The French school of biblical rationalism

NOTE: For those who read French, an extensive website dealing principally
with European Jesus mythicism can be found here.—R.S.

Charles-François Dupuis (1742-1809)
Constantin-François Volney (1757-1820)
Ernest Renan (1823-1892
Arthur Heulhard (1849-1920)
Alfred Loisy (1857-1940)
Salomon Reinach (1858-1932)
Joseph Turmel (1859-1943)
Salomon Reinach (1858-1932)
Éduard Dujardin (1861-1949)
Charles Guignebert (1867-1939)
Daniel Massé (1872- ?)
André Ragot (1874-1971)
E. Moutier-Rousset (?-?)
Prosper Alfaric (1876-1955)
Paul-Louis Couchoud (1879-1959)
Georges Ory (1897-1983)
Guy Fau (?-?)
Georges Las Vergnas (1911-?)

Charles-François Dupuis (1742-1809)

Man of letters, scientist and politician. Born in the Oise region, Dupuis was the son of a school teacher of modest means. His talents were precocious, particularly in geometry, which brought the lad to the attention of the Duc de la Rochefoucauld. Dupuis was granted a scholarship to the college of Harcourt, eventually received a diploma in theology and, in 1766, was appointed professor at the college of Lisieux in Paris.

Dupuis was a polymath. He studied law in his spare time and passed the bar in 1770, abandoning theology. In 1778 he invented a proto-telegraph allowing him to communicate with a friend in the neighboring village. Astronomy was another of his interests. Dupuis’ knowledge of mythology led him to propose that the ancient divinities were none other than constellations, the names of gods being those of planets whose vicissitudes were simply movements in the heavens anciently expressed in metaphorical language.

Frederick the Great became aware of Dupuis and wished to appoint him to the chair of literature at the University of Berlin, but the monarch’s death in 1786 intervened. Dupuis became professor of Latin elocution in 1787, a member of the Académie in 1788, and of the Institut de France in 1795.

In 1792 Dupuis published l’Origine de tous les Cultes, ou la Religion universelle (“The origin of all religious worship”), which has been called “a veritable breviary of philosophical atheism.” The author sought to find the unity of religions in astronomical observations common to Egyptians, Greeks, and even Chinese. He considered Christianity to be “a fable with the same foundation as all the other solar religions.” For Dupuis, Christianity has “the character of the sun god, adored among all people under a plethora of names and with differing attributes.”

In the French revolution Dupuis fled Paris for Évreux. He returned, however, and played a political role as delegate from the Seine-et-Oise. He was in the Convention as well as the Council of Five Hundred and distinguished himself by his moderation. He refused a post as Senator in order to dedicate himself to studies. In 1806, Dupuis was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

In 1806 Dupuis wrote his Mémoire explicatif du Zodiaque de Tentyra in which he sought to show that this particular zodiac coincided with an equinoctal point in the sign of Virgo, explaining the religion of fifteen thousand years ago. Dupuis died of a purulent fever at the age of 67.

Constantin-François Volney (1757-1820)

Philosopher, historian, orientalist, atheist, and politician. He was born at Craon, Anjou (today Mayenne) of a noble family. Initially interested in Law and Medicine, Volney went on to study Classical languages, and his Mémoire sur la Chronologie d’Hérode rose to the attention of the Académie des Inscriptions and of the group around Claude Adrien Helvétis. Soon thereafter, Volney befriended Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the Marquis de Condorcet, the Baron d’Holbach, and Benjamin Franklin.

Volney embarked on a journey to the East in late 1782. He passing nearly seven months in Ottoman Egypt, he lived for nearly two years in Greater Syria (today Lebanon and Israel/Palestine) in order to learn Arabic. Volney returned to France in 1785 where he spent the following two years compiling his notes and writing his Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie (1787). and Considérations sur la guerre des Turcs et de la Russie (1788).

After the outbreak of the French Revolution, Volney was a member both of the Estates-General and of the National Constituent Assembly. In 1791 appeared his Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires (French text), an essay on the philosophy of history. It predicts the final union of all religions and the recognition of a common truth underlying them all.

Volney was one of the earliest writers to question the historicity of Jesus. He also tried to put his politico-economic theories into practice in Corsica, where in 1792 he purchased an estate and made an attempt to cultivate colonial produce. Volney was thrown into prison during the Jacobin Club triumph but escaped the guillotine. Subsequently he was professor of history at the newly founded École Normale.

In 1795 Volney undertook a journey to the United States. He was accused (1797) by John Adams’ administration of being a French spy sent to prepare for the reoccupation of Louisiana by France. He was forced to return to France in 1798. The results of these travels took form in his Tableau du climat et du sol des Etats-Unis (1803).

Volney was not a partisan of Napoleon Bonaparte. However, as a moderate liberal, he was pressed into service by the first French empire. Napoleon made him a count and appointed him to the senate. After the Bourbon Restoration Volney was appointed a Peer of France, upon recognition of his hostility towards the Empire. Volney became a member of the Académie Française in 1795. In his later years he helped establish oriental studies in France, himself learning Sanskrit from a linguist whom he had helped protect during the Napoleonic era.

In his Recherches nouvelles sur l’histoire ancienne (French text) Volney surveyed the ancient histories of Persia, Judea, Babylonia, etc. frequently calling the historicity of the Bible into question. He approached sacred texts with the same scientific attitude as secular literature.

Arthur Heulhard (1849-1920)

Journalist, music critic, and voluminous self-published author on Christian beginnings, Heulhard was an uncompromising Jesus-mythicist. He maintained that it was John the Baptist, and not Jesus, who proclaimed himself the Christ, the Son of the Father (Bar Abba in Aramaic), and that “Jesus Christ did not Exist” (one of the subtitles he used). Furthermore, the Baptist was not decapitated, but Barabbas was the one crucified by Pilate—on charges of assassination, theft, and treason. A century later, the evangelists substituted an imaginary and innocent Jesus for Barabbas, in order to set the basis for financial profit from the redemption of sins through baptism.

A cursory survey of Heulhard’s writings shows that they are peppered with anti-semitisms and curiosities, such as sections entitled: L&#8217âme de Madame Paul (“The Soul of Mrs. Paul”); Camouflage de Paul en célibataire; Mesdames les apôtres; Enzônement de Saûl pour le salut de l’âme de sa femme. Ses liens en Bar-Abbas; Assomption de madame Paul. Le sceau de la Vierge (Paul’ dissimulation as a bachelor; The woman apostles; Sequestration of Saul on account of the health of his wife. His links with Bar-Abbas; Assumption of Mrs. Paul. The seal of the Virgin).

Heulhard’s magnum opus is Le Mensonge Chrétien, comprising eleven volumes each extending to 300+ pages. For the reader with time to spare, these works can all be found on the Internet here. On the last page (449) of his eleventh and final volume, Heulhard ends in the following acerbic manner:

I have finished. I have furnished my proof, I have unburdened my conscience. The Jew for profit has not resuscitated and, certainly, did not merit to do so. Only the truth is worthy of life. Christianity will die like its idol, lost on account of itself, without ever having saved anyone. The Church will fall on top of its donkey having deceived all the world, the state and the people. Then, if any breath is left them, Christians will be able to sing the praises of God—until now they have only brayed.


Salomon Reinach (1858-1932)

An archaeologist specializing in the history of religion and of art, he wrote Cults, Myths and Religions, a general work on religion. Reinach’s main work pertinent to Jesus mythicism is Orpheus: Histoire générale des religions (1907, 1924, 2002; 439 pp). English edition (1909). Chapter VIII (pp. 214-245) deals with Christian origins. Reinach also co-authored A Short History of Christianity (based on the last five chapters of Orpheus), of which Chapter One deals with Christian origins.

Reinach did not expressly declare the non-historicity of Jesus, but rather pointed to the poverty of documentary evidence for the same, particularly in the gospels. Basing himself on the Pauline epistles (some of which he accepted as authentic) he endorsed the docetist view of Jesus.

Reinach put forward three arguments: (1) the silence of literary witness for Jesus outside of Christian scripture; (2) the absence of documentation regarding Pontius Pilate in the imperial documents of Tiberius, remarkable in a civilization as administrative as the Roman empire; and (3) the fact that the account of the Passion echoes the prophecy of Psalm 22. For him, this imitation lies at the heart of docetism.

Éduard Dujardin (1861-1949)

Novelist, poet, author, and professor of religious history, Dujardin was the only child of a captain in the merchant marine. He grew up in Rouen, studied in Paris, and in 1886 became editor of a periodical and published his first novel, Les Lauriers sont coupés (“The Bays are Sere”), much admired by James Joyce and which prefigures the stream-of-consciousness technique. After the death of his parents Dujardin inherited a sizable fortune which he largely spent in producing his plays.

A Parisian dandy, Dujardin had expensive tastes in clothes, while his personal life was marked by numerous well-known affairs—mostly with free spirits and actresses, some of whom he aided in their artistic careers. Eventually, his money was ran out and Dujardin began paid work in the real estate business and also as an author.

In 1885 Dujardin co-founded the Revue wagnérienne. In 1893 he married the beautiful Germaine Teisset from whom he separated in 1901. They did not divorce until 1924, the year in which Dujardin married Marie Chenou, thirty years his junior. Dujardin had two children, experienced a tranquil retirement, and lived to the age of 87.

As to his views on Jesus mythicism, Dujardin’s position was clear. He was regarded as “un partisan, avec MM. Couchoud et Alfaric, de la non-historicité de Jésus Christ.”

Works on religion:

Dujardin’s magnum opus is Ancient History of the God Jesus (London: Watts, 1938). French: Histoire ancienne du Dieu Jésus: l’Apôtre en face des apôtres, in four volumes:
– Vol. 1: Essai sur les origines et la formation de la légende évangélique. (260 pp, 1927)
– Vol. II: Grandeur et décadence de la critique: Le cas de l’abbé Turmel. (171 pp, 1931)
– Vol. III: La Première génération chrétienne: Son destin révolutionnaire (412 pp, 1935)
– Vol. IV: L’Apôtre en face des apôtres (1945)

· The Source of the Christian Tradition: A Critical History of Ancient Judaism (Translation, London: Watts & co., 1911). French: La Source du fleuve chrétien: histoire du judaïsme ancien et du christianisme primitif (1881, 307 pp)

· Les Prédécesseurs de Daniel  Paris: Fischbacher (107 pp, 1907)

· De l’Ancêtre mythique au chef moderne (1943)

Dujardin’s papers are now held by the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin. They include 105 boxes, inventoried here in an extensive webpage which includes a detailed Biographical Sketch.

Daniel Massé (1872- ?)

A lawyer and writer, Massé was a judge in Nogent in 1907 and later a legal counselor at the Court of Appeals in the French colony of Algeria. He wrote much on the law, but began writing about Jesus after he reached the age of fifty. He was influenced by both Heulhard and Robert Eisler.

Massé believed that Jesus was in fact John of Gamala, the son of Judas of Gamala. The true Nazareth was Gamala, where Jesus bar Judah (of Gamala) was born. Massé viewed the gospels as deliberate efforts on the part of the Church to falsify history. For him, exegesis is a way in which ecclesiastics propagandize the masses.

L’énigme de Jésus-Christ, Jean-Baptiste et Jean le disciple aimé et l’apôtre, Éditions du Sphinx, 1929 (269 pp).
L’Énigme de Jésus-Christ, le Christ sous Tibère et le Dieu Jésus, Nazareth-Gamala et la crèche de Bethléem, le père du Christ, Juda le Gaulonite, Jésus Bar-Abbas, le Crucifié de Ponce-Pilate. Éditions du Sphinx, 1930 (333 pp).
Les Origines du christianisme et l’énigme de Jésus-Christ. L’Apocalypse et le royaume de Dieu.Paris: Editions Sphinx, 1935.
Du monde antique au christianisme. Jésus, ce juif sans nom. [Paris?]: Le Cercle du livre Impr. 1959. (200 pp)

André Ragot (1874-1971)

A military doctor in the navy, Ragot campaigned in the Far East in the early 1930s. In the Second World War he instigated a resistance cell against the Nazis, was caught and deported to the concentration camp of Natzweiler (Struthof) from which he escaped in 1944. He then directed a health service for the navy of Free France (Toulon 1944), and subsequently directed naval health for the French in Indochina (1945). Ragot was awarded several prestigious decorations, including Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor, the Resistance Cross, and the Croix de Guerre for his duty in the First World War. He was a distinguished member of the Association of Friends of Pierre Loti, of the Cercle Ernest Renan, and of the Union Rationaliste.

Doctor Ragot was also a watercolorist of distinction. Ragot most notably painted numerous portraits of young sailors—each a faithful model with name, profession, year, and port of call. Besides the Far East, he also painted a considerable body of work in the Middle East (Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan). It is as an artist that he is most remembered posthumously by the public at large. In fact, the French Wikipedia article makes no mention of Ragot as an author at all.

Works (all quite short):
Messie essénien et Messie chrétien. Paris: Cahiers du Cercle Ernest Renan, 1963 (16 pp)
Paul de Tarse. Paris: Cahiers du Cercle Ernest Renan, 1964 (12 pp)
Aux sources du christianisme. Paris: Cercle Ernest Renan, 1967 (48 pp)
De l’essénisme au christianisme. Paris: Cahiers du Cercle Ernest Renan, 1971 (16 pp)
Derniers écrits d’André Ragot. Paris: Cahiers du Cercle Ernest Renan no. 74, 1972 (16 pp)

E. Moutier-Rousset (?-?)

I have not been able to discover any biographical information about this author of at least four book-length works on early Christianity. Any reader who is able to furnish further information is encouraged to contact me.—R. Salm

Le Christ a-t-il existé? Paris: Société mutuelle d’édition. 1922, (222 pp)

La Légende de Jésus (saint Paul). Essai de critique historique, éd. de l’Idée libre, coll. Bibliothèque du libre penseur, no. 4, Herblay, 1930 (141 pp)

La Prétendue Morale dans l’Évangile. Essai de critique historique. Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France, 1924 (283 pp)

Guy Fau (?-?)

I have not been able to discover any biographical information about this author who wrote a good deal of material on early Christianity. He was active in the mid-20th century and is listed as a “magistrat” in the list of contributors to the Dictionnaire Rationaliste (1964). He was also active in the Cercle Ernest Renan, which published some of his work. Influenced by Couchoud and Alfaric, Fau viewed Jesus Christ as either purely mythical or the echo of an obscure prophet, now long lost to history (cf. my views on Yeshu ha-Notsri—RS). He dates the Christ myth to the latter half of the second century CE and considers it a fusion of paganism, Jewish messianism, Essenism, and gnosticism. For those who read French, probably his most complete and accessible work is Le Fable de Jesus-Christ, linked in the second entry below.

L’Apocalypse de Jean. Cahiers du Cercle Ernest-Renan, no. 36. 1962. (36 pp)
Le Fable de Jesus Christ. Éditions de l’Union Rationaliste, 1964, 1967. (271 pp. Acknowledgement: Neil Godfrey/Vridar.)
La Divinisation des Petits-fils d’Auguste (with J. K. Watson). Paris: Cahiers du Cercle Ernest-Renan, 1968. (16 pp) (A re-examination of the Epistle to the Hebrews.)
Le Puzzle des Evangiles. Paris: Éditions Ser. 1970. (522 pp)
L’Authenticité du Texte de Tacite sur les Chrétiens: (Annales XV-44). Paris: Cahiers du Cercle Ernest Renan no. 72. (24 pp) 1971.
Douze Jésus Devant l’Histoire. Paris: Cahiers du Cercle Ernest-Renan, no. 80. 1973. (24 pp)
Jésus et les Zélotes. Paris: Cahiers du Cercle Ernest-Renan, no. 81. 1973. (37 pp)
De Priscillien aux Cathares: survivances gnostiques en Occident. Paris: Cahiers du Cercle Ernest-Renan, no. 84. 1974. (24 pp)
Dieu Contre Dieu (with collaborators). Grigny: Homme Lucide, 1974. (331 pp)
Justin et les Évangiles. Paris: Cahiers du Cercle Ernest Renan, No. 91. (28 pp) 1975.
Eusèbe de Césarée et son “Histoire de l’Église.” Paris: Cahiers du Cercle Ernest-Renan, no. 94. 1976. (32 pp)

Georges Las Vergnas (1911- ?)

Vicar general of the diocese of Limoges who lost his faith. Las Vergnas argues that the central figure of Christianity had no historical existence, not even as prophet or revolutionary. French Wikipedia article.

– 1956 Pourquoi j’ai quitté l’Église Romaine. Besançon: Imprimerie Les Comtois. Also: Paris: La Ruche ouvrière. 1966 (134 pp)
– 1958 Jésus-Christ a-t-il existé? Paris: La Ruche ouvrière. (153 pp) Also: Paris, La Ruche ouvrière. 1966 (143 pp.)
– 1962 Des miracles de Lourdes à Teilhard de Chardin, sept conférences ou études, Paris: La Ruche ouvrière. (134 pp.)
– 1964 Le Cantique des cantiques et l’Ecclésiaste. Paris: La Ruche ouvrière. (134 pp)
– 1967 Le Célibat polygamique dans le clergé. Paris: Ruche ouvrière. (221 pp)

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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