Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History

By Maurice Goguel (1926)


Jesus did not create the Church; He did not trouble about establishing institutions or laying down rules to assure, after His death, the continued existence of the group which had formed around Him and to direct its life. His mind was too much dominated by the idea of the immediate end of the existing economy to permit Him to trouble about the future of His friends on earth and to dream of organizing it. Jesus was not, therefore, in the usual meaning of the word, the founder of a religion; He desired only to announce and fulfil by His advent the accomplishing of the promises made by God to Israel. His Gospel implies no rupture with the religious tradition of His people. If He combated the abuses which the Scribes and Pharisees had introduced, He intended to remain faithful to the inspiration of the Law and Prophets.

Christianity, on the contrary, was a new religion, and it was so from the day after the death of Jesus, long before the time when the hostility of the Jews, on one side, and the necessity of freedom to welcome the pagans on the other, had forced believers to organize themselves in a society independent of the synagogue. The Christians did not only preach, as Jesus had done, the nearness of the Kingdom of God, but before all else the doctrine of salvation by the death and resurrection of Jesus—a death and resurrection which have precisely the effect of introducing the Kingdom of God.[1] The Christianity of the primitive Church was neither a form of Judaism[2] nor the transformation of a pagan mystery, and this is true notwithstanding all

[1] Loisy, Les mystères païens et le mystère Chrétien, p. 210.

[2] It is true that the rupture between Christianity and Judaism was not brought about at once, but it was nevertheless fatal from the start—that is, from the moment the Christians invoked the name of one who had been disavowed and rejected by the authorized leaders of Judaism.


the elements which it has in common with these two religious species. It was a new religion. If in the course of events Christianity absorbed elements foreign to the thought of Jesus and to Judaism, it was, nevertheless, born out of the preaching of Jesus and the impression He had made upon the few men who had grouped themselves around Him.

Christianity is not the religion of Jesus; it is that of the worshippers of Jesus. It was the personality of the Master which linked together the Gospel preached in Galilee and the religion of the primitive Church, and which explains the organic unity of the entire movement initiated by Jesus.

Not only did the thought of Jesus exercise on the Church (especially in the moral sphere) a decisive influence as the source of her inspiration, but still more was it the impression left by the personality of Jesus which gave the impulse through whose activity the whole system of Christian thought was developed. Between the preaching of the Kingdom of God by Jesus and the doctrine of salvation elaborated and developed in the Church there is more than a simple coincidence in time; there is an organic relationship. It is through the impression produced by Jesus that the Church professed her doctrine of redemption. If this doctrine has some kinship with the Mystery Religions, it is differentiated from them and cannot be reduced to them. While the worshippers of Mithra, Attis and Adonis knew perfectly well that the redemptive story of their heroes plunged into such fabulous antiquity that all reality was lost to it, the Christians were persuaded that it was not at the beginning but at the end of the age that their Christ had lived. His life, for them, could be fitted in a very intimate manner into the reality of history.

If Christianity is a mystery, it is one of a very special type which contrasts with others even more than it resembles them. As M. Loisy, who has strongly insisted upon the originality of Christianity in comparison with the contemporary religions, has very well observed: "It may be said, if you wish, that Christianity is a mystery, but it must be quite understood that this mystery is unique of its kind, and that it does not enter into the same category and is not of the same type as the pagan mysteries, to which, nevertheless, it is compared and from which it has in some way issued."


If there is in early Christianity any speculation assimilated from pre-existing Jewish and even pagan elements, it is upon the basis of an historical tradition about the life and death of Jesus that this speculation has developed. The historical reality of the personality of Jesus alone enables us to understand the birth and development of Christianity, which otherwise would remain an enigma, and in the proper sense of the word, a miracle.

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