The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 4/Section 1

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The Witness of the Gospels[edit]

The evidential value of profane writers and the Pauline Epistles in regard to the existence of an historical Jesus has proved illusory. The genuineness of the Pauline Epistles is not at all established. Even if, however, they were really written by the apostle in the fifties and sixties of the first century, they would give no testimony to the historical human being Jesus. That the apostle has such a person in mind, and not a heavenly being, a saviour-god Jesus, who has become man, cannot be deduced from the Epistles, but is read into them, so that the existence of an historical Jesus is merely assumed. Now, this assumption is based on the gospels, and, therefore, the Pauline Epistles cannot in their turn serve to prove the existence of the Jesus of the gospels.

There is no other source of the belief in an historical Jesus but the gospels. The credibility of the historical documents of Christianity finds no support outside themselves. For an historian that is a lamentable situation. Even Weiss feels that he must make some excuse in quoting the gospels as witnesses, as sceptics may object that a witness can hardly testify in his own favour. He consoles himself by pointing to the grandeur and beauty of the gospels as some assurance of their truth, forgetting that truth only vindicates itself, and not its authors. However much we may esteem the contents of the gospels, this appreciation does not throw the least light on the historicity of the statements made in them. However much the figure of Jesus, as it is set forth in the acts and words of the gospel narrative, may move and enchain the sentiments of the reader, it cannot be deduced from these sentiments that an historical personality was the model of the character. Otherwise we should have to describe Homer's heroes, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and Goethe's Faust as historical personalities because they are so vividly portrayed, and make such a “strong impression” on sensitive souls. The attempt to prove the historicity of Jesus is hopeless if there are no other historical sources for it than the gospels, even if the gospel tradition is so close to the historical facts that we may be dealing with historical reminiscences. We see, therefore, how important it is for those who maintain the historicity of Jesus to have other witnesses besides the gospels, and we understand the frantic efforts of theological “historians” to retain the evidence of profane historians and of Paul, however slender and disputable it be. The importance of the inquiry into the evangelical documents is thus set in its true light. It is not merely a question of establishing the historical credibility of the gospel narratives in detail, but of securing in general a firm historical ground in which tradition may anchor. To obtain some assurance of the historical character of the gospels is a matter of life and death to the historical faith of the Christian. Hence it is that every straw is eagerly welcomed, and in this matter the theological “historians” betray a contentedness and liberality that would not be tolerated in any branch of profane history.

1. The Sources of the Gospels.[edit]

Such a straw, in regard to the belief in the historicity of the gospels, is the often-quoted testimony of Papias. It is, as is known, one of the “safest” (though by no means unquestioned) results of the modern discussion of the life of Jesus that the gospel of Mark is the oldest of the surviving four. As compared with the other gospels, it shows the “greatest freshness” and “vividness,” the most impressive “picturesqueness,” and such an abundance of trivial details that it gives one the impression of “directly suggesting the narrative of an eye-witness.” It is, therefore, a happy coincidence, theologians assure us,[1] that Papias, bishop of Hierapolis about the year 150, makes a statement about Mark, the author of the gospel, which admirably agrees with that impression. He says: “Mark was Peter's interpreter, and he carefully wrote down all that he remembered. He did not, however, adhere to the order followed by Christ in his discourses and actions. He had himself never heard the Lord or been among his followers. But he afterwards met Peter, as I said, and Peter instructed his hearers as opportunity offered, though he did not give the words of the Lord in their proper order. Hence Mark did no wrong in writing things as they were in his memory. He was concerned only to omit nothing that he had heard, or to admit no untruth in his work.”

In this way the origin of the oldest gospel seems to go back very near to the time of Jesus, and its historical character seems to be accredited. The only question is how far we can rely on the statement of the Bishop of Hierapolis. Now Papias appeals to the priest John [Presbyter Johannes] as his authority. Who is the priest John, and whence did he obtain his knowledge? According to Jerome and Irenaeus, he was identical with John the Evangelist. Papias himself, however, denies this when he assures us that he himself never saw or heard the holy apostles, but owed his knowledge to their friends, the elders. Hence Papias received his information as to the origin of the gospel from John, John from Mark, and Mark received his information about Jesus from Peter, who in turn only said what he knew about Jesus. Seeing that, in addition, the writings of Papias have been lost, and we know of him only from Eusebius (of the fourth century), that is clearly too complicated a piece of evidence to merit an unreserved acceptance. We do not, moreover, learn from Papias whether Peter gathered from his own intercourse with Jesus what he told to Mark, or, if he did not, whence this original witness derived his knowledge of the Saviour. It does not follow from the words of Papias that Peter was a personal disciple of Jesus, however emphatically Eusebius may regard him as such, and however Papias may have thought so. The good bishop was not at all the kind of man to have a clear idea of such a thing. According to Eusebius and Irenseus, he was very “narrow-minded,” and the other things which he gathered from the elders in the way of parables and teachings of Jesus and deeds of the apostles, in order to have as much information as possible about Jesus and his followers, are so disputable and miraculous that even Eusebius is obliged to relegate them to the province of fable.[2]

There is another matter that we learn in regard to the bishop from Eusebius (ii, 15), and this also is supposed to help to prove the connection of the gospel of Mark with the historical Jesus. Papias is reported as saying that, when Peter came to Borne and overcame the wizard Simon in their conflict, his hearers turned to Mark, who accompanied Peter, in their zeal for the gospel, and begged him to let them have a written memorial of the teaching that had been orally delivered to them, and he did so. The apostle, he says, learned this by a revelation of the Holy Spirit (!), rejoiced at their zeal, and directed that the writing should be used in the churches. “Why,” asks Lublinsky, “had Peter to learn from the Holy Spirit that his constant companion had written a gospel, instead of from Mark himself, who ought first to have asked his master to look over so sacred and important a work? It would be impossible, moreover, for the apostle to confirm and commend a work which was not written in the proper order of the Saviour's life. Such carelessness is even more difficult to believe when we reflect that the Jews are said to have already taken up an attitude of hostility to the Christians, and would certainly fasten at once upon any untruth or inaccuracy on the Christian side. There were still too many witnesses of events alive for any one to dare even to correct the matter a little” (p. 62).

There is, in fact, much to be said for Lublinski's conjecture that there is question of a gospel belonging to the first half of the second century, to which it was sought to give some canonical prestige by tracing it to Peter and the Holy Ghost, and that the story of Peter's pedagogical activity was invented to cover the disconnectedness of its material. To trace it directly to the apostle, as the first gospel was ascribed to Matthew and the fourth to John, was impossible for some reason. It was, therefore, inscribed with the name of Mark, of whom it was said in the so-called first Epistle of Peter: “The Church that is at Babylon saluteth you, and so doth Marcus my son,” just as the third was ascribed to the physician Luke, and thus brought into relation with the apostle Paul.[3]

In any case, it is impossible to prove the connection of the gospels with the historical Jesus from these two references of Papias, as they are preserved by Eusebius. Even if the notice in Papias were better accredited than it is, his statement need not have arisen independently of the literary character of the gospel of Mark. It is said to agree perfectly with that character. But we do not know whether the gospel was not precisely ascribed to Mark, and thus connected with Peter, because at the time of its appearance this accidentally concordant character of the gospel impressed its readers, if it had not been expressly written in the Petrine sense.

Besides the reference to the origin of the gospel of Mark, we have in Eusebius also one to the origin of the gospel of Matthew; a reference to which the greatest importance is attached by historical theology, and of which the author is again Papias. “Matthew,” he said, “wrote the words of the Lord in Hebrew, and others translated them as well as they could” (iii, 40). Theologians at once assume that these “words of the Lord” are sayings of the historical Jesus; and it is possible that Papias meant this, though he does not mention the name Jesus, and we have in early Christian literature (such as the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles and the Epistle of James) words of the Lord which are not quoted as words of Jesus, but are clearly sayings of earlier prophetic teachers, the so-called apostles. The expression “words of the Lord” often means the sayings of prominent religious personalities which were attributed to the direct influence of the Holy Ghost; even quotations from the Old Testament are called “words of the Lord” that is to say, of the God of Israel.[4] Moreover, the identity of the Matthew who is said by Papias to have written the words of the Lord with the evangelist Matthew is not certain, as the latter drew from Greek sources, and the tax-gatherer whom Jesus calls (Mark ii, 14), and in whom we are supposed to have the author of the gospel, was not named Matthew, but Levi, son of Alphaeus, and seems not to have been identified with the apostle Matthew until a later period.[5] That is what theologians call “a sound tradition”! We cannot avoid the suspicion that these supposed sayings of Jesus, the “words of the Lord” of Papias, which Matthew is said to have collected, were not the words of a single definite individual or an historical Jesus, but were merely placed in his mouth afterwards.[6] In that case this second passage of Papias referring to Matthew is just as incapable of showing an historical connection of the gospels with the life of an historical Jesus. We learn nothing from it except that there were “words of the Lord” in the second century in several different versions, and that these differences were understood to be due to different translations of a common source, the author of which was believed to have been a certain Matthew, whose name appeared among the so-called disciples of Jesus.

It is on this “sound tradition” that modern critical theologians base their hypothesis of two sources. It supposes that the gospel of Mark, or an earlier version of it, the so-called “Primitive Mark,” is one source of our three Synoptic gospels; it describes the actions of Jesus. The other source is the discourses or sayings-source, the document which Papias ascribes to Matthew, the so-called “Primitive Matthew.” Our actual Matthew and Luke have independently taken their account of the actions of Jesus from the primitive gospel of Mark, and have taken the words of Jesus from the other source, and combined the two. Each of them, however, has his “private property,” something that is not found in the words-source or the primitive Mark, but is probably due to oral tradition. In working out this hypothesis theologians differ considerably from each other. Some say that there were stories of the life of Jesus also in the primitive Matthew and discourses of Jesus in the primitive Mark. Others think that besides the primitive Matthew and Mark there was a primitive form of Luke; according to Arnold Meyer, this may have been older than the actual Mark, and contained, besides the stories of the birth and childhood of Jesus, the parables and stories which tended to glorify poverty and depreciate wealth. We thus get an “Ebionite Gospel,” or gospel of “the Poor,” which is believed to have been especially used by Luke. Recently, if we may so interpret a passage in Weiss (p. 155), the gospel of John, which has been almost entirely excluded from the discussion of the sources of the life of Jesus for more than half a century, seems to be returning to the group of sources. That would be another instance that “everything happens over again,” as Nietzsche said. The game of combining the various possibilities seems to be an essential part of the theological discussion of the sources. At all events, the continued work of theologians has so complicated the problem of the sources of the life of Jesus that it is hardly possible to speak any longer of a “two-sources hypothesis,” and speak freely of it.

Whatever may be said from the philological point of view as to the value of the two-sources hypothesis, of which German critical theologians are so proud, it has, as the above considerations have shown, no value as far as the historicity of Jesus is concerned. It would not have even if the exact contents of the sources were known to us, as Weinel seems to think, and if the reconstruction of the sources in Harnack's German translation, which is by no means generally admitted, were something more than a mere hypothetical attempt, and Wernle's corresponding analyses were not sheer and uncertain conjectures. No matter how much the method of the historical theologians is improved in the future, it can do no more. That in the gospels we really have to do with the “tradition of a personality”—namely, the historical Jesus—cannot be shown even by the acutest philological criticism and the most perfect command of technical apparatus. The attempt of historical theologians to reach the historical nucleus of the gospels by purely philological means is hopeless, and must remain hopeless, because the gospel tradition floats in the air; the belief in its historical value is not confirmed by a single external witness who has the least claim to confidence.


  1. Wernle, Die synoptische Frage, 1899, p. 204.
  2. Eccl. Hist., iii, 40.
  3. See Gfrörer, Die heilige Sage, I, 3-23, 1838; also Lützelberger, Die kirkliche Tradition über den Apostel Johannes, 1842, pp. 76-93.
  4. Matt. x, 20; Mark xiii, 11. Also compare Revelation xii, 10: “The witness of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy”.
  5. Wernle, work quoted, p. 229.
  6. Steudel, Wir Gelehrten vom Fach! p. 37; Im Kampf um die Christusmythe, p. 56.