Paul-Louis Couchoud

Born in Vienne (Isère) in 1879, Couchoud entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1898 and received a diploma in philosophy. He also studied medicine in Paris, receiving his doctor’s certificate in 1911 for his work L’Asthénie Primitive. Appointed lecturer at the University of Göttingen, Couchoud benefitted from a Kahn Foundation scholarship. This permitted him to visit China and Japan, resulting in his book Sages et Poètes d’Asie (1916). He translated several works from Japanese and published, in 1924, Luciole, Conte Japonais, Raconté à Marianne Couchoud par son Père.

Dedicating himself particularly to the research of Christian origins, Couchoud made a name for himself among exegetes and historians in the field, leaving an abundant legacy which includes the following, all book-length works:

Benoît de Spinoza (1902, in the collection “Les Grands Philosophes”), re-edited in 1924 and awarded by the Académie Française
L’Énigme de Jésus (“The Enigma of Jesus”), 1923
Le mystère de Jésus (“The Mystery of Jesus”), 1924
Le Douloureux Débat: Les Prètres et le Mariage (“The Painful Debate: Priests and Marriage”), 1927
Théophile ou l’Étudiant des Religions (“Théophile, or the Student of Religion”), 1928
Premiers Écrits du Christianisme (“The First Writings of Christianity”) with G. A van den Bergh van Eysinga and R. Stahl, 1930
Le Problème de Jésus et les Origines du Christianisme (“The Jesus Problem and the Origins of Christianity”), with P. Alfaric and A. Bayet, 1932
Jésus le Dieu Fait Homme 1937. English translation: “The Creation of Christ: An Outline of the Beginnings of Christianity”, 1939. Vol 1 — Vol 2 (PDFs). In segments and commented upon by Neil Godfrey here.
Le Dieu Jésus (“The God Jesus”), 1951
La Sagesse Juive (“Jewish Wisdom”), n.d.

Couchoud edited various series, including Judaïsme, Mythes et Religions, and Christianisme. The latter includes his books Le Mystère de Jésus (“The Mystery of Jesus,” 1924), Du Sacerdoce au Mariage (“From Priesthood to Marriage,” with A. Houtin, 2 vols. 1927), and L’Apocalypse (“The Apocalypse,” 1930). He contributed to numerous periodicals, edited the Revue des Sciences Psychologiques (with J. Tastevin) and often gave controversial lectures, including Jésus est-il un Personnage Historique ou un Personnage Légendaire? La Vérité sur Jésus (“Was Jesus a Historical Figure of a Legendary Figure? The Truth About Jesus,” 1926).

Couchoud edited Mémoires de Robert de Montesquieu (1923), Discours de la Condition de l’Homme of Blaise Pascal (1947), Paroles de Jeanne d’Arc (1947), etc. He was the friend and doctor of Anatole France, regarding whom he wrote one of the Quatre Témoignages published in 1924. He was also the friend and brother-in-law of the sculptor Bourdelle. Couchoud died April 8, 1959 in the town of his birth, where he had retired a few years previously.

The contemporary mythicist Earl Doherty has noted, “While not relying upon him, I would trace my type of thinking back to Couchoud, rather than the more recent G. A. Wells who, in my opinion, misread Paul’s understanding of Christ.”

The following is a translation of Georges Ory’s article on Couchoud
from the Dictionnaire Rationaliste of 1964:
(My occasional comments are in brackets.—RS)

Couchoud had degrees both in medicine and in philosophy. Between 1925 and 1939 he was also the de facto leader of the French rationalist school as regards the history of religion. Thanks to the series of publications which he instituted at Rieder and at Presses Universitaires (entitled Christianisme, as well as Judaïsme, Mythes et Religions) he was responsible for over one hundred works which treated religious questions in a spirit of critical independence and with a thoroughgoing intellectual freedom.

Couchoud wrote four important books—Le Mystère de Jésus (1924); l’Apocalypse (1930); Jésus le dieu fait homme (1937); Le dieu Jésus (1951)—as well as others on subjects as varied as Spinoza, Pascal, and one entitled Sages and Poets of Asia. One can, using some of his own words, give a review of Couchoud’s conclusions regarding the emergence of Christianity. I will attempt this in the following paragraphs.

“What was Jesus?” he asked. Couchoud’s answer: “Both an immensity and a vanishing point.” The irony is complete depending on whether we consider Jesus’ immense impact on the spiritual history of man or his virtual invisibility as an historic reality. In the spiritual affairs of people, in the ideal realm which exists in the mind, Jesus is colossal. When dealing with bare facts, however, Jesus is infinitely small and history is unable to find him.

The history of Jesus is the history of the formation of Jesus. It enters the human psyche as do all divine histories, by agreement, council, and fiat. Jesus was declared a historical personage by the ardent outworkings of faith, outworkings whose traces cannot be found before the second century of our era. Jesus is a being constructed by consensus. Such constructed beings are properly termed divinities.

In the Bible one does not find the transformation of a man into a god. To do so, one would either have to know nothing about the Jews or would need to forget everything one knew. The storybook Jesus—part king, part footloose adventurer, part rebel without arms, part savior of the oppressed—this Jesus must forever remain at the portal of history. His particulars are not in order. His identity papers are divine, with the word “man” fraudulently added. One must expunge that word without hesitation for it serves no purpose. Jesus was not man gradually made god, but god gradually made man. It is easy to distinguish the one from the other, for the cult of Jesus has nothing of the funereal. [Yet, one would think Christianity—especially the Pauline kerygma with its doctrine of salvation by the death and resurrection of Jesus—is in fact suffused with the funereal.—RS]

Jesus is not a religious founder but a new god. He is not the cause of the cult but is its object. He is not the one preaching god but the god who is preached. He is not Muhammad, he is Allah. No genetic relationship obtains between a legendary story and a divine story. Despite superficial similarities, the two genres are diametrically opposed. A legendary story deforms real facts, while a divine story expresses a faith in truths which masquerade as facts but which are in reality parables.

It is impossible to understand the Christian scriptures if we seek to discover therein the deformation, the transformation, the deification of a man of history. [This contrasts with the view of Guignebert, which Couchoud specifically discusses here—RS.] Jesus was conceived in the minds of prophets and seers. His origins are to be found in Jewish apocalypses and Hellenistic mysteries. He was birthed by a cult, grew up with it, did not become god but was so from the start—a savior god, a heavenly king.

The concept of the god-man no longer resonates with modern man. Since we must, as discussed above, separate the two, let us jettison the man and keep the god. Historians, do not hesitate to delete the man Jesus from your notes! Make way, rather, for the god Jesus. In doing so, the history of Christian origins will be placed on the correct footing. It will become both new and elevated.

The true historian of Jesus is not a historicist. He knows how to distinguish facts from ideas which use facts. Jesus is the source only of sterility and irritation when seen from the historicist perspective. That Jesus will reward enquirers with infinite frustration.

Such, in the main, was the conception of Paul-Louis Couchoud, a conception solidly grounded in text and fact. It is necessary to reread Couchoud—as it is necessary also to reread Loisy, Guignebert, Alfaric, and Turmel—for each of these thinkers offers a way forward towards a sane and reasonable view of Christian origins.—Georges Ory

About René Salm

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

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