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The Birth of the Christian Religion


by Gilbert Murray

DR. JACKS has rendered a great service to religious thought by his translation of this very remarkable book, which sums up the main conclusions of M. Loisy's elaborate studies of early Christian literature. It represents the latest, and, in my judgment, the most masterly of all the attempts to understand and describe according to the normal canons of human history, without prejudice and without miracle, a movement which has shaped the whole subsequent religion of the Western World. Previous historians of Christianity have generally been theologians, convinced of the miraculous nature of their subject and consequently, however learned, compelled to be uncritical. Only a few have deliberately rejected the miraculous, and many of them, in their anxiety to be freed from a false mythology, have been betrayed into a polemical attitude and failed to appreciate the grandeur of their theme. But, apart from these considerations, the subject itself is curiously difficult and obscure. The actual Christian literature proves on examination to be so different from what it seems. The Gospels, which look at first sight like simple lives of Jesus, prove on analysis to have had quite a different purpose and also to have been exposed to varied and incalculable influences in the interests of different doctrines and communities. It is only of recent years that scholars have begun to understand how different from a modern book, printed off in a thousand or so uniform copies, was the nature of an ancient book written out copy by copy; how different again the book which, although written, is still in the main merely an instrument for oral recitation, liable to be improved or altered according to circumstances or the taste of the reciter; different again the book of devotion or edification meant to enforce or correct the rites and beliefs of a community. M. Loisy's analysis of the books of the New Testament and other early Christian literature surpasses, in my opinion, any previous analysis known to me. He writes with an intimate understanding of the problems before him which seems to me to shed a new, and I would almost


add a convincing, light on one of the most important movements in human history. I only hesitate to use the word "convincing" because, as he himself emphatically warns us, the evidence itself often leads only to a doubt or at most to a strong probability.

There is another advance of knowledge in recent years which explains much in the rise of Christianity and its acceptance by the Greco-Roman world which must have seemed inexplicable a generation ago. To one who, like myself, approaches the problem from the Greek side it is very significant that the language of the New Testament is Greek. The crude contrast between "Christian" and "Pagan" is really a false one. The idea of a son of God born to save the world is essentially a Greek idea. All the Greek-speaking populations of the Levant were permeated by the old agricultural worship of the Renewal of Life in the New Year after the dead winter. The Renewal was of course conceived as a person. He was the fruit of the marriage of earth with Heaven through the spring Sun and Rain; a son of God and an earthly Kore or maiden; a babe who will become King and make all things new, shaking off the dead impurities of the past. This theme is the subject of countless myths and rituals and forms a specially large element in the Drama and the ritual of Dionysus. From early times on-ward, and increasingly in the Hellenistic Age, these myths and rites were allegorized. The TritoV Swthr, the "Saviour" who comes "Third," after the death of the Vegetation-King and of that king's slayer, became something much more than the saviour of the seed sown and the life of the ploughed field; he was to save the life of the world, and above all to save man's soul. All the philosophy of the Hellenistic age is tinged with a mysticism which comes chiefly from a sublimation of this agricultural New Life, combined with the desire for Gnosis, Knowledge of God or union with God, of which there were germs in Plato and intense developments in the Egyptian and Oriental mystery-cults. There was also a wide-spread groping towards monotheism, attained not by denying any of the godsóthat would have seemed impiousóbut by explaining them as emanations, or interpreters, or merely other names, of the One; and lastly in almost all the religious or philosophical movements one finds a tendency towards asceticism or at least a strong protest against the lusts of the flesh.

On Greek minds affected by these ideas contact with the Jews


seems to have had almost the effect of a revelation. The very qualities which made that strange race so unpopular, their intolerance, their denial of the gods, their contemptuous hatred of idolatry and blood-sacrifice, had for thoughtful minds an extraordinary power of attraction. Here at last, in the phrase of one Greek writer, was a filosofon eqnoV, "a philosopher nation," in which the whole people had risen above the turmoil of vulgar superstitions and incessant religious observances which beset the Pagan world, and moreover had a clear moral standard in sexual matters. The Jews stood altogether for a cleaner and less frightened world. Besides, in place of the confused mythical legends of the Greeks, this nation had an ancient and sacred Book, of uncontested authority, containing laws and prophecies which had stood the test of time. And they were all expecting a Messiah, a Saviour.

By the time of St. Paul these influences must have become more intense, more disturbing. A new sect of Jews was saying that the Messiah had actually come and that his kingdom was about to be proclaimed; only it seemed that he had failed. He was dead, condemned by law and crucified. As M. Loisy points out, that disaster would by no means be fatal to the survival of an ordinary sect, like that of the followers of John the Baptist, disciples of a human prophet. It was a much severer blow to worshippers of a Messiah announcing the arrival of a heavenly kingdom. One who failed, it seemed obvious, could not be the Messiah. But was this objection really valid? The common people of the Hellenistic world knew that the Saviour must die; to die and be re-bom was the course of his normal history. And as for the condemnation and crucifixion, the more educated men were familiar with Plato's famous description of the righteous man in an unrighteous world, who must expect "to be thrown into prison, scourged and racked, and after every kind of torment . . . be impaled or crucified." It is not difficult to imagine speculations of this sort bearing fruit in the mind of Paul during his period of conversion.

Thus Hebrew ideas influenced the Greek mind, and in return ideas that were traditional among the populations of the great cities and country villages of Greek Asia not only gave a new inspiration to the Jewish followers of Jesus but inevitably invaded and shook the narrow Jewish orthodoxy. It was not a mere


Jewish Messiah that the world hungered for; it was a Saviour of mankind. And such a Saviour must, according to all Greek precedent, be the son of a God by a daughter of Earth, and she, on the analogy of many myths, a Virgin of royal birth, made fruitful by the divine Touch or Breath or Spirit. The Jews might indignantly protest. Greek philosophers might cry halt. But these ideas were too wide-spread and deep-rooted to be suppressed, and soon began to lead away from strict monotheism to something more emotional and more familiar; to the immemorial worship of the Mother Goddess, to the old Trinity of Father, Mother and Child in different forms, and to various rites for entering into communion with God by the mediation of minor deities or by the mystical partaking of the divine blood. No wonder there was bitter opposition between Christian and Jew. The Jews could not but feel that these Hellenizers were trying to drag them into a swamp of mere paganism.

It was a long time before these various streams of religious emotion could be shaped into one coherent Christian creed. At first, apparently, it was enough to have received the Good News that the Saviour had come and suffered and re-risen, and now the Kingdom of God was at hand. Even when that Good News proved to be not true in its literal sense, the intense longing which inspired that unhappy generation was too strong to let it die. It was preserved as at least an allegorical truth. In the early days it seems clear that there was no exact orthodoxy. Different teachers and different parts of the Hellenistic world followed their divergent ways of thought. I suspect, however, that one binding force among Christians was the conscious misery of the subject populations of the Roman Empire after the awful series of civil wars and proletarian rebellions whose effects still persisted even after the establishment of the Augustan Peace. The early Christian literature which accepts as obvious the wickedness of publicani and upper-class Pharisees and the extreme improbability of any rich man entering the Kingdom of Heaven, which cries that the foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests but the son of man has not where to lay his head, was, as Arnold Toynbee has pointed out,* repeating an old "flying word" which had been familiar to unhappy populations from the time of Tiberius

* Study of History, vi, p. 414.


Gracchus onward. Such a movement brought union among the oppressed and at the same time roused terror in society generally. Again and again the writers of the New Testament repeat the command "Slaves, obey your masters,"* and explain that they use no violence and seek no earthly kingdom. Those who remembered with horror the risings of Mithridates, of the Heliopolites in Asia, Spartacus in Italy, the slave-king "Antiochus" in Sicily, were mistrustful of this mysterious current of emotion among the proletariates of the eastern cities, and its occasional outbursts of unconcealed fury against the Harlot seated upon Seven Hills and drunken with the blood of saints. When one reads of the horror inspired by the name of Christian and the monstrous persecutions to which Christians were exposed in a world which did not persecute other religions, I suspect that the explanation lies chiefly in two of the new religion's noblest qualities. It represented the cry of the poor in a suffering and harshly administered world, and it proclaimed a great, if temporary, liberation of the human mind by its wholesale denial of false gods and idolatrous pietisms.

* Eph. vi, 5; Col. iii, 22; Tit. ii, 9; I Pet. ii, 18.

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