« Prev Preface Next »


This volume closes the series of essays which I have dedicated to the History of the Origins of Christianity. It contains the exhibition of the development of the Church during the reign of Marcus-Aurelius, and the parallel picture of the efforts of philosophy to improve civil society. The second century of our era has had the double glory of definitely founding Christianity—that is to say, the grand principle which has wrought the reformation of manners by faith in the supernatural, and of unrolling, thanks to stoical teaching and without any element of the marvellous, the finest attempt of the laic school of virtue which the world has known till now. These two attempts were strangers to each other, and rather contradict than aid each other reciprocally; but the triumph of Christianity is only explicable when we have taken account of what there was of force and of insufficiency in the philosophical attempt. Marcus-Aurelius is on this point the subject of study to which we must constantly refer. He sums up all that there was of good in the ancient world, and he offers criticism this advantage, of presenting himself to it unveiled, thanks to a writing of an uncontested sincerity and authenticity.

More than ever do I think that the period of the beginning, if we might so express it, closed at the death of Marcus-Aurelius, in 180. At that data the child had all its organs: it is separated from its mother; it shall henceforth live its own life. The death of Marcus-Aurelius could have been considered as marking the end of ancient civilisation. What good has been done after that, has been done by the Helleno-Roman principle; the Judæo-Syrian principle gains, and, although more than a hundred years shall pass away before its final triumph, we see well already that the future is its own. The third century is the agony of a world, which, in the second century, is still full of life and energy.

Far from me be the thought of lowering the ages which follow the epoch with which I have closed my work. These are sad days in history: there are no days barren and without interest. The development of Christianity remains a spectacle highly interesting, while the Christian Churches count such men as St. Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen. The development of Christianity, which was wrought at Rome and in Africa, in the time of St. Cyprian, and of Pope Cornelius, ought to be studied with the most extreme care. The martyrs of the time of Decius and Diocletian do not yield in heroism to those of Rome, Smyrna, and Lyons the first and second centuries. But it is there we have what is called Ecclesiastical History—a history eminently curious and worthy of being written with love and all the refinements of the most attentive science, but essentially distinct, nevertheless, from the history of Christian origins—that is to say, of the analysis of the successive transformations which the germ laid by Jesus in the bosom of humanity has submitted to before becoming a complete and durable Church. Its needs methods quite different to treat the different ages of a grand formation, whether religious or political. The investigation of these origins supposes a philosophical mind—a lively intuition of what is certain, probable, or plausible—a profound sentiment of life and metamorphoses, a special art in drawing from rare texts all they possess, all that which, in viiifact, they include of revelations as to psychological situations far removed from us. In the history of an already complete institution, such as is the Christian Church in the third century, and with greater reasons in the following ages, the qualities of judgment and solid erudition of a Tillemont nearly suffice. That is why the seventeenth century, which has made such great progress in ecclesiastical history, has never taken up the problem of its origin. The seventeenth century had no taste but for that which can be expressed with the appearances of certainty. Such a search, of which the result cannot but be to meet possibilities, flying clouds—such a narration, which is forbidden to tell how a thing has passed, but which is limited to say: “These are one or two of the ways in which it can be imagined that the thing has taken place,” could not be to its taste. In presence of the questions of origin, the seventeenth century either took all with an artless credulity, or suppressed what it felt to be half fabulous. The knowledge of obscure conditions, anterior to the clear reflection, that is to say, rightly of conditions where the human conscience shows itself especially creative and fertile, is the intellectual question of the nineteenth century. I have sought, without any other motive than a very lively curiosity, to make the application of the methods of criticism which have prevailed in our days in those delicate matters in the most important religious appearance which had a place in history. Since my youth I have been preparing this work. The edition of seven volumes to compose, which has taken me twenty years. The general index which will appear at the same time as this volume will permit these being found easily in a work which it did not depend on me to render less complex and less charged with details.

I thank the infinite Goodness for the time and necessary ardour to accomplish this difficult purpose. If there should remain to me some years of work, I shall dedicate them to complete from another side the subject which I have made the centre of my reflections. To be strictly logical, I should have begun a History of the Origin of Christianity by a history of the Jewish people. Christianity commences in the eighth century B.C., at the moment when the great prophets, taking up the people of Israel, made of it the people of God, charged to inaugurate in the world the pure religion. Up till then the worship of Israel had not essentially differed from that egotistical, self-interested cult which was that of all the tribes and nations, and which is revealed to us in the inscription of King Mesha, for example. A revolution was accomplished when an imprisoned man, not belonging to the priesthood, said: “Can we believe God will be pleased with the smoke of your victims or with the fat of your bullocks? Leave then these sacrifices, which only disgrace, and do good.” Isaiah is in that sense the first founder of Christianity. Jesus has not really said, in popular and charming language, what 750 years before him had been said in the Hebrew classic. To show how the religion of Israel, which in its origin had not perhaps any superiority over the religion of Ammon or Moab, became a moral religion, and how the religious history of the Jews has been a constant progress towards worship in spirit and in truth, that is what would need to be shown before introducing Jesus upon the scene of the facts. But life is short, and its duration uncertain. I therefore betook myself to the most pressing of them: I threw myself into the midst of the subject, and commenced with the Life of Jesus, holding for well-known the former revolutions of the Jewish religion. Now that it has been given me to treat, with all the care I desired, that part on which I laid the greatest value, it shall be my care to go back to the earlier history, and dedicate to it what still remains to me of force and energy.

« Prev Preface Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection