The Breakwater Church - A Passion for God...Compassion for People - Comment on Durant's "Did Christ Exist"

Comment on Durant's "Did Christ Exist"

Kurt Dahlin


On CHAPTER XXVI Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1944.

Jesus 4 B.C. - A.D. 30


Did Christ exist? Is the life story of the founder of Christianity the product of human sorrow, imagination, and hope-a myth comparable to the legends of Krishna, Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Dionysus, and Mithras? Early in the eighteenth century the circle of Bolingbroke, shocking even Voltaire, privately discussed the possibility that Jesus had never lived. Vol ney propounded the same doubt in his Ruins o f Empire in 1791. Napoleon, meeting the German scholar Wieland in 1 8o8, asked him no petty question of politics or war, but did he believe in the historicity of Christ? 1

One of the most far-reaching activities of the modern mind has been the "Higher Criticism" of the Bible-the mounting attack upon its authenticity and veracity, countered by the heroic attempt to save the historical foundations of Christian faith, the results may in time prove as revolutionary as Christianity itself. The first engagement in this two-hundred-year war was fought in silence by Hermann Reimarus, professor of Oriental languages at Hamburg; on his death in 1768 he left, cautiously unpublished, a 1400-page manuscript on the life of Christ. Six years later Gotthold Lessing, over the protests of his friends, published portions of it as the Wolfenbuttel  Fragments. Reimarus argued that Jesus can only be regarded and understood not as the founder of Christianity, but as the final and dominant figure in the mystical eschatology of the Jews-- i.e., Christ thought not of establishing a new religion, but of preparing men for the imminent destruction of the world, and God's Last Judgment of all souls. In 1796 Herder pointed out the apparently irreconcilable difference between the Christ of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the Christ of the Gospel of St. John. In 1828 Heinrich Paulus, summarizing the life of Christ in 1192 pages, proposed a rationalistic interpretation of the miracles--i.e., accepted their occurrence but ascribed them to natural causes and powers. In an epoch-marking Life of Jesus (1835-36) David Strauss rejected this compromise; the supernatural elements in the Gospels, he thought, should be classed as myths, and the actual career of Christ must be reconstructed without using these elements in any form. Strauss's massive volumes made Biblical criticism the storm center of German thought for a generation. In the same year Ferdinand Christian Baur attacked the Epistles (Page 553) of Paul, rejecting as unauthentic all but those to the Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans. In 1840 Bruno Bauer began a series of passionately controversial works aiming to show that Jesus was a myth, the personified form of a cult that evolved in the second century from a fusion of Jewish, Greek, and Roman theology. In 1863 Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus, alarming millions with its rationalism and charming millions with its prose, gathered together the results of German criticism, and brought the problem of the Gospels before the entire educated world. The French school reached its climax at the end of the century in the Abbe Loisy, who subjected the New Testament to such rigorous textual analysis that the Catholic Church felt compelled to excommunicate him and other "Mod ernists." Meanwhile the Dutch school of Pierson, Naber, and Matthas carried the movement to its farthest point by laboriously denying the historical reality of Jesus. In Germany Arthur Drews gave this negative conclusion its definitive exposition (1906); and in England W. B. Smith and J. M. Robertson argued to a like denial. The result of two centuries of discussion seemed to be the annihilation of Christ.

What evidence is there for Christ's existence? The earliest non-Christian reference occurs in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews (A.D. 93?):

  • At that time lived Jesus, a holy man, if man he may be called, for he performed wonderful works, and taught men, and joyfully re ceived the truth. And he was followed by many Jews and many Greeks. He was the Messiah?

There may be a genuine core in these strange lines; but the high praise given to Christ by a Jew uniformly anxious to please either the Romans or the Jews-both at that time in conflict with Christianity-renders the passage suspect, and Christian scholars reject it as almost certainly an interpolation.3 There are references to "Yeshu'a of Nazareth" in the Talmud, but they are too late in date to be certainly more than counterechoes of Christian thought.4 The oldest known mention of Christ in pagan literature is in a letter of the younger Pliny (ca. 110),5 asking the advice of Trajan on the treatment of Christians. Five years later Tacitus 6 described Nero's perse cution of the Chrestiani in Rome, and pictured them as already (A.D. 64) numbering adherents throughout the Empire; the paragraph is so Tacitean in style, force, and prejudice that of all Biblical critics only Drews questions its authenticity.7 Suetonius (ca. 125) mentions the same persecution," and reports Claudius' banishment (ca. 52) of "Jews who, stirred up by Christ [impulsore Chresto], were causing public disturbances," 9 the passage accords well with the Acts of the Apostles, which mentions a decree of Claudius that "the Jews should leave Rome." 10 These references prove the existence

Quoted on p. 281. (Page 554)

of Christians rather than of Christ; but unless we assume the latter we are driven to the improbable hypothesis that Jesus was invented in one genera tion; moreover, we must suppose that the Christian community in Rome had been established some years before 52, to merit the attention of an imperial decree. About the middle of this first century a pagan named Thallus, in a fragment preserved by Julius Africanus,11 argued that the abnormal darkness alleged to have accompanied the death of Christ was a purely natural phenomenon and coincidence; the argument took the existence of Christ for granted. The denial of that existence seems never to have occurred even to the bitterest gentile or Jewish opponents of nascent Christianity.

The Christian evidence for Christ begins with the letters ascribed to Saint Paul. Some of these are of uncertain authorship; several, antedating A.D. 64, are almost universally accounted as substantially genuine. No one has questioned the existence of Paul, or his repeated meetings with Peter, James, and John; and Paul enviously admits that these men had known Christ in the flesh.12 The accepted epistles frequently refer to the Last Supper 13 and the crucifixion .14

Matters are not so simple as regards the Gospels. The four that have come down to us are survivors from a much larger number that once circulated among the Christians of the first two centuries. Our English term gospel (Old English godspel, good news) is a rendering of the Greek euangelion, which is the opening word of Mark, and means "glad tidings"-that the Messiah had come, and the Kingdom of God was at hand. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are "synoptic": their contents and episodes allow of being arranged in parallel columns and "viewed together." They were written in the Greek koine of popular speech, and were no models of gram mar or literary finish; nevertheless, the directness and force of their simple style, the vivid power of their analogies and scenes, the depth of their feeling, and the profound fascination of the story they tell give even the rude originals a unique charm, immensely enhanced for the English world by the highly inaccurate but lordly version made for King James.

The oldest extant copies of the Gospels go back only to the third century. The original compositions were apparently written between A.D. 60 and 120, and were therefore exposed to two centuries of errors in transcription, and to possible alterations to suit the theology or aims of the copyist's sect or time. Christian writers before 100 quote the Old, but never the New, Testament. The only reference to a Christian gospel before 150 is in Papias, who, about 135, reports an unidentified "John the Elder" as saying that Mark had composed his gospel from memories conveyed to him by Peter.15 Papias adds: "Matthew (Page 555) transcribed in Hebrew the Logia"--apparently an early Aramaic collection of the sayings of Christ. Probably Paul had some such document, for though he men tions no gospels he occasionally quotes the direct words of Jesus.* Criticism gen erally agrees in giving the Gospel of Mark priority, and in dating it between 65 and 70. Since it sometimes repeats the same matter in different forms,16 it is widely be lieved to have been based upon the Logia, and upon another early narrative which may have been the original composition of Mark himself. Our Gospel of Mark was apparently circulated while some of the apostles, or their immediate disciples, were still alive; it seems unlikely, therefore, that it differed substantially from their recollection and interpretation of Christ.17 We may conclude, with the brilliant but judicious Schweitzer, that the Gospel of Mark is in essentials "genuine history." 18

Orthodox tradition placed Matthew's Gospel first. Irenaeus 19 describes it as originally composed in "Hebrew"-i.e., Aramaic; but it has come down to us only in Greek. Since in this form it apparently copies Mark, and probably also the Logia, criticism inclines to ascribe it to a disciple of Matthew rather than to the "publican" himself; even the most skeptical students, however, concede to it as early a date as A.D. 85-90. 20 Aiming to convert Jews, Matthew relies more than the other evangelists on the miracles ascribed to Jesus, and is suspiciously eager to prove that many Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in Christ. Never theless, it is the most moving of the four Gospels, and must be ranked among the unconscious masterpieces of the world's literature.

The Gospel according to St. Luke, generally assigned to the last decade of the first century, announces its desire to co-ordinate and reconcile earlier accounts of Jesus, and aims to convert not Jews but gentiles. Very probably Luke was himself a gentile, the friend of Paul, and the author of the Acts of the Apostles.21 Like Matthew he borrows much from Mark.22 Of the 661 verses in the received text of Mark over 6oo are reproduced in Matthew, and 350 in Luke, mostly word for word .23 Many passages in Luke that are not in Mark occur in Matthew, again nearly verbatim; apparently Luke borrowed these from Matthew, or Luke and Matthew took them from a common source, now lost. Luke works up these candid borrowings with some literary skill; Renan thought this Gospel the most beautiful book ever written.24

The Fourth Gospel does not pretend to be a biography of Jesus; it is a pres entation of Christ from the theological point of view, as the divine Logos or Word, creator of the world and redeemer of mankind. It contradicts the synoptic gospels in a hundred details and in its general picture of Christ.25 The half-Gnostic character of the work, and its emphasis on metaphysical ideas, have led many Christian scholars to doubt that its author was the apostle John. 26 Experience suggests, however, that an old tradition must not be too quickly rejected; our ancestors were not all fools. Recent studies tend to restore the Fourth Gospel

In 1897 and 1903 Grenfell and Hunt discovered in the ruins of Oxyrhynchus, in Egypt, twelve fragments of logia loosely corresponding to passages in the Gospels. These papyri are not older than the third century, but they may be copies of older manuscripts. (Page 556) to a date near the end of the first century. Probably tradition was correct in assigning to the same author the "Epistles of John"; they speak the same ideas in the same style.

In summary, it is clear that there are many contradictions between one gospel and another, many dubious statements of history, many suspicious resemblances to the legends told of pagan gods, many incidents apparently designed to prove the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, many pas sages possibly aiming to establish a historical basis for some later doctrine or ritual of the Church. The evangelists shared with Cicero, Sallust, and Tacitus the conception of history as a vehicle for moral ideas. And presum ably the conversations and speeches reported in the Gospels were subject to the frailties of illiterate memories, and the errors or emendations of copyists.

All this granted, much remains. The contradictions are of minutiae, not substance; in essentials the synoptic gospels agree remarkably well, and form a consistent portrait of Christ. In the enthusiasm of its discoveries the Higher Criticism has applied to the New Testament tests of authenticity so severe that by them a hundred ancient worthies--e.g., Hammurabi, David, Socrates-would fade into legend.* Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that mere in­ventors would have concealed--the competition of the apostles for high places in the Kingdom, their flight after Jesus' arrest, Peter's denial, the failure of Christ to work miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to his possible insanity, his early uncertainty as to his mission, his confessions of ignorance as to the future, his moments of bitterness, his despairing cry on the cross; no one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them. That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. After two centuries of Higher Criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ, remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man.
(Page 557)

Says a great Jewish scholar, perhaps too strongly: "If we had ancient sources like those in the Gospels for the history of Alexander or Caesar, we should not cast any doubt upon them whatsoever."--Klausner, J., From Jesus to Paul, 260.


1. Reinach, S., Short History of Christian ity, 22; Guignebert, Jesus, 63.

2. Josephus, Antiquities, xviii, 3.

3. Scott, E., First Age of Christianity, 46; Schurer, I, 143. This conclusion applies also to the Slavonic version of Josephus; cf. Guignebert, op. cit., 148.

4. Klausner, Jesus, 46; Goguel, 71. 5. Pliny the Younger, v, 8.

6. Tacitus, Annals, xv, 44.

7. Goguel, 94; Klausner, 6o.

8. Suetonius, "Nero," 16.

9. Id., "Claudius," 25.

10. Acts of the Apostles, xviii, 2. Quotations from the New Testament are in most cases from the translation of E. J. Good speed.

11. In Goguel, 9, 184.

12. E.g., Galatians, i, i9; I Corinthians, ix, 5. 13. I Cor., xi, z3-6.

14. Ibid., xv, 3; Gal., ii, 20.

15. Eusebius, E.H., iii, 39.

16. E.g., vi, 30-45; viii, 1-13, 17-20.

17. Klausner, From Jesus to Paul, 260.

18. Schweitzer, A., Quest of the Historical Jesus, 335.

19. Irenaeus, Contra Haereses, ii, 1.3.

20. Guignebert, Jesus, 30; CAH, XI, 260.

21. Guignebert, 467.

22. Foakes-Jackson and Lake, Beginnings of Christianity, I, 268.

23. Enc. Brit., X, 537.24. Ibid., XIV, 477.

25. Partially listed in Enc. Brit., XIII, 95.

26. Scott, First Age, 217; Enc. Brit., XIII, 98; Goguel, 150; CAH, XI, 261.