Joseph McCabe (1867-1955) was one of the most prolific authors of all time. He was brought up as a Roman Catholic, worked on Latin documents, and made himself very well-informed about Christianity, but turned against it. But he was extremely naive about Jews; bear this in mind.

Click for Detailed notes on McCabe - scroll down for selections from A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (1948).

Here's the full A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (about 1.3 MBytes; Word format; includes notes on some of its limits)


J. McCabe, Rationalists Encyclopaedia

The name is the Greek and Latin corruption of the Hebrew name Jeshua, the later or post-Exilic form of the older Joshua. As his followers call him the Messiah in the Gospels, this word, meaning "Anointed," was, in the Greek form, Christos , added to Jesus. He is also called Jesus of Nazareth from his supposed birth-place, but there is no trace of such a place in contemporaries, and the practice of modern religious writers of identifying it with the existing En-Nazira is very precarious and disputed. He is said to have been born about 4 B.C., early Christian writers having, it is contended, made a mistake in dating the commencement of the Christian era. For the overwhelming majority of people, Christians or non-Christians, his life and death are described in the four Gospels, and this account is lightly assumed in general and periodical, even in much historical, literature. Some Rationalists believe that the more critical view now pervades the Churches, but nine-tenths of the 200 works about Jesus published in the last five years (1935-1940) proceed on the traditional lines, and voluminous biographies based upon the Gospels (Hall Caine, Conrad Noel, J. Baikie, etc.) are almost as profitable as ever. On no other point in modern culture is there so flagrant a discrepancy between scholarship and general literature and belief. Even Christian scholars are well aware that [see Attis; Horus; Mithra; Osiris; etc.] the Greek-Roman world at that time saw the cult everywhere of miraculously - born, slain, and resuscitated gods. Since the crucifixion of a Jewish rebel was common in those days [see Crucifixion], this does not raise any presumption against the belief that a man named Jesus was thus executed, but it shakes the basis of the Gospel story of Jesus and the theological interpretation of it; yet Christmas and Easter inspire year by year editorials which assume that only an eccentric few are sceptical. On the other hand, it has been shown, in the article on the Gospels, that on the ordinary canons of history they have no biographical value whatever, and it is further shown that not one of the moral sentiments they attribute to Jesus is novel or original. Hence Rationalist lives of Jesus (Renan, Clodd, etc.) on non-miraculous lines are now only of literary interest, and even scholars who are prominent members of the Churches admit with Dr. Inge that "no real biography of Jesus can ever be written" (Christian Ethics and Modern Problems, 1930, p. 43). Biblical critics are fairly agreed that the oldest part of the Gospel narrative is the account of the trial and execution of Jesus, and the few professional historians, such as Guignebert and Loisy, who have ventured to make a thorough study of the subject - as a rule the historical authorities on Rome, Greece, and the East in the first century discreetly avoid the subject - and experts on the religions of the time, like Frazer, conclude that there probably or certainly was a Jewish prophet, a rebel against the official cult, who was executed in Jerusalem, but about whom we have no further reliable knowledge. This agrees with the fundamental note of the Pauline Epistles , the preaching of a crucified god-man, which (or such of them as are generally accepted as genuine) precede the earliest of the Gospels. There is, however, a critical school, to which we return presently, which regards the whole of the Epistles as spurious or contends that in the genuine Epistles Paul does not refer to an historical personality.
      Apart from these Gospels and Epistles we have few and slight documentary references to Jesus of a sufficiently early date to be useful. Since there was nothing unusual about the appearance of a new religion in the Greek-Roman world, and its votaries were small and obscure groups in the great cities during the first century, the historian does not confidently expect such references. The Jewish historian Josephus ought, perhaps, to be an exception, and it is claimed that his silence provides a strong argument against the historicity of Jesus. The long passage in his Ancient History of the Jews (XVIII, 3, 3) is so generally admitted by scholars to be an interpolation that it is negligible. There is, however, in the case of these Christian interpolations always the suspicion that the passage was substituted for one which was not acceptable to Christians, and the assurance of Origen (Contra Celsum, I, 47) that Josephus did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah seems to refer to some suppressed passage in his history. The work of the rival Jewish historian Justus of Tiberias is lost, and one would hardly expect to find a reference to Jesus in the dreamy philosopher Philo Judaeus, who, indeed, wrote long before Josephus and at a time when the sect was in its cradle. Of the rabbis of the first and second centuries we have only the oral traditions of the schools that were collected in the second century and are in the oldest part of the Talmud. In an examination of these, Dr. S. Kraus (Das Leben Jesu nach Juedischen Quellen, 1902), R. T. Herford (Christianity in Talmud and Midrash, 1903), and the writer on Jesus in the Jewish Encyclopaedia, conclude from a few anonymous and disdainful references to "a certain man," etc., that they admitted the historical character of Jesus. M. Friedlaender (Die religiösen Bewegungen innerhalb des Judentums im Zeitalter Jesu, 1905) criticizes Herford's book at some length, but this almost entirely concerns references to Christians in the Talmud, and he admits a few references to Jesus. It has weight with many that the Jews never questioned the historicity of Jesus or connected him with any pre-Christian cult of theirs. Dr. Drews (Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus, 1912, p. 17) says that the apologist Justin (Dialogue, VIII, 3) makes his (fictitious) Jew Trypho question if there had ever been such a person, but Drews wrongly translates the passage, which is given correctly in Conybeare's Historical Christ (1914, p. 108).
      When we turn to Roman literature we must remember that for more than 100 years the Christians lived a very obscure life in a squalid district (Vatican) outside the city walls, and Greek was their liturgical and common language. It is still more important to understand that we have only part of the historical literature of the time. Dr. Couchoud is the only writer of the mythical school who mentions that Tacitus names several Latin historians of the first century whose works, from which (especially the history of Nero's time by Clavius Rufus) he borrowed material, are lost, and in Prof. J. W. Duff's standard Literary History of Rome in the Silver Age (1927) we have the names of ten Roman writers on history, between A.D. 70 and 100, whose works have not survived. Hence, if the reference to Christ and Christians in Tacitus (Annals, XV, 44, written about 117) is the first in Roman literature as we have it, we must be cautious. It is too emphatically claimed sometimes that the passage is an interpolation. It is in fact generally admitted as genuine by experts on the works of Tacitus (see the latest edition, that of Halm), and not challenged by the most scholarly writer of the mythical school, Dr. Couchoud. Drews has led many astray by his statement that it is not found in manuscripts until the fifteenth century, when Poggio Bracciolini - a strange enthusiast for religion, since he was the most obscene writer of the time - he says, inserted it. Conybeare (The Historical Christ, p. 162) shows that the passage is in the oldest manuscript (eleventh century), which is in the Laurentian Library at Florence. Pliny the younger, who probably wrote a few years before Tacitus, reported to the Emperor Trajan, in a famous letter (No. 96), that Christians were numerous in Bithynia and sang hymns to Christ "as to a god" (i.e., in the character of a god); and a few years after Tacitus, or about 120, we have, in the Lives of the Caesars (Ch. XXV) of Suetonius, an account of riots at Rome" stirred up by one Chrestos." It would be a singular coincidence if some unknown Chrestos were to cause trouble among the Jews at Rome just when they were agitated about the question of Christos, but few of the critics notice that we have an unequivocal reference to Christians and the persecution of them by Nero in Suetonius's life of that Emperor; and with this the Letter of the Romans to the Corinthians , written about the year 96-Loisy and a very few others put it in the second century - is in agreement.
      Since, however, the sources used by Tacitus have perished, and by the second century any Roman could learn the outline of the story of Jesus from Christians, the value of these testimonies may be variously estimated. The outstanding fact is that what nine-tenths of our literature still declares to be the most important event of all time is one of the most obscure and most feebly attested events of the first century - a century of rich literature - yet very few of the professors of ancient history, who fasten upon the most trivial obscurities, ever subject it to a serious inquiry. Their facile acceptance of the conventional belief is challenged by several modern writers, who conclude that there never was such an historical person as Jesus. The idea was put forward in 1794 by Dupuis (Origines de tous les cultes, 3 vols.), and half a century later Strauss's Life of Jesus (Engl. trans., 1844), which was discussed all over Europe, dissolved the greater part of the Gospel story into myth. J. M. Robertson took up the work in the later years of the last century and devoted nearly thirty years to it (Christianity and Mythology, 1900, Pagan Christs, 1903, The Historical Jesus, 1916, The Jesus Problem, 1917, and Jesus and Judas, 1927). W. B. Smith, professor of mathematics and philosophy at various American universities, began to write (in German) on the same lines in 1906, and gave his mature views in English in Ecce Deus (1912). Dr. Drews, teacher of philosophy in a German High School, joined the group with his Christusmythe (Engl. trans. The Christ Myth), and Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus (1912), and the Orientalist Prof. Jensen, who is for some reason ignored by the others, though the most eminent scholar of the group, contended that the Jesus myth was based upon the Epic of Gilgamesh (Hat der Jesus der Evangelien wirklich gelebt? 1910). In France E. Dujardin, novelist and playwright of distinction, contributed Sources of the Christian Tradition, 1911, Ancient History of the God Jesus, 1938, etc., and Dr. P.L. Couchoud, a medical man with considerable Oriental culture, gave his support (The Enigma of Jesus, 1924, The Creation of Christ, 2 vols., 1939). In England the philosophic writer T. Whittaker, and L. O. Rylands, supported Robertson in denying the historicity of Jesus, and a number of European literary men - G. Brandes, P. Alfario, A. Bayet, V. Macchioro, R. Stahl, B. Van Eysinga, etc. - lent their assistance.
      On the constructive side the writers differ very materially. Robertson, Smith, and Dujardin contend that the story of Jesus is the humanization of a pre-Christian God Jesus (Jeshua or Joshua), who had been worshipped in Palestine before the arrival of the Hebrews, and whose cult lingered after the victory of Jahveh in obscure groups, mainly in Galilee, which had an annual mystery - play or pageant of his sufferings and crucifixion. Robertson's books are chiefly occupied with an attempt to trace details of the Gospel story to contemporary mythologies. Conybeare severely criticizes this attempt in his Historical Christ (1914), and Robertson replies in his later works. Drews believes that the Messiah-figure in Isaiah is the source of the myth, and puts an astral interpretation on many details. Couchoud finds the origin in Paul's alleged vision, and Rylands (The Beginnings of Gnostic Christianity, 1941) looks to pre-Christian Gnostic speculations. Prof. Van Manen (who regards all the Pauline Epistles as spurious), Prof. Guignebert (Jesus, 1935), Prof. Loisy (Naissance du christianisme, 1933), Prof. Kirsopp Lake (The Beginnings of Christianity, 1920), and Prof. Wenley (Modern Thought and the Crisis of Belief, 1909), the leading academic authorities who have made a personal study of the problem, insist on the historicity of Jesus while differing considerably about the amount of biographical matter we may admit. Sir J. G. Frazer, the highest authority on the mythology of the time, wrote, in 1913 (footnote to The Scapegoat, vol. VI of the 1913 edition of the Golden Bough), that "the doubts which have been cast on the historical reality of Jesus are in my judgment unworthy of serious attention," and in the introduction to the English translation of Couchoud's work (1924) says that the theory "seems to create more difficulties than it solves" (p. xiv). See also A. D. Howell Smith's Jesus not a Myth, and Archibald Robertson's Jesus: Myth or History? (Thinkers' Library).
      Many (including the present writer) are content to infer broadly, from the scanty reliable evidence and the religious developments of the first century, that probably some Jew named Jesus adopted the Persian belief [see Avesta] in the end of the world and, thinking that it was near, left his Essenian monastery [see Essenes] to warn his fellows, and was put to death. They feel that the question of historicity has little importance now that we have shown the falseness of the claim which Modernists and writers on Jesus like Bousset and Schweitzer, who surrender the divinity of Christ, put forward - that Jesus was unique in personality and far superior to every contemporary moralist. Christian scholars themselves rebuke this kind of pulpit-rhetoric masquerading as a new theology. "Let us remember," says Prof. Du Bose (Turning Points in My Life, 1912, p. 115), "that Our Lord taught absolutely nothing new." Prof. K. Lake and Prof. Foakes Jackson, leading scholars of the American and Anglican Church (The Beginnings of Christianity, 1920, I, 288), Prof. Wenley, and other Christian professors agree. For evidence on this important point see McCabe's Sources of the Morality of the Gospels (1914), in which (pp. 210-297) a Jewish or pagan parallel is given for every single sentiment attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, and it is shown (pp. 174-203) that even the Parables are taken from Jewish sources. Modern glorifications of Jesus are based mainly upon these sentiments and parables, yet the writers betray a complete ignorance of the contemporary religions and moralists to which they declare Jesus to be far superior. Apart from these the very scanty biographical details even as given in the Gospels [see Mark] do not justify the claim of a "unique personality," and they include defects (occasional bad temper, vituperation of and injustice to opponents, credulity about devils and disease, etc.) which make the Gospel Jesus actually inferior to dozens of characters in ancient literature and put him on a very common level of decent humanity. Once the romantic idea of Jesus is destroyed - too many Rationalist writers have adopted this without study - the question of his historicity has only a speculative interest. As to "Jesus in history," and the inflated claims for the influence of his teaching, see the scores of articles in this work which give a correct account of character and the social order between the establishment of Christianity in the fourth century and the general advance of scepticism in the nineteenth.


Return to Joseph McCabe Selection

Home Page

Scanning, HTML Rae West. First upload 98-06-15.