Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency: the Marxist voice of labour and youth.
jesus-face.jpgIn the build up to Christmas, Socialist Appeal is contributing to the festive spirit by issuing some articles by Marxists  on the origins and significance of Christianity, which in its early period was a revolutionary movement of the oppressed. This article deals with the person of Christ and the historical evidence for his existence, which is taken from the first chapter of the 'Foundations of Christianity' by Karl Kautsky.

Book One: The Person of Jesus

I. The Pagan Sources

jesus-face.jpgWHATEVER one’s position may be with respect to Christianity, it certainly must be recognized as one of the most titanic phenomena in all human history. One can not resist a deep feeling of wonder when one thinks of the Christian Church, now almost two thousand years old and still vigorous, more powerful than the governments of many countries. Anything that helps us to understand this colossal phenomenon, including the study of its origin, is of great and immediate practical significance, even though it takes us back thousands of years.

This makes researches into the beginnings of Christianity of far greater interest than any other historical question that goes back further than the last two hundred years; it also however makes finding the beginnings even more difficult than it would otherwise be.

The Christian Church has become a sovereign organisation serving the needs either of its own rulers or those of other, secular rulers who have been able to gain control over it. Any one who opposes these rulers must oppose the church as well. The struggle about the church and the struggle against the church have become matters of dispute bound up with the most important economic interests. It thus becomes only too easy to abandon impartiality in historical studies of the church and this long ago led the ruling classes to interdict the study of the beginnings of Christianity and to ascribe to the church a divine nature, standing above and outside all human criticism.

The bourgeois age of reason in the eighteenth century finally succeeded in getting rid of this halo. For the first time scientific study of the genesis of Christianity became possible. But it is remarkable how secular science avoided this field during the nineteenth century, acting as though it still belonged exclusively to the realm of theology. A whole series of historical works written by the most eminent bourgeois historians of the nineteenth century dealing with the Roman Empire quietly pass over the most important happening of the time, the rise of Christianity. For instance, in the fifth volume of his Roman History Mommsen gives a very extensive account of the history of the Jews under the Caesars, and in so doing can not avoid mentioning Christianity occasionally; but it appears only as something already existing, something assumed to be already known. By and large only the theologians and their adversaries, the propagandists of free thought, have taken an interest in the beginnings of Christianity.

It need not necessarily have been cowardice that kept bourgeois historians from taking up the origin of Christianity; it could also have been the desire to write history and not polemics. The hopeless state of the sources out of which we have to get our information in this field must alone have frightened them off.

The traditional view sees Christianity as the creation of a single man, Jesus Christ. This view persists even today. It is true that Jesus, at least in “enlightened” and “educated” circles, is no longer considered a deity, but he is still held to have been an extraordinary personality, who came to the fore with the intention of founding a new religion, and did so, with tremendous success. Liberal theologians hold this view, and so do radical free-thinkers; and the latter differ from the theologians only with respect to the criticism they make of Christ as a person, whom they seek to deprive of all the sublimity they can.

And yet, at the end of the eighteenth century the English historian Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (written 1774 to 1788), had ironically pointed out how striking it is that none of Jesus’ contemporaries mentions him, although he is said to have accomplished such remarkable feats.

“But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world to those evidences which were presented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses. During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, daemons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. At Jesus’ death, according to the Christian tradition, the whole earth, or at least all Palestine, was in darkness for three hours. This took place in the days of the elder Pliny, who devoted a special chapter of his Natural History to eclipses; but of this eclipse he says nothing.” (Gibbon, Chap. 15).

But even if we leave miracles out of account, it is hard to see how a personality like the Jesus of the gospels, who according to them aroused such excitement in people’s minds, could carry on his work and finally die as a martyr for his cause and yet not have pagan and Jewish contemporaries devote a single word to him.

The first mention of Jesus by a non-Christian is found in the Jewish Antiquities of Flavius Josephus. The third chapter of book 18 deals with the procurator Pontius Pilate, and says among other things:

“About this time lived Jesus, a wise man, if he can be called human, for he worked miracles and was a teacher of men, who received the truth gladly; and he found many followers among Jews and Greeks. This was the Christ. Although later Pilate sentenced him to the cross on the complaint of the noblest of our people, those who had loved him remained true to him. For he appeared again to them on the third day, risen to new life, as the prophets of God had prophesied this and thousands of other wonderful things about him. From him comes the name of the Christians, whose sect (phylon) has continued to exist ever since.”

Josephus speaks of Christ again in the 20th book, ch.9, 1, where the high priest Ananus is said in the time of the procurator Albinus to have brought it about that “James, the brother of Jesus, said to be the Christ (tou logomenou christou), together with some others, was brought to court, accused as a breaker of the law and delivered over to be stoned to death.”

These pieces of evidence have always been highly prized by Christians; for they come from a non-Christian, a Jew and Pharisee, born in the year 87 of our era and living in Jerusalem, and so very well able to have authentic facts about Jesus. And his testimony was the more valuable in that as a Jew he had no reason to falsify on behalf of the Christians.

But it was precisely the exaggerated exaltation of Christ on the part of a pious Jew that made the first passage suspect, and quite early. Its authenticity was disputed even in the sixteenth century, and today it is agreed that it is a forgery and does not stem from Josephus. It was inserted in the third century by a Christian copyist, who obviously took offense at the fact that Josephus, who repeats the most trivial gossip from Palestine, says nothing at all about the person of Jesus. The pious Christian felt with justice that the absence of any such mention weighed against the existence or at least the significance of his Savior. Now the discovery of his forgery has become testimony against Jesus.

But the passage concerning James is also dubious. It is true that Origen (185 to 254 A.D.) mentions testimony by Josephus concerning James; this occurs in his commentary on Matthew. He remarks that it is surprising that nonetheless Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Christ. In his polemic against Celsus, Origen cites this statement of Josephus about James and again notes Josephus’ unbelief. These statements by Origen constitute one of the proofs that the striking passage about Jesus in which Josephus recognizes him as the Messiah, the Christ, could not have been in the original text of Josephus. It follows at once that the passage about James that Origen found in Josephus was also a Christian forgery. For this passage he cites runs quite differently from what we find in the manuscript of Josephus that has come down to us. In it the destruction of Jerusalem is said to be a punishment for the execution of James; but this fabrication is not found in the other manuscripts of Josephus. The passage as it occurs in the manuscripts of Josephus that have come down to us is not cited by Origen, while he mentions the other version three times on different occasions. And yet he carefully assembled all the testimony that could be got from Josephus that had value for the Christian faith. It would seem likely that the passage of Josephus about James that has come down to us is also fraudulent, and was first inserted by a pious Christian, to the greater glory of God, some time after Origen, but before Eusebius, who cites the passage.

Like the mention of Jesus and James, the reference to John the Baptist in Josephus (Antiquities, XVIII, 5.2) is also suspect as an “interpolation”. 

Thus Christian frauds had crept into Josephus as early as the end of the second century. His silence concerning the chief figures in the Gospels was too conspicuous, and required correction.

But even if the statement about James was genuine, it would prove at most that there was a Jesus, whom people called Christ, that is, the Messiah. It could not prove anything more. “If the passage actually had to be ascribed to Josephus, all that critical theology would get from it would be the thread of a web that could catch a whole generation. There were so many would-be Christs at Josephus’ time and all the way deep into the second century, that in many of the cases we have only sketchy information left about them. There is a Judas of Galilee, a Theudas, a nameless Egyptian, a Samaritan, a Bar Kochba, – why should there not have been a Jesus among them as well? Jesus was a common Jewish personal name.”

The second passage of Josephus tells us at best that among the agitators in Palestine coming forward at that time as the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed, there was also a Jesus. We learn nothing at all about his life and work.

The next mention of Jesus by a non-Christian writer is found in the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus, composed around the year too. In the fifteenth book the conflagration of Rome under Nero is described, and chapter 44 says:

“In order to counteract the rumor [that blamed Nero for the fire] he brought forward as the guilty ones men hated for their crimes and called Christians by tile people; and punished them with the most exquisite torments. The founder of their name, Christ, was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; the superstition was thereby suppressed for the moment, but broke out again, not only in Judea, the land in which this evil originated, but in Rome itself, to which everything horrible or shameful streams from all sides and finds increase. First a few were taken, who made confessions; then on their indications an enormous throng, who were not accused directly of the crime of arson, but of hatred of humanity. Their execution became a pastime; they were covered with the skins of wild beasts and then torn to pieces by dogs, or they were crucified, or prepared for burning and set on fire as soon as it was dark, to give light in the night. Nero lent his gardens for this spectacle and arranged circus games, in which he mingled among the crowd in the clothing of a charioteer or drove a chariot himself. Although these were criminals who deserved the severest punishments, sympathy arose for them as being sacrificed not so much for the general good but to satisfy the rage of an individual.”

This testimony is certainly not something falsified by Christians in their favor. However its authenticity too is disputed, since Dio Cassius knows nothing of a persecution of Christians under Nero, although he lived a hundred years later than Tacitus. Suetonius, writing shortly after Tacitus, also speaks, in his biography of Nero, of a persecution of Christians, “men who had given themselves over to a new and evil superstition” (chap. 16).

But Suetonius tells us nothing at all of Jesus and Tacitus does not even hand down his name to us. Christ, the Greek word for “the anointed”, is merely the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah”. As to Christ’s work and the content of his doctrine Tacitus says nothing.

And that is all that we learn about Jesus from non-Christian sources of the first century of our era.

bible.jpgII. The Christian Sources

BUT DO NOT the Christian sources gush forth all the more richly? Do we not have in the Gospels the most extensive descriptions of the teachings and deeds of Jesus?

It is true they are extensive; but as for credibility, there’s the rub. The example of the falsification of Josephus showed us a character trait of ancient Christian historians, their complete indifference to the truth. It was not the truth, but effectiveness, that they were interested in, and they were not too delicate in the choice of their means.

To be fair, it must be granted that they were not alone in their age. The Jewish religious literature had no higher standards, and the “heathen” mystical tendencies in the centuries preceding and following the beginning of our era were guilty of the same sins. Credulousness on the part of the public, sensationalism together with lack of confidence in their own powers, the need to cling to superhuman authority, lack of a sense of reality (qualities whose causes we shall soon come to learn), infected all of literature at that time, and the more it left the ground of the traditional the more it was so infected. We shall find numerous proofs of this in the Christian and Jewish literature. But the same tendency appears in the mystical philosophy, which to be sure had an inner affinity to Christianity. We see this in the neo-Pythagoreans, a trend that began in the last century before our era, a mixture of Platonism and Stoicism, full of revelations and hungry for miracles, professing to be the doctrine of the old philosopher Pythagoras, who lived in the sixth century before our era – or before Christ, as they say-and of whom extremely little was known. That made it all the easier to attribute to him anything that needed the authority of a great name.

“The neo-Pythagoreans wanted to be considered faithful followers of the old Samian philosopher: in order to present their theories as the old Pythagorean ones, those countless forged documents were produced that put anything at all into the mouth of a Pythagoras or an Archytas, no matter how recent it was or how well known as stemming from Plate or Aristotle."

We see exactly the same phenomenon in the early Christian literature, where it has produced such a chaos that for over a hundred years a series of the keenest minds have been working on it without getting very far in attaining any definitive results.

How the most discordant notions as to the origin of the early Christian writings still exist side by side can be shown by the case of the Revelation of St. John, an especially hard nut to crack anyway. Pfleiderer says of it in his book on Early Christianity, Its Writings and Doctrines:

“The book of Daniel was the oldest of such apocalypses and the model for the whole genus. Just as the key to the visions of Daniel was found in the events of the Jewish war under Antiochus Epiphanes, so the conclusion was correctly drawn that the apocalypse of John too must be explained by means of the conditions of its time. Now since the mystic number 666 in the eighteenth verse of the thirteenth chapter was interpreted almost simultaneously by various scholars (Benary, Hitzig and Reuss) as indicating the Emperor Nero in Hebrew letters, a comparison of chapters l6 and 17 led to the conclusion that Revelation was written soon after Nero’s death in 68. This long remained the dominant view, in particular in the old Tübingen school, which still assumed that the book was written by the apostle John and thought it had the key to the whole book in the party battles between Judaists and Paulinists; this of course was not done without crass arbitrariness (especially in Volkmar). A new step toward the thorough study of the problem was made in 1882 by a student of Weizsäcker. Daniel Völter, who used the hypothesis of a repeated expansion and revision of a basic document between the years 66 and 170 (later up to 140), at the hands of various authors. The literary method thus introduced was varied in the extreme during the next fifteen years: Vischer would have it that an original Jewish document had been worked over by a Christian editor; Sabatier and Schön postulated a Christian document as the basis, into which Jewish elements had been inserted; Weyland distinguished two Jewish sources from the times of Nero and Titus, and a Christian editor in Trajan’s reign; Spitta saw a Christian original of the year 60 and Jewish sources of 63 B.C. and 40 A.D., with a Christian editor in Trajan’s time; Schmidt, three Jewish sources and two Christian; Völter, in a new work in 1893, an original apocalypse dating from the year 62 and four revisions under Titus, Domitian, Trajan and Hadrian. These mutually contradictory and competing hypotheses had the sole result that ‘the unprejudiced got the impression that in the field of New Testament scholarship there was nothing sure and one could be sure of nothing’ (Jülicher).”

Pfleiderer believes none the less that “the strenuous researches of the last twenty years” have given a “definite result,” but does not venture to say definitely what it is, but opines that it “seems” so to him. Almost the only definitive conclusions one can reach with respect to early Christian literature are negative ones; that is, we can find out definitely what is spurious.

It is certain that almost none of the early Christian writings are by the authors whose names they bear; that most of them were written in later times than the dates given them; and that their original text was often distorted in the crudest way by later revisions and additions. Finally, it is certain that none of the Gospels or other early Christian writings comes from a contemporary of Jesus.

The so-called Gospel according to St. Mark is now regarded as the oldest of the gospels, but was not in any case composed before the destruction of Jerusalem, which the author has Jesus predict, which, in other words, had already happened when the author began to write. It was probably written not less than half a century after the time assigned for the death of Jesus. What we see is thus the product of half a century of legend-making.

Mark is followed by Luke, then by the so-called Matthew, and last of all by John, in the middle of the second century, at least a century after the birth of Christ. The further we get from the beginning, the more miraculous the gospel stories become. Mark tells us of miracles, but they are puny ones compared to those that follow. Take the raising of the dead as an example. In Mark, Jesus is called to the bedside of Jairus’ daughter, who is at the point of death. Everyone thinks she is dead already, but Jesus says: “the damsel ... but sleepeth,” reaches out his hand, and she arises (Mark, Chap.5).

In Luke it is the young man of Nain who is waked. He is so long dead that he is being borne to his grave as Jesus meets him. Then Jesus makes him rise from the bier (Luke, Chap. 7).

That is not enough for John. In his eleventh chapter he shows us the raising of Lazarus, who has been in his grave for four days already and beginning to stink. That breaks the record.

In addition, the evangelists were extremely ignorant people, who had thoroughly twisted ideas about many of the things they wrote of. Thus Luke has Joseph leave Nazareth with Mary on account of a census in the Roman Empire, and go to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born. But there was no such census under Augustus. Moreover, Judea became a Roman province only after the date given for the birth of Jesus. A census was held in the year 7 A.D., but in the places where people lived, and thus did not require the trip to Bethlehem. We shall have more to say on this topic.

The procedure of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate is not in conformity either with Jewish or with Roman law. Thus even where the evangelists do not tell of miracles, they often relate what is false and impossible.

And what was concocted as “Gospel” in this fashion later suffered all sorts of alterations at the hands of “editors”, to the edification of the faithful.

For example, the best manuscripts of Mark close with the eighth verse of the sixteenth chapter, where the women seek the dead Jesus in the grave, but find a youth in a long white robe instead. Then they left the grave and “were afraid.”

What follows in the traditional editions was added later. It is impossible however that the work ended with this eighth verse. Renan already assumed that the remaining portion had been stricken out in the interests of the good cause, since it contained an account that seemed obnoxious to later views.

From another angle Pfleiderer, after intensive studies, came to the conclusion, as did others, “that the Gospel of Luke said nothing of the supernatural conception of Jesus, that this story came up only later and was then inserted into the text by adding verse I, 34 ff. and the words ‘as was supposed’ in III, 29.“ 

In view of all this it is no wonder that by the first decades of the nineteenth century many scholars had already recognized the complete uselessness of the gospels as sources for the history of Jesus, and Bruno Bauer could even go so far as to deny the existence of Jesus altogether. It is understandable nevertheless that the theologians can not dispense with the gospels, and even the liberals among them do all they can to maintain their authority. For what is left of Christianity if the person of Christ is given up? But in order to save this latter point, they have to go through some strange contortions.

Thus Harnack in his lectures on the Wesen des Christentums (1900) explains that David Friedrich Strauss thought he had succeeded in demolishing the reliability of the gospels as history; but the historical and critical work of two generations had succeeded in restoring it to a great extent. The gospels were not historical works anyway; they were not written to report how things happened, but were works of edification. “Accordingly they are not useless as historical sources, especially since their purpose is not borrowed from outside, but coincides in part with the views of Jesus” (p.14).

But all we know of these views is what the gospels tell us! Harnack’s whole argument for the credibility of the gospels as sources for the person of Jesus only proves how impossible it is to offer anything solid and penetrating in that direction.

Later in his essay Harnack is compelled to abandon everything that the gospels say of Jesus’ first thirty years as unhistorical, as well as everything regarding the following years that can be proved to be impossible or invented. But he would like to save the rest as historical fact. He thinks we still have left “a vivid picture of Jesus’ teaching, the end of his life and the impression he made on his disciples” (p.20).

But how does Harnack know that Jesus’ teaching is so faithfully reported in the gospels? The theologians are more skeptical about the reproduction of other teachings of the time. Harnack’s colleague Pfleiderer says in his book on early Christianity:

“It does not really make sense to argue over the historical reliability of these and other sermons in the apostolic history; we need only think of all the conditions required for a literally exact, or even an approximately correct, transmission of such a sermon: it would have had to be written down immediately by an auditor (properly speaking, it should be stenographic), and these records of the various sermons would have to be preserved for more than half a century in circles of hearers who were for the most part Jews and heathen and indifferent or hostile to what they had heard, and finally collected by the historian from the most scattered points! Any one who has realized how impossible all these things are will know once for all what to think of all these sermons: that is, in the stories of the apostles as in all the secular historians of antiquity these speeches are free compositions, in which the author has his heroes speak in the way that he himself thinks they could have spoken in the given situation” (p.500f.).

Right! But why should not all this apply to the sermons of Jesus too, which were still further in the past for the authors of the gospels than the sermons ascribed to the apostles? Why should Jesus’ sermons in the gospels be anything more than speeches that the authors of the reports wished Jesus had made? Actually, we find all sorts of contradictions in the sermons that have come down to us, for example both rebellious and submissive speeches, which can only be explained by the fact that divergent tendencies existed among the Christians, each group composing and handing down speeches for Christ in accordance with its own requirements. How free and easy the evangelists were in such matters can be seen from an example. Compare the Sermon on the Mount in Luke and in Matthew, which is later. In the first it is still a glorification of the poor and a damning of the rich. By Matthew’s time this had become a touchy subject for many Christians, and the Gospel according to Matthew baldly turns the poor who are blessed into the poor of spirit, and leaves the damning of the rich out altogether.

That is the sort of manipulation that went on with sermons that had already been written down; and then we are asked to believe that sermons that Jesus is said to have given half a century before they were written down are faithfully reported in the gospels? It is clearly impossible to keep the words of a speech straight merely by oral tradition for fifty years. Anyone who writes down such a speech at the end of such an interval shows thereby that he feels justified in writing down what suits him, or that he is credulous enough to take at face value everything he hears.

What is more, it can be shown that many of Jesus’ sayings do not originate with him, but were in circulation previously.

For instance, the Lord’s Prayer is regarded as a specific product of Jesus. But Pfleiderer shows that an Aramaic Kaddish prayer going far back into antiquity ended with the words: “Exalted and blessed be His great name in the world that He created according to His will. May he set up His kingdom in your lifetime and the lifetime of the whole house of Israel.”

As we see, the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer is an imitation. But if nothing is left of Jesus’ sermons, nothing left of the story of his youth, certainly nothing left of his miracles, then what is left of the gospels altogether? According to Harnack there is left the impression Jesus made on his disciples, and the story of his Passion. But the gospels were not written by disciples of Christ, they do not reflect the impression made by the person of Christ, but that made by the story of the person of Christ on the members of the Christian community. Even the strongest impression does not testify to the historical truth of any story. The story of an imaginary person is capable of producing the deepest impression on society, if historical conditions for it are present. Goethe’s Werther made a tremendous impression. Everyone knew that it was only a novel, nevertheless he had many disciples and followers.

In Judaism, and precisely in the centuries directly before and after Jesus, fictitious personalities had tremendous influence when the deeds and doctrines attributed to them corresponded to the deeply-felt needs of the Jewish people. This is shown for example by the figure of the prophet Daniel, of whom the book of Daniel reports that he lived under Nebuchadnezzar, Darius and Cyrus, that is in the sixth century B.C., worked the greatest of miracles and made prophecies that were fulfilled later in the most amazing way, ending with the prediction that great afflictions would come to Judaism, out of which a savior would rescue ·them and raise them to new glory. This Daniel never lived; the book dealing with him was written about 165, at the time of the Maccabean uprising; and it is no wonder that all the prophecies that the prophet ostensibly made in the sixth century were so strikingly confirmed up to that year, and convinced the pious reader that the final prediction of so infallible a prophet must come to pass without fail. The whole thing is a bold fabrication and yet had the greatest effect; the belief in the Messiah, the belief in a Savior to come, got its strongest sustenance from it, and it became the model for all future prophecies of a Messiah. The book of Daniel also shows, however, how casually fraud was practiced in pious circles when it was a question of attaining an end. The effect produced by the figure of Jesus is therefore no proof at all of its historical accuracy.

Hence the only thing left of what Harnack thought could still be rescued from the gospels as an historical nucleus is the Passion of Christ. But this is so filled with miracles from beginning to end, up to the Resurrection and Ascension, that even here it is virtually impossible to get any kind of reliable historical nucleus. We shall look further into the credibility of this story of the Passion later on.

Matters are in no better shape with the rest of early Christian literature. Everything that ostensibly comes from contemporaries of Jesus, as from his apostles for instance, is known to be spurious, at least in the sense that it is a production of some later time.

And as for the letters that are attributed to the apostle Paul, there is not one whose authenticity is not in dispute, and many of them have been shown by historical criticism to be altogether false. The baldest of these forgeries is the second letter to the Thessalonians. In this counterfeit letter the author, using the name of Paul, warns: “That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us” (2, 2). And at the end the forger adds: “The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every epistle: so I write.” It was just these words that betrayed the forger.

A number of other letters of Paul are perhaps the earliest literary evidence of Christianity. About Jesus however they tell us virtually nothing, except that he was crucified and rose again.

It will not be necessary, at least for our readers, to go into details as to what to think about the Resurrection. In a word, there is hardly anything left in the Christian literature that can be said to be a solidly established fact about Jesus.

III. The Dispute over the Concept of Jesus

THE factual core of the early Christian reports about Jesus is at best no more than what Tacitus tells us: that in the days of Tiberius a prophet was executed, from whom the sect of Christians took their inspiration. As to what this prophet taught and did, we are not yet able, even today, to say anything definite. Certainly he could not have made the sensation the early Christian reports describe, or Josephus who relates so many trivialities, would certainly have spoken of it. Jesus’ agitation and his execution did not get the slightest attention from his contemporaries. But if Jesus really was an agitator that a sect honored as its champion and guide, the significance of his person must have grown as the sect grew. Now a garland of legends began to form around this person, pious minds weaving into it anything they wished their model had said and done. The more this idealization went on, the more each of the many currents within the sect tried to put into the picture those features that were dearest to it, ill order to lend them the authority of Jesus. The picture of Jesus, at it was painted in the legends that were first passed from mouth to mouth, and then put down in writing, became more and more the picture of a superhuman person, the epitome of all the ideals the new sect developed; but in the process it became an increasingly contradictory picture, whose several features no longer harmonized.

jesus-christ.jpg When the sect achieved firm organization and became a comprehensive church in which one definite tendency prevailed, one of its tasks was the formation of a fixed canon, a list of all the early Christian writings that it recognized as genuine. Naturally this included only works in agreement with the prevailing tendency. All the gospels and other writings that gave a different picture of Jesus were rejected as “heretical”, as spurious, or as “apocryphal”, not quite trustworthy; they were no longer disseminated, in fact they were suppressed so far as that was possible, and copies of them were destroyed, so that only a few of them have come down to us. The works received into the canon were then “edited,” to get them into as much concordance as possible; but fortunately the job was done so clumsily that traces of earlier, divergent accounts may be seen here and there and betray the course of development.

The aim of the Church, namely to assure the unity of opinions within it by this process, was not attained and could not be. The development of social relations kept producing new diversities of views and endeavors in the Church. And thanks to the contradictions that remained in the picture of Jesus recognized by the Church despite all the editing and expurgating, these variations could always find something in that picture they could use as a point of attachment. Thus the clash of social contradictions came to appear within the framework of the Christian Church as a mere dispute over the interpretation of the words of Jesus, and superficial historians think that all the great (and so often bloody) battles that were fought in Christendom under the flag of religion were nothing but battles over words, a sad sign of mankind’s stupidity. But wherever a social mass phenomenon is reduced to the mere stupidity of the men involved, this alleged stupidity merely shows lack of understanding on the part of the observer and critic, who has not been able to orient himself in a way of thinking that is strange to him, and to penetrate to the material conditions and forces that underlie it. As a rule it was very real interests that were at grips when the various Christian sects fell out over the interpretation of Christ’s words.

It is true that with the rise of the modern way of thinking and the eclipse of the clerical mode of thought the conflicts over the conception of Jesus have lost more and more of their practical importance and sunk to mere hair-splitting on the part of theologians, who are paid precisely to keep the clerical mode of thought alive as long as possible, and have to do something for their money.

Recent Bible criticism, which applies the methods of historical research and analysis of sources to the biblical writings, has given the dispute over the personality of Jesus a new fillip. It shook the traditional picture of Jesus; but since it was carried on, for the most part, by theologians, it stopped short of the position first formulated by Bruno Bauer and later by others, in particular by A. Kalthoff: this was the position that, in view of the condition of the source materials, no new conception of Jesus could be formulated. The new Bible criticism keeps searching for such a new conception, always with the same result that the Christendom of previous centuries had produced: each theologian painted into the picture of Jesus his own private ideals and spirit. Like second century descriptions of Jesus, twentieth-century ones do not show what Jesus really taught, but what the makers of these descriptions wish he had taught.

Kalthoff points up these vagaries keenly:

“From the standpoint of social theology the conception of Christ is the most sublimated religious expression of every active social and ethical force in an epoch; and in the transformations that this conception has constantly undergone, in the fading of its old features and its illumination in new colors, we have the most delicate instrument for measuring the changes in contemporary life, from the heights of its spiritual ideals to the depths of its most material actions. This picture of Christ some times has the lineaments of a Creek thinker, then those of the Roman Emperor, then those of the feudal lord of the manor, of the guild master, of the tormented villein and of the free citizen; and these traits are all true, all living, so long as the theologians of the school do not undertake to prove that the single traits of their time are just the ones which are the original and historical traits of the Christ of the gospels. At most these traits acquire an appearance of being historical from the fact that at the time when Christian society was developing and taking form the most divergent and even contradictory forces collaborated, each one having a certain similarity with forces operating today. Now the picture of Christ we have today seems very contradictory at first glance. It still has some of the traits of the old saint or the heavenly monarch, together with the modern features of the friend of the proletariat, or even of the labor leader. But that is only the expression of the innermost contradictions that our time is shot through with.”

And earlier he says:

“Most representatives of so-called modern theology use the scissors on their excerpts in accordance with the critical method dear to David Strauss: the mythical part of the gospels is cut away, and what is left is supposed to be the historical nucleus. But finally even this nucleus got to be too thin in the hands of the theologians.... In the absence of all historical precision, the name of Jesus has become an empty vessel for Protestant theology, into which every theologian pours his own thoughts. One of them makes Jesus a modern Spinozist, another makes him a socialist, while the official professorial theology naturally looks at him in the religious light of the modern state and recently has come to present him more and more as the religious representative of all those efforts that today claim a leading place in the State theology of Greater Prussia.”

It is no wonder then that secular historiography feels no great need for investigating the origins of Christianity if it starts from the view that Christianity was the creation of a single person. If this view were correct, we could give up studying the rise of Christianity and leave its description to our poetic theologians.

But it is a different matter as soon as we think of a world-wide religion not as the product of a single superman but as a product of society. Social conditions at the time of the rise of Christianity are very well known. And the social character of early Christianity can be studied with some degree of accuracy from its literature.

To be sure, the historical value of the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles can not be set as any higher than that of the Homeric poems or the Nibelungenlied. They may deal with historical personages, but their actions are related with such poetic freedom that it is impossible to get anything like a historical description of those personages, quite apart from the fact that they are so mixed up with fabulous creatures that on the basis of these stories alone it can never be determined which of the characters are historical and which are invented. If we knew nothing about Attila but what the Nibelungenlied says about him, we should have to say, as we must about Jesus, we do not even definitely know whether he lived or not, or whether he is just as mythical a character as Siegfried.

But such poetical accounts are invaluable for the understanding of the social conditions under which they arose, and of which they give a true reflection no matter how freely their authors may have invented individual facts and personages. The extent to which the story of the Trojan War and its heroes rests on a historical basis is obscure, perhaps for ever. But as for the nature of social conditions in the Heroic Age, we have two first-class historical sources in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Poetical creations are often far more important for understanding a period than the most faithful historical accounts. For the latter merely communicate the personal, the striking, the unusual, which has the least permanent historical effect; the former furnish us with a look into the daily life and labor of the masses, which works continually and lastingly and has the most permanent effect on society, but which the historian does not take note of because it seems to him to be so obvious and wellknown. Thus in Balzac’s novels we have one of the most important historical sources for the social life of France in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

And out of the gospels and the acts of the apostles, similarly, we can not learn anything definite as to the life and doctrine of Jesus, but very valuable things about the social character, the ideals and aspirations of the primitive Christian communities. When Bible criticism uncovers the different layers that lie one on top of the other in these writings, it enables us to follow the development of these communities, at least to a certain extent, while the “heathen” and Jewish sources make possible an insight into the social driving forces that were acting upon primitive Christianity at the same time. So we are able to see and understand it as the product of its time, and that is the basis of any historical knowledge. Individuals can influence society too, and the portrayal of outstanding individuals is indispensable for a complete picture of their time. But in terms of historical epochs, their influence is only transitory, merely the outer ornament which strikes the eye first in a building but says nothing about its foundations. But it is the foundations that determine the character of the structure and its permanence. If we can lay them bare, we have done the most important part toward understanding the whole edifice.

 

 

 

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