Pre-Christian Foundations of Christianity (Couchoud)

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by Neil Godfrey

Having traced Couchoud’s argument for the development of the New Testament it’s time I returned to the beginning of his two volume work, The Creation of Christ, and outline his views on the development of Christianity itself. (The entire series is archived here.)

I once posted links to pdf version of Couchoud’s opening chapters:

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]

I will comment on only a few aspects of some of these chapters. Read them — they are not long — to understand Couchoud’s argument for the background to Christianity and the references to much of what is below. I will only address a few points here.

These chapters are an overview of the pre-Christian development of the Jewish concept of the heavenly Son of Man figure. Daniel begins the process with a clearly symbolic figure, but later apocalypses turned that symbol into a more literal Heavenly Man.

Though the prophecies of Daniel failed, apparently, to materialize, Daniel’s work did set the trajectory for future apocalyptic hopes with its symbolic Son of Man figure. But he did not remain a symbol for too long.

What in Daniel is only a dazzling vision told in a few verses becomes in Enoch a detailed picture, a complete drama divided into several acts. This picture has a central figure; this drama boasts a hero. The Son of Man, who in Daniel is mere symbolism, is here a dweller in celestial halls, a heavenly Man who is not kneaded of dust and blood, but is pure like God, eternal like God, just like God, to whom God has allotted the mission of destroying the world and of making it anew. (p. 15)

This figure is the Chosen of God, the Great Judge, the Revealer. He thus takes on a theological significance. And he has a name, but the name is kept secret by Enoch (Enoch 47; 48:2-3). Until the day that God has chosen for him to fulfil his destiny he must remain hidden — even hidden before God (Enoch 47:6). God will reveal him only to the Elect — Enoch 62:7. And the world will learn to their terror that he is their Judge.

Enoch also calls him the Light to the Nations (Enoch 48:4) — a reference to Isaiah’s 49:6. He is also the hope of broken hearts — a reference to Isaiah 61:1. So this figure in Enoch has become a complex synthesis of

  • Daniel’s Son of Man — with heavenly attributes of a throne and stars
  • Isaiah’s Elect or Servant of Yahweh — with human attributes

Thus emerges the a figure with a double nature, god and man.

The contradictory logic of faith unites the two finest mythic creations of Israel. In a unique spiritual being are combined two allegorical persons who, in the Bible, are separate and without interrelation other than personifying Israel — the one gloriously, the other sorrowfully. (p. 18)

This figure takes from Isaiah’s allegorical person the role of the consoler, the sufferer, the elect, the redeemer,  the man of sorrows whose passion is expiatory.

When Daniel’s Son of Man will have assimilated all the Man of Sorrows of Isaiah, Christianity will be in existence. (p. 18)

This is the prototype we see in Enoch. Enoch worships this figure with the twin nature of being the terrible judge and the gentle teacher. But he is not yet a divine martyr.

The first destiny of this Son of Man figure was to wreak God’s vengeance on the earth. After all the bloodletting the righteous will inherit the earth in the company of the Heavenly Man.

It is in this book of Enoch (as Margaret Barker has also stressed in her publications) that we first see the outlines of Christianity. This figure will mature as he moves from Daniel to the Gospel of Luke. Paul, the author of Revelation, Jude, Matthew, Luke all knew this book well. The adherents of this book were in a sense our proto-Christians, keeping apart from the other sects, waiting the coming of the Son of Man, hating the world.

In The Revelations of Moses chapter we read of the meaning of the name Shiloh to pious Jews; the culmination of Daniel’s prophecies in a soon-expected calamitous judgement; and significantly in the Assumption of Moses we find reference to the Heavenly Man. Here he takes a new name, Messenger. This time unbelievers would be left on earth and the Elect, the saved, taken to heaven. Bands of readers sharing the hope wondered when it would all be fulfilled.

This is the background to the advent of John the Baptist. To be continued in next post. . . .

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7 thoughts on “Pre-Christian Foundations of Christianity (Couchoud)”

  1. This could be the right page to post the in-depth analysis of Couchoud presented by the forgotten British writer Archibald Robertson in an old book, JESUS: MYTH or HISTORY? (1946).
    This book was by far the best review of the debate “Myth Theory” versus “Historicity” as it stood then. It was written by a contemporary of Couchoud. Archibald Robertson, now forgotten and neglected, was an insightful and superbly knowledgeable scholar of the Origins of Christianity. He tried to maintain a balanced stance between both opposites.

    This text comes from the CHAPTER V – THE MYTH THEORY II.— THE CREATION OF CHRIST, 8 pages on Couchoud (p. 58-66), the rest of the chapter allocated to Rylands and another French writer, Dujardin.
    I find that this extended explanation of Couchoud’s arguments certainly allows us to better follow all the postings by Neil Godfrey concerning this remarkably clear-thinking Frenchman.

    PAUL LOUIS COUCHOUD. Paul Louis Couchoud, friend and medical attendant of Anatole France (1) and author of The Enigma of Jesus (1924), The Book of Revelation : A Key to Christian Origins (1932), and The Creation of Christ: An Outline of the Beginnings of Christianity (1939), (2) is beyond question the most cogent expounder of the myth theory since the pioneer work of J. M. Robertson, while his easy style and engaging manner render him by far the most readable French critic since Renan.

    1 Couchoud is credibly reported to have been the real inspirer of France’s famous story, The Procurator of Judaea, in which Pilate, asked in old age about the crucifixion of Jesus, answers: ” Jdsus de Nazareth ? Non, je ne me rappelle pas.”
    2 The dates are those of the English editions.

    Couchoud is not an extremist. With most Latin scholars he regards the Annals of Tacitus, including the passage about the crucifixion, as genuine; but that passage merely echoes Christian evidence, probably collected by Tacitus himself when proconsul in Asia in A.D. 114, and is therefore inconclusive on the historicity of Jesus. The evidence of the Talmud is a mere parody of the Gospel story and is equally inconclusive.

    The salient fact about Jesus, for Couchoud, is that he is a God. Paul, the earliest extant Christian author (eight of whose reputed epistles Couchoud regards as basically genuine, though much edited and interpolated), treats Jesus as God.

    “That is the miracle that baffles me. The Gospel miracles would present no difficulty. Were they a hundred times more numerous, I would not for so little doubt the existence of Jesus. The invincible obstacle is the worship of Jesus—the Christian religion. At bottom the existence of Christianity, far from proving the existence of Jesus, renders it impossible.” (1)

    Following other mythicists, Couchoud regards the name ” Joshua,” or ” Jesus,” as primarily a divine name. In the oldest Christian documents—the Pauline Epistles and the Apocalypse—it is nothing else. This name, first applied to the mythical leader of Israel into the promised land, was by a natural transition applied in the first century A.D. to the ” anointed one ” (Messiah or Christos) whom Jewish patriots expected soon to destroy the Roman Empire and inaugurate the golden age. Some looked for an uprising under a human leader, a descendant of David; others, despairing of any human king, looked for a Son of Man from heaven.

    Couchoud accepts the historicity of John the Baptist, who is mentioned in Josephus as well as in the Gospels, and whom he regards as an agitator who proclaimed the imminent advent of the Messiah and was put to death in consequence by Herod Antipas. The Gospels, however, have ** played hanky-panky ” with the story and given us an apocryphal account of his death instead of the simple truth stated by Josephus:—

    “Herod feared that the powerful influence which he exercised over men’s minds might lead to some act of revolt; for they seemed ready to do anything upon his advice. Herod therefore considered it far better to forestall him by putting him to death, before any revolution arose through him, than to rue his delay when plunged in the turmoil of an insurrection.” (2)

    1 Couchoud, The Enigma of Jesus, p. 86.
    2 Josephus, Antiquities, xviii, 5, 2.

    The followers of John the Baptist were known as Nazoraeans—” those who observe.” They lived together in ascetic communities, fasted and prayed, initiated new members by baptism, and awaited the advent of the Son of Man. In a few years a split occurred among them. A study of the prophetic writings, notably of Isaiah liii, convinced some of them that the Messiah must have earned his office by suffering and death. Ecstasies induced by fasting and prayer led to actual visions of the slain and glorified Messiah. This section of Nazoraeans, whose leaders were Peter, James, and John, became the first Christian Church. For reasons that admit only of conjecture (perhaps due to the nature of their visions) James and certain others enjoyed the title of ” brethren of the Lord.” Couchoud dates the existence of this sect from about A.D. 37-38.

    To the first Christians the death of the Messiah or Christ was not an earthly event at all. He was the ” Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (1) The mode of his death was at first unspecified. Paul, a rival visionary to Peter, James, and John, introduced from Psalm xxii the idea of his death by crucifixion. To Paul, however, the murderers of the Christ are not Jewish priests or Roman procurators, but Satan and his demons, the ” rulers of this world, which are coming to nought.” (2) The earliest Christian writings —the genuine Epistles of Paul and the Apocalypse (dated by Couchoud as early as A.D. 65)—reveal a mortal contest between the apostles of Jerusalem and the party associated with Paul as to the necessity of observing the Jewish law; but neither party writes of Jesus as of a human contemporary. ” For John and for Paul God and Jesus are one.” (3)

    According to Couchoud no idea of giving Jesus an historical setting entered anyone’s head until the second century. (4) By that time Jerusalem and its temple had been destroyed and Jewish nationalism defeated and discredited. But, as we know from Pliny, the worship of the Christ as God was widespread in Asia Minor and was giving the imperial authorities some trouble. To converts from paganism it was evident that the new god, like the old gods, must have had an earthly history. And because he was a new god, come to put an end to the reigning world-order, his earthly history had to be fairly recent. So by 114, when Tacitus was proconsul in Asia, the story was current that the Christ had suffered less than a century before under Pontius Pilate, whose cruelties were well known to readers of Josephus. Tacitus accordingly noted in his Annals that the mischievous Christian superstition owed its origin to one Christus, executed as a criminal by a Roman procurator.

    1 Rev. xiii, 8.
    2 1 Cor. ii, 6, 8.
    3 Couchoud, The Creation of Christ, p. 105.
    4 This is Couchoud’s latest theory as expounded in The Creation of Christ. In his earlier work, The Enigma of Jesus, the Gospels are dated ” about 80 to 110 or 120.”

    The first written Gospel, according to Couchoud, was the work of Marcion. Marcion, on any showing, is a very remarkable figure in the history of early Christianity. A native of Sinope, in Pontus, a Christian by birth or by early conversion, and by profession a sea captain, his calling took him to different Mediterranean ports and enabled him to compare the different versions of Christianity preached in various cities. He came to the conclusion that the true doctrine had been corrupted from the very first by Jewish errors, and that it was necessary to restore it by ridding Christianity of every trace of Judaism. The Jewish God, the preator of the world, is a jealous and vindictive being; and the world is the sort of place we might expect such a being to create. Fortunately for us, according to Marcion, there is another God, a God of goodness, who sent his Son Jesus to redeem us from the clutches of this fiend. That can be done only by renunciation of the world and by practising poverty, celibacy, and non-resistance. Such, says Marcion, was the teaching of Jesus; but the apostles whom he chose did not understand him. They thought he was the Christos, the anointed king who should deliver Israel from its enemies, whereas he is the Chrestos, the good God who will deliver mankind from the evil world. Paul alone, of the early apostles, understood this. In order, therefore, to restore true Christianity Marcion published a corrected edition of the Pauline Epistles, and an anonymous Gospel in which the opposition of Jesus to Judaism was stressed and any connection between them systematically eliminated.

    This Gospel is not extant; but from the polemics written against Marcion by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and later Fathers its text has been reconstructed by modern critics with surprising accuracy. In general outline it resembles Luke, but differs in important respects.

    The Jesus of Marcion is not born of a woman, but descends from heaven to Galilee in the likeness of a man and at once begins teaching. There is no baptism and no temptation story.

    Jesus announces that he has come to do away with the law and the prophets. He delivers a discourse embodying certain features of the Sermon on the Mount, but to Gentiles, not Jews. Throughout the Gospel, references to the Old Testament are reduced to a minimum. Thus the saying, ” Many prophets and kings desired to see the things which ye see, and saw them not,” is given in the curt form: ” Prophets did not see what ye see.” Jesus does not, as in our Gospels, compare himself to Jonah or to Solomon; he does not say that the blood of the prophets will be required of this generation; and he does not say that the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets will be admitted to the kingdom of God. Instead of saying that not a tittle of the law will fail, he says that not a syllable of his own words will fail. In replying to the Sadducees about the resurrection he makes no appeal to the Pentateuch. After his own resurrection he reproves the two disciples at Emmaus as slow of heart to believe, not, as in Luke, ” all that the prophets have spoken,” but ” all that / have spoken.”

    Jewish Messianic expectations are repudiated. Thus, when Peter hails Jesus as the Christ, Jesus ” reprimands” him. The prophecy that personal disciples of Jesus will live to see the kingdom of God, the promise of rewards ” now in this time ” to those who have left all and followed him, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the expulsion of the traders from the temple, and the inscription on the cross, ” This is the king of the Jews,” are all omitted.

    The twelve apostles are systematically belittled. The apostle Philip is identified with the man who, bidden to follow Jesus, asks first to go and bury his father and is rebuked for the wish. The seventy are given the title of ” apostle ” equally with the twelve. The request of James and John to sit by Jesus in his kingdom is given as in Mark; but the answer is curter: Jesus simply tells them that the place is reserved for others. Peter is not promised that his faith shall not fail; he makes no attempt to defend Jesus from arrest; after his denial he does not go out and weep bitterly; he does not visit the tomb after the resurrection; and he does not see the risen Lord before the rest do. The parting promise of Jesus that they shall be ” clothed with power from on high ” is omitted. The Gospel ends with the declaration that repentance and remission of sins shall be preached to all the nations: we are not told by whom, but it is evidently not to be by the twelve.

    The usual view is that Marcion’s Gospel is a variant of Luke edited by Marcion for his own purposes. According to Couchoud, so far is this from being the case that Marcion’s is the original Gospel of which all the others are mutilated and interpolated versions. Couchoud dates Marcion’s work in 133-134, during the last Jewish revolt against Rome under Barcocheba, and holds that the eschatological prophecies in the Gospels refer to this revolt and not to the war of 66-70. In the name ” Barabbas ” Couchoud sees a veiled allusion to Barcocheba, the false Messiah whom the Jews preferred to Jesus.

    Marcion’s Gospel, according to Couchoud, was written and meant to be read as an allegory. ” The true subject of the Gospel is not Jesus, but the Christian cult.” (1) For that very reason it did not go down with the mass of Christians, who by now were firmly convinced of the historicity of Jesus and wanted a straightforward story of his life and death. Another reason for the failure of Marcion’s Gospel was its extreme anti-Judaism. Most Christians, though they had quarrelled with the Jews, set great store by the Old Testament and its real and alleged Messianic prophecies. The Gospel of Mark, therefore—written, according to Couchoud, about 135 at Rome and possibly in Latin (2) —while based on that of Marcion, restores the link with Judaism which Marcion severed and tries to give the story an air of reality. Jesus no longer descends direct from heaven. Though Mark gives no account of his birth, we are given to understand that he had a mother and brothers and a trade. He is tempted as men are tempted. He comes to fulfil Jewish prophecy, seeks baptism by the Messianist John, and confutes his enemies out of the Old Testament. To show that Jesus accepted the title of Messiah, Mark invents the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple. The twelve apostles are treated little better by Mark than by Marcion; but Peter is allowed to weep away his denial.

    The Gospel of Matthew, according to Couchoud, was written in Syria and in the Aramaic language soon after Mark, and is based on both Mark and Marcion. It is an attempt to prove, in opposition to Marcion, that Jesus was the Messiah by making him fulfil in detail, from his birth onwards, the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. Matthew corrects Marcion’s and Mark’s cavalier treatment of the twelve apostles, and causes Jesus to reward Peter’s confession of his Christhood by making him the rock on which the Church is built and giving him the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

    1 The Creation of Christ, p. 167
    2 The oldest Latin text, which Couchoud holds to be ” better in many points ” than the Greek, incidentally varies the order of Mark xiv, 41-42, so destroying J. M. Robertson’s strongest argument for a dramatic original.

    The Fourth Gospel is considered by Couchoud to be in all probability the work of John the Elder, the authority cited by Papias, and to have been written at Ephesus not long after 135. In its hatred of Judaism and in its almost openly allegorical treatment of the story of Jesus it approaches nearer to Marcion-ism than any of the Synoptic Gospels, though stopping short of Marcion’s utter rejection of the Old Testament. Hence the slow acceptance of this Gospel by the Church.

    Marcion, after finally breaking with the Church, died in 144. After the breach the Church, according to Couchoud, took over his Gospel and by ” well-chosen additions ” transformed it into our Gospel according to Luke. This was the work of Clement of Rome, whom Couchoud places half a century after his traditional date and regards as the ” Admirable Crichton ” of early Christianity. Not only was he the real author of the Third Gospel and the Acts, but he was the final editor of the Pauline Epistles, the fabricator of the two Petrine Epistles and that of Jude, and the compiler and publisher of the New Testament as we have it!

    Luke, or rather Clement, borrows from all the preceding evangelists, but writes with far greater artistry than they (witness the infancy narrative and such parables as those of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son) and by his corroborative details puts the final touches to the portrait of the historical Jesus. At the same time allusions to the human birth of Jesus were interpolated in the Pauline Epistles. The transformation of the God Jesus into the God-man was complete.

    Thus, according to Couchoud, the Gospels are the product, not of a slow literary evolution, but of the intense activity of a few years in the second century. Hypotheses of primitive sources, documents behind documents, Q, proto-Mark, and the like, are flung to the winds. The Gospels are the Christian reaction to Barcocheba’s revolt. To counter the revolutionary Messianism of the Jews the evangelists portray a Christ whose kingdom is not of this world, hold him up as an example to the suffering masses of the Roman Empire, and say to them: ” Not Barabbas, but this man!”

    1. “Marcion’s Gospel, according to Couchoud, was written and meant to be read as an allegory.” – Robertson’s summary of Couchoud’s theory

      This is another weakness of Couchoud’s theory. All other early accounts of Marcion say he rejected allegorical interpretation. Yet Couchoud would have us believe that Marcion wrote the first written Gospel and intended it to be understood entirely as allegory.

      Though I do agree that the first written Gospel was an allegory, I do not think Marcion wrote it or that he understood it as allegory. It’s actual author, I submit, was a second-century adherent of a sect started by a notorious allegorizer: Simon of Samaria. Marcion was one of the many who mistook the allegorical Simonian Gospel for history.

  2. One needs to start with Sant Mat, and the living Master tradition, to understand anything from this early period.


    …..ssl.perfora.net/s112005287.oneandoneshop.com/sess/utn;jsessionid=154ee675a6f0e80/shopdata/0110_RSSB+Books/product_overview.shopscript [Link no longer active, 16th August 2015 — Neil]

    Matthew is provably earlier than commonly believed. Earlier than all except Thomas. See https://sites.google.com/site/gospelofmatthewinhebrew/ogm

    Most, if not all, of the disciples were marginalized, because they became successor Masters to Jesus, and the church could not tolerate living Masters (that’s why the C. Sinaiticus “sent US” is changed to “sent me” in John 9:4 in all received translations, for example). Jesus clearly states in John 6:40, and less clearly, perhaps, in John 14:6-7 and 12:35-36 that one must be alive to SEE the Master. Also, John 17 is unmistakeably clear in stating (echoed in 13:1) that all the “given” disciples of Master Jesus were ‘IN THE WORLD’ (John 17:11). Others would come to “me” (the Holy Spirit) through his disciples (“THEIR Word”) in John 17:20.

    The Gospel of Judas shows the “man” JUDAS as the sacrifice, not Jesus (36:1, 56:20), and this as the origin of the betrayal mythology, so essential to the fictional Passion story.

    1. Neil,

      I don’t know. Maybe you could summarize the argument briefly.

      I’m admittedly no expert on Thomas (except mystic interpretation). I only know I was impressed with the Original Gospel of Matthew work-in-progress of Stanford Rives:


      and how it harmonized with Thomas against the canon. On page 20, Rives says Oxyrhynchus 655, which is a find of GATHM in Egypt from the 19th Century, the text overlaps with logions 36-40 of the Gospel of Thomas. We know GATHM is early for lots of reasons he goes into, not least of which is its use by early church fathers like Jerome and Origen. The sign on the cross, for example has “King of ISRAEL”, not of the “Jews”. Several lines later both OGM and the Greek have “Israel”.

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