The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Preface

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The present work is an abbreviated and amended version, for English readers, of the volume which the author recently published as the second part of The Christ Myth (English translation, 1910, Fisher Unwin). The author described this part as “an answer to his opponents, with special reference to theological methods,” and dealt in the early part of it with the theological critics who had assailed the results and the methods adopted by him. It will be seen that the fault of method is entirely on the side of the opponents, and that theologians can maintain the historical reality of Jesus on methodical arguments only when their methods are pre-arranged to lead to that result. It is not the author's intention wholly to omit the points of this controversy, as in this respect there is no difference between the theologians of Germany and those of other countries. The chief aim of the work, however, is to collect, examine, and refute the arguments which are advanced on the theological side for the historicity of Jesus. In spite of their arrogant behaviour, the German theologians have not been able to produce one single decisive reason for the historicity of Jesus. It remains to be seen whether the English authorities can adduce better proof of the validity of the Christian belief than their German colleagues have done. Besides doing this necessary critical work, it is hoped that the book may also provide a better explanation of the rise of the Christian religion than historical theology, as it is called, has yet afforded. In this respect the author is indebted to the very stimulating and informing works of Mr. J. M. Robertson (Christianity and Mythology, Pagan Christs, and A Short History of Christianity), and to the American writer Professor W. B. Smith, whose works, Der vorchristliche Jesus and Ecce Deus, ought to be in the hands of every student of the Christian religion.

The question of the historicity of Jesus is a purely historical question, and, as such, it must be settled with the resources of historical research. This procedure is, however, in view of the close connection of the subject with emotional and religious elements, not inconsistent with the fact that the final decision belongs to an entirely different province, that of philosophy, which also controls subjective feeling. In this sense, the question whether Jesus was an historical personage coincides with the question of the significance of personality in the general order of the world, and of the roots and motives of the inner religious life generally.

The controversy in regard to the Christ-myth is at the same time a struggle for the freedom and independence of the modern mind, and of science and philosophy. Let there be no mistake about it: as long as the belief in an historical Jesus survives we shall not succeed in throwing off the yoke of an alleged historical fact which is supposed to have taken place two thousand years ago, yet has profoundly affected the science and philosophy of Europe. What a situation it is when the deepest thoughts of the modern mind must be measured by the teaching of Jesus, and referred to a world of ideas that has nothing to recommend it but the antiquity of its traditions and the artificially engendered appreciation of everything connected with it!

At the same time the Christ-myth controversy is a struggle over religion. Religion is a life that emanates from the depths of one's innermost self, an outgrowth of the mind and of freedom. All religious progress consists in making faith more intimate, in transferring the centre of gravity from the objective to the subjective world, by a confident surrender to the God within us. The belief in an historical instrument of salvation is a purely external appreciation of objective facts. To seek to base the religious life on it is not to regard the essence of religion, but to make it for ever dependent on a stage of mental development that has long been passed in the inner life. Those who cling to an historical Jesus on religious grounds merely show that they have never understood the real nature of religion, or what “faith” really means in the religious sense of the word. They see only the interest of their Church, which assuredly profits by a confusion of true religious faith, of a trustful surrender to the God within us with the intellectual acceptance of certain facts of either a dogmatic or an historical character; they only deceive themselves and others when they imagine that they are promoting the interest of religion.

Our science has not hitherto suffered the indignity of being placed after theology in the hierarchy of culture, and so being compelled to justify its deepest thoughts and achievements from the theological point of view, or concern itself about theology at all. Our philosophy, however, allows faith to be set above knowledge, in spite of the fact that faith is born of the thirst for knowledge and consists in a view of the world; in this way theology comes to exercise control over the whole province of philosophical knowledge. A philosophy that thus comes to terms with theology, a “perfectly safe philosophy” which seeks to live in peace with theology, is unworthy of the name. For it is not the work of philosophy merely to prepare academic theses, and deal with things that have no interest for any person outside the lecture-hall and the study: its greatest cultural task is to defend the rights of reason, to extend its sway over every province of knowledge, and to rationalise faith. In the words of Hegel, its task is “to disturb as much as possible the ant-like zeal of the theologians who use critical methods for the strengthening of their Gothic temple, to make their work as difficult as possible, to drive them out of every refuge, until none remains and they must show themselves openly in the light of day.” It is from no accident, but in the very nature of things, that a philosopher thus came to denounce the truce which has so long and so artificially been maintained with theology, and sought to show the untenability of its central belief in an historical Jesus.

Meantime we may reflect with comfort on the words of Dupuis: “There are large numbers of men so perversely minded that they will believe everything except what is recommended by sound intelligence and reason, and shrink from philosophy as the hydrophobic shrinks from water. These people will not read us, and do not concern us; we have not written for them. Their mind is the prey of the priests, just as their body will be the prey of the worms. We have written only for the friends of humanity and reason. The rest belong to another world; even their God tells them that his kingdom is not of this world—that is to say, not of the world in which people use their judgment—and that the simple are blessed because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Let us, therefore, leave to them their opinions, and not envy the priests such a possession. Let us pursue our way, without lingering to count the number of the credulous. When we have unveiled the sanctuary in which the priest shuts himself, we can hardly expect that he will press his followers to read us. We will be content with a happy revolution, and we will see that, for the honour of reason, it is so complete as to prevent the clergy from doing any further harm to mankind.”