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The Origins of the New Testament

Chapter I


ORTHODOX defenders of Scripture, especially its Catholic defenders, are wont to charge independent critics with lacking intuitive perception of the supernatural which, according to their accusers, shines out in the Scriptures, especially in the New Testament, thus creating a privileged position for the books sacred to Christians and clothing them with authority beyond the range of discussion. These, they say, are divine books alike by their origin and character, replete with truth for all time; records of clearly miraculous events, by which God, from the beginning of time, showed forth the salvation of humanity in signs, prepared it, and at last made it effectual.

In all this, a double meaning, an equivocation, is clearly apparent, of which both the orthodox apologist and the overconfident critic seem alike to be the victims. There are two "supernaturals." The one, which we shall designate as magical, is found existing in all religions and mythologies, as well as in fairy tales; in this kind of supernatural the Jewish and Christian Scriptures have their full share, both in their content and in the orthodox tradition which interprets them. The other, which we shall designate as moral and spiritual, is manifested by the religions of humanity in marvellous outbursts of spiritual life, more notable in some religions, less in others, but outstandingly intense in Judaism and Christianity and conferring on these two an eminent place in the moral evolution of mankind. This supernatural reality is overlooked by those extremists who can see in religion, and in its beliefs and practice, nothing more than the transmission of time-honoured and oppressive absurdities. But this supernatural, while not a miracle in the vulgar sense of the word, belongs to a higher realm than the miraculous. It is the only supernatural worthy of the name and the only kind whose real existence can be confidently affirmed. And theologians who, thinking to defend it, confuse it with miraculous magic, understand it but ill and serve it no better.


The idea of books entirely God-made, but written in the languages of men, in the native dialects of particular peoples and in the idiom of given times, an idea widely spread in the ancient world and retained in Christian orthodoxy, is inconsistent and self-contradictory. Professional authors are relatively newcomers in the history of our race. But even if they were more ancient than they are, we can hardly imagine anything more indiscreet, not to say more flagrantly impious, than to put God among these worthies, where he has to be furnished with assistants, as though he could not dispense with them, to write down what he would say and attend to the publication of his works. Theologians tax their wits to explain how God can be, in any real sense, the author of books which he has neither written himself nor dictated word by word. Their explanation is that he suggested them. How do they know that? Do they really understand what they are saying?

Had they taken the pains to look into the matter, without thought of axes to be ground, they would have seen that the books themselves make not the slightest claim to the divine origin attributed to them by the theologians, but are in fact made up, in the human manner, of tradition and teaching; of rules political, social and ritual; of liturgical chants; of oracles deemed prophetic (not uncommon in the ancient world, and of which we should be hard put to it to find the fulfilment); of collections of moral precepts such as we find among all nations; and of a group of myths, clearly recognizable as such, to account for the origin of the world and of mankind. All of which has undergone an age-long process of glossing and amalgamation clearly due to human initiative, and not even to be thought of as proceeding from God's initiative in any part or stage of it. What anthropomorphism could be more naive than that which counts the authorship of books among the attributes of God?

These remarks, it will be said, apply to the Old Testament only. They apply equally to the New. A long, slow process brought the Gospels to their present form without any sign of divine initiative at the beginning or the end or at any point between the two; at a given time they were selected, from among


many, by the Church authorities and the text of their content finally determined. The same is true of the Acts of the Apostles. It is well worthy cf note that the author of the third Gospel and of Acts, who wrote the prologues to Theophilus, assumes full responsibility for his work, for his method and for the object he has in view. The apostolic Epistles, authentic or not, are personal works called forth by particular occasions. Moreover a considerable part of them are forgeries, for which it would be unseemly enough to make God directly responsible. And what of the Book of Revelation—the Apocalypse of John? The best that can be said of it is that for centuries men have taxed their wits to find in it a meaning which is not there, for the simple reason that the meaning which is there was immediately contradicted by the course of events. Alas, this glowing prophecy was not fulfilled. Who can believe that it came entire from God? In short, the idea of God as author of books is a myth, if ever there was one, and a myth redolent of magic. A book written by the hand of man and filled throughout with the light of God is as inconceivable as a square circle. The books reputed all divine are simply not filled with truth from beginning to end—far from it! They contain as many errors as books of their kind, written when they were, could be made to hold.

To this notion of divine authorship, so artificial and fragile, the Church committed her future and compromised it in so doing. Persuaded that her sacred books were filled with truth for all time she has not hesitated to oppose them to the scientific movement of our age. We know what has come of that. Everyone has heard of Galileo's adventure and knows what it meant. Meanwhile the Church continues to equivocate; even on the affair of Galileo which, nevertheless, is transparently clear. She is still convinced, and would have it believed, that her sacred books contain nothing contrary to truth about the order of the universe, and that the Bible, though knowing nothing about the matter, does not contradict it, but only uses the common language of mankind which speaks of things as they seem to be. Can she really believe that by a subterfuge of this kind, which amounts to charging the Scriptures with ignorance, she is really safeguarding their divine authority? Is there any denying that the first chapters of Genesis profess to give a true account of the creation of the


world, the origin of humanity up to the Deluge and the genealogy of the peoples? All that is unadulterated myth, the babblings of humanity's childhood, but not unmingled with sublimity. If God is the responsible author of the story he must have been ignorant of the constitution of the universe which, on the orthodox hypothesis, he had created, and equally ignorant of the long and confused pre-history of the race which he had brought into being and established on the earth to serve him.

Not only at this starting point, but along the whole line of historical and literary criticism, the traditional doctrine is in complete collapse. To begin with, consider the question which concerns the authenticity of the documents. Since God is their author the divine guarantee covers their attribution to the particular scribes whose names they carry. What an embarrassment is thereby erected by the Pentateuch alone! The attribution of this collection to Moses is attested by Jewish tradition, but equally, it would seem, by the New Testament and by the authority of the Christ himself who, in a certain passage of the fourth Gospel (John v, 46), declares that Moses wrote concerning him. And yet it is the almost unanimous verdict of critics that the oldest sources from which the compilation is derived go no further back than the time of the Israelite monarchy, while the bulk of the cultural legislation contained in it is later than the Babylonian captivity. Not a page, one might even say not a line, can be traced to him whom the tradition of Israel and of the Christian Church regards as the founder of Jewish religion. To explain the divinity of the sources the Papal Commission of Biblical Study declared, in a memorable decree, that Moses had secretaries. The secretaries of Moses! A brilliant discovery, to be sure! But we have nothing to do with them since, if these interesting persons ever existed, we should have to admit that not a trace of their work has come down to us.

This, far from being a solitary case, is only one of the more conspicuous and significant. The case of Isaiah is also worth recalling. The book named after Isaiah as it appears in the Bible contains much besides the authentic oracles of the prophet who was contemporary with Ezechias. Notably one whole section, the last twenty-four chapters, were written, as all the evidence shows, either in presence of the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus


or shortly afterwards. None the less they were reputed the work of Isaiah for the sole reason that in the process of copying the manuscript they were attached to the roll that had Isaiah's name on it. Speaking generally we may say that the oracles of the ancient prophets have been systematically completed and interpolated in the process of coming down to us. Has the veracity of God nothing to do with the false attribution of these additions to the authors of the original oracles?

The question assumes a more difficult aspect, if that be possible, when we turn to the books of the New Testament. Here all the writings have human authors who either name themselves or are expressly indicated by tradition. Everyone knows that the Church recognized and retained four Gospels respectively attributed to the apostle Matthew, to Mark (reputed a disciple of Peter), to Luke, who was a disciple of Paul, and to the apostle John. Now it is morally certain, and admitted by the majority even of moderate critics, that these attributions are, to say the least, approximative, the books not having been written all at one time by single hands nor given their present canonical form from the beginning. Many, moreover, are of the opinion that not one of the Gospels is the work of the apostolic person whose name it bears, and that the apostle John, in particular, had nothing whatever to do with writing the Gospel attributed to him. But, if God is their guarantee, his veracity demands that each of them be integrally the work of the author assigned by tradition. We shall return to these Gospels later on to find that their contents, no less than their presumed authenticity, are replete with difficulties for the apologists in question.

We have already mentioned the Acts of the Apostles, a book which, like the third Gospel, presents conditions somewhat peculiar. Alone among New Testament writings these two carry a dedication, of a well-known type in Greco-Roman antiquity. Luke was not the author of the dedications to Theophilus, the general prologue (Luke i, 1-4) forbidding us to include the author of it in the first Christian generation. Furthermore, the part of the prologue to Acts which has been preserved implies that the former book to Theophilus did not contain the birth stories and related only the ministry of the Christ up to the time of his death. Finally all the evidence shows that the second part


of the original prologue to Acts, in which the proper object of the book was stated by the original author, has been mutilated by a writer who understood that object in a different manner from the author to Theophilus and who, in consequence, had to reconstruct his book from beginning to end as, in fact, he has done. All this later writer has conserved of Luke's work is certain fragments of his memoirs of which the original author to Theophilus had made a fuller use. It follows that Luke wrote neither the third Gospel nor Acts. He wrote only certain passages of the latter book, and we are compelled to recognize at least two stages in the composition of both books. It would seem, however that the veracity of God forbids us to observe and record such things, and obliges us to maintain that both books, in their canonical edition, are from the hand of Luke.

According to tradition Paul wrote fourteen Epistles and the veracity of God demands the belief that all are truly his. But the Epistle to the Hebrews is positively not from him; the second to Thessalonians is almost certainly apocryphal; so is the Epistle to the Ephesians; many hold that the Epistles to Timothy and to Titus, in their main contents, cannot be his. And we have already pointed out in another work1 that there is much to be said against the full authenticity of the Epistles to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, to the Colossians. Here is a group of questions which the veracity of God forbids us even to raise.

As to the Catholic Epistles, there is strong reason to think that the Church deemed it necessary to include in the Canon, as pendant to Paul's Epistles, a number of others bearing the names of reputed apostolic persons other than he, notably Peter, John and the two "brothers of the Lord" James and Jude. Not one of these Epistles goes back to the first Christian age. Pseudo-James launches discreet polemic against the theory in Romans of justification by faith alone; pseudo-Jude crosses swords with the gnostics; pseudo-Peter, in the second Epistle, repeats the diatribe of pseudo-Jude and cites a collection of Paul's Epistles of which heretics are making wrong use—not as natural a proceeding as defenders of tradition would make out. For there is not a doubt that he was aiming at Marcion towards the middle of the second


century. Add to this that the author, at the beginning of the same Epistle, refers implicitly to the Apocalypse of Peter, composed towards the year 135; a supreme instance of false attribution, though the writing was held in credit by some of the Churches to the end of the second century. The second Epistle of Peter is a barefaced forgery. The first Epistle is not more authentic; it depends on the Pauline group and cannot be earlier than the second third of the second century. The three Epistles attributed to John were composed in the course of the same century to accompany the fourth Gospel when its claims were being pressed among the Asiatic Churches. They are no more the work of the apostle John than is the Gospel itself. But the veracity of God would give us no alternative to believing that all these apocryphal productions come from the persons whose names they bear. Need we add that the Book of Revelation is the work of a certain John who was not John the apostle?

We abstain from the cruelty of further insistence. He compromises God who makes him the author of written books.


The compromising effect on traditional belief, due to confounding the supernatural with magic, is equally apparent when we consider the particular events for which magic is made responsible. We limit our remarks to a few essential points in the two Testaments.

The myth of creation in the first chapter of Genesis need not delay us for long. The creation, by the spoken word, of the different parts of the universe, childishly conceived as cut up into separate compartments, is an act of divine magic, which all the goodwill of its apologists will never succeed in bringing into harmony with the known facts of cosmic and terrestrial evolution. The wonder-story of Eden, with the creation of the first human pair and the commission of the first sin, older than the cosmic myth both in conception and structure, is also an obvious myth, a scene from the realm of enchantment where the imagination of adolescent mankind, just beginning to reflect, finds its playground. Whence comes death? is the question then asked. Imagination answers, surely death is something that need not


have been; the first man and the first woman ate a strange fruit which their creator had forbidden them to eat. Among good tales here is one finely told. But nothing more.

Another such, mythological and purely pagan, is the story of the intercourse of the sons of God, the angels, with the daughters of men, of which were born the giants whose abominable conduct brought on the Deluge, a story no more worthy of belief when found in the Bible than when found in the old fables of Greece about the union of gods with mortal women, but adopted as true in both Epistles of Peter and in the Epistle of Jude.

As to the Deluge itself, it is beyond dispute that the myth was created in Lower Mesopotamia. The prototype of the Bible story has been found in the bricks of Nineveh and the priority of the Accadian text admits not the slightest doubt: another old fable which Israelite tradition has borrowed from ancient Mesopotamia and has little enough to do with the true history of mankind.

Then the Tower of Babel and the miraculous confusion of tongues, a miracle on the grand scale intended to explain the diversity of peoples, but pure fiction, explaining nothing. A genealogy of the nations which traces their descent from Adam through Noah is little more than a fantasy to smile at, whose sole historical interest lies in a crude chart, or something like it, of the peoples inhabiting the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean at the time the chart was made. Another instance of the mythological fiction to which all these prodigies are reducible.

Turning next to the origin of the Israelites we are not surprised, after what has gone before, to learn that this people also is descended from a single couple, Abraham and his wife Sarah, emigrants from Mesopotamia. Abraham and Sarah produced Isaac who had twin sons, Esau and Jacob, by his wife Rebecca, Esau or Edom, ancestor of the Idumeans; Jacob, finally called Israel, who begat of four wives twelve sons, fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel; the eleventh of these sons is sold by his brothers and carried off into Egypt where he became Pharaoh's chief-minister, in so much that on famine breaking out in Canaan, Jacob and his family migrate to the fertile lands of


Egypt where they have various experiences; on arrival they are seventy in number; after several generations they become a great people multiplying at such a rate that the Egyptians become alarmed; the Pharaoh of the time who, we are told, knew not Joseph, gives orders to destroy all the Hebrew males as soon as born; but God, who has called Abraham out of Mesopotamia and promised the land of Canaan to his posterity, brings it to pass that the child of a certain Amram, of the tribe of Levi, is found by Pharaoh's daughter exposed in a wicker cradle on the Nile and brought up; this child is Moses; his brilliant career then follows; his flight into Midian and return into Egypt; his unloosing of plagues on Egypt by raising his magic wand which changes into a serpent; departure from Egypt of the chosen people under Moses and his brother Aaron; passage of the Red Sea which divides its waters to let the Israelites pass over and closes them again on Pharaoh's army. Then come forty years in the desert and the feeding of the people with manna and quails, and with water made by Moses to gush from the rock, ending with the departure of the host from the desert for the conquest of Canaan and the death of Moses on Mount Pisgah, whence he can see the land where Israel is to settle. Then comes the passage of the Jordan whose bed becomes dry for the march of the Israelites, and the capture of Jericho whose walls collapse at the sound of Israel's trumpets; the battle of Gibeon where Joshua makes the sun stand still that Israel may have time to complete the enemy's overthrow. After which Joshua proceeds at leisure to parcel out the conquered land among the tribes.

A splendid epic, from which, alas, history can glean hardly a particle of solid matter. Clearly enough its construction of Israel's genealogy is artificial. Peoples are not born in that way. The names, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob-Israel, certainly existed and each of these vocables must have originally corresponded to somebody or to something, but to whom, or to what, is not easily determined. Jacob, as everyone knows, won his name of Israel in a strange combat in which he got the better of God himself. His twelve sons are not simple individuals but types of heroes, divine or tribal. The patriarchal myths figure a peaceful occupation of Canaan and these are doubled, so to say, by myths of a conquest which, taken as they stand, are hardly less imaginative


than the former. The adventures of Joseph make a noble story linking the two series of myths together, but nothing of it can be retained by the historian. That relations existed of old between the tribes and Egypt is beyond doubt, but what is here narrated of them never happened. It is to be noted that the legend cannot even give the name of the Pharaoh who exalted Joseph and welcomed his family, and is equally ignorant of the name of the Pharaoh who turned oppressor. Commentators are still cudgelling their brains to discover these names; they may continue to cudgel them to the end of the world but will never find what they seek. The Moses legend is a counterpart to the myth of the oppression and miraculous flight, which the different sources of the Pentateuch have adorned with prodigies enough and to spare. The least uncertain point of the Moses legend is its attachment to the sanctuary of Kadesh. If Moses ever existed it was at Kadesh that he gave out the law, near to the fountain of Judgment, and manipulated the casting of lots {unm and thummim) which seems to have traditionally belonged to Levi. The Book of the Covenant was not his work, but belongs to the time of the monarchy; neither was Deuteronomy which dates from the reign of Josias, if not from the first years of the captivity; nor the legislation known as Levitical which is less ancient than Deuteronomy. And not only is the authorship of these books none of his; it is improbable that he had any part in the migration of the tribes towards the land of Canaan. This movement had a character very different from that of a conquest achieved by one sweeping stroke. When exactly it began we cannot say and it was not completed before the establishment of the monarchy. Various movements of penetration have to be distinguished; one, from the South by the tribes of Judah, Simeon and Levi, of which that of Judah alone succeeded, the tribes of Simeon and Levi becoming exhausted in the course of it, while another thrust, by the Northern tribes, was made to the East and, in course of time, with more success. It is possible that Joshua played a leading part in the early battles, and that is all we can claim to know about him. Few persons nowadays can seriously believe that he caused the sun to stand still over Gibeon, which some chronicler inferred from what he read in a collection of heroic songs, the Jashar (Joshua x, 13). This chronicler, whether understanding or misunderstanding


what he read, was clearly the dupe of his gift as a story-teller. [1]

Of the other Old Testament miracles we pause but for a moment over that of Jonah shut up for three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish, and while there even composing a hymn to the glory of the Lord. To question the historicity of this splendid story is doubtless impermissible, but belief in it is not easy. From the historical point of view it has the same guarantees as the adventures of Puss-in-boots or of Hop-o'-my-thumb.

We hasten on to the New Testament which is hardly less penetrated by magic than the Old. On the very threshold we meet an undeniable proof in the stories of the miraculous birth. Two genealogies confront us: the first in Matthew (i, 1-17) comes down from Abraham to Jesus; the second in Luke (iii, 23-38) goes up from Jesus to Adam. (As to the latter we have only to think for a moment on the degree of impossibility involved, in a genealogy of any individual belonging to the human race, which takes its departure from the origin of that race itself. For that reason alone the bare idea of such a list of ancestors belongs unquestionably to the realm of magic.) In the generations covered by both lists they disagree, and will never agree in spite of all the forced and ridiculous conjectures of their interpreters. Moreover—and this is the chief point to be noted—it is clear to all who open their eyes that they were invented to show that Jesus was descended from David through his father Joseph, the last name on the list. This, their original aim, is completely upset

[1] It seems probable that the original citation ended with the distich given in verse 12:

Sun stand thou still over Gibeon And thou, Moon, over the valley of Ajalon,

the object of the apostrophe being different from what the writer of Joshua takes it to be. In the Greek version of 1 Kings viii, 53 we find a similar citation, with the reference, which seems to have alone preserved tile complete text, as spoken by Solomon about the Temple. Reconstructed from the Greek text their meaning would be:

"Jehovah has fixed the Sun's place in the heavens; He bade the Sun take his stand beyond the darkness; I have built thee a house for thy habitation In which thou shalt dwell month by month."

This refers to the passage of the sun through the signs of the Zodiac and is borrowed from a creation-poem. It was easy in the time when Joshua was written to make the sun stand still. Cf. Iliad, ii, 411; Odyssey, xxiii, 243.


by the introduction of the idea of the virgin conception at a later stage in the development of the story.

That is not all. The two stories, in their main features, have independent origins. That in the third Gospel seems to be a counterpart to a legend of John the Baptist, to which it has been joined on. It presents the parents of Jesus, already espoused, in their home in Nazareth when the angel Gabriel appeared on the-and need we say that the proceedings of angels do not impress the modern historian as very solidly guaranteed? Gabriel informs Mary, whose fiance Joseph is said to belong to the house of David, that she will give birth to a son who will be the Messiah; as guarantee that the promise will be fulfilled he cites the case of Elisabeth whose miraculous pregnancy may well serve for testimony. Here comes a surcharge on the original text in the two verses which announce the virgin conception (Luke i, 34-35). Passing over the marvels which immediately follow and adorn the story, we come to the circumstance which brings Joseph and Mary from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of David, in order that Jesus may be born there—the census for taxation ordered by Quirinius. Now the census of Quirinius did not take place before the year 6 of our era, and we are told that the whole affair happened in the time of Herod who died four years before our era began; whence results a difference of at least ten years between the birth of Jesus and the census of Quirinius. To this our hagiographer has paid no heed, and the exegetes labour in vain to put the matter right. We have no heart to dwell on the intervention of angels on the memorable birth-night to guide the shepherds to the cradle. Eight days afterwards the child is circumcised, at the end of forty taken to Jerusalem to be ransomed as a first-born; the aged Simeon prophesies concerning him; the venerable Anna likewise, and the parents return quietly to their home town of Nazareth. The legend is a work of art, and of next to no value as a record of historical happenings.

Luke's story, moreover, flatly contradicts the legend in Matthew, which is no less artificially constructed and no better founded than the other. In this Gospel the home of Joseph and Mary is not Nazareth, but Bethlehem, where they are living as an espoused couple, and it is at Bethlehem that the miraculous conception takes place, an angel explaining the matter to Joseph


and quieting the misgivings which such an announcement could hardly fail to arouse. All this happens, so the hagiographer informs us, as the fulfilment of an oracle in Isaiah vii, 14, on which he puts a forced meaning—a point we shall not dwell upon, since a meaning, more or less forced, is put on all the Old Testament texts alleged to have their fulfilment in the New, a proceeding well in keeping with supernatural magic by forcing into texts meanings not naturally theirs. After this the legend becomes solemn and tragic: astrologers (Magi) arrive from the East at Jerusalem to adore the King of the Jews about to be born there —they have seen the rising of his star. Disturbed by the news Herod assembles his wise men who declare that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem, for so, they say, the prophet Micah has foretold. The astrologers accordingly take the road to Bethlehem, Herod requesting them to return to Jerusalem to report. The star reappears, and guides them to the house where the child is laid; they enter, adore, offer their gifts, and, a premonitory dream warning them not to see Herod again, they return to their country by a different road. Another angel commands Joseph to fly into Egypt with the child and his mother, to escape from Herod's inquisition. So to Egypt they depart, thereby accomplishing an oracle of Hosea (xi, i)—which refers to the Israelite people. Follows the massacre of children in Bethlehem and the region round about, according to a prophecy of Jeremiah (xxxi, 15)—forced like the others into the service. At last the cruel Herod dies; an angel bids Joseph return to Judea, to Bethlehem; but this he dares not do and betakes himself instead to Galilee, to Nazareth, thereby fulfilling a saying of prophecy concerning the Christ: "he shall be called a Nazarene." But the exegetes have been unable to discover where the prophecy is to be found.

The important point to note is that Matthew's legend is incompatible with Luke's from beginning to end: the two are equally full of marvels and magic; but neither is inwardly consistent and the two cancel each other out. In their mythology and magic they belong to the history of the growth of belief and throw not a ray of light on the historical origin of Jesus.

Supernaturalism of the same type, a mixture of magic and mythology, colours the main body of the Gospel narrative to a


lesser degree, but it is far from being absent. Moreover it is clear from the outset that the account of the public career of Jesus from his baptism by John to his death and entry into immortal life, though having a certain resemblance in all the four Gospels, is understood by the fourth, as to its principal features, in a sense quite different from that given to it by the first three.

In the first three, a figure, to all seeming that of a human being, presents himself for John's baptism and receives it under miraculous conditions, in which he is invested with the Messianic dignity of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is henceforth to possess him, having first appointed him Son of God. Setting aside the secondary variants in the three Gospels this scene clearly represents the consecration of Jesus as Messiah and is at the same time the prototype of Christian baptism, in other words it is the first and principal stage in the formation of the myth of the Christ and of the institution of baptism. Though Jesus was probably baptized by John it was not under these conditions. In this we see that tlie synoptic account does not begin as an historical record of Jesus the teacher. It begins as doctrinal instruction, as a catechesis, by presenting a doctrine to the Christian initiate. All that follows up to the end is in keeping with the beginning.

As we shall later study in detail the growth of the Gospel catechesis, we confine attention for the present to its general features. It is certain that all the materials of the Gospel catechesis, various and ill-ordered as they are, are intended to show that the teaching was wonder-working. Jesus is the Messiah announced by the miracle of his baptism. To this point of view everything is systematically adjusted. The aim is the instruction of Christians, not at presenting the real course of Jesus' ministry which, for all who have eyes to see, consisted in the announcement of the imminent Kingdom of God; in this the role of miracle-worker can have had but a very small place. The number of miracles of which a detailed description is given is not considerable, and it is worthy of note that whenever a miracle is described in detail the meaning of it lies in the saving work accomplished by Jesus; its mystic significance as a work of salvation always outweighs the importance of the material facts. With regard to these latter the Gospel narratives are completely indifferent, witness the facility with which different evangelists change the setting, modifying


at will the order and connection of events and circumstances, and not hesitating, by way of making the proof more convincing, to introduce what we may call editorial miracles to heighten the mise en scene, or to make a discourse more impressive. Offensive as such proceedings may be to modern standards, they are valuable to the critic by revealing the ground on which the Gospel stories are constructed, the ground namely of doctrinal teaching and pious legend, and not the ground of history. We shall enter later into fuller detail; note only, as typical examples, the bloc of miracles which Jesus, in Mark iii, 10-12, performs, before proceeding to the mission of the apostles; the miraculous cure of the two blind men (ix, 27-33) in which Matthew doubles the cure of Bartimeus at Jericho, and the cure of the deaf mute brought in at the same point (ix, 32-34), both to provide ground for the answer Jesus will presently give to John's messengers; in like manner the raising of the young man at Nain (Luke vii, 11-17), which a reviser of the third Gospel improvises for the same pur- pose and on the same occasion, to say nothing of the miscellaneous collection of miraculous cures which he inserts so oddly (vii, 21) in the middle of the dialogue between Jesus and the messengers. By these proceedings the evangelists themselves invite us to rate such miracles at their proper worth. They are piled up to satiety and without more scruple than if they were metaphors.

The second part of the synoptic catechism, introduced by Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi, has a perspective leading up to its dominating feature in the saving death of Jesus, which he is represented as predicting on various occasions for the instruction of his disciples. Fundamentally this part of the catechism is intended to explain the mystery of the Communion Supper along with that of the Christian Easter, celebrated on Sunday. We know that the observation of Easter on this particular day of the week was adopted by the majority of the Churches, beginning with the Roman Church, in the course of the second century. Needless to say it was not the primitive custom. It is certain that the earliest believers were in the habit of celebrating their Passover on the movable day when the Jews celebrated theirs, and it was only when the idea of a distinctively Christian


method of salvation had been elaborated that it was deemed expedient to separate from Jewish practice by celebrating on a fixed day, as the culminating point of the divine epiphany and saving work of Jesus. This was his resurrection, and Sunday which had already become the Lord's Day, that is the day consecrated to the immortal Christ, was obviously the day on which the resurrection must be supposed to have taken place. Here again we are on doctrinal ground, the ground even of gnosis and mystery, not on that of history or attested fact.

But even at this point the Gospel narratives are far from reflecting a consistent and homogeneous tradition. The stories of the Passion and of the Resurrection are loaded with other matter and full of incoherencies. In Mark the last meal of Jesus, which was not a paschal meal in the earliest version of it, has been doubled in the story of the Anointing (xiv, 3-9), the intention apparently being to arrange a kind of holy week, in which the institution of the Supper was commemorated on Thursday evening, when Jesus himself was said to have celebrated the Passover; the Passion would then be assigned to Friday. Passing over the flagrant impossibility of Jesus being arrested and tried by the Sanhedrin on the holy night of the Passover, we find that he remains in the tomb for the whole of the Sabbath (Saturday) and is raised up just before the dawn on Sunday morning. Such is the underlying myth which supports the ritual commemoration on Sunday.

We know how the authentic version of Mark ends abruptly with the discovery of the empty tomb by the women who flee in panic without telling any man of the miracle they have seen. At a yet older stage in the formation of the Gospel it would seem to have concluded with the centurion's confession of faith (xv, 39), the moment of Jesus' death being considered as also the moment of his resurrection to glory and immortal life. But this simple conception of his resurrection, which was certainly held by the first believers, was presently deemed insufficient. The discovery of the empty tomb was then imagined to provide a material proof, the resurrection being now conceived under the idea that the dead body of Jesus must have been re-animated and delivered up from a tomb in which it had been immured for some time. This materialized conception of the matter is pursued in the


other Gospels to the point of extravagance and in self-contradictory forms, the material body of Jesus being endowed with the immaterial quality of spirit, while the Christ is represented (in Luke and Acts) even as taking part in the meals of the disciples. In addition to this self-contradiction, Luke flatly contradicts the stories in Matthew and Mark who place the first apparition of the risen Jesus in Galilee. From all this the conclusion follows that what we have here is not a historical tradition of a factual resurrection which, after all, is not an observable fact of the physical order, but an assertion of faith. The stories of imagined apparitions are, for the most part, apologetic constructions for buttressing belief by clothing it in material form. Whence it follows in this crucial case, as in that of miracles in general, that the only history we can glean from stories of supernatural magic is the history of belief.


The primary difference between the point of view of the fourth Gospel and that of the Synopsis is that the Christ it presents is not a human being raised above humanity by a Spirit emanating from God, but a divine being from the outset, a hypostasis, an original emanation, the transcendent Son, the Logos of God. This Son or Logos is made manifest in the flesh that he may gather believers, who, by true faith in him whom God has sent, will themselves become God's children. The Son has neither father nor mother in this world. Nevertheless, in his earthly manifestation, he appears as the member of a family, is reputed son of Joseph and has a mother and brothers. But the book, in the form in which it has come down to us, seems to attribute to the Christ an existence completely human, assigning him a real birth followed by an integral human life up to the age of thirty after which his ministry, as divine revealer of a mystery, begins and lasts for about three years. Not only is this in violent and consciously intended contradiction to the Synopsis but is an addition and a contradiction to the fundamental idea of the fourth Gospel itself, the idea namely of a divine incarnation for the manifestation and fulfilment of human salvation, the said manifestation having no need to pass through preparatory stages while concealed under a developing human envelope.


It remains to add that, while the Johannine Christ is presented as revealing and instituting the religion of spirit, he fulfils that function exclusively by means of two revealing images, light and life, which after all are sensible symbols, and by "signs" which are not merely symbols but miracles, prodigies effected by supernatural magic, intensified in narration to enhance the spiritual lesson, which, on its side, tends to compromise the material reality of the facts in the story. But their material reality is none the less intended by the narrator. Thus: the Christ is the Light of the world; proof, the miraculous cure of the man born blind: the Christ is resurrection and life; proof, the raising of Lazarus after four days in the grave. Both these marvels are presented as factually occurring, and as leading up to the spiritual denouement. The same method is applied in the presentation of the other miracles.

The stories of the Passion and of the Resurrection are constructed on a like principle. Although they have been retouched to soften their profound and significant difference from the synoptic presentation, the Johannine stories of these events were originally written and still remain, under all that has been added, in harmony with the primitive Easter observance, known as quartodeciman, the Christ being deemed to have died on the 14 Nizan, on the day and at the very hour when the paschal lamb was sacrificed. The contradiction of the Synoptics on this essential cannot be resolved. Nor could the conflict as to the two observances, which went on during the second century.

The divergence shows that both dates are commemorative. Neither can pretend to indicate the chronological place of the Passion. They are ritual conventions, not history. Both being symbolic, and the one no more historical than the other, the historian is under no obligation to choose between them. They are mutually destructive.

Note further, on account of its importance, the incident of the lance-thrust. This incident, though secondary, fictitious and a late insertion into the story, is full of meaning. Not only is it presented as the fulfilment of two prophecies, but the water and blood that flow from the pierced side of Jesus are figures of the sacraments of Christian initiation, baptism and the Supper, and of the double witness of the Spirit, emitted in the last breath of the


Crucified. To find in the natural decomposition of blood an explanation of a miracle and symbol so finely conceived, as some would do, is an exercise of ingenuity in which only a blind exegesis could indulge itself (John xix, 30-37; cf. vii, 37-39; 1 John v, 6-8).

The Johannine stories of the resurrection, which have been worked over in successive revisions of the Gospel, are incoherent and self-contradictory. They are out of harmony with the underlying principle of the Gospel itself, according to which the Christ returns to his eternal life, which had been interrupted, as it were, by his temporal incarnation, with the last utterance of his expiring breath. Incoherently with this spiritual conception, tradition introduced a proof of material resurrection by proclaiming the discovery of the empty tomb. Incoherently again, the Christ, entering through closed doors as an immaterial spirit, proceeds to show the disciples his material body scarred by the nails and the lance, and the scene is repeated a second time to convince the sceptical Thomas. Here is miraculous magic enough: but there is more to come. A supplementary chapter (xxi) is given up to an apparition in Galilee, doubtless derived from the oldest tradition of the post-resurrection visions, in which the risen Jesus mingles for a time in the daily life of his followers. But the end of the story shows that the whole episode has been introduced for the purpose of creating some sort of link between the glorious memory of Peter, head-shepherd of the Christ's sheep, with that of the beloved disciple of Jesus whom the churches of Asia venerated as their supposed founder, the true and truthful author of the Gospel in which these great marvels are reported. But the Johannine Gospel, like the others, is so full of such marvels, and in a sense fuller of fiction than they, that we cannot bind the historian to accept all these operations of miraculous magic, as real events irrefragably attested. They are constructed for a purpose.


It would be idle to press further our proof of the presence in the Bible, even in the New Testament, and in the Gospels, of a supernatural magic unthinkable by contemporary intelligence. In the supernatural so understood we have here no part or lot, for


the plain reason that it is untrue, that it crumbles to pieces, save so far as it is held together by the ignorance of the believing masses, and by the wilful blindness of the theologians who refuse to see what is before them; nor can the suspicion be avoided that these theologians sometimes play a part which ranges them with opportunists, apologetic politicians, exegetical strategists, rather than with those who really and personally believe in this false supernaturalism, which they seem determined to impose as a perpetual burden on the religious mind. We beg to tell them, and to say it once for all, that their pretensions are preposterous and their assumption of infallibility an unpermitted revolt against exact knowledge. In the measure to which they condemn themselves to follow their principle they deprive their works of all claim to scientific value.

Let those who seek edification in such proceedings find the edification they seek. Our own task is to establish the real position of the biblical problem in our time, and to show the place that remains for the true supernatural when the false supernatural of magic and myth has been dismissed.

The problem before us is that of ascertaining, without exaggeration and without reticence, the true place of Christianity in the scale of religious values, taking full account of the development in our time of the natural sciences, of our knowledge of the universe, of anthropology, of human palaeontology, of historical and pre-historical archaeology, of general history and the philosophy of history, and of the knowledge of man himself. With an urgency which no words can fully express we invite the theologians of all the Christian confessions, and believers of every religion in the world, to ponder the infinite perspectives which now open before us on all sides and in presence of which all the cosmogonies, all the mythologies, nay, all the theologies bequeathed to us by antiquity vanish like the dreams of childhood.

Consider the immensity of the universe and the harmony of its laws as now revealed to us; the mystery of infinite worlds moving eternally on their way in the unfathomable depths of space; consider the mystery of the atom, of the infinitely little, each one a world and yet hardly perceptible to our senses, enshrining in itself the mystery of the great universe, as it confronts us in the life of every star and of all the stars in their


totality. In the presence of that what becomes of all the ancient mythologies, including the biblical? In strictness of speech they come to nothing. To be sure, the mystery of the universe does not suppress the mystery of God, but intensifies it beyond measure and shifts it to regions where all the old definitions of God vanish like bursting bubbles. The idea of a completed and simultaneous creation of all things—what now becomes of that? What madman in our days would dare to write down the age of the universe in arithmetical figures? In the ages when the religions of the world were born and their sacred books indited, barely a suspicion had arisen of the mystery of the universe and the mystery of God as they now confront us. An important fact in itself and in its consequences.

That is not all. There is another mystery equally ignored by all the religions in their sacred books, the mystery of man. On this, as on the other, all they have to offer is fable, the work of the imagination. Into the slow and painful ascent of man as he rose from the animal condition to a growing consciousness of his humanity, our vision now begins to penetrate, even to the countless millenniums of his pre-history; even on the origins of history a new light now begins everywhere to fall, and chiefly on the ancient history of the neighbouring East where the religion of Israel and the Christian religion had their birth. Of this mystery, gradually disclosing itself to our astonished gaze, the Bible, in truth, knows next to nothing. Israel and its God, who became the Christian God, are late comers into human history and into that of the Eastern Mediterranean; their sacred legend is relatively recent, and, being a legend, cannot be fitted in with the history, as now reconstructed, of the second millennium before the Christian era and with that of the two or three preceding millenia. Still less can it be fitted with the incalculable millenia before history began, of which the legend knows nothing whatever. In regard to the remote past of the human race, and to the mysterious past of the universe, the legend hangs in air without connection. It is no more a final revelation of the mystery of man than of the mystery, unknown to it, of the universe, but goes on its way without a suspicion of where the human mystery lies.

In the relations to both these mysteries the biblical legend is the work of that fable-making faculty whose activities M. Berg-


son has lately described with so much perspicacity, though without sufficiently insisting on the fact that fable-making is not dead, but is still at work in all religions, and even plays a part, up to a certain point, in the construction of all the philosophic systems.

Need we add that Judaism and Christianity, originally as limited in their outlook towards the future as in their consideration of the past, cannot be accepted as a revelation, and a perpetually valid and sufficient rule, of that religious and moral ideal towards which humanity has never ceased to press forward through all its many illusions and fallings away? The messianic expectations in which Christianity had its birth were, so to say, a short-term revolution of limited range alike in the world and the social order. Here again we encounter an element of that false supernaturalism from which neither Judaism nor Christianity felt any need to shake itself free, although neither religion could grow, or even hold its own, without progressively enlarging the scope of its aspirations and hopes, as in fact they were constrained to do.

Contemplate these stupendous facts. Are they not enough, is not their certitude sufficiently established, to justify the impartial observer, who is also a man of goodwill, but intent on the truth before and above all else, in asserting that the religious phenomenon of Judaism and Christianity is not an absolutely unique and incomparable fact of history, nor a primordial fact of history, nor a fact fully realized in history, needing nothing to be added, till our race, after an indefinite future, comes to its end? May he not affirm that here is no revelation for all time given to humanity in its cradle, fully complete at the outset and never since then falling short of its plentitude, destined, in virtue of its initial force, to guide humanity to the end of its evolution, an end which none can foresee and is undisclosed by the revelation itself? Be it said, quite simply, that Judaism and Christianity, taken together, are not the revelation they have professed to be, but an outstanding manifestation of religion, probably the most remarkable humanity has produced.

Deeply considered, the real economy of the universe, of which we now begin to get glimpses, is more marvellous than all the old cosmogonies; and the real history of man is a revelation of wonders greater than all the mythical schemes of salvation.


Does this imply that religion must now be imagined as having no future on our planet? By no means. What has perished for ever is the dominance, in the concept of religion, of the false supernatural. In a sense, the Christian ideal has never been more necessary, never more immediately applicable, than it is to the movement of civilization in our time. What then is the Christian ideal? It is expressed in the notion of the reign of justice, realized or realizable by the law of love, the noblest ideal our minds are capable of grasping, but presented in the Gospel, thanks to its eschatological form, in Utopian colours and to be realized by magic. It is expressed again in the notion of inward peace, product of faith in the profound value of the regenerated soul, of spiritual life under the law of justice and love, a notion found in the writings attributed to Paul, but there presented in a form not less mythical than in the heretical gnoses. Lastly it finds expression in the vision of a universal society of believers, the true Catholic Church, the common fatherland of souls, united in the practice of justice under the law of love, the confident conviction and clear consciousness that they are being born to a higher life through the working of this sublime law; of all which traditional Catholicism, with an imposed orthodoxy, a ruling hierarchy and a papacy blindly imperialist, while professing to be a true representation, is but a caricature.

The essence of Christianity may be found in this ideal, unrealized though it has been at any period of Christian history; nay, it is the essence of the religion of humanity, advancing to perfection, with ever increasing promise, in a future to which no limit can be assigned. But to look for a clear conception or express formulation of it in the New Testament would be the most childish of anachronisms. We find it there only in germ, embedded in supernatural magic. But the germ was alive; there was already in it a large measure of spiritual life, that is, of the true supernatural, which must either grow and expand in the individual soul and in society, or humanity will perish.

Just as the Christianity of old, in adapting its message to the conditions of the Mediterranean world, impressed itself on that age by bringing to it a human ideal far superior to that of the pagan religions and the speculations of Greek wisdom, so it behoves the followers of the gleam in our time, to free Christianity


from traditional fetters, to enlarge it to the dimensions of the rightful aspirations and needs of civilization, to raise speculation to the height of true science in all its findings, welcoming the light from whatsoever quarter it may come. Above all the travail of humanity, in the midst of which we are living, let the children of the light proclaim on high the divine principle of love, of devoted love, to the end that a religion may arise, crown of the Christian religion and of every other, all taken up into one, and concentrated on the perfecting of humanity in the life of the spirit, that is, in communion with God.

Return to the Table of Contents of Alfred Loisy's The Origins of the New Testament

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