Get the CD Now!

The Origins of the New Testament

Chapter II


CHRISTIANITY was not founded on a revelation contained in a book peculiar to itself; nor, in strictness of speech, on the Jewish Bible, though this was its only sacred book when the Christian message was first proclaimed, and so remained for a long time, even after it had begun to produce its own religious literature. Nor was its departure taken from any abstract dogma or lofty mysticism. It rested on a popular and uncriticized belief which Jesus embraced with all the ardour of an unquestioning faith, and with a perfect trust in the God who watched over Israel and guided the destinies of all mankind. The central affirmation of this faith, the theme of it, was the imminent coming of the Reign of God. The same theme, enhanced by faith in Jesus, now raised from the dead and waiting to return in glory as the Christ, was also the central affirmation of the preaching we call apostolic, and it was carried further in the literature of Christian apocalyptic, more or less expanded and enriched with additions, some even foreign.


As far as we can judge in the extreme poverty of documentary evidence bearing on the point, a poverty far greater than has hitherto been generally admitted, the message of Jesus, so far as it consisted in teaching, was of the greatest simplicity imaginable. It was summed up in the formula "Repent! for the Reign of God is at hand." John, surnamed the Baptizer, had proclaimed the same message before Jesus took it up. Neither John nor Jesus was the founder of a school; nor was John a hair-splitting theologian, nor a man profoundly versed in the Scriptures. He was a prophet by intensity of conviction, the prophet of a single oracle, and Jesus, after him, lifted up his voice in the self-same trumpet-call.

It is true that John, as his surname indicates, was a prophet with a rite. This rite was baptism, which was no common ablution, nor a substitute for the purifications prescribed by the Law, but a total immersion, understood as a sacrament of repentance, a


token of moral cleansing and a passport into the Kingdom of God. This rite, to which we can hardly doubt that Jesus submitted, was taken up and continued by Christianity, Jesus himself having conformed to it. By the Christians, as by John baptism was originally practised in close connection with the announcement that the Kingdom was at hand.

Like John again, Jesus, during the short time his ministry seems to have lasted, was given a surname the meaning of which though less clear than the surname carried by John, must be closely analogous if not almost identical. As John was called the Baptist, so Jesus was called the Nazorean. "Nazoreans" was also the name of his followers, called so after him (cf. Acts xxiv, 5). It was a sect-name. It was not as originating from Nazareth that he acquired the name. On the contrary, it was because he was a Nazorean and recognized as such that the supposition grew up later of his Nazareth origin, with the afterthought, probably conscious, of causing the real meaning of the name to be forgotten. Now the orthography of this word excludes as impossible the sense of "consecrated" or "under a vow" (the nazir of Jewish tradition; cf. p. 21) and points distinctly to that of "observer of a rite" (notzer), the rite "observed" being unquestionably that practised by John and his disciples, to wit, baptism. There is certainly no disparagement of Christianity in recognizing that its followers were a baptist sect at the birth of the religion, for that is what they really were and what Christians have remained ever since.

The Reign of God announced by John and Jesus implies that a Judgment will be held at the outset, a severe judgment of God. In that we see an unmistakable feature of the prophetic tradition. The general judgment is, as it were, the preliminary condition and natural introduction of the divine government. Hence it is that the exhortation to repent precedes the announcement of the Kingdom, hence it is that baptism, the sacrament of cleansing, is the mystic certificate of innocence wherewith to face the Judge. All that holds together well and demands no great effort of mind to understand. For us, no doubt, the idea of a judgment of all mankind is not quite the simple idea that it was for those who first announced it; but that need not detain us. The great difficulty that criticism has to overcome in these matters lies in the way our


creed-bound exegetes have of twisting or overlooking facts which are not in harmony with their own religious feelings, and in the way more independent minds fail to grasp the true nature of these facts when they offend their sense of what is reasonable — habits intelligible enough but difficult to cope with.

As examples, take the following. To that age the idea of the Kingdom of God was just as simple as the idea of a general judgment, but no more capable of becoming realized in the conditions imagined for it by those who announced its immediate coming. "What were these conditions? As the dead were to be judged along with the living, a general resurrection of all the dead must naturally precede the general judgment — a condition which a moment's reflection will show to be quite unrealisable at any point of history: none the less the idea was accepted without the need to criticize it being felt either by the prophet or by his audience. Then again, the wicked were to be separated from the righteous, excluded from the Kingdom and punished as they deserved — a thing clearly impossible in the normal current of human life on our planet. Along with this, the righteous dead who have been raised and the righteous who are still living will enjoy happiness without alloy in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Who that knows anything of the natural conditions of human life can imagine the establishment of such a society? But our prophets, John and Jesus, were unconcerned with natural conditions, and their faith, in consequence, was entirely untouched by the crowding objections which assail the modern mind in the presence of these ideas. This, however, affords no reason for changing the thought of Jesus by distilling his simple hope of the Kingdom into some fine essence more intelligible to our age, or seemingly so.

Another condition attached to this reign of justice and happiness was its immediate realization: it was at hand. This condition was self-evident: it was impossible to conceive that a miracle so great and so ardently desired would be indefinitely postponed. God was coming, and God is not a lingerer. So, too, with the urgent call to sinners — repent, and lose not a moment about it, for the Judge is at the very doors! To say that all that is unbelievable is to say nothing to the purpose, for the fact is that it was believed, and believed with a faith which had no turn for the


critical discussion of its object; nor was it believable otherwise. And so firmly was it believed that the contradiction it continued to receive from the course of events availed but very slowly to damp the ardour of the faith and that, even to-day, in Christian communions most emancipated from tradition, the outlook is more or less still dominated by the vision, far off, of the Great Event.

It seems, then, that no essential difference is to be remarked between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of John. The deliberate subordination of John to Jesus, more or less plainly avowed, in which the Gospel teaching would place him, does not belong to history. It seems certain also that the distinction made between the two baptisms, which represents the baptism of John as simple baptism in water and the Christian rite as baptism in spirit, was imagined in Christian tradition long after both prophets had perished, with the object of marking the difference of the two sects and of enhancing the value of the Christian sacrament. It may be affirmed without the least hesitation that John could never have professed, nor even conceived, the subordination assigned him by the evangelists. That being so, it must not be taken for granted that John, the herald of the Great Judgment, announced himself at the same time as the precursor of the Messiah.

A comparative estimate of the two masters, formulated after their disappearance and inserted into the Gospel catechesis, invites us to suppose that there existed between them a difference of temper and attitude. It runs (Matthew xi, 18-19; Luke vii, 33-34):

John came neither eating nor drinking,
and they say: "he has a demon."
The Son of Man came eating and drinking,
and they say: "a glutton and wine drinker,
friend of publicans and sinners."

It would seem that, essentially, both played the same part, John with a more decided turn to asceticism and Jesus with a more liberal address and a gentler way with sinners. None the less it is said, in another passage (Mark xi, 30-32), that the baptism of John was "from heaven," and the Jewish authorities are severely blamed for not having sought it while publicans and


harlots were eager to be baptized (Matthew xxi, 31-32; cf. Luke vii, 29-30).

It is obvious that so simple a faith did not need elaborate explanation. But one point it specially behoves us to note, because so many deliberately shut their eyes to it: the faith proclaimed by the two prophets was subversive of established authority and, in essence, revolutionary. The Kingdom of God was no metaphor; it was a real Kingdom and excluded that of Caesar. Hence the speedy coming of God to reign on earth meant also the speedy overthrow of Roman power, at least in Judea, and the disappearance of the petty Herodian prince who reigned in Galilee. True, neither John nor Jesus advocated armed revolt against the rulers of this world; but this made little difference in view of the essential fact that both prophets announced their immediate destruction. Is it likely that the authorities would regard the popularity of such teaching as politically harmless? The point is of importance as showing that the preaching careers of John and of Jesus could not be, and were not, of long duration. We are bound to regard them as soon suppressed, even though our texts do not give us clear statements to that effect.

In all this are we laying down too narrow a base to support the Christian religion? Are we not overlooking some sublime element that would justify the eager reception accorded the message by a significant portion of so religious a nation as the Jews? Must it not be that Jesus reveals a religion destined to become universal and to last for ever?

All these questions are unanswerable because, in the reality of the matter, they have no existence. This is not the place to show that the Gospel of Jesus and the Christianity that came after it are, in reality, a single movement, outstanding among all others, produced by that mysterious force which operates through all religions and urges humanity forward on the highway of spiritual progress. That we hold to be proved, because it is a fact of history. The question whether the Gospel of Jesus, as we have just described it, is too narrow and fragile a base for the many forms of Christianity which have issued from it in the course of ages, and are still issuing, affords no matter for discussion. When something has happened and is a fact, the question of its possibility no longer exists.


Some of our Christologists take too much upon themselves when they imagine they can explain the origin of Christianity by giving Jesus the honour of having formally taught the essence of their own religion. No essence of religion expressible in abstract forms was proclaimed by Jesus. He spoke to his fellow countrymen of things in which they were interested and in language they could understand. Our doctors of divinity are unaware that they are constructing a Christ in their own image, nor do they perceive that such a Christ, if he had lived in the time of Pontius Pilate would not have found two men to follow him nor one to be his enemy. Learned discourse on the methodology of New Testament criticism is as irrelevant to our present business as are the special pleadings for supernatural magic, or the baseless conjectures of those who deny the historicity of Jesus.

The sole point we have here to make good lies in the question whether the Gospel of Jesus, as we describe it, accounts for the response, somewhat limited, that his preaching evoked in his lifetime, and whether that Gospel presents itself naturally and intelligibly as the initiating cause of the Christian movement. Here there is no difficulty, since we know that Jesus preached the imminence of the Kingdom, and that disciples survived him who integrated their new faith in him as the Christ risen from the dead with their former faith in the speedy coming of the Kingdom as announced by him.

The idea of the Reign of God was widely spread in the region where, and at the time when, Jesus appeared on the scene: this explains why he was able to gather disciples around him. The idea was not the property of learned men or theologians; still less of politicians. It was the form of a popular faith, and a faith intense enough to provoke outbreaks of violence. Judas the Galilean who made himself notorious at the time when Quirinius carried out his census was a frenzied devotee of the Kingdom, his principle being that the people of Israel had not, and ought never to have, other Master upon earth than God. This was also the principle of the fanatical instigators of the war which led to the ruin of the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70, and the same war-cry inspires the revolt of the Messiah Barkochba in the time of Hadrian, which completed the ruin of Jewish nationalism. Between these furious zealots and prophets of the


Kingdom such as John and Jesus there was only one difference, but a difference that went to the root of the matter. The zealots believed that they were able, and under the duty, to promote the Coming of God by force of arms: John and Jesus left the fulfilment of God's promise entirely to God. The faith was the same, but with John the Baptist and Jesus the Nazorean it has a colour of spirituality lacking to the others. On the one side as on the other there was the same confidence in the speedy annihilation of Roman rule.

If that be considered, it is not only evident but cannot fail to be evident, that the Gospel of Jesus was not conceived by himself under the form of absolute religion destined to become the universal religion of humanity in saecula saeculorum. Never did he propose to institute a religion; he announced that the great hope of Israel's religion was on the point of fulfilment. Never did he dream of sending out propaganda all over the world; he said that the Reign of God was about to be set up in Judea. Never did he behold the long centuries of the world's history stretching away into the future; for him, history, the story of man's wandering from God, would come to an end immediately with God's arrival on the scene. The speculations of modern Christologists who fancy they are discovering the essence of Christianity were foreign to Jesus. Most assuredly he was neither a Roman Catholic, nor an orthodox Protestant nor a liberal Protestant of any denomination: in all that his share was nothing and could not be anything, for he was a man of his time. Had he possessed the faintest conception of what was in store for humanity in the centuries to come, his message of the coming Kingdom would have been impossible and, needless to say, he would not have risked his life proclaiming it.

Christian believers in all the Confessions are naturally loath to admit that the Christ, the object of men's faith and worship, can have been in some degree the victim of illusion. This, from the earliest times, they have never been willing to recognize, and that is precisely why the original Gospel message has been progressively changed, diluted and doctored, a process which still goes on in the efforts of contemporary interpreters to palliate the reality by any means available, taxing their wits to foist upon the Christ their own notions of his work. But Jesus


was rather the victim of his human environment than of an illusion peculiar to himself, his illusion, such as it was, being one widely shared by his countrymen and in his time. In itself it was a generous illusion and helpful in raising humanity from its low estate. And what more would you have to the glory of him who lived for the illusion and died for it? But was there no germ of life beneath it? Doubtless there was, and who denies it save those who would substitute for his illusion an abstraction out of their own workshop or their own illusion of some mechanism falsely named supernatural?


That the death of Jesus was not the end of his life is proved by the fact that he lived on afterwards. In history proper his life covers space of the smallest: but he has lived on outside history or, if you will, above it. It is a frequent saying that Christianity was born in history. The assertion is true, though often understood in a sense far beyond what historical testimony is available to warrant. But nothing could be more incontestable as an historical fact than the appearance of Jesus in the time of the Emperor Tiberius and the procurator Pontius Pilate. In point of fact, our sure knowledge of the circumstances in which he finished his message and met his death amounts almost to nothing; nor is our knowledge greater of the process which brought his first disciples to believe in his resurrection and to proclaim it abroad. As to the Gospel, or message of Jesus, which we have just explained, it was conceived almost outside human history, and as its terminus ad quern. He who preached it and they who accepted it had no suspicion that it would be told as a story for the edification of generations to come. For that reason there has never been a history of it in the proper sense of the word; and there never will be. Still less are we able to find any sure historical tradition concerning the resurrection of Jesus and his exaltation as the Christ to come. These were matters of faith; in no sense or degree were they facts attested by the historical records of external proof; faith called unto faith in proclaiming them. Had the mentality of the disciples been of the kind that believes only on material proof, they would have had nothing to believe. For


those proofs did not exist when their belief was born; they were only imagined later on to meet objections by the story of a miraculous resurrection of the material body, operated by magic. The first believers had no conception of any such phenomenon.

Paul's Summary of the Primitive Teaching

Here are the terms in which Paul sums up his own catechesis (Romans x, 9-10).

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For by the heart we believe to gain righteousness and by the mouth we confess to gain salvation.

What is the "salvation" here spoken of? Simply admission to the Kingdom of God which the Lord Jesus is about to bring in. From this we see that the teaching, which we may regard as the primitive catechesis, announced the speedy coming of the Kingdom, as did the gospel of Jesus. Like that gospel it demanded repentance for sin and it practised baptism as a guarantee that sin was remitted. Beyond that it presented the risen Jesus as Lord, exalted in his immortality to the right hand of God. This profession of faith was all gathered up as it were in one word, Maranatha — "the Lord comes," is on the point of coming (cf. i Corinthians xvi, 22). From First Corinthians (i, 12-15) it results quite clearly that the above profession of faith in Romans, in which the earliest catechetical teaching was summarized, was the profession required of catechumens at baptism, early administered in the name of Jesus Christ. And since Paul thus baptized in the name of Jesus Christ we may well believe that the practice was started by the missionaries of Antioch, who had come to the decision, before Paul, to receive pagans to baptism without imposing circumcision.

The custom of conferring baptism in the name of Jesus Christ was doubtless not universal at the very beginning. It is quite possible that the earliest group of disciples in Jerusalem continued to confer it after the manner of John, accompanied with a profession of faith in Jesus risen from the dead; and it would be the same with some propagandists outside Judea. This would explain the case of Apollos who had been touched by the faith in his native country of Alexandria and who, while well informed 


of the things concerning Jesus, was ignorant of other baptism than that of John (Acts xviii, 24-25), the statement which follows (xix, 1-7) about the disciples who knew only the baptism of John, and whom Paul baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, probably referring to converts made by Apollos, though what then follows about the Holy Spirit coming upon them and their speaking with tongues is obviously the writer's embroidery. It is conceivable that the Antioch missionaries, including Paul, made use in their catechetical teachings of an express formula containing the principle of salvation for all men by faith in the Christ as risen from the dead, nothing else being required and the necessity of legal observances thereby repudiated. In that they would be repeating, with John the Baptist, that descent from Abraham according to the flesh availed nothing, and that God could raise up posterity to Abraham from the stones on the highway (Matthew iii, 9) — a posterity according to spirit, to faith.

On this point let us hear the testimony of Paul, an unimpeachable witness, in his letter to the Romans (iv, 13, 16):

The promise made to Abraham and his posterity that they should inherit the world did not come to him through the Law but through the righteousness of faith.... It is through faith, that it may be through grace, so as to guarantee the promise for the whole of posterity, and not only to that part of it which comes by way of the Law, but to that which comes through Abraham's faith, for he is the father of us all.

This passage demands the most thorough consideration; it is an authentic expression of the Christian faith in the earliest period of its diffusion in the Roman world. A promise was given by God to Abraham as a man of faith and to his faithful posterity. The faithful posterity in question are those who are now persuaded that God has raised Lord Jesus from the dead. Now the resurrection of Jesus guarantees the promise to Abraham that he and his posterity are to be "heirs of the world." But the heritage of the world is not a blessed eternity in heaven: it is the happiness of the faithful, made righteous by their faith, on this earth under the Reign of God - the Kingdom. The saying "my Kingdom is not of this world" (John xviii, 36) was not attributed to the Christ by Paul.


There is therefore no difficulty in obtaining a clear idea of Christian catechetical teaching in its primitive form. The career and ministry of Jesus had no place in it; the coming of the Great Kingdom dominated the outlook; Jesus, raised from death as Christ the Lord, was about to bring it in; let every man prepare for it by repenting of his sins, of which baptism will give him remission. A catechesis at once moral and eschatological.

While the first form of the catechesis is thus clearly defined, documentary evidence is defective as to the detail of its evolution to the form which followed. It seems, however, that a considerable time elapsed before it included any record of the personal action and teaching of Jesus in the course of his mortal life. We have two proofs of this; first, in the book known as The Teaching of the Apostles, the Didache (circa 100); and second, in an indication furnished by the Epistle to the Hebrews (110-130) concerning the common form of Christian instruction at the time and in the circle to which the book belongs. We consider them in turn.

Evidence from the "Didache" and the Epistle to the Hebrews

The Didache in the form in which it has come down to us contains elements of relatively late date, for example, the formula of baptism "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" and the text of the Lord's Prayer, which has been taken from Matthew's Gospel, but in its original substance and general tendency it represents a type of catechesis current in certain Christian churches of the East, probably the Syrian, between the years 100 to 130. The gist of the moral instruction preliminary to baptism consists in the doctrine of the "two ways," in which a Jewish book of morals is adapted to Christianity; following this are summary rules for baptism and the communion supper, and the whole is crowned by monitions appropriate to the coming of the Lord. So here again we have a type of Christian catechetical teaching still dominated by the expectation of the Second Coming and marked by a complete absence of any reference to the earthly life of Jesus and any defined notion of Christology.

The Epistle to the Hebrews sets out to teach a Christological gnosis which it sharply distinguishes from the teaching common


to all Christians, that is, from the theme of the baptismal catechesis, as follows (Hebrews vi, 1-2):

Leaving behind us the elementary theme of the Christ, let us raise our minds to the perfect theme (that of gnostic initiation) instead of laying the foundation over again, which foundation is repentance from dead works, faith in God, the doctrine of baptisms, imposition of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.

These last are what the author a little earlier has described (v, 12) as "the rudiments of divine revelation." The indication is the more significant inasmuch as this author desires above all to recommend his gnosis and, by way of contrast, incidentally calls to mind the common catechesis in which he sees the rudiment only of saving truth. To repeat this rudiment would be useless, he says, in the case of those who have gravely violated the moral rules laid down in it, since no further relief or remission of sin is available after baptism (vi, 4-7):

For it is impossible that those who, once illuminated, have tasted the heavenly gift, participated in the Holy Spirit, tasted the good word of God and the power of the world to come, and then fallen — it is impossible that these people be renewed unto repentance a second time, since they crucify the Son of God, so far as the Son of God is in them, and put him to public shame. For the land that absorbs the rain that often falls upon it, shares the blessing of God, but that which produces thorns and thistles is condemned and under a curse (Genesis iii, 17); its end is to be burnt.

This commentary completely explains the object of the common catechesis as practised in the author's time, and shows that it had received by then some additions to the first form described above. "The elementary theme of the Christ," "the rudiments of divine revelation" are now called "illumination," though they mostly consist of moral and eschatological instruction; the moral instruction teaches the virtues to be practised, the sins and vices to be avoided, what of the past has to be deplored and what must be repented of before receiving the baptism which purifies the penitent. Express mention is made of faith in God, which shows that Christian propaganda is now being addressed either to recruits who come direct from polytheism or even to those tainted by heresies, which now (110-130) had wandered far from


the true faith in regard to the Godhead. What the author means by the "doctrine of baptisms" is somewhat obscure. Does the plural indicate a complication of the ritual? Clearly the rite is less simple than in the time of Paul, the chief new elements being revealed in what the writer says about "imposition of hands," "the heavenly gift" and "participation in the Holy Spirit." Moreover, since "doctrine" is the writer's theme, we are invited to suppose that he is here discriminating among the baptismal rites then practised with a view to defining the normal type of the sacrament. "The imposition of hands" and "participation in the Holy Spirit" are certainly connected, and constitute a rite that goes with baptismal immersion, but is distinct from it. In "the heavenly gift" and "the power of the world to come" we can hardly fail to detect a mystic interpretation of the Supper. "The good word of God" is the divine guarantee of salvation, which the whole of this conveys. It is to be noted that there is a complete absence of any special reference to Christology, though the whole may be regarded as "the elementary theme of the Christ," a theme, however, which, elementary though it be, remains as it was in the earlier form and has its climax in the resurrection from the dead and the judgment to come. But the mystical sense of the Christ's death is not absent, since the Christian sinner is said to crucify the Christ anew "so far as the Christ is in him." But this last statement is probably the author's commentary.

To what extent and in what manner did teaching deemed to be that of Jesus in his earthly life enter into this catechesis? We cannot say. In one passage (ii, 1-14) the author alludes to the preaching of Jesus, and traces, so to speak, an apostolic chain from the Gospel onwards. After describing the superiority of the Christ over the angels he concludes as follows:

We must therefore pay the more attention to what we have heard, for fear that we perish. For if the word spoken by angels (the revelation of the Old Testament and especially of the Law) held good, and all transgressions and disobedience received due punishment, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation which, proclaimed at the beginning by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him, God acting with them by signs, prodigies, divine miracles and distributions of Spirit according to his will?


From this we learn that the author knows, or thinks, that salvation was first announced by Jesus himself, but there is nothing to indicate whether, in his understanding of the matter, the announcement includes much more than the promise of the Reign of God. On the other hand it is overwhelmingly clear that the earliest age of Christianity is seen by him as far off and enveloped in the mists of legend. He himself does not belong to the age called apostolic but is distant from it by more than one generation. Moreover his conception of the passion and the resurrection is not that of the Gospel story. For him the resurrection means the entry of the Christ on his immortal life. In like manner, while he is quite firm in asserting the real existence of Jesus and his role as the announcer of the Gospel, there is not the slightest ground for maintaining that he makes what we now call the Gospel tradition any part whatsoever either of the elementary Christian teaching of which he summarizes the content, or of the gnosis which he develops in his Epistle.

As to the Passion of the Christ, what is said about it in the Epistle has no direct relation to the Gospel story. The theme proper of the Epistle, the gnosis it sets out to develop, is the priesthood of Jesus, and it is in connection with this that we read as follows (v, 7-10):

He who, in his days of the flesh, having offered to Him who was able to save him from death prayer and supplication, with strong crying and tears, and being answered in his anguish, learnt, though a Son, obedience by the things he suffered and who, made perfect (initiated by death into his high priesthood), became, for those who obey him, the author of eternal salvation, having been proclaimed by God high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

This passage, taken as a whole, relates to the mystic gnosis of the Epistle, but has a relation to it also in the detail of the prayer that was answered. For this allusion does not refer, in reality, to the prayer which the Synoptics place in Gethsemane on the eve of the Passion, nor to the cries or prayers which the same Gospels attribute to Jesus on the cross. The author views the whole redemptive action of the Christ, from his humiliation in suffering to his final exaltation, as prefigured in Psalm xxii, which is also the source from which the evangelists have drawn the scene in Gethsemane and the cry of Calvary. Our author therefore is not


referring to the tradition called evangelical, nor does he depend upon it. He is making use, for the dramatization of his mystery, of the same texts which, in the Synoptics, we find converted into narrative.


That sayings attributed to the Lord Jesus were introduced into the primitive catechesis of the Last Things, while it was still the only form of teaching extant, is not an impossibility; but there is a probability, amounting almost to certainty, that a goodly part of the teachings collected in the canonical Gospels, even those incorporated in the public preaching of Jesus, began as teachings of the Risen Christ, of Christ the Spirit, believed to have been received by his organs, the Christian prophets.

The apparition of the Risen Christ in Matthew xxviii, 16-20, together with the discourse there attributed to Jesus, was privately accorded to the eleven disciples, but contains nevertheless the formal institution of the apostolate to all nations, we might even say the institution of the Church, and the promise of the continued presence of the immortal Christ "until the consummation of the age," that is, of the then present age of the world. Here we must recall that these eleven "disciples," or the Twelve, were never in reality apostles to all nations, nor strictly speaking apostles at all (see The. Birth of the Christian Religion, 137-140). This conclusion of Matthew, therefore, cannot be earlier than a date well advanced in the second century. In the teaching it attributes to the Risen Christ it echoes a relatively old tradition of which we have many other witnesses.

The deuterocanonical ending of Mark (xvi, 9-20) belongs to the same class. A little later, as finally revised, than the ending of Matthew, it is conceived in the same spirit, and contains an instruction to the Eleven to employ the time before the Second Coming in "preaching the Gospel to every creature," with an assurance that abounding miracles would reward their faith. Matthew and the Epistle to the Hebrews present the same legendary conception of the primitive apostolate. In the same way the fourth Gospel represents the apostolic mission as instituted, with power to forgive sins, by the Christ after his resurrection (xx, 21-23).


In the supplement to this Gospel (xxi) the miraculous draught of fishes is a symbolic representation of the apostolate to the whole world, and Peter, whose martyrdom is predicted, is appointed shepherd of the entire Christian flock. Here we have the debris of a wider tradition, evoked at this point to further the entry of the Johannine version of the Gospel into the current of the catechetical teaching then become common.

But the most explicit testimony to the post-resurrection character of this later catechesis is to be found, as to certain aspects, in the Third Gospel and the Book of Acts. In the Gospel (xxiv, 13-53) it is the Risen Christ who makes clear, first to the disciples at Emmaus, and then to all the disciples assembled, that what has happened to Jesus was announced in the ancient Scriptures. (From this we may infer that the practice of building the Gospel narrative on Old Testament prophecies was believed to derive from instructions given to that effect by the Risen Christ.) It is also the Risen Christ who sends them out "to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins to every nation, beginning at Jerusalem." The same theme is resumed in the opening of Acts (i, 1-12), unquestionably by the same editor of the original document, but in an expanded setting. Here the time of the Christ's manifestation to his followers after his rising from the dead is enlarged to forty days. (This time-scheme, designed to fit in with the story of Pentecost, is an accessory contrivance, like the whole development of the theme. What we find in it replaces the second part of the original prologue, suppressed by the editor along with everything the writer to Theophilus had to say about the circumstances in which the disciples became convinced that Jesus was risen.) The Risen One, we are told, speaks to his followers about the Reign of God. The disciples ask him whether he is about to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel here and now, and are told in reply that the Day of this restoration is God's secret, and that the disciples of Jesus, while waiting for his return, must serve him as witnesses "in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth." (This is the actual order of Acts, but with different indications from those of the analogous statement in the source exploited by the editor.) Thereupon Jesus is carried up to heaven in a cloud, and two angels inform the disciples that he will return in like array. In


conclusion we learn that the scene took place on the Mount of Olives. A point to be kept in mind, not only because the place is messianic, but because we shall find it again in the Apocalypse of Peter which seems to have had the same setting as the source document made use of by the editor of Acts in summarizing it into the passage before us, the whole forming a revelation of the Last Things ending in the exaltation of Jesus Christ in heaven.

Evidence of the Apocalypse of John

We turn to the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse of John. This, as we can recognize at the outset, is not merely an instruction of the Risen Christ; it is a complete book addressed by Jesus to the faithful, with one of his prophets for intermediary. The case is not solitary but assuredly one of the most considerable. Here we find the immortal Christ delivering his oracles more than sixty years after his resurrection, and it is a noteworthy fact that, in this long prophecy of the Last Things, the Christ recalls neither the preaching nor the miracles attributed to him in the Gospel. His teaching here is purely eschatological. But his eschatology shows signs of erudition; it is almost an eschatological textbook.

Certain parts of this compendium have a meaning which awakes curiosity to the uttermost: to begin with, the letters addressed to the seven churches which introduce the great revelation. Why did the immortal Christ dictate these letters to his amanuensis? It was not the amanuensis, assuredly, who began the practice of corresponding with churches. Clearly he is here adopting a method practised by writers who, in those times, were in the habit of inditing letters to churches or, more exactly, the method practised by one writer in particular, whose Epistles were then making a stir in that part of Asia where the Apocalypse saw the light. The letters to the seven churches make a violent attack on Paul's Epistles and on those who uphold them. It may be said without paradox that the seven letters to the Asiatic churches would never have been written if Paul's Epistles had not existed before them. The entire book is an affirmation and defence of eschatology; but the author would not have been so absolute in his assertion that the end was at hand, nor so vehement against Paul and his literature, had he not felt that eschatology was already menaced. It was menaced by the


gnostic movement then taking shape and by the gnosis, or the gnoses, which were beginning to find their way into the Epistles. And there was a further menace from the delay of the Second Coming, which menace, as time went on, became ever more deeply felt and disquieting; it was the void created by this delay that he set himself to fill by his series of plagues adjusted in order. These, at bottom, are all variations on a single theme, dominated by the outlook to the predicted end, which seemed to be ever fading into the distance.

But the prophet himself is not exempt from gnosis. Independently of his borrowings from astral mythology, which he makes perhaps unknowingly, since he found them already made in his source, notably the myth of the heavenly woman and her son carried up to heaven as soon as born that he may escape from the dragon (xii, 1-6), and independently of this, the symbolic name "the Lamb," under which the Christ is usually designated in the body of the book, show him familiar with the Christian symbol of the Christ as the paschal victim. He is therefore nearer than he thinks to the Pauline gnosis which he condemns in the prelude to his great vision. We might even suppose that he had been initiated into the sublime gnoses of the fourth Gospel since, in one passage (xix, 13), he mentions incidentally that the name of the triumphing Christ is "the Word of God." But this must have been added later in order to create a link between the Apocalypse and the Gospel, at the time when it was decided to attribute the two books to the same author — the apostle John.

For this attribution to the apostle the author himself is not responsible. An important feature characteristic of the Christian prophecy now before us is its complete authenticity, in the sense that the author never makes claim to any other status than that which he assumes in presenting his revelation to the churches. This status is indicated thrice over in the following passages. First the title of the book (i, 1-2):

Revelation of Jesus Christ,
which God gave him,
To reveal to his servants
What must soon happen,
And made clear by a messenger, his angel,
to his servant John,


Who attests it as the word of God,
and the witness of Jesus Christ,
Even all that he has seen. 

Next, in the address (i, 4-6) :

to the seven churches in Asia
Grace to you and peace, etc.

Next, in the introduction (i, 9-11):

I, John, your brother and companion
in the tribulation, the Kingdom and the waiting for Jesus,
Was in the isle called Patmos
for the word of God
and the testimony of Jesus.
I was in the spirit, on the Lord's Day,
and I heard behind me a great voice,
as of a trumpet, which said:
What thou seest, write in a book,
and send it to the seven churches,
to Ephesus and to Smyrna, etc.

On his own showing the author is a simple believer named John, an ordinary prophet of the churches in Asia to which he addresses himself, with special attachment to Ephesus, just as the good Hermas, a little later, was an ordinary prophet of the church in Rome; for the time being he is confined to the island of Patmos and there he has his vision. He makes no pretence to be an immediate disciple of Jesus, still less to be one of the Twelve. He knows of the Twelve in the legend which has made them "apostles of the Lamb," and their names are graven on the foundation stones of the wall of the eternal Jerusalem (xxi, 14). He has no suspicion that one day, and soon, he will be counted as one of those Twelve. Thus the Apocalypse is, in itself, an authentic book, nay, an honest book, and the more valuable for that reason as throwing light on our present subject. For it proves beyond gainsaying that Christian prophets continued for a long time to deliver oracles in the name of the immortal Christ, and did so without evoking the teachings which Jesus is supposed to have given before his death.

Unfortunately it remains to be added that our Apocalypse, with its honest writer, was very soon promoted to apostolic dignity


by the conscious and interested fraud of others. That, too, is a fact and one which helps us to understand the practice of authors •who, unlike John, wrote Apocalypses purporting to contain teachings of the Risen Christ, under- false names deliberately assumed. That was the case with the Apocalypse of Peter, to which we now proceed.

Evidence from the Apocalypse of Peter

As this Apocalypse did not succeed in finding its way into the Canon (or rather in remaining there) nobody in our time finds it worth while to defend its authenticity as the work of Peter. But the document is none the less important for the student, since it reveals the same preoccupation as the Apocalypse of John, that, namely, of satisfying and reassuring those who were anxiously waiting for the Second Coming. This it does by explaining the delay as in the order of providential designs, and, further, by making use of events already happened or of legends already formed in the author's time.

There can be no question that the Apocalypse of Peter, like the other writings falsely attributed to this apostle, the two epistles to begin with (both of which succeeded in getting into the Canon and remaining there), was published in Peter's honour, with the object of enhancing his personality, already become legendary, and for the consecration of the legend. But the intention was, also, to carry on the tradition of teachings given by the Risen Christ, by that time well established. What makes this eschatological compilation of peculiar interest is that, in addition to precise information about the legend of Peter, it contains considerable elements which the Gospels antedate and transpose to the earthly ministry of Jesus.

Elsewhere we have made a detailed analysis of this Apocalypse (see The Birth of the Christian Religion, pp. 35-39). Here we note the following points:

(1) Dependent on the Apocalypse, composed about the year 135, are, with high probability, the first Epistle of Peter and, with certainty, the second Epistle, which, moreover, is not earlier than 170.

(2) In all it professes to predict about the martyrdom of Peter, the Apocalypse does not depend on the fourth Gospel (xxi, 18-19,


and previously in terms more veiled, xiii, 36), but the Gospel rather depends on the Apocalypse or on the legendary tradition on which the Apocalypse depends.

(3) A similar relation exists between the Apocalypse and what may be read in the last chapter of Luke and the first of Acts, concerning the teachings of the Risen Christ, his instructions about the end of the world and his ascension into heaven (see above, p. 48); that is to say, in the writings named after Luke the view of these things is analogous to that of the Apocalypse, though less balanced and somewhat incoherent, so that here also these writings, if not dependent on the Apocalypse itself, depend on a document analogous or identical with its source.

(4) Lastly, the Apocalypse, which might seem to have transformed the scene of the Transfiguration in the Synoptics into the story of the ascent into heaven, on the contrary presents that story in its proper place and original setting. From which the presumption clearly follows that the discourses on the Last Things in the Synoptics and the parable of die barren fig-tree in Luke (xiii, 6-9), were first conceived as teachings of the Risen Christ.

Taking it all in all, the so-called Apocalypse of Peter is a dramatization suggested by the primitive eschatological catechesis which we may regard as summed up in the declaration attributed to Peter in his discourse after Pentecost (Acts ii, 36):

Let all the house of Israel know of a surety that this Jesus whom ye crucified God has made Lord and Christ.

The Ethiopian version of the Apocalypse, it is true, contains certain features which might have led us to suppose that it depends on the Gospel story of the Transfiguration. But Second Peter took the leading feature from the Apocalypse, the voice from on high (2 Peter i, 17): "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." What is improbable, and must result from a surcharge on the original, is that the author should have written the words we first read in the Ethiopian version after the description of the happiness of the elect:

"I rejoiced, I believed and took confidence, and I understood the words that are written in the book of my Lord Jesus Christ. And I


said to him: 'Desirest thou that I build here three tents, one for thee, one for Moses, one for Elijah?' Then he answered me in anger: 'Satan is making war on thee, he troubles thy thought. There is only one tent, etc.' "

All that, beginning with the inept reference to Gospel literature, is a paraphrase of the synoptic story of the Transfiguration and of the rebuke undergone by Peter, in Mark and Matthew, after the messianic confession. But the whole passage has all the marks of an interpolation, the original text of the Apocalypse resuming its course in the words which follow: "And suddenly there came a voice from heaven, etc." That granted, the conclusion remains, as was conjectured long ago, that the transfiguration scene in the Synoptics is an antedating to the earthly life of Jesus of what, in the eschatological teaching, was the assumption of the Christ into heaven before the eyes of the disciples on the Mount of Olives. But this has a much wider bearing than has been commonly supposed.

The antedating of this scene was done deliberately with the object of transposing a passing vision of the Christ's glory into his career on earth, and of putting the messianic stamp on that part of the Gospel story which is consecrated to the death of Jesus. This part begins with Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi, equally antedated from the story of the Transfiguration and co-ordinated with it, but so arranged that Peter appears in it to his disadvantage, understanding nothing (at least in Mark, but with a contradiction in Matthew) of the mystery of salvation, of the death that is necessary and of the glory of which he has been given a glimpse. In reality, Peter did not confess Jesus as the Christ until he had acquired his faith in the resurrection. Moreover, the anticipation betrays itself in the prohibition which forbids the disciples to proclaim Jesus as the Christ before his death, and in the command to the witnesses of the Transfiguration to keep silence about it until Jesus has risen from the dead. All that is profoundly significant. And there is more to the same effect.

Other Evidence of Antedating

Another instance of antedating is to be found in the story or the baptism of Jesus (Mark i, n; Matthew iii, 17; Luke iii, 22),


in which the heavenly voice utters the same words. The object of this is again, to put the messianic stamp on what was for long the Gospel catechesis — the activity of Jesus from the baptism of John until his death and assumption into heaven (Mark: cf. supra p. 23; Acts i, 1-2, except for the surcharge which introduces the interpolated verses that follow).

The stories of the miraculous birth in Matthew and Luke are anticipations of a different order from the preceding. But it may be said, without falling too far into paradox, that what is offered as the Gospel tradition has no proper base of its own, the Gospel catechesis being, for the main part, an antedating and duplication of the Last Things — the primitive eschatological catechesis. It remains for us to see under what conditions this transposition was carried out. [1] Needless to add that the fourth Gospel, the latest of the canonicals, is conceived from beginning to end as the story of a divine epiphany. It is obvious that these conclusions must find their confirmation in our coming discussion and analysis of the Gospel catechesis, to which we shall proceed in due course.

[1] On the antedatings here mentioned see Bacon, Studies in Matthew (1930), 145-164.

Return to the Table of Contents of Alfred Loisy's The Origins of the New Testament

Please buy the CD to support the site, view it without ads, and get bonus stuff!

Early Christian Writings is copyright © Peter Kirby <E-Mail>.

Get the CD Now!

Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.