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The Origins of the New Testament


THIS modest essay on the origins of the New Testament is an explanatory complement to the volume published in 1933 under the title: La Naissance du Christianisme—the Birth of the Christian Religion. [1] We propose to resume the examination, as a whole and with greater precision in detail, of documents born in a realm almost outside that of history and written without any care for historical truth as it is now understood. A long-established Christian tradition would exclude these documents from control by scientific and historical research, at least as to the substance of their contents, treating it as almost beyond the scope of such researches and in the main defying appreciation by their method. There are still some who would so exclude them entirely.

A preliminary question which we have not directly attacked in our former publications and which creed-bound interests tend naturally to keep alive, whether consciously or not, the question namely of the supernatural quality in the Bible, must first be probed to the bottom, in order that the rights of criticism in this field may be established without other restriction than that of the rules proper to itself. The question turns on an idea which may be taken in two senses—the idea of the supernatural—and involves a real equivocation. We are well aware that criticism is not capable of solving every problem; but neither are we ignorant that the investigations of the critic cannot have, ought not to have and, in fact, have not any limits save those of its own natural resources. No authority has the right to impose conclusions upon the critic in anything that falls within the field of his experience, the field namely of everything susceptible of methodical observation in the system of universal reality.

When the question of the supernatural has been clearly answered the field will be open for the discussion of the essential theme of this book, namely the progressive evolution of the Christian teaching, or catechesis, in all the variety of its forms. These include: (i) the Gospel or Message of Jesus and the primitive teaching about "the last things," or eschatological catechesis,

[1] Two earlier complements are: Le Mandeisme et les origines Chretiennes (1934), and Remarques sur la litterature epistolaire du Nouveau Testament (1935).


as developed in Christian apocalyptic; (2) the testimony, said to be traditional, concerning the origin of the canonical Gospels; (3) study of the internal evidence afforded by these books, in respect of the Gospel according to Mark, the Gospel according to Matthew, the twin-born books to Theophilus, which afterwards became the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles; the Gospel according to John; (4) the contribution of the Epistle-literature to the elaboration of the primitive catechesis of the Last Things, and the testimony rendered by this literature to the preparation and the fixation of the collection known as the Canon of the New Testament.

Finally it will behove us to crown this long analysis by a general synthesis and interpretation of the conclusions to which we have been led. In this we shall see clearly how the formation of the literature, to which the name "New Testament" is given, was conditioned by the evolution of Christian propaganda and became, so to say, stabilized at the very time when the Church called catholic was constituted and declared the guardian of what it had resolved to uphold as the authentic tradition of Christianity, a tradition which it opposed to the spreading floods of gnosis, thenceforth to be condemned as heresy. A great achievement of humanity was here, and not a chain of miracles; an upsurge of spiritual life, but defective in its manifestations, as all things human are. But, being spiritual in origin and essence, it brought the supernatural to light in the only sense in which we of this age are able to conceive the supernatural and to regard it as playing a real part in history.

Doubtless there are some who will judge such a work to be singularly inopportune in present circumstances. The same has been said of some of the author's earlier works which were highly unwelcome to a good many people. Perhaps this book will be equally unwelcome. Whoever has enough goodwill to see in it, before all else, a rather new programme for the research that is needed in this field, and is far from being completed, will exactly discern the intention of its author. As to those who would deem it superfluous, superficial and preposterous, we shall content ourselves with supposing that they have not yet found leisure to consider the true character and infinite complexity of the subject under treatment.

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