The Story Of Religious Controversy
by Joseph McCabe
Did Jesus Ever Live?
Every single moral sentiment attributed to Christ in the Gospels has several parallels in the literature of the time. There is not one point in the "teaching of Christ" that was new to the world. Even the parables were borrowed from the Jewish Rabbis. The chief doctrinal features of the Christ of the Gospels -- the birth, death, and resurrection -- were familiar myths at the time, and were borrowed from "the pagans."
What we see, in fact, is evolution in religion. The ideas pass on from age to age, a mind here and a mind there adding or refining a little. The slow river of human evolution had entered its rapids. The mingling of twenty nations in a series of world-empires had brought about such a clash of ideas as the world had never seen since until our time. Every possible shade of moral idealism and religious thought was represented, from Alexandria to Rome. You could blot Christ out of the history of the first three centuries of the "Christian Era" -- what happened after that is a different matter, as we shall see in due time -- and it would make no more difference than cutting a single tree out of a well-wooded landscape.
Blot out Christ! Yes, that is what many serious scholars are now attempting to do, and we must consider that first. It is, to the Rationalist, to any man who resents this long distraction of the race by the Christian religion, a tempting proposition. Suppose we could prove that there never had been on this earth such a person as Jesus! What an ironic consummation! Yet this modern denial is so weighty that we find so cautious and courtly an authority as Sir J.G. Frazer writing, in his introduction to Dr. P.L. Couchoud's recent "Enigma of Jesus," that "whether Dr. Couchoud be right or wrong" in denying the historicity of Jesus, "he appears to have laid his finger on a weak point in the chain of evidence on which hangs the religious faith of a great part of civilized mankind."
The ordinary believer is startled by, and is apt to be impatient of, the very question which forms the title of this chapter. But a very little reflection, if he will condescend to it, will show him that it is a quite serious question. A number of characters whose historical existence was as certain as the sun to whole ages -- King Arthur, Homer, William Tell, etc. -- have proved to be legendary. Adam is certainly a legend: Moses and Abraham are most probably legends: Zarathustra is doubtful. if the historicity of Jesus is so very certain, there must be some quite indisputable witnesses to it. Who are they?
The Gospels. Now, just as science is said to be "organized common sense," so modern scientific history organizes or directs common sense in these matters. Who wrote the Gospels? No one knows. They are entitled "According to Matthew," etc., not "by Matthew," etc., in the oldest Greek manuscripts and in early references to them. Indeed, even if they professed to be written by Matthew, etc., it would not follow that they were. But they do not profess this. Many scholars think, on very slender grounds, that the third Gospel was actually written by Luke. We shall see; though it matters little for our purpose, as the writer expressly says that he was not an eye-witness. He is, he says (i, 1-3), writing down for a friend, as "many" others have done before him, an account of what they have heard about Jesus.
What we want to know about the Gospels is whether the men who wrote them were in a position to know the facts. In ordinary history we ask two questions about any writer: what was his knowledge of the facts, and is he truthful? In dealing with religious documents, especially Oriental documents, we have to be particularly critical. Let me illustrate this.
About twenty years ago Mr. Myron H. Phelps wrote an account ("Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi") of the origin of the new Babi or Babai religion which was then finding adherents in America. It arose out of the teaching of a Persian reformer, Ali Mohammed, called "the Bab" (gate). Like Christ, but in the year 1844 A.D., Ali Mohammed set out to reform the accepted creed and to bring people back to the worship of a purely spiritual God. He and hundreds of his followers were put to death, in 1850, by a combination of Persian priests and government; and what Sir J.G. Frazer calls "the bribe of immortality" had no place in the faith of those fearless martyrs. But the significant point is this: two or three years after the death of the Bab his life was written, and it was a purely human account of a Christ-like man; but some decades later a new life appeared richly embroidered with miracles in the Gospel manner!
What happened in the East in the nineteenth century could, surely, happen in the first century. If these lives of Jesus, the Gospels, were not written until some decades after his death, we must read them with great caution. The American Fundamentalist, who is the last to realize this, ought to be the first. He knows well how Catholic enthusiasm still makes miracles at Lourdes and St. Anne. Enthusiasm, even innocently, always glorifies its cause with miracles. In the early days of Spiritualism an eminent British judge published some remarkable experiences he had had a few years before; and he was compelled, in great confusion, to admit that his !memory was entirely wrong and he had misstated the facts in every important detail.
It is therefore most important to know when the Gospels were written. If they were not written until several decades after the death of Christ -- if the stories about Christ passed merely from mouth to mouth in an Oriental world for a whole generation at least after his death -- it is neither reasonable nor honest to put implicit faith in them. There were no journals in those days. Few people could read and write. Moreover, the Jews were scattered over the earth by the Romans in the year 70 A.D.; and the Christians had previously been scattered by the Jews themselves. What should we make of a story going from mouth to mouth in such conditions as these for several decades?
However, let us approach the subject on common-sense lines. How are we to test whether the writers of the Gospels knew the facts and did not merely put on parchment what was being said in the obscure and scattered Christian communities? Some Christian writers try to apply what are called internal tests. They say that the description of places and customs and daily life in Judea is so confident and precise in the Gospels that the writers were evidently familiar with the country in the time of Christ.
Tests of this kind are very delicate and uncertain. In one of Mr. H.G. Wells' novels -- "Marriage," I think -- the story is partly located in Labrador, which is minutely and accurately described. I found that few people had any doubt but that Wells had been there. But, when the able novelist was writing that book, he told me that he had just collected all the available books on Labrador and was "steeping himself" in the subject. He has never been near Labrador. Similarly, Prescott, the vivid American historian of the conquest of Mexico and Peru, never saw either land. He was blind.
A careful writer can easily "get up" a country in this way -- Keeping common sense as our guide, however, we will not suppose that a number of early Christians "got up on" Galilee and Judea in order to write lives of Jesus. In point of fact, they have only a very general and often inaccurate knowledge. Mark is generally admitted to be the oldest Gospel, and it is by no means detailed and precise in topography. In others, such as Luke, there are historical errors. Luke admittedly did not know Judea.
But we need not linger over tests of this sort. Take the book of Daniel. It is as vivid and precise and circumstantial as any Gospel; and it is quite demonstrably a forgery written centuries after the time it describes. We should say the same of a very great deal of the Old Testament. Such tests are useless. They would break down hopelessly in Homer. They would prove that Dante had really visited hell. They would make Keats a native of Corinth.
The first condition of any confidence in the Gospels is to ascertain that the writers lived within a reasonable time of the events described; and one hundred and fifty years of biblical scholarship have not succeeded in finding any proof of that. At present the general opinion is that Mark, the oldest Gospel, was written between 65 and 70 A.D.; and Matthew and Luke in the last decade of the first century; and John in the second century. Mark, it will be remembered, knows nothing about the miraculous birth of Christ; the first account of that turns up at least ninety years after the supposed event!
Moreover, the resurrection story and other details are not supposed, and cannot be proved by anybody, to have been in Mark by the year 70. Scholars have come to the conclusion that there existed at first a simple sketch of the life of Jesus which is the groundwork of the first three Gospels (and is best seen in Mark) and a collection of teachings which is most used by Matthew. At what date this sketch was written nobody knows. What precisely was in it nobody knows. You cannot put your finger on a single verse and say that it is part of the original Gospel. And, even if you could, there is not a scrap of evidence that it was written within thirty years of the death of Christ. Remember Ali Mohammed and his miracles!
If a religious reader thinks that he can dismiss all this as "Higher Criticism stuff," and points out how much these critics have changed their theories and how contradictory they are, let him reflect on his own position. He trusts the Gospels without any evidence whatever; without making the least inquiry into their authority. His preachers dogmatically say that the Gospels were "inspired" -- though the opening verses of Luke plainly say the contrary -- and he takes their word as simply as a child does.
This "Higher Criticism," which he hears so much reviled, is a very serious and conscientious effort of Christian divines, sustained now for more than a hundred years, to prove that the Gospels are worthy of ordinary historical credence. It has failed. The miraculous birth, the death on the cross, the resurrection and ascension, and the healing miracles, it is compelled to sacrifice altogether. By great effort it then concludes that some sort of, small Gospel or life of Jesus was in existence thirty years after the death of Christ; but that is too late to be reliable, and no one knows exactly what it said.
Moreover, while there is no evidence at all that the Gospels, our Gospels, existed before the end of the first century, there is very serious evidence that they did not. No Christian writer mentions one of our four Gospels until a hundred years after the death of Christ or makes any clear and certain quotation from any one of them. That is serious, surely. Yes, you may say, if it is true; but it may be another bit of Higher Criticism or of Rationalism. It is not. It is the very serious verdict of a committee of historians and divines appointed to study this question by the Oxford (University) Society of Historical Theology, an ecclesiastical society. They courageously published this disappointing result of their labors in "The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers" (1905).
Pope St. Clement of Rome, for instance, wrote an important letter, which we have, about 96 A.D.; and a second letter bearing his name, though probably a Christian forgery, was written later. About the same time, or a little earlier, there were the so-called "Epistle of Barnabas" and the first part of the "Teaching of the Apostles." These never quote from, or refer to, the Gospels. For the first three decades of the second century we have the second part of the "Teaching," the "Pastor" (supposed to be by "Hermas"), and letters of Bishops Ignatius and Polycarp. Not one of these mentions the Gospels or makes a clear quotation from them. They quote certain words which roughly correspond to words in Matthew, Luke and (at a late date) John; but this proves nothing, as by the second century these sayings of Christ certainly circulated in the Church. We must say the same of the "Sayings of Our Lord" (or "Logia"), a second-century fragment containing seven "sayings," two of which are in the Gospels. It has no significance whatever, unless it be to discredit the Gospels. The writer clearly knew of no Gospel collections.
It is not until about 140 or 150 A.D. that Christian writers refer to and quote from the Gospels. They are clearly known to Justin, Marcion and Papias. The latter, the Bishop of Herapolis, an ignorant and credulous man who writes a good deal which nobody now believes, is known to us only from quotations in the fourth century historian Eusebius; a man who notoriously held that the use of statements to the Church was more important than their accuracy. This fourth-century quotation of a second-century obscure bishop is the only "serious" evidence for the Gospels! Papias says that he learned from older men that Mark and Matthew really wrote Gospels. That is not evidence that any historian would credit, and, in fact, divines do not believe it.
In order to realize the full significance of this, it is necessary to know a little more about the early Christian world than a Christian usually knows. He imagines just a loyal group of virtuous men and women meeting secretly here and there, at Corinth or Ephesus or Thessalonica, to break bread and pray to Jesus. On the contrary, from about 50 to 150 A.D., early Christianity was a most intense ferment of contradictory speculations. Greek, Persian, Jewish, Egyptian, and all kinds of religious ideas were blended with Christianity. We know the names of at least a score of Christian intellectual leaders and sects of the time. Gradually, of course, these people were thrust outside the Church and called "Gnostics"; but in the first century and the early part of the second Christian communities everywhere swarmed with these mystics.
It was in such a world that the Gospels gradually took shape. The idea of the average believer, that someone sat down one day and, under inspiration, wrote a "Gospel according to Matthew," and so on, is naively unhistorical. The writer of Luke indicates what happened. For decades the faithful merely talked about Christ. Men like Paul went from group to group, much as the cheapest types of revivalists do today, and talked about Jesus. Probably few of them could read, in any case; and Paul, to judge by his Epistles, had very little to say about an earthly life of Jesus. Then, here and there, some who could write put upon parchment what was being said. All sorts of wild and contradictory stories about Jesus were going about. Our four Gospels are just four that were selected in the fourth century out of a large number. These little biographies and lists of "sayings" grew larger and larger. There was no central authority to check them; the various communities were a day's, or even a week's, journey apart; and travel was costly for poor folk. There was not the slightest approach to what we call standardization.
So it is mere waste of time to write a Life of Jesus by a sort of intelligent selection of what you think is probable in the Gospels. All the Rationalist and other such biographies, from Strauss and Renan to Papini, are just subjective compilations. You may think it probable that Jesus really did this or that, but you cannot call it an historical fact because it is in the Gospels. The figure of Jesus, the biography, grew, as time went on. And, since that growth took place, during at least half a century of unchecked speculation and argumentation, in a world of Oriental mysticism and theosophy, you see the strength of the writers who hold that Jesus (as many of the Gnostics held) never was a man at all.
The writer is an orthodox and respected English theologian, Dr. Burch. He is going to publish a book about this supposed new evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Meantime, as his publishers naturally will not allow him to give away the great secret, he writes articles in connection with it.
In this article he deals with "the scantiness of references to Christ in the histories which have come down to us." He quotes "the ablest Jewish book on the whole subject," Klausner's recent "Jesus of Nazareth", and he shows that, in the way of non-biblical witnesses to Christ, we have only "twenty-four lines" from Jewish and pagan writers, and four of those are spurious. Of the twenty genuine lines twelve (which are almost universally regarded as spurious) are in the Jewish historian Josephus. In the immense Latin literature of the century after the death of Jesus there are only eight lines; and each of these is disputed.
Certainly a disturbing silence from the Christian point of view. We might argue that, since the Jews were very hostile to the Christians, their great writers, Philo and Josephus, would be not unnaturally reluctant to speak about them. We might suggest that the teaching and crucifixion of Jesus, more than a thousand miles away from Rome, in a very despised province, would not be likely to come even to the notice of a Roman writer. Yet how strange, how ironic, that God should have lived on earth, for the salvation of men during thirty years, and consummated a great sacrifice which dwarfs every other event in human history, and the stream of literature can flow on for a hundred years without more than half a dozen disputed lines on these transcendent miracles!
We are trying to take a common sense view of religious problems, using whatever aid we can get from modern science and modern history. Now from that point of view there does not seem to be much importance in this discussion of the non-Christian references to Christ. We have to deal with them because the theme of this chapter is the historicity of Christ, and we have to ask whether, since there are no Christian witnesses except the late and anonymous Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, there are any Jewish or pagan witnesses. But for the reasons I have just given I should not be greatly astonished if there were none at all. What was Jesus, or the Jesus cult, to the Greeks and Romans of the first century? One Asiatic superstition amongst many. They would hardly hear of it. It was only when Christianity became an organized religion, giving trouble to the imperial authorities, that they could be expected to notice it.
The argument is less strong as regards the Jewish writers. The more learned of these, Philo, who was born about the same time as Jesus, could scarcely be expected to mention Jesus and his followers. He was an Alexandrian Jew, and he wrote mainly on philosophy. An aristocrat of great wealth and culture, he would, even if he heard during his visit to Jerusalem of the new sect, not have any reason to speak of it in his works. His silence can mean no more than that Christianity was not of much importance in the world of his time.
It is very different with the historian Flavius Josephus. He was a Palestinian Jew, born at Jerusalem in 37 A.D., a man of high connections and great culture. He was intensely interested in religious questions, and he gives in one of his works so detailed an account of the Essenian monks, with whom I shall suggest that Jesus was connected, that many suspect that he may for a time have lived in one of their monasteries. After the destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.) he resided in Rome and wrote his works, the chief of which are his "History of the Jewish War" and "Jewish Antiquities." In one or other of these lengthy and exhaustive works he would, though a Pharisee, reasonably be expected to speak of Jesus and his followers. He even includes, in his "Jewish Antiquities," a full and unflattering portrait of Pontius Pilate; and he tells of other zealots and reformers than Jesus in the Jewish history of the time.
Now in the "Jewish Antiquities," as we have the book, we read the following passage (xviii, 3)
About this time lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed be should be called man. He wrought miracles, and was a teacher of those who gladly accept the truth, and had a large following among the Jews and pagans. He was the Christ. Although Pilate, at the complaint of the leaders of our people, condemned him to die on the cross, his earlier followers were faithful to him. For he appeared to them alive again on the third day, as god-sent prophets had foretold this and a thousand other wonderful things of him. The people of the Christians, which is called after him, survives until the present day.
This passage is so obviously spurious that it is astonishing to find a single theologian left in our time who accepts it. No competent theologian or historian does. Josephus was a zealous Jew: and most of this is rank blasphemy from the Jewish point of view. There is a hint that Jesus was divine: he is said to have taught the truth, to have wrought miracles, and to have risen from the dead; and the messianic prophecies are expressly referred to him. To imagine Josephus writing such things is preposterous. It is a Christian interpolation.
But was a real reference to Jesus cut out by the Christian interpolator and replaced by this clumsy forgery? I have always held that that is probable, though some claim that the text of Josephus does not favor my idea. The passage about Jesus breaks in rather abruptly. Yet, clumsy as the forger was -- making a zealous Jew recognize Jesus as "the Christ [Anointed One]" and the Messiah at the very height of the bitter feud of Jews and Christians -- he would hardly pick any random page of the historian for his purpose. It seems to me not unlikely that he found there a reference to Jesus, and it would not be surprising if the last sentence of the passage, which would be just as clumsy for a later Christian to write, really is from the pen of Josephus.
We are told that an ancient Slavonic version of Josephus' "Jewish War" (not the "Antiquities") has been discovered, and that it contains testimony to the historicity of Christ. This may be one of two things. It may be a Christian interpolation in the "Jewish War" corresponding to the interpolation in the "Antiquities": or it may be a genuine Josephus reference to Jesus in sober terms. The former supposition is by far the more probable, since no later Christian would venture to cut out a reference to Jesus from our Greek version of Josephus (unless it was uncomplimentary).
The next most important reference to Jesus is in the "Annals" of the great Roman historian Tacitus (xv, 44). He mentions the fire which burned down the poorer quarters of Rome in the year 64 A.D. It was suspected that Nero had ordered the fire, which caused great misery at the time, and, Tacitus says, the Emperor diverted suspicion by blaming the Christians for it and persecuting them. I will translate the entire passage from the Latin:
In order to put an end to this rumor, therefore, Nero laid the blame on, and visited with severe punishment, those men, hateful for their crimes, whom the people call Christians. He, from whom the name was derived, Christus, was put to death by the Procurator Pontius Pilatus in the reign of Tiberius.
Tacitus goes on to describe how "an immense multitude" of Christians were put to death with fiendish torments, and were convicted "not so much of the crime of arson as of hatred of the human race."
This passage has many peculiar features. There cannot possibly have been "an immense multitude" of Christians at Rome in 64 A.D. There were not more than a few thousand two hundred years later. It sounds like a Christian interpolation. On the other hand, Tacitus has one of the most distinctive and difficult styles in Latin literature, and, if this whole passage is a forgery, it is a perfect imitation. We must, however, not press that argument too far. It is only the few words about the crucifixion that matter, and a good Latin scholar could easily achieve that. Professor Drews' indeed, who has a long and learned dissertation on the passage, believes it to be a forgery in its entirety, and argues that there was no persecution of Christians under Nero. He is not convincing, and it is difficult to believe -- although there have been other scholars who agreed with Drews -- that the passage generally was not written by Tacitus. The short sentence about Pilate may be an interpolation, but I know the peculiarities of the style of Tacitus too well to think the whole passage forged.
But why spend time over the matter? Tacitus is supposed to have written this about the year 117 A.D., or nearly eighty years after the death of Jesus. What does it prove? Only that after the year 100 there was a general belief in the Christian community that Jesus was crucified at the order of Pontius Pilate. That is nothing new. The reference to Pilate in I Timothy, whether Pauline or not, must be as old as that. Three of the Gospels were then written.
Some Christian writers argue that Tacitus must have seen the official record of the crucifixion, It is neither likely that any such official report would be sent to Rome nor that Tacitus looked up the archives, seventy years later, for such a thing. He was not the man to make such research or to be interested in such a point. If the passage is genuine, it shows only that there were in 117 A.D. Christians in Rome who said these things -- which nobody doubts; and it is not certainly genuine.
I am inclined to accept it because another Roman historian of about the same date, Suetonius, has an obscure passage, in his "Life of Claudius" (Chap". xxvi), which seems to refer to the Christians: "Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because, at the instigation of Chrestos, they were always making trouble." Chrestos was a not uncommon Greek name, and it is urged that it may have nothing to do with Christ. Claudius died in the year 54 A.D., and it is almost impossible to imagine that there was sufficient sectarian fighting between Jews and Christians at Rome over Christ -- that is the only sense we can give to the sentence -- before the year 54. On the other hand, the sentence would be quite meaningless as a Christian interpolation.
On the whole, since it would be too remarkable a coincidence to find the Jews rioting about a Greek named Chrestos when they were actually rioting about Christ, I prefer to think that Suetoniu has heard, and has written in a confused way, about the Jewish reformer Christ. But it is of even less value than Tacitus. By the year 120 or 130 the cult of Christ was spread over the Roman world, and that is all that the mention by Suetonius implies.
Of Dr. Burch's twenty lines there remain only five in a letter of Pliny the younger to the Emperor Trajan. They say that the Christians were numerous enough in the province of Bithvnia (Asia Minor), of which Pliny was Governor, to cause him concern. But he speaks of them as respectable, law-abiding folk who meet to sing hymns at day-break to Christ "as a God." A number of scholars have disputed the authenticity of the passage or the whole letter; and it hardly seems plausible that a Proconsul should write to the Emperor about such a matter. We need not, however, go into this. It follows only that by 113 there were a good many Christians in Asia Minor. Apologists merely reveal the desperate poverty of their case when they quote such things as these Latin sentences to prove that Jesus really lived nearly a century before.
We may conclude that no non-Christian writer of the first century mentions Christ -- Josephus being equivocal and certainly actually adulterated -- and references in the second century are of no value at all. I repeat, however, that this need not impress us much. Josephus is the only writer who could reasonably be expected to mention Christ, and we do not know whether or not be did. The Christians remained a very obscure sect in a world that was seething with sects. That is all we can infer; and we knew it.
Let us try, on the sober common-sense lines which we are following, to form an impartial opinion on this "figure of Jesus." Many Rationalist writers have used language about him just as superlative as that of the liberal theologians. Renan thought that there was "something divine" about Jesus. J.S. Mill was little less complimentary. Even Conybeare uses very high language. On the other hand, G.B. Shaw (in the preface to "Androcles") bluntly says that Jesus was insane. George Moore (in the preface to his "Apostle" -- one of the most refreshing impressions of the Gospels that you could read) says that the figure of Christ in Luke, to which the preachers generally turn, is "a lifeless, waxen figure, daintily curled, with tinted cheeks, uttering pretty commonplaces gathered from 'The Treasury of the Lowly' as he goes by." A collection of the sayings about Jesus by able writers would beautifully illustrate the truth that on such subjects scarcely anybody tells the truth.
I have not the least interest in belittling the figure of Jesus. A liberal parson once genially asked me to "take off my hat to the universe." I replied that I was not a fool; but that I would not mind raising my hat to the figure of Christ on the cross -- or of Bruno at the stake or Socrates in prison. But, mind you, these others met death more serenely than Jesus did: I mean, if we are to take Jesus as he is described in the Gospels. No amount of theological ingenuity will explain that "sweat of blood" in the garden of Gethsemane; and, if you point to the "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," I point to the other words, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
If you recall how Jesus loved little children, I remind you how by his advocacy of virginity as the higher ideal he cut at the root of family life and blighted love, and how he believed in eternal torment for people of weak will. If you bring up the gentleness to the adulterous woman, I remind you of the bitter and rather vulgar abuse of the Pharisees, to which you will find no parallel in any pagan moralist of the time. In the Gospels Jesus utters hardly a single sentiment which, apart from chastity, he does not violate. He even scorns synagogues and meeting-places, and then founds a Church. He has not one word of guidance in the great problems of social life because be believes that the world is coming to an end. He is the archetype of the Puritans: scornful of all that is fair in life, bitter and unjust to those who differ from him, quite impracticable -- nay foolish -- in many of his counsels. It is absurd to say that our modern world has any use for Christ.
Now, the plain solution of all this tissue of contradictions, this mixture of sentiments of humanity with fierce intolerance, this gentleness to women and children and scorn of love and comfort, is quite easy after what we have seen: a dozen different conceptions of Jesus have been blended -- or, not blended, mixed together -- in these composite writings which we call the Gospels. Theologians have for ages perspired in attempting to reconcile the two different genealogies and other contradictions. It is a waste of time. One man did not write any Gospel. One spirit did not dictate them. They embody the contradictory opinions of the isolated and often hostile communities in different parts of the Greco-Roman world. There is no "figure of Jesus" in the Gospels. There are a dozen figures. It was not the same man who made Jesus love children and scorn his mother. It was not the same man who made Jesus turn water into wine for marriage roisterers (probably singing what we now call indecent songs) and then advise us to live on bread and sleep on stones: who made Jesus the warm friend of the painted lady of Magdala and the advocate of barren isolation from all that is human. Jesus of Nazareth became in time the Jesus of Tarsus, of Ephesus, of Corinth, of Antioch, of Alexandria, and so on. The figure of the pale enthusiast was shaped and colored differently in a score of different environments. Paul's letters picture them for us. To one group he has to talk much about fornication and feasting, to another about correct ritual, to another about points of theology, and so on.
Must we, then, despair of finding any human Jesus at all, and suppose that he is a myth who became man in the imaginations of his followers?
There are some very potent reasons why I cannot agree with my learned friends in this. Let it be understood that there is no reason for bias either way. No Rationalist could in our time -- what-ever might be said of Matthew Arnold or Renan or Mill -- be tempted to think that favoring the historicity of Jesus lessened the odium of his position. Most people now do not care a cent what you think about Jesus.
It seems probable that the phenomena of a Christianity in the first century imply an historical personage. I have not made a special study of the point, but from a general knowledge of Hindu and Chinese sacred literature I should say that we have less evidence of the personal existence of Kong-fu-tse or Buddha than of Jesus. The documents are even further removed from the events than the Epistles and Gospels are. Yet no historian doubts their historicity. Dr. Couchoud tells of a learned Buddhist priest who seems to have wondered how far Buddha was historical. But it is not clear from his five or six words to Dr. Couchoud that he meant more than that actual details of Buddha's life were unreliable, as in the case of Jesus.
Broad views are often the best views. We have a large number of historical and literary events to explain. Beyond any question there were great numbers of Christian churches in existence before the end of the first century. Probably Peter was never at Rome, but the other Roman bishops named, from about 70 A.D. onward, are not doubted. This group was a thousand miles from Judea; and there were churches all the way between, with overseers (bishops), elders (priests), and servers (deacons). Lives of Jesus were circulating amongst them, and, with all respect to Professor Smith, those lives or Gospels do unquestionably represent Jesus as a man, living in Judea. The Church made short work of the Gnostics who held that Jesus was never contaminated by a bodily frame. Basilides, one of the ablest of the Gnostics, an Alexandrian, tried to teach in the first half of the second century that Jesus was never a man; and the whole Church promptly and emphatically repudiated him. He had to found a special half-Persian, half-Christian sect.
The Epistles of Paul take us back to about the middle of the first century. There are then groups of Christians in every large city. They have no bishops or priests in the modern sense, but there are "elders" (Timothy, Titus, etc.), and there are some sort of higher men who appoint them and consider complaints about their conduct. It is clear that this situation existed certainly by 60 A.D. Paul was closer in touch with them all than any other man was. I am not relying on Acts, though part of it may be fairly early, but on the generally accepted Epistles. And Paul's gospel, which in these respects he does not find challenged anywhere, is quite clear. His belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is, he admits, not accepted by all. That belief is on a different plane, One could easily be mistaken about it. But that Jesus was born, taught, and was executed in Judea is at the very basis of Paul's teaching; and he never mentions any member of a church who doubts it. The Gnostics with their spiritual Jesus came later.
Moreover, Paul, as we saw, habitually speaks of Cephas and others who were actual companions of Jesus. We have to deny the genuineness of all the Epistles to doubt this. In II Corinthians (iv, 10) Paul says that it is fourteen years since he first came to believe in Jesus: that is to say, to believe that he was God, not that he was man. So he joined the Christian body, and mingled with them in Jerusalem, within less than ten years of the execution of Jesus. No Jew there seems to have told him that Jesus was a mere myth. In all the bitter strife of Jew and Christian the idea seems to have occurred to nobody. Setting aside the Gospels entirely, ignoring all that Latin writers are supposed to have said in the second century, we have a large and roughly organized body of Christians at a time when men were still alive who remembered events of the fourth decade of the century.
I conclude only that it is more reasonable to believe in the historicity of Jesus. There is no parallel in history to the sudden growth of a myth and its conversion into a human personage in one generation. Moreover, to these early Christians Jesus is not primarily a teacher. A collection of wise teachings might in time get a mythical name attached to it -- though why the name "Jesus" it is hard to see and the myth might in further time become a real person. But from the earliest moment that we catch sight of Christians in history the essence of their belief is that Jesus was an incarnation, in Judea, of the great God of the universe. The supreme emphasis is on the fact that he assumed a human form and shed human blood on a cross. So it seems to me far more reasonable, far more scientific, far more consonant with the facts of religious history which we know, to conclude that Jesus was a man who was gradually turned into a God.