Dr. Strauss wrote two works on the life of Jesus: a large one for scholars, which appeared first in 1835, in two volumes; and a condensed one for the people, in 1864, in one volume.80 In both he maintains the same theory, with unimportant modifications. The former is no doubt the ablest and strongest work ever written against Christianity, and is at the same time a well-arranged storehouse of all the older arguments of infidelity in its attacks upon the gospel history. It is therefore worthy of a more serious examination and refutation than any other.
Strauss has found an eloquent advocate in the erratic genius and misguided philanthropist, Theodore Parker, who passed like a brilliant meteor over the American skies to disappear in a foreign land.81
What Gabler, Vater, Bauer, De Wette, and other critics, had already done with the miracles of the Old Testament, and some portions of the New, Strauss fully matured and carried out with reference to the whole life of Christ. He sinks the gospel history, as to the mode of its origin and realness, substantially on a par with the ancient mythologies of Greece and Rome.
A myth is the representation of a religious idea or truth in the form of a fictitious narrative; and in this respect it resembles the fable and the parable, but differs from both by blending the idea with the fact, without any consciousness of a difference between them. The fable is a fictitious story, based upon palpable impossibilities, -- as thinking and speaking animals, -- and invented for the express purpose of inculcating some moral maxim, or lesson of prudence; the parable is likewise a fictitious narrative, deliberately produced, but based upon possibilities, and thus intrinsically truthful, for the purpose of illustrating a spiritual truth; a myth is unconsciously produced, with the most simple and unreflecting faith in the actual occurrence of the story. The mytho-poetic faculty presupposes -- and this we may remark, by way of anticipation, is a very telling argument against the theory of Strauss -- a childlike age of the human race, an entire absence of reflection and criticism. It works like the imagination of children, who delight in stories, invent stories, and believe their own stories without the least misgiving or doubt, without raising the question of truth or falsehood. In this way, according to the theory of some distinguished German scholars like Ottfried Müller, and English writers like Grote, the Greek mythology took its rise, as the spontaneous growth, or unconscious poem, of a child-like fancy, which peopled the air and the sea, the mountains and the groves, the trees and the brooks, with divinities, with the fullest belief in their actual existence. So, also, much of the legendary of mediæval Christianity can be accounted for; with the difference, however, that the legends of martyrs and saints have, in most cases, some foundation, not only in a psychological state, but also in some historical fact. The rest is either harmless poetry of simple souls, or pious fraud of monks and priests.
Strauss does not deny by any means, as is sometimes ignorantly or maliciously asserted, the historical existence of Jesus, and even admits him to have been a religious genius of the first magnitude. But from pantheistic and naturalistic premises, and by a cold process of hypercritical dissection of the apparently contradictory accounts of the witnesses, he resolves all the supernatural and miraculous elements of Christ's person and history, from his birth to the resurrection and ascension, into myths, or imaginative representations of religious ideas in the form of facts, which were honestly believed by the authors to have actually occurred. The ideas symbolized in these facts, especially the idea of the essential unity of the divine and human, are declared to be true in the abstract, or as applied to humanity as a whole; but denied to be false in the concrete, or in their application to an individual. The authorship of the evangelical myths is ascribed to the primitive Christian community, pregnant with Jewish Messianic hopes, and kindled to hero-worship by the appearance of the extraordinary person of Jesus of Nazareth, whom they took to be the promised Messiah, and adorned with this innocent poetry of miracles within thirty or forty years after his death. The theory may be reduced to the following syllogism: There was a fixed idea in the Jewish mind, nourished by the Old Testament writings, that the Messiah would perform certain miracles, -- heal the sick, raise the dead, &c.; there was a fixed persuasion in the minds of the disciples of Jesus that he actually was the promised Messiah: therefore the mytho-poetic faculty instinctively invented the miracles corresponding to the Messianic conception, and ascribed them to him.
In the execution of his task, Strauss avails himself, at the same time, of all the difficulties and objections which the ingenuity of unbelievers of opposite philosophical tendencies, from Celsus and Porphyry to Reimarus and Paulus, have urged against the credibility of the gospel narrative; grouping them with consummate skill for rhetorical effect; presenting the most complex details with rare clearness; changing his mode of attack from round assertion to cautious insinuation or suggestive inquiry, and then massing his forces for a final assault upon the citadel, against which the gates of hell shall never prevail.
Let us now proceed to examine this system.
First, The philosophic foundation on which the mythical hypothesis professedly rests is the alleged impossibility of a miracle; which, again, has its root in a pantheistic denial of a personal God and an Almighty Maker of heaven and earth. This fundamental principle, however, is a mere assumption, which the author never attempts to prove. His work, as to its philosophical groundwork, is a petitio principii, and begs the very question which it was one of its prime objects to discuss. Much as he boasted of possessing that freedom from doctrinal prepossessions (dogmatische Voraussetzungslosigkeit) as a first prerequisite for a scientific biography of Jesus, he starts with a stubborn prejudice. Moreover, he and Renan falsely assume that a miracle is necessarily a violation and suspension of the immutable laws of nature, and deranges the divinely appointed course of events. But a miracle is no such thing; it is simply a manifestation of a higher law; it is only above nature, not against nature. Bushnell, in his classical work on |Nature and the Supernatural,| has conclusively shown, I think, that there is no more a suspension of the laws of nature, when God acts, than when man acts; since nature, by its very laws, is subject to God's and man's uses, to be swayed, modified, and made subservient to the higher kingdom. The laws of nature are not, as modern naturalists and materialists seem to suppose, iron chains by which the living God, so to say, is bound hand and feet, but elastic cords rather, which he can lengthen or shorten at his sovereign will.
Creation is the first miracle; and the Almighty Will, which called the world into existence, still lives with his power undiminished. God is the Lord of nature, and can reveal himself in his own realm. Geological discovery tells us, that, even before man, new races of animals and plants have at different times been created. The testimony of the rocks is full of such miracles. Mlan must have had a beginning, -- even according to the pantheistic theory of development, if we trace it back in an unbroken line to the first link, -- and he can not be explained from a lower kingdom, but only by a creative fact. As the plant is a miracle over against the stone, the animal over against the plant, so man is a miracle as compared with the irrational brute. In man himself, his intelligence is supernatural as compared with the body, and asserts its higher power continually over nature. If we raise our arm in obedience to our will, the law of gravity is held in temporary abeyance, or subordinated to the higher law of free action, but not abrogated or discontinued. Every virtue is a victory over nature, though not an annihilation of it. All this is no proper miracle, but it involves all the speculative difficulties of the miracle. If man can act upon nature from without, and control it, why not much more God, the independent Author and Executor of the laws of nature? Reasoning thus from analogy, we have a right to ascend to a higher sphere.
The belief in the supernatural, far from being a sign of a weak mind, has been held by intellectual giants among all nations and ages. St. Paul and St. John, Augustine and Chrysostom, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, Bacon and Newton, Pascal and Guizot, Kepler and Leibnitz, Rothe and Lange, Edwards and Bushnell, are all arrayed here against Strauss and Renan, and have, to say the very least, furnished far stronger arguments in favor of the supernatural than these champions of modern naturalism have urged against it; for they merely oppose a modern à-priori assumption to a faith which is as old and universal as the race.
In the case of Christ, the presumption is altogether in favor of his having performed miracles; and the onus probandi lies on those who take the opposite view. Christ, we have seen, is himself a miracle, compared with all ordinary men before and after him. His doctrine and life not only rise far above his age and nation, but have never been surpassed or equaled since. Even Strauss, Renan, and Parker can not deny this fact, which is itself a miracle in the pantheistic development theory, so far as this requires a constant progress and improvement of the race. What else, then, can we expect from such a marvelous person, from the restorer of the race, the author of a new moral creation, the founder of a universal and everlasting kingdom of truth and righteousness, but marvelous works, which are clearly established by the united evidence of his own testimony and that of all his disciples? To believe in Christ's person is to believe in his works, just as the belief in an Almighty God implies the belief in the creation, which is the first and great miracle and stumbling-block of naturalism. To deny the possibility of miracles is to deny the existence of a living God and Almighty Creator.
Secondly, The critical foundation of the mythical theory is as unsafe as the philosophical, and is one of the weakest parts of the book of Strauss, who was justly censured by his teacher, Baur, for attempting to write a criticism of the gospel history without a criticism of the Gospels. In order to avoid the necessity of supposing that Christ and the apostles were deceivers or self-deceived, and to allow a sufficient time for the formation of myths, he must bring down the canonical Gospels at least a century later than Christ. But at that time they were already universally acknowledged as canonical writings, and used in the Christian churches. Strauss has to encounter here the overwhelming mass of patristic testimonies in favor of the apostolic origin of these Gospels, which far exceed in number and weight the testimony that can be brought to the support of any of the classical writers of Greece or Rome.
At one time, feeling the force of the unanimous voice of Christian antiquity and modern critical investigation, Strauss was disposed to admit the authenticity of the Gospel of John; but, seeing the fatal effect of this concession upon his conclusions, he soon after withdrew it, in the third edition of his large work. But, since that time, the evidence in favor of John's authorship has only increased by the discovery of the |Philosophumena| of Hippolitus; from which it appears that the fourth Gospel was already used, even by the Gnostic heretics, in the early part of the second century. The whole controversy concerning the origin and character of the canonical Gospels, into which we can not here enter, has assumed half a dozen new phases since the first appearance of Strauss's book in 1835; so that this, in respect to the indispensable preliminary investigations of a scientific biography of Jesus, is quite out of date. As to the fourth Gospel, especially, the only alternative in the present stage of the controversy is truth or fraud. The assumption of unconscious mytho-poetical fiction is exploded by the latter developments of the Tübingen critics. Strauss himself now admits, in this case, conscious fiction and philosophical construction, and thus approaches the very border of the infamous theory of imposture.82
But suppose we give up the four Gospels: there still remain the Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament to substantiate all the fundamental facts of the life of Christ, especially the resurrection, -- the great crowning and sealing miracle of his work, without which the Apostolic Church could never have risen at all. Even Dr. Baur, who, in bold negative and reconstructive criticism, went farther than any skeptic ever did, and who resolved most of the New-Testament writings into |tendency| books written in the conscious interest of contending parties and sections of the post-apostolic age, ultimately blended in the system of ancient Catholicism, -- a theory, by the way, which is quite inconsistent with the unconscious mytho-poetic origin of the Gospels, -- leaves the Apocalypse of St. John, and four Epistles of St. Paul, viz., those to the Romans (excepting the last two chapters), the Corinthians and Galatians, standing as genuine apostolic writings. This is enough for our purpose. It may perhaps be imagined that an illiterate fisherman of Galilee was simple and child-like enough to invent miracles, and to mistake the creatures of his fancy for actual facts. But this is a psychological impossibility in the case of Paul, -- the learned, acute, subtle, dialectic, well-drilled rabbi of the school of Gamaliel, and so long the open and bitter enemy of Christianity. How could he submit his strong and clear mind, which was equal to that of any philosopher, ancient or modern, and devote all the energies of his noble life, which made him one of the greatest benefactors of mankind, to a poetical fiction, or empty dream of the very sect which he fanatically persecuted unto death?
The difficulty presented here to the infidel biographers of Jesus is absolutely insurmountable; and the chapter on the resurrection is the weakest part of Strauss's book, where his mythological hypothesis breaks down completely. He himself must admit that all the apostles believed in the resurrection, and could only by this belief pass from the despondency created by the death of Jesus, to the joy and enthusiasm necessary to spread the gospel and found churches at the risk of their lives. But he can not explain this astounding transition, which took place already on the third day. Rejecting the miracle, and also the natural interpretation of a resurrection from a trance, he resorts to a purely psychological resurrection of Christ in the visionary faith of his disciples, including St. Paul, and the more than five hundred to whom he appeared at once! (1 Cor. xv.6.) As if an empty dream and unreal vision could suddenly turn desponding gloom into enthusiastic joy and world-conquering faith, and this in so many persons at the same time, and lay the foundation to the indestructible structure of the Christian Church! Credat Judæus Apella. Here, if anywhere, we must bow before the overwhelming force of a most glorious fact. Dr. Baur, the teacher of Strauss, and the acknowledged master of the modern critical school, felt the difficulty, and, toward the close of his long and earnest studies, honestly made the remarkable concession, that the conversion of Paul was to him a mystery, which could only be explained by |the miracle of the resurrection.|83 This concession overthrows the whole mythological fabric. Admit the resurrection of Christ, and there can be no difficulty with the other miracles.
A third fundamental error of the mythical hypothesis consists in a radical inversion of the natural order and relation of history and poetry, as it exists in any historical age like that in which Christ made his appearance on earth. Facts give rise to songs, and not vice versâ. Prophecies, and expectations, too, may foreshadow events, but do not create them. The real object precedes the picture of the artist; the hero, the epic. Bunyan's |Pilgrim's Progress| presupposes the Christian experience of which it is a beautiful allegory. Milton's |Paradise Lost| could never have produced the belief in the fall of man, but rests on this belief and the fact it describes with all the charm and splendor of sanctified genius. All the great revolutions in the world have been effected, not by fictitious personages, but by real living men whose power corresponded to their influence. So the American and French Revolutions in the eighteenth, the Puritan Revolution in the seventeenth, the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century; the founding of modern, mediaeval, and ancient empires; the inventions of arts, and the discoveries of new countries, -- can all be traced to strictly historical and well-defined persons as originators or leaders. Why should Christianity, which produced the greatest of all moral revolutions of the race, form an exception? Ideas, without living men to represent and explain them, are shadows and abstractions. The pantheistic philosophy, on which the criticism of Strauss and Renan is based, by denying the personality of God, destroys also the proper significance of the personality of man, and consistently ends in denying the immortality of the soul.
In the case before us, the difficulty is greatly increased by making, not one great towering genius, as Homer, but an illiterate and comparatively ignorant multitude, responsible for the gospel poem, which in purity and sublimity rises infinitely above all ancient mythologies. Strauss assumes a Messianic community in some terra incognita, probably in the midst of Palestine, independent of the apostles, about thirty or forty years after the death of Christ, to have produced the gospel history. But this is a mere fiction of his brain. At that time, Christianity was already planted all over the Roman Empire, as is evident from the Epistles of Paul as well as from the Acts; and all these congregations stood under the guidance of apostles and apostolic men who were eye-witnesses of the events of Christ, and controlled the whole Christian tradition. The Gospels, moreover, with the exception of that of Matthew, bear not the Jewish, but the Gentile-Christian stamp, and were written outside of Palestine, on Greek and Roman soil; which shows that the same traditions were spread all over the empire, and must form a part of the original Christianity of the apostles themselves. The mythological hypothesis breaks down half-way, and is forced to make the apostles responsible for the story; that is, to charge them with downright fraud. If Christ did not actually perform miracles, they must have been invented by the primitive disciples, the apostles, and evangelists, to account at all for their rapid and universal spread and acceptance among Jewish and Gentile Christians from Jerusalem to Rome.
But admitting such a consolidated, central, and yet independent mytho-poetic community of the second generation of Christians, how could this Messianic congregation itself originate without a Messiah? How could the disciples believe in Jesus, without the indispensable signs of the Messiahship? If the early Christians produced Christ, who produced the early Christians? Whence did they derive their high spiritual ideal? Were not the Messianic expectations of the Jews at the time sectional, political, and carnal, -- the very reverse of those encouraged by Christ? Who ever heard of a poem unconsciously produced by a mixed multitude, and honestly mistaken by them all for actual history? How could the five hundred persons, to whom the risen Saviour is said to have appeared (1 Cor. xv.6), dream the same dream at the same time, and then believe it as a veritable fact, at the risk of their lives? How could such an illusion stand the combined hostility of the Jewish and Heathen world, and the searching criticism of an age, not of child-like simplicity, but of high civilization, of critical reflection, -- even of incredulity and skepticism? How strange, that unlettered and unskilled fishermen, or rather their obscure friends and pupils, and not the philosophers and poets of classic Greece and Rome, should have composed such a grand poem, and painted a character to whom Strauss himself is forced to assign the very first rank among all the religious geniuses and founders of religion! And would they not rather have given us at best an improved picture of such a rabbi as Hillel or Gamaliel, or of a prophet like Elijah or John the Baptist, instead of a universal reformer who rises above all the limitations of nation or sect?
The poets must in this case have been superior to the hero. John must have surpassed Jesus, whom he represented as the incarnate God.84 And yet the hero is admitted by these skeptics themselves to be the purest and greatest man that ever lived!
But where are the traces of a fervid imagination and mytho-poetic art in the gospel history? Is it not, on the contrary, remarkably free from all rhetorical and poetical ornament, from every admixture of subjective notions and feelings, even from the expression of sympathy, admiration, and praise? The writers evidently felt that the story speaks best for itself, and could not be improved by the art and skill of man. Their discrepancies, which at best do not affect the picture of Christ's character in the least, but only the subordinate details of his history, prove the absence of collusion, attest the honesty of their intentions, and confirm the general credibility of their accounts. The Gospels have the character of originality and freshness stamped upon every page : they breathe the very presence of Jesus Christ; and this constitutes their irresistible charm to every unsophisticated reader. It is the history itself which speaks to us face to face, without intervening reflections and subjective notions. The few occasional references to geography, archaeology, and secular history, only confirm their general credibility. How different in all these respects the apocryphal Gospels! They are flat, puerile, insipid, the absurd productions of a diseased religious imagination. Here, indeed, we might speak of mythical or legendary fiction, or of downright imposition and pious fraud. But this very contrast proves the truth of the original. history, as the counterfeit implies the existence of the genuine coin.85
Verily, the gospel history, enacted not in an obscure corner (Acts xxvi.26), but before the eyes of the people; before Pharisees and Sadducees; before Herod and Pilate; before Jews and Romans; friends and foes in Galilee, Samaria, and Judæa; a history related with such unmistakable honesty and simplicity by immediate witnesses and their pupils; proclaimed in open daylight from Jerusalem to Rome; believed by thousands of cotemporary Jews and Gentiles; sealed with the blood of apostles, evangelists, and saints of every grade of society and culture, -- is better attested by external and internal evidence than any other history in the world.
The mere fact of the Christian Church, with its unbroken history of eighteen hundred years, is an overwhelming evidence of the Christ of the Gospels; and the institution of Christian baptism and the holy communion testify every day, all over the world, to the two fundamental doctrines of the holy Trinity, and of the atonement by the sacrifice on the cross. Strauss would make us believe in a stream without a fountain, in a house without a foundation, in an effect without a cause; for the facts which he and Renan leave untouched are not sufficient to account for the subsequent exaggerations and fictions, The same negative criticism which Strauss applied to the evangelists, would, with equal plausibility, destroy the strongest chain of evidence before a court of justice, and resolve the life of Socrates or Charlemagne or Luther or Napoleon into a mythical dream.86
But the secret spring of this hypercriticism is the pantheistic or atheistic denial of a personal, living God, which consistently and professedly ends with the denial of personal immortality; for the relative personality of man depends upon the self-conscious, self-existent, absolute personality of God. In its details, the mythical hypothesis is so complicated and artificial, that it can not be consistently carried out. It continually crosses the boundary-line which divides the mythical from the mendacious; and at the most critical points, as in the origin of the fourth Gospel and the miracle of the resurrection, it is driven to the alternative of admitting the truth, or relapsing to the vulgar and disreputable hypothesis of intentional fraud, from which it professed, at the start, to shrink back with horror and contempt.