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Lecture 1: Introduction

THE subject of the second half of these lectures is to be the history of the Origin and Development of Christianity. The scientific investigation of this history is still of recent date, hardly more than a hundred years old. What made it impossible sooner was a double hindrance: first, a false idea of the nature of the Revelation upon which Christianity rests; and secondly, a false idea of the character of the Sources from which we are able to obtain a knowledge of its origin.

To investigate a history, means to trace out the connection of its causes and effects, and to make it intelligible to our understanding. This presupposes that in what has once happened there exists such a connection of causes and effects as is analogous to our general experience of what happens among men and in men, and is therefore intelligible to our understanding. But according to the old ecclesiastical tradition, the origin of Christianity was held to have lain in an event which had been outside of the connection of human causes and events, incomparable with all other experience, and inconceivable by any understanding,—in other words, in an absolute miracle, which, again, could only be known in a miraculous way, and which could only be believed on authority. Christianity, so it was viewed, had arisen by this means, that a divine being, the second person of the Trinity, had once on a time descended from heaven and assumed a human nature by miraculous birth from a virgin, had made known his divine nature by many kinds of miracles, had by his death delivered men from the divine wrath, and thereafter had returned again into his heavenly world. Certainly beautiful conceptions, which from of old, and even still to-day, come home to the fantasy and heart of men; and in them we shall never cease to honour the venerable vestments of sublime truths. But is all this history, intelligibly conceivable history? No: these representations do not contain such history; nor can, nor ought, they indeed to contain it. The appearing of a heavenly being for an episodic stay upon our earth breaks the connection of events in space and time upon which all our experience rests, and therefore it undoes the conception of history from the bottom. And nothing is altered in this position by showing how the appearance of the heavenly being had been prepared upon earth by the course of history; how the Roman government of the world favoured the spread of the Gospel; how the state of things in the heathen and Jewish world had been so desperate that men were the more willing to receive the tidings of the divine Redeemer, and such-like. Considerations such as these, which were always at home in the apologetics of the Church, certainly contain much truth; but they nevertheless always remain attached to the surface of things, and do not penetrate to the inner connection of Christianity with the preceding history. It is overlooked that here too, as everywhere in the historical development of humanity, when the old was dying out, the new was prepared not only negatively but also positively,—that men no longer found any satisfaction in the old forms of consciousness and life only because the presentiment of the higher truth already lived in the depths of the soul, and evoked their longing for elevation to a higher consciousness of themselves and of God. What breaks the old forms to pieces is just the new spirit itself, which therefore already pre-exists in germ under the shell of the old, and which struggles for liberation from the hindering bonds, and strives towards formation in personal and social existence. It is just on this account, then, that the appearance of this new spirit in a powerful prophetic personality can be recognised and greeted as the fulfilment of the divining and hoping of all, because they find in Him their own growing spirit, their better selves. This is the true, the positive and inner connection of the new with the old in all human history, and so it is too in particular in the case of the rise of Christianity. Only thus can its origin and rise be really comprehended as history, while under the presupposition of an absolute miracle it remains to us for ever inconceivable.

If Christianity had appeared as an absolute miracle in the person of a God upon earth, the knowledge of this appearance and of its significance could also have been communicated only through a miracle to men. Hence supernaturalism logically assumed that the Bible, to which we owe this knowledge, was a work of the absolutely miraculous inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who had unveiled to the prophets the mystery of the future appearing, and to the apostles that of the accomplished appearance of the God-Man, and who had noted down the record of this revelation for the coming generations even to its wording—nay, had specifically dictated it to the pen of the amanuensis. As the Bible, according to this view, does not contain human history but superhuman miracles, neither has it arisen in a historical way; it is not a collection of divers human testimonies about human experiences out of different times, but it is from beginning to end the homogeneous work of the one divine Author, who has only employed different men as secretaries, to whom He dictated the oracles of His super-rational revelation. In approaching the Bible with this assumption, men made it quite impossible for themselves to understand its actual contents, which are as different as the times and men from which they sprang. It was as when one looks through a coloured glass at a variegated landscape: its own manifold colours all pale and give way to the dreary monotony of the one false colour of the glass. Naturally, with this view, all interest in a higher thorough study of the Sacred Scriptures was lost; men supposed they knew beforehand what was everywhere to be found in them — namely, just the mysteries of revelation, the sum of which was already possessed in the dogmatic system. Hence the Bible was only further used as a mine of proofs for the established dogmatic system. Thus it happened that just in the age of the dominating orthodoxy, whose doctrine of inspiration deified the letter of the Bible, the true study of the Bible reached its lowest ebb, and an understanding of the actual development of religion in the Old and New Testaments was completely wanting.

It was a merit of the rationalistic movement that it broke with the prejudice of the unhistorical dogma of inspiration, and recognised the Bible as “a book written by men for men.” Emancipation from the fetters of dogmatics was the necessary presupposition for a historical understanding of the Bible. But the rationalism of the period of enlightenment also still lacked the unbiassed historical sense. It was itself still entangled in dogmatic assumptions, although these were different from those of the ecclesiastical orthodoxy. It supposed that the true religion had been revealed to all men through reason and conscience, and had been everywhere and always the same, consisting of the elementary truths of belief in God, Virtue, and Immortality. But as regards what went beyond this scanty scheme of “Natural Religion,” — for that rationalism had no interest and no understanding. Hence it likewise sought again in the Bible everywhere only for a philosophical creed, and for this end indulged in as bold and violent interpretations of the Biblical writers as the orthodox had done. But what could not be brought into the rationalistic scheme was explained as nonessential accessories, as allegorical investment, or even charged upon the ignorance and superstition of the old rude ages. Thus were the characteristic distinctions between the Biblical writers and times really overlooked and suppressed; their radical peculiarities appeared to the levelling understanding as an accidental distortion of the essential, always identical truth; and in place of the living dramatic development of the religious spirit there was also substituted the barren monotony of a previously accepted system,—only not the system of the orthodox Churchmen, but that of the rationalists, the so-called “Natural Religion.”

It was, as we saw in the first of these Lectures, the merit of David Hume to have destroyed this illusion of an always identical natural religion, by which a main hindrance in the way of a historical view of religion in general, and of the Biblical religion in particular, was removed. We may carry back the beginning of a historical understanding of the Bible to Herder, the genial scholar of Hamann and Rousseau, the foe alike of rationalistic and of orthodox unnaturalness and stereotyped form, the friend of all natural, original, and powerful feeling in poetry and religion. With deep intellectual sympathy he was able to penetrate into the peculiarities of the Biblical writers, to feel the influence of their religious inspiration, and to re-create their poetical figurative language; and thus he put a powerful impulse in the place of the subjective arbitrariness of the rationalistic exposition of the Bible, and paved the way for the historical Biblical investigation of our time. Certainly, for a strictly scientific prosecution of such investigation, Herder still lacked too much of that sharp intellectual criticism which is as indispensable to the historian as sympathetic intuition and divination. It was always so essentially peculiar to him to view idea and reality as in each other that he was not able, in connection with the traditions of Biblical history, to carry out the critical severance between ideal content and historical reality — nay, he was scarcely able to understand it as a scientific postulate. “He rightly urged the view that the New Testament was to be read in the spirit of the New Testament itself, with new sense and feeling for the greatness of its contents. But if the greatness, the deep religious moral power, of these writings win their influence over him, carry him away and overpower him, he loses in consequence the freedom which he otherwise maintained towards poetical works. He still wanted the critical mediating conception between poetry and faith—the conception of the myth.”1

This defect, which had hindered even Herder from attaining to a historical understanding of the development of Christianity, was rectified by Strauss and Baur, the great Tübingen critics. The writers of profane history had been long clear on the point that in all ancient history the actual facts were covered by a thick stratum of fables, legends, myths, which have not been made arbitrarily by individuals, but had formed themselves spontaneously in the common consciousness of a people, under the co-operation of different impressions and motives, and out of the impulse to interpret religiously and to adorn poetically. But if the primeval history of all other peoples and religions is full of myths and legends, why should not the Biblical history be so too? To have answered this question clearly and straightly, and then to have also applied this point of view logically to the whole Gospel history—this was the merit of David Friedrich Strauss. His procedure was at bottom as simple and as self-evident as the egg of Columbus; but the simplest is in fact always that of which men think least, and by which, when it is suddenly presented to them, they are most surprised and moved. The strength of Strauss's ‘Life of Jesus’ lay, it is true, more in negations than in positive results,—in the removing of the hindrances to historical knowledge more than in the building up of such knowledge. It swept like a hurricane upon the dogmatic slumber of the theologians, and it swept away the thick mists of the rationalistic and supernaturalistic explanation of the Gospels. It showed the Christian world that its previous supposed knowledge of the rise of Christianity was for the most part an illusion, and thereby it made the path free for an actual knowledge of it. But in order to come to this knowledge, there was needed a more fundamental criticism of the sources of the Gospel-history: this foundation of a positive history of primitive Christianity was still wanting in Strauss, and here was the point at which the epochmaking achievement of his teacher Baur came in.

Baur started specially with the criticism of the Pauline Epistles. That some of the Epistles ascribed to Paul, as, in particular, the so-called Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus, were spurious, had been conjectured before Baur by certain exegetes,—Eichhorn, De Wette, and Schleiermacher (at least as regards 1 Timothy). But their doubts were still grounded more upon subjective judgments of taste than upon insight into the objective historical significance of the writings called in question. On the other hand, Baur, by comprehensive studies concerning the circumstances of the Church in the two first centuries, had come to the result that the Pastoral Epistles sprang out of the struggle of the Catholic Church against the Gnosticism of the second century, and had as their purpose to confirm the ecclesiastical tradition and hierarchy in opposition to the heretics. Baur had thus attained to a new method of Biblical criticism, which he opposed to the previous subjective criticism as the objective criticism. This method is extremely simple and luminous to every sound understanding. It consists in this, that in judging of the Biblical writings one is not to be determined by the ecclesiastical tradition which arose accidentally, and is, in many respects, quite arbitrary, but by the contents of the several writings themselves. If the contents of a writing are of such a kind that it is not possible without contradictions and artifices to connect it with the relations of the time and the person to whom it has been hitherto ascribed, then the origin of this writing must be transferred to another time, to that time whose relationships it most naturally fits into, and from whose ecclesiastical as well as theological interests it is most easily to be explained. The only assumption in this method is for the historian at bottom a self-evident presupposition—namely, that the origin of the Biblical writings came about in the same way, as all other popular religious literature; that in particular the New Testament Epistles were writings relating to particular occasions, and that they were called forth by a definite situation, by relationships of time and locality of the Christian communities, and were to serve definite purposes, ecclesiastical strivings, and religious tendencies of their time; and consequently, that they can also be only rightly understood from the connection of their time. This method, it is true, was in noway discovered for the first time by Baur,—it had been already long known to writers of profane history, and had been put to use by them; but it was Baur who first applied the method to the sources of Biblical history too, and thereby won results of the greatest importance and reach—nay, who thereby raised Biblical history for the first time to the rank of a real science.

We cannot here pursue in detail the application which Baur made of this method to all the New Testament writings. Only the two most important results of it may be here emphasised, because they have been of fundamental significance for the explanation of the rise of Christianity. The one relates to the position of the Apostle Paul in the development of the oldest Christianity. By thorough investigation of the Pauline Epistles and of the Acts of the Apostles, Baur came to the result that it was through Paul that Christianity had been first recognised and realised as the universal world-religion, in distinction from the Jewish national religion, and that Paul had been able to carry through his original apprehension of Christianity only by hard and long conflict with the Jewish prepossessions of the primitive Church, and therefore that the real history of the apostolic time does not show the peaceful and concordant picture of the ecclesiastical tradition, but a development, passing from the beginning through strong oppositions and lively conflicts, out of which the one universal Catholic Church did not proceed till towards the end of the second century. The other equally important result of Baur's criticism relates to the Fourth Gospel. He started here from the question, What was the idea and intention which determined the author in his special presentation of the Gospel history? This was the idea, set forth in the prologue, of the divine Logos, the primal principle of the life and light of the world, which had embodied itself in the person of Jesus, and had entered into earthly history. With this idea the whole history of Jesus became for the author a divine-human drama, which turns on the representation and conquest of the opposition of the metaphysicoethical principles of light and darkness, truth and falsehood, children of the devil and of God, spirit and flesh, life and death. Thus the Fourth Gospel contains a Christian Gnosis, clothed in the form of a life of Jesus. But that such a representation, determined by ideal motives of a didactic kind, can lay no claim to historical value, has been established with full evidence by Baur by a running critical comparison of the John Gospel with the Synoptic Gospels, in which he showed how, in all their points of difference,—and these are of such a kind that they go deep and defy every attempt to harmonise them,—the greater historical probability is on the side of the Synoptic Gospels, and the divergence of the John Gospel must be referred to its own ideal pre-suppositions and motives. In opposition to the apologetic attempts to separate between the discourses and the narrations of this Gospel, Baur has shown how exactly the discourses also subserve the dogmatic purpose of the Gospel and are coherent with the narrations; and generally how the whole Gospel betrays a planned unity of composition, which excludes all possibility of a division between its historical and ideal constituents. After this analysis and characterisation of the contents of the Fourth Gospel, the question as to the Author is at last raised. That he cannot have been the Apostle John is proved by Baur by a series of important reasons: first of all, by the unhistorical character of many of the Johannine narratives, which in part justify us in inferring the unacquaintance of the author with Palestinian relationships; then, in the next place, by the relationship of the Gospel to the Apocalypse of John and to the Paschal question in Asia Minor; and, finally, by the whole dogmatic character of the Fourth Gospel, its anti-Judaic universalism and Hellenistic spiritualism, which forms the extremest opposition to the Judaic Christianity of the first Apostles, and therefore also to the apostle John. But this, its ideal character, was precisely what enabled this Gospel to make such a powerful, attractive, and imposing impression upon the Church of its time, so that it was soon recognised as the expression of the loftiest Christian spirit. But that a work containing things of such essential value was also very soon held to be an apostolical production, was natural and obvious for that time, which still was far from having any historical criticism.

This criticism of Baur has of course been much attacked, yet it has not been refuted to the present day, whereas all further investigations have always only contributed anew to confirm it in the main. I will return to it in a later lecture, which will deal more thoroughly with the Johannine theology. For to-day, what has been said may suffice to explain why, in dealing with the question as to the first beginnings of Christianity in the life and teaching of Jesus, we must entirely look away from the Fourth Gospel, and exclusively keep to the first three, the so-called Synoptic Gospels. In his criticism of the latter, Baur has been less happy: his hypothesis regarding their relations to each other may be regarded to-day as antiquated. Great as has been the labour applied by New Testament criticism to the question of the Synoptic Gospels, we are nevertheless still far from having reached a quite certain result, and we shall assuredly never come to such a result, unless perhaps some entirely new material source of information be yet discovered, which indeed, after so many an important find in the last decades, does not lie out of the sphere of possibility. However, although uncertainty still reigns regarding individual questions, yet an agreement on certain main points has been gradually formed among experts in the subject. I shall therefore attempt, on the basis of the present position of criticism, to draw a sketch in brief of the origin of the Synoptic Gospels, from which at the same time will follow the relative value of their statements for the history of primitive Christianity.

This much is first of all certain and generally recognised, that no one of our Gospels dates from the time of the first apostolical generation, but that the composition of Gospel writings only began after the close of that generation, and therefore somewhat later than the year 70 A.D. Down to that time, then, oral tradition was still the only source of the communication of the evangelic history. It may be supposed that this oral tradition referred at the beginning pre-eminently to the prominent turning-points in the life of Jesus; the beginning of His Galilean activity, its climax, and especially to the last days in Jerusalem, the Passion week. The groups of reminiscences which attached themselves to these main stations in the life of Jesus may have first assumed a firmer form and order in the tradition of the Jerusalem community, in which they became known to Mark, who was a friend of Peter, and they have formed the ground-material of his Gospel. Besides the deeds and fates of Jesus, however, there were also His discourses, which had the greatest importance for the community from the beginning. Not, indeed, connected discourses, as we find them in Matthew; but short sayings, the central words of the morality and promises of Jesus, which stamped themselves firmly upon the memory, and were propagated in the oral tradition of the communities and apostles. But here it must not be forgotten that the original Aramaic sayings of Jesus had already undergone a transformation by their passing into the region of the Greek language, and this change could not remain limited merely to the linguistic form. Further, in such oral tradition the connection in which the individual sayings had been originally spoken could not possibly always be exactly retained. These isolated sayings might then afterwards, when the tradition became fixed in writing, either be loosely ranged side by side with each other (as in Luke), in which case mere association of ideas may often have been regulative of the order, or they might (as in Matthew) be put together in the frame work of longer discourses according to positive points of view. Finally, it is to be carefully noted that the free form of the oral tradition of the sayings of Jesus could not exclude actual transformations and additions. It is especially in the discourses in the Gospels relating to the future that we often find such expressions, regarding which we partly know with certainty, and can partly surmise with great probability, that they did not proceed from Jesus Himself, but from the consciousness of the community, from their experiences or hopes. But even in the case of some of the parables, we have cogent reasons for distinguishing between an original simple kernel, which points back to Jesus, and an artificial interpretation, explanation, and transformation, which may well be a later addition.

And with this we are already led to a more general consideration, which is of the very greatest importance for the correct estimation of the Gospel accounts. It is the nature of all oral tradition that it works not merely preservingly, but also creatively and productively, and this the more that its object affects not merely the knowing but the heart of men, as is notably the case with religious tradition in the highest degree. We see even in everyday life how the recollection of a life which was dear to us is wont to be transfigured, beautified, and idealised by the unconsciously working fantasy. Still more is this the case where the life in question was one which was of great significance for many: in such a case the imagination of a whole people and of many generations is busied in forming an ideal picture in which the features preserved in the recollection are heightened to a marvellous sublimity, and are so wreathed with free poetic allegories, that what was original is often hardly any longer recognisable under the legendary garment of the idealising fantasy. It would have been strange indeed if this psychological law, which we see reigning in the history of the civilisation and religion of all times, should not also have exercised its influence in the beginnings of Christendom. The whole heart of the disciples was still filled by the inextinguishable impression which the personality and the fate of Jesus had made upon them. “The magic of a wondrous personality, and the ardour of newborn trust, affection, hope, lifted men's thoughts into an activity greater than they knew. All the enthusiasm of the early Church for Jesus was poured into the Gospel tradition. With singular elasticity it gathered up elements derived from various sources, but all penetrated with the same assurance, and fused them with more or less completeness into the common mass.”2

The ideal motives which worked determiningly upon the formation of the evangelic tradition may, if I see rightly, be referred to three different sources: (1) The existing Messiah-idea of Judaism; (2) the figurative modes of speech used in the Old Testament and by Jesus; (3) the religious experiences of the community of the disciples. By the fact that the disciples of Jesus recognised in their master the promised Messiah, or the divine instrument for the fulfilment of the prophetic promises, it had become inevitable that the picture in their memory of Jesus, and the ideal of the Messiah which they had received, should be blended in such a way that each of them was somewhat altered in the process. This could happen all the more easily because the Messianic conceptions of the Judaism of the time were not at all stamped in one definite doctrinal form, but wavered in many ways between the old prophetic ideal of a victorious king out of David's tribe, and the ideal which had arisen in the scholastic tradition of a great teacher and prophet after the type of Moses and Elijah, or after the picture in Isaiah of the patient teacher, and finally the Apocalyptic ideal of a heavenly man, who was to come from heaven, and who would be equipped with supernatural power for the conquest of all the kingdoms of the world. It was natural that the Christians should seize and complete those sides of the popular idea of the Messiah which fitted in with the history of Jesus, and that they should tone down and reinterpret the rest. Now the idea of the warlike Son of David did not in fact fit at all into the appearance of Jesus; but so much the better did the representation of the patient Teacher and of the Servant of God endowed with spiritual power in Isaiah xlii. do so. But with this representation there was also most closely connected the picture of the suffering Servant of God who was to expiate the guilt of the people by his innocent suffering, as presented in chapter liii. of Isaiah. This picture of the suffering Servant of God had indeed never been assigned by Judaism to the Messiah, because it contradicted too harshly its worldly political ideal; but it was so much the more natural for the Christians to find the fate of Jesus typified in the suffering Servant of God of Isaiah liii., and consequently to take the innocent martyr-suffering as a new trait into the previous ideal of the Messiah. But thereby that ideal was fundamentally altered: the worldly Ruler of the national Jewish dream of the Messiah vanished before the moral-religious heroism which possesses in patience and resignation the power of overcoming the world. Nevertheless, a patient teacher and an innocently suffering martyr would not yet have sufficed for the belief even of the Christians in the Messiah; even for their Messiah suffering could only be the way, the passage, to the glory whose possession was altogether inseparable from the conception of a Messiah. But must, then, the Messianic glory be thought of as that of an earthly hero and king? Had not the Messiah been already represented as a heavenly Being in the Apocalypses of Daniel and Enoch? And had not Jesus been raised by a miraculous resurrection to the right hand of God, and had there become just such a “Lord of glory” as the Apocalypses represented the Messiah to be? The discordance which appeared to exist between the Jewish idea of the Messiah and the actual life and fate of Jesus, was therefore done away with for the first Christians very easily by their apportioning the two sides of the Messianic nature and working to the two appearances of Jesus—the one in the present, and the other in the future. If He had only come at first as the humbly teaching and suffering prophet and servant of God, He was to come the second time as the King of the eternal kingdom of God, who had been raised to the heavenly glory, as Daniel had beheld Him. But it could not fail that the rays of the heavenly glory, although it was only to reveal itself on the occasion of the near second advent, should already throw back a transfiguring brightness into the earthly life of Jesus. The Jesus who was raised by God to be the Messiah could not, even in His earthly life, be inferior to the great men of God in the history and legends of Israel. The miracles which were reported of them must also have similarly taken place, and even more gloriously, in the case of Jesus. With this dogmatic postulate wings were given to the oriental fantasy to raise the recollections of the mighty deeds of Jesus far above the level of the actual into the region of the supernatural, of divine omnipotent miracles. The same prophetic intuition which saw the Son of Man forthwith descending to earth on the clouds of heaven, accompanied by heavenly hosts, was the same power which carried into the earthly life of Jesus, and beheld therein, a copy of the miracles of the holy legends and tradition of the Old Testament—a process which indeed went on for the most part quite involuntarily and unconsciously. As the Old Testament was then read throughout under the presupposition that everything in it was a prophecy of Christ, there were found in its forms and legends the types which must be found exemplified in the life of Jesus. Especially in the second generation, and in the communities that stood at a distance from the circle of the first apostles, this assumption worked determiningly upon the formation of the evangelic tradition; and thus it became a web in which the threads of the historical recollections, and those of free poetic invention, were so intimately interwoven that it is impossible in detail to keep them strictly apart.

In a way similar to the application of the Jewish idea of the Messiah, worked also the realistic interpretation of the Old Testament figurative discourses and of the similar utterances of Jesus Himself. When, for example, the Old Testament seer, introduced under the form of Balaam, saw a Star come out of Jacob and a Sceptre rise out of Israel, or when the Babylonian Isaiah saw the glory of the Lord rise upon Israel, and kings walking in its brightness and presenting their treasures as tribute—these were indeed originally only images of the spiritual and worldly prosperity of Israel that was hoped for; but they were referred by the Christians to the appearance of Christ, and the allegory was understood in the literal sense of the words, from which arose the narratives of the Star of the Magi, and the glory that shone over Bethlehem. Or when, in Hosea, God said, “Out of Egypt have I called My son,” by this was originally meant only the people of Israel; but because the Christians while using this term were early in the habit of thinking of Christ as the unique supernatural Son of God, they understood the words of Hosea as a prophecy of Christ. But, as no place in the known life of Christ anywhere presented itself as their fulfilment, they must have been fulfilled in His earliest childhood, and thus arose the story of the flight of the Christ-Child and His parents to Egypt, and their return from it. A similar process has gone on several times in connection with the figurative discourses of Jesus. Thus out of the expression, “I will make you fishers of men,” arose the story of the miraculous draught of fishes; and out of the parable of the barren fig-tree arose the story of the cursing of the fig-tree between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Finally, we must not forget that the pious belief of the community has also expressed its own spiritual experiences, presentiments, and intuitions in the symbol of ideal narrations, the originally more allegorical significance of which was soon forgotten, or rather was never so definitely distinguished from the historical reality as we are wont to do. The distinction drawn by the understanding between external actuality and ideal truth is to us, as men of the culture of the present day, so self-evident that it is difficult for us to represent to ourselves clearly the spiritual state of antiquity, and especially of the Orient, where this distinction was still almost wholly wanting. And yet this is an indispensable condition for the correct understanding of religious legends. “Nothing corresponds so much to the spirit of the East as the impulse everywhere pervading our evangelists to make history the type, the symbol, and, bearer of higher religious and moral truth, to treat the earthly reality as a diaphanous transparency of a heavenly world, and thus to rise to ideal truth and poetic beauty. In this sense, actual memories are not seldom raised to ideal images of what is repeated in some sense wherever the followers of Jesus have believed and hoped, acted and suffered.”3 Such ideal pictures we recognise, for example, in the stories of the miraculous feeding in the wilderness, of the turning of water into wine at Cana, of the stilling of the tempest and the walking of Peter upon the waves, as also in the scenes of the transfiguration and of the appearances of the risen Christ. In like manner, it is difficult to say, with regard to most of the Gospel narratives of the miraculous healings of Jesus, what in them is historical memory, and where the ideal figurative invention begins. Nor is this of much consequence, seeing that for us the more important matter still lies, in any case, in the ideal truth of all such histories. Here the words of the poet hold true,—

“What never and nowhere as fact did hold,

Is that alone which never can grow old!”

We have therefore seen that the Gospel tradition, during the decades of its oral communication, was a fluid mass, into which, along with the historical reminiscences, various other elements and ideal motives also found entrance. It is just on this blending of them that the imperishable and incomparable value of the Gospels rests as nutriment for the spiritual life of the Christian community. So far, indeed, we may recognise a providential dispensation in the fact that the Gospel history was not fixed in writing at the very beginning, but was preserved by oral tradition for more than a generation in the fluid state of evolution and growth, and of free transformation. But this could not permanently suffice. When the first generation of the living witnesses of the Gospel history had died out, the pressing need made itself recognised to fix the tradition in writing. Probably the beginning of this was not made before the year 70 A.D. In the following decades, however, the literary attempts were multiplied in such a way that Luke, in the preface to his Gospel, which was written between 100 and 120, could already speak of many predecessors, who had written down the Gospel history according to the communications of ear- and eye-witnesses—in which he, moreover, at the same time testifies that the oldest authors of written Gospels had not themselves been ear- and eye-witnesses of this history. The first mention by name of the two evangelists, Mark and Matthew, is made by Papias, a bishop of Asia Minor, in the middle of the second century. According to him, Mark, as interpreter of Peter, on the basis of the teaching of that apostle, wrote down the discourses and deeds of Christ, without order or connection, but only as he remembered them in detail; but that Matthew wrote out in the Hebrew dialect the words of the Lord, which every one translated as well as he could. This notice of the old bishop Papias does not at all agree with the actual state of our canonical Gospels according to Mark and according to Matthew; for the Mark Gospel is by no means wanting in order, but has just the best order of the three, nor does it make the impression as if it could have been written on the basis of didactic lectures. Again, the Matthew Gospel is not a translation from the Hebrew, but was originally written in Greek, nor does it contain merely discourses of Jesus. From the statement of Papias we are therefore entitled to infer only this: that about the middle of the second century there was still a reminiscence of the fact that two chief sources lay at the basis of our Gospels — a Greek source, which is preserved most faithfully in the Mark Gospel, and a Hebrew source, which sprang from Judæo-Christian circles, and which is turned to account in our Matthew Gospel.

The views of the learned are still divided regarding the character of this second source: some think of a mere “collection of discourses or sayings,” which is still pretty faithfully contained in the longer discourses of the canonical Gospel according to Matthew. But to this view others object that these discourses in Matthew betray too many traces of later and artificial composition for us to be entitled to refer them back directly to a historical collection of sayings: they also doubt whether there has ever been a mere collection of sayings, and prefer to bring the Hebrew source into relation with the “Gospel of the Hebrews” which sprang from Jewish-Christian circles, and of which at an early time there were already several Greek translations and editions in circulation, and these doubtless were also known and used by the authors of the canonical Gospels according to Luke and Matthew. At all events, we have already in these two Gospels works of second-hand, which took their material from older Gospel writings, mostly no longer preserved.

The oldest of our Gospels is that which is called the Gospel according to Mark, as is now almost universally recognised. In comparison with the other Gospels, its presentation bears the stamp of greater originality, of clearness and definiteness, of uninterrupted completeness; in short, it is the ground-form from which the other Gospels diverge, now in this way and again in another, from different motives. Especially striking and characteristic of our Gospel is its dogmatic naïveté, the absence of Christological considerations and interests. Mark still knows nothing of the miraculous birth of Jesus; and what is more, he tells without concern of the unbelief of the mother and relatives of Jesus in His higher mission (iii. 21-31). The miraculous power of Jesus, according to his representation, is as yet no absolutely supernatural power, but is conditioned partly by physical means and partly by the faith of the sufferers; and on this account, according to Mark's statement, Jesus could do no miracles in his native town, Nazareth, because of their unbelief. He also reports utterances of Jesus in which he denies his possession of goodness and foreknowledge of the future equal to God, and therefore keeps definitely within the human level (x. 18, xiii. 32). And so, too, in Mark, Jesus does not yet appear from the very beginning as the Messiah, but we can here still follow in some measure the historical course of events — how the activity of Jesus as a Teacher from small beginnings expanded gradually more and more; how, with his growing success, the resistance also increased; how, with this and at the same time, the doctrine of the kingdom and of the conditions of participation in it so deepened, and the opposition between Jesus and the Jewish people so expanded on both sides, that the tragic conflict became inevitable. This natural succession in the individual phases and turning - points of the public life of Jesus has only been preserved in the Mark Gospel, and this gives it an eminent historical value.

The ecclesiastical tradition has represented this Gospel of Mark, the companion of the apostle Peter, as written on the basis of lectures, or even (according to a later version) of dictations of Peter. However much these details in the tradition are subject to critical doubt, yet assuredly there is a correct kernel to be found in it. For the evangelist shows, on the one hand, such a knowledge in detail of the beginnings of the Galilean ministry of Jesus, and again of the events of the last days in Jerusalem, that one may with probability conjecture that he owed this information to the primary apostolic circle, and in particular to Peter, who, according to Acts xii. 12, was in the habit of frequenting the house of Mary, the mother of Mark. But, on the other hand, the evangelist also shows a decided acquaintance with the apostle Paul: we find in him not merely individual Pauline thoughts and turns, but also his whole description of Jesus; the emphasising of His reforming energy, and indifference to the Jewish ceremonial law, breathes the Pauline spirit. But these two characteristics, intimacy with the primitive Jerusalem community, and at the same time with Paul, coincide in no other of the men of the primitive Christianity known to us so much as just in John Mark. We have, therefore, no reason to doubt the correctness of the tradition with regard to his authorship of the Gospel. To the question whether we have, in the canonical Gospel according to Mark, the original writing of Mark, or a revision of it by a later hand, the correct answer has been given, as I believe, by Renan, who says: “The Gospel of Mark presents a perfect unity, and, except for certain matters of detail where the manuscripts differ, apart from those little retouchings from which the Christian writings have, almost without exception, suffered, it does not appear to have received any considerable addition since it was composed.”4 It is to be regretted that the close of this oldest Gospel has been mutilated; for the last verses (xvi. 9 ff.) run differently in the different manuscripts, and have been undoubtedly added by later hands as an equivalent for the lost, or perhaps intentionally-suppressed, genuine close.

The Gospel according to Luke is introduced as, a literary work of art by its preface, written in classical Greek (i. 1-4), in which the author expresses his intention to excel the earlier attempts of the evangelic literature by exactness, completeness, and orderliness of presentation, in order thereby to strengthen the certainty of the belief of the Gentile Christian reader, Theophilus. And his work is really the richest in contents among the Gospels; it contains a multitude of narratives and discourses which are not found at all in Mark, and are found in Matthew only in part and in another order, and frequently also in another form. As this form shows in Matthew, almost throughout, less originality than in Luke, Luke cannot possibly have had the Matthew Gospel as a source; but his sources, except Mark, are to be sought in unknown and lost Gospel-writings—to which also doubtless belong translations and revisions of the Gospel to the Hebrews, and which also stood at the command of the author of the Matthew Gospel.

In the selection and presentation of his material the evangelist Luke betrays a unique religious and artistic personality. In the very first two chapters, the Pauline idea of Christ as “the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness” (Rom. i. 4), has been clothed by him in forms of the most fragrant poetry, and he has thereby created an immense treasury of motives for the Christian art of all times. In the presentation of the activity of Jesus in Luke, the anti-Judaic side, the struggle against the Pharisaic legality, markedly retreats behind the universal human side—namely, the merciful love of the Saviour to penitent sinners, to the unhappy who stood in need of help, to the poor and low generally. What is blamed in the Pharisees is less the religious error of over-estimating the external ceremonial service than the moral error of loveless pride elevating itself above the impure people. The beautifying of the poor and hungry stands by the side of the woe pronounced over the satiated rich. The religious socialism which already receives expression in the hymn of Mary (i. 51) is interwoven with the whole Gospel of Luke. Accordingly, the chief demand on the disciples of Jesus is a Godlike mercifulness, which has to manifest itself in the exercise of unlimited beneficence, nay, in the giving up of all property in favour of the poor. A further peculiarity is the attitude of the Luke Gospel towards heathenism and Judaism. The universal world-destination of the Gospel is expressed in it as decidedly as in Paul. The Pauline mission to the heathen is prefigured and sanctioned by the sending of the seventy disciples into the cities of Samaria; the believing heathenism is prefigured and put in contrast to the unbelieving Judaism by believing, grateful, and merciful Samaritans. This thought, which recalls Romans chapters ix. and x., is the subject of the very first sermon of Jesus in Nazareth, as Luke—wholly deviating from the other evangelists—presents it. On the other hand, Luke lacks those places in which preaching to the heathen is forbidden, and the mission of Jesus is limited to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew x. 5 and xv. 14). Luke, therefore, shared in the Pauline conviction of the universal destination of Christianity, but he did not ground it, like Paul, by the dogmatic thesis of the end of the law in Christ. Rather does he occupy a very conservative attitude in reference to the Jewish law, as well as to all existing practices. He narrates at length the fulfilment of all the legal conditions in the child Jesus, and, on the other hand, passes rapidly over the sharp polemical discourses of Jesus directed against the scholastic dogmas of Judaism; and this holds especially with reference to the decisive reforming act of the purification of the Temple.

According to all this, we recognise in the author of the third Gospel a Hellenistic Paulinist of the postapostolic time, who has presented the evangelic tradition in the spirit and for the wants of the heathen Christendom of his time. The internal Jewish conflicts carried on against Pharisaism and ceremonialism have here lost their interest, whereas the Gospel of Jesus is greeted as the comforting promise for the poor and lowly, the humble and meek; and in the hoping and loving of the brotherhood of Jesus is felt the presence of the universal kingdom of God, which is raised above all national limitations. Any danger of falling back into Jewish legality is no longer feared, whereas the need of a regulation of the moral life of the communities takes practical form through new Christian orders, the authority of which can therefore not be questioned by antinomianism in principle. Moreover, the apologetic interest demanded that every appearance of political disloyalty should be anxiously removed from the first beginnings of Christianity; and hence what is reformingly aggressive in the historical picture of the character of Jesus is suppressed, and the merciful Saviour of sinners and Comforter of the poor is put in the foreground.

Whether the tradition which ascribes this Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles to the scholar and travelling companion of Paul is to be held as correct, depends on the judgment formed of the Acts of the Apostles,—a question on which I cannot enter here. I hold it to be more probable that the author of both writings was not Luke himself, but rather one who used memorabilia of Luke, and among these a diary of the journeys which Luke made along with Paul, fragments of which are preserved for us in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Gospel according to Matthew is not, as was once commonly thought, the oldest, but is the youngest of the Synoptic Gospels. When the Catholic Church took form out of the struggle of parties and tendencies, towards the middle of the second century, a Gospel was needed for the use of the Church, which did not belong specially to the one or other party, but which represented the neutral unity and the advanced consciousness of the universal or Catholic Church. From this need arose the canonical Gospel according to Matthew, which has only very remote relations—if any at all—with the apostle of this name. It is a Gospel-harmony, in which the older Gospel literature is worked up in the genuine Catholic manner, so that the contradicting tendencies are not, as it were, suppressed, but are adjusted by peaceful juxtaposition. For the rest, this Gospel is the faithful mirror of the dogmatic and moral consciousness of the Catholic Church about the middle of the second century. Its fundamental view of Christianity is Catholic—namely, that it is the fulfilment of the Old Testament revelation, but yet also a new law, which the divine Lawgiver of the Church in the solemn Sermon on the Mount set forth in contrast to the old law given by Moses upon Sinai. The Catholic dogma already emerges on the horizon in the Trinitarian formula of baptism, in which the departing Christ leaves to His community the outlines of the ecclesiastical rule of faith as an inheritance. The doctrine as to Christ likewise stands upon the height of the ecclesiastical consciousness of the time: Christ is not merely the Son of David or of Abraham, and not merely the Prophet anointed with the Spirit, but He is the supernatural essential Son of God, to whom all power is given in heaven and upon earth, who gives His new law to His community elected out of all peoples, who will also once gather all the peoples before His judgment-seat, and to whom the divine attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and holiness belong in unlimited degree. Further, the soteriology and ethics of the Gospel according to Matthew are Catholic. All are to have access to the Church, yet only those will be participative of its salvation who adorn themselves with the bridal garment of a worthy walk and conversation; the lawless and loveless (and therefore especially heretics) will be excluded in spite of their Christian confession. But above the righteousness that is in conformity with duty, there rises the “perfection” which is acquired by following the evangelical counsels of voluntary poverty and celibacy (xix. 12-21). Catholic, finally and especially, is also the position ascribed to Peter, as the foundation of the universal Church, and the bearer of the power of the keys whose binding and loosing holds good for heaven—a phrase which already includes in germ the authority of the Roman bishop, but which, for that very reason, lies as far as possible from the mind of Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew concludes with the assurance of the constant presence of Christ in His community, an assurance which strikes the note of the mysticism of John. But it also contains the statement of the exclusive mission of Jesus to the lost sheep of Israel. From this Jewish narrowness to that spiritual climax—what a far way in the progress of Christian thought! The monuments of this way are preserved, and are recognisable, in the Synoptic Gospels.

  • 1. Haym.
  • 2. Carpenter, The First Three Gospels, p. 85.
  • 3. Holtzmann, Einl. zu den Synopt. Evv.
  • 4. Les Evangiles, p. 120; The Gospels, Eng. tr., p. 62.