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BY JOHN L. NUELSEN, D. D., METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH, OMAHA, NEBRASKA
Every Old Testament problem becomes in course of time a New Testament question. Every Biblical question places us after a while face to face with Him who is the center of the whole Bible, with Jesus Christ. In the present discussion over the person and Gospel of Jesus Christ, I shall confine myself to pointing out briefly some of the most interesting and important features of this subject.
WAS JESUS A REAL, HISTORICAL PERSON?
In the closing years of the eighteenth century the thought was advanced by a number of rationalistic theologians that the doctrines held by the Church and formulated in her creeds were the joint product of New Testament religion and Greek philosophy. This thought was taken up by Professor Harnack of Berlin, and in his great work, “History of the Christian Doctrine,” he disclosed the complicated process by which the Church in developing her doctrines became Hellenized; thus it was made incumbent upon the student of Church history to extricate, by a process of careful analysis and comparison, the genuinely Christian elements from the meshes of foreign thought. Harnack, it is true, applied this principle only to postapostolic times, but since the appearance of his book investigation has proceeded along the same lines and is now covering the Biblical writings as well.
Old Testament scholars and Semitists as Gunkel, Meyer, Meinhold, Gressmann, Winckler, Simmern, Jensen — followed the traces of Babylonian influences down through the period of later Judaism to New Testament times; New Testament scholars — as Schurer, Baldensperger, Bousset, Pfleiderer, Schmiedel, Holtzman, Weinel, Wernle, Wrede — studied Greek and Jewish thought in its influence upon the early Christian writings. They deemed it necessary to eliminate first the whole of Johannine theology as a foreign substance; then they threw overboard the Apostle Paul as the great perverter of the simple teachings of Christ; next they cleared the Synoptical Gospels of all Babylonian, Egyptian, Phrygian, Jewish, Greek and other foreign matter. They have just about finished this arduous work of purifying and simplifying the Gospels by this double process of “religions-geschichtliche” analysis and comparison, in order to discover the real, historical Christ; they meet at the feet of this Christ, to see Him as He really is; but behold, He is no morel Not a trace of Him is left. Trait after trait, feature after feature, has been analyzed and compared, until neither manger nor cross nor grave, not even His garments, are left. A few years ago we had, by the grace of the most advanced scholarship, at least a plain Galilean peasant with a very good heart. Even if His mind was rather too simple, we were allowed to believe in a kind-hearted carpenter’s son, who went about doing good, and to whom at least eight rather inoffensive sayings could be historically traced; as, for example, the saying; “It is more blessed to give than to receive;” but even this peasant has evaporated, or rather, the great Babylonian flood which the mighty Bel caused to drown all mankind has completely swallowed up the little that was left of Jesus of Nazareth.
I beg pardon for this tone of levity. The whole matter would be very serious if it were not so utterly absurd. But the fact is that German theology is just now confronted with the question, was Jesus Christ a real, historical person, or is He nothing but a literary hero?
From two very different quarters the question as to the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth has been raised. At first blush we may think it is ridiculous to raise the question at all. And so it is. But the very fact that scholars do raise the question and mean to be taken seriously, is the necessary result of tendencies in theology which have been fostered until they have reached this culmination point. This fact will, I trust, open the eyes of many in Germany, and in America as well, who are in the habit of intrusting themselves to the guidance of brilliant and charming leaders without realizing at the start whither they were going.
WAS CHRIST A PRODUCT OF BABYLONIAN MYTHOLOGY?
The first avenue which led to the negation of the historicity of Jesus Christ is the “religionsgeschichtliche” comparison. The religionsgeschichtliche study of the New Testament aims, as Professor Bousett puts it, “to understand the origin and development of Christianity by means of an investigation of the whole environment of primitive Christianity.”
Applying this principle to the person and work of Christ, Professor Pfleiderer of Berlin, in his “Early Conceptions of Christ,” finds that the Christ of the Church has been formed out of those myths and legends which are the common property of religion all over the world.
The elements of the figure are roughly separable into five groups. There is Christ, the Son of God; Christ the Conqueror; Christ the Wonder-worker; Christ the Conqueror of death and the Lifegiver; Christ the King of kings and Lord of lords. The materials for each of these conceptions were taken from various sources. They came from Judaism, from Hellenism, from Mithraism, and the Graeco-Egyptian religion, from Zoroastrianism, and even from Buddhism. They came gradually, and gradually the conception took shape.
The specific contribution of Babylonian mythology, to the picture of Christ, as depicted in the Gospels, consists, according to Professor Zimmern, of the following points: (1) “The conception of Christ as a pre-mundane, heavenly, Divine being, who is at the same time the Creator of the world; (2) The accounts of the miraculous birth of Christ, of the homage offered to the new-born child, and of the persecutions; (3) The conception of Christ as the Saviour of the world, and as ushering in a new period of time, appearing as He does in the fullness of time; (4) The conception of Christ as being sent into the world by the Father; (5) The doctrinal aspects of the suffering and death of Christ, apart from the historic facts; (6) The doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades; (7) The doctrine of the resurrection of Christ on the third day after His death; (8) The doctrine of His ascension after forty days; (9) The doctrine of Christ’s glory, sitting at the right hand of God and reigning with the Father; (10) The belief in the coming again of Christ at the end of days in kingly glory, and also of the last conflict with the powers of evil; (11) The idea of the marriage of Christ with His Bride at the beginning of the new time, of the new heaven, and the new earth.”
While Professor Zimmern advances these thoughts very carefully and guardedly, Professor Jensen, of the University of Marburg, affirms most positively that the whole life of Christ is essentially a Jewish version of the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epos. His book appeared February, 1907, is a large volume of over one thousand pages, and bears the title, “The Epos of Gilgamesh in the World Literature. The Origins of the Old Testament Patriarch, Prophet, and Redeemer Legends, and of the New Testament Jesus Legend.”
The main contention of the book is stated by the author himself in the following words: “That practically all of the Gospel narrative is purely legendary, and that there is no reason at all to consider anything that is told of Jesus as historical. The Jesus legend is an Israelitish Gilgamesh legend. — As a Gilgamesh legend the Jesus legend is a sister legend to numerous, particularly to most of the Old Testament, legends.” In his concluding chapter Professor Jensen writes: “Jesus of Nazareth, in whom, as in the Son of God and the Saviour of the world, Christianity has believed for nearly two thousands years, and who is regarded, even by the most advanced scholarship of our own day, as a good and great man who lived and died the sublime pattern of the ideal ethical life — this Jesus has never lived upon earth; neither has He died, because He is nothing but an Israelitish Gilgamesh. We, the children of a much lauded time of progress and achievements, we who look down upon the superstitions of the past with a forbearing smile, we worship in our cathedrals and churches, in our meetinghouses and schools, in palaces and shanties, a Babylonian deity.”
I should not have taken the time to quote from Jensen, but should have dismissed his book with a forbearing smile, if he were not taken seriously by a number of scholars. To my amazement I noticed that as careful and sane a scholar as Professor Zimmern wrote an extended review of the book approving it almost without qualification, and saying: “Jensen will hardly succeed at once in seeing his ideas accepted.
But truth is not depending upon immediate success, and will in this case, even as in others, be victorious, though not without great trouble, and only slowly. The weight of facts which this book adduces is too immense.”
The other reason why I referred to this book is to show that the logical and unavoidable result of explaining everything distinctively Christian in the Bible by applying the principle of comparison, or, in other words, that the strict and unhampered following of the “religionsgeschichtliche” method, as it is in vogue at present, must lead to absurdities.
THE MYTH OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT
Allow me a digression. I wish to apply these same principles of analysis and comparison to a modern personality, following strictly the methods of Professor Jensen. Suppose Lord Macaulay’s famous New Zealander, whom he pictures as standing upon a broken arch of London Bridge, in the midst of a vast solitude, to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s should come over to America and dig in the sand-hills covering the Congressional Library in Washington. He finds a great pile of literature which originated in the first few years of the twentieth century. In the very learned book which our New Zealand scholar publishes he refers to the fact that at the beginning of the twentieth century the head of the great American nation was supposed to be a strong and influential man by the name of Theodore Roosevelt. His name has gone down in history, but our scholar proves that Theodore Roosevelt was no historical person at all. He never lived; he is merely the personification of tendencies and mythological traits then dominant in the American nation.
For instance, this legendary hero is commonly pictured with a big stick.
Now, this is plainly a mythological trait, borrowed from the Greeks and Romans, and represents really the thunderbolt of Jupiter. He is pictured as wearing a broad brimmed hat and large eye-glasses. This mythological feature is borrowed from old Norse mythology, and represents Woden endeavoring to pierce through the heavy clouds of fog covering his head. A great many pictures show the legendary hero smiling and displaying his teeth. This is a very interesting feature, showing the strong African influences in American civilization. Many contradictory legends are told about this man. He was a great hunter; he was a rough rider; but he was also a scholar and author of a number of learned books. He lived in the mountains, on the prairie, and in a large city. He was a leader in war, but also a peacemaker. It is said that he was appealed to by antagonizing factions, even by warring nations, to arbitrate. It is self-evident that we have here simply the personification of prominent character traits of the American people at various stages of their historical development. They loved to hunt, to ride, to war; reaching a higher stage of civilization, they turned to studying, writing books, making peace; and all these contradictory traits were, in course of time, used to draw the picture of this legendary national hero. Some mythological features have not yet been fully cleared up; for instance, that he is often represented in the shape of a bear or accompanied by bears. For a while these “Teddy Bears” were in nearly every house, and it seems as if they even were worshipped, at least by the children. There is no doubt that some remote astral conception lies at the root of this rather puzzling feature.
But two reasons are conclusive to establish the legendary thesis: (1) The American nation, at the beginning of the twentieth century, had hardly emerged from the crudity of fetichism and witchcraft. Many traces of fortune-telling, charms, sorcery, and other forms of superstition can be found by studying the daily papers. Even this hero Roosevelt was given to some such superstition. Whenever he desired to bring any one under his spell and charm him, he took him by the hand and pronounced a certain magical word. As far as I can discover it spells something like “dee-lighted.” (2) The other conclusive proof is the name. Theodore is taken from the language of a people representing the southern part of Europe and means “Gift of God;” Roosevelt is taken from the language of a people representing the northern part of Europe, and means “Field of Roses.”
The idea is evident. This hero personifies the union of the two European races which laid the foundations of early American civilization — the Romanic and the Teutonic races; and the Americans imagined that a man who united in himself all those wonderful traits of character must necessarily be a miraculous “Gift of God,” and furthermore they thought that if a man personifying their ideals really had full sway, their country would be changed to a “Field of Roses.”
This explanation is strictly scientific. No doubt a good many machine politicians and heads of trusts would be delighted to awake some morning and find out that Theodore Roosevelt is nothing but a mythological figure.
THE CHRIST OF LIBERAL THEOLOGY
The other avenue which led to the negation of the historicity of jesus Christ is the well-known modernization and reduction of the life and work of Jesus which liberal them logians have accomplished by means of literary and historical criticism. The history of the critical investigation of the life of Jesus during the last hundred and fifty years is an intensely interesting and instructive study. It has recently been summarized by Dr. A. Schweitzer in his book, “From Reimarus to Wrede.” (Reimarus, the contemporary of Lessing, whose “Wolfenbuttler Fragmente” mark the beginning of modern critical research in the life of Christ; Professor William Wrede, who died in November, 1906, was one of the most prominent liberal theologians). A more popular presentation of the subject, covering the latest phases, is given by Professor Grutzmacher in his booklet, “Is the Liberal Picture of Jesus Modern?”
Without going into the history of this investigation, I merely state that the life of Christ as it is presented now by all liberal theologians — like Harnack, Bousset, Weinel, Wrede, Holtzmann, Julicher, Wernle — as the established result of critical scientific research, is gained, not from an examination of the whole New Testament material, but by means of a complicated process of finding the alleged true sources from which this life may be construed. The oldest portions of the New Testament literature, the Pauline writings, are not to be considered as genuine sources, because, as Professor Wernle states, “Jesus knew nothing of that which to St. Paul is everything. That Jesus regarded Himself as an object of worship must be doubted; that He ascribed any meritorious atonement to His death is altogether improbable. Paul is not a disciple of Jesus. He is a new phenomenon. Paul is much further removed from Jesus in his teaching than he would seem to be when regarded only chronologically.”
We turn now to the four Gospels, but of these “the Gospel of John can in no wise be considered a historical source,” says Harnack; and he is seconded in this assertion by all liberals. Says Wernle: “St. John must retire in favor of the Synoptic Gospels as source of the life of Christ. Jesus was as the Synoptics represent Him, not as St. John depicts Him.”
And again: “In the first Gospels there is nothing taught concerning redemption, atonement, regeneration, reception of the Holy Spirit. An altogether different picture is presented by the greater part of the other New Testament writings, especially by the writings of Paul and John.”
But even the Synoptic Gospels have to be critically analyzed in order to find the true portrait of Christ. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, especially in their accounts of the infancy and of the death of Jesus and of the events that took place after His death, and in many other instances as well, are rather a portraiture of the crude beliefs of the early Christian churches than a historically trustworthy account of the real facts. Even in the Gospel of Mark, which is considered the oldest and purest, we find, according to Professor Wernle, that “the historic portrait of Jesus is quite obscured; His person is placed in a grotesquely fantastic light.”
Thus analytical criticism is compelled to search for the sources of the Gospels. and it claims to have found principally two of them; namely, the older Mark document, the source of the present Gospel of St. Mark, and the Logia, or collection of sayings of Jesus, the supposed source of the Gospel of St. Matthew. It is probably true that our present Gospels are based upon previous sources; but, in the absence of fixed data, it is impossible to determine with any degree of certainty just what those sources contained. But critical acumen cannot rest satisfied even with those sources. Says Wernle: “They are not free from the possibility of modification and adulteration. They represent the belief of the Christians as it developed in the course of four decades.”
It is therefore needful to distinguish between genuine elements and later additions in those sources. This is an exceedingly difficult and delicate task, especially since we do not know, for a certainty, the form nor the substance of those sources. How is it accomplished? We have noted an “inner consciousness” of many textual critics. I am reminded of this when I hear Harnack blandly say: “Whoever has a good eye for the vital and a true sense of the really great must be able to see it, and distinguish between the kernel and the transitory husk;” or when I hear Professor Pfleiderer speak of “healthy eyes;” or see how Bousset finds the proofs of genuineness in the fact that “it is psychologically comprehensible,” or Mehlhorn in the fact that “‘it could not have been invented.” It is with a sense of relief that we read Professor Bousset’s refreshingly naive concession that where we find the sources too meager “we may occasionally make use of our imagination.”
Unfortunately our imagination is not a safer guide in historical and scientific matters than is our inner consciousness, and the eyesight of no two men is exactly alike. A few years ago there was in Berlin an exhibition of paintings representing scenes from the life of Christ. Hundreds of paintings were exhibited; they were very interesting to look at, but they did not contribute anything to our knowledge of the real appearance of Jesus Christ. They were nothing but the portraitures of the conceptions which the various artists entertained as to the features of Christ. Each artist portrayed his own ideal of Jesus. Some of the portraits looked so strange that no one would have thought it a picture of Jesus Christ if it had not been labeled as such.
This is precisely the case with all these modern attempts to write a life of Jesus Christ minus St. Paul, minus St. John, minus Matthew, Luke and Mark. If you examine the character of this Jesus closely, you will find that He is really a portraiture of what the author considers his ideal of a pure and holy life, clothed in the garb of an Oriental peasant two thousands years ago.
We cannot here reproduce the details of this twentieth-century ideal in its strange and ancient environments; it is a picture of a man from whom every supernatural, miraculous, mysterious trait has been erased. “Jesus has nowhere overstepped the limits of the purely human,” says Bousset; and again: We do no longer start with the thought that Jesus was absolutely different from us; that He was from above, we from below. And consequently we do no longer speak of the divinity of Christ.”
Doubts and fears, joys and griefs, moments of ecstasy and of utter dejection, all the changing moods of a poor human heart, may be found in His life. “He was a poor, disquieted man, at times shouting with joy, at times woefully despondent,” writes Gustave Frenssen, and adds: “Sometimes He was treading upon the very borderland of exalted insanity.”
On the whole, Jesus was the personification of faith in God, brotherly love, and faith in immortality; at times He seems to have taken Himself as the Messiah of His people; in everything He was subject to the limitations of mankind. There is only one difference between this modern view and the old rationalistic view. While the old rationalists, by all sorts of exegetical jugglery, vainly attempted to show that their human and purely naturalistic view of Jesus was really contained in the New Testament records, the modern rationalists are outspoken in their assertion that their own view is radically different from that of the New Testament writers. They do not in the least try to bridge over this chasm, but state emphatically as Julicher does: “Where even the first apostles have totally misunderstood Jesus we must try to understand Him better.”
This is the picture of Christ which the leading liberal theologians of today have scattered broadcast in tens of thousands of copies of cheap pamphlets, which is described Sunday after Sunday in thousands of pulpits both in Germany, and, somewhat modified and as yet retouched, also in America. But again a reaction has set in, the sweep of which can not as yet be wholly comprehended.
THE VERDICT OF INFIDELITY
A pupil of modern liberal theologians, the former pastor Gustav Frenssen, who is a novel-writer of great force, wrote a novel, “Hilligenlei” (Holy Land), of which hundreds of thousands of copies were sold. The hero of this novel, Kai Jans, is, as is generally admitted, a true reproduction of the picture of Christ as painted by the liberal theologians. This book, as well as some other recent publications, gave rise to a number of reviews of the “modern Christ” by eminent literary men and by philosophers who do not claim to be Christians, but are known and desire to be known as leaders of free thought. Some of them were formerly theologians, but have lost their faith in the fundamental truths of Christianity. Of these writers I mention Adolf Bartels, editor of the “Kunstwart,” Leo Berg, Eduard yon Hartmann, A. Drews, W. Von Schnehen, C. A. Bernoulli, Dr. Kalthoff, the President of the League of Monists, and also two physicians, Doctors De Loosten and E. Rasmussen.
What do these men say? The two physicians claim that the only rational explanation of this Christ is to consider Him as one of the great pathological figures in the world’s history; that means, in other words, that He was partially insane. The others say exactly what conservative theologians — as B. Weiss, Ihmels, Kahler, Zahm, Haussleiter, Grutzmacher, Lemme, and others — always have said against this naturalistic representation of Jesus, and what was ignored by liberal theologians. But here are men who were trained in the methods of Pfleiderer, Bousset, and their kin; men who possess as much critical acumen and philosophic penetration as do the liberal leaders; men whose thinking is in no wise lettered by dogmatic prejudices, — and their almost unanimous verdict is really remarkable.
All of them say that this picture of Christ is both unscientific and unhistorical. It is unscientific, because the methods applied are purely subjective. Says Dr. Kalthoff, after analyzing the Jesus of a number of modern theologians: “Every scholar leaves of the words of Christ only what he can make use of according to his preconceived notions of what is historically possible. Lacking every historical definiteness, the name of Jesus has become an empty vessel into which every theologian pours his own thoughts and ideas.”
Eduard yon Hartmann shows that the only results which this method of analytical criticism has arrived at are negative results. “The historic Christ remains a problematical figure which is of no religious value at all.” W. von Schnehen quotes the liberal Professor Steck, who says: “A strict application of these principles of research will show that there is not one solitary word of Jesus of which we know for certain that it was spoken thus and not otherwise by Jesus,” and uses this assertion to prove that all pictures of Christ are admittedly uncertain, and consequently unscientific.
But another argument which is of much greater import is advanced.
Kalthoff, yon Schnehen and yon Hartmann reason thus: If the liberal theologians admit that their picture of Christ is different from that which was believed by the Church during all the centuries of her existence — different from that of St. Paul, of St. John, of the Synoptic Gospels, of the sources of the Synoptic Gospels; if, as Professor Pfleiderer says, “Jewish phophecy, rabbinical teachings, Oriental gnosis, and Greek philosophy had already put the colors on the palette from which the picture of Christ was painted in the New Testament writings;” if, as is admitted, the Church was built, from the very beginning, not upon the Galilean peasant Jesus, but upon the Christ, the Son of God; and if this Christ is nothing but the creation of speculative theologians, as Paul and John — then there is no need at all of a historic Christ. It is not necessary at all that a man Jesus of Nazareth should ever have lived in order to explain the fact of Christianity.
Even from the point of view of present religious needs of human nature this Jesus of liberal theology is unnecessary. Orthodox theology is Christcentric; liberal theology is God-centric. “Back to Christ,” exclaims Professor Wernle, “but only as a means to return to God the Father. God the Father is to regain that supremacy over our lives which Jesus had intended to give Him, but of which theological dogma has deprived Him.”
The modern thinkers mentioned above can not see the need of any human mediator between God and man. They want a living, present God, and a constant present communion with Him, if they want a God at all. Neither a Catholic saint nor a dead Jew is to stand between their own lives and God.
W. von Schnehen writes still more explicitly: “Even if God should have revealed Himself in the personality of the man Jesus of Nazareth, it is utterly useless to me, unless God reveals Himself to me likewise. If He does reveal Himself to me, then His revelation to Jesus is of no more import to me than is His revelation to any good man or His revelation in nature. The exemplary moral and religious perfection of Jesus is of no benefit whatever to any one except he has in his being the same moral and religious forces which were in Jesus. But if these powers are inherent in him and can be developed in his life, then it makes no difference by whom they become energized, by Jesus or by some one else.”
Quite pathetic are the words of Professor Drews, showing, as they do, the restlessness of an honest but irreligious mind and the dissatisfaction with substitutes in religion: “We are consumed by a burning desire for salvation and we should be satisfied with this fabric of the theologians, this picture of the historic Christ, who changes His features under the hands of every professor of theology who works at it. We need the presence of God, and not His past.”
And Dr. Kalthoff writes quite correctly: “A God in whom we must believe because scholars say that two thousand years ago the son of a Jewish carpenter believed in Him, is not worth the printer’s ink that is being squandered about Him.”
THE CHRIST OF THE NEW TESTAMENT THE ONLY CHRIST
I will come to a close. Why have I asked you to read all these quotations?
For two reasons: In the first place, I desired to show that the modern method of subjective analysis of the sources and of the “religionsgeschichtliche” comparison leads, and as a matter of fact did lead, to a complete negation of the historicity of the person of Christ. In the second place, I wished to point out that the modern, liberal conception of Christ, which strips Him of all distinctively divine elements and makes a pure man of Him, be He ever so good and holy, be He ever so sublime a pattern of a perfect life, be He ever so trustworthy a guide to God, does not and can not satisfy the modern man. He repudiates this man-made Jesus, and even accuses his makers of lack of scientific spirit and of dishonesty. Says von Schnehen: “Christianity is not belief in the man Jesus, but faith in Christ the Saviour and Son of God. Not the man Jesus, the lovable preacher and teacher of morals, who did not shrink back from death in obedience to what was His conviction, has conquered the world, but Christ the Son of God, who died upon the cross in order to redeem a lost world. This is the Christ of the Gospels and of the Church. It is dishonest to call this modern view of Jesus and of His religion Christian or evangelical.”
It has ever been the mistake of rationalism to try to make Christianity acceptable to the average man by taking off the edges of its supranaturalism. It has ever been a failure, and ever will be so. The testimonies of these modern men show that the portrait of Christ painted by liberal theologians of our own day is an utter failure. They prove that the modern man, as well as man centuries ago, needs and wants exactly the Christ of the Church and the Gospels or no Christ at all.
The only true, historically and scientifically true, picture of the life and work and Gospel of Christ is the one which is given in the New Testament as a whole. The modern historians and philosophers tell the modern liberal theologians in very plain language to be honest and quit calling themselves preachers of the Gospel of Christ if they do not believe in the Christ of the Gospels, and quit calling their congregations churches of Christ if they do not believe in the Christ of the Church. Modern man is opposed to all shams and insincerities. He has no patience with men who, while using the old phraseology, cleverly substitute their self-made Jesus for the God-given Christ. The Christ can not be changed. He is the same yesterday, today and forevermore.