Baron d’Holbach 1770

Critical History of Jesus Christ

Source: Histoire Critique de Jesus Christ ou, analyse raisonnée des evangiles. n.p, n.d [Amsterdam, 1770];
Translated: for by Mitch Abidor 2007;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2007.

It is the very nature of superstition to prevent thought. It dulls the soul, it disquiets it, it troubles reason, it obliterates judgment, it manages to cause doubt concerning the most obvious truths, it turns lack of examination and the blind acceptance of the word of those who dominate into a merit for its slaves. It is thus appropriate to yet again put several reflections before the eyes of readers...and to assist them in forming reasonable ideas concerning the Christ they adore, his disciples who they revere, and the books they are accustomed to looking upon as sacred.

The examination...of the birth of Jesus Christ has rendered it very suspicious to us. We have found the Holy Spirit in error on this important element in the life of our hero; he inspires two very different genealogies in two gospel writers. Despite so glaring a mistake, despite the family relation between the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth, the wife of the priest Zacharias, we won’t quibble on this point. We will grant that it is possible that Mary truly was of the race of David; many examples prove that the offspring of even more illustrious races have descended into poverty. And taking this as our point of departure, either Mary, intact wife of Joseph, gave herself of her own free will to an angel, or as a simple believer she was deceived by that angel, or rather by a lover – soldier or priest – who played the role of an angel. There is every reason to believe that she later taught her son about his descent from David, and perhaps the marvelous circumstances that justified the mother enflamed the enthusiasm of the child. It is thus possible that from a young age Jesus was persuaded both of the nobility of his race and the marvelous nature of his birth. These ideas could later have enflamed his ambition, and little by little lead him to believe that he was truly destined to play a great role in his country. Preoccupied with these sublime notions he finished by confirming them and becoming drunk on them through the reading of obscure prophecies and the study of traditions widespread in his country. It is thus quite possible that our adventurer reached a point where he truly believed that he was called by the Divinity and designated by the prophets to be the Reformer, the Chief, the Messiah of Israel. In a word, he was a visionary and found people simple enough to go along with his reveries.

Yet another cause could have contributed to overheating the brain of our missionary. In fact, several scholars have suspected Jesus, and with great likelihood, of having drawn his morality and his science from a group of Jewish monks or cenobites called Essenes. It is certain that we find a striking conformity between what Philo tells us of these enthusiasts and the sublime precepts of our hero. The Essenes left their parents, wives, and children in order to give themselves over to contemplation; they explained the Scriptures in an allegorical fashion; they abstained from any form of vows; they lived in common; they suffered uncomplainingly the evils of life and died with joy.[1]

From all this we can conclude that Christ was an Essene before preaching, or that at least he borrowed from their doctrine.

Whatever the case, in the midst of an ignorant and superstitious nation, perpetually graced with oracles and pompous promises, miserable and discontented under the yoke of the Romans, continually flattered with the wish for a liberator who would return them to a place of honor, our enthusiast found listeners without difficulty and, little by little, adherents. Men are naturally disposed to listen to and believe those who lead them to hope for an end to their miseries. Misfortunes render men fearful, credulous, and superstitious. A fanatic always has conquests to make among a miserable people. There is thus no wonder that Jesus quickly found partisans, especially among a populace that is easy to seduce in every country.

Our hero knew the weaknesses of his fellow citizens; they required prodigies, and he performed them. Stupid individuals, totally foreign to the natural sciences, to medicine, to artifice’s resources, easily took simple operations for miracles, and attributed to the finger of God effects that could well have been owed to the knowledge Jesus acquired during the long period prior to his mission. Nothing is more common in the world than the combination of enthusiasm and deceit. The most sincere believers often permit themselves frauds they call pious when it is a matter of making succeed what they consider the work of God, or to make religion prosper. Some very recent examples suffice to convince us that piety and deceit are not at all incompatible. We have seen all of Paris run to see miracles, healings, and convulsions and to hear predictions that were clearly frauds imagined by good souls with the view of expanding their party, which they qualified as the cause of God. There are few zealous believers who don’t believe that even crime is permitted when it is a matter of the interests of religion. In religion, as in gambling, one begins by being a dupe, and one ends a rogue.

Thus, in attentively considering things and weighing the circumstances of the life of Jesus Christ, we remain persuaded that the man could have been a fanatic who considered himself truly inspired, favored by heaven, sent to his nation; in a word, a messiah. That in order to support his divine mission he didn’t hesitate to use those frauds most likely to succeed with a people who absolutely needed miracles. And without miracles the strongest reasoning, the most eloquent harangues, the wisest precepts, the most intelligent counsels, and the truest principles, could convince no one. In a word, a mix of enthusiasm and deceit seemed to make up Jesus’ character. It’s that of almost all spiritual adventurers who build themselves up a reformers or who make themselves heads of sects.

In fact we see him throughout his mission preach his father’s kingdom and support his preaching with prodigies. In the beginning he only spoke in a very reserved way of his quality as Messiah, as Son of God, and Son of David. He was prudent enough to not present himself as such, but he allowed this secret to come out through the mouth of the devil, who he is careful to impose silence on when he speaks in so intelligible a way as to make an impression on his spectators. Thus, with the help of these possessed, of these energumens or convulsionaries, he has testimony given in support of him which, from his own mouth, would have been too suspect and would have rendered him odious.

Our skillful operator was also careful to choose the terrain for the performing of miracles. He constantly refused to carry out prodigies before people he supposed disposed to criticize him. If he sometimes performed them in synagogues or in the presence of doctors it was, by all appearances, with the certainty that the populace – less difficult and which believed in his marvels – would take his side and would defend him against more clear-sighted spectators...[2]


1. See Philo: “On the Contemplative Life.” The first Church fathers, struck by the conformity that can be found between the morality attributed by Philo to the Essenes and those of the first Christians, had no doubt that it was these latter who this scholarly Jew designated under the name of contemplative Essenes. It is certain that from the time of the historian Josephus there were three sects in Judea: the Pharisees, the Saducees, and the Essenians, or Essenes. Since this writer no mention is made of these latter, from which several scholars have concluded that the Essenes were later incorporated in the first Christians who, as can be clearly seen, led a way of life exactly like theirs.

2. It is thus that a few years ago in Paris could be seen, on the tomb of the Deacon Paris, miracles performed in the presence of sensible individuals. They dared not either criticize or contradict the miracles for fear of being mistreated by a populace that obstinately saw prodigies in this, and who imposters wouldn’t have failed to excite against those who saw only fraud in them. The author of this work thought to have serious business with the people in the cemetery of St. Medard for having had the temerity to laugh upon seeing the capering about of Abbé Becherand.