2011-05-28

“Jesus Not A Myth”: A. D. Howell Smith’s Prefatory Note

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by Neil Godfrey

Some who have been following the recent posts of selections from Jesus Not A Myth might find the following prefatory note by its author, A. D. Howell Smith, of interest.

Who is this guy and where is he coming from? The preface also offers glimpses of the range of mythicist authors of his day, and the types of refutations that were being published in English then (1899-1942).

Within perhaps the last twenty years the denial that Jesus ever existed has been changed from a paradox to almost a platitude for an increasing number of Rationalists, and occasionally a Christian of strong modernist leanings shows himself more or less sympathetic to it. So far as England is concerned, the redoubtable J. M. Robertsons’ five works on the subject, beginning with Christianity and Mythology (pub. 1899) would seem to have been the principal factor in this transformation. His weight of learning, unhappily not always accurate, stuns the average reader, if he is not biased against the Mythicist thesis, into acquiescence. Of other English Mythicists Thomas Whittaker and L. Gordon Rylands, who have both brought much scholarship and acumen to bear on their task, are chiefly worthy of note. The former’s exposition of Van Manen’s theories on the Pauline Epistles is an admirable piece of work.

Two important foreign works, one German and the other Dutch, were translated into English shortly before the first World War; these are Arthur Drews’s The Christ Myth and Dr. Van Eysinga’s Radical Views about the New Testament. The former shows the least sense of what a critical method is, and in places reads like a parody of the thesis it is concerned to defend; its chief value lies in the mass of interesting data accumulated. Dr. Van Eysinga is a soberer critic, and, being a professional theologian, he avoids the amateurish note this class of literature so often betrays.

In quite a different category is Couchoud’s learned and charming book, The Creation of Christ; this has been excellently translated from the French by Mr. C. B. Bonner and was presented to the English public as recently as 1938. A year earlier appeared Mr. A. Brodie Sanders’s abridgement of Dujardin’s Le Dieu Jésus and La Prèmière Génération Chrétienne under the title of The Ancient History of the God Jesus. Edouard Dujardin is an eminent Biblical critic, whose radicalism on questions of Old Testament origins far outstrips Wellhausen. His views about a prehistoric Palestinian God Jesus, originally a totemistic eel, are very startling, but, in the opinion of the present writer, critically and psychologically unsound.

W. B. Smith’s Ecce Deus, a work of immense erudition, written by a professor of mathematics in the U.S.A., was published not long after Drews’s book on the Christ myth. W. B. Smith could write with equal facility in English and German. His Der Vorchristliche Jesus, published earlier than Ecce Deus, has not so far appeared in an English dress.

Able opponents of the Mythicists have been forthcoming on the Continent. It is sufficient to draw attention to such important names as Maurice Goguel, Alfred Loisy, and Charles Guignebert. One wonders why no one has seen fit to translate Guignebert’s Le Problème de Jésus. His Jésus, now translated, is a monument of painstaking criticism by a professional scholar, who fights shy of all extravagances. 

Few English scholars seem to have troubled to refute the Mythicists. Such refutations as do exist nearly all emanate from the side of orthodoxy or semi-orthodoxy. We may note here three works as worthy or careful study; two of them are by Christians. The Rev. T. J. Thorburn’s Jesus the Christ, Historical or Mythical? deals very fully, and often shrewdly, with the arguments of Robertson and other Mythicists, and undoubtedly scores many points; but its theological conservatism must severely circumscribe the limits of its appeal. Abler and more cautious is Dr. H. G. Woods’s Did Christ Really Live? The shakiness of so many of Robertson’s Pagan parallels to Gospel stories, as well as his frequent self-contradictions, are here exposed with a quiet urbanity by a liberal-minded Christian, who had a very high regard for Robertson’s personal integrity and great intellectual power. F. C. Connybeare’s The Historical Christ is a caustic retort by a stalwart Rationalist, with a rather conservative bias on questions of New Testament criticism; it is lucidly and skilfully reasoned, laying bare many misstatements of fact and logical fallacies, but by its occasional misunderstandings and misrepresentations (of course unintentional) it was bound to cause the irritation it did. 

The present writer feels that the time has arrived when it is desirable to argue out the whole position afresh in the light of the most recent Biblical criticism, taking into account recent palaeographical discoveries which seem to throw back the dates of the Gospels to an earlier time than the Mythicists are willing to admit. The ideological setting of the Gospel legend, the sources and interaction of the two main streams of Christological evolution, and the parallelism between the rise of Christianity and other cults of apotheosized heroes or propagandists are also discussed. Naturally, much of this book has a negative aspect, for its main concern is to expose the weakness of the Mythicist’s case; but it was important at least to suggest a counter-construction. The author is not a professional scholar, but he has had something of a theological training, being the son of a clergyman of the Church of England, whose calling he once hoped to follow.

The argument is conducted by one who does not disclaim the title of “Rationalist,” for he believes that the light of reason should be allowed to play freely on all human problems; but perhaps “Humanistic Mystic” would better describe his cosmic outlook. He has not discussed metaphysical issues here, and though he would heartily subscribe to Matthew Arnold’s “miracles do not happen” as a sound principle for the critical historian, he no less heartily echoes Hamlet’s “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”

A. D. Howell Smith.

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5 Comments

  • Joseph
    2011-05-28 12:02:51 UTC - 12:02 | Permalink

    Thanks for all this, Neil. It’s nice to see a demonstration of how opponents can be treated with courtesy.

    A. D. Howell Smith seems to have been a man of careful distinctions. He could see that bad arguments are not automatically dishonest ones, that being wrong doesn’t indicate a lack of intelligence, and that even people with whom you disagree can teach you much.

  • 2011-05-28 12:20:52 UTC - 12:20 | Permalink

    Reading Howell Smith’s and Schweitzer’s refutations would not lead one to suspect that mythicism is “bunk” on a par with creationism.

    Further, I can actually learn something about what mythicists argue from these authors.

    I have had cordial exchanges with several biblical scholars, too, but unfortunately in one or two cases (by no means all) that only lasted till I questioned their basic methodologies and assumptions.

  • rey
    2011-05-28 13:19:54 UTC - 13:19 | Permalink

    I want to thank you for posting this! The mention there of Thomas Whittaker’s “exposition of Van Manen’s theories on the Pauline Epistles is an admirable piece of work” has led to finding that work, “The origins of Christianity, with an outline of Van Manen’s analysis of the Pauline literature” on google books. I’ve been looking for a good treatment of Van Manen’s theory in English. Now, thanks to you, I have it. I am very eager to read his treatment of Romans, which I have begun, and it is treated as a composite work that puts together snippets from divergent sources, one a Jewish Christian and one a Gnostic. I’ve been looking for just such a book. Its like finding hidden treasure.

  • Pingback: Vridar » “It is absurd to suggest. . . “: The Overlooked Critic of Mythicism (+ A Catalog of Early Mythicists and Their Critics)

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