[Classics] Foundations of Christianity

Book One: The Person of Jesus

1. The Pagan Sources

Whatever one’s position may be with respect to Christianity, it certainly must be recognized as one of the most titanic phenomena in all human history. One can not resist a deep feeling of wonder when one thinks of the Christian Church, now almost two thousand years old and still vigorous, more powerful than the governments of many countries. Anything that helps us to understand this colossal phenomenon, including the study of its origin, is of great and immediate practical significance, even though it takes us back thousands of years.

This makes researches into the beginnings of Christianity of far greater interest than any other historical question that goes back further than the last two hundred years; it also however makes finding the beginnings even more difficult than it would otherwise be.

The Christian Church has become a sovereign organisation serving the needs either of its own rulers or those of other, secular rulers who have been able to gain control over it. Any one who opposes these rulers must oppose the church as well. The struggle about the church and the struggle against the church have become matters of dispute bound up with the most important economic interests. It thus becomes only too easy to abandon impartiality in historical studies of the church and this long ago led the ruling classes to interdict the study of the beginnings of Christianity and to ascribe to the church a divine nature, standing above and outside all human criticism.

The bourgeois age of reason in the eighteenth century finally succeeded in getting rid of this halo. For the first time scientific study of the genesis of Christianity became possible. But it is remarkable how secular science avoided this field during the nineteenth century, acting as though it still belonged exclusively to the realm of theology. A whole series of historical works written by the most eminent bourgeois historians of the nineteenth century dealing with the Roman Empire quietly pass over the most important happening of the time, the rise of Christianity. For instance, in the fifth volume of his Roman History Mommsen gives a very extensive account of the history of the Jews under the Caesars, and in so doing can not avoid mentioning Christianity occasionally; but it appears only as something already existing, something assumed to be already known. By and large only the theologians and their adversaries, the propagandists of free thought, have taken an interest in the beginnings of Christianity.

It need not necessarily have been cowardice that kept bourgeois historians from taking up the origin of Christianity; it could also have been the desire to write history and not polemics. The hopeless state of the sources out of which we have to get our information in this field must alone have frightened them off.

The traditional view sees Christianity as the creation of a single man, Jesus Christ. This view persists even today. It is true that Jesus, at least in “enlightened” and “educated” circles, is no longer considered a deity, but he is still held to have been an extraordinary personality, who came to the fore with the intention of founding a new religion, and did so, with tremendous success. Liberal theologians hold this view, and so do radical free-thinkers; and the latter differ from the theologians only with respect to the criticism they make of Christ as a person, whom they seek to deprive of all the sublimity they can.

And yet, at the end of the eighteenth century the English historian Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (written 1774 to 1788), had ironically pointed out how striking it is that none of Jesus’ contemporaries mentions him, although he is said to have accomplished such remarkable feats.

“But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world to those evidences which were presented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses. During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, daemons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. At Jesus’ death, according to the Christian tradition, the whole earth, or at least all Palestine, was in darkness for three hours. This took place in the days of the elder Pliny, who devoted a special chapter of his Natural History to eclipses; but of this eclipse he says nothing.” (Gibbon, Chap. 15).

But even if we leave miracles out of account, it is hard to see how a personality like the Jesus of the gospels, who according to them aroused such excitement in people’s minds, could carry on his work and finally die as a martyr for his cause and yet not have pagan and Jewish contemporaries devote a single word to him.

The first mention of Jesus by a non-Christian is found in the Jewish Antiquities of Flavius Josephus. The third chapter of book 18 deals with the procurator Pontius Pilate, and says among other things:

“About this time lived Jesus, a wise man, if he can be called human, for he worked miracles and was a teacher of men, who received the truth gladly; and he found many followers among Jews and Greeks. This was the Christ. Although later Pilate sentenced him to the cross on the complaint of the noblest of our people, those who had loved him remained true to him. For he appeared again to them on the third day, risen to new life, as the prophets of God had prophesied this and thousands of other wonderful things about him. From him comes the name of the Christians, whose sect (phylon) has continued to exist ever since.”

Josephus speaks of Christ again in the 20th book, ch.9, 1, where the high priest Ananus is said in the time of the procurator Albinus to have brought it about that “James, the brother of Jesus, said to be the Christ (tou logomenou christou), together with some others, was brought to court, accused as a breaker of the law and delivered over to be stoned to death.”

These pieces of evidence have always been highly prized by Christians; for they come from a non-Christian, a Jew and Pharisee, born in the year 87 of our era and living in Jerusalem, and so very well able to have authentic facts about Jesus. And his testimony was the more valuable in that as a Jew he had no reason to falsify on behalf of the Christians.

But it was precisely the exaggerated exaltation of Christ on the part of a pious Jew that made the first passage suspect, and quite early. Its authenticity was disputed even in the sixteenth century, and today it is agreed that it is a forgery and does not stem from Josephus. [1] It was inserted in the third century by a Christian copyist, who obviously took offense at the fact that Josephus, who repeats the most trivial gossip from Palestine, says nothing at all about the person of Jesus. The pious Christian felt with justice that the absence of any such mention weighed against the existence or at least the significance of his Savior. Now the discovery of his forgery has become testimony against Jesus.

But the passage concerning James is also dubious. It is true that Origen (185 to 254 A.D.) mentions testimony by Josephus concerning James; this occurs in his commentary on Matthew. He remarks that it is surprising that nonetheless Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Christ. In his polemic against Celsus, Origen cites this statement of Josephus about James and again notes Josephus’ unbelief. These statements by Origen constitute one of the proofs that the striking passage about Jesus in which Josephus recognizes him as the Messiah, the Christ, could not have been in the original text of Josephus. It follows at once that the passage about James that Origen found in Josephus was also a Christian forgery. For this passage he cites runs quite differently from what we find in the manuscript of Josephus that has come down to us. In it the destruction of Jerusalem is said to be a punishment for the execution of James; but this fabrication is not found in the other manuscripts of Josephus. The passage as it occurs in the manuscripts of Josephus that have come down to us is not cited by Origen, while he mentions the other version three times on different occasions. And yet he carefully assembled all the testimony that could be got from Josephus that had value for the Christian faith. It would seem likely that the passage of Josephus about James that has come down to us is also fraudulent, and was first inserted by a pious Christian, to the greater glory of God, some time after Origen, but before Eusebius, who cites the passage.

Like the mention of Jesus and James, the reference to John the Baptist in Josephus (Antiquities, XVIII, 5.2) is also suspect as an “interpolation”. [2]

Thus Christian frauds had crept into Josephus as early as the end of the second century. His silence concerning the chief figures in the Gospels was too conspicuous, and required correction.

But even if the statement about James was genuine, it would prove at most that there was a Jesus, whom people called Christ, that is, the Messiah. It could not prove anything more. “If the passage actually had to be ascribed to Josephus, all that critical theology would get from it would be the thread of a web that could catch a whole generation. There were so many would-be Christs at Josephus’ time and all the way deep into the second century, that in many of the cases we have only sketchy information left about them. There is a Judas of Galilee, a Theudas, a nameless Egyptian, a Samaritan, a Bar Kochba, – why should there not have been a Jesus among them as well? Jesus was a common Jewish personal name.” [3]

The second passage of Josephus tells us at best that among the agitators in Palestine coming forward at that time as the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed, there was also a Jesus. We learn nothing at all about his life and work.

The next mention of Jesus by a non-Christian writer is found in the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus, composed around the year too. In the fifteenth book the conflagration of Rome under Nero is described, and chapter 44 says:

“In order to counteract the rumor [that blamed Nero for the fire] he brought forward as the guilty ones men hated for their crimes and called Christians by tile people; and punished them with the most exquisite torments. The founder of their name, Christ, was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; the superstition was thereby suppressed for the moment, but broke out again, not only in Judea, the land in which this evil originated, but in Rome itself, to which everything horrible or shameful streams from all sides and finds increase. First a few were taken, who made confessions; then on their indications an enormous throng, who were not accused directly of the crime of arson, but of hatred of humanity. Their execution became a pastime; they were covered with the skins of wild beasts and then torn to pieces by dogs, or they were crucified, or prepared for burning and set on fire as soon as it was dark, to give light in the night. Nero lent his gardens for this spectacle and arranged circus games, in which he mingled among the crowd in the clothing of a charioteer or drove a chariot himself. Although these were criminals who deserved the severest punishments, sympathy arose for them as being sacrificed not so much for the general good but to satisfy the rage of an individual.”

This testimony is certainly not something falsified by Christians in their favor. However its authenticity too is disputed, since Dio Cassius knows nothing of a persecution of Christians under Nero, although he lived a hundred years later than Tacitus. Suetonius, writing shortly after Tacitus, also speaks, in his biography of Nero, of a persecution of Christians, “men who had given themselves over to a new and evil superstition” (chap. 16).

But Suetonius tells us nothing at all of Jesus and Tacitus does not even hand down his name to us. Christ, the Greek word for “the anointed”, is merely the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah”. As to Christ’s work and the content of his doctrine Tacitus says nothing.

And that is all that we learn about Jesus from non-Christian sources of the first century of our era.


1. See e.g. Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi, Vol.I, 3rd edn., 1901, p.544f.

2. P. Schürer, op. cit., pp.438, 548, 581.

3. Alb. Kalthoff, The Rise of Christianity, London 1907, pp.20, 21.

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