A Short History of Christianity – John Robertson – 1902

A Short History of Christianity


John M. Robertson

Issued by the Rationalist Press Association, Limited

Watts & CO.

17, Johnson’s Court, Fleet Street, London, E.C.


John Mackinnon Robertson PC (14 November 1856–5 January 1933 was a prolific journalist, advocate of rationalism and secularism, and Liberal Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom for Tyneside from 1906 to 1918. Robertson was best known as an advocate of the Christ myth theory.



An attempt to write the history of Christianity in the space of an average novel is so obviously open to objections that, instead of trying to parry them, I shall merely state what seems to me the possible compensation of brevity in such a matter. It is or may be conducive to total comprehension, to cohe­rence of judgment, and in a measure even to the understanding of details. A distinguished expert in historical and philological research has avowed that specialists sometimes get their most illuminating ideas from a haphazard glance into a popular and condensed presentment of their own subject. With­out hoping so to help the experts, I humbly conceive that the present conspectus of Christian history may do an occasional service even to an opponent by bringing out a clear issue. Writers of a different way of thinking have done as much for me.

The primary difficulty is of course the problem of origins. In my treatment of this problem, going as I do beyond the concessions of the most advanced pro­fessional scholars, I cannot expect much acquiescence for the present. It must here suffice to say, first, that the data and the argument, insofar as they are not fully set forth in the following pages, have been pre­sented in the larger work entitled Christianity and Mythology, or in the quarters mentioned in the Synopsis of Literature appended to this volume; and, secondly, to urge that opponents should read the study on the Gospels by Professor Schmiedel in the new Encyclo­pedia Biblica before taking up their defensive positions. But so far am I from supposing my own solutions to be definitive that I desire here to avow a modification of opinion made since the first part of the book was printed. It is there assumed that the received trans­lation of a familiar passage (Luke xvii. 21), “The kingdom of God is within you,” is right. On chal­lenge and reflection I have to admit that it is not : the proper translation is almost certainly ” in your midst”; and the passage thus falls in line with the other accounts in Luke of the kingdom of heaven as a religious movement or communion. My line of argu­ment is not here affected ; but it may well be that some other such necessary correction might some­where impair it.

One of the drawbacks of short histories is that in them at times a disputable proposition has to be summarily put. I doubt, however, whether this occurs oftener in the following pages than in lengthy treatises, where full discussion is fairly to be expected. For instance, I have held that the reference in Rev. ii. 8 to “the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan,” is to the Pauline or other Gentilising Jew-Chrietiete. That is the view of Renan. Harnack, who passes for a more solid authority, pronounces summarily that the phrase is cast by Jew-Christists at orthodox Jews. Such a decision seems to me to be irrational, but it is impossible in such a work to give space to a refutation, where Harnack has offered no argument on the other side in a monumental treatise. The same authority has justified masses of conformist historiography by the simple dogmatic assertion that the time is near at hand when men will universally recognise, in matters of Christian origins, “ the essential rightness of tradition, with a few important exceptions.” In putting forth a sketch which so little conforms to that opinion, I would but claim that it is not more unjudicial in its method than more conservative performances.

After the period of ” origins ” has been passed, there is happily less room for demur on any grounds. The statements of fact in the second and third parts are for the most part easily to be supported from the testimony of standard ecclesiastical historians ; and the general judgments sometimes cited in inverted commas, in all four parts, are nearly always from orthodox writers. What is special to the present treatise is the sociological interpretation. It was indeed to the end of such interpretation that the researches here summarised were begun, over sixteen years ago ; and in a documented work on The Rise of Christianity, Sociologically Considered, I hope more fully to present it. But as my first perplexity was to ascertain the real hist.orical proceuua, I have never subordinated that need to the desire for explanation.

It hardly needs actual experience of the risks of error and oversight in a condensed narrative to con­vince one of the difficulty of escaping them. Where no single authority is found infallible, I must at times have miscarried, were it only because I have aimed at something beyond a condensation of current accounts. No criticism, therefore, will be more highly valued by me than one which corrects my errors of fact. 

In order to cover the ground within the compass taken, it was absolutely necessary to digest the subject-matter under general heads ; and the chrono­logical movement may in consequence be less clear than in histories which proceed by centuries. As a partial remedy, dates have been frequently inserted in the narrative, and it is hoped that the full index will help t.o meet the difficulty which may sometimes be felt as t.o where a given name or episode should be looked for.

It is perhaps needless to add that the appended Synopsis of Literature does not in the least pretend to be a bibliography for professed students. It is designed merely as a first help to painstaking readers to search and judge for themselves on the problems under notice.

December, 1901


Part I – Primitive Christianity

Chapter I


§ 1. Documentary Clues.



IN the ancient history of religions, as in the ancient history of nations, the first account given of origins is almost always a myth. A divine or worshipped founder is craved by the primitive imagination no less for cults and institutions, tribes and polities, than for the forms of life and the universe itself; and history, like science; may roughly be said to begin only when that craving for first causes has been discredited, or controlled, by the later arising instinct of exact observation. Such a check or control tends to be set up by the presence of intelligently hostile forces, as in the case of the religion of Mohammed, whose teaching warred with and was warred on by rival cultures from the first, and whose own written and definite doctrine forbade his apotheosis.

Some of the early Christian sects, which went far towards setting up independent cults, had their origins similarly defined by the pressure of criticism from the main body. But before the Christian system had taken organised historic form, in virtue of having come into the heritage of literary and political method embodied in the Greco-Roman civilisation, it is rarely possible to trust the record of any cult’s beginnings, even where it professes to derive from a non-supernatural teacher ; so ungoverned is the myth-making instinct in the absence of persistent criticism. Buddha, Zoroaster, and Moses are only less obviously mythical figures than Krishna, Hercules, and Osiris. Of the Christian cult it can at best be said that it takes its rise on the border-land between the historical and the unhistorical, since any rational defence of it today admits that in the story of its origins there is at least an element of sheer myth.

The oldest documents of the cult are ostensibly the Epistles of Paul; and concerning these there are initial perplexities, some being more or less clearly spurious – that is, very different from or much later in character than the rest, while all of the others show signs of interpolation. Taken as they stand, however, they reveal a remarkable ignorance of the greater part of the narratives in the Gospels, and of the whole body of the teachings there ascribed to Jesus.

In three respects only do the Pauline writings give any support to the histories later accepted by the Christian Church. They habitually speak of Jesus as crucified, and as having risen from the dead ; they contain one account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, in agreement with the gospel account; and they make one mention of “the twelve.” But the two latter allusions occur in passages (1 Cor. xi. and xv.) which have every mark of interpolation ; and when they are withdrawn the Pauline letters tell only of a cult, Jewish in origin, in which a crucified Jesus­ called the Messiah or Christos or Anointed One ­figures as a saving sacrifice, but counts for absolutely nothing as a teacher or even as a wonder-worker. A Eucharist or religious meal is celebrated in his name, but no mention is made of any teaching uttered by the founder. And nothing in the epistles enables us even to date them independently of the gospel narratives, which they so strangely fail to confirm. Thus the case stands with the New Testament very much as with the Old. As the Book of Judges reveals a state of Hebrew life quite incompatible with that described in the Pentateuch as having preceded it, so do the epistles of Paul reveal a stage of Christist propaganda incompatible with any such prior development as is set forth in the gospel. And the conclu­sion in the two cases is the same: that the documents setting forth the prior developments are not only later in composition but substantially fictitious, even where they do not tell of supernatural events.

What needs to be explained in both cases is the way in which the later narratives came to be compiled. Within a hundred years from the date commonly assigned to the Crucifixion there are Gentile traces of a Jesuist or Christist movement deriving from Jewry, and possessing a gospel or memoir as well as some of the Pauline and other epistles, both spurious and genuine ; but the gospel then current is seen to have contained some matter not preserved in the canonical four, and to have lacked much that those contain. Of those traces the earliest are found in one epistle of Clement called Bishop of Rome (fl. about 100), which, whether genuine or not, is ancient, and in the older form of the epistles ascribed to the Martyr Ignatius (d. about 115 ?) of which the same may be said. About the middle of the second century the writings of Justin Martyr tell of a Christist memoir, but show no knowledge of the Pauline epistles. All alike tell of a spreading cult, with a theology not yet coherently dogmatic, founding mainly on a crucified Jesus, faith in whom ensures salvation.

Like the letters of Paul, those ascribed to Clement and Ignatius tell of schisms and strifes in the churches: that is the constant note of Christian history from first to last. As to rites, we have but a bare mention of the eucharist and of baptism; the story of the founder’s parentage is still unknown, and his miracles are as unheard of as most of his teachings. There is nothing in Clement, or in the older lgnatian epistles, or in that ascribed to Poiycarp (circa 150), or in that of Barnabas (same period), to show knowledge of the existing gospels of Luke or John; a solitary parallel to Luke being rather a proof that the passage echoed had been taken from some earlier document ; and the gospel actually cited as late as Justin is certainly not identical with either Mark or Matthew. Even from Paul there is hardly any quotation ; and Clement, who mentions or is made to mention his epistle to the Corinthians, pens a long passage in praise of love which has no quotation from the apostle’s famous chapter on that bead, though it would have seemed made for his purpose. In view of their lax way of quoting the Old Testament we may infer that the early fathers or forgers had few manuscripts ; and it is plain that they set no such store by Christian documents as they did by the Jewish; but the fact remains that they fail to vouch for much even of those Pauline epistles which commonly rank as incontestable. At times, as in the Pauline use of the word ektroma (1 Cor. xv. 8), which occurs in a similar phrase in one of the lgnatian epistles, there is reason to conclude that the “apostolic” writing has been interpolated in imitation of the ” post-apostolic.” 

It does not indeed follow that documents or chapters not quoted or utilised by the fathers were in their day non-existent. The letters of Paul, supposing them to he genuine, would in any case be only gradually made common property. All the evidence goes to show that the early Christians were for the most part drawn from the illiterate classes; and the age of abundant manuscripts would begin only with the age of educated converts. But what is inconceiv­able is that one so placed as Paul should never once cite the teachings of the Founder, if such teachings were current in his day in any shape ; and what is extremely improbable is that one so placed as Clement, or one forging or interpolating in his name, should possess Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians as it now stands, and yet should barely mention it in a letter to the same church dealing with almost the same problems. In the first case, we are forced to conclude that the gospel narratives were non-existent for the writer or writers of the Pauline epistles up to the point of the two interpolations which allege an accepted tradition ; and that the Pauline epistles themselves are nowhere quite certainly genuine. Such irremovable doubt is the Nemesis of the early Christian habits of forgery and fiction.

There emerges, however, the residual fact that Paul ranked in the second century as a historical and natural personage, in whose name it was worthwhile to forge; even as for Paul’s period Jesus was a historical personage, not supposed to be super­naturally born, though credited with a supernatural resurrection. Broadly speaking, the age of an early Christian document is found to be in the ratio of its narrative bareness, its lack of biographical myth, its want of relation to the existing gospels. As between the shorter and the longer form of the Ignatian epistles, the question of priority is at once settled by the frequent citations from the gospels and from Paul in the latter, and the lack of them in the former. But all the documents alike appear to point to a movement which took its rise among the Jews long before the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem by Titus in the year 70, and subsisted in Jewry long afterwards; and, as the Jewish environment lacked many of the forces of change present in the Gentile, it is to the Jewish form of the cult that we must first look if we would trace its growth.


§ 2. The Earliest Christian Sects


The first properly historical as distinct from the “scriptural ” notices of the Church at Jerusalem tell of a quasi-Christian sect there, known ae Ebionites or Ebionim, a Hebrew word which signified simply “the poor.” From the point of view of the Gentile Christians of the end of the second century they were heretics, seeing that they used a form of the Gospel of Matthew lacking the first two chapters, denied the divinity of Jesus, and rejected the apostleship of Paul. As they likewise rejected the Hebrew prophet, accepting only the Pentateuch, there is some reason to suppose that they were either of Samaritan derivation or the descendants of an old element in the Judean population which, from the time of Ezra onwards, had rejected the later Biblical writings as the Samaritans did. On either view it would follow that the Jesuist movement rooted from the first in a lower stratum of the population, hostile to orthodox or Pharisaic Judaism, as were the Sadducees among the upper classes. The Samaritans made special account of Joshua (=Jesus), having a book which bore his name ; and we shall see later that that name was anciently a divine one for some Syrian populations.

Later notices bring to light the existence of a smaller sect, called by the Greeks Nazoraioi, Nazarites or Nazaraeans, the term said in the Acts of the Apostles (xxiv. 5) to have been applied to the early Jesuists, and often applied in that book as well as in the gospels to Jesus. According to one account this sect objected to be called Christians, though it appears to have been on the assumption of their derivation from the first Christians that they had not earlier been stamped as heretics. Through the two sects under notice may be gathered the probable development of early Jesuism.

It cannot have been from the place-name Nazareth that any Jesuist sect were first called Nazaraeans, a term standing either for the variously-spelt Nazir (Nazarite, or, properly, Nazirite) of the Old Testament, or for a compound of the term netzer (=a. branch), used in the passage of Isaiah (xi. 1) supposed to be cited in the first gospel (ii. 28). Even the form “Nazarene,” sometimes substituted in the gospels for the other, could not conceivably have been, to start with, the name for a sect founded by a man who, like the gospel Jesus, was merely said to have been reared at a village called Nazareth or Nazara, and never taught there. In none of the Pauline or other canonical epistles, however, is Jesus ever called Nazarite, or Nazarene, or “of Nazareth”; and the Ebionite gospel, lacking the Nazareth story, would lack any such appellation. The Ebionite sect, then, appears to have stood for the first form of the cult, and to have developed the first form of gospel ; while the later Nazaraean sect appears to be either a post-Pauline but Judaic growth from the Ebionite roots, or a post-Pauline grafting of another movement on the Jesuism of the Ebionites.

Ebionism, to begin with, whether ancient and quasi-Samaritan or a product of innovation in the immediately pre-Roman period, is intelligible as the label of a movement which held by the saying “Blessed are ye poor” or “poor in spirit,” found in the so-called Sermon on the Plain and Sermon on the Mount (Luke vi. 20; Matt. v. 8). In poverty ­stricken Jewry, with a prophetic and proverbial literature in which, as generally in the East, the poor are treated with sympathy, such a label would readily grow popular, as it bad done for the Buddhist ” mendicants ” in India. Its association, however, with a cult of a slain and Messianic Jesus raises the question whether the latter was not the germ of the movement ; and there are some grounds for supposing that the sect may have arisen around one Jesus the son of Pandira, who is mentioned in the Talmud as having been hanged on a tree and stoned to death at Lydda, on the eve of a Passover, in the reign of Alexander Jannaeus. It was customary to execute important offenders at that season ; and as the Paschal feast had a specifically atoning significance, a teacher then executed might come to be regarded as an atoning sacrifice. But there are traces in the Old Testament of a Messianic movement connected with the name Jesus at some uncertain period before the Christian era. In the book of Zechariah, of which the first six chapters appear to be much later than the rest, there is named one Jesus (Heb. Joshua), a high priest, who figures Messianically as “the Branch,” and is doubly crowned as priest and king. In the obscurity which covers most of the prophetic literature, it is difficult to say for what historic activities this piece of symbolism stands; but it must have stood for something. From it, in any case, we gather the fact that much stress was laid on the symbol of “the Branch” (or “sprout”), called in the present text of Zechariah tsemach, but in Isaiah nazar or netzer. Among the Gentiles that symbol belonged to the worships of several Gods and goddesses-as Mithra, Attia, Apollo, and Demeter-and appears to have meant the principle of life, typified in vegetation ; among the Jews it was certainly bound up with the general belief in a coming Messiah who should restore Jewish independence. It is not impossible, then, that a Messianic party were early called “Netzerites” or ” Nazaraeans ” on that account; and such a sect could in the Judaic fashion find all manner of significances in the name of the high priest, since “Jesus” (=Joshua) signified Saviour, and the ancient and mythical Joshua was a typical deliverer. The Mosaic promise (Deut xviii. 15) of a later prophet and leader, which in the Acts is held to apply to the crucified Jesus, had formerly been held by Jews to apply to the Joshua who succeeded Moses; and in that case there is reason to surmise that an older myth or cult centring round the name had given rise to the historical fiction of the Hebrew books. But the subject must remain obscure. There is even some doubtful evidence of the later existence of a sect of “Jesseans,” possibly distinct from the historical “Essenes,” who may have founded on Isaiah’s “Branch from the roots of Jesse.” 

The following, then, are the historical possibilities. A poor sect or caste of Ebionim, marked off from orthodox Jewry, and akin to the population of Samaria, may have subsisted throughout the poet-exilic period, and may either have preserved an old Jesuist cult with a sacrament or adopted a later Samaritan movement. From that might have been developed the “Nazarene” sect of Chrietist history. On the other hand, a sect of “Nazaraeans,” holding by the Messianic name of Jesus, may have existed in the pre-Roman period, but may have come to figure specially as Ebionim or “poor” when the earlier or political form of Messianic hope waned. Their name may also have led to their being either confused or conjoined with the “Nazirites” of Jewry, a numerous but fluctuating body, under temporary vows of absten­tion. But that body, again, may have become generally Meesianist, and may have adopted the Messianic “Branch ” in the verbalising spirit so common in Jewry, while continuing to call itself Nazarite in the old sense. It is indeed on record that some Jews made vows to “be a Nazarite when the Son of David should come”; and such were free to drink wine on Sabbaths, though not on week days. Such Nazarites could have constituted the first sacra­mental assemblies of the Christists. And as the Hebrew Nazir (Sept. Gr. Nazoraios) had the meaning of “consecrated ” or ” holy to the Lord,” the early Gentile Christians may very well have translated the word into their own languages instead of transliterating it. On that view the hagioi or “saints” of the Acts and the epistles and the Apocalypse may have strictly stood for ” the Nazirites,” ” the devoti.”

Seeing, however, that the later Nazaraens are reported to have adopted the (obviously late) first and second chapters of Matthew, while the Ebionites rejected them ; and seeing that these chapters, embodying the story of the flight into Egypt, make Jesus at once a Jewish and a Gentile Christ, it would appear that the Gentile movement had then reacted on the Jewish, and that the ultra-Jewish Jesuists had now relinquished the name of Nazaraean to the less rigid, who at this stage probably used a Greek gospel. Finally, as the original sense of “Nazirite” implied either a Judaic vow-irksome t0 the Gentile Christians, and probably to many of the Jewish­ or a specially Judaic character in the founder, and as the political implication of the “netzer ” (supposing that to have adhered to the sect-name) was anti­ Roman, there would arise a disposition to seek for the term another significance. This, doubtless on the suggestion of Gentiles accustomed to hear Jewish sectaries called ” Galileans,” was found in the figment that the founder, though declared to have been Messianically born in Bethlehem, had been reared in the Galilean village of Nazareth or Nazara. Instead of being a historical datum, as is assumed by so many rationalising historians, that record is really a pragmatic myth superimposed on the Bethlehem myth. The textual analysis shows that wherever it occurs in the gospels and Acts the name Nazareth has been foisted on the documents.

Hence, however, arose the Greek form “Nazarenos,” which finally became to a certain extent imposed on the canonical gospels, but especially on that of Mark, which appears to have been redacted under Roman authority in the interests of ecclesiastical order. Naturally, the Latin Vulgate adopted the same term throughout the Gospels and Acts, save in the crucial text, Matt. ii. 28. Otherwise the texts are almost wholly in favour of the form “Nazoraios “-that is, Nazaaean or Nazirite.

§ 8. Personality of the Nominal Founder.

Even for minds wont to see mere myth in the idea of such long-worshipped Saviours as Apollo and Osiris, Krishna and Mithra, it cannot but be startling to meet for the first time the thought that there is no historic reality in a figure so long revered and beloved by half the human race as the Jesus of the gospels. It was only after generations of scrutiny that rationalism began to doubt the actuality of the Teacher it had unhesitatingly surmised behind the impossible demigod of the records. The first, indeed, to see in him sheer myth were the students who were intent chiefly on the myths of action in the story : to return to the teaching as such was to recover the old impression of a real voice. It is only after a further analysis-a scrupulous survey of the texts-that the inquirer can realise how illusory that impression really is.

The proposition is not that the mere lateness of the gospels deprives them of authority as evidence (for they proceeded on earlier documents), but that throughout they are demonstrably results of accretion through several generations, and that the earliest sections were put together long after the period they profess to deal with. The older portions of the Pauline epistles show no knowledge of any Jesuine biography or any Jesuine teaching-a circumstance which suggests that the Jesus of Paul is much more remote from Paul’s day than is admitted by the records. Later, the Christian writers are found to have certain narratives, evidently expanded from generation to generation, till at the end of the second century there exist the four canonical gospels, which, however, are not known to have been even then completed. Celsus, in his anti-Christian treatise, supposed to have been written between 170 and 180, speaks of the gospels as having undergone endless alteration ; and additions were still possible after the time of Origen, who weakly replied to Celeus that the alterations were the work of heretics. Side by side with the four there had grown up a multitude of “apocryphal ” gospels, of which some were long as popular as the canonical, though all were ultimately discarded by the Councils of the Church. The principle of exclusion was essentially that of the tentative criticism of modern times-the critical sense of the inferiority of mere tales of wonders to narratives which contained, besides wonders, elements of moral instruction.

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