Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History

By Maurice Goguel (1926)



From the earliest period of its existence Christianity was an object of the liveliest attacks, both on the part of Jew and pagan, in Jerusalem and Palestine, as also in the Greco-Roman world through which it spread at an early date.

We are familiar enough with the anti-Christian polemics from the second to the fourth century; that of Lucian by the witticisms of De morte Peregrini; that of Celsus (in his True Discourse, composed in the year 180) by the quotations which Origen makes from it[1]; that of the unknown philosopher and of Porphyry (233-304) by the refutation of Macarius of Magnesia (about 410) ; that of Julian the Apostate (331-63) by the refutation of Cyril of Alexandria. By means of the various apologies of the second century (those of Justin Martyr, Tatien, Aristides), and by the dialogues of Justin with the Jew Tryphon, we can gain a fairly accurate conception of the doctrines which were opposed to the Christians in the course of the second century. Just as there was an apologetic tradition, so was there a polemical one. They are always the same critical ideas, characterized with more or less of ability and penetration, which flow from the pens of the opponents of Christianity.

The pagan polemic did not present a physiognomy very different from that of the Jews. One philosopher, Celsus, sought in the Jewish arsenal for weapons to wield against Christianity.[2]

[1] In his Contra Celsum, written about 248. Concerning this work of Celsus and its refutation by Origen consult Neumann and De Faye.

[2] This has been well shown by W. Bauer. Bauer gives a table showing the life of Jesus according to Jewish and pagan opponents of Christianity. This table shows the fundamental agreement of the two sides.


For everything which concerned evangelical history the discussion had to depend upon Christian tradition. It was upon the ground of the Gospels that the opponents of Christianity took up their position. They called attention to the lack of culture of the evangelists, pointed out in their narratives incoherences, contradictions, and improbabilities, but they never stigmatized them as purely and simply fictions.[1] They only attempted to give to the story of Jesus an interpretation which eliminated from it the miraculous and the supernatural; they did not contest its veracity.[2]

Doubtless it is not possible to extend to the first century the conclusion which holds for the period which followed it. Is it not, however, improbable that the disputants of the second century would have neglected an efficient weapon which they found had been used by their predecessors? Already, from this point of view, there are strong presumptions that the non-historical thesis was not supported in the primitive period.

M. Salomon Reinach thinks that if we have no work of the first century in which the historical character of Jesus is questioned,[3] the reason is that if such very subversive documents had existed the Church would not have permitted them to survive.[4] It may be admitted that the Church would have eliminated them from the canonical books and in a more general way from orthodox literature, but its power was limited to that, and it is not easy to see how the Church would have succeeded in completely prohibiting them. If the work of Lucian is excepted—is it not striking that all we know about the polemical literature of Jews and pagans has been preserved for us by Christian apologists?—how would the central question of the existence of Jesus have been treated otherwise than for other controverted questions? Would not opponents have made capital out of this attitude, which would have been an avowal? Although no polemical anti-Christian document belonging to

[1] Bauer, Das Leben Jesu, etc. Tübingen, 1909.

[2] Lucian, De morte Peregrini; Celsus (in Origen's work); Caecilius reproaches the Christians with worshipping a man punished with death.

[3] Exception is made of opponents whom Ignatius combated in the Epistle to the Philadelphians. We shall return to this passage when treating of Docetism.

[4] S. Reinach, Questions sur le Docetisme.


the first century has come down to us, it is possible to form an idea of its quality by the influence which it exerted upon Christian tradition. The comparative study of the four evangelists shows that solicitude for apologetics was one of the factors which most directly influenced the form into which they were cast.[1]

It could not be otherwise, for the Gospels were not written to satisfy the curiosity of historians, but to gain men to the faith and to strengthen the convictions of those already won.[2]

The editors therefore had to present the facts in the way the most likely to answer the objections of opponents in advance. Now in none of the four Gospels is there to be found anything which directly or indirectly is directed against the thesis that the person Jesus had no historical reality. There are in several accounts of apparitions, remarks to emphasize the reality of the body of Jesus, resurrected,[3] but never does any evangelist feel the need to affirm the reality of the body of Jesus during His ministry. This is because they were not engaged with opponents who denied it.

The importance of this fact is considerable, for it was on the morrow of His birth that Christianity was confronted with Jewish opposition. How is it possible to suppose that the first antagonists of the Church could have been ignorant of the fact that the entire story of Jesus, His teaching, and His death corresponded to no reality at all? That it might have been ignored in the Diaspora may be admitted, but it appears impossible at Jerusalem; and if such a thing had been known, how did the opponents of Christianity come to neglect the use of so terrible an argument, or how, supposing they made use of it, does it happen that the Christians succeeded in so completely refuting them that not a trace of the controversy has been preserved by the disputants of the second century?

Against this argument the opponents of the historical thesis may be tempted to rejoin that no decisive case can be based upon our Gospels, since under the most favourable hypothesis the oldest among them was not compiled less than forty years

[1] Baldensperger, L'apologetique de la primitive Église; Urchristliche Apologie.

[2] This is evident from the express declaration of Luke (i. 4) and John (xx. 31).

[3] Luke xxiv. 39-42; John xx. 25-29.


after the events which they relate or are supposed to relate. In a period of intense religious ferment, forty years suffice for exact memories to disappear or undergo profound transformation, or for the birth of a legend ready made. But our Gospels are not the first narrations which saw the light; and before their compilation had begun there existed an oral tradition capable of preserving the facts with remarkable fidelity.[1] The Gospel tradition in its essential elements goes much farther back than the compilation of the first written Gospels. We shall attempt in a later chapter to prove that the theology of Paul implies this fact.


Docetism is the opinion of those who believed that in the person of Jesus the human element was only an appearance. Such as we find this belief, for instance in Marcion and in many second-century Gnostics, Docetism is not an affirmation of historical order: it is an interpretation of the history on which the Christian faith was based. Among the second-century theologians, and even those of the first century, there are found side by side these two theses: Jesus is a man and He is God. Herein was presented a problem for Christian thought: How define in the person of the Christ the relation between the human element and the divine? The most diverse attempts were made in ancient Christianity to solve this problem up to the time when the orthodox doctrine was fixed. There were attempts which sacrificed one of the terms of the problem, either in making of the Christ a mere man raised to the heavens by His resurrection,

[1] M. Hubert Pernot (Études de litterature grecque moderne) has quoted a very curious case of the fidelity of oral tradition. It refers to a Cretan poem (La Belle Bergère). "In 1890," writes M. Pernot, "an inhabitant of Chio, Constantine Kaneallakis, gave, without knowing its ancient origin, a version of it, which is a guarantee of authenticity so complete that I supposed it to be a revised copy of one of the Venetian editions, until one day this conscientious worker told me that he had picked it up at Nenita, his native village, from an old peasant woman. The women of middle life being all illiterate in these places, the latter had only been able to hear the poem read. This is a characteristic example of the astonishing facility with which people, whose memory has not yet been enfeebled by the use of writing, are capable of retaining works of considerable length."


or, on the contrary, by reducing the humanity in Him to but a mere appearance.

That which the Docetists of the second century denied, was not that the story narrated by the evangelists was real, but that the humanity of the person to whom the story referred was anything more than a mere appearance or a garment worn by a divine Being.[1] Docetism is a theological opinion; it is not an historical affirmation.[2]

Such is particularly the character of Marcion's system,[3] that deep and daring thinker who in the first half of the second century gave, concerning the Christianity which he sought to free from every link with Judaism, an interpretation so original and so fertile, and which Harnack compares to those of the apostle Paul and St. Augustine. In Marcion's view Christ had not been begotten; He had nothing of the human about Him; He was and remains a Spirit. He appeared in human form (in hominis forma); His body was but an appearance.[4] It is necessary to conceive Him as like the angels who appeared to Abraham, who ate and drank and performed all the actions of human life[5] (Gen. xviii. 2-8). Harnack writes: "The Christ of Marcion is a God who appears in human form, feels, acts and suffers like a man, although the identification with a carnal body, naturally begotten, is in His case merely an appearance. It is incorrect, then, to assert that according to Marcion Christ did not suffer, and only died in appearance. This is the opinion His adversaries attributed to Him, but He only predicated appearance to the substance of the flesh of Christ."[6]

Marcion was so far from denying the Gospel history that he accepted a Gospel (that of Luke) which he had only purged of what he considered Judaising additions. This he adapted to his ideas, particularly in suppressing the narration of the birth of Jesus and in making His history begin at the baptism.

[1] Justin, De resurrectione, ii; Tractatus Origensis; Origen, Contra Celsum, II, 16.

[2] Concerning the character of Docetism, see Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte.

[3] Concerning the Docetism of Marcion, see De Faye, Gnostiques et Gnosticisme; also Harnack, Marcion, Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott.

[4] Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., III, 16, 1.

[5] Tertullian Adv. Marcionem, III, 9.

[6] Harnack, Marcion.


The Gnostic Cerinthe also believed that Christ was only united with the man Jesus at the time of baptism, and separated from Him at the time of the Passion, so that Christ Himself had not suffered.[1]

This solicitude to preserve the full divinity of Christ by discarding the idea of suffering gave rise to rather strange interpretations of the story of the Passion. Irenaeus, for instance, states that Basilides[2] taught that Simon of Cyrene not only carried the cross of Jesus, but that he had been miraculously substituted for the latter, been crucified in His stead, whilst Jesus, lost in the crowd, looked on, laughing at the punishment of his double.[3] In the Acta Johannis (Chap. xcvii) there may be read how at the moment of the crucifixion Jesus appeared unto John, who had fled, and said to him: "John, for the people who are there, at Jerusalem, I am crucified, I am pierced with thrusts of lance, I have vinegar and honey to drink, but to thee I speak; harken to what I tell thee." All these legends do not deny the story of the Passion; they develop upon the basis of the Gospel tradition an interpretation of the facts which eliminates the idea of the suffering and the death of a God.

If such was the Docetism of the second century, it would be surprising if there had been previously a Docetism of an entirely different character. That Docetism is met with at the beginning of the second century, and perhaps earlier, there is no room to doubt. Jerome attests its high antiquity when he says that the blood of Christ was still fresh in Judea, and the apostles were still living when men could be found to affirm that the body of the Lord was merely a phantom.[4]

M. Loisy has with justice pointed out, as is shown in the context, that there is in the passage from St. Jerome an oratorical

[1] Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., I, 26.

[2] De Faye (Gnostiques et Gnosticisme) thinks that if Clement of Alexandria had known of this theory of Basilides, he would not have failed to attack it, and for this reason it should be only attributed to later adepts of the sect.

[3] If one may judge by the formula of abjuration imposed upon them, the Manicheans seem to have had the same opinion (Kessler). The same thing is found, according to Photius, in the "Acts of John" (Leucius Charinus). There is also a legend which has it that it was Judas who was crucified in the place of Jesus (Liepsius).

[4] Jerome, Adv. Luciferum, 23.


exaggeration in which hyperbole and inaccuracy abound. The phrase about the blood of Christ has no more significance than the statement concerning the apostles. As regards the latter, its sole origin is in the fact that Docetism was combated in the Johannine Epistles (1, iv. 2 and 2, 7).

The formula in the first Epistle of John about the confession of Jesus Christ having come in the flesh (1, iv. 2) is not sufficiently precise to enable the thesis to which it is opposed to be reconstructed. This might just as well have been a negation of the Messianic character of the personality of Jesus as of the reality of His body. It is doubtless in the second sense that the testimony of the Johannine Epistle should be interpreted, because of an analogous, although more precise, controversy found in the Epistles of Ignatius. The Bishop of Antioch insists upon the reality of the facts of the Gospel history. To show this it suffices to quote a passage from the Epistle to the Christians of Tralles. It refers to Jesus Christ, "who had really been begotten, who had eaten and drunk, who had really been judged under Pontius Pilate, really crucified and put to death . . . who had really been raised from the dead." And Ignatius in his next chapter formally opposes the opinion thus stated to those of the unbelievers, who maintained that He only appeared to suffer.[1] The Docetism attacked by Ignatius may have been associated with Judaising tendencies combated in Philadelphians ix. 1.[2] The evidence of Jerome on the Palestinian origin of Docetism is favourable to this interpretation.

According to M. Salomon Reinach,[3] Docetism is far older than Ignatius; already it is found attacked in the Gospels, particularly in the episode concerning Simon of Cyrene, who at the time when Jesus was led to Calvary was forced by the soldiers to carry the cross (Mark xv. 21; Matt. xxvii. 32;

[1] Cp. Eph. vii. 18; Smyrn. i, 2; Polycarpe, Phil., vii, p. 1. A trace of Docetism is also found in the Gospel of Peter, where it is said that Jesus, when crucified, kept silent, as though He felt no pain. M. Reinach (Source biblique du docetisme) has with justice proposed to seek the origin of this idea in the passage in Isa. I. 7: "I have made my face like unto a rock."

[2] This is admitted, for instance, by W. Bauer (Die Briefe des Ignatius von Antioch, etc.).

[3] Reinach, Simon de Cyrene. The criticism of Reinach by Loisy should be read (Revue d'Histoire et de litterature religieuses, 1913).


Luke xxiii. 26). Mark alone states that this Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus.[1] In Reinach's view the historical character of this episode is inadmissible, in the first place because there is no instance of any requisition similar to that of which Simon was the object, and in the next place because the condemned was obliged to carry the patibulum himself, and lastly because the whole episode is only the illustration of the words of Jesus, "Whosoever will come after Me, let him take up his cross and follow Me." None of these three arguments is convincing. The requisition of Simon the Cyrenian was certainly not legal; one must see in it one of the thousand daily annoyances the Romans did not hesitate to inflict on the Jews. It must not be explained by the compassion that Jesus would have inspired in the soldiers, but by the physical impossibility for Him, after flagellation, to carry the cross. Lastly, it is inconceivable that the episode should have been suggested by words in which it is a question not of carrying Jesus' cross, but one's own cross.

There is therefore no reason to recognize in the account the remains of a tradition analogous to the conception of the Gnostic Docetists concerning the crucifixion of Simon of Cyrene. If the evangelist had substituted Jesus for Simon, who really was crucified, it is not comprehensible why they should not have pushed the substitution to the end, but instead have preserved the details of the carrying of the cross by Simon.

As for the names Alexander and Rufus, which are found only in Mark, these are generally explained by saying that these persons must have been known in the community in which the second Gospel was composed.[2]

[1] This episode is not found in the fourth Gospel. Some authors, such as Jean Réville (Quatrième évangile), consider that the evangelist has omitted it in the interest of anti-Docetism; others, like Holtzmann-Bauer, believe that he was influenced by the words of Jesus on the necessity of carrying one's cross, or by the story of Isaac, who himself carried the wood for the burnt-offering. The fact that John has allowed other details of the Passion to be passed over leads us to consider it a simplification of the narrative, designed to concentrate all attention upon Jesus. The incident is wanting also in the Gospel of Peter. (M.Goguel, Introd. au N.T., ii.)

[2] This community was probably Roman. (See M. Goguel, Introd. au N.T., i.)


Matthew and Luke neglected this detail, which had no interest for them or their readers. M. Reinach, on the contrary, considers that the names Alexander and Rufus were added afterwards in Mark because of a tradition which represented them as associates of Peter.[1] But this tradition is only supported by a text of very recent date, "The Acts of Peter and Andrew"; and if Alexander and Rufus had been persons sufficiently known to make it worth while to invoke their testimony (which, moreover, is only done in Mark in a very indirect way), it would not be intelligible that their names should have been omitted in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It is not legitimate, therefore, to dispute the authenticity of the incident of Simon carrying the cross of Jesus.

The system which boldly dates back to the period which preceded the composition of the Gospels—a form of Docetism for which Irenaeus is the first witness—and claims to explain the origin of the episode of Simon as a reaction against it, must be considered an arbitrary construction. The conclusion to which we are thus led is that there is no evidence for the existence of Docetism older than is to be found in the Epistles of John and Ignatius.

The Docetism at the beginning of the second century must have arisen from the same beliefs which inspired the theories of Gnostic Docetism. It is necessary, therefore, to see in it, not a negation of the Gospel history, but an attempt to interpret it, which in no degree compromises the transcendent character of the Saviour by representing Him as accomplishing His work on humanity without partaking of the frailty of human nature.

A different interpretation has been proposed by M. Salomon Reinach,[2] who finds in Docetism an attempt to reconcile the Christian affirmations about Christ with a Jewish "X" who is the negation of the whole Gospel history.

The Christians, incapable of opposing to this negation positive proofs based upon authentic documents, replied that Jesus was a kind of divine phantom, a Being etherial and entirely spiritual, that human eyes had seen, and whose voice human ears had heard, but who could not be touched.

[1] Reinach.

[2] Id., Questions sur le docetisme (Revue Moderniste).


To this theory M. Couissin[1] rightly objects that the answer to the Jewish negation would have been without efficacy, since the Jews denied precisely that which the Docetists affirmed, namely that Jesus had been seen and heard, either as an illusion or otherwise. M. Loisy observes that the answer of the Docetists would have been a "masterpiece of human stupidity," and that "we are here in the domain of pure phantasy, of stark improbability, of conjecture based upon nothing."

Indeed, the question discussed by the Docetists was not whether there had lived a man in the time of Pilate named Jesus, who acted, suffered and died, but the problem was to determine the nature of His manifestation. Here it is that M. Reinach[2] thinks he finds a decisive argument in favour of his theory in the Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians.[3] "I have heard certain men say," writes Ignatius, "if I do not find (a certain thing) in the archives, I do not believe in the Gospel. And as I replied to them: It is written (in the Old Testament), they answered: 'That is the very question.' But for me the archives are Jesus Christ, His cross, His death, His resurrection, and the faith which comes from Him."

It is generally understood that Ignatius in this passage replies to those who demanded proofs drawn from the Old Testament before they accepted the affirmations of the Christian faith. He declares that these proofs exist, and as his adversaries dispute their value, he appeals to what is for him the supreme demonstration, Jesus Christ. In M. Reinach's view the archives referred to in the first part of the phrase are those of Caesarea, the capital of Palestine. Ignatius had to deal with "a critical school, which, demanding documents concerning the terrestrial life of Jesus, and seeking these vainly among the archives, annoyed Ignatius with its negations." These critics are also aimed at in Ephesians (xix) where Ignatius says that the prince of this world had no knowledge either of the virginity of Mary or of the death of the Lord.

If this critical school of Antioch had existed, it would be

[1] P. L. Couissin, Quelques reflexions sur la lettre de M. Reinach, Revue Moderniste, reproduced by Reinach.

[2] Reinach, St. Ignace et le Docetisme.

[3] M. Reinach's translation is given. The text of the passage is not certain. For basis of discussion we accept that of M. Reinach.


inexplicable that its arguments have not been used again by later controversialists. But that is not all. If the word "archives" can be rigorously applied to the archives of Caesarea, it holds none the less that Ignatius thinks he replies to the demands of his opponents in proving that the facts referred to are attested by the Old Testament, for the words "It is written" cannot, as M. Reinach recognizes, refer to anything except the Old Testament. His opponents do not deny that the proof offered by Ignatius, if it were really furnished, would be convincing. They only doubt that it is really given. If they had insisted on documents from archives, why should they have been able to content themselves with scriptural proofs? There must be some correspondence between the demand and the answer. If Ignatius were dealing with persons requiring documentary proofs of the Gospel history, why should he not have attempted to give them? In ignoring the question he would have given his opponents a manifest proof of feebleness. It appears, as M. Loisy admits, that it was not the Docetists, but the Judaising Christians who, whilst admitting in their generality the evangelical facts, disputed the interpretation that Ignatius gave of them. The conclusion we reach is therefore quite clear: The Docetists did not contest the Gospel history. They were Christian idealists, attached above all to the notion of the divinity of Christ and the celestial character of His person, who attempted to give it an interpretation harmonizing with their ideas. So understood, Docetism was only able to develop in the soil of evangelical tradition. If the Docetists had had the slightest reason to think that Christ was no more than an ideal person without historical reality, they would not have expended such treasures of ingenuity to give an interpretation of His story which cut Him off completely from too intimate contact with humanity. The Docetists thus appear as witnesses to Gospel tradition.

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