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Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, [1911], at

p. 231

§ 5. The Critical Problem.

The problem is one that has been before now debated on other issues; and it may be well here to take up these by way of illumination and test. Grote, putting in scientific form a thesis sometimes more summarily phrased by "the plain man," insisted that

"The utmost which we accomplish by means of the semi-historical theory is that, after leaving out from the mythical narrative all that is miraculous or high-coloured or extravagant, we arrive at a series of creditable [= credible] incidents—incidents which may perhaps have really occurred, and against which no intrinsic presumption can be raised. This is exactly the character of a well-written modern novel......To raise plausible fiction to the superior dignity of truth, some positive testimony or positive ground of inference must be shown......A man who tells us that on the day of the battle of Platæa rain fell on the spot of ground where the city of New York now stands, will neither deserve nor obtain credit, because he can have no means of positive knowledge; though the statement is not in the slightest degree improbable. On the other hand, statements in themselves very improbable may well deserve belief, provided they be supported by sufficient positive evidence. Thus the canal dug by Xerxes across the promontory of Mount Athos, and the sailing of the Persian fleet through it, is a fact which I believe because it is well-attested—notwithstanding its remarkable improbability, which so far misled Juvenal as to induce him to single out the narrative as a glaring example of Grecian mendacity. 1

To this contention it is objected by Sir A. C. Lyall that "if we may only receive as credible those ancient narratives which could not possibly turn out to be very plausible fiction, we shall be hard pushed for the trustworthy authentication of much early history, religious and secular. Secondly, the example of the supposed assertion as to simultaneous rainfall at Platæa and in Massachusetts is hardly fair. A man's assertion of an isolated fact of which he could not possibly have any positive knowledge, either directly or by hearsay, is a very different thing from affirming credible facts which might reasonably, and according to the known habits of the people who relate the facts, have been handed down by tradition from the persons who witnessed them to those who related them." 2 To this very reasonable argument the answer is that it does not meet Grote's case; and that when we have assented to it the problem remains as before. In regard to many credible facts which might conceivably have been handed down by tradition we are still bound to say that, when related concerning supernatural personages, they are not tolerable evidence of anything done by a real person whose history formed the nucleus of the myth. The proposition as

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to rain on the site of New York on the day of Platæa is an illustration, not a universal parallel. The fact remains that there is no common-sense ground for crediting any one "credible" assertion made concerning an ostensibly mythical character when we cannot on independent grounds show how the credible story came to be attached to the fable.

Sir Alfred Lyall's argument overlooks the demurrer that all particular or specific tradition of a quasi-historical kind is untrustworthy when not corroborated by other evidence, inasmuch as (1) such tradition usually goes hand in hand with obvious supernaturalist fable, and (2) many such traditions have been disproved by solid evidence. The question is not whether something traditionally asserted to have been said or done by a demigod may not actually have been said or done by a man of the same or another name, but whether, in the absence of other evidence, we are ever entitled to believe and assert that it was. To Grote's negative answer there is no valid demurrer. The strength of Sir A. C. Lyall's general claim, that Gods or God-myths have been built up on bases of actual deeds and events, lies in the concrete proof that this has occurred in modern times; but no such demonstration can enable us to distinguish between the merely possible and the true in ancient tradition. It is conceivable that the Feridun of the Shah Nameh is constructed on a nucleus of reality, to which was added a mass of detail taken from sheer mythology, as myths were heaped upon the story of Cyrus. But in the latter case we have a means of discrimination; in the former we have none; and when we find the very name of Feridun to be a modification of an old God-name, 1 we have no right of historical belief left.

For the rest, it is beside the case to argue that much accepted history will be cancelled if we accept only narratives which "could not possibly turn out to be plausible fiction." Grote never argued that history proper, the record of a time by those who lived in it, is to be so tried; and he constantly accepts narratives which might conceivably be plausible fictions—nay, he occasionally accepts tales which appear to some of us to be fictions. It is when we are dealing with myths that he denies our power to discriminate: in history proper he undertakes—at times too confidently—to discriminate. Broadly speaking, he is entitled so to proceed insofar as he deals with cases on their merits. Some early historical narratives allege facts which could well be known to the narrator or to the community

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in general, and may be fairly taken as true; some are obviously fanciful, unplausible, ill-vouched; and in many cases they are to be doubted even when free from supernaturalism. Historiography consists in a rational selection.

It is true that there are some cases wholly or partly on the borderland between the possible and the incredible, where we may fairly surmise a nucleus of fact; but in regard to these Grote's warning should be always kept in mind. Professor Huxley, who invented the word "agnostic" to cover, among other things, the practice of saying that miracles are "not impossible," was notably accommodating in his attitude to narratives of the possible. Concerning the story of Saul's visit to the witch of Endor, he observes that it does not "matter very much whether the story is historically true," but that "it is quite consistent with probability"; and then he adds: "That is to say, I see no reason whatever to doubt......that Saul made such a visit." 1 The leap here is clearly illicit. There is certainly "reason to doubt" the whole story so long as it cannot be shown to have been reduced to writing near the time of Saul. "History" is full of discredited "probabilities" of the same kind: the story of Bruce and the spider is a type. The very fact that kings and commoners in ancient Israel did normally consult witches is as much a reason for admitting that the story could easily be invented as for allowing that it could easily have happened; and the details of the apparition, to which Professor Huxley oddly extends a measure of his credence, give good ground for suspecting the entire episode to be fiction.

All such cases, in fine, must be tried on their documentary as well as their h priori merits; and, returning to our special problem, we note that the "credible" sayings put in the mouth of the Gospel Jesus are in no way certified by their credibility, but are on the contrary put in complete suspicion by their surroundings. Here is Professor Schmiedel's case, reduced to logical form: There are in the gospels hundreds of unlikely sayings ascribed to Jesus; there are nine which are likely; then the nine not only establish his historic reality, but give a basis for surmise that many of the less likely, as well as many of the narratives of faith-healing, are also historical! The answer is (1) that it must be a desperately bad fiction in which not five per cent. of the speeches and episodes are "credible." On Dr. Schmiedel's view, if only the ancients had ascribed ten reasonable sayings as well as twelve more or less

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unlikely labours to Herakles he would be entitled to rank as a historic character. On the other hand (2) the very fact that the figure of the Gospel Jesus won belief much more in virtue of the hundreds of improbabilities and falsities in the gospels than in virtue of the "credible" texts, quashes the plea for his actuality based on these texts. The true inference is, not that such texts, being unnecessary, must be genuine and not invented, but that since a substantially false or unlikely biography could win ready credence in the period in question there is no reason to surmise a nucleus of actuality which was never demanded, and that the credible texts stand merely for the proportion of plausibility that might reasonably be looked for in any conglomerate of sayings and statements round a fictitious personage. Paul or the forgers, it is evident, believed in a crucified Jesus as to whom they had no biographical record, whether of sayings or doings. Scores of unlikely utterances, it is admitted, were credited to Jesus after Paul's time. Why were they so credited? Plainly because certain men or certain sects desired to give their views the sanction of the God-Man's authority. What then does it signify if besides these sayings there are fathered on him a few that are relatively reasonable? And, knowing as we do that the Ebionites, who attributed to him unlikely sayings, nevertheless regarded him as a mere man, what does it signify if sometimes in the gospel he is so represented? Yet again, what plausibility remains in the cry on the cross, "Why hast thou forsaken me?" when we remember that it is a quotation from the Psalms, and that the whole cult proceeded on the doctrine that "the Christ must needs suffer"? 1

It may seem ungracious thus to press the argument against a professed theologian who has already come within sight of "the great surrender" to reason. Schmiedel has indeed gone further in his loyalty to the critical principle than do many professed rationalists. It is only a question of time, however, when his view shall be tested as he has tested other men's, and the process may as well begin here and now.


231:1 Grote, History of Greece, ch. xvi, ed. 1888, i, 382.

231:2 Sir A. C. Lyall, Asiatic Studies (1st series), 2nd ed. 1884, p. 31.

232:1 Cp. Max Müller, Biographical Essays, 1884, pp. 287-8.

233:1 Essays, iv. pp. 291-2 (essay on "The Evolution of Theology").

234:1 Professor Schmiedel, in his preface to Dr. Neumann's Jesus (1907), objects that I have here dealt with only one of his nine "pillar" texts. In response, I have dealt with the whole nine in the Appendix to the second edition of Christianity and Mythology (1910).

Next: § 6. Collapse of the Constructive Case