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The Origins of Christianity

The Primitive Church

by Maurice Goguel, translated by H.C. Snape
Macmillan, 610 pp., $14.95

Maurice Goguel died in 1955, having been for fifty years professor at the Faculté Libre de Théologie Protestante of the University of Paris. During that long and very productive life of scholarship all his effort was concentrated on a century-and-a-half of history, to 150 A.D. in round numbers. Such dedication, such apparent narrowness of range, such austerity of style and manner, such unwillingness to make concessions to readers—these are qualities we have been taught to think of as Germanic rather than French. Goguel himself quotes with approval a reviewer’s remark that “M. Renan thinks too much of beauty and not enough of truth.” And it must be admitted that there is not the slightest danger that Goguel’s books will have the public success of Renan’s Vie de Jésus, which ran into thirteen printings within a year of its appearance in 1863, followed by fifteen printings of an abridged popular edition the next year, and which has been translated into thirteen languages.

Yet Renan is the fountainhead of the tradition of which Goguel is one of the greatest exponents. Like all originators, Renan had his forerunners, the seventeenth-century Bishop of Chester, John Pearson, the eighteenth-century Hamburg professor Reimarus, David Friedrich Strauss, and others. But, as Goguel writes, it was Renan who “brought forward the problem of the life of Jesus in such a way that henceforward it was impossible to withdraw it from this leading position.” By which he meant the dawn of modern critical historical study of the origins of Christianity. Goguel opens the first volume of his own masterpiece, Jésus et les origines du Christianisme, of which the book now under consideration is the third and final volume,* with these words:

This book is an historical work. Although it deals with a question which is of immediate interest for the Christian faith, I have not felt at liberty to treat it with a different method than that which is accepted by historians in general, the only method by which it is possible to establish the reality of the facts of the past.

Goguel was a believing Christian, I hasten to add, who towards the end of his life “felt himself more religious than Christian, more Christian than Protestant, and more Protestant than Lutheran.” For him there was no possible conflict between “faith” and “facts of the past.” His final two sentences make that clear enough:

The forms and phrases by which a religion is transmitted must be regarded as nothing more than the symbolic expression of a spiritual reality. As that expression is of quite a different order from factual knowledge the one cannot in any way confirm or invalidate the other.

How organized Christianity came into being, in other words, may be examined independently of its “spiritual reality.” At the same time, it was Goguel’s faith which was a driving force behind his fifty years of unremitting labor, and which, incidentally, puts “dedication to scholarship” in its proper perspective. What distinguishes a Goguel (or a Georges Lefebvre studying the French Revolution) from Dr. Dryasdust can be summed up in the word “significance.” Even a Parsee or Shintoist or agnostic can agree that the origins of Christianity have significance—enough to warrant a lifetime of scholarship which, from the nature of the inquiry, can never sink to pedantry when pursued with the integrity, rigor, and high competence of a Goguel (or of a Loisy or a Guignebert, the two other Frenchmen who immediately come to mind in this context, whose faith was far more problematical). And it is the significance and the integrity which triumph over the austerity of the presentation for anyone who wishes to ponder and to learn and not just to be reassured in his devotion.

What may be learned from Goguel cannot be summarized briefly. Among other things he provides a critical survey of the scholarship in the field, past and present. Then he analyzes the sources text by text, sometimes several times over as the different books of the Bible and other Christian writings cast light or confusion, as the case may be, upon the several problems. As an extreme example, the short second chapter of the present volume, “The Deutero-Pauline Doctrines of the Church,” has six subsections, respectively entitled “The Epistle to the Ephesians,” “The Pastoral Epistles,” “The Synoptic Gospels,” “The Book of the Acts,” “The Fourth Gospel and the First Epistle of John,” and “The Apocalypse.” In one sense, therefore, the three volumes constitute a series of many short monographs. Yet they add up in the end to a very complex and exciting history of the development of early Christian thought, experience, and practice from the life and death of Jesus to the “first steps towards an all-embracing organization and the origins of the Roman primacy” [my italics].

Running all through there is a single leitmotif.

Jesus did not foresee the Church; he did not found it. But from his actions it took its rise…Without Jesus the Church would not have been born, and yet Jesus did not even foresee the Church. What he desired and proclaimed was not the Church but the Kingdom of God. Without Paul…it would not have presented the face which it has for us across nineteen centuries of history. And yet Paul had no intention to be a creator or even only an organizer; he did not feel that he was so; he only wished to be a witness…. The Christianity of the Church was the extension. stabilization and organization of a religion which had been that of Jesus. Jesus was not the founder and earliest representative of Christianity but its object.

At the end of the first volume Goguel said this in even more lapidary fashion: “Did Jesus feel that he was bringing a new religion to his nation? This question did not occur to him.”

If so, how and why did a new religion and its appropriate organization come into being? That is the theme, and for Goguel the answer lies primarily in “spiritual causes.” Though he concedes that “the birth and growth of the Church, together with its adaptation to the accident of the environment, are also sociological facts,” he is really not much interested in institutions or institutional history in the common sense of those terms. He prefers “the psychological method.” Jesus had proclaimed the Kingdom of God; then came the crucifixion and therefore failure; trust in Jesus was put under great strain, from which his followers were rescued by their faith in the Resurrection. His life was now turned into a sacred history and a new religion was born.

Sacred history always “resembles a myth” and “its elaboration involves a certain disregard for minute historical accuracy.” (It should be observed that Goguel is by no means the most radical of writers in this respect: among believing Christians there are historians of the early Church who go very much further in their rejection of the historicity of most of the Biblical tradition.) Nowhere is there more difficulty than with the central episode, the Resurrection. “No fact was more important for the primitive faith…; yet, on no fact is the tradition so diverse and incapable of being reduced to unity.” Goguel’s explanation here as always is psychological: a combination of “appearances” to a select few plus “the needs of apologetic added to a spontaneous tendency for the tradition to assume a more material and concrete form.” The tradition thus follows “a law of religious development” that the “myth-making function” must intervene at the stage “when the period of creativity comes to an end and one of consolidation follows.”

Enough has been said to make it obvious why Goguel sadly anticipated that some would be “pained, and, indeed, scandalized, by what they regard as a lack of respect for the Christian tradition.” It is not only in the backwoods of Georgia that the illusion remains that much of the New Testament is literally true as historical fact as well as “spiritual reality.” An Oxford historian has recently insisted that the life of Christ as told in the Gospels and the life of Tiberius as related by Tacitus or the account of the Persian Wars in Herodotus are all of a kind, subject to the same tests and having the same general aims. “Not.” he adds, “that one imagines that the authors of the Gospels set to work precisely like either Herodotus or Thucydides.” Not precisely? Not at all. He has forgotten that the Greek word historia originally meant “inquiry,” which is exactly what Herodotus set out to do, and what the authors of the Gospels (or the apologetic writers and theologians) did not set out to do. The latter bore witness, an activity of an altogether different order. In R. G. Collingwood’s justly famous dictum,

theocratic history…means not history proper,…but a statement of known facts for the information of persons to whom they are not known, but who, as worshippers of the god in question, ought to know the deeds whereby he has made himself manifest.

The real difficulty begins if one agrees with Collingwood. Once the existence of a process of myth-making is accepted, the question is, How does one make a history out of such historiographically unpromising materials? There are no others. A handful of sentences in pagan writers, wholly unilluminating, and a few passages in Josephus and the Talmud, tendentious when they are not forgeries, are all we have from non-Christian sources for the first century or century-and-a-half of Christianity. It is no exaggeration to say that they contribute nothing. One must work one’s way as best one can with the Christian writings, with no external controls. Goguel’s way, if I may oversimplify, is first to sort the traditions into strands (or to demonstrate that there was no early tradition at all if that were the case) and then to apply logical and psychological tests. One simple example will suffice. When asked by the Pharisees for “a sign from Heaven,” Jesus replied, “There shall be no sign given unto this generation” (Mark viii 11-12). Goguel comments:

This saying is certainly authentic, for it could not have been created by primitive Christianity which attached a great importance to the miracles of Jesus…. This leads us to think that Jesus did not want to work marvels, that is to say, acts of pure display.

It follows that stories like those of Jesus walking on water are “extremely doubtful.” His healing, on the other hand, may be accepted, and, in conformity with the beliefs prevailing at the time, “it is true that these healings were regarded as miracles both by Jesus himself and by those who were the recipients of his bounty.”

This application of the “psychological method” is neat, plausible, commonsensical. But is the answer right? Not only in this one example but in the thousands upon thousands of details in the story upon which Goguel or any other historian must make up his mind? I do not know what decisive tests of verifiability could possibly be applied. The myth-making process has a kind of logic of its own, but it is not the logic of Aristotle or of Bertrand Russell. Therefore it does not follow that it always avoids inconsistency: it is capable of retaining, and even inventing, sayings and events which, in what we call strict logic, undermine its most cherished beliefs. The difficulties are of course most acute at the beginning, with the life of Jesus. One influential modern school, which goes under the name of “form-criticism,” has even abandoned history at this stage completely. “In my opinion,” wrote Rudolf Bultmann, “we can sum up what can be known of the life and personality of Jesus as simply nothing.”

The difficulties do not stop with the death of Jesus. Not only did the myth-making process go on for a long time, but it was meshed in with the uncertainties, the gropings, and the conflict which characterized the early development of the Church. Goguel is right to stress the implications in this connection of the fact that the earliest Christian documents form a canonical collection: “what was remembered of the earliest days of Christianity passed through a kind of censorship so that there is only left for us what conformed to the doctrine of the church when it had become fixed in one single form.” Much other material was in effect “thrown in the waste paper basket and disappeared.” That is the other side of the coin of “significance.” What was believed to be true about the origins of Christianity cut close to the bone. It still does. Thus, even the strictly scholarly debates, recently revived, about the responsibility of Jews and Romans, respectively, for the indictment and execution of Jesus, cannot altogether escape the practical significance of the answer over the next 1900 years. Pilate, it is worth recalling, was canonized in the Abyssinian Church, his wife in the Greek Orthodox.

When new documents appear they immediately become tangled in the same network of uncertainties and prejudices. What have we learned from the Dead Sea scrolls, for example? One could answer that question with more confidence if there were any certainty as to what group the scrolls emanated from (a certainty which does not exist at the moment despite the emphatic assurance of much writing on the subject). Or consider the sensational Vatican excavations which uncovered St. Peter’s tomb. There is nothing in the archaeological evidence to indicate whether or not Peter’s grave was also there; nor even whether or not at the time the memorial was constructed Christians actually believed that they were marking the grave. The discovery of the tomb is therefore not incompatible even with Goguel’s extreme skepticism about Peter in Rome: “And so it may be that Peter never came to Rome or, if he came, he only played an obscure part there. He certainly did not found the Church; neither did he influence its development or determine its orientation.” It need hardly be said that nothing else Goguel wrote is likely to be more abhorrent to many than this particular judgment.

Paradoxically, the validity in its broad outline of Goguel’s general view of the origins of the Christian Church does not hang on the accuracy of his individual judgments. Nor need one accept the view wholly, and surely not the excessive psychologizing to appreciate and treasure the effort. There is a first question to be put to any historical book: Does it stimulate reflection and bring one closer to understanding? The Primitive Church does.

  1. *

    The three volumes were originally published between 1932 and 1947. The first volume appeared in English translation in 1933 (reprinted in two volumes in Harper Torchbooks in 1960) under the title, Jesus and the Origins of Christianity; the second, The Birth of Christianity, in 1953. The three together total more than 1500 pages of heavily annotated text. I shall draw on all three as appropriate.

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