[Classics] Foundations of Christianity

2. The Christian Sources

But do not the Christian sources gush forth all the more richly? Do we not have in the Gospels the most extensive descriptions of the teachings and deeds of Jesus?

It is true they are extensive; but as for credibility, there’s the rub. The example of the falsification of Josephus showed us a character trait of ancient Christian historians, their complete indifference to the truth. It was not the truth, but effectiveness, that they were interested in, and they were not too delicate in the choice of their means.

To be fair, it must be granted that they were not alone in their age. The Jewish religious literature had no higher standards, and the “heathen” mystical tendencies in the centuries preceding and following the beginning of our era were guilty of the same sins. Credulousness on the part of the public, sensationalism together with lack of confidence in their own powers, the need to cling to superhuman authority, lack of a sense of reality (qualities whose causes we shall soon come to learn), infected all of literature at that time, and the more it left the ground of the traditional the more it was so infected. We shall find numerous proofs of this in the Christian and Jewish literature. But the same tendency appears in the mystical philosophy, which to be sure had an inner affinity to Christianity. We see this in the neo-Pythagoreans, a trend that began in the last century before our era, a mixture of Platonism and Stoicism, full of revelations and hungry for miracles, professing to be the doctrine of the old philosopher Pythagoras, who lived in the sixth century before our era – or before Christ, as they say-and of whom extremely little was known. That made it all the easier to attribute to him anything that needed the authority of a great name.

“The neo-Pythagoreans wanted to be considered faithful followers of the old Samian philosopher: in order to present their theories as the old Pythagorean ones, those countless forged documents were produced that put anything at all into the mouth of a Pythagoras or an Archytas, no matter how recent it was or how well known as stemming from Plate or Aristotle.”[4]

We see exactly the same phenomenon in the early Christian literature, where it has produced such a chaos that for over a hundred years a series of the keenest minds have been working on it without getting very far in attaining any definitive results.

How the most discordant notions as to the origin of the early Christian writings still exist side by side can be shown by the case of the Revelation of St. John, an especially hard nut to crack anyway. Pfleiderer says of it in his book on Early Christianity, Its Writings and Doctrines:

“The book of Daniel was the oldest of such apocalypses and the model for the whole genus. Just as the key to the visions of Daniel was found in the events of the Jewish war under Antiochus Epiphanes, so the conclusion was correctly drawn that the apocalypse of John too must be explained by means of the conditions of its time. Now since the mystic number 666 in the eighteenth verse of the thirteenth chapter was interpreted almost simultaneously by various scholars (Benary, Hitzig and Reuss) as indicating the Emperor Nero in Hebrew letters, a comparison of chapters l6 and 17 led to the conclusion that Revelation was written soon after Nero’s death in 68. This long remained the dominant view, in particular in the old Tübingen school, which still assumed that the book was written by the apostle John and thought it had the key to the whole book in the party battles between Judaists and Paulinists; this of course was not done without crass arbitrariness (especially in Volkmar). A new step toward the thorough study of the problem was made in 1882 by a student of Weizsäcker. Daniel Völter, who used the hypothesis of a repeated expansion and revision of a basic document between the years 66 and 170 (later up to 140), at the hands of various authors. The literary method thus introduced was varied in the extreme during the next fifteen years: Vischer would have it that an original Jewish document had been worked over by a Christian editor; Sabatier and Schön postulated a Christian document as the basis, into which Jewish elements had been inserted; Weyland distinguished two Jewish sources from the times of Nero and Titus, and a Christian editor in Trajan’s reign; Spitta saw a Christian original of the year 60 and Jewish sources of 63 B.C. and 40 A.D., with a Christian editor in Trajan’s time; Schmidt, three Jewish sources and two Christian; Völter, in a new work in 1893, an original apocalypse dating from the year 62 and four revisions under Titus, Domitian, Trajan and Hadrian. These mutually contradictory and competing hypotheses had the sole result that ‘the unprejudiced got the impression that in the field of New Testament scholarship there was nothing sure and one could be sure of nothing’ (Jülicher).” [5]

Pfleiderer believes none the less that “the strenuous researches of the last twenty years” have given a “definite result,” but does not venture to say definitely what it is, but opines that it “seems” so to him. Almost the only definitive conclusions one can reach with respect to early Christian literature are negative ones; that is, we can find out definitely what is spurious.

It is certain that almost none of the early Christian writings are by the authors whose names they bear; that most of them were written in later times than the dates given them; and that their original text was often distorted in the crudest way by later revisions and additions. Finally, it is certain that none of the Gospels or other early Christian writings comes from a contemporary of Jesus.

The so-called Gospel according to St. Mark is now regarded as the oldest of the gospels, but was not in any case composed before the destruction of Jerusalem, which the author has Jesus predict, which, in other words, had already happened when the author began to write. It was probably written not less than half a century after the time assigned for the death of Jesus. What we see is thus the product of half a century of legend-making.

Mark is followed by Luke, then by the so-called Matthew, and last of all by John, in the middle of the second century, at least a century after the birth of Christ. The further we get from the beginning, the more miraculous the gospel stories become. Mark tells us of miracles, but they are puny ones compared to those that follow. Take the raising of the dead as an example. In Mark, Jesus is called to the bedside of Jairus’ daughter, who is at the point of death. Everyone thinks she is dead already, but Jesus says: “the damsel ... but sleepeth,” reaches out his hand, and she arises (Mark, Chap.5).

In Luke it is the young man of Nain who is waked. He is so long dead that he is being borne to his grave as Jesus meets him. Then Jesus makes him rise from the bier (Luke, Chap. 7).

That is not enough for John. In his eleventh chapter he shows us the raising of Lazarus, who has been in his grave for four days already and beginning to stink. That breaks the record.

In addition, the evangelists were extremely ignorant people, who had thoroughly twisted ideas about many of the things they wrote of. Thus Luke has Joseph leave Nazareth with Mary on account of a census in the Roman Empire, and go to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born. But there was no such census under Augustus. Moreover, Judea became a Roman province only after the date given for the birth of Jesus. A census was held in the year 7 A.D., but in the places where people lived, and thus did not require the trip to Bethlehem. [6] We shall have more to say on this topic.

The procedure of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate is not in conformity either with Jewish or with Roman law. Thus even where the evangelists do not tell of miracles, they often relate what is false and impossible.

And what was concocted as “Gospel” in this fashion later suffered all sorts of alterations at the hands of “editors”, to the edification of the faithful.

For example, the best manuscripts of Mark close with the eighth verse of the sixteenth chapter, where the women seek the dead Jesus in the grave, but find a youth in a long white robe instead. Then they left the grave and “were afraid.”

What follows in the traditional editions was added later. It is impossible however that the work ended with this eighth verse. Renan already assumed that the remaining portion had been stricken out in the interests of the good cause, since it contained an account that seemed obnoxious to later views.

From another angle Pfleiderer, after intensive studies, came to the conclusion, as did others, “that the Gospel of Luke said nothing of the supernatural conception of Jesus, that this story came up only later and was then inserted into the text by adding verse I, 34 ff. [7] and the words ‘as was supposed’ in III, 29. [8]“ [9]

In view of all this it is no wonder that by the first decades of the nineteenth century many scholars had already recognized the complete uselessness of the gospels as sources for the history of Jesus, and Bruno Bauer could even go so far as to deny the existence of Jesus altogether. It is understandable nevertheless that the theologians can not dispense with the gospels, and even the liberals among them do all they can to maintain their authority. For what is left of Christianity if the person of Christ is given up? But in order to save this latter point, they have to go through some strange contortions.

Thus Harnack in his lectures on the Wesen des Christentums (1900) explains that David Friedrich Strauss thought he had succeeded in demolishing the reliability of the gospels as history; but the historical and critical work of two generations had succeeded in restoring it to a great extent. The gospels were not historical works anyway; they were not written to report how things happened, but were works of edification. “Accordingly they are not useless as historical sources, especially since their purpose is not borrowed from outside, but coincides in part with the views of Jesus” (p.14).

But all we know of these views is what the gospels tell us! Harnack’s whole argument for the credibility of the gospels as sources for the person of Jesus only proves how impossible it is to offer anything solid and penetrating in that direction.

Later in his essay Harnack is compelled to abandon everything that the gospels say of Jesus’ first thirty years as unhistorical, as well as everything regarding the following years that can be proved to be impossible or invented. But he would like to save the rest as historical fact. He thinks we still have left “a vivid picture of Jesus’ teaching, the end of his life and the impression he made on his disciples” (p.20).

But how does Harnack know that Jesus’ teaching is so faithfully reported in the gospels? The theologians are more skeptical about the reproduction of other teachings of the time. Harnack’s colleague Pfleiderer says in his book on early Christianity:

“It does not really make sense to argue over the historical reliability of these and other sermons in the apostolic history; we need only think of all the conditions required for a literally exact, or even an approximately correct, transmission of such a sermon: it would have had to be written down immediately by an auditor (properly speaking, it should be stenographic), and these records of the various sermons would have to be preserved for more than half a century in circles of hearers who were for the most part Jews and heathen and indifferent or hostile to what they had heard, and finally collected by the historian from the most scattered points! Any one who has realized how impossible all these things are will know once for all what to think of all these sermons: that is, in the stories of the apostles as in all the secular historians of antiquity these speeches are free compositions, in which the author has his heroes speak in the way that he himself thinks they could have spoken in the given situation” (p.500f.).

Right! But why should not all this apply to the sermons of Jesus too, which were still further in the past for the authors of the gospels than the sermons ascribed to the apostles? Why should Jesus’ sermons in the gospels be anything more than speeches that the authors of the reports wished Jesus had made? Actually, we find all sorts of contradictions in the sermons that have come down to us, for example both rebellious and submissive speeches, which can only be explained by the fact that divergent tendencies existed among the Christians, each group composing and handing down speeches for Christ in accordance with its own requirements. How free and easy the evangelists were in such matters can be seen from an example. Compare the Sermon on the Mount in Luke and in Matthew, which is later. In the first it is still a glorification of the poor and a damning of the rich. By Matthew’s time this had become a touchy subject for many Christians, and the Gospel according to Matthew baldly turns the poor who are blessed into the poor of spirit, and leaves the damning of the rich out altogether.

That is the sort of manipulation that went on with sermons that had already been written down; and then we are asked to believe that sermons that Jesus is said to have given half a century before they were written down are faithfully reported in the gospels? It is clearly impossible to keep the words of a speech straight merely by oral tradition for fifty years. Anyone who writes down such a speech at the end of such an interval shows thereby that he feels justified in writing down what suits him, or that he is credulous enough to take at face value everything he hears.

What is more, it can be shown that many of Jesus’ sayings do not originate with him, but were in circulation previously.

For instance, the Lord’s Prayer is regarded as a specific product of Jesus. But Pfleiderer shows that an Aramaic Kaddish prayer going far back into antiquity ended with the words: “Exalted and blessed be His great name in the world that He created according to His will. May he set up His kingdom in your lifetime and the lifetime of the whole house of Israel.”

As we see, the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer is an imitation. But if nothing is left of Jesus’ sermons, nothing left of the story of his youth, certainly nothing left of his miracles, then what is left of the gospels altogether? According to Harnack there is left the impression Jesus made on his disciples, and the story of his Passion. But the gospels were not written by disciples of Christ, they do not reflect the impression made by the person of Christ, but that made by the story of the person of Christ on the members of the Christian community. Even the strongest impression does not testify to the historical truth of any story. The story of an imaginary person is capable of producing the deepest impression on society, if historical conditions for it are present. Goethe’s Werther made a tremendous impression. Everyone knew that it was only a novel, nevertheless he had many disciples and followers.

In Judaism, and precisely in the centuries directly before and after Jesus, fictitious personalities had tremendous influence when the deeds and doctrines attributed to them corresponded to the deeply-felt needs of the Jewish people. This is shown for example by the figure of the prophet Daniel, of whom the book of Daniel reports that he lived under Nebuchadnezzar, Darius and Cyrus, that is in the sixth century B.C., worked the greatest of miracles and made prophecies that were fulfilled later in the most amazing way, ending with the prediction that great afflictions would come to Judaism, out of which a savior would rescue ·them and raise them to new glory. This Daniel never lived; the book dealing with him was written about 165, at the time of the Maccabean uprising; and it is no wonder that all the prophecies that the prophet ostensibly made in the sixth century were so strikingly confirmed up to that year, and convinced the pious reader that the final prediction of so infallible a prophet must come to pass without fail. The whole thing is a bold fabrication and yet had the greatest effect; the belief in the Messiah, the belief in a Savior to come, got its strongest sustenance from it, and it became the model for all future prophecies of a Messiah. The book of Daniel also shows, however, how casually fraud was practiced in pious circles when it was a question of attaining an end. The effect produced by the figure of Jesus is therefore no proof at all of its historical accuracy.

Hence the only thing left of what Harnack thought could still be rescued from the gospels as an historical nucleus is the Passion of Christ. But this is so filled with miracles from beginning to end, up to the Resurrection and Ascension, that even here it is virtually impossible to get any kind of reliable historical nucleus. We shall look further into the credibility of this story of the Passion later on.

Matters are in no better shape with the rest of early Christian literature. Everything that ostensibly comes from contemporaries of Jesus, as from his apostles for instance, is known to be spurious, at least in the sense that it is a production of some later time.

And as for the letters that are attributed to the apostle Paul, there is not one whose authenticity is not in dispute, and many of them have been shown by historical criticism to be altogether false. The baldest of these forgeries is the second letter to the Thessalonians. In this counterfeit letter the author, using the name of Paul, warns: “That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us” (2, 2). And at the end the forger adds: “The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every epistle: so I write.” It was just these words that betrayed the forger.

A number of other letters of Paul are perhaps the earliest literary evidence of Christianity. About Jesus however they tell us virtually nothing, except that he was crucified and rose again.

It will not be necessary, at least for our readers, to go into details as to what to think about the Resurrection. In a word, there is hardly anything left in the Christian literature that can be said to be a solidly established fact about Jesus.


4. Zeller, Philosophie det Griechen, Part 3, Sec. 2, Leipzig 1868, p.96.

5. Pfeiderer, Urchristentum, 1902, II, p.282f.

6. Cf. on this point David Strauss, Das Leben Jesu, Tübingen 1840. I, 227f.

7. “Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee,” etc.

8. “being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph.”

9. Pfleiderer, Urchristentum, I, p.408.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.