The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 2/Section 3

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3.—“Lucus a non Lucendo.”[edit]

It seems superfluous now to enlarge on the objection that, if no pagan writer unequivocally proves the existence of an historical Jesus, at all events none of them ever contested it. The objection is futile, because its assumption is false. The Gnostics of the second century really questioned the historical existence of Jesus by their docetic conception; in other words, they believed only in a metaphysical and ideal, not an historical and real, Christ.[1] The whole polemic of the Christians against the Gnostics was based essentially on the fact that the Gnostics denied the historicity of Jesus, or at least put it in a subordinate position.

Moreover, how much has survived of the attacks on Christianity by its opponents? Has not the Church been careful from the first to suppress or destroy everything that might endanger its interests? Did it not burn the anti-Christian writings of Porphyry? Was not the valuable library of Alexandria sacrificed to the zeal of fanatical monks in the year 391, and were not the greatest intellectual treasures of antiquity contained in it? Who can say what evidences against Christianity did not perish in it? Even the work of Celsus, the one attack on Christianity of which we have much knowledge, is known to us only from Origen's reply to it. This work, moreover, belongs to the second half of the second century, and is, therefore, incapable of proving anything.[2] Would it be remarkable at all that no pagan should take the trouble to contest the historicity of Jesus, assuming this to be the case? At the time when the pagan reaction against Christianity began—namely, in the second century—the Jesus-story was already firmly rooted in tradition. Like the Jews, the pagan writers confined themselves in their polemic to the Christian tradition, as they were bound to do. To make research in the archives about a subject was not the practice of ancient historical writers. “There was in ancient times,” says the ecclesiastical historian Hausrath, “hardly any interest in historical truth as such, but only in ideal truth. There are very few cases in which an ancient historian put himself the question what had really happened and what was merely said to have happened.”[3] Even if anyone had desired to inquire into the truth of the gospel “story” and go deeply into the subject, he would have been quite unable to do so after the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jews.

Finally, was no doubt expressed by pagans as to the existence of Jesus because it was firmly established, or because at the time when we look for some doubter no one really affirmed it? We await an answer to this question. Our opponents ask: If Jesus was not an historical personage, how is it that no one ever doubted his existence? We reply with the further question: Granting that he was an historical personage, how is it that not only does the Talmud never mention him, but, apart from the gospels, not a single work belonging to the early Christian period gives us any intimate detail about the life of this personage? Examine Paul's Epistles! As we shall show in the next chapter, they do not tell a single special fact about the life of Jesus. Read the other Epistles of the New Testament—Peter, John, James, Jude, and the Epistle to the Hebrews—and the letter of Clement to the Corinthians, the letter of Barnabas, the Pastor of Hermas, the Acts of the Apostles, etc. Nowhere in any single one of these early Christian documents do we find even the slenderest reference to the mere man Jesus, or to the historical personality of Jesus as such, from which we might infer that the author had a close acquaintance with it. His life, as it is described in the gospels, in all its human detail, seems to have been entirely unknown to these authors. His speeches and sayings are hardly ever quoted, and where this is done, as in the Epistle of James or Acts, they are not quoted as sayings of Jesus. We have no feeling whatever that these documents know anything of an historical Jesus; the little that could be quoted to the contrary, such as the passage in the supposed speech of Peter (Acts, x, 38), is so obviously due to a later tampering with the text and so absurd that we cannot pay it any serious attention. The earlier Christian literature is acquainted with a Jesus-god, a god-man, a heavenly high-priest and saviour Jesus, a metaphysical spirit, descending from heaven to earth, assuming human form, dying, and rising again; but it knows nothing whatever about a merely human Jesus, the amiable author of fine moral sentiments, the “unique” personality of liberal Protestantism. There is therefore nothing in the objection that no one at that time questioned the existence of such a person. Those who attach importance to such doubts simply assume the correctness of the liberal-theological view of the origin of Christianity. If this view is false, if the transformation of Jesus into an historical person only occurred at a relatively late stage (the first half of the second century), the absence of any doubt about the historical existence of Jesus before that time is quite intelligible. In any case it is logically absurd (“lucus a non lucendo”) to deduce from the circumstance that no one, apparently, expressed any doubt as to the existence of Jesus the fact that he actually existed.

After this complete rejection of the evidence of profane literature in regard to an historical Jesus, we need hardly linger over the arguments that may be drawn from other supposed relics of his time and environment. There is still at Treves the holy coat for which the Roman soldiers cast lots at the foot of the cross. There is still in the Lateran at Rome the stairway which Jesus ascended on entering the palace of Pilate. Then there are the innumerable fragments of the cross pointing to the drama of Golgotha, the innumerable holy nails, the vinegar-sponge, the veil of Veronica, the shroud in which the Saviour was wrapped, the swaddling-clothes of the infant Jesus, and, last but not least, the holy prepuce. There are indeed plenty of “historical documents”—for those who wish to believe. They must be sought, however, not in literature, but in churches and chapels and other “holy places,” where they prove their authenticity by the “blessing” which flows from them into the Church's coffers. But we will be content with our survey of profane witnesses. The improper use that has hitherto been made by theologians of these witnesses entails a careful examination. For our part we can only regard any attempt to prove the existence of an historical Jesus by these supposed profane witnesses as a sign of intellectual unscrupulousness or lamentable superficiality.


  1. See Wolfgang Schultz, Dokumente der Gnosis, 1910.
  2. Yet Origen himself makes Celsus say: “You feed us with fables, and cannot give them a shade of plausibility, although some of you, like drunken men, who lay hands on themselves, have modified the texts of the gospels three or four or more times, in order to escape the criticisms we direct against you” (Contra Celsum, II, 26 and 27).
  3. Kleine Schriften, p. 124.