimarus claims to undermine traditional Christianity at the base. This intention introduces a philosophical element into his research, which is as much a disturbing factor as the dogmatic prejudices for which Reimarus reproaches his antagonists.

The same may be said of the rationalists, whose activity extends from about the middle of the eighteenth century up to about 1830. Eliminating every supernatural element, they aimed at portraying Jesus as a master of virtue whose teaching accorded with their own. Such is specially the character of the works of Herder[1] and of Paulus.[2]

The latter is particularly given to the interpretation of miracles. He sees in them real but perfectly natural facts which his contemporaries have not understood, and which they have considered as having the character of prodigies.

If, for example, it has been believed that Jesus multiplied the loaves, this is because, in the desert where the crowd had followed Him, He had given an example of distributing the few loaves at His own disposal, an example followed by those of His hearers who possessed provisions.[3] The rationalist conception of the life of Jesus does not differ in essentials from the supernatural conception. The former limits itself to the recitation of the facts recorded whilst combining more or less happily the Synoptic and the Johannine statements, but instead of having perpetual recourse to miracle, the rationalists display an extreme ingenuity in giving to events a natural interpretation.

The work of the French rationalists of the eighteenth century possesses a less systematic character its import is only the greater for that. It rests upon no profound work of exegesis,

[1] Herder, Vom Erlöser der Menschen nach unsern drei ersten Evangelien: Vom Gottessohn der Welt Heiland nach Johannesevangelium, Riga, 1797.

[2] Paulus, Das leben Jesu als Grundlage einer reinen Gesch. des Urchristentums, Heidelburg, 1828.

[3] With rationalism may be connected the works of Bahrdt (Ausführung des Plans und Zwecks Jesu, 1784-92), Venturini (Natürliche Gesch. des grossen propheten von Nazareth, 1800-2), which represent Jesus as an agent of the sect of the Essenes. Concerning these authors see Schweitzer (Gesch., pp. 38-48).


and does not end in opposing a new conception of primitive Christianity to traditional opinion.

In the involved and prudent manner forced upon him, Voltaire pointed out the small documentary value of Gospels "written by persons acquainted with nothing, full of contradictions and imposture"[1]—the improbability of the eschatological prophecies, against which good sense rebelled. "Let each ask himself," he writes, "if he sees the possibility of pushing imposture and the stupidity of fanaticism farther."[2] "The whole history of Jesus—only a fanatic or a stupid knave would deny it—should be examined in the light of reason."[3] Voltaire on several occasions draws attention to the silence of non-Christian authors concerning the Gospel history.[4] Obviously, Christian tradition does not inspire in him any confidence. However, he does not go so far as to maintain that it corresponds to no reality at all. He is aware that "certain followers of Bolingbroke, more ingenious than erudite," considered themselves authorized by the obscurities and contradictions of the Gospel tradition to deny the existence of Jesus.[5]

In so far as he is concerned, he rejects this conclusion, and it appears that this is not entirely for reasons of prudence, as is sometimes the case when he wishes to hint at opinions which it might be dangerous to profess openly. Indeed, Voltaire in this case gives weighty reasons for setting aside the negations he cites. He quotes precise cases of forged genealogies, of stories embellished and transfigured, and as for the disproportion which appears to exist between the humility of the person of Jesus and the importance of the movement which He inaugurated, he relates the case of Fox, "a very ignorant shoemaker, founder of the sect of Quakers." He concludes: "It is necessary, whilst awaiting faith, to limit oneself to drawing this conclusion: There did exist an obscure Jew, from the dregs of the people,

[1] Voltaire, Examen important de Milord Bolingbroke (Edition Kehl) xxxiii, pp. 44-60. Cp. Sermon des Cinquante, xxxii, pp. 399-400; Hist. de l'Etabt. du Christianisme, xxxv, pp. 274-93.

[2] Id., Ex. de Milord Bolingbroke, xxxiii, p. 68.

[3] Id., Dieu et les Hommes, xxxiii, p. 271.

[4] Id., ib., p. 272; Sermon des Cinquant, xxxii, p. 401; Hist. de l'Étabt. du Christianisme, xxxv, p. 274.

[5] Id., Dieu et les Hommes, xxxiii, p. 273.


named Jesus, who was crucified as a blasphemer in the time of the Emperor Tiberius, it being impossible to determine in which year."[1]

Voltaire has not sketched any history of the origins of Christianity. His effort to place the study of the documents within the province of reason—we should say in modern phrase the province of history—is none the less very remarkable. In doing so he dealt the traditional conception decisive blows.

The almost entirely negative character of the criticisms of Voltaire explains the extreme conclusions stated at the end of the eighteenth century by Volney and Dupuis. In his work called Les Ruines ou Meditations sur les Revolutions des Empires (Paris, 1798-1808) Volney conceives a vision unfolded among the ruins of Palmyra. The representatives of the various religions explain, each in his turn, how priests have deceived mankind in inventing dogmas which obscured the real religion, spiritual in its essence. In Volney's view, the entire Gospel tradition represented an astral myth.[2]

The views of Dupuis[3] closely resemble those of Volney.[4] According to him, the philosophers who have made a man of Jesus are not less seriously in error than the theologians who have made of Him a God: "Jesus is still less man than God. He is, like all the deities that men have adored, the sun; Christianity is a solar myth. When we shall have shown," writes Dupuis, "that the pretended history of a God, who is born of a virgin in

[1] Voltaire, Dieu et les Hommes, xxxiii, p. 279. Further to what has been quoted it is necessary to read l'Essai sur les Maeurs (especially chap. ix); Les Homelies prononcées à Londres, 1765, xxxii; Conseils raisonnables à M. Bergier, xxxiii; Questions de Zapata, xxxiii; Epitre aux Romains, xxxiii; many articles in the Dictionnaire Philosophique, xxxvii to xliii. With the ideas of Voltaire may be compared those of Holbach, Systems de Nature, Londres, 1770; under the name of Mirabeau, Le bons sens du curé Meslier, Londres, 1772.

[2] Napoleon I was under the influence of Volney when, in a conversation that he had with Wieland at Weimar, in 1808, he said it was a great question to decide whether Jesus had existed (Schweitzer, Gesch., p. 445).

[3] Dupuis, l'Origine de tous les cultes ou la religion Universelle, Paris, anno III (1794); Abrégé de l'origine de tous les cultes, Paris, anno VII (1798). These two works have been reprinted several times.

[4] It was during a conversation with Dupuis that Volney conceived the project of his book.


the winter solstice, who is resuscitated at Easter or at the Vernal equinox, after having descended into hell, who brings with Him a retinue of twelve apostles whose chief possesses all the attributes of Janus—a God, conqueror of the prince of darkness, who translates mankind into the empire of light, and who heals the woes of the world, is only a solar fable, ... it will be almost as unnecessary to inquire whether there was a man called Christ as it is to inquire whether some prince is called Hercules. Provided that it be proven that the being consecrated by worship under the name of Christ is the sun, and that the miraculous element in the legend or the poem has this star for its object, then it will appear proven that the Christians are but sun-worshippers, and that their priests have the same religion as those of Peru, whose throats they have cut."[1]

The year 1835 was that of the publication of the first Life of Jesus, by Strauss,[2] and it is a date of primary importance in the history of evangelical criticism. Strauss attacks the problem with the absolute indifference to dogma which he owed to the philosophy of Hegel. The fundamental idea of religion in his view is that of the "Gottmenschlichkeit," and it is of small import whether this idea has been realized in phenomena or not. It is the idea which is important, and not history. The first Gospel accounts, in Strauss's opinion, have not been drawn up from an historical point of view. They do not relate the events as these took place, but express certain ideas by means of images and symbols, or, to employ the exact term that Strauss makes use of, by myths. What is important in the notion of the myth is not the idea of unreality, but that of a symbolical expression of a higher truth. The mythical explanation seems to Strauss the synthesis which resolves the antithesis between the naturalist and the supernatural explanations of the life of Jesus. The Life of Jesus of Strauss contains another novelty: it put forward as had never been done hitherto the

[1] Dupuis, Abrégé, p. 251. The views of Dupuis have been wittily criticized by J. B. Perès, librarian of the town of Agen, in a curious booklet in which he applied the method of Dupuis to the History of Napoleon to prove the latter had never existed.

[2] Strauss, Das Leben Jesu, Tübingen, 1835, 1836, 1840. Concerning Strauss see Schweitzer, Gesch., p. 69; also A. Levy, David Frederick Strauss, Paris, 1910 ; Guignebert, pp. xxii seq.


problem of the relation between the fourth Gospel and the Synoptics.

So long as one was content, as before Strauss, to combine the statements of the four evangelists, Strauss considers that the two traditions are irreconcilable with each other, and he solves the problem offered by their co-existence in a manner unfavourable to the fourth evangelist.

The weak point of Strauss's construction was that it was not built upon a sufficiently thorough study of the sources. This omission was filled up simultaneously by the works of F. C. Baur and his disciples and by those of a series of critics who corn-batted the theses of the Tübingen school, such as Weisse, Wilke, Reuss, Albert Reville, H. J. Holtzmann, Bernhard Weiss.[1]

The outcome of the discussions which took place on the evangelical problem was a theory whose essential points are that at the base of the evangelical literature are two principal sources The Gospel of Mark, either under its present form or one slightly different (Proto-Mark), and a collection of discourses (theLogia), the fourth evangelist being considered by the majority of critics as a secondary form of the tradition, dominated by dogmatic and allegorical ideas.

The life of Jesus which would be the result of all this critical work has never been written it is, so to speak, involved in the work of H. J. Holtzmann.[3]

To the school of Baur belong the works of Bruno Bauer,[4] who in 1841 supported the priority of the Gospel of Mark. He explained the peculiarities of the other records by what he termed the creative power of the evangelists, and clearly showed the part played in the evolution of tradition by dogmatic and theological notions. But he did not stop there, and maintained that the forces which had guided the transformation

[1] Concerning these works see Maurice Goguel, Introd., i, p. 67, and ii, p. 27.

[2] Usually referred to in England and Germany by the letter Q (Quelle).

[3] Schweitzer, Gesch., pp. 124-40.

[4] Bruno Bauer, Kritik des Evangelischen Gesch. des Johannes, Bremen, 1840; Kritik der Evangelischen Gesch. der Synoptiker, Leipzig, 1841-2; Kritik der Evangelien, Berlin, 1850-1; Christus und die Cäsaren, Berlin, 1877. Concerning Bruno Bauer see M. Kegel, Bruno Bauer und seine Theorie über die Entstehung des Christentums, 1908.


of primitive tradition explained also the genesis of Mark's record. In Bauer's view the primitive evangelist was a creator, and his work is the product of the faith of the early Christians. Christianity was born at the beginning of the second century from the meeting of the different currents of thought originating in Judea, Greece and Rome. The person of Jesus was merely a literary fiction. Jesus is the product, not the creator, of Christianity.

Bruno Bauer remained a solitary. His ideas had but little influence. When, at a later period, analogous ideas to his were expressed, either by the radical Dutch school or by certain modern mythologists, it was not under his influence, and it was only after their expression that the authors of certain theories believed to be new found out that in Bruno Bauer they had a pioneer.

The publication of the Vie de Jésus by Renan in 1863 marks a no less important date than that of Strauss's work on the history of criticism. This is not because the work was particularly original. Almost its entire substance was borrowed from the German criticism, but although the work of Strauss had been translated, that of Renan was the first French work on the question. It attracted all the more attention in that it was addressed to the general public. It thus produced an enormous effect.[1]

Possessing in reality but little originality, the Vie de Jésus of Renan is, from the literary point of view, a first-class work.[2]

Renan makes of Jesus a kind of gentle dreamer who walks through the midst of the Galilean countryside smiling at life, and as though surprised at the drama in which He takes part.

[1] See Schweitzer (Gesch., pp. 647-51) for a list of eighty-five books and pamphlets published in 1863-4 concerning Renan's work.

[2] There are, however, in Renan's work certain errors in taste. "There is no work," writes Schweitzer, "which swarms with so many and such grave errors in taste as the Vie de Jésus. It is Christian art in the worst sense of the word—an art of waxen figures. The gentle Jesus, the pretty Maries, the refined Galileans who make up the retinue of the charming carpenter have been taken from the windows of a shop in the Place St. Sulpice." See also opinion of Marcel Proust on the style of the work—"A sort of Lovely Helen of Christianity" (Revue de Paris, Nov. 15, 1920).


When He disappears, the passion of a deluded woman gives to the world a risen God.

The work of Renan was followed in the last forty years of the nineteenth century by a large number of other "Lives," from Keim to Oskar Holtzmann.[1] They all aim at presenting the results of literary criticism, often whilst combining, as Renan had already done, the facts of the fourth evangelist with those of the Synoptics. The point of view as to miracles varies, but in almost all there are found attempts at the psychological explanation of the Messiahship of Jesus and of the manner in which He had concealed it from the people and revealed it to His disciples. The principal effort made is the explanation of the scene at Cassarea Philippi (Mark viii. 27-33).

In many of these "Lives" there is an effort to diminish the importance of the eschatological element, with the preoccupation—more or less conscious—of discovering a Christ who shall not be too unfamiliar for the modern man and at the same time an ideal representative of true religion, such as is conceived by Protestantism of the liberal school.

In the neighbourhood of 1890 a new period in the history of the "Lives" of Jesus begins.

Discussion was concentrated principally on the Messianic consciousness and eschatology—two problems intimately connected.

Already had Reimarus emphasized the eschatological views of Jesus, and Strauss had accorded them a certain importance. But in a general way these writers had scarcely been followed, and the aim was to give to the eschatological declarations of Jesus an interpretation which eliminated, whilst spiritualizing them. Attention was brought back again to this problem[2] by the progress of the study of religions in the world of antiquity and of contemporary Judaism (with Jesus), in which eschatological ideas occupy a central position; also by the success of the school of Ritschl, who assigned capital importance to the notion of the Church—more or less explicitly identified with the idea of the

[1] Schweitzer, Gesch., pp. 193-221.

[2] Sometimes these were simply declared unauthentic, particularly by Colani, Jésus Christ et les Croyances Messianiques de son temps, Strasbourg, 1864.


Kingdom of God—preached by Jesus. The examination of the Biblical base of this doctrine led Johannes Weiss, disciple and son-in-law of Ritschl, to state conclusions of great import in a leading work dealing with the preaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God.[1]

In his view Jesus preached a Kingdom of God plainly and exclusively eschatological; He considered Himself as the King of this Kingdom—that is to say, the Messiah. The thesis of Weiss was repeated and pushed to its farthest consequences by Albert Schweitzer.[2]

If the exegesis of the end of the nineteenth century has thrown light on the importance of the eschatological and Messianic element in primitive Christianity, agreement, however, was far from being complete on the interpretation of the facts noted. A whole group of scholars threw doubt on the notion of the Messiahship of Jesus being a primitive element of Christianity. This conception was formulated by William Wrede in a very acute work upon the Gospel of Mark.[3] In his view the oldest Gospel tradition suffers from a fundamental contradiction. It presents as Messianic a history which really was not Messianic. The contradiction is concealed and resolved—imperfectly it is true—by the theory of secrecy observed and imposed by Jesus. Wrede takes pains to show that the Messianic secret must not be interpreted as a kind of pedagogic proceeding employed by Jesus to prevent His followers throwing themselves into a movement of political Messianism which He would have been unable to approve, and whose control would have eluded Him. He sees in the Messianic secret a literary device, thanks to which the conceptions and beliefs of the Christian community have been inserted into the Gospel history. This theory has been discussed in the many studies devoted at the beginning of the nineteenth century to the problem of the relations between Paul and Jesus.[4] The problem discussed is this: Who is the real founder of

[1] Johannes Weiss, Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes,Göttingen, 1892.

[2] A. Schweitzer, Das Leidens- und Messiasgeheimniss, Tübingen, Leipzig, 1901; Gesch., pp. 390-443; Die psychiatrische Beurteilung Jesu, Tübingen, 1913.

[3] W. Wrede, Das Messiasgeheimniss in den Evangelien, Göttingen, 1901; Paulus, Halle, 1904.

[4] Concerning this literature see Schweitzer, Gesch. der Paulinischen Forschung, 1911, pp. 119-40.


Christianity? Is it Jesus Himself, or is it not the apostle Paul, who introduced into the Church the notions of Messiahship and redemption foreign to the thought of Jesus and the faith of His first disciples?

The theories of Wrede did not, doubtless, go so far as to deny the historical reality of the person of Jesus; they end, nevertheless, in rendering it practically unnecessary, and they reduce the part played by Him to that of the occasional cause of the development of Christianity.[1] From the notion of a Jesus having been, if one may so put it, only the pretext for the birth of Christianity to the thesis of His non-historical character there is but a shade of difference. We are thus brought to examine the modern forms of the myth concept formerly stated by Volney, Dupuis and Bruno Bauer.

In the last twenty years of the nineteenth century the myth concept is only represented by an anonymous work published in London in 1887 under the title of Antiqua Mater and by some criticisms of the radical Dutch school,[2] which is, however, as a general rule, more occupied with the apostle Paul and his epistles than with Jesus and the Gospels.

Pierson, Matthes, Naber, Van Loon, and for some time Loman, have decided against the historicity of Jesus. The reasons which determined their conclusions are principally of the negative order. These authors insist on the uncertainty of the Gospel tradition, the absence of all external testimony, and thus consider as justified not only a scepticism regarding the possibility of reaching a positive conception of the life of Jesus, but also of His existence.

The fact that they have failed to give from their point of view a coherent explanation of the origins of Christianity and of the formation of the Gospel tradition explains the slight influence that their theories have exercised.

[1] Such appears to be the point of view reached by M. Loisy. Under the influence of the sociological school, many critics in recent years insist upon the part played by the community, and specially of worship, in the development of Christianity and of the evangelical tradition. As characteristic of this tendency we cite the work of Bertram, Die Leidensgeschichte Jesu und der Christuskult, Göttingen, 1922.

[2] On this school, see a book, somewhat one-sided, by G. Van den Bergh van Eysinga, Die hollandische radikale Kritik des Neuen Testaments, Jena, 1912.



That there existed in the indifference which the theories of the Dutch school met with something more than a conspiracy of silence is proved by the volume of discussion since the opening of the twentieth century upon the historical character of Jesus.

According to J. M. Robertson,[1] religions develop by a regular law, continually producing new gods, who are substituted for or added to the old ones, sometimes presenting themselves as sons of the latter. Jewish Monotheism thus gave birth to the Messianic cult. The adoration of Jesus is only the reappearance of an old religion which existed in Israel at the time when Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Joshua were still deities. Among these cults the most important was that of Joshua, the solar-deity of Ephraim, worshipped under the symbols of the lamb and the ram. This god Joshua is not unrelated to the Syrian Adonis and the Babylonian Thammuz. The new cult of Jesus-Joshua specially developed after the destruction of the Temple.

It created a whole legendary tradition, whose principal elements have a distinctly mythical character. It is possible, however, that in these developments there may have been included certain historical souvenirs relating particularly to John the Baptist and to a certain Jesus Ben-Pandera, put to death under Alexander Janneus (106-79 B.C.) Albert Kalthoff[2] considers Christianity to be a social phenomenon. The new religion was born when

[1] Robertson, Christianity and Mythology, London, 1900, 1910; Short History of Christianity, 1902; Pagan Christs, Studies in Comparative Theology, 1902-11; The Jesus Problem—Restatement of the Myth Theory, 1917. Concerning Robertson, see Schweitzer (Gesch.), Guignebert (p. 88). Some ideas of Robertson resemble the astral theories developed by Niemojewski (Gott Jesu im Lichte fremder, etc., Munchen, 1910; Das werwende Dogma vom Leben Jesu, Jena, 1910); and by C. P. Fuhrmann (Der Astralmythus von Christus, 1912). The idea of a pre-Christian cult of Jesus-Joshua is also admitted by Bolland (De Evangelische Jozua—Het Evangelien), Leiden, 1907-10. Cp. also W. Erbt, Von Jerusalem nach Rome, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Urchristentums, Leipzig, 1912.

[2] Kalthoff, Das Christusproblem, Grundlinien zu einer Sozialtheologie, Leipzig, 1902-3; Die Entstehung des Christentums, Leipzig, 1904; Was wissen wir von Jesus? Berlin, 1904. Concerning Kalthoff see Schweitzer (Gesch., p. 345) and Guignebert, p. 78.


the proletarian masses, oppressed in the Roman world, came into contact with Jewish Messianic aspirations. The history of Jesus is only that of the idea of the Christ—it reflects the development of the community.

Jensen[1] concedes that there may be an historical element at the base of the Gospel tradition, but this fact is without import. Whatever the history of the man Jesus may have been, the Christ of the Faith was born of the transformation of the Babylonian myth of Gilgamesch. Like Jesus, Gilgamesch is a person partly human, partly divine; his history, in which Jensen finds an astral character, is that of the quest of immortality.[2]

William Benjamin Smith,[3] mathematical teacher at New Orleans, sets out with a triple observation. It is inconceivable that one simple personality could have inspired such an important religious movement as Christianity. In the second place, there are in the writings of the apostle Paul and the first Christian apologists but few allusions to the public activity of Jesus. In the third place, no man could have been so easily deified as modern theologians suppose.

In this mode Smith is led to adopt the idea of a divine pre-Christian Jesus. It is this person who was worshipped by the Naassene Gnostics, known to Hippolytus, and the Jewish sect of Nazarenes (or Nazorenes), known to Epiphanius (see later, Chap. III, Section II). The name of this sect is not derived from the village of Nazareth, whose existence is very doubtful. In the name is found the root NSR, which expresses the idea of protection and salvation. In support of his theory of a pre-Christian Jesus, Smith cites a series of other proofs, such as the

[1] P. Jensen, Das Gilgamesch-Epos in der Weltlitteratur, Strasbourg, 1906; Moses, Jesus, Paulus, Drei Varianten des Babylonischen Gottmenschen Gilgamesch—Eine Anklage wider die Theologie ein Appel an die Laien, Frankfurt-a-M., 1906-9; Hat der Jesus der Evangelien wirklich gelebt? On Jensen see Schweitzer (Gesch., p. 466) and Guignebert, p. 85.

[2] H. Zimmern (Zum Streit urn den Christusmythe, Das Babylonische Material in seinen Hauptpunkten dargestellt, 1910) admits, in addition to the influence of Gilgamesch, that of the cults of Marduk, Mithra and Thammuz.

[3] W. B. Smith, Der vorchristliche Jesus (Giessen, 1906); Ecce Deus; The pre-Christian Jesus (American Journal of Theology, 1911). Resembling the ideas of W. B. Smith are those of G. T. Sadler, Behind the New Testament, London, 1921.


conjuration "by the god of the Hebrews, Jesus," in the magic papyrus of Paris, which, in truth, only dates from the fourth century after Jesus Christ; or, again, the case of Apollos and the disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus (Acts xviii. 24-8 and xix. 1-7), who know the "things concerning Jesus" before their meeting with Paul. The magician Elymas, surnamed Bar-Jesus (Acts xiii. 6-12) and Simon (Acts viii. 9-13) were worshippers of this pre-Christian Jesus. His name (the Hellenized form of the name of Joshua) signifies deliverance, and is also related to the root of the Greek verb meaning "to heal." The history of Jesus had been created by the worshippers of the pre-Christian Jesus; it enshrines the history of the primitive community.

The theories of W. B. Smith were welcomed with enthusiasm by Arthur Drews,[1] who, in a work of religious philosophy published in 1906, maintained that the cult of Jesus was a relic of fetishism from which it was necessary to purge religion. Smith's system seemed to him adapted to bring about the religious reform he desired. He therefore adopted the theory of a pre-Christian Jesus, whilst combining it with an astral system, and adding to the product certain conceptions of his own devising, in particular a conjunction—unexpected, to say the least—between the Christ as lamb of God (Agnus Dei) and the Vedic lamb.

The theories, amongst which we have been summarizing the most characteristic, have in Germany during the early years of the twentieth century been made the object of an intense propaganda. The controversy was not only carried on in scientific publications, but in a large number of tracts designed for the general public, in popular lectures, sometimes as public debates, in the presence of huge audiences.[2]

The negative theses called forth a multitude of replies.[3]

[1] A. Drews, Die Christus Mythe, Jena, 1909-11; Die Petruslegende, Frankfurt, 1910; Das Markusevangelium als Zeugnis gegen die Geschichtlichkeit Jesu, Jena; Die Entstehung des Christentums ausdem Gnostizismus. Concerning Drews see Schweitzer (Gesch., p. 483), Guignebert (p. 107).

[2] See particularly the public debates in Berlin in 1910, published by the German Monist Union and translated into French by A. Liprnan, Jésus—a-t-il existé? (Paris, 1912).

[3] Among all this literature we shall only cite Bousset, Was wissen wir von Jesus?; L. C. Fillion, L'existence historique de Jésus et le rationalisme contemporain; Jülicher, Hat Jesus gelebt? H. von Soden, Hat Jesus gelebt? 1910; Weinel, Ist das "liberale" Jesus-bild widerlegt? 1910; Joh. Weiss, Jesus von Nazareth, Mythus oder Geschichte? 1910; Dunkmann, Der historische Jesus, der mythologische Christus, 1910; S. J. Case, Historicity of Jesus, 1912 ; Guignebert, Le problème de Jesus, 1914. The method employed by Pérès against Dupuis (see Section I) has been turned against the modern mythologists by J. Naumann (see Die Bismarcksmythe) and by an anonymous writer to show that Martin Luther never existed (Beweis dass Docktor M. Luther nie existiert hat).


In France, if one passes over certain controversialists whose work has more resemblance to an historical romance than to history,[1] the thesis of non-historicity has been supported, with certain reservations, by M. Salomon Reinach, and in its entirety by M. Couchoud and M. Stahl.

M. Salomon Reinach[2] does not formally give his verdict for the negative thesis, owing to the testimony of the Pauline epistles, which he is unable to consider as unauthentic. But whilst admitting that Jesus lived, Reinach insists upon three objections to the historicity of the Passion. The first is on the ground of the silence of non-Christian authors—particularly the absence of a report of Pontius Pilate to the Emperor Tiberius upon the condemnation and execution of the Nazarene. The second argument is that the history of the Passion fulfils certain prophecies, particularly that of verse 17 of Psalm xxii. The last argument is based upon the Docetist heresy—that is, the opinion which reduced the historical and human life of Jesus to a pure appearance. A very interesting attempt has

[1] The most prolific of these authors is Arthur Heulhard (Le mensonge Chrétien, Jésus Christ n'a pas existé, Paris, 1908-10, II vol.; La Vérité Barabbas, Le mensonge Jésus; Tu est Petrus, l'histoire et la legende, Paris, 1913-14). Heulhard sums up his theory in the two following theses:—

"1. It was the Jew known as John the Baptist who said he was Christ and Bar Abba (son of the father), and he was certainly not beheaded.

"2. It was Barabbas who, condemned to death for his public crimes—such as assassination, robbery and treason—was crucified at Guol Golta by Pilate. The evangelists are a mystification invented more than a century after the execution of this scoundrel. It is Barabbas that the Church worships under the name of Jesus, an imaginary personage substituted by the evangelists for the crucified, and invented by them to impart the hue of innocence to the individual by whose invention they exploited lucratively the remission of sins by baptism."

[2] Salomon Reinach, Orpheus, 1909; Le Verset 17 du Psaume xxii; À propos de la curiosité de Tibère; Bossuet et l'argument des propheties; Simon de Cyrène; Une source biblique du Docétisme


been made by M. P. Couchoud[1] to present the Pauline testimony as concerned with a Christ purely ideal, and so eliminate the difficulty which prevented M. Salomon Reinach formally supporting the thesis of non-historicity of Jesus. M. Couchoud differs essentially from the mythologists in that he refuses to make Jesus a mythical being, but a spiritual being— in fact, he possesses a comprehension of the spiritual value of Christianity and of the religious influence of belief in Jesus which distinguishes him radically from such theoreticians as Drews, Smith, or Robertson.

In M. Couchoud's opinion, the method in which historians, from Renan to Loisy, attempt to understand the history of Jesus and the genesis of Christianity is liable to two main difficulties. The first is that it is inconceivable that in less than a single generation a man should be deified, and this within the territory of Jewish monotheism. The second is that historically Jesus escapes us. The testimony of Josephus is an established forgery. The Talmud contains nothing about Jesus which does not come from Christian tradition. Out of three of the oldest pagan testimonies there is one—that of Suetonius—which may refer to an unknown Jewish agitator known as Chrestos. The other two—those of Pliny and Tacitus—establish only the existence of a Christian movement, but as regards its origins, they give only information borrowed from the Christians themselves.

As for the evangelists, M. Couchoud points out that these are not histories, but outlines of the good news; in other words, they are writings of an essentially mystical character. They have two sources the inspired writings and the visions. The Gospel of Mark, the oldest, is the apocalypse of a man without eloquence; it is the creation of imaginative exegesis, not an

[1] P. L. Couchoud, L'énigme de Jésus (translated into English by Mrs. G. Whale); Enigma of Jesus, with introduction by Sir J. G. Fraser; Mystère de Jésus (Mercure de France).

The first article in the Mercure de France by M. Couchoud was discussed by me. Under the pretext that it was not a review of religious history, the Mercure refused to insert an article in which I discussed the second article of M. Couchoud. On the other hand, M. Couchoud has explained his views in a series of informal discussions at the Union pour la Vérité (Jan.-April, 1924). The development of the objections made by me on these occasions will be found in the present volume.


historical document; it is a free commentary made up of Biblical texts and spiritual memoirs, on which the Christian faith is fused. One must not ask from such a book humble and commonplace historical information. Beyond the evangelists it is requisite to go back to the oldest form of the Christian faith, such as the epistles of Paul bring to our knowledge. The Christianity of Paul is neither the deification nor the cult of a man. His Christ is but a new form of the old God of Israel, Yahveh, as Messiah. When, after the fall of Jerusalem, the populace entered the Church, a kind of transformation took place in the Christian faith. The mystery of Jesus became fixed in record, and passed from the lyrical to the narrative form. The ineffable epic of Paul became an artificial legend. The bold invention of popular preachers did its work; but this secondary form of Christianity has but disguised the real nature of the Gospel.

In reality Jesus is not a man progressively deified; He is a God progressively humanized. He is not a founder of religion, but a new God.

In his article in 1924, after emphasizing the very special character of the problem of Jesus, M. Couchoud applies himself to define his theory. "At the origin of Christianity there is, if I am right," he says, "not a personal biography, but a collective mystical experience, sustaining a divine history mystically revealed."[1] At the beginning Jesus was not a man, but a Spirit which manifested itself.

Men believed in this Spirit, because of its manifestations, and because it was supposed that its existence and history could be discovered and read in Isaiah and the Psalms. And M. Couchoud aims to show that it is indeed to a spiritual being that the Pauline testimony refers. As to the origin of the tradition concerning the words of Jesus, the Pauline epistles would enable one to solve this problem in reading them. It was from the Lord, Paul says emphatically, that he received the account he gives of the last repast of Jesus.

Exegesis of prophetic texts, visions and revelations, projection into the past, and the attribution to Jesus of the facts of apostolic history in which the activity of the Spirit had been discerned—such are the sources from which the Gospel tradition has sprung.

[1] See Couchoud, Le Mystère de Jésus, p. 117


Jesus must, then, have been at the beginning the God of a mystery. At the time of Paul neither the God nor the mystery had become historical. They were to become so in the period to follow the creative age, when it would be no longer possible to understand the high spirituality which had inspired the primitive faith, and when the celestial drama upon which Christianity of the first generation had lived had been transported to earth.

The two articles published by M. Couchoud in the Mercure de France have been almost literally reproduced, under the title Le Mystère de Jésus, in the third volume of the collection, Christianity, published under his direction. The objections which were offered in this review on the part of the Rev. Father de Grandmaison or myself, as well as those advanced in the public discussions (Union de la Vérité), have been completely ignored by M. Couchoud; they have not persuaded him to modify his views in the slightest degree; he has not even considered it advisable to state in what respect he thought them ill-founded. He contented himself by adding three chapters to his previous exposition. In the first he attempts to demonstrate that the study of the Apocalypse and the non-Pauline epistles of the New Testament confirm the conclusion to which his study of the Pauline epistles had led him; in the second he returns to what he had already said concerning the Gospel tradition; and in the last he summarizes the conclusions of his research.

We shall call attention also to an original but very paradoxical work by Monsieur R. Stahl,[1] which has the somewhat enigmatical title The Document 70. This "document 70" is the fragment of the Jewish Apocalypse which Wellhausen has disentangled from Chap. xii of the Johannine Apocalypse. In this is found the idea of a Messiah transported to heaven immediately after His birth.

Whilst Wellhausen sees in the Apocalypse of the year 70 a Jewish fragment made use of by the Christian author of our Apocalypse, M. Stahl thinks he can recognize in it the oldest Christian document—one might almost call it the birth-certificate of Christianity.

[1] R. Stahl, Le document 70, Paris and Strasbourg, 1923. On this book see the observations of M. Alfaric, Revue d'histoire, 1924.


The Apocalyptic Messiah referred to must have been first presented as an actual individual, in a symbolic manner, in the fourth Gospel, and later in a more material way in the Synoptic Gospels, which would be younger than the Gospel of John. The letters of Paul are all unauthentic. Paul is not, however, a completely imaginary individual, but the real person, whose portrait has been somewhat modified, has been preserved for us in the book of Acts. He was merely a Pharisee missionary who had some quarrels with the Sadducees concerning the resurrection of the dead. M. Stahl has tried to sketch the development of Christianity as he represents it. It might be summarized in the following series: Document 70ApocalypseFourth GospelSynoptics. He has no explanation of the first manifestations of Christianity in Rome, and particularly of the persecution by Nero. To get rid of this it would be necessary to overthrow the accepted ideas on Latin literature as well as those which appear the best established upon the books of the New Testament.


The review which we have presented of the principal theories, which (whilst utilizing the critical work of the nineteenth century) have during the last twenty years opposed the traditional acceptance of the historicity of Jesus, gives occasion to make several observations. The difficulty of the problem consists not only in the complexity and obscurity of its data, but also in the fact that in a certain sense it is a unique problem without analogy in the whole history of religion. M. Couchoud has much insisted on this fact.[1] "The problem of Jesus," he writes, "is no ordinary historical difficulty. The case of Jesus is unique. For the historian, unique cases are enigmas." But history, even in contemplating less exceptional cases, is nevertheless not exclusively a science of the particular. The wish to remove from its jurisdiction everything which does not present the character of collective fact is simply to prohibit it dealing with great personalities, and to exclude from its domain a Julius

[1] See Couchoud, Mystère de Jésus and Mercure de France (March 1924).


Caesar, a Mahomet, a Luther, and a Napoleon, and thus to suppress one of the most important factors on human evolution. So also, when it is claimed that the problem of Jesus is no historical problem, it is nevertheless (and here M. Couchoud is no exception) by the methods of historical criticism that it is attempted to solve it.

It is important, we think, to distinguish carefully the observation of facts from their interpretation. If in this second part of historical research there is more or less a philosophical element, it is not the same thing for the first part.

To carry the work out properly it is necessary to make an effort to reach impartiality, to free oneself from all preconceived ideas, and to see the texts as they are, to extract from them what they contain, and not what one would like them to say.

But is perfect objectivity possible in a question whose solution cannot fail to have a very direct bearing upon our philosophical and religious concepts? The objection is a grave one; it does not seem to us decisive if only we consent to admit as the first premise of every religious philosophy that it is not the facts which must be adapted to our theories, but rather that it is our theories which must, if necessary, be corrected and rectified to put them in harmony with the facts.

It is in the religious domain more than in any other that the principle proclaimed by Paul holds most truly. "We can do nothing contrary to the truth; we have no strength except in the truth" (2 Cor. xiii. 8). This principle was also proclaimed by one of the most eminent representatives of German theology, Herrmann, at the beginning of this century, who delighted to repeat: "Die erste Pflicht der Religion ist Wahrhaftigkeit." It is a question of fact which is before us: Are there historical proofs of value for the actual existence of Jesus? We shall therefore leave on one side the discussion of the more or less complicated theories offered to explain (other than by the existence and activity of Jesus) the appearance and development of Christianity. It would be easy to show how much there enters of the conjectural, of superficial resemblances, of debatable interpretation into the systems of the Drews, the Robertsons, the W. B. Smiths, the Couchouds, or the Stahls. We shall not linger on the way to do it. We shall not discuss theories which to a more or less


extent are inspired by considerations depending neither on history nor on criticism, but upon religious philosophy.[1]

If there are sufficient proofs of the historical existence of Jesus, it is above all things necessary that the theory offered of the origin of Christianity should accommodate itself to them. And even if there were no proofs, it might still happen that the explanation of the genesis of Christianity as due to the work and teaching of the prophet of Nazareth would be less conjectural than the theories which bring in the epic of Gilgamesch, the astral system, the pre-Christian cult of Joshua-Jesus, a collective mental representation, or the "document 70."

[1] This has been well noted by Guignebert (p. 23). Let us recall only, for example, the case which Drews has pointed out (p. 25, French edition). There is something similar with M. Couchoud, who, pointing out how the concept formed about Jesus was transformed according to the particular epoch, foresees that this evolution will continue and that in "about 1940 Jesus in His entirety will have passed from the historical stage to that of collective mental representations" (Mystère de Jésus). Have we not here a theory upon the essence of religious facts? The same author supposes that if Christianity had really arisen from the deification of an historical personage it would be something very mean, a religion of a low type, on the commonplace level of the Imperial Roman Cult, in any case quite inferior to Judaism and Islamism, which have taken great care that neither Moses nor Mahomet should be taken for gods. For him this is an objection to the historicity of Jesus, at any rate, "because he has a vague idea that Christianity is not there." We can hardly fail to recognize in this an a priori opinion calculated to hinder historical inquiry.

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