CHAPTER XXVI, from the third volume of the Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325

Copyright by Will Durant. See the book at Amazon


DID Christ exist? Is the life story of the founder of Christianity the product of human sorrow, imagination, and hope- a myth comparable to the legends of Krishna, Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Dionysus, and Mithras? Early in the eighteenth century the circle of Bolingbroke, shocking even Voltaire, privately discussed the possibility that Jesus had never lived. Volney propounded the same doubt in his Ruins of Empire in 1791. Napoleon, meeting the German scholar Wieland in 1808, asked him no petty question of politics or war, but did he believe in the historicity of Christ?

One of the most far-reaching activities of the modern mind has been the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible- the mounting attack upon its authenticity and veracity, countered by the heroic attempt to save the historical foundations of Christian faith; the results may in time prove as revolutionary as Christianity itself. The first engagement in this two-hundred-year war was fought in silence by Hermann Reimarus, professor of Oriental languages at Hamburg; on his death in 1768 he left, cautiously unpublished, a 1400-page manuscript on the life of Christ. Six years later Gotthold Lessing, over the protests of his friends, published portions of it as the Wolfenbuttel Fragments. Reimarus argued that Jesus can only be regarded and understood not as the founder of Christianity, but as the final and dominant figure in the mystical eschatology of the Jews- i.e., Christ thought not of establishing a new religion, but of preparing men for the imminent destruction of the world, and God’s Last Judgment of all souls. In 1796 Herder pointed out the apparently irreconcilable difference between the Christ of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the Christ of the Gospel of St. John. In 1828 Heinrich Paulus, summarizing the life of Christ in 1192 pages, proposed a rationalistic interpretation of the miracles- i.e., accepted their occurrence but ascribed them to natural causes and powers. In an epoch-marking Life of Jesus (1835-36) David Strauss rejected this compromise; the supernatural elements in the Gospels, he thought, should be classed as myths, and the actual career of Christ must be reconstructed without using these elements in any form. Strauss’s massive volumes made Biblical criticism the storm center of German thought for a generation. In the same year Ferdinand Christian Baur attacked the Epistles of Paul, rejecting as unauthentic all but those to the Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans. In 1840 Bruno Bauer began a series of passionately controversial works aiming to show that Jesus was a myth, the personified form of a cult that evolved in the second century from a fusion of Jewish, Greek, and Roman theology. In 1863 Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus, alarming millions with its rationalism and charming millions with its prose, gathered together the results of German criticism, and brought the problem of the Gospels before the entire educated world. The French school reached its climax at the end of the century in the Abbe Loisy, who subjected the New Testament to such rigorous textual analysis that the Catholic Church felt compelled to excommunicate him and other “Modernists.” Meanwhile the Dutch school of Pierson, Naber, and Matthas carried the movement to its farthest point by laboriously denying the historical reality of Jesus. In Germany Arthur Drews gave this negative conclusion its definitive exposition (1906); and in England W. B. Smith and J. M. Robertson argued to a like denial. The result of two centuries of discussion seemed to be the annihilation of Christ.

What evidence is there for Christ’s existence? The earliest non-Christian reference occurs in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews (A.D. 93?):