Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History

By Maurice Goguel (1926)



The Johannine Apocalypse, as we have it, dates from the last decade of the first century—that is, from a period when a Gospel literature existed—at least in its essential elements—and the author of the Apocalypse appears to know it. There is no direct reference to the contents of this literature in his book, but the nature of the work sufficiently explains it. On the other hand, one lights upon reminiscences which are clear enough to prove that the author knew the Gospel tradition. "Unless you are on the watch," says the Angel to the Church of Sardis, "I shall come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I am coming." This is almost a quotation from Matt. xxiv. 43, 44 and Luke xii. 39, 40: "If the master of the house had known at what watch of the night" (Luke, "at what hour") "the thief would come, he would have watched." "Be ye ready, for the Son of man will come at an hour when ye think not." "He who overcometh," is read in the conclusion of the same letter, "will I confess before My Father and before His angels." This reminds us of Matt. x. 32, Luke xii. 8: "Whosoever shall confess Me before men, the same will I confess before My Father who is in Heaven" (Luke has it, "before the angels of God"). The phrase in the Apocalypse (xiii. 10), "Whoever shall kill with the sword, the same shall be killed with the sword," recalls Matt. xxvi. 52, "All they who take up the sword shall perish by the sword." Finally, the illustration of the Water of Life in xxi. 6 and xxii. 17 is too similar to what is found in John iv. 10, etc., vii. 37, to permit the supposition of a chance coincidence.

The Apocalypse must not be taken alone. In order that it may be correctly interpreted, all the ideas and all the knowledge which it presumes must be taken into account.


The Christ of the Apocalypse, notwithstanding the name Jesus by which He is most frequently designated, is a celestial Being. He is the Lord in the heavens, whose return is awaited (i. 5-13 and iii. 11), and the testimony[1] rendered to the Christ, who occupies so great a place in the book, is a testimony rendered to the Lord in the heavens, as may be inferred from Chap. ii. 13. Could it be otherwise in a book whose entire outlook is towards the future? Nevertheless, this celestial Being has had a human history. The writer makes no direct mention of this, but he presumes it in saying, for instance, that He died (i. 5, v. 9) or that He had been crucified at Jerusalem (xi. 8), and it is precisely this which explains his celestial dignity. It is the lamb who was slain who alone is worthy to break the seals of the book (v. 6).

Among the most characteristic details of the figure of Christ is that which states that He died and returned to life. The frequent mention of the blood of the lamb and its purifying action presumes a doctrine of redemption, which, like those of Paul and the Deutero-Pauline Epistles, is a theological interpretation of the drama of Calvary. There is not to be found in the Apocalypse any detail which recalls the Gospel acconuts of the Passion, but to appreciate this fact at its true significance allowance must be made for the allegorical character inherent in the Apocalyptic writings. The mere mention of the death of the lamb evokes for the readers of the book the souvenir of the Passion with sufficient clearness.

There are, on the other hand, in the Apocalypse certain pictures which have a distinctly mythical character. The Messiah there appears completely stripped of all human features. He is a Being entirely ideal. How ought these images to be interpreted? To reply to this question certain principles which are essential to the interpretation of the Apocalypse must be remembered.[2] The Johannine Apocalypse belongs to a group of books whose composition in the bulk is distributed over the two centuries which preceded and the two centuries which

[1] The word is found no less than nine times, without counting the noun "witness" (five times) and the verb "witness" (four times).

[2] Consult on this subject the introduction to the various commentaries, particularly those of Bousset, Charles, and Loisy.


followed the Christian era. This species of literature possesses its rules, its habits, its methods, which are found almost identical in all the writings belonging to it—Jewish as well as Christian. There is an Apocalyptic tradition which explains the affinity observed between the various works. There are always the same images and symbols to be found, the same activities at work. But this is not all. The writers of this Apocalyptic literature must not be considered as visionaries—notwithstanding the important part played by inspiration in the Christian productions—but as "rabbis," not ignorant of the works of their predecessors. On the contrary, they carefully studied them, discovered their prophecies, corrected, modernized, and adapted them to new surroundings. Often they introduced in the works they composed descriptions more or less elaborate, borrowed from an older Apocalypse. The author of the canonical book has not departed from this procedure. Thus are to be explained the incoherences, the doublets, the repetitions so frequently found in his work, and of which it will suffice to give as an instance the juxtaposition of the scene at the breaking of the seven seals (v. 1-8) and that of the seven trumpet blasts (viii. 2-11), to which may be also added that of the seven bowls (xv. 1-16). Hence a double duty is incumbent upon the interpreter of the Apocalypse. The writer is far from being a mere compiler; he does not restrict himself to sewing together and framing the fragments of previous works. If he has made use of already existing material, in adding thereto portions that literary analysis cannot fail to identify, it is in order to express his own ideas and personal sentiments, and to press them into the service of the object he aimed at. Above all is it necessary to disentangle his personal thought and the signification of the picture he drew. Bousset, who has done more than anyone to influence the study of the Apocalypse by the analysis of its sources, has strongly and judiciously insisted upon this point. He wrote that "the main task is to understand the Apocalypse as a personal and original work possessing its literary unity." It would be a grave error to attribute directly to the author of the Apocalypse all the ideas and sentiments found in the documents he used without taking into account the corrections in detail he made, and, above all, the indications which follow from the main plan of his work and


of the part played in its development by fragments borrowed from earlier documents.

Certain of these fragments express ideas and sentiments they were not in their origin destined to convey, and among those which the writer has adopted to express an idea which dominated his mind are to be found others which are not his at all, and which have only penetrated into the book in its actual form owing to their solidarity with others belonging to the primitive document.[1]


This rule of interpretation should particularly be applied to Chap. xii,[2] in which M. Stahl and M. Couchoud, independently of each other, have thought they found the concept of a Christ purely ideal.

The vision of Chap. xii forms a whole complete in itself, and which possesses no organic relation either with what precedes or with what follows it. It is permissible therefore to consider it in itself.

The seer says that a great portent[3] shows itself in the heavens:

A woman appears, clothed with the sun ; she has the moon under her feet, and upon her head is a crown of twelve stars ; she is with child, and upon the point of giving birth to it.

[1] The failure to recognize these principles vitiates radically the studies of MM. Stahl and Couchoud: Stahl, "Le Document 70"; Couchoud, Le Mystère de Jésus.

[2] Upon this chapter see Wellhausen (Analyse der Offenbarung Johannis) Stahl, Couchoud.

[3] Wellhausen and Stahl think that the first scene takes place in reality on the earth, and there is only in the heaven a sign which announces it. It would be difficult, according to them, to conceive an accouchment in the very heavens, and besides, the child, as soon as he is born, is caught up into the heavens, and finally it is said that the woman fled into the desert, which is opposed not to the heavens, but to another place in the earth. None of these three arguments can be admitted. One cannot insist that an Apocalyptic scene should be probable. The theory of superposed heavens allows us to conceive readily that the child born in one of the lower heavens, or rather (seeing that stars are mentioned) in the firmament, is immediately after carried away to a higher heaven. He is, in fact, placed before the throne of God. This is not the place of his birth. Finally, the fact that the return of the woman on the earth is not expressly mentioned is nothing more than a piece of negligence in the form of the account.


Another portent also appears in the heavens. It is a great fiery dragon with seven heads with seven crowns. His tail swept away and hurled down to the earth the third of the stars of heaven. The dragon stood before the woman about to give birth to the child and prepared to devour her child as soon as it was born. The woman gave birth to a son destined to rule the nations with a rod of iron. The child is carried away to the presence of God—before His throne. The woman flees away into the wilderness, where for a period of 1,260 days she is nourished and tended.[1] Then ensues a battle in the heavens. Michael and his angels fight against the dragon and gain the victory—they drive their enemies from the heavens. They are not to be found again. The great dragon, the old serpent, he who is called the devil and Satan, he who deceives the inhabitants of the earth, is hurled to the earth, and his angels share his fate. In heaven a voice is heard celebrating the victory. Now is the day of salvation and power and dominion of our God, and the rule of His Christ, for the accuser of our Brethren has been hurled down, he who ceased not, night and day, to accuse them before our God. Their victory was through the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony. In their love of life they shrank not from death. Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye who inhabit them! Woe unto the earth and the sea, for the devil has descended unto you in fury, knowing that his days are counted. When the dragon saw he was conquered he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But to the woman were given the wings of the great eagle, so that she might fly to the wilderness, where she is nourished for one year, for two years, and for half a year.[2] Then the dragon poured water from his mouth like a river so that she might be drowned. But the Earth came to her help and opened its mouth and drank up the river which the dragon

[1] These 1,260 days represent 42 months—that is, 3 1/2 years, the half of a week of years, the unit of time for Apocalyptic calculations since Daniel. Wellhausen and Stahl consider these 3 1/2 years to be the duration of the Jewish war, but as M. Alfaric remarks, with reason, the 3 1/2 years only fit this period very imperfectly. And besides, the figure of 3 1/2 years is traditional in the Apocalypse. In his work of 1907 Wellhausen has not reproduced the interpretation which he gave in 1899.

[2] That is to say, three and a half years, "for a time, and times, and half a time."


had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon went away to make war upon the rest of her children—they who observe the commandments of God and are faithful to the testimony of Jesus—and he took his stand upon the sea-shore.[1]

This passage is not a free creation, but the adaptation of a more recent Apocalyptic fragment. The interest which is centred at the beginning on the Messiah's birth turns in the divine canticle and its conclusion upon the destiny of believers. In the verses 7-9 the victory over the dragon is gained by Michael and his angels. According to verse 11, on the contrary, it is by the martyrs, who through the blood of the lamb and by the faithfulness of their testimony have overthrown their accuser. There is another incoherence not less significant between the picture given in verses 1-9 and that outlined in verses 13-18. The two flights of the woman into the desert, the refuge which in both passages is represented as prepared for her, the duration of this retreat, all manifestly form a doublet. But whilst in the first passage the woman is the mother of the Messiah, and may, therefore, be identified as the people of Israel,[2] in the second passage she is the mother of believers—that is, the Church.[3]

The image of the battle against the dragon is not one and the same throughout the chapter either. In the first passage the Messiah plays no part; He is only the king destined to reign with power when order is restored in the world. It may perhaps

[1] This last part of the sentence serves to connect with the picture which follows.

[2] It is extremely probable, as M. Loisy has shown, that the woman was originally an astral personage and that this is a portion of an astrological myth. But for the writer the entire interest of the picture is centred in the fight with the dragon.

[3] Wellhausen (Analyse), followed by Stahl, considers the woman to be Zion and the first child to be the Jewish Messiah. The other children would therefore be Jews who had fled from Jerusalem because they did not rely upon arms, like the Zealots, but only on God, to re-establish the Theocracy. Under these conditions it is strange that no mention is made of the first group of the children of Zion. It would thus be necessary to suppose much mutilation of the source of the passage, not only at the end, but in the middle, which would seem improbable. It is for this reason that we prefer to consider the verses 13-17, which follow a portion due to Christian inspiration (verses 10-12), as a glossing over the theme (developed in the Jewish fragment found at the beginning of the chapter) by the Christian editor.


be imagined that He will be called upon to play a part in the last phase of the struggle, but up to the supreme moment He is held in reserve in heaven and in shelter before the throne of God, the victory being gained by Michael and his angels. In the celestial hymn, on the contrary, it is through the blood of the lamb—that is, thanks to the Messiah's work—that the martyrs gain the victory. It may be added that no organic relation is perceptible between the statement (in the first portion of Chap, xii) of Satan being hurled to earth, and the mention of the same thing in Chaps. xix, xx—chapters which, in their essentials at least, there is good reason to attribute to the writer of the Johannine Apocalypse.

As for the character of the fragment utilized at the beginning of Chap. xii, it does not seem possible to hesitate in recognizing it. The quite secondary part played in it by the Messiah indicates that it must be Jewish and not Christian.[1] In whatever way the primitive origin of Christianity may be conceived, how can it be supposed that at the end of the first century a Christian could have imagined Christ as rapt up to the heavens immediately after His birth, while completely suppressing His historical ministry and the redemption drama?[2]

While borrowing this Jewish fragment, the Christian author has made additions to it which entirely change its character. The defeat of the dragon, for the sake of which he collected this fragment, must in the original have been final; in his work it is no more than a stage of the great struggle and the guarantee of future victory. The writer makes use of it to express one of the ideas to which he was most addicted, which in his readers' eyes had the greatest practical value and reality—the idea that the very rage of the devil against the Christians, as manifested in the persecutions, was the consequence of his first defeat, and that this rage would continue to be powerless provided only that the

[1] Wellhausen (Analyse), while admitting that this idea of the Messiah rapt up to the heavens immediately after his birth is not attested in Judaism, maintains that it is possible to see in it a compromise between two Messianic conceptions—the Messiah coming from the people of Israel and the Messiah of Daniel coming from heaven. This idea is found in the rabbinical tradition. (Cp. Israel Levi, Le ravissement du Messie enfant.)

[2] Wellhausen, Analyse, p. 20.


Christians remained faithful and were able to bear their sufferings without yielding to weakness.

We are unable, then, to discern in the idea of the newly born Messiah, immediately caught up to the heavens and transported before the throne of God, the primitive form of Christian Chrisology; it is an element borrowed, and which does not express the thought of the author of the Apocalypse. If at the beginning of the chapter there is indeed the idea of a purely mythical Messiah, it is a Jewish and not a Christian idea. Chap. xii, therefore, cannot be legitimately invoked by the supporters of the non-historical character of Jesus, and the considerations above offered to support the thesis that the Apocalypse assumes the Gospel tradition maintain their force.

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