The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 4/Section 3

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3.—The Methods of Historical Criticism.[edit]

(a) The Methodical Principles of Theological History.—From what we have seen we perceive that critics are convinced of the historicity of the gospels a priori, before investigating the subject. All they have to do, therefore, is to seek the “historical nucleus” in tradition. How is that done? “The Christian element,” says Weinel, “must be stripped from the figure of Jesus before he can be discovered. But this means only the Christian element in a certain sense. Jesus was not a Jew, but something new; the Christian element must be removed from him in the sense of thoughts, ideas, and tendencies which could only be entertained by a later community” (p. 28). Or, as we read in another passage: “The only standard by which the historical critic can discriminate between the genuine and the spurious is to set aside as spurious those features of tradition which could not be due to the interest of Jesus, but only to the interest of the community” (p. 30).

Notice how much is assumed in all this: that Jesus was an historical personage, that he was not a Jew, that he was “something new,” and, especially—“the interest of Jesus.” How is it that Weinel knows the interest of Jesus so well before beginning his inquiry that he thinks he can determine by this test what is spurious in tradition and what is not? Let us be candid. Is it not a question of the “interest” of historical theology and the Church rather than of Jesus? The gospels, it seems, are to be understood from “the soul of Jesus,” not from the soul of their authors! I should have thought that in a strict historical inquiry the “interest” and the “soul” of Jesus could only be gathered in the course of the inquiry. The theological “historian,” however, assumes from the start precisely what he is supposed to prove and deduce—the existence and the knowledge of the innermost nature of the man Jesus. Not only does Weinel do this, but Clemen also formulates, for use in the religious-historical interpretation of the New Testament, the famous “methodological principle”—that a religious-historical interpretation is impossible when it leads to untenable consequences (namely, the denial of the historicity of Jesus or of the genuineness of the Pauline Epistles) or starts from such premises.[1] J. Weiss says this even more plainly when he acknowledges that in all his inquiries he starts with the assumption “that the gospel story in general has an historical root, that it has grown out of the soil of the life of Jesus, goes back to eye-witnesses of his life, and comes so near to him that we may count upon historical reminiscences” (p. 125). It is little wonder that they find themselves “scientifically” compelled to cling to the historicity of Jesus, and regard the so-called historical method which they use as the only correct method, because it seems to establish this historicity. The truth is that it is not a result, but a presupposition of their method; the method is arranged in advance so as to confirm the presupposition, and it is not in virtue of the method that the inquiry ends in a conviction of the existence of a definite Jesus, but because this was the goal kept in mind from the start.

This, however, is not all that we have to say in regard to the theological method of inquiring into the historicity of Jesus. There is a further principle, that all that seems possible to the theological critic in the gospel narratives may at once be set down as actual. Thus Weinel would regard a tradition as valid as long as “it is not clearly seen to be impossible.” But are there not plenty of things in traditions which are possible, yet may not in the least be actual? The story of Tell is possible, the story of the seven kings of Rome, or of Semiramis or Sardanapalus; and as long as independent documents did not exist, they were held to be real histories. Indeed, on this criterion of “possibility” we might prove that Hercules was an historical personage, and endeavour to extract an “historical nucleus” out of the shell of legend. Why may there not have been a man of that name who strangled a lion, dragged a wild boar, caught a hind alive, slew a dangerous serpent, cleaned out a stable, and performed other heroic deeds, finally sacrificing himself on the pyre? That the hydra had more than one head, and that when one was cut off two new ones grew in its place, is, of course, due to later imagination; possibly it originated in a “vision” on the part of Hercules. Do we not know that he was a heavy drinker? Well, in a state of intoxication things are often seen doubled, or even trebled. Thus it would be possible to give an “historical” interpretation of the myth of Hercules on the above principle. The principle, however, overlooks the fact that, though everything that is actual is at the same time possible, the laws of logic forbid us to draw an inference in the opposite direction, from possibility to actuality. Yet it is simply on such a deduction, apart from considerations of “the interest of Jesus,” that all theological constructions of the life of Jesus are based. The stories in the gospels are first examined to see if they are possible, and they are then treated as historical realities, the historicity of which is supposed to have been proved by showing that they are possible.

(b) The Method of J. Weiss.—J. Weiss is a master in the application of this wonderful method. His way of interpreting the miracles of Jesus must not be passed in silence.

Weiss starts from the general character of the age in which the miracles are supposed to have been performed, its credulity and thirst for miracles, an age “for which saviour and physician are almost the same thing.” It is true that he grants that the sudden and remarkable cures wrought by Jesus cannot be controlled in their further course. “We do not hear of a single patient who tells anything of his subsequent history” (p. 119), which is at least very curious, and does not say much for their gratitude. He thinks, however, that “many [!] a one will acknowledge” that Jesus was much occupied with healing the sick. We have, it is true, “not a very good idea” of the way it was done. We can only imagine the manner in which Jesus acted. It is, however, “a quite unreasonable scepticism to say that these scenes, because of the difficulty of imagining them, and the healing work of Jesus in general, should be relegated to the province of legend. That Jesus was regarded and sought as a healer of the sick we are bound to assume, as the popular side of the great impression which he made on men,” which in turn is simply assumed in this paragraph. “The one [!] possible explanation is that he was full of the belief that he was allied to divine force; his confidence in God's miraculous aid, his ‘enthusiasm’ in this regard, must [!] have been strong and sincere, and it must [!] have been based on real experience” (p. 117).

Take, for instance, the possessed in the synagogue at Capernaum. Weiss thinks he can explain his delivery by the enthusiastic messianic character of the preaching of Jesus, “by which the patient, identifying himself with the demon within him, feels that he is personally threatened, yet at the same time attracted; and thus a paroxysm is provoked, and it is followed by tranquillity. In this,” he exclaims, “how have we passed the bounds of historical interpretation? What is there improbable in the episode?” Jesus imposed silence on the demon “by virtue of the divine spirit which he felt in himself.” If any one ventures to differ from him, Weiss bitterly retorts: “Any man who says that these religious ideas and emotions are inconceivable had better keep his hand off matters of religious history; he has no equipment to deal with them” (p. 121). Then there is the healing of Peter's mother-in-law. “I have,” says Weiss, “no experience in such matters [What a pity! What a lot he might have taught us had he been able to experiment on his own mother-in-law!]; but I do not see that what is described here is impossible” (p. 122).[2] It is true that one may regard the curing of such a patient by suggestive influence as “quite possible, and even probable.” But what sort of “science” it is to reduce the whole contents of the gospels to mere possibilities of this sort we must be permitted to hold our own opinion.

Perhaps the “method” by which critical theologians prove the existence of their Jesus cannot be better studied than in the case of Weiss's Das älteste Evangelium. Weiss tries to prove that the author of our gospel of Mark is merely incorporating an already existing tradition. “Not without certain assumptions,” he admits, “do we set about the inquiry. We have been prepared by the tradition of the early Church, especially by the evidence of Papias [!], to find that in the gospel which has come down to us under the name of Mark we shall find an echo of the statements of Peter. Hence [!] we approach our subject with the particular question how far the reminiscences of Peter form the groundwork” (p. 120). “My aim is, I candidly admit, to trace the text of Mark in its general lines [!] to an earlier tradition. As far as it is possible [!], I endeavour to trace it to Peter's way of looking at things, and understand it as historically as possible. I am, therefore, a partisan of my author—that I grant to a certain extent” (p. 122). Now let us listen.

“Now, after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark i, 14). “Thus Peter may have begun his account” (p. 136). Then there is the account of the calling of the early disciples. Here we detect a certain amount of literary manipulation; the story reminds us too strikingly of the calling of Elisha by Elijah (1 Kings xix, 19). It is not certain that the phrase “fishers of men” was uttered on this occasion. But it may have been spoken on another occasion, and the whole account may spring from a reminiscence of that “unforgettable moment” in which the word of Jesus induced Peter to follow him. The technical phrase “casting of nets” is, Weiss assures us, significant; he seems to think it improbable that any but a fisherman should use this very unfamiliar phrase, or know anything about so unusual an occupation. In this case we may have the first part of those narratives of Peter which Mark is said by Papias to have used. Now for the Sabbath in Capernaum, the healing of the possessed in the synagogue and of Peter's mother-in-law, the healings in the evening, the flight in the morning. How excellent a local and chronological connection there is between the stories! How vividly the details are told! How the agitation of all concerned is felt in the account! From all this the “sole scientific method, the one prudent and critical view,” deduces that (we tremble with curiosity) here we have an “excellent tradition”—in fact, the recollections of Peter—because (we must complete the argument) no other man could have invented these things, or at least not have told them in that way.

In the second chapter we have the strange story of the palsied man who could not reach Jesus on account of the crowd, so that they had to remove the roof of the house and let him down to the healer within. As the scene is Capernaum, and there is “mention of a house,” it is natural, according to Weiss, to suppose that it was Peter's house! Another of Peter's reminiscences, therefore. Does the parable of the sower belong to the same category? “We should like to believe it, on account of the graphic introduction [!]. The reminiscence recalls a very clearly-described locality [the fact is that Jesus is supposed to have spoken the parable from a boat at the shore], and the time of it also is determined by iv, 35 [“And the same day, when the even was come”]. It was a perfectly definite [?] day on which these things took place” (p. 178). The boat (iv, 1) was, of course, Peter's boat, though this is not said in the text.

Into the story of the daughter of Jairus the healing of the woman with an issue of blood is rather artistically woven. This artistic combination cannot be a literary device, but depends on a real historical reminiscence. “It was unforgettable that so curious an event should take place on the way to the house of Jairus” (p. 180). Then there is the calming of the tempest. The story is so improbable, and so strongly suggests Jonah i, 3 and 5, that most critics since Strauss have regarded it as a mere legend, and one is disposed to ask, with Weiss: “If Peter could tell things of that kind, what use is he to us?” Nevertheless, why should we not once more see a real episode at the base of it, and suppose that the evangelist afterwards gave it the first touches of miraculous quality? In the same way, the story of the Gadarene possessed is supposed to be based on “a sound tradition” (tradition is always “sound” when it fits the theological scheme). Observe how the writer's acquaintance with the locality is assumed. What a graphic description! Mountains running down to the shore and falling precipitously into the sea![3] “This description could only originate among those who were familiar with these features of the country.” Mark could not have so described it unless tradition had enabled him; hence the story must be true, and Peter must be the teller of it. And then the description of the possessed man! The symptoms are totally different from those of the possessed in the synagogue; it is “epileptoid hysteria” (this also the “historian” seems to have found in Eulenburg's Real-Encyclopädie). The account, moreover, must have been given by the patient himself after his restoration or by the other people; hence—once more we have a “sound tradition.” The only defect of the evangelist's description is that he is too much interested in the swine, too little in the man. “The story is interesting in any case, and if any man takes offence at it he may be told that it was narrated precisely on that account” (p. 189).

So much for the “historian” Weiss. After these specimens of his critical exegesis we may refrain from following him further along this path, although there is much in his work that ought not to be suffered to pass into oblivion; his interpretation, for instance, of the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi—the locality is “drawn to the life,” the detail is “thoroughly concrete “; it has, as Herr von Soden would say, “the very smell of the soil of Palestine,” so that we are compelled to admit its historical reality—and his conception of the transfiguration of Moses, which must, of course, have been a “visionary experience on the part of Peter.”

We may add, to the credit of science, that the effort of Weiss to reconstruct the fundamental form of Mark's narrative by means of exegetic analysis, and prove that Peter and his friends were responsible for it, has met with the most violent resistance even among his own colleagues. Wellhausen finds the tradition of Mark as regards Galilee and the Galilean narratives to be of such a nature that it cannot be referred to the primitive disciples. “Is it possible,” he asks, “that Peter was the authority for the sudden vocation of the four fishers of men?—that he told of the walking on the sea, the driving of the evil spirit into the swine, the healing of the woman with an issue of blood by the virtue of his garments, and of the deaf and blind by means of spittle? And why does he not tell us more, and in greater detail, about the intercourse of the master with his disciples? It does not seem likely that the narrative tradition in Mark originated among the companions of Jesus?”[4] Otto Schmiedel also finds himself compelled to put more than one note of interrogation after the statements of Weiss, and observes: “We do not know with so much confidence (in spite of Papias) that Peter was Mark's authority.”[5] In fact, the whole method is in the air, and it is quite hopeless to attempt to deduce the historicity of the gospel narratives from their character.


  1. Die religionsgeschichtl. Erklärung des N. T., 1909, p. 10.
  2. In his work, Das älteste Evangelium (1903), Weiss tells us that it was “probably a case of malarial fever,” and refers us to Eulenburg's Real-Encyclopädie der ges. Heilkunde, p. 146.
  3. Mark v, 11 and 13.
  4. Einl. in die drei ersten Evangelien, 1905, p. 52.
  5. Die Hauptprobleme der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, 2 Aufl., 1906, p. 62.