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 …

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