Chapter I: Jesus in History

by Martin Dibelius

Chapter I: Jesus in History

Christian faith, Christian doctrine, the Christian Church — these tell us of Jesus. So also does world history — the his­tory of the ancient East as well as of the Roman Empire, the history of the Jewish religion as well as of the Christian. But it is from very different standpoints that Jesus and Christi­anity are dealt with in the two cases.

Christian faith rests on the conviction that in Jesus God has revealed himself. It is God who speaks in Jesus’ words. That these words are human must be admitted — all the more so because we no longer possess them in their original form, which was that of a Semitic speech strange to us. But Christian theology is concerned not only with the meaning of the Greek translation of his words that has preserved them to us, but also with the import of these words as divine reve­lation. Moreover, it is also God who, according to Christian faith, acts in Jesus’ deeds. At the same time it must be recog­nized that we do not know all these deeds, and that even those that have been reported to us we know only in the way the believers of that day depicted them to their own age. But Christian faith also declares that God revealed his will in the passion and death of Jesus — nay, more, that God did not leave him in death but exalted him to himself, “whence he shall come to judge both the living and the dead.” The fact that at this point the accounts diverge from one another in part, and in part fade out altogether, shows only that faith is here abandoning the plane of earthly events and direct­ing its attention solely to the action and purpose of God. Faith finds in this situation no embarrassment or refutation.

History regards Jesus from a entirely different point of view. On the border of the Roman Empire, in a small, in­consequential country of the East, and amongst a people of no importance in world politics, there appears a man with the announcement of an impending overturn of the world through the direct interposition of God. In God’s name he addresses warnings, promises, and demands to his hearers; under God’s commission he performs striking deeds, heals the sick, wins followers; he comes into conflict at the capital with the religious and political authorities and is executed. His followers, however, gather together in the faith that he has risen from the dead, has been exalted to God’s side, and will shortly appear on earth in glory. This faith, in sundry variations and expansions, makes its way into the Roman Empire and wins a considerable portion of the human race — and of the Western portion, at that! Historical science is now occupied with answering the question, Why was it just this message, and not some other Oriental or Greek religious proclamation, that intervened so decisively in history, and determined the fate of whole races? But here criticism alone does not lead to the goal. The less credence one gives to the Christian records and the more one ranks Jesus’ movement and message as one among many such in the history of the time, the more puzzling becomes this effect on world history!

The viewpoints of faith and of history cannot be simply combined. What is asserted by faith cannot be proved his­torically. Indeed, faith would not be faith if it could be dem­onstrated to every corner. Faith presupposes the decision to stake one’s life — and one’s death — on a message, a truth, a hope. Moreover, that message must be set above other, hu­man messages; it must be regarded as revelation, as God’s word. And just this definitive setting of the message above the context of general events is something that cannot be de­manded of history. Although history not only affirms, but also evaluates, yet it can do so only within the frame of this general context. History can inquire why Christianity had such power to attract, and in what ways it excelled other cults. But history can never solve these questions by pointing to God. Faith, on the contrary, can be content with no other answer, be it what it may.

To be sure, scientific work and Christian faith can be com­bined in the same individual; otherwise this book would not have been written. But this individual has to see to it that certainties achieved through his faith are not mistaken by him for the findings of science, and, vice versa, that he does not give forth the “assured “ results of his science as being for that reason saving truths. The scientific investigator has to pursue his critical task without looking at the result in ad­vance. This does not mean, however, that he must be in­wardly indifferent. One who is always indifferent never learns the great art of under-standing. What is essential is often disclosed to faith — as it is also to the passionate re­jection of Jesus: Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity is only an instance of the sharp-sightedness of enmity. There is no historical science absolutely devoid of presuppositions. The investigator’s make-up and his own particular experience go into the shaping of every picture he draws. All he can do is to apply the critical technique of his science as conscientiously as possible and thereby re-present the past as honestly as he can. In the case of the life of Jesus he must make clear the limited nature of our knowledge (see Chapter II); but he must also do justice to the peculiar vitality of the tradition, its great age and its relative unity.

For in spite of all the limitations to our knowledge it is not a case of our having to forego a picture of Jesus or of having to doubt even the historicity of his figure. To be sure, we cannot describe the course of the events of this life except during the last days. The communities that collected his say­ings and the stories about him were interested neither in evo­lution nor in psychology. They were much concerned, how­ever, to preserve the words and deeds of Jesus, and in this they succeeded in their own way, which is not ours. As early as ten, or at any rate fifteen, years after Jesus’ death, Paul, like the other missionaries, came into possession of such tra­ditions, oral or written. As early as forty years after Jesus’ death, books containing such collections existed in the com­munities. And the Gospel of John, unquestionably the lat­est of our four Gospels, was already being read in Egypt, far from its land of origin, about ninety years after Jesus’ death — and a small fragment of such an Egyptian copy lies today, in the original, in the John Rylands Library in Man­chester! Thus all our four Gospels were in existence around A. D. 100.  Quotations in the Christian writers of the second century show us also that there were still more such books; that the accounts were being gradually expanded, in fact disfigured, by the addition of extraneous ideas and stories, but that a unified basic tradition was at hand. This whole development is much clearer to us today than it was fifty years ago. For this reason the periodically recurring notion that the story of Jesus is only a myth — the story of a god —transposed into human terms becomes more and more un­tenable. For if that were the case, a reverse development would have to be assumed — the second-century accounts with their mythicizing tendencies would have to be assigned to the earliest stage and our Gospels of Mark and Luke to the latest.

Furthermore, the doubt as to whether our Gospels have been preserved in their original form turns out to be more and more unwarranted. To be sure, there are numerous de­viations in the voluminous mass of copies; but it is a matter of ever fresh astonishment how unessential, on the whole, these “variants” are. That oldest fragment of the Gospel of John dating from the period 100-140 does not differ by a single word from our printed Greek texts. We possess care­fully copied manuscripts of the Gospels from the third and fourth centuries on. The Greek and Latin classics, on the other hand, are known to us only from manuscripts that are separated by a considerably longer interval from the date of composition. No book of antiquity has come down to us in such old, such numerous, and such relatively uniform texts as the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles!

Thus, historical science need feel no misgivings about ad­mitting the figure of Jesus into the sphere of its inquiries; the requisite foundations are there. Its task is to determine what we know of the historical phenomenon Jesus. In so doing it cannot demonstrate to faith what faith, and faith alone, is competent to say, but it can make clear to Christian believers and opponents alike just what is at issue between them — what it is that the one group exalts into being the guide of its life, and what it is that the other rejects person­ally or combats as a world influence. The importance which such knowledge of the historical reality has even for faith was stressed long ago by the Evangelist Luke when, in dedi­cating his book to Theophilus, he gave as his purpose in writing it, “That you may know the certainty of those things wherein you were instructed.”

Alongside the Christian believers there stand today, more ominously than at any time since the first centuries, the op­ponents of Christianity. With them it is now no longer a question of contending against certain more or less incidental ideas or claims of Christianity. What they are assailing is the very essence of Christianity itself. The objective is not a reform of the Church but the extermination of Christianity altogether. This struggle, which will itself become history, cannot be decided by knowledge; there are stronger forces, in the last analysis, forces of “faith,” which both sides have to bring into play. Christianity has no reason to shun this conflict; at the same time it cannot afford to belittle it in the eyes of its followers. The conflict has been in the air for some decades now. Its end will not be in our times.

The battle must be waged against the real foe, not against phantoms. Anyone who wants to make a clean sweep of Christianity cannot just attack little points of Church poli­tics; he must envisage Christianity in its entirety, seeing it as a phenomenon of the past as well as of the present. He must take account of Reformation, medieval, and New Testament Christianity. It comes out, again and again, what a distorted picture of Christianity’s beginnings has spread abroad. In the interest of faith, these beginnings have been lifted out of their historical context — even to the point of bringing their historicity into doubt. In the interest of general culture, men have discovered human greatness, perfect morality, wealth of feeling, and uniqueness of experience — all these have been found in the New Testament. But there are, we must admit, more “beautiful” books than the New Testament, there are more interesting books, there are even books that are more “moral” and more effective in calling forth emu­lation. The New Testament is both less and more Whether in this event God made his will manifest — that is the cru­cial question at issue in the struggle over Christianity. A scientific presentation like the following cannot contain the answer but it can acquaint one with the event.