Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History

By Maurice Goguel (1926)



The interpretation of the testimony which the non-Pauline Epistles give concerning Christ calls for the same observations already made concerning those of Pauline origin. These documents are the Epistle to the Ephesians, attributed to Paul, but in which one is obliged to perceive a secondary imitation of the Epistle to the Colossians; the pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), in which there appear to have been inserted fragments of authentic Pauline letters; the first Epistle of Peter, at the basis of which are found the essential ideas of Paul; the Epistle to the Hebrews, written by a man very familiar with the Alexandrine philosophy and exegesis; the second Epistle of Peter and that of Jude, closely related to each other, and apparently of fairly recent period; and lastly, the Epistle of James, who makes use of the traditional Jewish and Greek ethic, and shows very striking analogies with the literature of the Wisdom of the Old Testament.[1] With the exception of the Epistle of James, all these works belong to the literary species which Paul created by his correspondence, and all betray the influence of his theology.

None of these letters pretends to be a complete exposition of Christian faith. They are written to believers, and only expound the ideas and the beliefs which they assume to be those of their readers.[2] Several among them, so far as their date can be fixed with any preciseness, were written at the time when the

[1] The three Epistles of John, which cannot be considered separately irom the fourth Gospel, are not mentioned here.

[2] This is illustrated by a significant fact. In the Johannine Epistles, which, as all are aware, are closely related to the fourth Gospel, there is no allusion to the facts about the life of Jesus.


Gospel literature began to be spread abroad. All these Epistles should be considered as the commentary upon certain points of Christian doctrine and tradition; it is illegitimate to employ in what concerns them the argument ex silentio—that is, to suppose their authors were ignorant of certain ideas because they do not give them expression.

Very frequently in the Deutero-Pauline literature the idea of the imitation of Jesus is met with. This idea could only have been a moral force for men who were acquainted with the human history of Jesus. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, after having proposed to his readers the imitation of the heroes of the faith spoken of in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition (xi, 1-40), concludes by exhorting them to fix their eyes upon Jesus, who "endured the cross and despised the shame" (Heb. xii. 1, 2). The way in which this exhortation is connected with the examples given in the eleventh chapter is only comprehensible if this also is referred to an historical model. The author also exhorts the faithful to suffer insult as Jesus Himself had done (xiii. 13). The writer of the first Epistle of Peter declares to his readers who are called upon to suffer persecution that they ought to find consolation in the thought that Christ also suffered in the flesh (iv. 1), and has left to them an example that they may follow in His footsteps. Thus he makes his thought precise: "Reviled, He reviled not again; He suffered, but He did not threaten; He entrusted His cause to Him whose judgments are just"[1] (ii. 21-3).

The author of the Epistle to the Ephesians, exhorting the faithful to live in love for one another, proposes that they should follow the example of Christ, "who loved us and gave Himself for us" (v. 2).


It is true that in the pastoral Epistles the name of Jesus is never found, but always "Jesus Christ," with or without the epithet of the Lord, which is a designation of the celestial Christ,

[1] Immediately after the author speaks of the death of Christ on the cross (1 Peter, ii. 24). It is evident that there is an allusion here not to an Apocalyptic drama, but to the crucifixion.


not of Jesus in His earthly ministry. It is also true that there is no direct mention of His death in certain passages where an allusion would seem natural[1] (1 Tim. i. 14; 2 Tim. i. 9, etc.; Titus iii. 4-7). The writer specially speaks of the manifestation of the glory of God in Jesus Christ (1 Tim. i. 15; 2 Tim. i. 9, etc.; Titus iii. 4, etc.); and if he insists upon the human character of this manifestation, he does so without citing any concrete detail, no doubt because these details were in the minds of his readers. Concerning this manifestation, he employs the word epifaneia (2 Tim. i. 10; Titus iii. 4), which appears to put it in the same category with the manifestation of Christ at His return[2] (1 Tim. vi. 14; 2 Tim. iv. 1, 8; Titus ii. 13), but it must not be forgotten that the identity of the Christ expected at the end of the age with the Jesus who had already appeared in history had for the Christian faith much importance.

In the first Epistle to Timothy there is a definite allusion to a testimony given by Jesus in the presence of Pontius Pilate. The writer urges Timothy to fight the good fight of faith, to seize hold upon eternal life to which he had been called, and of which he had made confession in the presence of several witnesses. "I urge you as in the sight of God, the source of all life, and of Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate made the great profession of faith—I urge you to keep His commandments without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Tim. vi. 12-14). The mention of the Roman Procurator in the same conditions, found in Ignatius and Justin, has given rise to the suggestion that the phrase in the first Epistle to Timothy might be a first sketch of the article in the creed "He suffered under Pontius Pilate."[3] M. Kattenbusch thinks that the testimony of Timothy which is referred to is that given by him at the time of his baptism. Concerning Jesus Christ, the phrase "give testimony" may have a double meaning, and relate both to the declarations of Jesus and to His sufferings. In the article of the creed the mention of Pilate is only a chronological

[1] But account must be taken of the effect upon the mind of his readers of the form of words used by the writer.

[2] Von Soden, Das Interesse des apostolischen Zeitalters an der Evangelischen Geschichte (Freiburg im Br., 1892).

[3] Von Soden, op. cit.; Kattenbusch, Das apostolische Symbol.


indication. It is too brief to have been introduced in an apologetic interest to confirm the reality of the crucifixion.[1]

M. Kattenbusch believes that the phrase in the creed arises from the transfer of a formula of exorcism, "In the name of Jesus Christ, crucified by Pontius Pilate."[2] This theory gives rise to various objections. The parallelism which exists between the confession of Timothy and that of Jesus Christ compels us to give the term the same meaning in the two cases, and negatives the introduction (even in a subordinate manner) into the confession of Jesus Christ of the notion of suffering and death, which would not apply for Timothy. The idea of the suffering of Christ is so all-important in Christian thought that it could not have been merely suggested. This idea once excluded, there is no longer any connection (according to M. Kattenbusch's view) between the passage of the first Epistle to Timothy and the article of the creed. Nevertheless, it is difficult to admit that the coincidence between the two phrases is quite fortuitous.

The explanation offered by M. Kattenbusch of the article of the creed is no more satisfactory. If the mention of Pontius Pilate possessed a chronological interest, an indication of this kind would have been more in place in reference to the birth of Jesus. The insertion into the creed of a formula of exorcism which does not seem to have had wide currency does not appear to be more natural either.

An interpretation of the passage in the first Epistle to Timothy, infinitely more satisfactory than those hitherto proposed, has been offered by M. Baldensperger, who seems to us to have definitely explained the meaning and scope of the text simultaneously with its relations to the article of the creed.[3] We shall sum up in its main features his illuminating study, of which all the conclusions (it seems to us) must be accepted. The phrase concerning the testimony of Jesus could not have had for its object to fix the time in which He lived. Neither Timothy nor the other readers of the Epistle required enlightenment on this point. Besides, the writer has no care for history or chronology.

[1] If such were its character, the function of Pilate should be stated.

[2] This formula is attested by Justin, by Iremeus and by Palladius.

[3] Baldensperger, Il a rendu témoignage sous Ponce Pilate (Revue d'hist., Paris, 1922).


His eyes are fixed on the future and not on the past. Neither does he dream of affirming the reality of the facts of evangelical history, or, as the mythologists have it, of making history out of a myth. The mere mention of Pontius Pilate would, besides, be quite inadequate to do that. One of the preoccupations dominating his thought was the contest against heresies. Those which he attacks have a practical character and a reference to the life of the Christians. What is known by us about the author's thought permits us to affirm that if he had found himself confronted by a negation respecting the reality of the life of Jesus, he would not have confined himself to a combat on a side issue by the phrase, "He rendered testimony before Pontius Pilate"—a phrase which, besides, was a simple allusion to an episode known to his readers and in no wise in doubt among them. The mere mention of the fact permits the argument to be drawn from it. It was a question of testimony and not of suffering; there is therefore no reason to suppose an anti-Docetist polemic as is the case in other texts where Pilate is mentioned.[1] The starting-point of the argument is not the testimony of Jesus, but that of Timothy. It is only incidentally, and as an encouragement for Timothy to persevere in his attitude, that the testimony of Jesus is recalled. M. Baldensperger does not think that it is Timothy's baptismal confession of faith which is referred to, but a testimony which Timothy had given of his faith before the magistrates who had interrogated him on the subject. "One is justified in saying," writes M. Baldensperger, "that Timothy, like Christ, had been summoned before the Roman magistrates and that he had publicly confessed his faith. In this way the text of 1 Timothy is replaced in the historical environment to which it belongs by origin. It is a period of persecutions. The duty of the leaders of the Church was clearly marked out; they were obliged to insist that the disciples of Jesus should publicly confess their faith without lending themselves to more or less formal denials to save themselves from persecution."[2] And M. Baldensperger points out very appositely that a whole series of maxims found in the New Testament recalls this duty of public confession.

[1] For instance, Ignatius, ad Magn., xi; ad Smyrn. i, 2; ad. Tral. ix, i.

[2] Baldensperger (p. 20, etc., op. cit).


"Whosoever shall confess Me before men," said Jesus, "I will confess him before My Father who is in heaven. Whosoever shall deny Me before men, the same will I deny before My Father who is in heaven" (Matt. x. 32, 33). Doubtless all these declarations did not have their first origin at the period of the persecutions, but the way in which they stand out in relief reveals an undeniable solicitude and shows anxiety to outline clearly to Christians their duty, as is also done in this exhortation of the first Epistle of Peter: "Sanctify the Lord in your hearts being always ready to give an account before whomsoever may question you of the faith which is in you "[1] (1 Pet. iii. 15). Under these circumstances, given the importance which the idea of the Christ as a model possessed in Christian thought, it was natural that the episode of the interrogation of Jesus by Pilate should come to be insisted upon. In this was seen a living example of the attitude incumbent upon the faithful when interrogated by the judicial authorities. But why did the writer of the Epistle propose to Timothy the example of Jesus when He had already given testimony?

The answer is—the history of the persecutions proves it—that generally one single interrogation of the Christians was not considered sufficient. In 2 Tim. iv. 16 there is a reference to a first appearance before the magistrates, which implies necessarily that there will be a second, and Pliny expressly states that he was in the habit of interrogating accused persons two or three times. This is the reason that Timothy was exhorted to persevere in his attitude. In the critical circumstances through which Christianity was passing, exhortation to fidelity in the confession of faith was always a present need. It was therefore originally the idea of the "Christ as model" for the confessors of the faith which gave birth to a symbolical formula destined to enter later into the apostles' creed. There remains to explain the transformation by which the phrase "He suffered under

[1] Concerning the importance of testimony at the period of persecutions see Apoc. ii. 13. The fact that the Christians of Pergamos did not deny their faith at the time of the martyrdom of Antipas has caused the presence of Nicolaites among them to be considered as having little importance, while the struggle against heresy was one of the dominating occupations of the author of the letters to the seven churches.


Pontius Pilate" was substituted for "He gave testimony before Pontius Pilate." M. Baldensperger supposes an error of interpretation of the word marteria, taken in the sense of martyrdom and not of confession. This explanation is perhaps not sufficient. It is difficult to accept in respect of a phrase which must have long had for Christians a great practical value. Perhaps it might be possible to think of another explanation. The various phrases of the creed which refer to Christ are so arranged as to constitute a summary of His history, and it might be asked if it was not through an assimilation with what is stated concerning the crucifixion and death that the general idea of martyrdom (which besides also included the notion of testimony) has been substituted for the narrower one.

Whatever the explanation may be, the scope of the passage 1 Tim. vi. 13 stands out clearly through the exegesis of M. Baldensperger. It is no question of the evolution of history from a myth, as M. Couchoud thinks, nor of an effort to crystallize by a chronological detail a history which might seem inconsistent, but the utilization, with an immediately practical aim in view, of a detail in the tradition known to everyone, teaching a lesson upon which it was necessary to insist.

This conclusion illuminates this fact: that for the writer of the pastorals the Christian faith rested upon real history. This affirmation is found in such a form that it proves the writer had no sentiment of making an innovation.


Although the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews makes current use of the name of Jesus, and not only of Jesus Christ or the Lord, the historical person of Jesus does not in his thought possess very special importance. He who is designated by the name of Jesus is the glorified Lord who pre-existed and who is now in Heaven. Thus it has sometimes been thought that the Christ of the Epistle to the Hebrews was a purely mythical personage,[1] and, indeed, as Windisch[2] has observed, this Jesus

[1] Drews, Der Christusmythe; Smith, Ecce Deus; Couchoud, Mystère de Jésus.

[2] Windisch, Der Hebrärbrief.


was a celestial Being, and not a man who had made a profound impression upon those who had known Him. His history is presented in abstract terms which almost all apply to the traditional type of the Messiah, borrowed from the Old Testament and especially from the Psalms. What is said about His death is in some aspects lacking in everything of historical character. The Jesus of the Epistle to the Hebrews is a High Priest who offers His own blood in sacrifice (ix. 11); He is not the condemned of the Sanhedrin, executed by the Romans.[1] But these features, which have considerable importance, are not the only ones to point out. If Christ pre-existed, and if He is now in celestial glory, the link which unites these two periods of His history is His incarnation. Herein, as Von Soden has well observed, is a conception closely related to that of the Epistle to the Philippians. The idea of the human life of Jesus in the thought of our author does not play a purely minor part; it explains the redemption accomplished by Jesus—a redemption at the centre of the author's thought.

He emphasizes certain features which clearly show that a history of Jesus, and in particular of His death, was familiar to him, and forms the foundation of his theology. He indicates that the manifestation of Christ took place at a recent date, in a period which he considers the last in the world's history (i. 2). The message had been brought to him by those who had first heard the preaching of Jesus (ii. 3). He describes the sufferings and temptations of Jesus in words which would be with difficulty explicable as theoretical views, and he maintains that they should be a model and a consolation to men who also have to support suffering and persecution. "Because He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to succour those who are tempted" (ii. 18). "Although He was the Son of God, He learned obedience from His sufferings; and being made perfect, He became to all those who believe in Him the author of eternal salvation" (v. 8, 9). The lot of Christ is exactly the same as that of all men, who must die once, after which is the judgment (ix. 27, 28). The whole constitutes a summary of Christ's sufferings; there is no intention by the author to rewrite a history that in any case his readers know, but there is a

[1] Von Soden, Das Interesse, p. 120.


certain care to depict in it a drama of redemption and the desire to attach a practical lesson to it.

One single detail concerning the Passion is related in the Epistle to the Hebrews. This is that Jesus died outside the city (xiii. 12). This detail is not found in any of the Gospel narratives, but seems to be implied by John (xix. 20). This is, besides, extremely probable, and seems to be presumed in all the accounts. Because the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews brings this detail into relief owing to the allegorical significance which he accords it, there is no legitimate reason to suppose that he postulates it for ulterior convenience. In a speculative construction this detail would not be thus isolated; it would form part of a general picture interpreted as an allegory. In the conditions in which it is found, it is only to be explained by supposing that it is borrowed from a narrative of the death of Jesus, from which it is detached because of its allegorical interest.


The first Epistle of Peter, if we except the concept of the Christ as the model of the faithful, does not contain any allusion to the facts of the life and death of Jesus. The Gospel history is presented as the realization of a prophetic programme. The holiness of Jesus is based upon Isaiah (liii. 9) and in 1 Pet. ii. 22, when referring to His sufferings, the writer quotes the same prophet (liii. 4-6). The first Epistle of Peter shows how the theological interpretation of the Gospel history, already vaguely outlined in the preceding generation, tended to become substituted for the history itself. The Epistle of Jude is too brief to authorize any conclusions whatever, for it is rash, seeing the vagueness of the expressions employed, to suppose as does Weinel, that verse 4 is a polemic against Docetism. Admitting the date of its composition as probably fairly late, we might pass over the second Epistle of Peter[1] written at a time when the Epistles

[1] It is unnecessary to say that our observations would only have more force if the authenticity of the Epistle be admitted, as is done by Catholic exegesis and certain Protestant critics—for instance, Spitte (Der Zweite Brief des Petrus) and Zahn (Einleitung in das Neue Testament).


of Paul already formed a collection of recognized authority (iii. 15, 16)—that is to say, when Christianity and its doctrines were settled in their essential features. The author alludes to the account of the transfiguration as related in the Synoptic Gospels (i. 16-18). He very distinctly places himself on the ground of the Gospel tradition. This does not prevent his considering the person and work of Jesus from a uniquely dogmatic point of view. Here is a manifest proof—and it does not apply to the second Epistle of Peter alone—that a theological conception of the Christ in no wise excludes the historic tradition. This is an idea which must not be lost sight of when one begins an examination of the Epistle of James. This has a peculiar physiognomy which is not to be found in any other book of the New Testament. No allusion is found to the history of Jesus, even when the line of thought would seem necessarily to require it, as in Chap. v. 10.

Beyond the opening salutation (i. 1) the name of Jesus Christ is only found once (ii. 1), and it is introduced[1] in a way that might suggest an interpolation. Hence the hypothesis which considers the Epistle to be a Jewish work in which the name of Jesus Christ has been introduced in two different places.[2] This hypothesis does not appear admissible owing to the numerous reminiscences of Gospel phrases found in the Epistle and because they are the Pauline formulas concerning justification by faith (somewhat inaccurately transmitted, it is true) which the writer has in mind in the second chapter (ii. 14-26). The Epistle introduces us to an original type of Christianity conceived as a rule of life and a source of moral inspiration. The Gospel is the perfect law of liberty (i. 25) or the royal law (ii. 8). These are practical instructions given by the writer. He does not place them in any relation with a drama of redemption, historical or mythical. It is evident that from such a work no conclusion as to the character of the evangelical traditions can be drawn, the latter being ignored, or, to be more precise, they are left aside.

[1] "Jesus Christ, our glorified Lord."

[2] Massebieau, L'Epitre de Jacques est elle l'aeuvre d'un Chrétien?; Spitta, Der Brief des Jakobus, etc. It is interesting to note that Spitta and Massebieau developed their theories independently of each other.



In their entirety the non-Pauline Epistles of the New Testament show us, then, the continuation of the development which we have already recognized in the Pauline Epistles. The Gospel history serves as the base of the development of a doctrine of redemption, and the farther we advance the more does the doctrine grow in importance and tend to substitute itself for the history of which originally it was the interpretation.[1]

[1] The same development continues in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Barnabas), but it shows less and less originality. It is unnecessary to examine this in detail, for these documents were written at a time when doctrine and tradition were fixed in their essential elements.

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