The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 4/Section 6

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

6.—The Methods of “The Christ Myth”.[edit]

(a) The Literary Character of the Gospels.—Differently from the method of the theological historian, The Christ Myth starts with the conviction that the gospels are, on the confession of the theologians themselves, works of edification, not of history, or tendentious works of a dogmatic-metaphysical character; that is to say, it is not so much their aim to describe the real life of Jesus as to put before the minds of their readers a Jesus that will be likely to “influence their religious feelings, inflame their hope, and awaken their faith.” Even Weiss admits “how impossible it is to take the gospel of Mark forthwith, without close inquiry, as a primitive source. We cannot trace the inner movement, or even the course of external events, from the successive pieces in Mark. The form and tone which Mark gives to the various parts of his narrative are often more dogmatic than historical; he himself is not a chronicler, but a witness to the gospel of Christ, the son of God” (p. 153). In the conception of Mark the death of Jesus is, as Weiss observes, “the real aim and content of his life (!); it is seen in advance, and everything works up to it, so that the entire gospel is really a story of the Passion stretching backwards” (p. 132). Moreover, the chronological frame in which Mark encloses the details of the life of Jesus is “neither historical nor chronological, but didactic. Galilee is the life, and Jerusalem is the death; the passage from Nazareth to Golgotha is the unavailing work among Israel and the prospect of the believing heathens of the future; that the actions of Jesus in Israel did not bring salvation to that people, but that salvation is found in the mystery of his death for those who acknowledge and believe—those are the great ideas which he spreads like a net over his variegated material” (p. 136).

Even when the evangelist offers us ostensible history, we do not feel confident about what he describes. “Chronology is his weak point.” “He has no idea of the duration of the activity of Jesus” [in the year 64!]. For him to make Jesus, the pious Jew, come to Jerusalem for the first time at the Passover is, according to Weiss, “a really childish idea.” He gives nothing in chronological order. We never find a date that might serve to fix any event in point of time. And it is not much better with his indications of places. It is true that he knows the names of a few places, and often represents a situation as known to his readers; but his indications are generally so superficial and vague (a house, a mountain, a solitary place, and so on) that the historian can make no more of them than he could of the stage-directions of a play. “His geographical notions are,” says Weiss, “confined to a few large divisions Galilee, Persea, Judaea, the ‘sea’ of Galilee, etc. But it is clear, from, for instance, the section that deals with the two miraculous meals, that he has no idea of the localities. To represent Jesus moving about the sea, suddenly appearing in the region of Tyre and Sidon, and then to the east of the sea again, shows that the writer has no idea of the topography of the country” (p. 137). “The topographical ideas of the evangelist are confused,” we read in his Das älteste Evangelium. “He does not take the least interest in such things; he is indifferent to time and place” (p. 235). Weiss naturally complains of this vagueness as to time and place which is so conspicuous in this evangelist (p. 151). Wellhausen speaks in the same way, and even more disdainfully, of the author of the oldest gospel.[1]

But the other two synoptics are no better in this respect. At least we might have expected more of Luke, who expressly describes himself as an “historian” in the foreword to his gospel. Unfortunately, it is not so. The phrases “In those days,” “At that time,” “On a Sabbath day,” “After eight days,” “At the same hour,” etc., are just as common with him; and when he does seem to give definite indications of time for instance, “In the days of King Herod,” “At the time of the enumeration under the governor Cyrenius,” “When Lysanias the tetrarch was at Abilene, and every man had to be numbered” we find him historically inaccurate in every case. Herod had died four years before the beginning of the present era. Cyrenius was not governor until the years 7-11 A.D. Lysanias had been dead thirty-four years at the time when Jesus was born. Annas and Caiaphas could not be high-priests together, as there was only one high-priest at a time. The description of the Pharisees is wrong in Luke and all the other evangelists. The trial which ended in the condemnation of Jesus does not correspond at all to Jewish usage at the time.[2] Nothing is known by any historian of a friendship between Herod and Pilate, such as Luke (xxiii, 12) describes. It is true that we know that Pilate was procurator in Judaea in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius (28). But the character of Pilate, as described in Luke and the other evangelists, is entirely opposed to all that we know of the man; and it is not certain that we have not here an astral myth, in which the Homo pilatus (the javelin-man Orion) played a part, converted into history on the strength of a similarity of name with the Roman procurator Pilate, and that the whole story was not on this account placed in the time of the first two Roman emperors. It can be detached from that period without suffering any essential change. In essence it is independent of time, as myths are. This is strikingly confirmed by the statement of St. Augustine[3] that Jesus died on March 25 under the consulate of the two Gemini (29). The death of Christ falls, according to the calculations of Niemojewski, on March 25 (during the vernal equinox), when the new moon dies in the constellation of the Heavenly Twins—in Latin, Gemini.[4] There are many other details in the gospels which point to the fact that astral relations are at the root of the supposed historical events which they describe.

In any case, the narrative of the gospels is not of a nature to exclude the possibility that dogmatic and metaphysical material, which originated in a totally different province, was afterwards worked into an historical scheme, and that this was done at a time when the real features of Palestine in the days of Jesus were very superficially known to the author, and by one who had not an accurate knowledge of the geographical and chronological conditions. From this we know what to think when von Soden and others speak of the “graphic miniature painting” and “smell of the soil of Palestine” in the gospel narratives, and when Jülicher assures us that Jesus is “a human personality that could not possibly have been in any other time and place than those in which he is put in the gospels,” and emphasises his being “rooted in Jewish soil.” It is much the same as if a man were to say that Borneo and Juliet were real characters which could not have existed elsewhere but in Verona, in medieval Italy, where Shakespeare places them. Augustine is nearer the truth when he confesses: “Were it not for the authority of the Church, I should put no faith in the gospels.”

We may dispense ourselves from considering more closely the much-praised “pictorial character” of the gospels and examining the proof of the historicity of Jesus that is based on it. The description in the gospels may be pictorial, but it is not more so than any description which aims at giving a sensible form to a certain idea by artificial means. If we admitted this as an argument for the Biblical Jesus, we should have to accept the characters and situations of many novels, dramas, and other works of fiction as historical realities. Moreover, the vividness of the gospels is only found in situations and sensations, not in depicting characters; the character of Jesus by no means merits that description, on account of the contradictions it includes, and there is no consistent and progressive treatment in the gospels. In this respect Lublinski has very well described the style of the gospels as an “impressionist lyrical al fresco style”: “Great stress is laid on certain scenes, while all the rest lies in a darkly-coloured background. That kind of description would be curious and incongruous, in fact unprecedented, if there were question of a biography. But as the aim is to represent a god in his superhuman splendour, no happier style could have been chosen. The god must not come too close to ourselves, otherwise he loses his altitude, yet not be too far from us, otherwise he would not have assumed human form for the redemption of sinners. The best course is to bring him out in some of his actions and situations with sudden and magical power, and then allow him to sink back again. Thus we get the transfiguration scene, the scene on Golgotha, the entry into Jerusalem, the arrest, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. We hear strong, angry words and others full of tenderness and pity, which similarly break upon us suddenly and unexpectedly in seemingly indifferent passages. At other times lofty moral sentiments are pronounced, and these in turn have to retire behind the glamour of mystic words spoken at the last supper or after the resurrection and apocalyptic visions. These details are not given in logical order and in the quiet course of a sustained narrative, but with a certain suddenness; just as, when one is travelling in a mountainous district, every turn of the road presents new aspects and wonders of the landscape. But the character that produces these effects, now humanly approaching us and now fading into the mystical distance, would not be found a definite personality if his psychology and conduct were considered from the biographical point of view. As a symbol and god-man, however, he could not have been better described.”[5]

(b) The Mythical Character of the Gospels.—We have further to consider the resemblance of the figure of Jesus to the saviour-gods of pagan peoples, which theologians do not contest, and the resemblance of the Christian doctrine of redemption and details of the cult to those of the mystical cults in ancient times.[6] We can quite understand when the theologians, under the lead of Harnack, regard the relevant research in comparative religion with great distrust and concern, and that in this respect they warn us to proceed with extreme “prudence.”[7] But all that they have said as yet against the possible derivation of the Christ-story from the pagan myths is so lame and biassed that it is difficult to keep patience in discussing such things with them. Take, for instance, the notion of a suffering and dying God. The Christ Myth has shown how familiar this idea was to Judaism from its own tradition—how the notion of a suffering king and just one, offering himself for the sins of his fellows, was based on a very ancient rite in the whole early world, which has left traces even in the Old Testament. A man must be utterly devoid of psychology and be a worshipper of the letter to doubt that the idea must have had adherents among the Jews even in the days of Jesus merely because we have no direct evidence of it in writing. And what a decisive part the idea plays in the Gnostic systems! Nor can it any longer be disputed that Gnosticism was not, as was hitherto generally believed, a product of Christianity, but is much older than Christianity.[8] In the second century the Talmud expressly sets forth the idea of a Messiah suffering in atonement for his people. It would be surprising if, in the circumstances, the belief in a suffering and dying saviour-god had not been found among the Jews at an earlier date. As we shall see more fully, the idea had been impressed on them by Isaiah (ch. liii). The ancient Babylonian idea of a divinity coming down from heaven and soiling himself with earthly material for the purpose of saving mankind was bound to imply suffering and death, especially among a people of strong religious feelings, surrounded by the suffering and dying gods of neighbouring peoples, in the close atmosphere and mysticism of sectarian life.

Opinions may differ as to the way and the extent in which Christian ideas, especially the gospel narratives, were influenced by the analogous myths and ceremonies of non-Christian religions—whether the influence was direct or indirect, and whether the analogies were merely accidental or were, as some credulous writers affirm, divinely appointed. The Christ Myth refrained from taking up any definite position on this point. It was generally content to tell the facts and let them speak for themselves, in order to justify its theory that Jesus also may have been one form of the myth, and the “history” of him may have been derived from the same mythic material as that of the pagan saviour-gods. It stimulated questions, and drew attention to points which might contribute to the elucidation of obscure passages in the gospels. If it has been misunderstood and represented as saying that on all points the Christian ideas were dependent on the non-Christian world, or as speaking of a “composition” of the story of Jesus from the analogous myths of pagan religions, the author is not to blame, and does not need to be told that analogies do not of themselves prove historical connection.

This much, at least, is certain: the origin of Christianity cannot be properly understood without regard to the mythological connections of its ideas with those of other religions. In this respect research is only just in its infancy, as up to the present there has been almost nothing but purely historical and philological work done in this field, and biblical “mythology,” which has had an able and far-seeing exponent in Nork, has been thrust into the background. While Mr. J. M. Robertson has led the way and made considerable advance in England in his Christianity and Mythology, Pagan Christs, and Short History of Christianity, the science of religion in Germany remains wholly under the influence of theology, and is mainly concerned to avoid a conflict with theology. Hence on the theological side we find men contesting the obvious affinity of the Easter-story of the gospels with the myths and ceremonies of the Attis-Adonis-Osiris religion, saying that “there is no such thing” as a burial and resurrection in the myths of Attis and Adonis, and that the difference between the death of Jesus and that of his Asiatic kindred can only be explained by the “hard fact”—the famous theological bed-rock—of the death on the cross. Weiss is unable to recognise in Mary Magdalen and the other Marys at the cross and the grave of the Saviour the Indian, Asiatic, and Egyptian mother of the gods, the Maia, Mariamma, or Maritala, as the mother of Krishna is called, the Mariana of Mariandynium (Bithynia), Mandane, the mother of the “Messiah” Cyrus (Isaiah xlv, 1), the “great mother” of Pessinunt,[9] the sorrowing Semiramis, Miriam, Merris, Myrrha, Maira (Maera), and Maia,[10] the “beloved” of her son. Weiss, however, does not question that “the belief in a dead and risen Christ has, in general outline, considered from the point of view of the science of religion, a similar structure to these cult-myths, though the details are altogether different” (p. 39). As if there were any question about the details as such! Whether, for instance, the traditional number, “after three days,” in the account of the resurrection has been chosen on astral grounds, and is related to the three winter months from the shortest day, when the sun dies, to the vernal equinox, when it triumphs definitively over the winter, and so the months are condensed into three days in the myth,[11] or whether the moon has furnished the data for the three days and three nights, as it is invisible for that period, and, as so often happens in myths, the moon and the sun have been blended, we need not consider here. Possibly the number may be explained by the popular belief in Persia and Judaea that the soul remains three days and nights in the neighbourhood of the body, only departing to its place on the fourth morning. Possibly, again, the number was determined by Hosea vi, 2, where we read: “After two days will he revive us; in the third day he will raise us up.” In any case, when there are so many possible explanations, we have no convincing reason to regard the account in the gospels as historical, and to say with Weiss that the third day was chosen “because something of importance [sic] had happened on it” (p. 36).

There is very little force in the other objections of theologians to the astral explanation of the day of the death of Jesus. It is true that the day of the vernal equinox is at least fourteen days before the Passover, which is celebrated at the full moon after the beginning of spring. I may recall, however, the very common combination of sun and moon-worship in myths. Niemojewski has proved that a moon-myth is at the base of Luke's astral system. Moreover, we may very well suspect that, on account of the symbolism of the Paschal lamb, the Christians have tampered with the calendar. That the mythic-astral method “breaks down altogether” in face of the time of the death of Jesus, as Weiss says, is not true at all, and before we consent to regard Sunday the 15-16 of Nisan as the day of the resurrection, “because on that day something of importance [sic] happened to the first disciples” (p. 38), we have to settle the chronological confusion that we find in regard to the date of the death of Jesus, which no one yet has succeeded in doing.

In fine, we may ask, as some reader of The Christ Myth did, if the death and resurrection of Jesus really took place at the Jewish Easter, why was the day not fixed once for all instead of changing with the date of Easter? If Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on a certain day and “rose again on a certain day, and if the Pentecostal gathering took place in Jerusalem forty days after the resurrection, these days ought to have been fixed. It is useless to say that the festivals of the Church were only fixed at a later date. That may be true of Christmas, etc., but not of the day of the death and resurrection, which, together with Pentecost, were days of incomparable importance for Christians from the very first. These definite days ought to have been celebrated everywhere by Christians with great solemnity, either joyous or mournful. There could not possibly be a doubt as to which dates were to be celebrated. The fact that the Jewish calendar had movable feasts does not affect the matter; Paul ought at least to have given his Greeks and Romans a definite date to celebrate. The Church professes to know quite accurately the day on which Peter and Paul were crucified at Home.” How has it failed to fix vastly more important dates? As long as theologians can give us no satisfactory answer to this question we prefer to think that we are dealing, not with history, but with a myth to which an historical form was afterwards given.

Critical theologians have hitherto affirmed the historicity of the gospel narratives, but they have landed in insuperable difficulties and insoluble contradictions; so poor, not to say purely negative, a result amounts to a bankruptcy of their whole method. It seems, therefore, to be our duty to try the mythic-symbolic method, and to consider the gospels from the point of view that their Jesus was not an historical, but a purely mythical, personage. The literary quality of the gospels, their tendentious dogmatic-metaphysical character, their chronological and topographical vagueness, their constant absence of definite indications of space and time in regard to events, the slender traces of an apparently historical and geographical framework, the resemblance of their most important details to the myths of non-Christian religions—a resemblance that often extends to the smallest points—all this demands that we shall study the gospels from a very different point of view from that hitherto adopted.

The fundamental idea of The Christ Myth is that their historical character is only a symbolic clothing of their real content.

Why this method is less sound than the historical method followed by theologians, less “scientific”—in fact, no real method at all—is, in the circumstances, not very obvious. It is quite certain, and will be questioned by no one, that the gospels contain a large amount of legendary matter, and that a good deal in them is to be understood mystically or symbolically. It is not at all equally well established that they have an historical basis. The idea is grounded solely on the feeble tradition of Papias. What is there to prevent us, therefore, or what methodological principle restrains us, from extending the mythic-symbolical interpretation to the whole contents of the gospels, and refusing them any kind of historical reality? In Homer's Iliad there is much that seems at first sight to be historical and real, yet no one has attempted to see in the Iliad an historical document, and to extract its “historical nucleus” by means of criticism and exegesis from the mythical and poetical shell. It is possible that The Christ Myth is wrong in its analysis of the gospel story into myths; but in that case its failure will only bring out more brilliantly the historical character of the gospels, so that, instead of scolding us, the believers in an historical Jesus ought to be grateful that we have relieved them of their thankless and uncongenial task. Our opponents complain that our procedure is actuated by the secret hope that there never was an historical Jesus. The truth is that it is their own exertions which are inspired by the opposite hope. Would theologians ask us to believe that they approach the problem impartially? Must we be dubbed unscientific because we take no interest in their historical Jesus? Let us avoid pretence, and have respect for truth. To science as such it is wholly immaterial whether there ever was a Jesus or no. It has no advantage in approaching the question of his historicity either from the positive or the negative standpoint. It is theology alone that has an interest in regarding the positive standpoint as necessary, and in coming to an affirmative solution of the problem. This, however, is not a scientific, but a religious or ecclesiastical, interest; and therefore all their talk about their “scientific procedure” and all their disdain of their opponents' methods are interested manoeuvres. It is ridiculous for theologians to tell the laity that “science” has “proved” the historicity of Jesus, and “historical research” has established the “fact” of his existence. We cannot repeat too often: The science of history has up to the present taken no notice of the problem. Theology is not science, and, strictly speaking, does not merit the name of science at all, because, in spite of its formal scientific procedure, it rests, in the long run, on faith.


  1. Einleitung, p. 51. Compare also the Commentar zu den vie Evangelien of P. van Dyk (S. E. Verus), Leipzig, 1902, Kap. 8 and 9.
  2. Brandt, Die evangel. Geschichte; Steudel, Im Kampf um die Christusmythe, pp. 42 and 53.
  3. De civitate Dei, xviii, 54.
  4. Niemojewski, Gott Jesus, pp. 131, 371, 382, 384.
  5. Das werdende Dogma, p. 39.
  6. See Arnold Meyer, Inwiefern sind die neutestamentl. Vorstellungen von ausserbiblischen Religionen beeinflusst, 1910.
  7. How theologians go to work may be seen in a pamphlet by Harnack on Christmas, in which it is said that the Christmas-story is “not a mythology, but a lofty legend, comprising historical and religious facts and experiences in very fine images.” One is tempted to ask the distinguished writer what there is in the story that is not mythical. Is it the child-bearing of “Mary” at “Bethlehem” at the time of the great “census”? Or the shepherds on the fields, to whom an angel announces the birth of the Saviour, and their veneration of the “son of David”? Or the story of the announcement of the birth of the Baptist? Or the massacre of the children? Or the presentation of the child in the temple? Or—but Harnack at last tells us: the story of the star and the wise men from the east! “Here we have an ancient myth reproduced and applied to Jesus Christ, but”—he at once soothes his readers—“how rich the story is! At that time many ancient religions were pressing from the east into the Roman Empire; they were, to some extent, deeper and richer than the Greeco-Roman, and therefore had many followers. Our story shows us the wise men from the east—that is to say, those oriental religions [!]—bowing down before the wonderful star that had arisen over Bethlehem, and bringing gifts to the new-born child. And so it actually came to pass! History has fulfilled and confirmed the myth in a wonderful way [sic]. The oriental religions brought gifts to the Christian, and then paled before its light.” Thus speaks “Dr. Adolf Harnack, ordinary Professor at the University of Berlin.” We now know how to give a “really scientific” interpretation of myths.
  8. See M. Brückner, Der sterbende und auferstehende Gottheiland in den Orient-Religionen und ihr Verhältniss zum Christentum, 1908, p. 30.
  9. See The Christ Myth, pp. 53 and 78.
  10. The mother of the “world-saviour” Augustus, who is generally known as Attia, is also called Maia in Horace and on an inscription at Lyons (“Maia' s winged child”), and she is supposed to have brought her son into the world in a remarkable way and under astonishing circumstances. The name was a standing name for the mothers of the saviour-gods of antiquity, and it is naive to regard it as the real name of the historical Jesus.
  11. Weiss denies that the three days could be taken from the course of the sun, as the sun is never buried for three days and three nights. But Heracles is said, according to the scholiast of Lycophron (Cassandra, 33), to have remained three days in the belly of the sea-monster, and to have escaped with the loss of his hair, which clearly points to the rays of the sun. The somewhat similar Jason also, the Greek counterpart of the biblical Joshua, whose solar nature is beyond question, is said to have been swallowed by the dragon and spat out again. The biblical Jonah, whose name means “dove,” and points to the reverence of the Ninevites for doves, seems also to have been originally a sun-god and related to Heracles, or, rather, to the sun-god Perseus and Joshua. In Jaffa, from which Jonah is supposed to have set out for Tarsis, there were still shown in the days of Pomponius Mela certain large bones of the fish that had tried to swallow Andromeda whom Perseus delivered (consider the similar liberation of Hesione by Heracles); and the dove was, according to Assyrian ideas, the wife of Ninus (that is to say, the fish), who appears in the Old Testament, under the name of Nun, as the father of Joshua. In fact, the connection of the Christ-form with these pagan sun-gods is clearly seen in the ceremony performed on December 26 in the Church of Sta. Maria di Carmine at Naples, in which the hair is cut off the figure of the crucified with great solemnity. Compare also the three (winter) months and five days during which Joseph is said, according to the “Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs,” to have dwelt in the under-world (Christ-Myth, I, 46).