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OUR first section deals with the main features of the message delivered by Jesus Christ. They include the form in which he delivered what he had to say. We shall see how essential a part of his character is here exhibited, for “he spoke as one having authority and not as the Scribes.” But before describing these features I feel it my duty to tell you briefly how matters stand in regard to the sources of our knowledge.
Our authorities for the message which Jesus Christ delivered are—apart from certain important statements made by Paul—the first three Gospels. Everything that we know, independently of these Gospels, about Jesus’ history and his teaching, may be easily put on a small sheet of paper, so little does it come to. In particular, the fourth Gospel, which does not emanate or profess to emanate from the apostle John, cannot be taken as an historical authority in the ordinary meaning of the word. The author of it acted with sovereign freedom, transposed events and put them in a strange light, drew up the discourses himself, and illustrated great thoughts by imaginary situations. Although, therefore, his work is not altogether devoid of a real, if scarcely recognisable, traditional element, it can hardly make any claim to be considered an authority for Jesus’ history; only little of what he says can be accepted, and that little with caution. On the other hand, it is an authority of the first rank for answering the question, What vivid views of Jesus’ person, what kind of light and warmth, did the Gospel disengage?
Sixty years ago David Friedrich Strauss thought that he had almost entirely destroyed the historical credibility not only of the fourth but also of the first three Gospels as well. The historical criticism of two generations has succeeded in restoring that credibility in its main outlines. These Gospels are not, it is true, historical works any more than the fourth; they were not written with the simple object of giving the facts as they were; they are books composed for the work of evangelisation. Their purpose is to awaken a belief in Jesus Christ’s person and mission; and the purpose is served by the description of his deeds and discourses, as well as by the references to the Old Testament. Nevertheless they are not altogether useless as sources of history, more especially as the object with which they were written is not supplied from without, but coincides in part with what Jesus intended. But such other great leading purposes as have been ascribed to the evangelists have been one and all shown to lack any foundation, although with each individual evangelist many secondary purposes may have come into play. The Gospels are not “party tracts” neither are they writings which as yet bear the radical impress of the Greek spirit. In their essential substance they belong to the first, the Jewish, epoch of Christianity, that brief epoch which may be denoted as the palaeontological. That we possess any reports dating from that time, even though, as is obvious in the first and third Gospel, the setting and the composition are by another hand, is one of those historical arrangements for which we cannot be too thankful. Criticism to-day universally recognises the unique character of the Gospels. What especially marks them off from all subsequent literature is the way in which they state their facts. This species of literary art, which took shape partly by analogy with the didactic narratives of the Jews, and partly from catechetical necessities—this simple and impressive form of exposition was, even a few decades later, no longer capable of exact reproduction. From the time that the Gospel was transferred to the broad ground of the Graeco-Roman world it appropriated the literary forms of the Greeks, and the style of the evangelists was then felt to be something strange but sublime. When all is said, the Greek language lies upon these writings only like a diaphanous veil, and it requires hardly any effort to retranslate their contents into Hebrew or Aramaic. That the tradition here presented to us is, in the main, at first hand is obvious.
How fixed this tradition was in regard to its form is proved by the third Gospel. It was composed by a Greek, probably in the time of Domitian; and in the second part of his work, the Acts of the Apostles—besides the preface to the first—he shows us that he was familiar with the literary language of his nation and that he was an excellent master of style. But in the Gospel narrative he did not dare to abandon the traditional type: he tells his story in the same style as Mark and Matthew, with the same connexion of sentences, the same colour, nay, with many of precisely the same details; it is only the ruder words and expressions, which would offend literary taste, that are sparingly corrected. There is another respect, too, in which his Gospel strikes us as remarkable: he assures us at the beginning of it that he has “had perfect understanding of all things from the very first,” and has examined many accounts. But if we test him by his authorities, we find that he has kept in the main to Mark’s Gospel, and to a source which we also find appearing again in Matthew. These accounts both seemed to him, as a respectable chronicler, to be preferable to the crowd of others. That offers a good guarantee for them. No historian has found that it is possible or necessary to substitute any other tradition for the one which we have here.
Another point: this tradition is, apart from the story of the Passion, almost exclusively Galilean in its character. Had not the history of Jesus’ public activity been really bounded by this geographical horizon, tradition could not have so described it; for every historical narrative with an eye to effect would have represented him as working chiefly in Jerusalem. That is the account given by the fourth Gospel. That our first three evangelists almost entirely refrain from saying anything about Jerusalem arouses a good prejudice in their favour.
It is true that, measured by the standard of “agreement, inspiration and completeness,” these writings leave a very great deal to be desired, and even when judged by a more human standard they suffer from not a few imperfections. Rude additions from a later age they do not, indeed, exhibit—it will always remain a noteworthy fact that, conversely, it is only the fourth Gospel which makes Greeks ask after Jesus—but still they, too, reflect, here and there, the circumstances in which the primitive Christian community was placed and the experiences which it afterwards underwent. People nowadays, however, put such constructions on the text more readily than is necessary. Further, the conviction that Old Testament prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus’ history had a disturbing effect on tradition. Lastly, in some of the narratives the miraculous element is obviously intensified. On the other hand, Strauss’ contention that the Gospels contain a very great deal that is mythical has and not been borne out, even if the very indefinite defective conception of what “mythical” means in Strauss’ application of the word, be allowed to pass. It is almost exclusively in the account of Jesus’ childhood, and there only sparingly, that a mythical touch can be traced. None of these disturbing elements affect the heart of the narrative; not a few of them easily lend themselves to correction, partly by a comparison of the Gospels one with another, partly through the sound judgment that is matured by historical study.
But the miraculous element, all these reports of miracles! Not Strauss only, but many others too, have allowed themselves to be frightened by them into roundly denying the credibility of the Gospels. But, on the other hand, historical science in this last generation has taken a great step in advance by learning to pass a more intelligent and benevolent judgment on those narratives, and accordingly even reports of the marvellous can now be counted amongst the materials of history and turned to good account. I owe it to you and to the subject briefly to specify the position which historical science today takes up in regard to these reports.
In the first place, we know that the Gospels come from a time in which the marvellous may be said to have been something of almost daily occurrence. People felt and saw that they were surrounded by wonders, and not by any means only in the religious sphere. Certain spiritualists among us excepted, we are now accustomed to associate the question of miracles exclusively with the question of religion. In those days it was otherwise. The fountains of the marvellous were many. Some sort of divinity was, of course, supposed to be at work in every case; it was a god who accomplished the miracle; but it was not to every god that people stood in a religious relation. Further, in those days, the strict conception which we now attach to the word “miracle” was as yet unknown; it came in only with a knowledge of the laws of Nature and their general validity. Before that, no sound insight existed into what was possible and what was impossible, what was rule and what was exception. But where this distinction is not clear, or where, as the case may be, the question has not yet been raised at all in any rigorous form, there are no such things as miracles in the strict sense of the word. No one can feel anything to be an interruption of the order of Nature who does not yet know what the order of Nature is. Miracles, then, could not possess the significance for that age which, if they existed, they would possess for ours. For that age all wonders were only extraordinary events, and, even if they formed a world by themselves, it was certain that there were countless points in which that other world mysteriously encroached upon our own. Nor was it only God’s messengers, but magicians and charlatans as well, who were thought to be possessed of some of these miraculous powers. The significance attaching to “miracles” was, therefore, in those days a subject of never-ending controversy; at one moment a high value was set upon them and they were considered to belong to the very essence of religion; at another, they were spoken of with contempt.
In the second place, we now know that it . is not after they have been long dead, nor even after the lapse of many years, that miracles have been reported of eminent persons, but at once, often the very next day. The habit of condemning a narrative, or of ascribing it to a later age, only because it includes stories of miracles, is a piece of prejudice.
In the third place, we are firmly convinced that what happens in space and time is subject to the general laws of motion, and that in this sense, as an interruption of the order of Nature, there can be no such things as “miracles.” But we also recognise that the religious man if religion really permeates him and is something more than a belief in the religion of others—is certain that he is not shut up within a blind and brutal course of Nature, but that this course of Nature serves higher ends, or, as it may be, that some inner and divine power can help us so to encounter it as that “everything must necessarily be for the best.” This experience, which I might express in one word as the ability to escape from the power and the service of transitory things, is always felt afresh to be a miracle each time that it occurs; it is inseparable from every, higher religion, and were it to be surrendered, religion would be at an end. But it is an experience which is equally true of the life of the individual and of the great course of human history. How dearly and logically, then, must a religious man think, if, in spite of this experience, he holds firmly to the inviolable character of what happens in space and time. Who can wonder that even great minds fail to keep the two spheres quite separate? And as we all live, first and foremost, in the domain not of ideas but of perceptions, and in a language of metaphor, how can we avoid conceiving that which is divine and makes us free as a mighty power working upon the order of Nature, and breaking through or arresting it? This notion, though it belong only to the realm of fantasy and metaphor, will, it seems, last as long as religion itself.
In the fourth place, and lastly, although the order of Nature be inviolable, we are not yet by any means acquainted with all the forces working in it and acting reciprocally with other forces. Our acquaintance even with the forces inherent in matter, and with the field of their action, is incomplete; while of psychic forces we know very much less. We see that a strong will and a firm faith exert an influence upon the life of the body, and produce phenomena which strike us as marvellous. Who is there up to now that has set any sure bounds to the province of the possible and the actual? No one. Who can say how far the influence of soul upon soul and of soul upon body reaches? No one. Who can still maintain that any extraordinary phenomenon that may appear in this domain is entirely based on error and delusion? Miracles, it is true, do not happen; but of the marvellous and the inexplicable there is plenty. In our present state of knowledge we have become more careful, more hesitating in our judgment, in regard to the stories of the miraculous which we have received from antiquity. That the earth in its course stood still; that a she-ass spoke; that a storm was quieted by a word, we do not believe, and we shall never again believe; but that the lame walked, the blind saw, and the deaf heard will not lqe so summarily dismissed as an illusion.
From these suggestions you can arrive for yourselves at the right position to take up in regard to the miraculous stories related in the Gospels, and at their net results. In particular cases, that is to say, in the application of general principles to concrete statements, some uncertainty will always remain. So far as I can judge, the stories may be grouped as follows:—(1) Stories which had their origin in an exaggerated view of natural events of an impressive character; (2) stories which had their origin in sayings or parables, or in the projection of inner experiences on to the external world; (3) stories such as arose in the interests of the fulfilment of Old Testament sayings; (4) stories of surprising cures effected by Jesus’ spiritual force; (5) stories of which we cannot fathom the secret. It is very remarkable, however, that Jesus himself did not assign that critical importance to his miraculous deeds which even the evangelist Mark and the others all attributed to them. Did he not exclaim, in tones of complaint and accusation, “Unless ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe!”? He who uttered these words cannot have held that belief in the wonders which he wrought was the right or the only avenue to the recognition of his person and his mission; nay, in all essential points he must have thought of them quite otherwise than his evangelists. And the remarkable fact that these very evangelists, without appreciating its range, hand down the statement that Jesus “did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief,” shows us, from another and a different side, with what caution we must receive these miraculous stories, and into what category we must put them.
It follows from all this that we must not try to evade the Gospel by entrenching ourselves behind the miraculous stories related by the evangelists. In spite of those stories, nay, in part even in them, we are presented with a reality which has claims upon our participation. Study it, and do not let yourselves be deterred because this or that miraculous story strikes you as strange or leaves you cold. If there is anything here that you find unintelligible, put it quietly aside. Perhaps you will have to leave it there forever; perhaps the meaning will dawn upon you later and the story assume a significance of which you never dreamt. Once more, let me say: do not be deterred. The question of miracles is of relative indifference in comparison with everything else which is to be found in the Gospels. It is not miracles that matter; the question on which everything, turns is whether we are helplessly yoked to an inexorable necessity, or whether a God exists who rules and governs, and whose power to compel Nature we can move by prayer and make a part of our experience.
Our evangelists, as we know, do not tell us anything about the history of Jesus’ early development; they tell us only of his public activity. Two of the Gospels do, it is true, contain an introductory history (the history of Jesus’ birth); but we may disregard it; for even if it contained something more trustworthy than it does actually contain, it would be as good as useless for our purpose. That is to say, the evangelists themselves never refer to it, nor make Jesus himself refer to his antecedents. On the contrary, they tell us that Jesus’ mother and his brethren were completely surprised at his coming forward, and did not know what to make of it. Paul, too, is silent; so that we can be sure that the oldest tradition knew nothing of any stories of Jesus’ birth.
We know nothing of Jesus’ history for the first thirty years of his life. Is there not a terrible uncertainty here? What is there left us if we have to begin our task by confessing that we are unable to write any life of Jesus? How can we write the history of a man of whose development we know nothing, and with only a year or two of whose life we are acquainted? Now, however certain it may be that our materials are insufficient for a “biography,” they are very weighty in other respects, and even their silence on the first thirty years is instructive. They are weighty because they give us information upon three important points: In the first place, they offer us a plain picture of Jesus’ teaching, in regard both to its main features and to its individual application; in the second place, they tell us how his life issued in the service of his vocation; and in the third place, they describe to us the impression which he made upon his disciples, and which they transmitted.
These are, in fact, three important points; nay, they are the points on which everything turns. It is because we can get a clear view of them that a characteristic picture of Jesus is possible; or, to speak more modestly, that there is some hope for an attempt to understand what his aims were, what he was, and what he signifies for us.
As regards the thirty years of silence, we gather from our evangelists that Jesus did not think it necessary to give his disciples any information about them. But much may be said about them negatively. First of all, it is very improbable that he went through any Rabbinical school; he nowhere speaks like a man who had assimilated any theological culture of a technical kind, or learned the art of scholarly exegesis. Compare him in this respect with the apostle Paul; how clearly it can be seen from the latter’s epistles that he had sat at the feet of theological teachers. With Jesus we find nothing of the kind; and hence he caused a stir by appearing in the schools and teaching at all. He lived and had his being in the sacred writings, but not after the manner of a professional teacher.
Neither can he have had any relations with the Essenes, a remarkable order of Jewish monks. Were that so, he would have belonged to the pupils who show their dependence on their teachers by proclaiming and doing the opposite of what they have been taught. The Essenes made a point of the most extreme purity in the eye of the law, and held severely aloof not only from the impure but even from those who were a little lax in their purity. It is only thus that we can understand their living strictly apart, their dwelling in particular places, and their practice of frequent ablutions every day. Jesus exhibits a complete contrast with this mode of life: he goes in search of sinners and eats with them. So fundamental a difference alone makes it certain that he had nothing to do with the Essenes. His aims and the means which he employed divide him off from them. If he appears to coincide with them in many of his individual injunctions to his disciples, these are accidental points of contact, as his motives were quite other than theirs.
Further, unless all appearances are deceptive, no stormy crisis, no breach with his past, lies behind the period of Jesus’ life that we know. In none of his sayings or discourses, whether he is threatening and punishing or drawing and calling people to him with kindness, whether he is speaking of his relation to the Father or to the world, can we discover the signs of inner revolutions overcome, or the scars of any terrible conflict. Everything seems to pour from him naturally, as though it could not do otherwise, like a spring from the depths of the earth, clear and unchecked in its flow. Where shall we find the man who at the age of thirty can so speak, if he has gone through bitter struggles—struggles of the soul, in which he has ended by burning what he once adored, and by adoring what he burned? Where shall we find the man who has broken with his past, in order to summon others to repentance as well as himself, but who through it all never speaks of his own repentance? This consideration makes it impossible that his life could have been spent in inner conflict, however little it may have been lacking in deep emotion, in temptation and in doubt.
One final point: the picture of Jesus’ life and his discourses stand in no relation with the Greek spirit. That is almost a matter for surprise; for Galilee was full of Greeks, and Greek was then spoken in many of its cities, much as Swedish is nowadays in Finland. There were Greek teachers and philosophers there, and it is scarcely conceivable that Jesus should have been entirely unacquainted with their language. But that he was in any way influenced by them, that he was ever in touch with the thoughts of Plato or the Porch, even though it may have been only in some popular redaction, it is absolutely impossible to maintain. Of course if religious individualism—God and the soul, the soul and its God; if subjectivism; if the full self-responsibility of the individual; if the separation of the religious from the political—if all this is only Greek, then Jesus, too, stands within the sphere of Greek development; then he, too, breathed the pure air of Greece and drank from the Greek spring. But it cannot be proved that it is only on this one line, only in the Hellenic people, that this development took place; nay, it is rather the contrary that can be shown; other nations also advanced to similar states of knowledge and feeling; although they did so, it is true, as a rule, only after Alexander the Great had pulled down the barriers and fences which separated the peoples. For these nations, too, no doubt it was in the majority of cases the Greek element that was the liberating and progressive factor. But I do not believe that the Psalmist who uttered the words, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee,” had ever heard anything of Socrates or of Plato.
Enough: from their silence on the first thirty years of Jesus’ life, and from what the evangelists do not tell us of the period of his activity, there are important things to be learnt.
He lived in religion, and it was breath to him in the fear of God; his whole life, all his thoughts and feelings, were absorbed in the relation to God, and yet he did not talk like an enthusiast and a fanatic, who sees only one red-hot spot, and so is blind to the world and all that it contains. He spoke his message and looked at the world with a fresh and clear eye for the life, great and small, that surrounded him. He proclaimed that to gain the whole world was nothing if the soul were injured, and yet he remained kind and sympathetic to every living thing. That is the most astonishing and the greatest fact about him! His discourses, generally in the form of parables and sayings, exhibit every degree of human speech and the whole range of the emotions. The sternest tones of passionate accusation and indignant reproof, nay, even irony, he does not despise; but they must have formed the exception with him. He is possessed of a quiet, uniform, collected demeanour, with everything directed to one goal. He never uses any ecstatic language, and the tone of stirring prophecy is rare. Entrusted with the greatest of all missions, his eye and ear are open to every impression of the life around him—a proof of intense calm and absolute certainty.
Mourning and weeping, laughing and dancing, wealth and poverty, hunger and thirst, health and sickness, children’s play and politics, gathering and scattering, the leaving of home, life in the inn and the return, marriage and funeral, the splendid house of the living and the grave of the dead, the sower and the reaper in the field, the lord of the vintage among his vines, the idle workman in the marketplace, the shepherd searching for the sheep, the dealer in pearls on the sea, and, then again, the woman at home anxious over the barrel of meal and the leaven, or the lost piece of money, the widow’s complaint to the surly official, the earthly food that perishes, the mental relation of teacher and pupil, on the one side regal glory and the tyrant’s lust of power, on the other childish innocence and the industry of the servant—all these pictures enliven his discourse and make it clear even to those who are children in mind.
They do more than tell us that he spoke in picture and parable. They exhibit an inner freedom and a cheerfulness of soul in the midst of the greatest strain, such as no prophet ever possessed before him. His eye rests kindly upon the flowers and the children, on the lily of the field—“Solomon in all his glory is not clothed like one of them”—on the birds in the air and the sparrows on the house-top. The sphere in which he lived, above the earth and its concerns, did not destroy his interest in it; no! he brought everything in it into relation with the God whom he knew, and he saw it as protected in Him: “Your Father in heaven feeds them.” The parable is his most familiar form of speech. Insensibly, however, parable and sympathy pass into each other. Yet he who had not where to lay his head does not speak like one who has broken with everything, or like an heroic penitent, or like an ecstatic prophet, but like a man who has rest and peace for his soul, and is able to give life and strength to others. He strikes the mightiest notes; he offers men an inexorable alternative; he leaves them no escape; and yet the strongest emotion seems to come naturally to him, and he expresses it as something natural; he clothes it in the language in which a mother speaks to her child.
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