The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 4/Section 5

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5.—Schmiedel's “Main Pillars”.[edit]

We have now reached a point where the man who denies the historicity of Jesus is to be definitively put to shame: the “granite,” the “historical bedrock,” which, according to the theological critics, will resist every attempt to rob the gospel narratives of their fundamentally historical character. Nine main pillars of a really scientific life of Jesus! The same number as in a game of skittles. Here we have the last solid ground on which the structure of the liberal conception of Jesus rests. Beneath the roof that rests on these nine pillars the critic may confidently relax from the strain of his usual historical efforts. As long as the pillars stand there is no danger of the collapse of the Christian historical belief. But what if these also are fragile—if the “granite” is mere plaster or stucco, if the nine main pillars are merely wings to hide the emptiness and nakedness of the theological way of writing history? What if they are “jerry-built houses,” intended only for show? As a matter of fact, the pillars will stand only as long as one refrains from putting them to a serious test, and is content to admire their “really scientific” appearance; it would hardly take a Samson to bring Schmiedel's whole nine pillars with a crash to the ground. For they are based entirely on the assumption that it is the aim of the gospels to represent the historical human Jesus as a divine being; they fall of themselves the moment one assumes that, as the “Christ-myth” maintains, they seek, on the contrary, to describe as a real man one who was originally a god.

Schmiedel's nine pillars have of late years, on account of the great part they have played in the discussion of the Jesus-problem, been subjected to a close scrutiny by more than one writer. Hertlein endeavoured to upset them in 1906, and more recently Robertson (Christianity and Mythology), Lublinski (Das werdendeDogma, p. 93), Steudel (Im Kampf um die C.M., p. 88), and W. B. Smith (most fully of all, in his Ecce Deus) have dealt with them, and shown that they are entirely untenable. I might therefore refrain from returning to the subject were it not that so much stress is still laid by theological “historians” on Schmiedel's nine pillars; and a fresh discussion, at least of the more important of them, is needed.

First, then, what is the nucleus of Schmiedel's argument? When, he says, one learns about “an historical person merely from a book that is pervaded with reverence for its hero, as the gospels are in regard to Jesus, he regards most confidently those passages in the book as authoritative which are not in harmony with this reverence; he says to himself that, in view of the author's mood, they could not have been invented by him—indeed, could not have been chosen by him from the material at his disposal if they had not been forced on him as absolutely true.”

There is, for instance, the statement in Mark (iii, 21) that the relatives of Jesus, his mother and brothers, went forth to seize him, saying that he was mad. That, says Schmiedel, cannot have been invented by one who reverenced Jesus, because he would lower his hero in the eyes of his readers; it is the less conceivable when we reflect that the other evangelists say nothing of such language being used by the relatives of Jesus, clearly because they felt it to be out of harmony with their conception of Jesus. Hence in this passage of Mark we have the echo of a real historical reminiscence. But in the gospel of John, which is generally admitted to carry the glorification of Jesus to its highest point, we find the depreciatory circumstance that even his brothers did not believe in him (vii, 5); and in x, 20, the evangelist makes the Jews say: “He hath a devil, and is mad.” In the book of Wisdom (v, 4) we read how the godless spoke of the just man: “His life we held for a folly.” In Zechariah (xiii, 3) it is written: “And it shall come to pass [in the days of the saving of Jerusalem from the attack of its enemies] that, when any shall yet prophesy, then his father and his mother that begat him shall say unto him: Thou shalt not live, for thou speakest lies in the name of the Lord; and his father and his mother that begat him shall thrust him through when he prophesieth.” And to those who ask him about the wounds on his hands he will reply: “Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.” In Psalms (lxix, 8) it is likewise said: “I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother's children.” Now, no one doubts that the figure of Jesus in the gospels is in many respects determined by passages in the Old Testament. How can one doubt that what Schmiedel thinks “could not be invented” originated in that source?

Moreover, Schleiermacher has pointed out, and Strauss confirmed the fact, that the word of the Pharisees, “He hath Beelzebub” (Mark iii, 22), which has quite a different context in Matthew (ix, 34, and xii, 24) and Luke (xi, 15), gave the evangelist an opportunity to put it, in its meaning, also in the mouths of the relatives of Jesus, in order to explain his slighting reply when their coming was announced to him.[1] It has, however, clearly only the symbolical meaning that real relationship with Jesus is purely spiritual, not bodily, and it is neither “beyond the range of invention” nor contradictory to the divine reverence for Jesus. In fine, the conduct of the Saviour's relatives in the gospels need not be taken at all as a depreciation of Jesus, so that there is no need to regard it as historical on that account. “As if,” Steudel says, “a romancer depreciates his hero by representing him as misunderstood by those about him.”[2] As if it might not just as well have been his aim to bring out the surpassing importance of Jesus by representing him as too great to be understood by his relatives, and even being regarded by them as mad. When people refuse to recognise an “historical sense” in those of us who deny the historicity of Jesus because we find such an argument as this trivial, we must on our part refuse the “aesthetic sense” to Schmiedel and his followers because they so little understand the poetical fineness of that passage in Mark as to find it out of harmony with the general portrait of Jesus in the gospels.

We turn to the second pillar. In Mark x, 18, Jesus declines to be called a “good” master—“Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God.” How little such an expression could be invented by the followers of Jesus who wrote the gospels, says Schmiedel, we learn from Matthew. In his gospel (xix, 16) the rich man says: “Good master, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why asketh thou me about the good? One is good.”[3] Logically, Jesus ought to have said: “One thing is the good.” But as Matthew had the words of Mark before him, and sought to avoid their offensiveness, he changed the words.[4] Unfortunately, it is not at all certain that in this case Mark has the original text. The oldest manuscripts read like Matthew, and leave out the “good” at the beginning of the usual text, so that the text of Mark may be a later form of the altered text of Matthew. This oldest text, however, is not at all as illogical as Schmiedel represents. In the Hebrew version of the reply of Jesus the masculine and neuter are both the same: it may be either “one person” or “one thing.” “Let us assume (with Resch) that the reply ran: One thing is good—keep the commandments. First this was translated into the masculine gender in Greek: One is good. Afterwards the explanatory note was added, and later admitted to the text—namely, God. ‘One is good, God,’ seemed to be in opposition to the person of Jesus. Hence the question, Why askest thou me about the good? had to be changed into, Why callest thou me good? The connection was now broken, and it had to be restored by adding, ‘But if thou wilt enter into life,’ and so the original question was resumed.” This is the literary-critical hypothesis put forward by Pott as regards the historical evolution of the text.[5] However that may be, in such a condition of things no one has a right to say that the correct answer of Jesus is in Mark, and that Matthew gives a tendentious modification of the original text, and to make a “main pillar” out of such material as this. Psychologically, it is just as improbable that the innocent and customary address “good master” provoked Jesus to disclaim the epithet as that the question as to doing good should have prompted him to say that God is good. Moreover, the answer “God alone is good” suggests Plato just as forcibly as the form “The good is one” suggests Euclid of Megara. Hence it is impossible to say that these words of Jesus “could not be invented.” For the rest, until Schmiedel no one had noticed anything particularly offensive in the passage of Mark. Justin, for instance, finds in the reply of Jesus a proof of the Saviour's lowliness and modesty in disclaiming the appellation “good”; while other apostolic fathers, in the opposite sense to Schmiedel, saw in the words of Jesus a proof of his divinity, making Jesus apply to himself the words, “God alone is good,” as if he wished to say: “That man rightly calls me good, for I am God.”

Equally ambiguous is the value of the third main pillar. It consists in this, that Jesus could perform no miracle in Nazareth, on account of the unbelief of his countrymen (Mark vi, 5). But it is maintained that the symbolical character of this passage is obvious. Is not the glorification of the power of faith a leading tendency of the gospel of Mark? “For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them” (xi, 23 and 24). The man who believes shall receive help (x, 52). Shortly before, in the fifth chapter, the evangelist has described how the woman with an issue of blood was healed owing to her faith in Jesus; and Jesus said to Jairus, whose daughter had died: “Be not afraid, only believe.” As a complement to this we have the description of the unbelief of the people of Nazareth and the failure of the wished-for miracles. Can anyone seriously doubt that the story has been “invented” to illustrate the fundamental idea of the gospel, that faith is necessary for miracles? Moreover, the sojourn of Jesus in Nazareth clearly reminds the evangelist of the familiar saying of the time, that a prophet is nowhere of less account than in his own country and among his own people. He therefore puts the proverb in the mouth of Jesus, and then illustrates it by making him refrain from performing miracles in his country. It is, in any case, impossible to find anything here inconsistent with the evangelist's reverence for Jesus. The thing that the impartial reader would be inclined to regard as beyond the range of invention is that anyone should be scandalised at the passage, and from this scandal endeavour to deduce the historicity of Jesus.

A fourth pillar, according to Schmiedel, is Jesus's cry of despair on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The words, however, are found at the beginning of the twenty-second psalm, which gives various details of the crucifixion—the just man hanging on the stake, the perforated hands and feet, the mocking crowd, the soldiers gambling for the clothes—everything takes place as described in the psalm. Is it possible to believe that the words were really spoken by Jesus? Yes, says Schmiedel; and Harnack agrees. If the story of Jesus is recounted in such a way that the sacred words of the Old Testament seem to be fulfilled in it, this was only done when it served “the interest of Jesus”; but this interest would have been injured if the words of the psalm had been put in the mouth of the dying Jesus. As if the gospels had been composed in much the same way as a modern writer would sit down at his desk to write a large book, and contained one consistent idea, with the various parts carefully controlled and all contradictions avoided. As if the gospels did not swarm with contradictions and “discordances” in their description of the character and experiences of Jesus, which afford another proof that there is no question in them of a single definite person and of historical recollections, but a mere collection of details taken from very different sources, the choice of which was determined, not with a view to avoiding contradictions, but with a view to making the figure of the Saviour as vivid and attractive as possible in the sense of the Messianic expectations.

Lublinski has admirably shown that in an attempt to give sensuous embodiment to a symbol, such as the supposed historical Jesus is in our opinion, the result is inevitably an irrational organism which is sure to present many “contradictions” to our intellect.[6] “The one aim of the author of the primitive gospel,” says Steudel, “was to give an expressive elaboration of the idea; and, as he wished to describe Jesus as the ‘suffering servant’ of Psalm xxii, he could not hesitate for a moment to put in his mouth as a prayer the quotation in question. Whether the figure which he built up was consistent or not gave very little concern to the author.”[7]

Even the theologian Spitta says that it is a “modern notion that a later dogmatic could not possibly have put into the mouth of Jesus the despairing cry of Matt. xxvii, 46, and Mark xv, 34. Dogmatics has had nothing to do with it; it was the primitive Christian tradition which saw in the twenty-second psalm a prediction of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a curious illusion to suppose that gospels of the Christological views which Matthew and Mark represent would not suffer Jesus to end his life with a cry of despair of God and his mission. That may apply to certain constructions of the life of Jesus, but it is not inconsistent with the feeling of the gospel writers. That, in view of the undoubted influence of the Old Testament doctrine of the sufferings of the just one on the suffering figure of Jesus and of the central significance of the death of Jesus in the Pauline dogmatic, the later manipulations of the evangelical tradition would not be disposed to weaken the sufferings and death of Jesus, should not need emphasising.”[8]

Only if it were proved that there is question of a real history in the gospels could one admit that the evangelist would have avoided weaving into the life-story of his Jesus such details from the Old Testament as did not accord with his main idea of the personality of Jesus. If the historicity of Jesus were established by other arguments we should be justified in deducing from the presence of these details the fact of an historical tradition which the author was bound to reproduce. But to seek a proof of the historicity of the gospel narrative from mere contradictions, real or apparent, is not science nor the method “which every historian follows in non-theological matters”; it is simply the method of arguing in a vicious circle which is peculiar to theological “history,” the thing that has to be proved being taken for granted. To go back to our earlier illustration from Heracles, we could prove the historicity of the Greek hero on that method. In the account of him there are many details that do not accord with the otherwise splendid figure of this strongest of all Greek heroes. He is supposed to have become insane at times, and to have murdered his own children when in that condition; he is said to have taken refuge with a Thracian woman in his struggle with the Meropes, and concealed himself in female clothing; in fact, he is supposed to have been altogether unmanly and weak in face of Omphale, winding her wool and running round her in her garments. We might call these “main pillars of a really scientific life of Heracles”!

Hence it is sheer self-deception for Schmiedel to imagine that he has “established” the existence of an historical Jesus beyond a shadow of doubt. His main pillars are “ingenious discoveries of a theologian, masterpieces of apologetic hairsplitting” (Steudel); they are “small matters which one must examine with a microscope in order to give them the character of granite which they are supposed to have as central columns of the liberal Jesus” (Krieck).

Yet the four we have discussed are the only ones among them which even seem to have any importance. This cannot be said of the other five. When Jesus confesses, in regard to the day and hour of the end of the world, that “no man knoweth, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father” (Mark xiii, 32), we can only say that omniscience is not expected of him, as the evangelist describes him as a mere man, with human qualities and human limitations. Moreover, the uncertainty in point of time of the end of the world is one of the normal features of every apocalyptic. Hence the ignorance of Jesus on that point is so natural that the evangelist himself prudently refrains from any chronological statement. Lastly, Smith points out how one may infer the divine character of the Son from his being placed after the angels in the words of Jesus.

And when Matthew (xi, 5) makes the Saviour say: “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them,” to what extent can we see in this a contradiction of the idea which the evangelist had of Jesus? Schmiedel takes the words spiritually: the spiritually blind shall see, the spiritually lame walk, etc., because Jesus, he thinks, “could not have more seriously destroyed the effect of his words than by making a series of miracles, which rises as high as the awakening of the dead, close with something so simple and common as preaching to the poor.” Yet we read in Isaiah (xxxv, 5), in relation to the promised coming of the Lord: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing.” And in Isaiah lxi, 1, it is said: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me: because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound [sight to the blind]; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn.”[9] Clearly, the “pillar” is merely made up of these two passages, and therefore the saying of Jesus has no claim to historicity.

Of the rest of the “main pillars” it is better to say nothing. Those who are interested may consult Schmiedel and the works we have quoted. For my part, I have tried in vain to see in them any sort of argument for an historical Jesus. A man has to be a theologian to appreciate arguments of this kind. We may assume that real historians shrug their shoulders at Schmiedel's “nine main pillars,” if they have gone so far as to look into the matter. Schmiedel's “nine main pillars” are excellent companions to the three “pillar-apostles” of the Epistle to the Galatians. At a distance they look very fine; when you come closer to them they dissolve into atoms. Schmiedel thinks that in virtue of his “pillars” he “knows” that the person of Jesus cannot be relegated to the world of fable. He also “knows” that “Jesus was a man in the full sense of the word, and that in him the divine, which is, of course, not on that account denied, must be sought only as it can be found in a man.”[10] We leave him with this “knowledge”; for our part, we decline to settle in a house that rests on these “nine main pillars of a really scientific life of Jesus.”[11] Schmiedel has the support of his colleague Weiss in his search for “indubitable historical features” in the evangelical figure of Jesus. “The power of Jesus,” Weiss says, “rests on the spirit that was given to him in baptism; we see how this spirit wrestles with the spirits” (Mark i, 25; iii, 11; v, 6, 8; xxv, etc.). Then follows the list of Schmiedel's chief pillars, and the “historian” continues: “We see [!] how the dogmatic conception of the evangelist was unable to absorb the human-historical figure” (p. 133). Surely we have here a tenth main pillar![12]

This, then, is, as regards the historicity of Jesus, the “solid” fruit of that penetrating “analytical work on the gospels which is called historical exegesis,” which has been going on for more than a century. We quite understand that “there are many who are indifferent to this inquiry into the inner structure of a document, and declare in warning tones that the work of theologians is hopeless, though they themselves will do nothing” (Weiss, p. 134).


  1. Strauss, Leben Jesu, I, 692.
  2. Im Kampfe um die Christusmythe, p. 89.
  3. [The English translation of the Bible has the same answer in Matthew and Mark. I find that there are different versions of the Greek text of Matthew xix, 16.—J. M.]
  4. Das vierte Evangelium, p. 19.
  5. Der Text des Neuen Testaments nach seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung, 1906, p. 63, Also see Robertson's Christianity and Mythology.
  6. Das werd. Dogma, p. 93.
  7. Im Kampf um die Christusmythe, p. 117.
  8. Zur Geschichte und Literatur des Urchristentums, iii, 2, 1907, p. 204. Cf. Feigel, Der Einfluss des Weissagungsbeweises, u.s.w., 63-69.
  9. See also Isaiah xlii, 7.
  10. Die Person Jesu, p. 9.
  11. Observe the play of colour in the phrase “a man in the full sense of the word,” in whom, nevertheless, “the divine is not denied,” though it “must be sought only as it can be found in a man.” (See also his Das vierte Evangelium, p. 17, where it is said that, while we acknowledge that there was something divine in Jesus, he thought and lived in a way which we must regard as really human. To what triviality is this “God-manhood” reduced in our liberal theologians!) Is Jesus a God-man in the Christian sense or is he not? We might ask these theologians in the words of Elijah: “How long halt ye between two opinions?” (1 Kings xviii, 21).
  12. Some may see a sort of main pillar in the words of Jesus (Mark xiii, 30): “This generation shall not pass till all these things be done.” Because, they may say, if a prophecy of this kind, which was not confirmed by the course of events, could remain in the gospels, it must have been uttered by Jesus. But is it not possible that the saying of Jesus is part of the Jewish apocalyptic which is embodied in the chapter of Mark quoted? In that case it is no more historical than Matt, x, 23, Mark ix, 1, and Luke ix, 27, which are merely due to modifications of Mark xiii, 30. The saying cannot be a “main pillar” because it contradicts the first “pillar” (Mark xiii, 32), according to which Jesus declined to tell the time of the end of the world.