The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 4/Section 2

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2. The Witness of Tradition.[edit]

On what general ground do theologians affirm that the gospels contain history? On no other ground than that such is the general view. “We are asked,” Weinel exclaims, “to prove that Jesus was an historical personage; in other words, we are to sacrifice an historical tradition of centuries, against which as a whole……not a single objection was brought until Bruno Bauer in 1841, and Albert Kalthoff in 1902” (p. 10). He says that it is a “depreciation of tradition” to call in question the historicity of the gospel narratives (p. 10). Weinel seems never to have heard of the Gnostics, whose resistance to the growing tradition of an historical Jesus gave so much trouble to the Church in the second century. He does not seem to know that it was not Bruno Bauer and Kalthoff who first questioned or denied the historicity of Jesus, but philosophers who lived a hundred years before Bauer, Bolingbroke and the English Deists. We have heard of the saying of Pope Leo X. at the beginning of the sixteenth century about the “fairy-tale of Christ.” Even so enlightened a ruler as Frederick the Great does not seem to have been entirely convinced of the historicity of Jesus. He speaks of “the comedy” of the life and death and ascension of Christ, and says: “If the Church can err in regard to facts, I see reason to doubt if there is a Scripture and a Jesus Christ.”[1] Has Weinel never heard of Dupuis and Volney, who advanced an astral-myth explanation of the gospel “history” in the last decade of the eighteenth century?

As a matter of fact, the existence of Jesus has been assailed from the moment when historical inquiry began to oppose itself to the prevailing ecclesiastical ways of thinking—that is to say, from the eighteenth century. That is quite natural, as no one had hitherto believed in a purely historical Jesus, and the dogmatic Christ of tradition gave little occasion to contest his historical reality; he might be accepted or rejected, but not on historical grounds. “Precisely because liberal theology has,” says Ernst Krieck, “constructed its Jesus in opposition to the whole of Christian tradition, we have a right to ask it for proof; precisely because, as Weinel admits (p. 22), documents are wanting in regard to their Jesus such as are generally used to prove the reality of historical personages, the demand for proof is not so absurd as Weinel represents it to be.”[2]

It is a complete perversion of the facts when Weinel and his colleagues claim that tradition is on their side. The tradition of the first eighteen centuries of Christianity knows only a god-man, not the man Christ. Lublinski rightly calls attention to the fact that “in the early centuries the blood of Christian martyrs was chiefly shed because the unyielding and angry primitive Christians regarded the cult of the emperors as the horror of horrors, since it meant adoring a man. They, however, worshipped their Christ and died for him because they considered him, not a man, but a god-man. Who is nearer to tradition, the one who makes an earthly man of Jesus, or the one who is content to say that he was from the start a mythical being, a symbol in a word, the God-man?”[3] It is precisely one of the objections raised by orthodox against liberal Christians that they are in opposition to the whole of Christian tradition! What early Christian writings are there, apart from the gospels, that show the existence of an historical Jesus? There is not one single early Christian document that speaks, not of the god-man Jesus Christ, but unequivocally of the mere man Jesus which modern liberal theology conceives him to have been. Weinel appeals to the apocryphal gospels, the writings of the “apostolic fathers,” the apologists of the second century (Justin, for instance); they all show just the contrary of what he states (p. 103). It is precisely one of the strongest arguments of those who deny the historicity of Jesus that neither Acts nor Revelation nor the Epistles, nor the apologists, etc., relate the slenderest fact that can confidently be referred to a purely historical Jesus. As regards the apologists, in particular, they know, says Professor W. B. Smith in his Ecce Deus, “nothing whatever about the miraculous pure human life in Galilee and Judaea. Not a single event is mentioned, not a single proof, not a single explanation, or exhortation, or counsel not a single motive have they drawn from the incomparable life which is supposed to have fascinated the disciples and even the bloodthirsty Saul. The modern preacher, even the modern critic, at a distance of 1900 years, fills all the vessels of his discourse at this pure and inexhaustible source of the personality and life of Jesus. But the early apologists, who lived under the Antonines and before the settlement of the canon of the New Testament, know nothing of this source in their debates with kings and emperors, with philosophers and representatives of their own group. They do not draw a single drop of the water; they rarely mention it, even remotely. It would almost seem that, if it existed at all, it was confined to an esoteric, not exoteric, source. We do, it is true, find a few scanty references to certain teachings which are ‘known,’ but they are all of a more or less metempirical character, such as the mystery in 1 Tim. iii, 16. We find no knowledge of such a human life as that which modern and orthodox theologians make the basis of their New Testament theory.”

To base the historicity of Jesus on tradition is merely to make tradition the decisive factor in the question because it is tradition. “History,” says Weinel (p. 22), “depends on tradition.” But when tradition is so isolated as it is in the case of the gospels, we have every right to ask whether there are any historical facts whatever at the base of it. Even Weinel admits that the historicity of a tradition cannot be shown by “some simple logic.” Such proof can only be given “by means of documents.” There are, however, none for the life of Jesus. It has been said that Socrates and Plato might be struck out of history just as easily as Jesus, since there are spurious works among those that bear the name of Plato, and it is impossible to prove that the others are genuine. But we are assured of the existence of Socrates, not only by Plato and Xenophon, but by the comedian Aristophanes, and there is not the slightest ground to doubt his historical existence. And the historical existence of Plato is accredited, not merely by the works ascribed to him, but in other ways, as well as that of any personality in history. We should not even have ground to doubt his historicity if all the works of the philosopher were spurious. As to the existence of Luther, Frederick the Great, Goethe, or Bismarck, we have not only documents from their own hand, the genuineness of which is not open to question, but masses of evidence on the part of contemporaries.[4] All this is wanting in the case of Jesus. He has not left behind a single line. He has, as Jülicher says, “written in the sand,” and there is not a single reliable document to enable us to trust the gospels, from which alone we learn something about his life. It is, therefore, just as permissible to doubt as to admit the existence of such a person; and it is an unhappy indication of the superficiality and loose thinking of our time that even leaders of science have not hesitated to bring into the field to prove the historicity of Jesus this foolish reference to historical personalities.[5]


  1. Friedrichs des Gr. Gedanken über Religion, 1893, pp. 87 and 92.
  2. Die neueste Orthodoxie u. d. Christusproblem, p. 47.
  3. Das werdende Dogma, p. 82.
  4. See Jülicher, p. 14.
  5. Steudel, Wir Gelehrten vom Fach, p. 6; Lublinski, Das werdende Dogma, p. 47.