It is important to fix firmly in mind the central conception of this representation. It turns upon the sacrificial death of Jesus to which the whole life leads up, and out of which all its issues are drawn, and for a perpetual memorial of which he is represented as having instituted a solemn memorial feast. The divine majesty of this Son of God; His redemptive mission to the world, in a life of humiliation and a ransoming death; the completion of his task in accordance with His purpose; His triumphant rising from the death thus vicariously endured; His assumption of sovereignty over the future development of the kingdom founded in His blood, and over the world as the theater of its development; His expected return as the consummator of the ages and the judge of all this is the circle of ideas in which all accounts move. It is the portrait not of a merely human life, though it includes the delineation of a complete and a completely human life. It is the portrayal of a human episode in the divine life. It is, therefore, not merely connected with supernatural occurrences, nor merely colored by supernatural features, nor merely set in a supernatural atmosphere: the supernatural is its very substance, the elimination of which would be the evaporation of the whole. The Jesus of the New Testament is not fundamentally man, however divinely gifted: he is God tabernacling for a while among men, with heaven lying about Him not merely in his infancy, but throughout all the days of His flesh.
The intense supernaturalism of this portraiture is, of course, an offense to our anti-supernaturalistic age. It is only what was to be expected, therefore, that throughout the last century and a half a long series of scholars, imbued with the anti-supernaturalistic instinct of the time, have assumed the task of desupernaturalizing it. Great difficulty has been experienced, however, in the attempt to construct a historical sieve which will strain out miracles and yet let Jesus through; for Jesus is Himself the greatest miracle of them all. Accordingly in the end of the day there is a growing disposition, as if in despair of accomplishing this feat, boldly to construct the sieve so as to strain out Jesus too; to take refuge in the counsel of desperation which affirms that there never was such a person as Jesus, that Christianity had no founder, and that not merely the portrait of Jesus, but Jesus Himself, is a pure projection of later ideals into the past. The main stream of assault still addresses itself, however, to the attempt to eliminate not Jesus Himself, but the Jesus of the Evangelists, and to substitute for Him a de-de-super-naturalized Jesus.
The instruments which have been relied on to effect this result may be called, no doubt with some but not misleading inexactitude, literary and historical criticism. The attempt has been made to track out the process by which the present witnessing documents have come into existence, to show them gathering accretions in this process, and to sift out the sources from which they are drawn; and then to make appeal to these sources as the only real witnesses. And the attempt has been made to go behind the whole written record, operating either immediately upon the documents as they now exist, or ultimately upon the sources which literary criticism has sifted out from them, with a view to reaching a more primitive and presumably truer conception of Jesus than that which has obtained record in the writings of His followers. The occasion for resort to this latter method of research is the failure of the former to secure the results aimed at. For, when, at the dictation of anti-supernaturalistic presuppositions, John is set aside in favor of the Synoptics, and then the Synoptics are set aside in favor of Mark, conceived as the representative of "the narrative source" (by the side of which must be placed-though this is not always remembered the second source of "Sayings of Jesus," which underlies so much of Matthew and Luke; and also though this is even more commonly forgotten whatever other sources either Matthew or Luke has drawn upon for material), it still appears that no progress whatever has been made in eliminating the divine Jesus and His supernatural accompaniment of mighty works although, chronologically speaking, the very beginning of Christianity has been reached. It is necessary, accordingly, if there is not to be acknowledged a divine Christ with a supernatural history, to get behind the whole literary tradition. Working on Mark, therefore, taken as the original Gospel, an attempt must be made to distinguish between the traditional element which he incorporates into his narrative and the dogmatic element which he (as the mouthpiece of the Christian community) contributes to it. Or, working on the "Sayings," discrimination must first be made between the narrative element (assumed to be colored by the thought of the Christian community) and the reportorial element (which may repeat real sayings of Jesus); and then, within the reportorial element, all that is too lofty for the naturalistic Jesus must be trimmed down until it fits in with his simply human character. Or, working on the Gospels as they stand, inquisition must be made for statements of fact concerning Jesus or for sayings of his, which, taken out of the context in which the Evangelists have placed them and cleansed from the coloring given by them, may be made to seem inconsistent with "the worship of Jesus" which characterizes these documents; and on the narrower basis thus secured there is built up a new portrait of Jesus, contradictory to that which the Evangelists have drawn.
The precariousness of these proceedings, or rather, frankly, their violence, is glaringly evident. In the processes of such criticism it is pure subjectivity which rules, and the investigator gets out as results only what he puts in as premises. And even when the desired result has thus been wrested from the unwilling documents, he discovers that he has only brought himself into the most extreme historical embarrassment. By thus desupernaturalizing Jesus he leaves primitive Christianity and its supernatural Jesus wholly without historical basis or justification. The naturalizing historian has therefore at once to address himself to supplying some account of the immediate universal ascription to Jesus by his followers of qualities which he did not possess and to which he laid no claim; and that with such force and persistence of conviction as totally to supersede from the very beginning with their perverted version of the facts the actual reality of things. It admits of no doubt, and it is not doubted, that supernaturalistic Christianity is the only historical Christianity. It is agreed on all hands that the very first followers of Jesus ascribed to him a supernatural character. It is even allowed that it is precisely by virtue of its supernaturalistic elements that Christianity has made its way in the world. It is freely admitted that it was by the force of its enthusiastic proclamation of the divine Christ, who could not be holden of death but burst the bonds of the grave, that Christianity conquered the world to itself. What account shall be given of all this? There is presented a problem here, which is insoluble on the naturalistic hypothesis. The old mythical theory fails because it requires time, and no time is at its disposal; the primitive Christian community believed in the divine Christ. The new "history-of-religions" theory fails because it can not discover the elements of that "Christianity before Christ" which it must posit, either remotely in the Babylonian inheritance of the East, or close by in the prevalent Messianic conceptions of contemporary Judaism. Nothing is available but the postulation of pure fanaticism in Jesus’ first followers, which finds it convenient not to proceed beyond the general suggestion that there is no telling what fanaticism may not invent. The plain fact is that the supernatural Jesus is needed to account for the supernaturalistic Christianity which is grounded in him. Or if this supernaturalistic Christianity does not need a supernatural Jesus to account for it, it is hard to see why any Jesus at all need be postulated. Naturalistic criticism thus overreaches itself and is caught up suddenly by the discovery that in abolishing the supernatural Jesus it has abolished Jesus altogether, since this supernatural Jesus is the only Jesus which enters as a factor into the historical development. It is the desupernaturalized Jesus which is the mythical Jesus, who never had any existence, the postulation of the existence of whom explains nothing and leaves the whole historical development hanging in the air.
It is instructive to observe the lines of development of the naturalistic reconstruction of the Jesus of the Evangelists through the century and a half of its evolution. The normal task which the student of the life of Jesus sets himself is to penetrate into the spirit of the transmission so far as that transmission approves itself to him as trustworthy, to realize with exactness and vividness the portrait of Jesus conveyed by it, and to reproduce that portrait in an accurate and vital portrayal. The naturalistic reconstructors, on the other hand, engage themselves in an effort to substitute for the Jesus of the transmission another Jesus of their own, a Jesus who will seem "natural" to them, and will work in "naturally" with their naturalistic world-view. In the first instance it was the miracles of Jesus which they set themselves to eliminate, and this motive ruled their criticism from Reimarus (1694-1768), or rather, from the publication of the Wolfenbuettel Fragments (q.v.), to Strauss (1835-36). The dominant method employed which found its culminating example in H. E. G. Paulus (1828) was to treat the narrative as in all essentials historical, but to seek in each miraculous story a natural fact underlying it. This whole point of view was transcended by the advent of the mythical view in Strauss, who laughed it out of court. Since then miracles have been treated ever more and more confidently as negligible quantities, and the whole strength of criticism has been increasingly expended on the reduction of the supernatural figure of Jesus to "natural" proportions. The instrument relied upon to produce this effect has been psychological analysis; the method being to rework the narrative in the interests of what is called a "comprehensible" Jesus. The whole mental life of Jesus and the entire course of his conduct have been subjected to psychological canons derived from the critics’ conception of a purely human life, and nothing has been allowed to him which does not approve itself as "natural" according to this standard. The result is, of course, that the Jesus of the Evangelists has been transformed into a nineteenth-century "liberal" theologian, and no conceptions or motives or actions have been allowed to him which would not be "natural" in such a one.
The inevitable reaction which seems to be now asserting itself takes two forms, both of which, while serving themselves heirs to the negative criticism of this "liberal" school, decisively reject its positive construction of the figure of Jesus, A weaker current contents itself with drawing attention to the obvious fact that such a Jesus as the "liberal" criticism yields will not account for the Christianity which actually came into being; and on this ground proclaims the "liberal" criticism bankrupt and raises the question, what need there is for assuming any Jesus at all. If the only Jesus salvable from the debris of legend is obviously not the author of the Christianity which actually came into being, why not simply recognize that Christianity came into being without any author was just the crystallization of conceptions in solution at the time? A stronger current, scoffing at the projection of a nineteenth-century "liberal" back into the first century and calling him "Jesus," insists that "the historical Jesus" was just a Jew of his day, a peasant of Galilee with all the narrowness of a peasant’s outlook and all the deficiency in culture which belonged to a Galilean countryman of the period. Above all, it insists that the real Jesus, possessed by those Messianic dreams which filled the minds of the Jewish peasantry of the time, was afflicted with the great delusion that He was Himself the promised Messiah. Under the obsession of this portentous fancy He imagined that God would intervene with His almighty arm and set him on the throne of a conquering Israel; and when the event falsified this wild hope, he assuaged his bitter disappointment with the wilder promise that he would rise from death itself and come back to establish his kingdom. Thus the naturalistic criticism of a hundred and fifty years has run out into no Jesus at all, or worse than no Jesus, a fanatic or even a paranoiac. The "liberal" criticism which has had it so long its own way is called sharply to its defense against the fruit of its own loins. In the process of this defense it wavers before the assault and incorporates more or less of the new conception of Jesus of the "consistently eschatological" Jesus into its fabric. Or it stands in its tracks and weakly protests that Jesus’ figure must be conceived as greatly as possible, so only it be kept strictly within the limits of a mere human being. Or it develops an apologetical argument which, given its full validity and effect, would undo all its painfully worked-out negative results and lead back to the Jesus of the evangelists as the true "historical Jesus."
It has been remarked above that the portrait of Jesus drawn in the sources is its own credential; no man, and no body of men, can have invented this figure, consciously or unconsciously, and dramatized it consistently through such a varied and difficult life-history. It may be added that the Jesus of the naturalistic criticism is its own refutation. One wonders
whether the "liberal" critics realize the weakness, ineffectiveness, inanition of the Jesus they offer; the pitiful inertness they attribute to him, his utter passivity under the impact of circumstance. So far from being conceivable as the molder of the ages, this Jesus is wholly molded by his own surroundings, the sport of every suggestion from without. In their preoccupation with critical details, it is possible that its authors are scarcely aware of the grossness of the reduction of the figure of Jesus they have perpetrated. But let them only turn to portray their new Jesus in a life-history, and the pitiableness of the figure they have made him smites the eye. Whatever else may be said of it, this must be said that out of the Jesus into which the naturalistic criticism has issued in its best or in its worst estate the Christianity which has conquered the world could never have come.