WHEN Tacitus, in his account of the burning of Rome in the year 64, comes to the point where mention has to be made of the Christians, he writes of them as follows: —
"The founder of this sect, Christ, was condemned to death in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate, but the disastrous superstition, repressed for a time, spread not only throughout Judea, where the evil was born, but also through the City, the place of confluence from everywhere of all sorts of abominable and shameful things, and the scene where they are practised." 
Tacitus has no more information to give about the career of Jesus. He conceives it as an outbreak of propaganda arrested by the death of its author, but afterwards renewed and with such vigour that, passing the frontiers of Judea, it reached Rome almost immediately. In the same way Tacitus is repeating a current opinion when he writes of Judaism, Histories, v, 3:
"Moses, quo sibi in posterum gentem formaret, novos ritus contrariosque ceteris mortalibus indidit."
At the time when Tacitus thus evaluated the Christian religion and its founder, Pliny the Younger wrote on similar lines to Trajan that the Christians "in their meetings sing praises to Christ as to a god." 
From these statements we may gather the official opinion of high functionaries and educated persons, at the beginning of the second century, in regard to the Christian religion. It was to the effect that this new religion, sprung from Judaism in the time of Tiberius, had been founded by an agitator to whom Pilate had put an end and whom his followers had quickly turned into an object of worship. Neither Tacitus nor Pliny had read the Gospels. Their opinion is that which was formed by the administrative personnel of the Roman Empire after the judicial interrogation of the Christians. To be more exact, since Tacitus reflects the opinion of the time of Nero, it must be conceded that this opinion was formed as much on the basis of
official information received from Judea as from the statements of Christians themselves when on trial before the Roman tribunals, beginning with the trial of Paul and the martyrs of the year 64. The Christians, then, make their entry on historical ground as claiming to be under the leadership of Jesus called Christ, who had been condemned to crucifixion by Pontius Pilate, while those who were first opposed to their propaganda admitted his historical reality, just as the Christians did.
After all, then, the difficulty encountered by the historian who has no axe to grind is not that of ascertaining whether Jesus ever existed, but of discerning what his action and teaching really were, and how this action and teaching led on to the movement which began with him. Viewed in the light of the cult devoted to him, and in Christian tradition, the Christ would be incommensurable by any standard of human greatness. But, as facts of history, the appearance of Jesus as a figure on earth and the birth of the Christian religion are neither more nor less explicable than the appearance of Mahomet and the birth of Islam. Our task is to study the conditions of that appearance and of that birth, as they are furnished by the environment and by the times which produced them. In regard to Jesus the only environment with which we are concerned is that of Palestinian Judaism; and the time is the period, probably very short, within which the career of the Galilean reformer was confined.
In an earlier volume (La Religion d'Israel, p. 308) we have shown how the Kingdom of Herod the Great was first divided between three of his sons and how a few years later the portion of Archelaus, that is to say Judea proper with Samaria, was placed directly under the government of Rome. From this point we may date the crisis which ended in the birth of the Christian religion and the destruction of Jewish nationalism. Further back in history preparation for the crisis had begun. It was during the Babylonian captivity that Jewish eschatology began to shape itself as a project of national restoration concurrent with the religious and moral regeneration of the chosen people.
Most of all, the way had been paved by the foolish policy of Antiochus Epiphanes, which had the effect of provoking a reaction of Jewish faith, in the form of a belief in the near and decisive intervention of God for the extermination of the imperial oppressor and the establishment of his own Kingdom — a fever-heat of enthusiasm rather inflamed than allayed by the temporary establishment of a national monarchy. But the reduction of Judea to the status of a Roman province caused a shock to the Jewish mind which was only appeased, and that only for a feeble minority of the Jews, by the progressive spiritualization of their hope under the influence of the Christian Gospel, and, on the other hand, for the mass of the people, by the overthrow of Jewish nationalism. It is, however, true that both the spiritualization of the Jewish hope and the overthrow of Jewish nationalism were realized only by stages. Christian hope was still violently revolutionary when the Apocalypse appeared towards the end of the first century, while Jewish nationalism, surviving the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, was not finally broken down until a new revolt had been suppressed in the time of Hadrian.
It is well to remember also that in this crisis Galilee was a hotbed of Jewish nationalism. Thence came that Judas whom Josephus represents as the founder of the school of uncompromising resistance which he compares to the schools of the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. Judas the Galilean was certainly no master of religious philosophy or of ascetic living; historically little more than the leader of a band of brigands, he is yet a representative of that spirit of blind and unyielding faith which embraced the idea of the Kingdom of God in all its rigour. It was a principle of these zealots — and on this point we can trust Josephus  — that the Israelites, the people and children of God, had no master on earth save their Master in heaven. Hence the Roman government was a sacrilege, its exercise an impious usurpation, and there must be no paying tribute to Caesar.  Insurrection against the idolatrous emperor was, of all duties, the most sacred. But Roman power being what we know, this simplest of duties became the crowning folly.
We know that not all the Jews drew the same consequences from this principle, which became, in sum, the dominant motive of Jewish faith. The Sadducees tended to regard the Kingdom
of God as essentially realized in observation of the Law; the Essenes believed it attained in their Mystery and, in an eternal future, by the ascension of souls to God. A considerable party of educated Pharisees, while cherishing the idea of a Kingdom of God on earth, and accepting the resurrection of the dead, denied that there was any need to lend the aid of human violence in founding an order of things which only the power of God was able to bring about. But the various forms of the national hope, of which it would be a mistake to deny the diversity, did not come into conflict on the field of practice. They subsisted in the inner life of Judaism, rather associated than antagonistic, loosely held together by common faith in the revelation which made Israel the privileged object of divine solicitude, and by the hope of a national future which their divine protector would clothe with glory. Fundamentally, foreign rule on the soil of Palestine was an offence to all these parties. When the great revolt broke out in the time of Nero, the number of sincere believers who understood the futility of that desperate attempt seems to have been small. 
Under the working of this faith, to which the course of events lent its aid, the popular imagination became more and more excited and the superheated atmosphere was created in which religious movements are likely to be born. It was no effect of chance that the beginning of our era witnessed the appearance of a swarm of sects in Palestine and the region of the Jordan. John the Baptist, Simon the Magician and Eichasai are witnesses, each in his own way, to the religious ferment of which the Christian religion was also an issue.  The sects founded by them missed the great fortune in store for the Christian movement, though they are more or less related to it. But while we can clearly see their failure to win the same success, it is not so easy to explain why it so happened, the play of circumstances and the character of the men concerned being too little known to us. Of the three we have mentioned it is John the Baptist of whom exact information would be of most value to the historian, since it was to him that the Christian religion, up to a certain point, traced its origin, while Simon and Eichasai, who also depend on John,  stand rather in a relation of rival movements to the Christianity of the first age.
John appeared on the scene earlier than Jesus and founded a sect, slightly anterior to the Christian, which became a rival whose claims are combated in the Gospel literature.  But what the Gospel tells us about John is a tendentious legend, while the notice bestowed upon him by Josephus,  though commonly accepted by critics, is of doubtful authenticity, and vague enough in any event. The Gospels are more precise but not more trustworthy. Even if the stories in Luke about the birth of John have been borrowed, as Bultmann supposes, from the Johannite sect, they are none the less fictitious on that account. The testimony which John is made to render to Jesus, in giving himself out as the precursor of the Messiah, as in the synoptic tradition, or in expressly designating Jesus as the Messiah expected, as in the fourth Gospel which contradicts Matthew xi, 2, 6 and Luke vii, 18-20, is another fiction contrived by Christian apologetic for the purpose of attenuating or disguising the original dependence of the Christian sect on the Johannite. Even the account of the martyrdom of John in the first two Gospels has few marks of historicity. Herodias is a new Jezebel persecuting the new Elijah. All the legend leaves us is the fact that John was put to death by order of Antipas.
We may take it as certain that John proclaimed himself as the messenger of God, a prophet of the end of the age with a mission subordinate to that of no other prophet, and not even to that of the Messiah; a precursor of none save of God only in his coming to judge the world, unless he be subordinate to the Son of Man, the great Envoy; but it was not thus that his sectaries seem to have understood him. It was within the Baptist sect that John was first proclaimed as "a prophet and more than a prophet"; equally from within the sect came the application to John of the text from Malachi (iii, 1) "behold I send my messenger who shall prepare my way before me"; and it was within the sect that the saying was current "among them that are born of women there has not risen up a greater than John the Baptist." All this was marked for correction by the Gospel tradition; but there would have been no need to correct it if it had not been professed. In like manner it is incredible that John should in advance have discredited his own baptism in favour of Christian baptism by declaring that his own was a mere symbol and that
the only true and efficacious baptism was that which the Christ would give in the Holy Spirit.  These sayings are put into the mouth of John in order to avoid the simple avowal that the baptismal rite had been borrowed by the Christian sect from the Johannite. All these petty frauds are significant, indeed more significant than would have been the simple avowal of the truth.
Mark and Matthew have a strange manner of introducing their account of the Baptist's death and burial by making Antipas declare, as an explanation of Jesus and his miracles, that "John is risen from the dead"; and it is not impossible that we have signs here of a set purpose to confuse and discredit the faith of the Baptist sect in the survival of the prophet martyr. Mark, in relating the burial of John (vi, 14, 16, 29), has an air of suggesting that it was not followed by his resurrection. In Matthew (xiv, 1-2, 12) even John's own disciples, who come to inform Jesus of their master's death, seem to imply that his ministry has come to an end. Not thus, assuredly, was his ministry understood in the Baptist sect.
John, then, was a preacher of the Kingdom of God some time in advance of Jesus. His ministry was carried on beside the Jordan in the territories of the tetrarch Antipas.  He was probably an ascetic after the manner of the Essenes, although, in all probability, he did not belong to their order. For John acted on his own account and founded his own sect, his activity resembling in certain respects that of the hermit Banus mentioned by Josephus. Needless to say he was not a Sadducee. Matthew, no doubt by way of conforming him to Jesus, makes him preach against the Pharisees, adding the Sadducees at a venture (iii, 7) while Luke (iii, 7) speaks only of "crowds." He proclaimed the imminence of the Great Kingdom which he expected to be brought in by God only. He was, moreover, detached from apocalyptic preoccupations, and being a stranger, like Jesus, to the science of the schools, he engaged in no speculations concerning the preliminaries of the coming End. He insisted on repentance in preparation for God's judgment of the world and, in prevision of its coming, it may be said that lie instituted, if he did not adopt, a veritable sacrament of purification,  which became at the same time a guarantee of salvation. This was nothing more than baptism by immersion in the waters of the Jordan. In this
practice he again comes near to the Essenes, with the difference that the Essenes required many ablutions and bathings. John seems to have attached essential importance to the one total immersion he imposed on his converts, regarding it as the symbol of conversion, the effectual sign of forgiveness and regeneration.
It is remarkable that neither sacrifice, nor the bare idea of sacrifice, finds any place in this scheme of salvation, and furthermore that the death of the prophet was not interpreted as providing vicarious satisfaction for the redemption of sinners. A rite of purification at once the most significant, and the simplest, commonest, and one may add the oldest and most universally practised by mankind was enough to put the man of goodwill in a condition to face the judgment of God. It may be that John, like the Essenes, passed no condemnation on the legal sacrifices, his doctrine of salvation simply leaving them on one side as having no meaning for the religious life as he conceived it. For the rest, we cannot be certain that John's baptism allowed of no repetition. But we can hardly doubt that, like Christian baptism, it operated once and for all on every individual receiving it. Had it been a repeatable ablution there would be no ground for comparing it with the Christian rite.
At first sight it would seem that there was no reason why political authority should consider John more disturbing than the Essenes. But the Essenes did not proclaim that the Judgment Day of God was at hand. The soul, according to them, when duly purified by continence, holy washings, holy feasts and prayers would be able, after death, to reascend to the heaven whence it came down, without interfering with the order established on earth. But the universal judgment which John announced as on the point of coming implied something more than the recompense due to the righteous and the punishment that would fall on the wicked: it implied an immediate and complete revolution in which the Kingdom of God would make a clean sweep of all human governments. An outlook such as this could not be regarded with an indifferent eye by the shepherds of the people, even though the eye were that of a sceptic. It was an expectation likely to agitate the public mind in a way not conducive to the tranquillity of the ruling powers. Accordingly,
Antipas made short work of the Baptist, by casting him into prison and cutting off his head. The particular circumstances of his imprisonment and death are unknown to us, but it is safe to say that the agitation provoked by John was judged by political authority to be dangerous. In point of fact it is hardly possible that it could be long restrained within purely moral limits and that the eager longing for divine judgment could have no effect in compromising obedience to established authority. It may very well be that the Tetrarch decided to take the prophet's life on finding that his imprisonment had failed to put a final stop to the agitation.
His death, however, was not enough to discourage his followers and here his case again deserves study for the analogy it affords to that of Jesus. The sect John left behind him was rendered inoffensive by the death of its founder, but none the less it continued to exist under his name. It was perpetuated especially in Transjordania, where the Essenes, the Jewish Christians and the Eichasaites also had a footing. The signs which some have thought to find of the sect's diffusion in Alexandria and Asia are more than fragile; for the author of Acts, when he speaks of Apollos and the twelve disciples of Ephesus as "knowing only the baptism of John,"  does not seem to have had in mind the followers of the Baptist; and the polemic of the Fourth Gospel, which aims, through John, at the whole religious economy of the Jews, does not necessarily imply that the Baptist's sect was represented at Ephesus. In like manner the place given to John by the Mandeans in their tradition does not go back to the source; it seems to have been invented in Islamic time to give importance to the Mandean sect and to ensure its conservation. But if John was not the precursor of Jesus in the sense in which Christian tradition makes him out to be, he and his sect were historically, and in a very true sense, precursors of the Christ and of the Christian religion.
Though myth and legend have considerable place in evangelical tradition, our knowledge of Jesus is somewhat fuller than of John the Baptist. But all the mythical and legendary elaboration
within the tradition bears testimony, in its own way, to him from whom the Christian movement had its beginning. Whatever may have been said to the contrary, there is not a single Christian document of the first age which does not imply the historicity of Jesus. The gnostic Docetists who denied the materiality of Christ's body and the physical reality of his Passion believed, with the mass of Christians, in the historicity of Jesus and of his appearance as a figure upon the earth; their Christ, immaterial but visible, was not for them an unreal phantom, a pure image of the mind, as our mythologues would sometimes make him out to have been. And pagan writers least favourable to the Christian religion, from Tacitus to Celsus and the Emperor Julian, always regarded Jesus as an historical figure, Christ being for them the name of a Galilean agitator who came to an evil end and whom his followers had absurdly made into a god. The criticism which attempts to replace this figure by a myth will find itself involved in endless subtleties and travelling on a road which leads to nowhere. None the less it is true that Jesus has lived on in myth, and been carried by myth to the highest peak of history.
Where exactly he was born is unknown to us; we know only that he came from Galilee. The oldest legend shows him at Capernaum and in the region north-west of the Lake of Tiberias; this probably is the region of his birth. The myth which assigns his birthplace to Bethlehem and makes him of the family of David is founded on an arbitrary interpretation of prophecy and contains nothing of primitive and historical tradition. The myth, moreover, is full of contradictions. In order to fix his birthplace at Bethlehem of Judea, Matthew domiciles his parents there; then, to bring him from Judea into Galilee he imagines that Joseph, after his flight into Egypt, not daring to re-install himself in his own country, established himself at Nazareth, whence Jesus came to Capernaum; all of it presented as a fulfilment of ancient prophecies on the strength of an exegesis carried to the extreme of phantasy.  Luke, quite differently, supposes that the parents of Jesus had their home in Nazareth and that Jesus was born at Bethlehem by accident, his parents having been brought there in consequence of the census presided over by Quirinius; though it is far from clear why Joseph, even if
he was a descendant of David, should have had to report himself at a place which his ancestors had quitted a thousand years previously. This evangelist is equally unaware that he contradicts himself by dating the birth of Jesus both under the reign of Herod, who died in the year 4 before our era, and in the year of the census, which took place after the deposition of Archilaus ten years later.  In reality, evangelical tradition had no knowledge either of the village in Galilee or of the year in which Jesus was born. Nor was it any clearer on the point of his Davidic descent, since the two genealogies presented mutually contradict and annul each other.  Jesus was made a descendant of David because that was what the Messiah had to be. 
The assignment of Nazareth as the family home of Jesus was an attempt made by the same tradition after the event to explain the surname "Nazorean," which was originally added to the name of Jesus and remained the name for designating Christians in Rabbinic literature and in Eastern countries. This name, Nazorean, is quite clearly the name of a sect having no connexion with the town of Nazareth, unless it be that of a common etymology. Nor has it any closer connexion with the nadirs, "the men under vow," mentioned in the Old Testament. It may have been the name of the Baptist's sect, of which the Christian was originally an offshoot.  Jesus himself, before beginning an independent ministry of his own, was probably at first a member of the Johannite sect. But the story told in the Gospels about the relations of John and Jesus belongs to legend. The message sent to Jesus from prison by John is merely a frame within which considerations are introduced for exhibiting the superiority of Jesus and the Christian Gospel to John and his preaching.  The story of the baptism of Jesus by John is nothing else than the myth of the institution of Christian baptism.  It pretends to found the complete independence of the Christian scheme of salvation, in relation to other baptist sects and to Judaism, on. a decree of divine providence. Implied in the story there is a consciousness of the independence of Christianity, in regard to Judaism, which cannot have been acquired before the year 70, our texts showing signs of having been incessantly retouched in the course of handing the story on.  The account of the temptation in the desert has the same mythical character
and the documents of the New Testament bear their witness to its evolution. The reason is obvious why the Fourth Gospel omits the temptation, as it omits the cures of demoniacs and even the baptism of Jesus by John. A single trace of service rendered by angels to the Son of God is retained in John i, 51.
In the tradition common to all the Gospels, Jesus is a wandering preacher, as John the Baptist had been before him. The two preachers are not represented as teaching in the manner of contemporary rabbis, but rather as prophets, and both as prophets of a single oracle — "the Kingdom of God is at hand" (Matthew iii, 2; iv, 17). In the Synoptic tradition Jesus is also a wonder-working exorcist — nothing more natural in those times; but in the fourth Gospel, while the wonders increase in magnitude, the exorcisms disappear, as does the story of the temptation in the desert. There is, however, no reason, so far as the personal history of Jesus is concerned, to linger over a detailed discussion of the miracles attributed to him. They represent the appanage of "powers" or "virtues" with which, in the thought of the time, a ministry such as his would be endowed.  They are constructed in accordance with current types and are even presented as types, arranged in a series, and, at the same time, turned by all the Gospels, but especially by the fourth, into symbols of the spiritual work accomplished by the Christ. Just as the parables in the Gospels are mystical allegories, so the miracles are "signs," shmeia, not only marks of divine power, but symbols of salvation.  As spiritual symbols they foreshadow the formation of the Christian Mystery as a whole. But there is no room to doubt that the gift of healing was attributed to Jesus in his lifetime and that he himself deliberately exercised it. The first Christian missionaries were preaching exorcists, as Jesus had been before them, and in that were doing no more than following his example.  The Christian religion was not born in an atmosphere of transcendent mysticism and erudite theology.
It is very remarkable that tradition never represents Jesus as preaching in large towns, except when he came to Jerusalem to meet his end. We see him going from one to another of the townlets and straggling villages of Galilee and entering their small synagogues; but there is no evidence that he ever went to Tiberias, a profane town, ordinary residence of the Tetrarch,
nor to any other of importance. We must conclude that towns did not provide him with an atmosphere favourable to his message. The people with whom he sought contact were fishermen round the Lake of Gennesaret, poor craftsmen and workers on the land in his neighbourhood. The geographical frame of his ministry did not enclose a large area. Nearly all the souvenirs, if souvenirs they be, are attached to Capernaum and the surrounding country.
It was, then, in a few villages, or at most in a few districts of Galilee, to the north-west of the Lake, that we must conceive him as teaching for some time and with some measure of success. A theatre so small and, moreover, so little known can hardly have been invented by tradition as the scene of a ministry to which it attached importance so great, the connexion of it with these humble localities by means of the text in Isaiah indicated by Matthew (iv, 12-16) being surely an afterthought. The journeys outside Galilee attributed to Jesus were not preaching tours. If they ever took place, it must have been towards the end of the Galilean ministry, and they would seem to have been undertaken by Jesus to escape from the pursuit of Antipas when the attention of the Tetrarch had been drawn to the movement excited by his preaching.  We are told, and it is probably true, that quite early in his career Jesus recruited a certain number of companions who followed him regularly from place to place — though the stories of their vocation that have come down to us are all typical and symbolic. What the Gospels have to tell us about the crowds which pressed upon the footsteps of the preacher, and the thousands who came from all Palestine and from Transjordania to hear the Sermon on the Mount, can only be regarded as the work of pious exaggeration.  The preaching of Jesus could not have reverberated far beyond Galilee, and the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of didactic fragments and sentences originally distinct, was never preached.
Of what the teaching of Jesus was in reality only an approximate idea can be formed from the teaching that has been attributed to him. It may be said without a trace of paradox that of the teaching he actually gave no collection was ever made. Neither the preacher nor his most faithful hearers dreamed of fixing the tenor of his preaching for the purpose of transmitting it to
posterity; every purpose of that kind was thrust aside by the imminent prospect of the Kingdom of God, the near coming of which, with the Christ in glory, was continually announced by the first apostles after the death of Jesus. It was only after the lapse of a considerable time, when groups of believers had become organized in permanent confraternities, that the need for more complete instruction began to be felt, and the teaching about Jesus and the teaching of Jesus, the latter already greatly modified and augmented, were more and more fused together to form the books of liturgical catechesis for which the name "Gospel" was retained.
Our Gospels, even the Synoptics, are more truly understood as containing the elements of the primitive Christian catechism than as representing instructions really given by Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem. Needless to say, the mystical gnosis of the fourth Gospel was wholly outside his ken. Just as a legend has been built up for him, so too there has been built up for him a body of teaching, and it has been done by borrowings from many quarters. One part of the sayings which constitute the synoptic tradition was taken from the teaching of the Rabbis, while the whole of it, even where the spirit is that of hellenic Christianity, has the tone of Jewish hellenism.  It is safe to say that the teaching of the first three Gospels is conceived after the manner of Jesus and directly penetrated by his spirit. But no attempt could be more futile than that which aims to-day at reconstituting the teaching of the Christ by arranging, in an order more or less logical, the discourses and sayings scattered throughout the first three Gospels. The thought of Jesus is not more directly reflected in such a synthesis than it is in the broken order of the discourses it seeks to arrange. These discourses are constructs designed for the Christian communities, with a view to their needs, their misgivings, their sufferings, their interior difficulties, their position in the pagan world and their controversies with the Jews. It may be that the general principles of this teaching were laid down by Jesus, or merely foreshadowed by him. But, in all strictness of language, the teaching of the discourses and sayings called evangelical are one thing, and the personal preaching of Jesus was another.
Some critics, notably Schmiedel  and Goguel more recently,
have been forward in maintaining that clearly authentic sayings of Jesus are to be recognized in certain declarations which run counter, more or less, to the early Christologies and so create embarrassment for the apologists. Examples are the following:
"Why callest thou me good: there is none good but God," which seems to make the Christ a man subject to imperfection; the despairing outcry of Jesus on the Cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?";  "some of them that stand here shall not be dead when the Son of Man comes in his Kingdom." Others again have found a unique savour of originality in sayings such as these: "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath";  "not that which goeth into a man defileth him, but that which cometh out," and such like invectives against the Pharisees. It is a risky kind of argument. The saying about "goodness" as an incommunicable attribute of God is a theological subtlety the credit for which may well belong, if not to an evangelist, to some pious rabbi, the taste of whose wisdom was familiar to the Marcan tradition. The dying outcry of Jesus marks the fulfilment of Psalm xxii by the Passion of the Christ. The saying about the near approach of the parousia expresses the faith of the first community of Christians, though in a form which had lost something of its original force. The sayings about the sabbath and about the cause of defilement are as much in the tone of Jewish wisdom as in that of the Gospel; they may be in harmony with the spirit of Jesus but there are no other grounds for asserting that he was the first to formulate them in his preaching and was not repeating them after others. As to the invectives against the Pharisees, they are just as likely to have come from a Christian prophet as from Jesus himself.
Let us be content with the knowledge that while Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea, perhaps in 28 or 29 of our era, perhaps a year or two earlier, a prophet appeared in Galilee, in the region of Capernaum. He was called Jesus, a name so common among the Jews of that time that assuredly no reason can be found for conceding to the mythologues, as Guignebert does, that the name might have been given him after his death to mark the role of saviour early ascribed to him by his followers. This Jesus was a man of lowly origin. It is improbable that Joseph, the name of his father, and Mary, the name of his mother,
were invented by the tradition. He had brothers  who played a part of some importance in the life of the earliest community of believers. Doubtless he was born in some townlet or village of the region where he began to teach. There are also reasons for believing, as indicated above, that he was for some time attached to John the Baptist, or affiliated to the sect called after him, before himself beginning to preach the near approach of the Kingdom.
The Gospels probably had reasons for defining his teaching and that of the Baptist by the same general formula: "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.  This simple though widely comprehensive indication gives us our surest knowledge of his teaching. We may regard it as certain, first because it remained the fundamental element in the faith of his earliest followers who continued his work after his death in proclaiming him Christ: and second, because the earlier elaborations of the Christian tradition, always bound to this as their initial datum, consisted in retouchings or attenuations of the same idea — the coming of the Great Kingdom. We know moreover that the hopes of the Jewish people all came to a head precisely in that idea, and that Jesus was regarded as appointed to bring the realization of these hopes to his faithful followers.
There is no reason to doubt that Jesus, like John, presented the Kingdom unencumbered by the preliminaries in which apocalyptic literature was fond of indulging. The coming of the Kingdom would be immediate and sudden as was befitting, or seemed befitting, to the majesty and might of Him who was to bring it to pass, thereby replacing at a stroke all the kingdoms of flesh, which the powers of our lower world were upholding in unjust exercise of the mandate committed to them by the Master of the universe. What would be the conditions of his coming? How would his reign be carried on? There is no proof that the mind of Jesus dwelt on this subject, which he had not studied in books, as did the apocalyptic writers from Daniel onwards. But there is no sign that he or his first disciples were preoccupied by these fantastic speculations. They were men of the people and their conception of the Great Kingdom had the same simplicity as that of the Zealots, though entirely free from the violence of their fanaticism. We may conclude, then, that Jesus proclaimed, if not the end of the world — for we should have to ask whether he had
an idea of the "world," and if so what — at least the end of the present age, the end that is of Satan's Kingdom and of the earthly powers set up by him, the coming of God, the reign of the just, the resurrection of the dead, and the Great Assize at which the wicked everywhere would be sentenced to extermination. With the view before him of judgment about to fall, let the wicked man repent and change his life!
Did Jesus, like John, baptize those who were converted by this message? The Synoptics do not affirm that he did, and critics are generally content to say that he required only the change of heart, thus making him the teacher of a pure religion entirely free from ritual magic. But Jesus had no intention of founding a religion; the idea never entered his mind. It is probable that his baptism by John, whether historical or not, figured at the head of the evangelical catechesis, but quite impossible to say exactly when, how, or why his disciples after him adopted a rite which, on the hypothesis favoured by the critics, Jesus himself neither recommended nor practised. Is not the silence of the Synoptics on this matter a simple consequence of the fact that the story they tell of his Galilean ministry does not aim at recording the historical actions of Jesus, but at instructing the believer about to undergo an initiation, of which the outward ritual is marked with sufficient clearness by the baptism of Jesus himself at the opening of the catechism? Strange as this idea may seem to those who insist on taking the arrangement of Gospel stories as representing the perspective of factual history, it is not impossible that adhesion or, one might say, conversion to the message of the Galilean Jesus was marked by the same rite of baptism as that which marked conversion to the message of John.  Nor is it impossible that even the meals taken in common by his regular followers were strongly coloured, as Renan supposes,  by a mystical element as prefiguring the banquets of the elect in the Kingdom of God.  Preconceptions are rife as to the conditions under which Jesus delivered his message, and it is a common assumption that these differed greatly from those which attended the ministry of John. But the plain truth is that we know very little about either, the Gospels giving us no information on the subject, or informing us inexactly, even in regard to Jesus. After all, a group of believers would not have been so easily formed after the death of Jesus had
he not gathered around him during his lifetime a sort of confraternity analogous to that which we know was gathered round John and perpetuated in a sect after the Baptist's death.
Did Jesus claim for himself an eminent place in the coming Kingdom? In recent times many have deemed it possible to answer this question in the negative, but without suspecting that they might be bringing Jesus too near to their own mentality or to their own religious ideals. In their view Jesus was a mystical philanthropist, the Kingdom of Heaven was essentially inward and moral, the presence of God in the soul, the revelation and intimate awareness of the divine fatherhood and goodness, of the law of love, of the dignity of man. And this no doubt is what the Gospel may seem to those who try to find themselves in it and view it, from a great distance of time, sifted by the experience of nineteen centuries. But Christianity was not born in that transcendent atmosphere and our metaphysical universals were as remote from the mind of Jesus as were the sceptical smiles of Ernest Renan and the humanitarianism of Henri Barbusse. The dominating perspective of the Gospel, and the dominating thought of Jesus, is the concrete, real and even realistic conception of the Kingdom of God, involving the complete renovation of the human order both inward and outward. The value of the human soul — still less its absolute value, the autonomy of human personality in a transcendent individualism — is not presented in the Gospel independently of the individual's destiny in the coming Kingdom; the law of love is not laid down independently of the renunciations required by the coming revolution in earthly affairs; the relief of the poor man is not prescribed independently of his exaltation in the everlasting Kingdom. In sober truth, neither the revelation of Divine Goodness, nor the value of the soul, nor the law of love, nor the dignity of the poor has the eminent place in the primitive Gospel which many in our time would assign to it. These are the elements of the Gospel which, more or less magnified when seen from our point of view, happen to be for us the least worn out by time. But, for the historian, the sum and substance of the Gospel can always be found, and must always be found, in the eschatological idea of the Kingdom of God, all the rest being subordinate to that. That being so, Jesus could hardly have overlooked himself as a
figure destined to play a part in the coming Advent of God. To be sure he does not seem to have given much thought to the order that would be set up by the divine polity of the future. The saying about the thrones on which his principal disciples were to sit at his side does not go back to him, but was probably conceived by the earliest community in honour of the Twelve. There is at least an equal probability that the notion of the Son of Man, which holds so large a place in the Gospel tradition, was introduced into it for the purpose of glorifying Jesus after his death and linked to that event in order to bring out its providential significance. "The Son of Man" is a mythical conception, earlier than the Gospel tradition which so largely exploits it; earlier than the apocalypses of Daniel and Enoch, where use is made of it.  Its origin is pagan, probably Chaldeo-Iranian.  In the apocalyptic tradition it became a kind of definition for an idealized Messiah. Although the history of the myth is far from being clear, it is assuredly pre-Christian and was probably without influence on the Gospel at its point of departure, that is on Jesus and his first disciples. The idea, in short, is bound up with a redemption — gnosis which the Epistles present in a developed form but whose place in the Gospel is progressive and of secondary importance only.  We may agree further that Jesus never described himself in set terms as the future King of the Elect, and that even the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi anticipates a faith which, as so defined, was that of the first group of believers and only came into being after the catastrophe of Calvary. But it remains true that, before the final drama, tills faith was in a manner existent, and to some extent explicit, among the first converts to Jesus' Gospel, and in Jesus himself as naturally involved in the initiative taken by him in proclaiming the Great Event and making preparation for its advent.
It was as an Envoy of God, not as a simple prophet, nor as a sage and a moralist, that Jesus presented himself to his contemporaries. He claimed a special and unique mission in regard to the Great Event, but did not define it with precision. "The Great Envoy" would be the equivalent in our language. So far as we can judge Zoroaster and the Buddha made similar claims; so, too, did Mani and Mahomet. There could be no question of his being the Messiah there and then, since the Messiah was the
Prince of the Great Kingdom and there could be no Messiah till the Kingdom came. Elsewhere the author of this book has argued for the view that Jesus was Messiah in expectation, Messiah presumptive, and some of his critics have condemned the idea as a theological subtilty. Perhaps it is neither as subtle nor as theological as they deem it to be. But let us keep only to this; Jesus, as the Great Herald of the coming Kingdom, certainly made claim, before the end of his life, to the role which would involve his becoming, after his death, the Messiah who was to come with the Kingdom. Nothing else is of import if his mortal career is to suffice as an explanation of his immortal destiny. The closer definitions of that destiny would never have come into being if the faith of Jesus and his disciples had not, in one way or another, contained their beginnings and their justification. This faith it is that also explains the culminating action of Jesus at Jerusalem; this faith it was that triumphed in his death.
Believers, even the most liberal, and they perhaps most of all, are still loath to admit that the action of Jesus in carrying his message to Jerusalem was not, humanly speaking, more reasonable than that of the others who are commonly known as "false Messiahs": for example, Theudas who, fifteen years after the death of Jesus, recruited some thousands of followers in Perea and brought them to the side of Jordan in the belief that the river would open up its waters to facilitate their triumphal march on Jerusalem; or the Egyptian, of whom Acts also speaks (xxi, 38), who led a much more formidable body of partisans as far as the Mount of Olives, convinced in their simplicity that the walls of Jerusalem would fall down at the voice of their prophet.  These cases however are parallel to that of Jesus and their issue, so far as the immediate result was concerned, was much the same for him as for them.  But our liberal believers are not content with insisting that the personality of Jesus was loftier and purer than that of these men, who were only adventurers and visionaries; they will have it also that Jesus was less under illusion than they, or even — an absurd supposition both
historically and psychologically — that he was under no illusion at all about the fate in store for him at Jerusalem, which, had illusion been absent, he would have had no motive to encounter. Jesus, they would have it, came to Jerusalem at the risk of his life to accomplish a great duty. As the interpretation of an act of faith, and, we must add, of religious illuminism, all this is too modern and rationalistic.
On this occasion Jesus was not visiting Jerusalem in the character of a simple pilgrim.  It is possible that he had made several pilgrimages to the city before taking up the role of a prophet; but it is wholly improbable, not to say quite impossible, that he was there more than this once as announcer of the Kingdom of God. The synoptic tradition gives us to understand that he presented himself with this announcement on the occasion of a Passover which, in Luke's reckoning, would probably be that of the year 29. The artificial chronology and editorial arrangements of the Fourth Gospel need not be taken into account. Being what it was, the preaching of Jesus in Galilee must have been of short duration; to make it last a few months is to give it good measure. Whether the reason was that he had seen the speedy collapse of the credit accorded his message at its first announcement, or that he had reason to think that Antipas was about to put a violent stop to his preaching,  or simply because Jerusalem was the appointed place for the publication of his message, as well as being the place predestined for the Great Coming, Jesus resolved to proclaim the word of the Kingdom in the Holy City.
No direct testimony has come down to us to throw light on the convictions which determined his action at this conjuncture. The Gospels present him to us as fully conscious of providential designs and as going to Jerusalem that he might there procure the fulfilment of divine intentions and ancient prophecies — a systematic and apologetic conception of which next to nothing can be retained for the psychology of Jesus. It cannot be repeated too often that the Gospel stories are the scenes of a ritual drama in which the actions of the characters, especially of the chief character, are governed by the faith which the drama is designed to represent, to fortify and, one might say, to realize. Most assuredly the young Galilean continued in Jerusalem to be animated by the faith and the hope which had led him in his own
country to proclaim the speedy coming of the Great Kingdom. It was that same impulse of faith and hope, raised perhaps to a higher ardour by the obstacles already encountered, encouraged also by the measure of success already won and rendered more urgent by the necessity to proclaim the divine message to the Jewish people at the centre of the national life — that same impulse it was that drew Jesus on to his fate, but without giving him clear foreknowledge of what that fate would be.  Doubtless his hope was too masterful to permit him to envisage, with complete lucidity and calm, the likelihood, in reality a certainty, that death was awaiting him. What he did expect, and his followers expected with him, was the manifestation of divine power, the advent of the Kingdom foretold, the dawn of the Day of God. Neither in the messianic tradition of Judaism, nor in the message of the Kingdom as he had delivered it, was there anything to make him suppose that his own death was a necessary condition of the Great Event. He came to Jerusalem fully confident in the power of God, in the validity of the ancient promise to Israel, in the urgent need of divine intervention to establish the reign of justice on the earth.
We could not be worse informed than we are about the real events immediately preceding the tragic climax of this religious adventure. The affair of the Egyptian, above referred to, is enough to show that the messianic demonstration on the Mount of Olives, as described in the synoptics, is not in itself improbable. But the story they give us is derived from Old Testament texts.  The same is true of the expulsion of the traders from the temple, a story much less easy to accept as recording a real event.  Tradition has constructed for Jesus a Jerusalem ministry analogous to the Galilean; but the long invective against the Pharisees seems no more authentic in its substance, as the real teaching of Jesus at Jerusalem, than the discourse on the end of the world.  It is, moreover, improbable that Jesus would have been allowed to teach publicly in the temple for many days without suffering interference. Our choice lies practically between two hypotheses:
a riot created by the followers of Jesus, if we may suppose them numerous enough to make it, immediately on their arrival in Jerusalem,  and the prompt arrest of their leader by the Roman authority; or a popular movement excited by the preaching of
Jesus in the temple, which would very quickly have brought on the intervention of the priests, followed at once by recourse to the procurator. In either case the affair would have borne, or would seem to bear, the character of a politico-religious demonstration which the procurator would suppress severely and without a moment's delay, as happened to the movements led by Theudas and the Egyptian. But the affair of Jesus, at the time when it occurred, seemed of less importance than theirs.
He did not march on Jerusalem, as they did, with thousands of followers behind him, and his presence in the city would do no more than provoke a tumult to be suppressed at once.
All the evangelists have to record of the final evening is connected with the mystical meanings attached to the Last Supper, the Christian Passover in which the death of the Christ was commemorated. The treachery of Judas is accessory and it is by no means easy to say what, in reality, can have corresponded to this incident; it may have been invented as a mythical amplification of the punishment inflicted on Jesus.  The previsions attributed to the Christ on the same occasion are intended to throw a stronger light on his person; they come from the realms of drama and apologetic. One may be a fiction built up on a real fact; thus, the passing consternation of the disciples at the arrest and punishment of their Master is the basis for his prediction of their flight (Mark xiv, 27).  Another may be a fiction coordinated to another fiction or to a supposed fact; thus, the announcement of the coming betrayals  may be coordinated with Peter's denial — if, as is probable, the denial is an invention of Paul's party directed against the chief of the Galilean apostles.  In the same manner, but more surely, the announcement of the coming resurrection, interpolated into that of the flight (Mark xiv, 28) paves the way for the fictitious story of the discovery of the empty tomb. The words of the Eucharistic institution correspond to the interpretation of the Supper given by the First Epistle to the Corinthians:  they signify not only the presence of the Christ among his own at the common meal, but also the mystical relation of bread and wine to the commemoration of his saving death, of which the Supper is, in a manner, the mystical reiteration. And this interpretation, which can hardly go back to the apostolic age, is superimposed upon an older one in which the Supper is
understood as a symbolic foretaste of the happiness of the elect in the Kingdom of God after the Great Event.  But even this earlier interpretation is the work of tradition which attached it typically to the last meal taken by Jesus who may very well have himself suggested it in the course of his ministry at the daily meals with his disciples. Finally the scene at Gethsemane  brings together and endows with material form the speculations of primitive Christianity concerning the great ordeal undergone by the Christ. Incidentally, the editors of Mark, followed by Matthew, have given that story a turn unfavourable to the Galilean apostles.
Of the circumstances of the arrest in the Garden of Olives not one, perhaps not even those of place and time, can be retained as historical.  The economy of the Gospel narratives is related to the ritual commemoration of the Passion; taking them literally we run the risk of transposing into history what are really the successive incidents of a religious drama. True it is that behind this drama lie the brutal facts, the condemnation to death and the crucifixion. But the real physiognomy of the facts has been transfigured in the drama which was conceived, not for reproducing the history reflected in it, but for its own purpose, that of bringing out its mystic significance, as well as in the interests of apologetic. Strictly speaking, it is possible, though there is nothing to make it probable, that Jesus was arrested at night, outside Jerusalem, by a sudden surprise organized by the temple police or by the Roman. If we suppose that Jesus was violently seized during an affray occasioned by him, and not without resistance by his partisans, we may be sure that tradition would have been careful to preserve no record of it. For not only has it not preserved the real circumstances of his burial, which it had perhaps an interest in falsifying, but it has no clear story to tell of his trial and condemnation.
For a long time past discussion of the Trial of Jesus has proceeded on the assumption that our texts contain an authentic account of its successive stages. What they do contain, let it once more be repeated, is the liturgical dramatization of the trial together with an apologetic commentary. Mark and Matthew report two trials and two condemnations: first, the Sanhedrim tries Jesus and condemns him;  then the procurator Pilate
takes up the affair for confirmation, examines the case, finds Jesus innocent, tries vainly to save him and, finally, disclaiming all responsibility, ratifies the sentence of death,  According to Luke, the Sanhedrim prepares the accusation, then submits the affair to the Jews, passes the case on to Antipas; Antipas finding no ground for condemnation, Pilate then concedes the execution of the accused to the clamour of the Jews, after another vain attempt to pardon Jesus as in Mark and Matthew. In the fourth Gospel Jesus is first examined about his teaching by the High Priest, Annas (Hanan), who was not High Priest at that time.  Annas then sends Jesus to Caiaphas and the Jews carry to Pilate an accusation which they are not able to formulate (John xviii, 28-32); Jesus then explains to Pilate that his Kingdom is not of this world: Pilate pronounces him innocent and has recourse to the expedient of pardon; but the Jews persist in their demand and Pilate makes another attempt to deprive them of their victim, going so far as to present Jesus in kingly state and saying he will not crucify their King; the Jews reply they have no King but Caesar, and Pilate yields them Jesus for crucifixion. Let those who can find their way through this judicial phantasmagoria.
The one stable fact is the crucifixion, a Roman punishment reserved for rebels and inflicted on Jesus on one of the days preceding the Jewish Passover. It follows that the sentence was pronounced by Roman authority after a trial in which that authority acted in its own right,  and not as ratifying a sentence passed by the Sanhedrim.  It is easy to understand how the agitation fomented by Jesus would be construed as subversive of the sovereignty of the Emperor, even though it would not be regarded as a serious menace to the security of the Empire. Pilate would pronounce the sentence of death without a moment's hesitation; nor is it easy to see, in view of the historic circumstances and the probabilities, how he could have avoided doing so. Jesus was not condemned because he had been misunderstood. He had exposed himself to suspicion by the attitude he had openly adopted and by the tenor of his message. Only by his death did he triumph over his accusers. Had Pilate, per impossible, decided to keep him in prison, the Christian religion would not have owed its birth to him.
Was there an accusation by the Sanhedrim? We cannot
answer in the affirmative with certainty nor even with much probability. Our texts, repeatedly cut about and surcharged, are not an historic record of the death of Christ. More than that, they are not even founded on any historic record discoverable by literary analysis. It would seem indeed that the fundamental document of Mark agreed with the fundamental document of John in the date of the Passion, that is to say in fixing the death of Jesus at the day and hour when the Jews sacrificed the paschal lamb. But the date is not historical; it proclaims itself symbolic and liturgical. It reflects the primitive Easter observance of the Christian communities retained to the end of the second century by the communities of Asia from which the others had long been divided by their custom of celebrating Easter on Sunday, as the day of the resurrection.  The Christian religion had its birth in history, but only began to write its history with Eusebius of Caesarea, when it was too late. Let us then recognize the simple fact that the oldest tradition now perceptible about the death of Jesus, like that about his ministry, has already become a liturgical legend, the evolution of which in the gospel literature preserves throughout the same ritual character, complicated by apologetic interests.
While the chronology of the Passion was retouched in a way which distinguishes and clearly separates the Christian Passover from the Jewish, as the two were distinguished and separated in object, in like manner the story of the trial has been given a turn for the purpose of throwing back upon the Jews the initiative and the responsibility for the sentence of death. Hence the doubling of the procedure and, in the Synoptics, the improbable nocturnal sitting of the Sanhedrim during the holy night of the Passover. At this sitting Jesus is condemned for professing a Christology which was that of the second generation of Christians.  But the evangelists get embarrassed by the saying in which Jesus is made to avow an intention to destroy the temple. Taking the words literally, they would, if authentic, place Jesus on the same level as Theudas and the Egyptian mentioned above. The saying may, indeed, have been brought in evidence at the trial before Pilate, to the ruin of him who had pronounced it, but has no natural context in any of the Gospel stories. The nocturnal arrest of Jesus by servants of the
High Priest is all of a piece with the trial before the Sanhedrim. But the story in the Fourth Gospel about Judas at the head of a band of soldiers and temple rabble who fall to the ground on their backs before Jesus in the garden is in no better keeping with historical tradition. 
The incident of Barabbas is a fiction of which the origin is obscure, but the purpose evident.  The best device its authors could find for shifting responsibility for the sentence from Pilate to the Jews was to make the procurator offer pardon to Jesus and the Jews prefer its bestowal on a brigand. In like manner the intervention of Herod is to procure an unexpected witness to the innocence of Jesus in the person of the tetrarch. Originally this fiction must have been a parallel to that of Barabbas, but bolder, in that Herod was substituted for Pilate as condemning Jesus and taking the initiative in his execution, as he is said to have done in the Gospel of Peter.  It is obvious that the lofty declarations of Jesus before Annas and before Pilate have interest only for the history of Christology. Generally speaking it may be said that the statements and attitudes attributed to Jesus by the Gospels on this occasion are clearly devoid of meaning except in relation to Christology and to the liturgical drama of the Passion. To the historical reality of the arrest, condemnation and crucifixion they have no relation. 
In regard to the place of execution the traditional indication can be retained, although there is ground to suspect that tradition in placing the tomb has taken over an ancient grotto of Adonis, as it took over the cave at Bethlehem.  The whole setting of the scene of the crucifixion suggests dramatization, theological and ritual, even to the incident of Simon of Cyrene who saves Jesus from the humiliation of carrying the cross.  Other incidents  are introduced for the fulfilment of prophecy: the two robbers (Isaiah liii, 12);  the wine mixed with spices or gall (Psalm lxix, 19); the division of the garments,  the insults of the passers-by (Psalm xxii, 7-9); the words of Jesus on the cross (Psalm xxii, 1).  In other cases these incidents have symbolic value:
the darkness;  the rending of the temple veil;  the earthquake; the dead rising from their graves. Symbolism is most pronounced in the fourth Gospel which, careless of probability, brings the mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple to the foot
of the cross, shows Jesus issuing instructions till his last breath and discovers the mystic economy of the Christian sacraments in the effect that followed the thrust of the lance.  The reality of it all was on a level less exalted than this drama, but more poignant and more cruel. Jesus was promptly condemned and promptly executed; he died in torment and, save for his executioners, there can hardly have been any to witness his agony
Return to the Table of Contents of Alfred Loisy's The Birth of the Christian Religion
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