Antecedents of NT Minimalism:
Bauer's 'Christ and the Caesars'


Bruno Bauer was for a brief time in the nineteenth century the enfant terrible of New Testament scholarship. He was a brilliant man who crossed paths and kept company with such notable contemporary Germans as Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. He became professor of theology in 1834—first in Berlin then later in Bonn—but by 1842 his radical rationalism provoked his academic superiors to revoke his teaching license. Insolent and defiant, he pissed off a lot of academics. He never regained a formal teaching post, but he continued to write books on New Testament criticism (and many other subjects)  that challenged the orthodox narrative, particularly its view of Christian origins. He became even more scandalous than Strauss or Schleimacher, who had already begun the process of demythologizing the New Testament before Bauer came along, of examining scripture from a literary perspective rather than a devotional one.

He published Christ and the Caesars in 1877.  This particular book is noteworthy as an influence on what would come to be known as the Dutch Radical school (Loman, Van Manen, Pierson, van den Bergh van Eysinga, et al). The Dutch Radicals mainly focused on the problems with the dating, provenance, and/or authenticity of the Pauline corpus, but they were (at least indirectly) the precursors of the mythicist scholarship of the early twentieth century (c.f. Drews).  Bauer may have been scandalous, but he was far from obscure in his day. He was notorious. He was so widely known that Albert Schweitzer even dedicated a whole chapter of his seminal Quest of the Historical Jesus to discussing his view of Bauer's place on the continuum of scholarship, but Bauer's work has been all but ignored and neglected ever since. Evidence of this neglect can be seen in the fact that there has not been an English edition of in print for many decades.1 In fact, translations of the works of the whole Dutch Radical school—not just Bauer—into English are relatively rare, and so I was delighted to hear that a new translation of Christ and the Caesars is now available. 2

Bauer's main contention in this work, in a nutshell, is that Christianity owes more to Greco-Roman philosophy than to anything else, even than to Judaism itself. Specifically, the seeds of Christianity are to be found, says Bauer, in the Stoic philosophy as exemplified by Seneca, the famous orator and tutor of Nero. To illustrate and argue this, Bauer tries to highlight similarities and parallels between the New Testament teachings and the Stoics. That the gospels and epistles reflect at least some Stoic influence has been argued even by conservative commentators and it is a difficult thing to deny. But what of the supposed teacher? To what extent was He a stoic? What we know about the Caesars—culminating in Nero's feigned über-humanity—provides us with enough typologically to flesh out a model for the reluctant-messiah/suffering-servant trope which would eventually result (so Bauer) in the literary character of Jesus the Redeemer. 

The first part of the book is an analysis of the early imperial mindset that prepared the ground for the emergence and proliferation of Christianity. The formative Julian period is crucial to Bauer's central thesis. He is arguing that Christianity is a direct result of Greco-Roman influence on and a syncretic redaction of the Oriental mythologies that the Jewish Diaspora came into contact with during this period. Before he can make this case, this first half of the book necessarily reads like an abridged history of the development of imperial rule in Rome—first the Julians, then the Flavians, the Antonines, and finally culminating in Marcus Aurelius. When he reviews and considers the influence of the Flavian Caesars, he includes some discussion of the influence of Josephus and the Jewish people on the subsequent cultural and imperial development in Rome. I should mention that reading this section I get the feeling that Christ and the Caesars is very likely the springboard that Joseph Atwill used in the development of his own peculiar variation of mythicism. One may compare and contrast Atwill's radical hypothesis (nay, his theory! ... it is quite elaborate—I'll be writing about it at some point soon) that the New Testament texts can be directly and specifically traced and attributed to Emperor Titus himself, who saw this as a way to pacify the nationalistic passions of the Jews after the razing of Jerusalem and the Temple. Now, I don't think that this is what Bauer is saying in Christ and the Caesars, at all, but it wouldn't surprise me if this is where Atwill ultimately got the seed of the idea. 


Bauer gives much detail regarding the war. And there's much to provoke thought there in his view of Josephus' influence. I find something intriguing, for instance, about Josephus' notion of the "victory" of a god whose rule had been transferred from the Temple in Jerusalem beyond Judea. This god could now extend his influence and effect his glory onto the whole world. This raises the question: Is there any precedent for this kind of Jewish radical universalism, or was Josephus its pioneer?
Did he invent this expression?
If so, he unilaterally and intentionally diverged from all the normative Judaisms of the time,3 all in the interest of pleasing his new master (or in the interest of survival, which in this case was one and the same thing). The question remains, though, did this kind of departure from Judaism that Josephus evinces here influence early Christianity? In order to make any sense, the direction of this influence would of course require that the works of Josephus precede the composition of the New Testament, which can be argued (and has been, by Steve Mason, Richard Carrier, Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Robert Price, and others)  pretty compellingly, whether or not Atwill's Vespasian/Titus assertions bear out. (I think they don't.) While it's not a part of Bauer's thesis, I only mention it now because it's a thought that has pressed itself on me while reading this work, and to which I'll return in the course of blogging here, I'm sure. 

The second half of Christ and the Caesars focuses on the parallels between Greco-Roman philosophical thought and the content of the New Testament, noting a particular strong connection between this and the Alexandrian allegoricalist school. Bauer finds an indubitable link between the Pauline epistles and Gnosticism, as well, specifically the Valentinian variety. This link has also been argued before by many scholars since Bauer's day.

In one of the most terse challenges to the tenets of fullfilment theology that I've encountered, Bauer writes:
"Not to dissolve, but to fulfill!" was the call of this man who created the antitheses to Matthew. To call that man, the organizer of the reaction, a Judeo-Christian [...] is a very weak and hasty rush to judgment; it is more likely that this organizer was a Roman who was fed by the spirit of Seneca. The artist who so powerfully united the idea of dissolution and completion was able to speak boldly of completion because he was himself aware with equal conviction of having dissolved the Law up to the last iota.

I think he is spot on in this assessment.

The book finally culminates with an incisive dialectical analysis of the dichotomy between Cephas and Paul, which Bauer sees as a kind of Yin Yang construct, that is, as a synthesis between a traditionalist organizing principle (thesis) and a liberating one (antithesis). Bauer does not use these terms, but his analysis reminds me of these Hegelian concepts that are used to describe historical dynamism.

I think Bauer was in some ways ahead of his time and I think it's great that Christ and the Caesars is now accessible to enthusiasts of the history of Christian origins. I do however think that he reveals an inadequate familiarity with history at times, no doubt simply because he didn't yet have access to all the subsequent research on these matters. For example, I should mention that I see problems with one of the passing examples that he uses to illustrate the parallels between Stoicism and the early church tradition and practice. Specifically, he brings up the virginal maidens of early Pagan folklore, who were threatened and treated much in the way that the early christian martyrs were, and yet nevertheless held onto their virtue and as a result were afterward lionized and even venerated for it. If Bauer were writing today, we could point him to the recent work of people like Candida Moss, and I think he would realize that his seeing martyr self-identification as a parallel to earliest Christianity is a bit of an anachronism. We can no longer infer Claudian or Neronian persecutions from the scriptures with the certitude that we used to; these have been shown to be apologetically-derived inventions of Christian authors. That there are parallels between early Christian practice and Stoicism is undeniable, but we must be careful to not overstate the similarities, we must stay within the province of historical probability. We must avoid glaring anachronisms.

To the degree that Bauer relies on appeals to analogy and to philosophical/liturgical parallels in his argumentation, a method which is fairly normative in most mythicist works today, Bauer could arguably be considered the first modern mythicist.



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-Though it is still cited by the two notable current-day champions of the Dutch Radical school (Hermann Detering and Robert Price)

-A note on this translation: academic 19th century German, with its characteristic prolixity and convoluted grammar, is a bit of a challenge to follow at times for a jíbaro like me, but the translation is adequate, I'd say, despite the book's linguistic idiosyncrasies. I suspect that whatever convolutedness of style this book has is not necessarily the fault of the translators (Helmut Brunar and Byron Marchant), who are probably only faithfully recreating Bauer's own long and winding sentences and clauses.  Bauer belongs to his time. As such, his style takes a little effort to follow today.

-He didn't risk much by way of refutation from his own people, since it is well documented that the Jews considered Josephus a traitor, and not without reason; that he was a turncoat is undeniable. He could say anything and call it "Judaism," for all Vespasian or Titus knew, without ever being corrected by any rabbi.



#mythicism #ChristMyth

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