The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 4/Section 13

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13.—The Historical Jesus and the Ideal Christ.[edit]

If, then, the historical individual Jesus cannot be regarded as the founder of Christianity and the one who inspired the followers of the new religion and impelled them to sacrifice their lives for their faith, what can we substitute for him as the determining principle of the whole movement? Isaiah's suffering servant of God, offering himself for the sins of men, the just of Wisdom in combination with the mythic ideas of a suffering, dying, and rising god-saviour of the nearer Asiatic religions—it was about these alone, as about a solid nucleus, that the contents of the new religion crystallised. The ideal Christ, not the historical Jesus of modern liberal theology, was the founder of the Christian movement, and made it victorious over its opponents. It is more probable that Jesus and Isaiah are one and the same person than that the Jesus of liberal theology brought Christianity into existence; that the first Christians, the Jessaeans, were followers of the prophet; and that in their over-heated imaginations the figure of the prophet himself was transformed into the Saviour and Redeemer. [1]

From the first we find Christianity as the religion, not of the historical man Christ, but of the super -historical god-man Jesus Christ, who merely passes through history. It is he who is supposed to have appeared to Paul and revealed himself as the true Saviour (Gal. i, 12 and 16). His figure is discerned clearly enough beneath the human clothing in the gospels, the purpose of which it is, not “to raise to a higher sphere the life of the historical Jesus by means of fanciful myths and stories of miracles, but to bring home to readers by an historical representation the superhuman divine nature of Jesus.”[2] That God himself has exchanged his heavenly glory for the lowliness of earth; that Christ became “the son of God” and descended upon the earth; that God divested himself of his divinity, took on human form, led a life of poverty with the poor, suffered, was crucified and buried, and rose again, and thus secured for men the power to rise again and to obtain forgiveness of sins and a blessed life with the heavenly father—that is the mystery of the figure of Christ; that is what the figure conveyed to the hearts of the faithful, and stirred them to an ecstatic reverence for this deepest revelation of God. There is not in the centre of Christianity one particular historical human being, but the idea of man, of the suffering, struggling, humiliated, but victoriously emerging from all his humiliations, “servant of God,” symbolically represented in the actions and experiences of a particular historical person. How much grander, loftier, and more spiritual is this idea than the prosy belief of liberal theologians in the “unique” personality of Jesus of Nazareth of 1,900 years ago, which has played hardly any part in the whole Christian development, and which, on account of its temporal, national, and temperamental limitations, would never have been able to fill the religious thought of nearly two thousand years.

Those who believe in an historical Jesus tell us that personalities, not ideas, make history. Apart, however, from the fact that this is no proof of the historicity of Jesus, as, of course, the idea of the Christian Saviour had to be made the centre of the new religion by personalities, until three generations ago the personality was not prominent at all in the historical conception of Christianity, but was used merely as an “illustration” in explaining the unfolding of the divine idea, without having any independent significance as the leading and shaping factor in history.

In his work, Idee und Persönlichkeit in der Kirchengeschichte (1910), Walther Köhler has shown by means of historical facts how little interest Christianity has in “great” personalities, since the most distinguished members of the religion, such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Eckehart, Tauler, Huss, Luther, etc., conceived the world-process as a divine phenomenon, made the individual secondary to the development of ideas, and merely introduced it occasionally to illustrate the ideal history. When Master Eckehart speaks of Christ, he is by no means thinking of the historical individual, but merely of the idea of the Christ, whose actions and sayings in the gospels he interprets symbolically, and converts into the super-historical of his speculative mysticism. When Lessing pens the famous words, “The accidental truths of history can never furnish proof of the necessary truths of reason,” he shows that he attaches no importance in his religious feeling to the historical person of Jesus. According to Kant, the historical serves “only to illustrate, not to demonstrate.” In his work, Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft, Christ is to him nothing but “the ideal of human perfection,” and he says that it contains its reality “in itself” for practical purposes: “We need no example from experience to serve as a model to us of the idea of a man morally pleasing to God; it is found as such in our reason.” Indeed, Kant regards it as “the utmost absurdity conceivable” to take an historical belief, like that in Jesus, however proportioned it be to human capacity, and however deeply it may be rooted in the hearts of men on account of its long prevalence, as a condition of a universal and exclusively saving faith (p. 280).

How far from this view are our modern liberal theologians—who, nevertheless, swear by Kant—when they make the belief in the historical man Jesus, the “personal life of Jesus,” in their fine phrase, the essential element of Christianity! What they really appreciate in Kant is his hostility to metaphysics, which enables them to refrain from positive statements on transcendental things, and continue to use Biblical expressions because no more correct expressions are yet available. Liberal theology is an offspring of the time which chose science for a leader after the collapse of speculative philosophy about the middle of the last century, and, under the banner of modern empiricism and positivism, branded the belief in ideas as a superstition. It was the time when the emphasis of personality, which had begun with Erasmus, and increased in the pietism of the eighteenth century, in Schleiermacher, Humboldt, Neander, and others, at length became generally popular. The idea is nothing; the individual is everything. Man, Feuerbach had taught, creates the idea, not the idea man. From the psychology of the academic school and the general appreciation of facts of experience theologians adopted a new way of looking at things. A tendency got the upper hand among them which, apart from religious speculation, rejected the hitherto prevailing view of Christianity as obsolete, and substituted the mere man Jesus for the discarded dogma. “Personalities, not ideas, make history.” The cult of the “great man” began. By introducing personality as the decisive factor in the mechanism of history, it was hoped to find the necessary foundation for the cult of “the greatest personality in history,” the historical Jesus. The fact was overlooked that modern empiricism and psychology are merely the complement of scientific materialism. It was not noticed that to do away with the belief in the objective idea was to destroy the foundation of the belief in providence and a divine control of human events; and with this belief all religion disappears. People talked themselves into an ecstatic reverence for the “unique” personality of Jesus, although the advancing criticism of the new figure of Jesus left less and less positive historical facts in support of it, and it became increasingly difficult to maintain this reverence. How did it fare with the professors when they found the traditional figure of Jesus becoming fainter and fainter as their “historical criticism” advanced? The clergy continued to breathe new life into the fading figure, and found it possible still to feel themselves personally “overpowered” by their Jesus. They were proud that they now knew the real “essence of Christianity” for the first time. And when an objection was raised at times to this methodical Jesus-cult, they consoled themselves resignedly with the words of Carlyle: “Man knows nothing more sacred than heroes and reverence for heroes.”

In this condition of self-sufficient ecstasy about Jesus, in which it was no longer thought necessary to trouble about the great questions of general philosophy from some excessive tenderness about the “supersensuous,” and the “unknowable” was silently ignored, The Christ Myth fell like a bomb, with startling effect. The inadequacy of their own theory began to dawn even upon the simplest of them. A certain nervousness and insecurity spread among theologians, and took the form of furious bitterness and hatred when the author of that work endeavoured, by means of lectures, to interest the general public in his denial of the historicity of Jesus. Now the whole Press is engaged against the disturber of the peace; it is the easier as the word “liberal” confuses the liberal in the theological and the political sense, in spite of enormous differences, and the “orthodox” Press is readily gained. Opposing lectures and Protestant meetings are organised, and J. Weiss publicly declares that the author of the book has “no right to be taken seriously.” But among his fellows, within the four walls of the lecture-hall, and in the printed version of his lectures, Weiss assures his readers that he has taken the matter “very seriously,” and speaks of “the fateful hour through which our [theological] science is passing” (p. 170). Bousset declares in the Scientific Congress of Preachers at Hanover that the question of the historicity of Jesus “is not worthy of occupying public attention.” But at the World-Congress for “Free Christianity and Religious Progress” he grants that the ideas of The Christ Myth, which “have not even been made approximately plausible,” have nevertheless (?) awakened a conviction of the need for a “certain revision” of liberal theological views. Indeed, this protagonist of the modern Jesus-cult, who is supposed to have proved so “triumphantly” against Kalthoff the correctness of his views, acknowledges that “intensive historical work has made the situation of the present theological position acute, and laid insupportable difficulties on the theologian,” and that history, “when it is pressed resolutely to the end, leads to a region beyond itself “; and, appealing to Kant and Lessing, he demands a different foundation for belief than history—namely, “reason.”[3]


  1. As is known, there was a legend of Isaiah having been taken up into heaven, like Moses, Elijah, Enoch, etc.—a proof that about the beginning of the present era the figure of the prophet had actually assumed superhuman characters.
  2. Ferd. Jak. Schmidt, Der Christus des Glaubens und der Jesus der Geschichte (1910), p. 29.
  3. Die Bedeutung der Person Jesu für den Glauben, pp. 6, 10, etc.