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Recent French Discussion of the Historical Existence of Jesus Christ

  • Maurice Goguel (a1)


The controversy as to the historical existence of Jesus, after abating in Germany, England, and America, has recently been revived in France, where it had not before been acute, and has there appeared under a new form, entirely distinct from the theories of Drews, J. M. Robertson, and W. B. Smith. It is of some interest to describe this new aspect of the thesis that the history of Jesus is a myth, and to try to explain the genesis of the contention.



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1 Voltaire's ideas on the history of Christian origins are set forth in various writings, such as his “Examen important des idées de Milord Bolinbroke” (Kehl's edition, vol. XXXIII), “Sermons des cinquante” (vol. XXXII), “Histoire de l'établissement du christianisme” (vol. XXXV), “Dieu et les hommes” (vol. XXXIII), “Homélies prononcées à Londres en 1765” (vol. XXXII), “Conseils raisonnables à M. Bergier” (vol. XXXIII). “Questions de Zapata” (vol. XXXIII). See also the “Essai sur les moeurs,” especially chapter ix (vol. XVI), and many articles in the Dictionnaire philosophique (vols. XXXVII–XLIII).

2 Dupuis, L'origine de tous les cultes ou la religion universelle, Paris, an III (1794); Abrégé de l'origine de tous les cultes, Paris, an VII (1798). These two works have often been reprinted.

3 Pérès, J.-B., Comme quoi Napoléon n'a jamais existé, 4th edition, Paris, 1838.

4 This does not take into account Loisy's recent declarations (Revue critique, 1923, p. 402), where, in viewing the gospels as liturgic-prophetic writings, he appears to ignore their historical character, and so makes an important concession to the mythologists.

5 Binet-Sanglé, La folie de Jésus, Paris, 1909. 3 vols.

6 Heulhard, Arthur, Le mensonge chrétien (Jésus Christ n'a pas existé), Paris, 19081910, 11 vols.; Le mensonge chrétien, La vérité: Barabbas, Le mensonge: Jésus (abridged edition in one volume), Paris, 1913.

7 Reinach, Salomon, “Le verset 17 du Psaume xxii”; “A propos de la curiosité de Tibère”; “Bossuet et l'argument des prophéties”; “Simon de Cyrène”; “Une source biblique du docétisme.” These studies, which originally appeared in various periodicals, have been published in five volumes as “Cultes, mythes, et religions,” Paris, 19051923. See also the same author's Orpheus, Paris, 1909.

8 In an article in the Revue archéologique (1924, p. 373 f.), Reinach complains that Couchoud has not taken note of his study, “Le verset 17 du Psaume xxii.” But in two articles, in the Progrès civique (1924, p. 1343) and the Paris-Soir (Sept. 24, 1924), Couchoud mentions the works of Reinach as having led him to espouse the theory of the non-existence of Jesus.

9 Irenaeus, Adv. haereses, i, 24, 4; Acta Johannis, c. 97, etc.

10 This is the meaning Reinach gives to the phrase τὰ ἀρχεῖα in Ignatius, Philad. 8, 2.

11 I should mention also a very paradoxical study by R. Stahl, Le document 70 (Strasburg-Paris, 1923), which concludes that the oldest Christian document is the apocalyptic fragment used in Chapter 12 of the Johannine Apocalypse (the woman who is delivered of a child in heaven). That child he takes to be the prototype of the Christian Messiah.

12 In the article in the Progrès civique cited above, Couchoud says that it was through conversation with his “good master,” Anatole France, that he came to feel the greatness of the problem of Christ. In the article in the Paris-Soir he affirms that Anatole France adopted his theory. In Le Goff, Marcel, Anatole France à la Bechellerie, Propos et Souvenirs 1914–1924 (Paris, 1924, pp. 181194), discussions are reported at the house of Anatole France on the question of the historical existence of Jesus, together with the statement of his theory which Couchoud made at that time.

13 Couchoud, P.-L., L'Apocalypse, traduction du poème avec une introduction, Paris, 1920.

14 Couchoud, P.-L., “Reconstitution et classement des lettres de Saint-Paul,” Revue de l'histoire des religions, 1923.

15 Communication to the Société Ernest Renan, January 26, 1924. This paper has not been published.

16 Anatole France said of Dr. Couchoud, “C'est l'homme le plus intelligent que j'ai connu” (Le Goff, Anatole France à la Bechellerie, p. 236).

17 This essay has appeared in English: The Enigma of Jesus, with introduction by J. G. Frazer; translated by Mrs. G. Whale, 1924.

18 According to his prospectus, the series is to give “the synthesis of recent work on Christianity” and supply “the adjustment (mise au point) which all agree in recognizing as indispensable.”

19 The report of these discussions is published in the Bulletin de l'Union pour la Vérité, February, 1925.

20 Some one has said that the Jews, having put Jesus to death, are now trying to bury the corpse out of sight in order to remove every trace of their crime.

21 Take, for example, these sentences on the churches. “No village of peasants is so poor that it has not its church. Everywhere this is the Lord's house, higher and grander than the others. It is the fold in which the invisible shepherd restores and consoles a fraction of his vast flock. Often it is all that remains of past ages. Its ancient walls and well-worn flagstones are the sole bond uniting the successive generations, which otherwise have scant knowledge of one another. The church remains to proclaim that, on the essential point, past generations have felt and thought as one. It declares with a loud voice that throughout the ages the great common business has been to make sure of the redemption obtained through the death of Jesus” (Le mystère de Jésus, p. 15).

22 Unless, like Drews, they reduce the testimony of Paul to nil by an accumulation of supposed revisions and interpolations.

23 This point has been well brought out by René Gillouin, “Une nouvelle vie de Jésus,” in Questions politiques et religieuses, Paris, 1925, p. 167.

23a Jésus de Nazareth, mythe ou histoire? Paris, Payot, 1925. An English translation has been published in London by Fisher Unwin.

24 Revue archéologique, November-December, 1924, pp. 372 f.

25 This is an estimate with which professional exegetes would probably not agree.

26 Progrès civique, 1924, p. 1343. Salomon Reinach also refers to this expression of approbation.

27 Especially with his Étapes de la déification de Jésus dans les livres du Nouveau Testament,” Revue de l'histoire des religions, lxxvii, 1918, pp. 172224.

28 Revue critique, 1924, pp. 447 f.

29 Impartial français, October 25 and November 8, 1925; de France, Mercure, August 1, 1925, pp. 765 f.See also Guignebert's article on my book in the Impartial français, July 18, 1925. He is to publish a general article on the problem of the existence of Jesus in the Revue de l'histoire des religions.

30 Similar ideas have been expressed by Paul Souday, literary critic of Le Temps (April 3, 1925), who thinks that Couchoud goes too far and that the historical existence of Jesus is necessary to explain the process which has, indeed, resulted in the transformation of Jesus, but must have had a motive, or at least a pretext.

31 July 24, 1924.

32 August 16, 1924.

33 August 10, 1925.

34 December 13, 1924. This article is reprinted in Questions politiques et religieuses, Paris, 1925, pp. 162171.

35 April 10, 1925.

36 Vol. xxxix, 1925. pp. 37–50.

37 Batiffol, P., Orpheus et l'Évangile, Paris, 1910.

38 Reinach, Salomon, Orpheus: histoire générale des religions, Paris, 1909.

39 Revue biblique, 1925, p. 443.

40 February 28, 1925.

41 Several Catholic critics have expressed views on my book similar to those of Father de Grandmaison. They regard it mainly as a weapon to be used against external foes, but one which must be handled with caution. See their articles in Polybiblion (April 1, 1925); Fiches du Mois (April, 1925); Revue des Lectures (March 1, 1925; this article notes that although my book may be of service to specialists in apologetics, it is on the Index, by virtue of Article 1385, § 2, and Article 1399, §§ 2, 4, 6, of the Code of Canon Law); Revue bibliographique (June 1, 1925); and Revue apologétique (L. Vénard, September 15, 1925).

42 Articles by Dean Ehrhardt (Evangelisches Sonntagsblatt für Elsass-Lothringen, February 22, 1925), Professor Jundt (Le Témoignage, March 10, 1925), Professor Wautier d'Aygalliers (Évangile et Liberté, April 8 and 22, 1925), Pastor Jaulmes (Ami Chrétien des Families, June 26, 1925), and others.

43 Articles by Professor Breitenstein (Semaine religieuse de Genève, March 21, 1925), Marion, Pastor (Gazette de Lausanne, March 30, 1925), Boegner, Pastor (Christianisme social, March 1925), Professor Choisy (Journal de Genève, July 27, 1925), and others.

44 A curious example of this feeling is the fact that addresses in defence of the existence of Jesus which I have made in debates against Dr. Couchoud have been characterized as addresses against Christ.

45 These addresses have been collected in a volume published by the “Union des Chrétiens évangéliques,” Fontenay sous Bois, 1924.

46 Now removed to Montpellier.

47 April 30, 1925.

48 M. Jaulmes calls attention to the anomaly of this attitude. “The most pious Christians of not more than thirty or forty years ago,” he writes, “would have been greatly surprised to see that Couchoud's thesis, satisfying as it is to many unbelievers, is well on the way toward winning over certain conservative theologians, who, more or less, and in spite of themselves, contrast in thought the mystical Christ with the Jesus of history, and are more attached to the former than the latter” (Ami chrétien des families, June 26, 1925).

49 April 16, 1925.

50 Journal des Missions évangeliques, 1924, p. 334. He repeats the same formula in Christianisme social, 1925, p. 258.

51 At least in the New Testament field, for, curiously, Westphal allows criticism of the Old Testament. He is the author of an able work on the Pentateuch, “Les sources du Pentateuque,” Paris, 18881892.

52 Christianisme social, 1925, p. 250.

53 For the sake of completeness, notice must also be taken of the attitude assumed by an active and enterprising group recently formed under the name of “Union des chrétiens évangéliques.” It repudiates all criticism and has taken as its motto a formula which one of its friends has described as charged with more heat than light: “The whole Christ in the whole Bible.” This society has taken as its task to denounce as ruinous to the faith every work of criticism, whether in the Old or the New Testament. That the “Evangelical Christians” are more zealous than competent is shown by their journal, “Le Chrétien évangélique,” which recently spoke of “the modernist criticism, represented by Loisy, Couchoud, and Goguel” (June 15, 1925), as if these three exegetes did not profess very different opinions on points of capital importance.

54 February-March, 1925.

55 “Le Christ et nos contemporains,” Christianisme social, 1925, pp. 173190.

Recent French Discussion of the Historical Existence of Jesus Christ

  • Maurice Goguel (a1)


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