Get the CD Now!

The Birth of the Christian Religion


THE present study of the origin of the Christian religion comes in sequence to that which the author has recently published on the religion of Israel, the mention of which suffices to render another introduction unnecessary. A complete translation of the New Testament has also been edited [1] which, to some extent, supplies the documentation and critical discussion behind the present synthesis, while the synthesis completes that volume by placing the New Testament writings, and the other sources of primitive Christian history, in their original setting.

Needless to say, a synthesis of this kind can be no more than an essay, related as closely as possible to the present state of knowledge, but making no pretence to offer a definite solution of all the problems raised by the birth of the Christian religion; problems concerning the character of the evangelical writings and the Epistles attributed to the apostle Paul; problems concerning the evolution of the religion from its point of departure in Judaism until the time when the Church, in the last quarter of the second century, is seen building itself up, in opposition to a flood of gnostic systems, on the base of a tradition alleged to be apostolic, of which the New Testament is held to be the witness, and the episcopate called catholic claims to be the authorized interpreter or guardian.

The author of this book makes humble avowal of not having yet discovered that Jesus never existed. The conjectures by which some among us, in these latter days, would explain the Christian religion without him whom that religion regards as its founder have always seemed to him as fragile as they are vociferous. These conjectures come, for the most part, from persons who have arrived somewhat late at the problem of Jesus, and not all of whom have prepared for that problem by deep study of the history of Israel's religion or of the Christian. For them the non-existence of Jesus forms part of a philosophical system, except where it proceeds from polemical interests avowed or discreetly veiled. Long ago the Christ was discovered by Dupuis to be a solar myth; Bruno Bauer and the Dutch school (Van Manen excepted) make him out to be a pure creation of Alexandrian allego-


rists, in which they are followed by W. B. Smith, Drews and Robertson. In France P. L-Couchoud (Le mystere de Jesus) and E. Dujardin (Le Dieu Jesus) have each struck out on a line of his own; Couchoud postulating a pre-Christian myth of a suffering Jahveh (!) which a vision of Simon Peter suddenly transformed into a living religion; Dujardin, a pre-Christian worship of Jesus with the fictitious crucifixion of an individual playing the part of a god, the Christian religion having its origin in the last exhibition of this pageant, which also gives the date of its birth.

These hypotheses all share in a common defect: they are air-drawn fabrics and they do not explain the birth of the Christian religion. For the part played by myth in the Christian tradition concerning Jesus is as undeniable as it was inevitable in the origins of the Christian movement; but the witness to the Christian fact does not entirely dissolve into a myth, and the fact itself is not a myth. The messianic myth supports Jesus, but Jesus together with the myth support the Christian religion; the distinctively Christian myth of Jesus-God did not exist before Christianity, but was formed inside that religion, and formed stage by stage, to the glory of Jesus. The Christian myth of salvation was, in a manner, called into being and set on foot by Jesus himself, to be afterwards elaborated in the first age of the Christian religion. The testimony and the facts being what they are, the mythical theory unduly simplifies the problem of Christian origins, which it does more to obscure than to illuminate. In the Revue Critique, 1925 (pp. 343-347) the present author wrote as follows: "the part played by myth in the birth of Christianity is more easily determined by the historian than is the part played by Jesus himself. While the Christian religion was not created by myth alone, so, certainly, it was not created by Jesus alone; its creator was neither Jesus without the myth, nor the myth without Jesus. Jesus the Nazorean is at once an historical person and a mythical being who, supporting the myth and supported by it, was finally made by it into the Christ, Lord and God, for the faith which so acknowledged him. To say this is not to reduce the part of Jesus to an occasional cause. On the other hand, to present, as the sole and total cause of Christianity, one human being who, considered as divine, was also the very object worshipped by that religion would only be to create another myth."


It is however true that the ancient testimonies do not permit us to reconstitute the human figure of Jesus, his personal doings, the meaning of his career and its chief circumstances, with full and unfaltering certitude.

That Jesus was one among a number of agitators and enthusiasts who appeared in Judea between the years 6 and 70 of our era; that his appearance is to be placed towards the middle of this period or the beginning of its third; that it had, in one form or another, a messianic character; that Jesus was crucified as a pretended Messiah by sentence of Pontius Pilate—all this has the highest degree of probability; to be more exact, the whole Christian movement becomes unintelligible if these beginnings are suppressed. No consistent argument authorizes their elimination and there is nothing to replace them. But what idea had Jesus of his mission, if even he had any precise idea? What did he hope for and aim at? What was his message and on what special charge was he condemmed to death? How were his followers grouped round him and on what grounds did they become convinced after his death that he was still alive, immortal, powerful and glorified at the right hand of God? How was Christ Jesus presently sublimated into Jesus the God-saviour? These are questions which the evidence does not permit us to answer with complete certitude and in detail. And the most brilliant hypotheses brought forward to answer them are not necessarily the best founded.

The Tradition which has preserved for us the memory of Jesus was at its origin entirely different from historical tradition. From the very beginning it was a tradition of faith, and almost immediately afterwards the tradition of a cult which grew continually more impassioned and developed until it attained complete deification of its object. Memory, in a word, was transfigured into faith and adoration. In all strictness the Gospels are not historical documents. They are catechisms for use in common worship, containing the cult-legend of the Lord Jesus Christ; that, and no other, is the content they announce; that, and no other, is the quality they claim. Even Luke, which assumes a high degree of editorial exactitude, set out to be, before all else, "sound instruction in the Word"—as we should say, "a good manual of Christian initiation" (i, 1-4). Even the teaching attributed to


Jesus is constructed, for the most part, to meet the needs of Christian propaganda, for the edification of the earliest communities, or, yet again, especially in the fourth Gospel, to elaborate a mystical theory of salvation by Jesus Christ. We cannot complacently assume that we are able clearly to recognize, behind all these elaborations of faith, the real features of Jesus, his personal activities and the precise circumstances of his ministry and death. What the historian sees directly before him in all this is the faith of the first Christian generations and the intensity of their devotion to Jesus, the Saviour.

There is nothing to make good this insufficiency of the Gospel evidence. The Acts of the Apostles, supposed to narrate the history of the first Christian age, contain the legend and, in some respects, the myth rather than the history of it, insomuch that the general perspective of the book is, in its own way, as artificial as that of the Gospels, if not more so. The Epistles known as apostolic have been edited in the same spirit as the Gospels and with likelihood hardly greater of being the work of the authors to whom they are attributed. Little by little it has perforce been admitted that the Gospels are not the personal works of individual writers, and that the traditional attribution of these books to apostles or to apostolic men is contestable in every instance. It has also at length been recognized that a false authorship has been attributed to several Epistles and that their date is uncertain: cases in point are Hebrews, Ephesians, second Thessalonians and the Epistles known as catholic. Furthermore it has become impossible not to recognize traces of compilation in the two Epistles to the Corinthians, and the conclusion has followed that they were composed by amalgamating matter drawn from a much larger number of authentic letters. Even bolder conjectures, not only for the two Epistles in question, but for Romans, first Thessalonians and perhaps others, might be reasonably defended. The obvious doctrinal incoherence between the Epistles, and often in the same Epistle, would thus find a better explanation than that afforded by the restlessness of mind with a super-abundant endowment of which the Apostle is usually credited. Thus the question arises of whether the theories of redemption brought forward in the Epistles called Pauline are really those of the Apostle. Or do they represent flights of gnostic speculation


later than Paul but earlier than the chief systems of heretical gnosticism?

In the next chapter we shall see how limited are the resources which other Christian documents anterior to the year 180 offer to the critical historian. We feel therefore entitled to remark, in terminating this preamble, that while every history of Christian origins rests, admittedly or not, on more or less shaky foundations, the fault is not necessarily attributable to the historian who tries to write that history, but to the condition of the evidence on which he has to base it. For that reason we here make no pretence to give a finished and balanced picture of the birth of the Christian religion. Our aim will be to show forth with simplicity what seem the most probable conclusions in this delicate matter, as they offer and prove themselves to our own mind.

Return to the Table of Contents of Alfred Loisy's The Birth of the Christian Religion

Please buy the CD to support the site, view it without ads, and get bonus stuff!

Early Christian Writings is copyright © Peter Kirby <E-Mail>.

Get the CD Now!

Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.