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

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4.—The “Uniqueness” and “Uninventibility” of the Gospel Portrait of Jesus.[edit]

In the absence of any objective criterion it is necessary for the theologian to rely upon subjective feeling and seek in this the irrefragable proof of the historicity of the gospel Jesus. Here we have especially to meet the emphatic claim that the portrait of Jesus is “unique” and “could not have been invented.”

As to the uniqueness, the phrase is so obviously used for the purpose of raising the personality of Jesus above all other men, in spite of its purely human and historical character, and to provide some compensation for the loss of belief in his divinity, that we need not linger over it. Even a theologian like Paul W. Schmiedel acknowledges: “For my part I never claim that Jesus was unique; it either means nothing at all, since every man is unique, or it may seem to affirm too much.”[1] And the historian Seeck observes that every man has his like, and therefore there are no unique personalities in the sense in which theologians use the word here.[2] Faust, Hamlet, Lear, and Caliban, and their like, are unique; are they therefore historical personalities?

The great point, however, is that the figure of Jesus, as it is described in the gospels, “could not have been invented.” This is repeated incessantly, not only in popular discussions, but even by experts such as von Soden, Jülicher, Weiss, and even Harnack. How much truth there is in it has been shown by Steudel in his work against von Soden. It would not be easy to find a more ridiculous phrase or a feebler argument. In no other historical inquiry whatever would such an argument be admitted as proof of the historicity of a certain person or event. None but a theological historian would venture to use such an argument, and it is lamentable that he should find any support on the side of profane historians. As if one could settle a priori the limits of the human faculty of invention! As if the figure of Jesus in the gospels stood really apart from comparison with any others! If religious-historical inquiry has told us anything, it has shown that this is the reverse of the truth. The Saviour of the gospels is paralleled by other redeeming divinities, whom he resembles so closely at times as to be identical with them. His fate is entirely related to that of Attis, Adonis, Dionysos, Osiris, Marduch, etc. Indeed, in many and important points we recognise a human personality in the saviours of the non-Judaic religions, and the more research advances in that field the clearer it becomes that the separate features of the figure of Jesus have their counterpart, partly in ancient mythology, partly and especially in the Old Testament, and thus it is absurd to say that they could not be invented. So fine a story as that of the disciples at Emmaus (Luke xxiv, 13), which treats of the risen, not the living, Christ, and therefore must certainly be unhistorical according to the critical theologians, could be “invented.”[3] The story of the adulterous woman also, which is found only in John (viii, 1), is allowed to be a later invention.[4] Even the pleasant story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha (Luke x, 38), is, as Smith has shown in his Ecce Deus, a mere allegory of the relations of paganism and Judaism to the cult of Jesus, the former receiving him with joy, the latter occupying herself much with customs and ceremonies and claiming the same service from her “sister.”[5] If these three stories—three of the pearls of the gospels—were invented, what is there that could not be invented?

However, one has the feeling that the theological historians are not really very much in earnest with this argument. They use it only at times as a rhetorical auxiliary, and on account of the impression which it is apt to make on the thoughtless mass of people. Even Weiss seems to be not quite at home with it (p. 15), and Schmiedel expressly acknowledges that the statement that the figure of Jesus in the gospels could not be invented “is not a valid argument in its general form.” “We must,” he says, “restrict it to certain passages in which it is indisputably valid. I count nine such passages, and, in order to emphasise their importance, give them a special name: I call them the main pillars of a really scientific life of Jesus.”[6]


  1. Die Person Christi im Streite der Meinungen der Gegenwart, 1906, p. 29.
  2. Geschichte des Untergangs der antiken Welt, iii, p. 183.
  3. Cf. Niemojewski, Warum eilten die Jünger nach Emmaus? (1911).
  4. Compare Robertson's Christianity and Mythology, p. 457.
  5. Moreover, the circumstance that Martha (“mistress”) worried also finds expression in the name of the place, Bethany, where, according to John, the episode is supposed to have taken place. In Aramaic it means “The house of her who worries.”
  6. Die Person Jesu im Streite der Meinungen der Gegenwart. See also Schmiedel's work, Das vierte Evangelium gegenüber den drei ersten, p. 16.