The Historicity Of Jesus

Chapter II

The Question as to the Historicity Of Jesus

During the frank and unbiased examination of the theology and customs of our Faith which I propose to make, I shall have to question certain dogmas and beliefs the truth of which will be thought by the orthodox to be beyond doubt; and to those who are not familiar with theological criticism it may seem that an attempt is being made to destroy the whole of Christianity. My object, however, is, as I have said, precisely the reverse. There is a widespread critical school which, seeing only the old gods grouped about the Christian altar, thinks that Jesus never existed at all, but that His life is a myth invented during the First Century A.D.; and it is with this powerful school that I wish to do battle.

There is no use in defending an untenable position, and therefore the first thing to be done is to abandon the territory which can be no longer held; but it will gradually be seen that in throwing over certain time-honoured beliefs my purpose is to present a Christian frontage which shall be impregnable. It may be stated as an axiom that the kind of evidence which was required by the man of the First Century A.D., to prove the divinity of Jesus is the very kind which has an opposite effect on the mind of the man of the Twentieth Century; and therefore it is obviously the duty of the Christian scholar today to delete from the story of our Lord all that is incredible or repugnant to the modern intelligence, and, so far as is possible, to restore the true facts and the simplicity of the creed dependent upon them.

It is essential that Christianity should be in a position to meet the highest intellectual demands of modern times; and it would show the grossest form of superstition to refrain from free criticism far fear of being thought heretical or blasphemous. It has been truly said by a doughty champion of the Faith (1) that religious knowledge is now neither acquired nor made valid by belief in the super-natural, and that while the thinkers of the First Century found their highest thoughts expressed in terms of the miraculous, we of today find ours most easily expressed through the natural and the rational.

If the teachings and the acts of Jesus Christ – and I believe them to be the world’s only hope – are to be fully brought to the spiritual aid of modern men and women, they must not be cramped into the mould of the outlook of people of eighteen or nineteen hundred years ago. We have got to release the historic Christ from the confinement of an earlier theological interpretation; for He is eternal, whereas the dogmas of the Christian Church are not. God’s revelation is gradual; and no intelligent thinker today can possibly adhere entirely to the interpretation placed upon the life and death of Jesus by those who lived shortly after His time, that is to say, in days when the wildest mythological nonsense was blandly accepted all around them as fact. If we may believe the rather doubtful testimony of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus Himself said: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now: howbeit, when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all truth”, (2) and these words may well carry the meaning that the understanding of Him was not for the men of His own day. It may not be for us either; but at least we can remove the ancient veil from our eyes and make the attempt to see Him – the Eternal One – in His present aspect as Lord also of the Twentieth Century.

But the constricted Jesus of Christian theology does not belong to modern times: He is dated; He is the product of the early centuries A.D., when men believed in Olympus, and drenched its altars with the blood of sacrificial victims. Ancient magic plays about Him like lightening, and the primitive conception of the supernatural thunders in answer to His behests. He walks upon the waters, ascends into the air, is obeyed by the tempests, turns water into wine, blasts the fig-tree, multiplies the loaves and fishes, raises the dead. His birth was heralded by signs and wonders; a star appeared in the East; hosts of angles sang in the heavens; the clouds opened at His baptism, and the voice of God echoed over the world; while at His Crucifixion darkness hid the sun, the earth quaked, and the dead came forth from their graves. All these marvels made Him God incarnate to the thinkers of the First Century; all these marvels make Him a conventional myth to those of the Twentieth.

Many of the most erudite critics are convinced that no such person ever lived. Their argument is based primarily upon the fact that ancient mythology is full of stories of incarnate gods who suffered on behalf of mankind, who died, were buried, descended into hell, and rose again from the dead, and by whose redeeming blood the faithful were saved. Many of the recorded incidents of the life of Jesus, they point out, have their parallels in pagan mythology or in  early Judaism; and the very short of the Crucifixion seems to be derived (3) from the earlier account of the death of a certain Jesus ben Pandira who was slain and hanged on a tree on the eve of the Passover in the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, who lived a hundred years B.C. (4)

There is evidence it is suggested, of the cult of a sun-god called Joshua or Jesus in primitive times, whose twelve disciples were the twelve signs of the zodiac; and just as Jesus Christ with His twelve apostles came to Jerusalem to eat the Paschal lamb, so Joshua crossed the Jordan with his twelve helpers and offered that lamb on the other side, and so the Greek Jason – an identical name (5) – with his twelve retainers went in search of the golden fleece of the lamb.

It is pointed out that there are no contemporary or nearly contemporary references to Jesus in history, with the exception of those in the genuine Epistles of Paul and Peter, where, however, His life on earth is hardly mentioned at all, nor anything which really mentioned at all, nor anything which really establishes Him as a historic personage. Even Justus of Tiberias, a historian who was born in Galilee itself, only a few years after the death of Jesus, and who wrote the Chronicle of the Jewish kings and other book, makes no reference to our Lord. The works of Justus are lost, but they were read by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, in the Ninth Century, who expresses (6) his surprise at finding no mention of Jesus therein. Pliny the Elder, in his great Historia Naturalis, compiled thirty or forty years after the supposed death of Jesus, makes no reference to any of the wonders described in the Gospels; yet he loved the marvellous, and recorded every occurrence of the kind which came under his notice or of which he had read in the two thousand volumes declared to have been consulted by him.

Tacitus, who wrote before 115 A. D., refers (7) to our Lord, and says that He was put to death by Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; but the genuineness of the passage has been questioned. (8) Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews, (9) finished in 93 A. D., twice refers to Jesus; but the paragraphs have undoubtedly been tampered with, and many critics think that they were entire forgeries. Pliny the Younger, in his famous letter to Trajan written about 112 A. D., refers to the early Christians; but the genuineness of this document is, again, sometimes doubted. (10) And, finally, Suetonius, writing about 120 A. D., twice mentions the sect, (11) and says that they were instigated by a certain Chrestus; but this is ambiguous.

The Gospels, as I shall explain in the next chapter, were not written until the last quarter of the First Century and first quarter of the Second Century, and therefore are open to the charge of being fiction. Personally, however, I am quite certain that, when stripped of their super-natural trappings, and when critically edited, they place before us with absolutely unmistakable authenticity the historic figure of a young man, the son of a carpenter, who went about the country preaching and healing the sick, who was ultimately regarded by a small group of disciples as the Messiah or Christ, who was crucified as an impostor, and, after being taken down from the cross as dead, was seen alive by many persons. Brief as was the time of His ministry, and meagre and garbled as are the accounts of it which have come down to us, the character of Jesus stands out as the most godlike in history, while His teaching, delivered in the First Century A. D., is such as to satisfy both the demands of the highest intellects, and the aspirations of the most cultured minds, of the Twentieth Century.

But around this historic figure a mass of pagan legends collected, and a great theological structure grew up; and today these have to be removed, so that we may get back to the real and credible Jesus. We have to face the fact that the church congregations are dwindling because people are saying – and quite rightly – that many of the dogmas of the Faith re borrowed from paganism, and many of the details of the life of our Lord are too wildly improbable to be accepted in these sober days. But Christianity need not be dismayed, for behind the tottering structure of its theology stands the unassailable figure of the real Jesus; and He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, – if only we can break through to Him past the gold ring of old gods who have surrounded Him.

References-

  • Shirley Jackson Case, The Historicity of Jesus.
  • John xvi. 12.
  • B. Smith, Der Vorchrisliche Jesus; Drews, The Christ Myth.
  • This Jesus is mentioned in the Talmud, Sanhedrin, 107 b; Sota, 47a.
  • Josephus, Antiquities, 12, v. 1.
  • , 33 (Migne ed. Ciii, col. 65).
  • Xv. 44.
  • Hochart, De l’authenticite’ des Annales de Tacite.
  • Iii. 3. xx. I.
  • Brandes, Jesus, a Myth, p. 48.
  • Claudius, xxv.; Nero, xvi.