by Neil Godfrey
American novelist Vardis Fisher (it’s not coincidental that the name of this blog is a partial acronym of this name, and an “autobiographical” character in one of his novels) included at the back of his novel Jesus Came Again: A Parable, a discussion of the scholarly views of his day on the historicity of Jesus.
He writes, in 1956 (with my formatting):
Was Jesus of Nazareth a historic person? We do not know, and unless documents turn up of which we have no knowledge we cannot hope ever to know.
Montefoire . . . says petulantly: “If eccentric scholars like to argue that Jesus never existed, let them do so.”
And Klausner, another Jew, says it is “unreasonable to question” it.
But says Schmiedel: “the view that Jesus never really lived has gained in ever-growing number of supporters. It is no use to ignore it, or to frame resolutions against it.”
Weigell: “Many of the most erudite critics are convinced that no such person ever lived.”
Among those so convinced [that no such person ever lived], some of them internationally known scholars, are
- E. Carpenter,
- G. Smith,
- W. B. Smith,
- Van Eysinga,
- and Whittacker.
For such as Volney he was an astral myth
and for Dupuis, the sun;
for Kulischer, a vegetation god.
Bauer was perhaps the first great scholar to deny the historicity’ for him Jesus was a personification of certain ideas and ideals then current.
Kalthoff‘s argument is similar: every movement of the folk-soul demands an ideal person and creates an illusion of reality more compelling than fact itself.
Jensen tried to find parallels in the Gilgamesh legend.
Drews, W. B. Smith, Dujardin and others argue that there was a pre-Jesus Jesus-god-cult and point out that Paul knew nothing of an historical Jesus but only the Christ — that is, the god.
Robertson argues this thesis as plausibly as any: see Christianity and Mythology.
G. Smith: “I believe the legend of Jesus was made by many minds working under a great religious impulse” — which is essentially the position of many scholars who accept this historicity.
Couchoud and others argue that Jesus was the name of the god in a mystery drama . . . ; Jehua-Joshua-Jesus (all the same name) mean, they say, Jahweh the savior.
Dujardin reminds us that Frazer said the rite creates the god: “‘Passion’ is the technical term that one finds in all the religions of mystery.”
Hannay: “a great deal of useless discussion has taken place as to the historicity . . . of Jesus, but we know that ninteen-twentieths of his supposed acts and teaching were attributed to various gods all over Asia.”
Those on this side have some strong arguments which their opponents have not yet demolished.
Of the abler scholars who accept the figure as historic nearly all follow Renan Arnold and others in rejecting the supernatural elements. These elements, they say, all came from pagan cults.
Schmiedel ahs a famous thesis, that there are nine unflattering statements in the gospel stories which prove the historicity of Jesus — for unflattering things would not have been invented. But we need to know if these meant to people then what they mean to us.
Loisy speaks of a great number when he says: “Jesus the Nazorean is at once an historical person and a mythical being who, supporting the myth and supported by it, was finally made by it into the Christ.” Like many others he rejects everything in the gospel story but the historicity of the central figure.
For readers unfamiliar with the field possibly it ought to be said that the only evidence supporting the historicity is the Gospels, for what they are worth. The passages in Josephus are now admitted even by Catholics to have been forgeries. There is no allusion to Jesus in any work contemporary with him known to us, Jewish or gentile, and the Gospels were not written down until long after his death, and contradict one another on a great many details.
One group of scholars accepts the eschatological view, popularized by Schweitzer: that he preached repentance believing that the end of the world was near.
C. F. Moore: “The core of the preaching and teaching of Jesus is the ‘kingdom of God,’ the coming time in which He shall be owned and observe by all men as king.”
Keim argued that Jesus expected the end to come any day.
The eschatological view was first advanced by Reimarus at the end of the 18th century, his essay being, says Schweitzer, one of the greatest events in the history of criticism. Jesus, said Reimarus, “had not the slightest intention of doing away with the Jewish religion and putting another in its place.” His whole teaching was summed up in, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
- the first alternative laid down by Strauss (1835) was “either purely historical or purely supernatural.”
- The second had been worked out by the Tubingen school and Holtzmann: either Synoptic or Johannine.
- Now came the third: either eschatological or non-eschatalogical.”
Those rejecting the eschatological view have included Bousset, E. Haupi, Schürer, Wende, Brandt, Wellhausen, Hilgenfled, Jülicher.
Popular in recent years has been form-criticism, defined by Prof. S. E. Johnson as the doctrine “that community interests controlled the formulation of the Gospel material,” and championed by such as Bultmann and Dibelius. They point out that traditions about Jesus are not Jesus. Form-criticism explains the many contradictions and differences in the Gospels: the stories developed in different cities widely separated, under different conditions and needs: this explains the enormous difference in spirit between, say, Mark and John.
As for Jewish scholars
Graetz thought Christianity arose out of Essenism.
Salvador (a Jew on his father’s Catholic on his mother’s, side) pointed out, as Jews have since, that ethical precepts ascribed to Jesus were commonplaces of his time. He finds the Sermon on the Mount in Sirach, as Kalthoff did later.
Montefiore thinks most of the ethics in the Gospels can be found in other Jewish writings but thought the form in the Gospels superior (he gave no credit to the King James translators), an opinion some Jews have hotly disputed.
Answering him Friedlander set out to prove that the whole Gospel system of ethics stemmed from earlier Jewish writings.
If any reader is curious to know which among so many books he might read, I find Guignebert’s Life best on the whole; McCown, Search for the Real Jesus, has excellent summaries; phoney doctrines are set forth in Goodspeed, Strange New Gospels; on Christian roigins few are more brilliant than Loisy; on form-criticism, Dibelius or Bultmann; on the eschatological view, Schweitzer.
If the reader is curious to know what my opinion may be after more than thirty years of reading in this field the answer , in regard to the historicity, is simple: I have none. Either side can make out a plausible case — and I would say almost equally plausible. (pp. 258-261)
Vardis Fisher’s novel, Jesus Came Again, A Parable, is reviewed by Earl Doherty on the Age of Reason website.