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The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 4/Section 12

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When we regard all that we have seen as to the mythic, Old Testament, and Talmudic character of the actions and words of Jesus, it is difficult to maintain with good conscience the existence of an historical Jesus. Of which of his actions or words could it be said with confidence that they really go back to an historical Jesus? The situation is not that certain things in the gospels are found to be fictitious, and that this by no means robs all the rest of historical value. The fact is that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, either in the actions or words of Jesus, that has not a mythical character or cannot be traced to parallel passages in the Old Testament or the Talmud, and is therefore under suspicion of being derived from them. Let us hear no more of the “uniqueness” of and “impossibility of inventing” the Jesus of the gospels! Until the passages in the gospels are positively shown to us on which such a claim is made, we are justified in ignoring it.

It is a complete misunderstanding of the facts to say that this admitted “mythical woof” of the gospels proves nothing against their substantial accuracy, and to attempt to convict those who reject the historical Jesus of defective method. The wrong method is altogether on the side of those who believe in an historical Jesus, although there is not a single passage in the gospels they can show to be historical. “When the throne falls, the duke must go.” If all the details of the gospel story are resolved in mythical mist, as they are resolved in the hands of historical criticism, then, precisely from the methodological point of view, we lose all right, not merely to say what Jesus was, but to make the bare assertion that there ever was such a person. “It is uprooting the foundations of history, we are told, not to believe in the existence of Christ and the truth of the narratives of his apostles and the sacred writers. Cicero’s brother also said: ‘It is uprooting the foundations of history to deny the truth of the Delphic oracles.’ I would ask Christians if they think they destroy the foundations of history when they reject these oracles, and whether the Roman orator would have thought that he was destroying the foundations of history if he had rejected their oracles, supposing that he had known them. Each man fights for his own chimera, not for history.”[1]

But “our confidence in tradition and in historical reason will be profoundly shaken if there never was such a person as Jesus,” exclaims Herr von Soden—and hundreds echo the lament. For in that case “the whole of civilisation has been deceived for 2,000 years” (p. 8). The answer to this difficulty—so profoundly penetrated with the “historical sense”—was given by Steudel.[2] It almost looks as if the old French scholar Dupuis had foreseen von Soden when he says that “in matters of religion the belief of many generations proves nothing but their own credulity; Hercules was assuredly the sun, whatever the Greeks may have believed and said of him. A great error is propagated more easily than a great truth, because it is easier to believe than to reflect, and men prefer the wonders of romance to the plain facts of history. If we were to adopt that rule of criticism, we might urge against Christians that the faith of any people in the miracles and oracles of its religion proved its truth; I doubt if they would admit the argument, and we will do the same with theirs. I know that they will say that they alone have the truth; but the other people say the same. Who shall judge between them? Sound reason, not preformed faith or pre-formed opinion, however widespread it may be” (p. 227). For the rest, have not nearly eighteen centuries believed in the “god-man” Christ, and died in the belief, though a more enlightened age has shown that the belief was a mythological illusion, and our liberal theologians have succeeded it with their human Jesus? Our confidence in historical reason will be shaken if there never was such a person as Jesus! But must not this confidence in reason be shaken if it should be true that a man has been made a god, and for centuries has been honoured as Jesus was in Christianity? One defends, so to say, the honour of human reason, when one shows it the error of what liberal theology calls history and the origin of Christianity. Liberal theologians would do well to reflect before they cut the ground from under their own feet with such arguments.

There is still one difficulty to consider, and, although it has not a very firm basis in our opponents, it has played a great part in the public discussion—the difficulty, namely, that so mighty a spiritual movement as Christianity can only be explained by a “strong personality,” who must, of course, have been Jesus. This difficulty also may be described as “simple.” It assumes something that needs proving—that only a great individual personality can bring about a spiritual movement, and that such a movement must in all circumstances be traced to a single outstanding personality. What instances are there of this in history? Are we referred to the personality of Luther in relation to the Reformation? But historians are agreed that Luther would never have accomplished his task if he had not been preceded by Huss, Jerome of Prague, Savonarola, the mysticism of Eckehart and Tauler, etc. And beside Luther are other “strong” personalities, such as Zwingli, Calvin, and Hutten, men who helped to clear the stifling religious atmosphere of the time by their contemporary appearance and work in the direction of the Reformation. And would all these men together have done anything if they had not found the masses prepared for their ideas, and an age that pressed for the settlement of a crisis?

Great personalities are by no means always the initiators of a new spiritual movement. It is usually prepared in numbers of individuals, and at length the inner need reaches its height and a few clear-minded and energetic personalities take the lead, though these need not at all be the “greatest” of their age. When the harvest is ripe, the seed falls, and no superhuman force is needed. It may be questioned whether Luther could have established the Reformation if he had been born fifty years earlier. The importance and power of a movement, therefore, are by no means proportionate to the importance of the personalities in whom it takes shape, and who give the first impulse to its becoming an open force. If the time has come, a slight impulse will often suffice to discharge the accumulated energy; just as a small stone detached on the precipice suffices to launch an avalanche that thunders down the mountain and sweeps away forests, houses, and men. So mighty a movement as the Renascence, which entirely changed the intellectual condition of Europe in less than two centuries and ended the Middle Ages, did not start from a single personality. The French Revolution was essentially the work of the masses, from which a few gifted, but by no means “powerful,” personalities—Mirabeau, Danton, Robespierre, etc.—stood out; and they were, to some extent, rather swept along by it than leaders of it.

Who was the founder of the Babylonian, the Egyptian, or the Greek culture? Who created the ancient religions of Zeus, Dionysos, and Osiris? Who founded Judaism? Was it Moses? The more advanced representatives of science have long since given up the historicity of Moses, and even those who still adhere to it are compelled to restrict his significance to such an extent that it is quite absurd to call him the “founder” of the Jewish religion. Post-exilic Judaism was created, quite independently of this legendary Moses, by the joint work of the priests at the temple of Jerusalem who, under the influence of the prophetic reform, codified and elaborated “the law”; only a few names have come down to us, and even in their case we have no guarantee that even the smallest share of the work can be ascribed to them. In the case of the religion of Mithra even these few names are wanting. Yet Mithraism was a religious movement that spread with irresistible force from the east over Europe about the beginning of the present era, and was the most dangerous rival of Christianity in the fourth century. It has been said that Mithraism failed, in contrast with Christianity, precisely because it did not spring from a strong personality such as Jesus. There is this much truth in the statement, that the Persian Mithra was a very shadowy form beside Jesus, who came nearer to the heart, especially of women, invalids, and the weak, in his human features and on account of the touching description of his death. But that shows at the most that the more concrete idea has the better prospect of triumphing in a spiritual struggle than the more abstract; it proves nothing as regards the historical reality of the idea. Moreover, history teaches us that it was quite different causes—partly external and accidental causes of a political nature, such as the death in the Persian war of the Emperor Julian, one of the most zealous followers of Mithra—that gave Christianity the victory over Mithraism.[3]

There is, therefore, no proof whatever in such general assertions as that only a great and powerful personality like Jesus could have given birth to Christianity. That is a very convenient way of proving one's thesis. It is merely a relic of the childlike conception of history that we often find in elementary schools—the conception that history is “made” exclusively by what are called heroes, among whom must be numbered the ancestors of the ruling house. A great spiritual movement may be brought into being by strong personalities, but need not be; and the claim that such a movement must have been brought about by a single outstanding personality is a monstrous absurdity, and the absurdity only increases when this individual is supposed to be so “unique” as to transcend all human levels, as Jesus is represented by theological “historians.”

Naturally, the early Christian movement had “great” personalities to give it a definite aim, control its organisation and direction, and defend its right to be heard. Peter, James, John, etc., may have been among these individuals, whose merits were so much appreciated by a later Christian generation that they became direct disciples of Jesus in the “history” of the Saviour. But it does not follow that they were inspired in their work by an historical Jesus, any more than that the Virgin Mary must be an historical personality because a French peasant-girl thought that she saw her with her bodily eyes in a lonely grotto, and in consequence thousands go every year to Lourdes to be healed of their maladies. For the rest, if anyone persists in thinking that Christianity must have been founded by a single powerful personality, may it not have been Paul? If not Paul, have not our inquiries shown that in the long run the contents of the gospels may be traced to the prophet Isaiah, whose “predictions,” sayings, penitential appeals, and promises reappear in the gospels, in the form of a narrative? Hence Isaiah, not Jesus, would be the powerful personality to whom Christianity would owe its existence.

Notes[edit]

  1. Dupuis, Ursprung des Gottesverehrung, p. 228.
  2. Wir Gelehrten vom Fach, p. 8.
  3. Cf. J. M. Robertson, Pagan Christs, 2nd ed., 1911, 327 ff. As Robertson shows in this work also, the historicity of Zarathustra and Buddha is not so well founded as one commonly thinks. Only of one single great religion (Mohammedanism) do we know positively that its founder was an historical person. But Mohammedanism is in its essence not an original religious creation, but an eclectic composition of ancient Arabic and Jewish fragments, and the great influence which it exerted in history depends upon quite other things than its inner religious truth.