Earl Doherty’s forerunner? Paul-Louis Couchoud and the birth of Christ

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by Neil Godfrey

In his review of Maurice Goguel‘s attack on Jesus mythicism Earl Doherty writes (with my emphasis):

It was at the opening of the 20th century that the first serious presentations of the Jesus Myth theory appeared. The earliest efforts by such as Robertson, Drews, Jensen and Smith were, from a modern point of view, less than perfect, lacking a comprehensive explanation for all aspects of the issue. Pre-Christian cults, astral religions, obscure parallels with foreign cultures, even the epic of Gilgamesh, went into a somewhat hodge-podge mix; many of them didn’t seem to know quite what to do with Paul. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Paul-Louis Couchoud in France offered a more coherent scenario, identifying Christ in the eyes of Paul as a spiritual being. (While not relying upon him, I would trace my type of thinking back to Couchoud, rather than the more recent G. A. Wells who, in my opinion, misread Paul’s understanding of Christ.)

More recently on this blog Earl Doherty stated in relation to this 1920’s French mythicist (again my emphasis):

Prior to Wells, the mythicist whose views were closest to my own was Paul-Louis Couchoud who wrote in the 1920s, though I took my own fresh run at the question and drew very little from Couchoud himself.

I have recently acquired a two volume English translation of Couchoud’s work titled The Creation of Christ: An Outline of the Beginnings of Christianity, translated by C. Bradlaugh Bonner and published 1939.

Today I did a very rough and dirty bodgie job of scanning the introductory chapters of this book and making them word-searchable. But if you are not a fuss-pot for perfection and are curious about how Couchoud opens his argument I share here the opening pages of this two volume work. 

I question Couchoud’s insistence that the Jews for many generations were obsessed with a hope for deliverance by means of a messiah or divinity. Such fervour, if it existed at all, I believe, never outlasts in tact the generation it possesses, with each subsequent generation dwindling exponentially. What is critical, in my view, is the shock of the events of the Jewish war that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and Mosaic cult which brought with it the desperate need for a replacement identity.

What I find of special interest in these opening pages of Couchoud is

  • (i) the personality that shines through;
  • (ii) the delineation of the literary-theological record leading to the birth of the Son of Man and Saviour, Jesus Christ and the Christian religion itself.

These pages are not Couchoud’s argument but introductory to it. But they are worth consideration:

  1. Consider the events that led to the composition of the Book of Daniel; then consider in this book the very first imagery of “one like the Son of Man” and its surely metaphorical character;
  2. Consider then how the author of the Book of Enoch took this symbolic figure of Daniel and another metaphorical figure found in Isaiah that represented the people of Israel who suffered so cruelly before being delivered to offer salvation to the world and combined these two to create the image of a literal Son of Man figure sitting beside God and preparing to judge and save the world. — The Book of Enoch deserves close study by Christians, says Couchoud, because he believes it is the beginnings of what became Christianity. To this end one might also consider the works of Margaret Barker on the same book.
  3. Finally the Assumption of Moses with its introduction of the concept of the Heavenly Man is discussed.

I would love to discuss some of this book, including these chapters, in some detail in future posts. But till I get that opportunity I offer here the opening pages of Couchoud’s two volume work for anyone interested to read for themselves.

Foreword (approx 2.2 MB pdf)

Apocalypses (168 b.c. – a.d. 40)

I. Preliminary (approx 1.8 MB pdf)

II. Profaned Temple (approx 2.2 MB pdf)

III. The Dream of Daniel (approx 3.3 MB pdf)

IV. Revelations of Enoch (approx 6.7 MB pdf)

V. Revelations of Moses (approx 2.8 MB pdf)

[Since posting the above I have removed each of the above links. Thanks to Frank Zindler the full first volume of Couchoud’s Creation of Christ is now accessible on my Vridar.info site. The second volume is also available. Both links are direct to downloading PDF files. — Neil Godfrey, 22nd July, 2019]

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6 thoughts on “Earl Doherty’s forerunner? Paul-Louis Couchoud and the birth of Christ”

  1. Neil,

    I find myself agreeing with P.L. Couchoud with regard to the multi-generational longing for a savior. Maybe not the same savior between consecutive generations, but a savior none the less.

    In my view, the concept of “within this generation” is big in the Hebrew savior motif (Mk 13). The continuum comes with the sobering understanding that the Hebrews, by virtue of geography, are at the heart of Europe’s economic power struggle and a cultural crossroads, so to speak. I mean, you would be right Neil, except for the Hebrews continuously get hammered by the next tyrant around the pond every generation. Motivating each consecutive generation to dream up a more powerful savior, or mediator, or new covenant with its rejection of the Law of the Fathers, etc.

    So, the savior changes, but a savior is still longed for. I give you: Abraham, Moses, Melchizedek, Enoch, Isaac, Isaiah, Son of Man, Son of God, the Anointed Son Savior of heaven—Christ Yeshua, the Christ within—Spirit, the Christ without — Joshua Messiah, the moral teacher, the immoral warrior—conqueror, and finally the Earthly son of Mary contrived for political power and spiritual manipulation of man, not by the Hebrews, but by the powers that be, notably the Latins.

    Also, I agree with you about Margaret Barker’s work elucidating this issue.

    Thank you for scanning the introductory chapters.

    1. Thomas L. Thompson argues that the mythical Christ of whom we read in the Gospels (as opposed to that historical figure presumed to lie hidden beneath this theological construct) is modeled on the Good Shepherd and Saviour mythology that surrounded potentates of the Middle East and Egypt: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/05/22/jesus-a-saviour-just-like-the-kings-and-gods-of-egypt-and-babylon/

      I think that for a people to sustain a hope in a national deliverance that they need first to sustain a very strong sense of a distinctive group identity that is strongly wounded by occupation. What are the conditions that are necessary for this and what evidence do we have for it in this instance? Most people just want to get on with their lives and avoid trouble even if it means allowing their rulers to take an uncomfortable portion of their possessions.

      Note with the Greek rulers we see many Jews loving and adopting Greek ways; many Jews made their living and sustained their power-positions through the Roman presence; the Bible speaks of the Jews loving the ways of Egypt, marrying Egyptians and finding refuge with that kingdom, and especially marrying into and adopting the customs of the local Canaanites, and honouring the Persian empire as their benefactor.

      Horsley shows that for much of the time violent opposition was in the form of banditry on the part of dispossessed. I am doubtful that bandit gangs ever felt emoldened by hopes of a heavenly savior.

      1. Growing up the eldest of seven sons, I had to grapple with the concept of the squeaky wheel getting the grease, a talent that has come in very handy in analyzing ancient culture anthropologically. Because, from this point in time we rarely get to hear the voice of any but the loudest, the most distraught, the ousted, overturned, or from some renegade faction from the turn of the era Levant.

        When the Poppops of old (what my green-eyed blonde Prussian, Italian, Catholic-ish Jewish sabra, fiancée calls her grandfather as is typical of her Mother’s culture, Oye!) got out of bed early every morning to work their fields, they gave little thought to the gods, except in the pejorative. So, yes I agree with you, Horsley, and, by extension, Josephus—who, as you know, reviled the rebel messiah types in his works. Maybe I should change the word “continuum” to “punctuated equilibrium” for periods of fractious disdain for their current religio-political zeitgeist, but you are right that the destruction of the Temple and the Temple city definitely sent Hebrews groping for a mediator, a savior, like only King Josiah or the Babylonian Exile had before. The idea that there was no longer a way to reconcile their sins through sacrifices in the Deuteronomically sanctioned Temple definitely bothered the entirety of Hebrews ethnically—some sects more than others.

        So, just to be clear, I concur that the Hebrews, for the most part, prospered during the Greco-Roman era, but what we get to read about in the Old Testament, and elsewhere, isn’t those who liked their state of affairs, but those purists, or idealists, maybe even some bandit dead-enders who did not. It is their flavor of savior we get to study, and why the books of the Bible describe a savior of multifarious identities.

        Case on point: this year, as has been the tradition for years now, for Christmas, my atheist mythicist fiancée and myself take my specialty ham to my soon-to-be Jewish mother-in-law’s home, as it’s her favorite request for Christmas dinner when in Hawaii.

        1. “what we get to read about in the Old Testament, and elsewhere, isn’t those who liked their state of affairs, but those purists, or idealists, maybe even some bandit dead-enders who did not. ”

          This is an important point. The Hebrew prophets were then the malcontents. They spent their time criticizing “the Jews”, blaming them all the time of all kinds of misbehavior (usually forgetting the worship of Yahweh and the obedience to the Law).
          So it is worth remembering that “blaming the Jews” is an old game, created by the prophets of the Old Testament who spent all their time doing just that, threatening the Jews of the worst disasters. Nobody could beat old Isaiah at this game.
          [One reasonable assumption is that the prophets were the mouthpieces, real or invented, of the priests of Jahweh, who were competing against the other gods that the Jews liked to worship as well.]
          In the same vein, scapegoating as well was developed in the Hebrew Bible.

          The New Testament picked up on the established tradition. Jesus thought of himself as a prophet, or was made to think so by his followers, and the whole gang was a group of Jews supporting a new prophet and attacking the other Jews. So Jesus too was another malcontent. And Paul was a constantly angry malcontent too, with good reasons to blame the Jews of Jerusalem.
          If the New testament keeps denouncing and blaming “the Jews”, still it does it less ferociously than the Old Testament prophets.
          So far, at the time of Jesus, all this was fair game. In the Gospels, the Romans sided with the old established Jews against the new Jewish sect of Christians.

          Things took a turn for the worse only when the new sect of Jewish Christians spread among the Gentiles, who inherited this distrust of “the Jews” from their Jewish founders Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc…
          And the real drama happened only when the Roman Emperors endorsed and annexed Christianity, 350 years later, especially Theodosius as recounted in “A.D. 381”, the famous book by Charles Freeman.

          Then, gradually, but very slowly, the Bible became book #1 all over Europe, at least first for the priests and the bishops, fuelling the denunciations and blaming of the Jews, which became institutionalized among all the new Gentile converts. Chrysostom produced the epitome of the art in eight magnificent homilies, “Adversus Judaeos”, that became the models for all the Sunday sermons to come.
          Even if most Christians were still illiterate, they were subjected from infancy to the repeated denunciations of the Jews by the priests in their sermons and, once they could read and books were available after the 16th century, they could read all the virulent prose of the Hebrew prophets in the text itself.
          It was all a bizarre and accidental development of history. Blaming the Jews became a universal sport in Europe.

          But it is worth remembering that the game itself, blaming the Jews and scapegoating, were invented and perfected at the origin by the Jews themselves, the great prophets of the Old Testament.
          And the game still goes on, even among Jews! Modern Israel supporters harbor a deep hatred of the so-called “Self-hating and Israel-threatening” Jews — Chomsky, Soros, etc..and other famous Jews or assumed Jews. So the tradition of Jews hating, denouncing, and blaming other Jews for fanatical reasons, is very much alive, and can be traced back to the vociferous malcontents who became the prophets in Hebrew times.

  2. I’m inclined to agree with Couchoud’s analysis of the creative climate that might have been etched into the mind Josephus’s fourth sect, The Zealots. I’m inclined to move towards a gospel narrative that counters the widespread rebellion and replaces it with a much more pacifistic ideal in the Hellenistic model. Not Roman in nature, i.e. Atwill’s Ceasar’s Messiah, but conflict resolution between the Jews and Greeks post 70 C.E.

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