THE factual core of the early Christian reports about Jesus is at best no more than what Tacitus tells us: that in the days of Tiberius a prophet was executed, from whom the sect of Christians took their inspiration. As to what this prophet taught and did, we are not yet able, even today, to say anything definite. Certainly he could not have made the sensation the early Christian reports describe, or Josephus who relates so many trivialities, would certainly have spoken of it. Jesus’ agitation and his execution did not get the slightest attention from his contemporaries. But if Jesus really was an agitator that a sect honored as its champion and guide, the significance of his person must have grown as the sect grew. Now a garland of legends began to form around this person, pious minds weaving into it anything they wished their model had said and done. The more this idealization went on, the more each of the many currents within the sect tried to put into the picture those features that were dearest to it, ill order to lend them the authority of Jesus. The picture of Jesus, at it was painted in the legends that were first passed from mouth to mouth, and then put down in writing, became more and more the picture of a superhuman person, the epitome of all the ideals the new sect developed; but in the process it became an increasingly contradictory picture, whose several features no longer harmonized.
When the sect achieved firm organization and became a comprehensive church in which one definite tendency prevailed, one of its tasks was the formation of a fixed canon, a list of all the early Christian writings that it recognized as genuine. Naturally this included only works in agreement with the prevailing tendency. All the gospels and other writings that gave a different picture of Jesus were rejected as “heretical”, as spurious, or as “apocryphal”, not quite trustworthy; they were no longer disseminated, in fact they were suppressed so far as that was possible, and copies of them were destroyed, so that only a few of them have come down to us. The works received into the canon were then “edited,” to get them into as much concordance as possible; but fortunately the job was done so clumsily that traces of earlier, divergent accounts may be seen here and there and betray the course of development.
The aim of the Church, namely to assure the unity of opinions within it by this process, was not attained and could not be. The development of social relations kept producing new diversities of views and endeavors in the Church. And thanks to the contradictions that remained in the picture of Jesus recognized by the Church despite all the editing and expurgating, these variations could always find something in that picture they could use as a point of attachment. Thus the clash of social contradictions came to appear within the framework of the Christian Church as a mere dispute over the interpretation of the words of Jesus, and superficial historians think that all the great (and so often bloody) battles that were fought in Christendom under the flag of religion were nothing but battles over words, a sad sign of mankind’s stupidity. But wherever a social mass phenomenon is reduced to the mere stupidity of the men involved, this alleged stupidity merely shows lack of understanding on the part of the observer and critic, who has not been able to orient himself in a way of thinking that is strange to him, and to penetrate to the material conditions and forces that underlie it. As a rule it was very real interests that were at grips when the various Christian sects fell out over the interpretation of Christ’s words.
It is true that with the rise of the modern way of thinking and the eclipse of the clerical mode of thought the conflicts over the conception of Jesus have lost more and more of their practical importance and sunk to mere hair-splitting on the part of theologians, who are paid precisely to keep the clerical mode of thought alive as long as possible, and have to do something for their money.
Recent Bible criticism, which applies the methods of historical research and analysis of sources to the biblical writings, has given the dispute over the personality of Jesus a new fillip. It shook the traditional picture of Jesus; but since it was carried on, for the most part, by theologians, it stopped short of the position first formulated by Bruno Bauer and later by others, in particular by A. Kalthoff: this was the position that, in view of the condition of the source materials, no new conception of Jesus could be formulated. The new Bible criticism keeps searching for such a new conception, always with the same result that the Christendom of previous centuries had produced: each theologian painted into the picture of Jesus his own private ideals and spirit. Like second century descriptions of Jesus, twentieth-century ones do not show what Jesus really taught, but what the makers of these descriptions wish he had taught.
Kalthoff points up these vagaries keenly:
“From the standpoint of social theology the conception of Christ is the most sublimated religious expression of every active social and ethical force in an epoch; and in the transformations that this conception has constantly undergone, in the fading of its old features and its illumination in new colors, we have the most delicate instrument for measuring the changes in contemporary life, from the heights of its spiritual ideals to the depths of its most material actions. This picture of Christ some times has the lineaments of a Creek thinker, then those of the Roman Emperor, then those of the feudal lord of the manor, of the guild master, of the tormented villein and of the free citizen; and these traits are all true, all living, so long as the theologians of the school do not undertake to prove that the single traits of their time are just the ones which are the original and historical traits of the Christ of the gospels. At most these traits acquire an appearance of being historical from the fact that at the time when Christian society was developing and taking form the most divergent and even contradictory forces collaborated, each one having a certain similarity with forces operating today. Now the picture of Christ we have today seems very contradictory at first glance. It still has some of the traits of the old saint or the heavenly monarch, together with the modern features of the friend of the proletariat, or even of the labor leader. But that is only the expression of the innermost contradictions that our time is shot through with.”
And earlier he says:
“Most representatives of so-called modern theology use the scissors on their excerpts in accordance with the critical method dear to David Strauss: the mythical part of the gospels is cut away, and what is left is supposed to be the historical nucleus. But finally even this nucleus got to be too thin in the hands of the theologians.... In the absence of all historical precision, the name of Jesus has become an empty vessel for Protestant theology, into which every theologian pours his own thoughts. One of them makes Jesus a modern Spinozist, another makes him a socialist, while the official professorial theology naturally looks at him in the religious light of the modern state and recently has come to present him more and more as the religious representative of all those efforts that today claim a leading place in the State theology of Greater Prussia.” 
It is no wonder then that secular historiography feels no great need for investigating the origins of Christianity if it starts from the view that Christianity was the creation of a single person. If this view were correct, we could give up studying the rise of Christianity and leave its description to our poetic theologians.
But it is a different matter as soon as we think of a world-wide religion not as the product of a single superman but as a product of society. Social conditions at the time of the rise of Christianity are very well known. And the social character of early Christianity can be studied with some degree of accuracy from its literature.
To be sure, the historical value of the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles can not be set as any higher than that of the Homeric poems or the Nibelungenlied. They may deal with historical personages, but their actions are related with such poetic freedom that it is impossible to get anything like a historical description of those personages, quite apart from the fact that they are so mixed up with fabulous creatures that on the basis of these stories alone it can never be determined which of the characters are historical and which are invented. If we knew nothing about Attila but what the Nibelungenlied says about him, we should have to say, as we must about Jesus, we do not even definitely know whether he lived or not, or whether he is just as mythical a character as Siegfried.
But such poetical accounts are invaluable for the understanding of the social conditions under which they arose, and of which they give a true reflection no matter how freely their authors may have invented individual facts and personages. The extent to which the story of the Trojan War and its heroes rests on a historical basis is obscure, perhaps for ever. But as for the nature of social conditions in the Heroic Age, we have two first-class historical sources in the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Poetical creations are often far more important for understanding a period than the most faithful historical accounts. For the latter merely communicate the personal, the striking, the unusual, which has the least permanent historical effect; the former furnish us with a look into the daily life and labor of the masses, which works continually and lastingly and has the most permanent effect on society, but which the historian does not take note of because it seems to him to be so obvious and wellknown. Thus in Balzac’s novels we have one of the most important historical sources for the social life of France in the first decades of the nineteenth century.
And out of the gospels and the acts of the apostles, similarly, we can not learn anything definite as to the life and doctrine of Jesus, but very valuable things about the social character, the ideals and aspirations of the primitive Christian communities. When Bible criticism uncovers the different layers that lie one on top of the other in these writings, it enables us to follow the development of these communities, at least to a certain extent, while the “heathen” and Jewish sources make possible an insight into the social driving forces that were acting upon primitive Christianity at the same time. So we are able to see and understand it as the product of its time, and that is the basis of any historical knowledge. Individuals can influence society too, and the portrayal of outstanding individuals is indispensable for a complete picture of their time. But in terms of historical epochs, their influence is only transitory, merely the outer ornament which strikes the eye first in a building but says nothing about its foundations. But it is the foundations that determine the character of the structure and its permanence. If we can lay them bare, we have done the most important part toward understanding the whole edifice.
10. Kalthoff, Das Christusproblem, 1902, pp.80f., 15, 17.
Last updated on 20.1.2004