Prosper Alfaric

Born into a farming family in Aveyron, southern France, Prosper Alfaric (1876-1955) grew up Catholic and was ordained priest in 1899. He taught philosophy in the seminaries of Bordeaux and Bayeux, and later dogma in the seminary of Albi.

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As a academic and cleric Alfaric’s future was bright, but he gradually lost faith on intellectual grounds and was opposed to the anti-modernism of Pope Pius X, finding himself among the left leaning modernists. Alfaric sought out Alfred Loisy, who received him cordially. He abandoned the priesthood in 1909, resumed the study of history and especially the history of religions. Alfaric prepared his doctoral thesis in Germany and finally received it at the Sorbonne.

Alfaric continued to study philosophy under Levy-Bruhl, Brunschvicg, and Victor Delbos. In 1919 he assumed the newly-created chair of history of religions at the University of Strasbourg. His undisguised intention was to establish a secular counterweight made up of two faculties of theology which was “to become, after Paris, the most important center for the study of the history of religions.” Upon his arrival, Alfaric founded the Institute library which soon had several thousand books.

During the Second World War, Alfaric accompanied the move of the University of Strasbourg to Clermont-Ferrand. At his retirement in 1945 he was replaced by Marcel Simon. Alfaric was an activist in the League of Education as well as the Union Rationaliste, which he directed beginning in 1955. He founded (together with Georges Ory) the Cercle Ernest Renan in 1949. It continues to this day and is devoted to the history of religions, Biblical criticism, and research into Christian origins.

Mythicist theories

In collaboration with Paul-Louis Couchoud and Albert Bayet, Alfaric wrote The Problem of Jesus and Christian Origins (1932). The book argued against the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth and of his mother Mary. Its publication led directly to Alfaric’s excommunication and punishment by decree of degradation of the Holy Office. For the next fifty years or so Alfaric’s mythicist theories remained confined to specialists, until the 2005 appearance of a collection of his essays under the title “Jesus Christ: Did he Exist?” (Jésus-Christ a-t-il existé?) prefaced by the philosopher Michel Onfray.

Alfaric based his argument on the lack of mention of Jesus among historians of the first century, especially Justus of Tiberias. In those writings which do mention Jesus, Alfaric notes that the originals are lost. For example, when Photius of Constantinople (IX CE) cites Justus, the expected mention of Jesus does not appear. Alfaric also advocated the Essene origins of Christianity.

Despite the erudition of Alfaric’s work, his mythicist theories have never appeared in scholarly peer reviewed publications. They are to be found only in the Bulletin of the Circle Ernest Renan (co-founded by Alfaric himself in 1949), and in the Cahiers Rationalistes, the periodical of the Union Rationaliste.

Alfaric openly quarreled with his colleague Charles Guignebert, who in his 1933 book Jesus ignored Alfaric’s work and combated six mythicist thinkers (Couchoud, Benjamin Smith, Robertson, Jensen, Kalthoff and Drews).

Works:

L’évolution intellectuelle de saint Augustin. Éditeur Émile Nourry, Paris, 1918.
Les écritures Manichéennes, 2 tomes. I. Vue Générale et II. Étude Analytique, éd. Émile Nourry, 1918.
Pour comprendre la vie de Jésus: Examen critique de l’évangile selon Marc. Paris: Rieder, 1929.
De la foi à la raison, Nouvelles Éditions Rationalistes, rééd. 1984 (1re éd. 1932)
Jésus-Christ a-t-il existé? (1932), prefaced by Michel Onfray. The 2005 Coda edition also contains Comment s’est formé le mythe du Christ? (1947) and Le problème de Jésus (1954).
– P. Alfaric, Paul-Louis Couchoud et Albert Bayet, Le Problème de Jésus et les Origines du Christianisme, éd. Paris: Bibliothèque Rationaliste, Les œuvres représentatives, 1932.
Les manuscrits de la “Vie de Jesus” d’Ernest Renan, éd. Les Belles Lettres, Publications de la Faculté des Lettres de l’Université de Strasbourg, 1939.
A l’école de la raison: études sur les origines chrétiennes, Nouvelles Éditions Rationalistes, 1988 (1re éd. 1959).
Origines sociales du christianisme, Publications de l’Union Rationaliste, 1959.

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