Nietzsche and the Origins of Christianity

Over the course of two thousand years, Christianity has grown from nothing to the largest religion on the planet.  Some 2.1 billion people now consider themselves Christian, about one third of all of humanity.  It significantly outnumbers Islam, in second place with 1.5 billion members.1 America is among the most religious of all industrialized nations; about 77 percent are Christians, and most of these are regular church-goers.  And yet few people, even Christians themselves, understand the origin of this most influential religion.  In one sense, of course, we will never truly understand exactly what events transpired two millennia ago, in that land of shepherds, nomads, and dusty villages of the near Middle East.  Archeology tells us some things, ancient documents others.  But these give us only an outline of the facts of that place and time.  If we wish to comprehend early Christianity and its implications for today, many gaps must be filled in — by analysis, probability, guesswork, and faith.

Friedrich Nietzsche took a great interest in Christianity and its allied religion, Judaism.2 This interest, however, was strikingly — shockingly — negative.  The title alone of his final book, Antichrist, gives a good indication.  For Nietzsche, Christianity was decadent, weak, and nihilistic.  It led to a sickly, subservient, herd morality, and suffocated the quest for human excellence.  Worst of all, it replaced a life-affirming naturalness with an otherworldly, life-denying negativism.  It has become, in fact, “the greatest misfortune of mankind so far” (Antichrist, sec. 51).3 And this disaster of Christianity is impossible to understand, he said, without grasping its Jewish roots.  Thus it is not simply Christianity, but Judeo-Christianity, that must be examined with a brutal honesty, if we are to overcome its weaknesses.

Before looking in detail at Nietzsche’s critique, I want to briefly review the state of knowledge on the origins of this religion.  We obviously know much more today than Nietzsche did in the late 1800s.  But it is to his credit that the present facts seem, by and large, to bear out his analysis — though perhaps his conclusions remain as controversial as ever.

Historical Background

Consider, first of all, the ancient origins of Judaism and the corresponding events of the Old Testament (OT).  The original patriarch, Abraham, apparently lived some time between 1800 and 1500 bc — he being the traditional father of not only Judaism (and thus Christianity) but a leading prophet of Islam as well.4 The next major figure, Moses, lived around 1300 bc, and some time afterward the “Five Books of Moses” began to take shape, likely at first as an oral tradition.  These books, as we know, would eventually form the Pentateuch (Torah) — the beginning of the OT.5

The remaining 30-odd OT books were added over the next one thousand years, with the set becoming complete around 200 bc.  These books were written in Hebrew, but a Greek translation — the Septuagint — was begun about this time, completed circa 50 bc.  The Dead Seas Scrolls, which date to the first century bc, contain fragments from every book of the Hebrew OT, and thus are our earliest proof that the complete document existed by that time.  Whether it appeared any earlier is a matter of pure speculation.

Dating of the OT texts is one thing; accuracy is another matter altogether.  First of all, the earliest dates cited above are purely conjectural, since we have no recorded reference to the travails of Moses prior to 850 bc.  Furthermore, prominent Israeli archeologist Ze’ev Herzog has shown the increasing discrepancies between archeological data and the biblical stories.6 Efforts in the 1900s to confirm the OT yielded a plentitude of new information, but this “began to undermine the historical credibility of the biblical descriptions instead of reinforcing them.”  Scholars were confronted with “an increasingly large number of anomalies,” among these:  “no evidence has been unearthed that can sustain the chronology” of the Patriarchal age; of the Exodus, “the many Egyptian documents that we have make no mention of the Israelites’ presence in Egypt, and are also silent about the events of the Exodus”;7 and the alleged conquest of Canaan (Palestine) by the Israelites in the 1200s bc is refuted by archeological digs at Jericho and Ai that found no existing cities at that time.  Even the famed monotheism of the early Jews is undermined by inscriptions from the 700s bc that refer to a pair of gods, “Yahweh and his consort, Asherah.”  An overall picture thus comes into view:  a kernel of true people and events magnified over time, acquiring legendary status.  Disparate tribes of wandering and warring Jews become heroic freedom fighters, and ultimately the chosen people of the (eventually) one God.

Perhaps surprisingly, Nietzsche appreciated the Old Testament — in spite of his skepticism about its historical veracity.  He liked the power of the language and the concept of a ‘God of the Jews’, a god appropriate for a given people and a given time, one who rewarded and punished in equal measures.  “In the Jewish ‘Old Testament,’ the book of divine justice, there are human beings, things, and speeches in so grand a style that Greek and Indian literature have nothing to compare with it” (Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 52);  and again:  “all honor to the Old Testament!” (Genealogy of Morals, 3.22).

The New Testament — the Christian Testament — however, was a completely different matter.  Again, the historical facts set the stage.

The Maccabean revolt of 165 bc, against the Seleucid Empire, reestablished Jewish rule over Palestine.  The resulting Hasmonean dynasty was formed in 141 and ruled until the Roman Empire incorporated the region in 63 bc.  Until that time the indigenous Jews had lived under many occupying powers — Persians, Babylonians, Alexander the Great — but apparently were able to accommodate their foreign rulers and still thrive.

Things were different under the Romans.  Having been the ruling power in Palestine for 100 years, the Jews were rather quickly and dismissively subsumed into the Empire.  Relatively benign at first, governance became increasingly callous and brutal.  In addition to passing judgment on Jesus, Pontius Pilate was known for his aggressive treatment of the Jews; but things grew even worse after his removal in 36 ad and the ascension of Emperor Caligula.  Ben-Sasson writes, “The reign of Caligula (37–41 ad) witnessed the first open break between the Jews and the Empire. …  [R]elations deteriorated seriously during [this time].”8 Tensions culminated in the first Jewish revolt, which began in 66 and ended in Roman victory and the plundering and destruction of the famed Jewish temple at Jerusalem (Herod’s Temple) in the year 70 — which had stood in place since 516 bc.9

Rome retained power over Palestine for nearly 400 more years, until the fracturing of the Empire in 395.  The surviving Eastern (Byzantine) Empire continued to rule the region for another 240 years, until the Arab Caliphates took over in 638.  Thus it is clear that Roman rule, beginning in 63 bc, was decisive for the emergence of Christianity.  Nietzsche seems to have been the first scholar to grasp the significance of this fact:  “Without the Roman Caesars and Roman society, the insanity of Christianity would never have come to rule” (Will to Power, sec. 874). 

Nietzsche’s Analysis of Christianity

So, how shall we understand Christianity?  Nietzsche’s analysis starts from three essential facts. “The first thing to be remembered if we do not wish to lose the scent here, is, that we are among Jews” (sec. 44).  This much is obvious, but it bears repeating.  Jesus was a Jew, as were his parents Joseph and Mary, and all 12 apostles.  The three other main figures of the New Testament — Mark, Luke, and Paul — though not apostles, were also Jews.  And the many unknown authors that contributed to the New Testament (NT) were almost certainly Jewish as well.  This situation is not incidental, and not a question of individual character or action; “[it is] a matter of race.”

And not just Jews, but lowly Jews — the ‘chandalas’, as Nietzsche calls them, the untouchables, the lumpenproletariat: “the people at the bottom, the outcasts and ‘sinners’, the chandalas within Judaism” (sec. 27).  It was these men that gave birth to this great religion of redemption.10 Even granting that Nietzsche exaggerates here, it is clear that they were the low class, ‘blue collar’ people of the day — the farmers, fishermen, carpenters, and laborers.  Christianity was born not simply of Jews, but of the lowest caste of Jews.

This situation is important to grasp because it demonstrates that the proto-Christian Jews had, in effect, two sets of masters:  the Romans, and their own elite Jewish priests, the Pharisees.  Hence they were doubly enslaved.  In order to establish any sense of freedom and autonomy they would have to rebel against both parties — even as the Pharisees would be their allies against Rome.  A difficult situation, to be sure.

His second fact — an unquestioned assumption, really — is that the entire concept of an actually-existing, transcendent, all-powerful God is utter nonsense.  Stories about holy visions, miracles, redemption, and divine intervention are nothing more than “foeda superstitio” — vulgar superstition.  This does not, however, mean that Nietzsche was opposed to ‘God’ in principle.  He believed that every people and every culture need to create their own concept of religion, and of the divine.  These things are a formalized recognition of respect and reverence toward that which embodies one’s highest values.  Each culture and each era needs to create its god(s) anew, appropriate to their situation in the world.  Western Europeans have utterly failed in this task:

There is no excuse whatever for their failure to dispose of such a sickly and senile product of decadence [as the Christian God].  But a curse lies upon them for this failure: they have absorbed sickness, old age, and contradiction into all their instincts — and since then they have not created another god.  Almost two thousand years — and not one new god!  (sec. 19)

A proper re-conception of religion, however, must be a truly uplifting, life-affirming, and ennobling enterprise — decidedly unlike Judeo-Christianity — and must never be taken as permanent and absolute truth.  All superstitious, i.e. anti-natural, religions are out of the question.  The human condition, and human ‘salvation,’ must be firmly rooted in the present, physical world — the real world.

The third basic fact, as explained above, is the historical context of the Roman occupation and persecution.  Without this, the events of the Christian era are incomprehensible.

* * * * *

With this in place, let me attempt to reconstruct Nietzsche’s conception of early Christianity.  This is difficult in any case, due to the radically unsystematic nature of his writing.  But a coherent picture emerges from his many disparate observations.

On Nietzsche’s view, Jesus was a humble Jew, an ordinary man, though clearly a leader and moral preacher of some merit.  He spoke of the value of humility and pity, and of a God who viewed with compassion even the lowliest slave.  Jesus sought to relieve suffering through compassion — the ‘Kingdom of God’ within each person.  Simultaneously he opposed, via a path of nonviolent resistance, both the social oppression of the Pharisees and the political oppression of the Romans.  To achieve all this, it was necessary to “spread the word,” the Good Word of God.  Jesus’ life, his faith, and the faith of the real Christian were essentially pragmatic. His faith was the response of a lowly Jew struggling to assist other lowly Jews in the face of oppression.  Thus follows the practice of true Christianity, which is its essence:

[Christianity] projects itself into a new practice, the genuine evangelical practice.  It is not a ‘faith’ that distinguishes the Christian: the Christian acts, he is distinguished by acting differently: by not resisting, either in words or in his heart, those who treat him ill…  The life of the Redeemer was nothing other than this practice — nor was his death anything else. …  [O]nly the evangelical practice leads to God, indeed, it is ‘God’!  (sec. 33)

This was absolutely appropriate for a man in Jesus’ situation — namely, an underclass Jew fighting oppression and seeking to help his fellow sufferers.  But this was a very specific situation, and appropriate only to a particular time, place, and culture.  In a very real sense Jesus was, and could be, the only ‘true’ Christian:  “in truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.  The ‘evangel’ died on the cross” (sec. 39).  But to exploit this singular example, to expand it, to universalize it, to use it as a generalized weapon against the powerful and noble classes, against nature and against life itself — this was the crime.  Notably, the crime was not of Jesus’ doing — though he too was a ‘criminal’ — but that of his followers; first and foremost, Paul.

The ground was ripe for exploitation in that first century of the new millennium.  Traditionally the Jews had a long history of prophesies of coming saviors, of redeemers, and of a messiah who would deliver them from suffering and slavery, and restore the Kingdom of Israel as it was in the era of the so-called unified kingdom of David in 1000 bc.  But for all this talk of saviors, there is surprisingly little textual basis in the OT.  The Pentateuch contains no mention of a messiah.  Neither do the ‘historical’ or ‘poetic’ books.  Only the prophets speak of a savior, but rarely and obscurely; nearly all references of any specificity are found in just one book — Isaiah.  In any case there was some extant tradition for such a man, and if there ever was a need for him it was during the Roman occupation.

However, there is strikingly little evidence that, during his lifetime, people considered Jesus to be ‘the’ Messiah.  He was born around 4 bc, but we have astonishingly few details of his early life — apart from the miraculous virgin birth described in the Gospels, which are problematic in themselves, as I explain below.  It has struck more than one commentator as extremely odd that this miracle child could be born and then all but drop out of sight for some 20 or 30 years.11 Virtually nothing is known about the facts of Mary’s life, and even less of Joseph; even the years and places of their deaths are a mystery.

Most surprisingly, there is virtually no recorded documentation about Jesus during his lifetime, or by anyone who personally knew him.  Jesus himself wrote nothing, which, while not impossible, is counter to a long tradition of moral or spiritual teachers leaving a written legacy.  (On the other hand, if he was in fact a poor uneducated Jew, he likely did not know how to write.)  In spite of alleged miracles performed in front of thousands of people — recall the fishes and loaves story — no one at the time bothered to record such momentous events on paper.  The men who knew him best, the 12 apostles, wrote nothing.12 Of their lives we know almost nothing, other than some presumed years of death for five of them (John, Peter, Phillip, Thomas, and Judas).  Again this is striking; once the true nature of the Messiah was confirmed by his resurrection, one would have expected his close followers to be revered in themselves, and for their every step to be noted and recorded.

At this point the student of the Bible will respond that two of the apostles, John and Matthew, wrote their corresponding Gospels.  But few experts believe this today.  The present consensus is that the four Gospel authors were anonymous individuals who did not personally know Jesus.13 Based on events mentioned in them, however, scholars have assigned them approximate dates.  The earliest was Mark, written about the year 70 — some 40 years after the crucifixion.  Again, this is an amazingly long time to wait to record the miracle of the Messiah, even if done by Mark himself (a man who did not personally know him).

Nor do we have any confirmation of Jesus’ life story from contemporaneous non-Christian sources.  One would certainly have expected his enemies to document his life, if he had been a person of substance or threat.  But no such writings exist.  The earliest mention is by the Jewish author Flavius Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews from circa 93 ad.  Pliny the Younger and Tacitus both refer to the Christians in their writings of the early 100s ad.  Again, these sources come 60 to 70 years after Jesus’ death — not what one would expect.

By all accounts, then, Jesus was a rather ordinary individual, a preacher of faith and action, and a consoler of troubled souls.  He likely counseled his fellow down-trodden Jews to stick up for themselves, and perhaps to disobey the unjust Roman rule, and even the contemptuous dictates of their own Jewish elite.  Such rabble-rousers were frequently exiled or put to death (recall Socrates), and so it is not surprising that the elite Jews would agitate for his execution — against the reluctant wishes of Pilate himself, if in fact he was ever truly involved.  We know the result: “God on the Cross.”

Then we come to Paul.  For Nietzsche, as for many other scholars, Paul is the central figure in early Christianity — to the extent that ‘Paulism’ would be the more appropriate designation.  In Paul’s rendering, Jesus — the real Jesus — becomes virtually irrelevant, even counterproductive.  Paul needed not Jesus’ life, but his death; only this could work miracles.   The entire story of Jesus’ life was rewritten and altered, motivated not out of love but the very opposite:  feelings of hatred and revenge toward the conquerors:

In Paul was embodied the opposite type to that of [Christ]: the genius in hatred, in the vision of hatred, in the inexorable logic of hatred. …  The life, the example, the doctrine, the death… — nothing remained once this hate-inspired counterfeiter realized what alone he could use.  Not the reality, not the historical truth!  And once more the priestly instinct of the Jew committed the same great crime against history — he invented his own history of earliest Christianity.

The Savior type, the doctrine, the practice, the death, the meaning of death, even what came after death — nothing remained untouched, nothing remained even similar to the reality.  Paul simply transposed the center of gravity of the whole existence after this existence — in the lie of the ‘resurrected’ Jesus.  At bottom, he had no use at all for the life of the Savior — he needed the death on the cross and a little more.  … Paul wanted the end, consequently he also wanted the means.  What he himself did not believe, the idiots among whom he threw his doctrine believed.  His need was for power; in Paul, the priest wanted power once again — he could use only concepts, doctrines, symbols with which one tyrannizes masses and forms herds.  (sec. 42)

The real Jesus was thus reduced to a caricature, a trigger for some fictionalized grand narrative:  “The founder of a religion can be insignificant — a match, no more!” (Will to Power, sec. 178).  On Nietzsche’s view, then, Paul repeated the trick of the Old Testament:  He took the basic elements of a man’s life and history, a kernel of truth, and wove out of this a fantastic story of miracles, immortality, and divinity incarnate.  And precisely here was the source of the problem.

Recall the basic facts of Paul’s life.  He was born in Tarsus (modern-day Turkey) around the year 10 ad as ‘Saul’, a Jew like the rest though different in one important respect:  He was not a chandala Jew, but rather a Pharisee, an elite Jew.14 He never knew Jesus, and was in fact an early and harsh critic of the Christians, he tells us.  Then on his travels to Damascus in the year 33, three years after the crucifixion, Saul encountered the ‘risen Christ’ in a revelatory vision and was immediately converted.  Taking the name Paul, he became the foremost champion of Christianity — even more so, strangely, than any of the apostles who knew Jesus.  He begins to create fledgling churches around the Mediterranean, and in the process writes a series of letters — the 13 “Pauline” epistles — encouraging and cajoling his recruits, and declaring his faith in Jesus the Messiah.  These epistles — by far the earliest written Christian documents — would ultimately comprise nearly half the 27 books of the New Testament.15 Like his Savior, Paul evidently acquired a reputation as a troublemaker.  He was arrested and sent to Rome for trial, though we know few details.  He was apparently executed, either by beheading or crucifixion, some time in the mid-60s ad.16

Nietzsche is rightly suspicious of Paul’s conversion, and not only on grounds of ‘superstition.’  First of all, the two earliest epistles — Galatians and 1 Thessalonians — date to around 50 ad; this is a full 20 years after the crucifixion, and nearly as long after Paul’s conversion.  Granted, starting up a new religion is slow work, but one would expect some written record sooner than this, particularly from an elite, well-educated Jew.  Second, Paul’s conversion in or around the year 33 is virtually coincident with the initial outbreak of Jewish-Roman antipathy — during Pilate’s reign, and just prior to the major break in relations attributed to Caligula.  This suggests some causal link.  Third, things worsened under the subsequent emperor, Claudius, as he expelled the Jews from Rome in the year 49 (see Acts 18:2) — just about the time of the first epistles.  Fourth, the epistles are strikingly lacking in details about Jesus’ life:  nothing on his birth, early life, ministry, or the apostles.  This suggests that Paul either did not know, or did not care, about such trivial details.

Continue to Part 2

Dr. Thomas Dalton (email him) is the author of Debating the Holocaust (2009).

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Notes to page 1

1] Hinduism is number three, with about 900 million adherents, although those professing atheism or holding other explicit non-religious views are greater in number, now about 1.1 billion. [return]

2] For a detailed study of Nietzsche’s complex views on Jews and Judaism — see my article, “Nietzsche on the Jews.” [return]

3] Most of the following quotations are from Antichrist, and this book is the source where I have indicated only section numbers.  Quotations from other books will be explicitly cited. [return]

4] According to legend, Abraham had two sons: Isaac, who gave rise to the Jewish lineage, and Ishmael, the father of the Arabs. [return]

5] Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. [return]

6] The following quotes are from his article “Deconstructing the walls of Jericho”, Ha’aretz Magazine, October 29, 1999. [return]

7] “Most historians today agree that, at best, the stay in Egypt and the exodus events occurred among a few families, and that their private story was expanded and ‘nationalized’ to fit the needs of theological ideology.”  There is one later Egyptian documentation of such an event, by the high priest Manetho from the third century bc, which comes to a similar conclusion.  As recounted by Lindemann, “the Jews had been driven out of Egypt because they, a band of destitute and undesirable immigrants who had intermarried with the slave population, were afflicted with various contagious diseases.”  The Jews were thus expelled “for reasons of public hygiene.”  In sum, “the account in Exodus was an absurd falsification of actual events, an attempt to cover up the embarrassing and ignoble origin of the Jews.”  (Esau’s Tears, 1997: 28). [return]

8] A History of the Jewish People (Harvard University Press; 1976), pp. 254-255. [return]

9] Future emperor Titus led the Roman attack.  His victory was commemorated with the construction of the Arch of Titus, a striking monument that stands today aside the Colosseum.  [return]

10] With the notable exception of Paul — details to follow. [return]

11] The sole exception is an incident recorded in Luke (2:41-51), in which a 12-year-old Jesus escapes from parental oversight and is later found in the company of some spiritual teachers.  Certainly nothing miraculous about that. [return]

12] As we recall:  John, Matthew, Peter (aka Simon, aka Cephas), Andrew, James the Greater, James the lesser, Phillip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Jude (aka Thaddeus), Simon, and Judas. [return]

13] This fact should be widely known by now, but it’s not.  Even a quick glance at an encyclopedia confirms it:  “Today, many scholars doubt that any of the writers of the Gospels knew Jesus during his lifetime.  They also doubt that we know the actual names of the writers.”  (World Book Encyclopedia, 2003, ‘Jesus Christ’)  [return]

14] See Philippians 3:5, and Acts 23:6 or 26:5.  [return]

15] Seven of these 13 are considered to be genuinely authored by Paul; the other six are disputed.  [return]

16] In another biblical oddity, one would expect details of his death to be recorded in Acts, which is otherwise so detailed about Paul’s life.  This is especially true given that this book dates to the years 80-100, well after his alleged execution.  But it stops just short of describing his death.  [return]