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THE BEGINNING OF A SYSTEM OF CHRISTIAN
That religious philosophy which serves as the basis for all those exemplications which were so foreign to the mind of Jesus, is by no means original. Philo had expounded its essential principles more harmoniously and logically. Both Philo and the author of the fourth Gospel attach very little importance to the fulfilment of the words of the Messiah or to apocalyptic belief. All the imagination of popular Judaism is replaced by metaphysics in the structure of which Egyptian theology and Greek philosophy had their full share. The idea of Incarnate Reason, i.e., of Divine Reason assuming a finite shape, is quite Egyptian. From the earliest ages down to the Hermes Trismegistos books, Egypt proclaimed a God, living alone in substance, but eternally begetting his own likeness, one, and yet twofold at the same time. The Sun is that firstborn, proceeding eternally from the Father, that Word who made everything that exists, and without whom nothing has been made. On the other hand, it had for a long time been the tendency of Judaism, in order to escape from its somewhat dry system of theology, to create a variety of the Deity by personifying abstract attributes, such as Wisdom, the Divine Word, Majesty, the Presence. Already in the ancient books of wisdom, in the Proverbs and in Job, Wisdom personified plays the part of an assessor to the Divinity. Metaphysics and Theology, so severely restrained by the Mosaic law, took their revenge, and would soon invade everything.
The expression dabar, in Chaldean, memara, i.e., “the Word,” become especially fruitful. Ancient texts made God speak on all solemn occasions, which justified such phrases as: “God does everything by His word; God created everything by His word.” Thus people were led to regard “the Word” as a divine minister, as an intermediary by whom God works on the outer world. By degrees this intermediary was substituted for God in visible manifestations in apparitions, in all relations of the Deity with man. That mode of expression had much greater consequences amongst the Egyptian Jews who spoke Greek. The word Logos, corresponding to the Hebrew dabar, and the Chaldean memara, and having the twofold meaning of The Word, and also of Reason, enabled them to enter into a whole world of ideas in which they reunited, on the one hand, the symbols of Egyptian theology which are mentioned above, and on the other, certain Platonic speculations. The Alexandrine Book of Wisdom, which is attributed to Solomon, already delights in those theories. There the Logos appears as the metationos, the assessor of the Deity, and it soon became usual to attribute to the Logos all that ancient Jewish philosophy, said of the Divine Wisdom. The Breath of God (rouah), which is mentioned at the beginning of Genesis as life giving, becomes a sort of Demiurge by the side of dabar.
Philo combined such forms of expression with his notions of Greek philosophy. His Logos is the Divine in the universe—it is an exteriorised God; it is the legislator, the revealer, the organ of God as regards spiritual man. It is the Spirit of God,—the wisdom of Holy Scripture. Philo has no idea of the Messiah, and establishes no connection between his Logos and the divine being which was dreamt of by his compatriots in Palestine. He never departs from the abstract, and for him the Logos is the place of spirits just as space is the place of bodies; and he goes so far as to call it “a second God,” or “the man of God;” that is to say, God, considered as anthropomorphous. The end of man is to know the Logos, to contemplate reason; that is to say, God and the universe. By that knowledge man finds life, the true manna that nourishes.
Although such ideas were, by their origin, as far as possible, removed from Messianic ideas, one can see that a sort of effusion might be brought about between them. The possibility of a full incarnation of the Logos is quite in accordance with Philo’s ideas. It was a generally received opinion, that in all the various divine manifestations in which God wished to make Himself visible, it was the Logos who assumed the human form. These ideas were favoured by numerous passages in the most ancient historical books, where “the Angel of Jehovah,” Maleak Jehovah, indicates the divine appearance which shows itself to men, when God, who is ordinarily hidden, reveals Himself to their eyes. This Maleak Jehovah frequently does not differ at all from Jehovah himself, and it is a habit with translators of a certain period to substitute that word for Jehovah, whenever God is supposed to have appeared on earth, and thus the Logos came to play the part of an anthropomorphous God. It was therefore natural that the appearance of the Messiah should he attributed to the Logos, and that Messiah should be considered as the incarnate Logos.
Certainly the author of the book of Daniel had no idea that his Son of Man had anything in common with the Divine Wisdom, whom, in his time, some Jewish thinkers were already elevating into a personality; but with the Christians the two ideas were very easily reconciled. Already, in the Apocalypse the triumphant Messiah is called “the Word of God,” and in St Paul’s later Epistles, Jesus is separated almost altogether from his human nature. In the fourth Gospel, the identification of Christ and the Word is an accomplished fact, and the national avenger of the Jews has totally disappeared under a metaphysical conception; henceforth, Jesus is the Son of God, not by virtue of a simple Hebrew metaphor, but in a strictly theological sense. The very slight reputation in which the writings of Philo were held in Palestine, and amongst the popular classes of Jews, must be the only explanation why Christianity did not bring about such a necessary evolution till such a late period, but this evolution took effect in several directions simultaneously, for St Justin has a theory which is very similar to that of pseudo-John, and yet he did not take it from the gospel that bears his name.
Side by side with the theory of the Logos and of the Holy Spirit was developed that of the Paraclete, who was not kept very distinct from the former. In Philo’s philosophy, Paraclete was an epithet of, or an equivalent for, Logos. For Christians he became a sort of substitute for Jesus, proceeding from the Father as he did, and who was to console the disciples for the absence of their Master when he should have left them. That Spirit of Truth, which the world does not know, is to inspire the Church throughout all time. Such a manner of raising abstract ideas into personalities was quite in keeping with the fashion of the time. Allius Aristides, who was a contemporary and a compatriot of the author of the fourth Gospel, expresses himself in his sermon on Athēnē, in a manner which is hardly distinguishable from that of the Christians:—
She dwells in her father, closely united to his essence; she breathes in him, and is his companion and counsellor. She sits at his right hand and is the supreme minister of his orders, and their wills are so conjoined that to her may be attributed all her father’s acts.
It is well known that Isis played the same part with regard to Ammon.
The profound revolution which each idea must introduce into the manner of looking at the life of Jesus is self-evident. For the future he was to have no more human qualities, and would know neither temptation nor weakness. In him everything existed before it happened; everything was settled a priori, nothing happened naturally; He knew his life in advance, and did not pray to God to save him from that fatal hour. One fails to see why he lived this life which was forced upon him, gone through merely as a part, without any sincerity about it. But, however revolting such a change may be to our feelings, it was necessary. The Christian conscience desired more and more that everything in the life of their founder should be supernatural. Marcion, without knowing the writings of pseudo-John, did exactly the same thing as he did, for he manipulated St Luke’s Gospel till he had got rid of every trace of Judaism or reality from it. Gnosticism was to go even further, for that school Jesus was to become a mere entity, an won, an eternal intelligence that had never lived. Valentine and Basilides really only go a step further along the road on which the author of the fourth Gospel had gone. They all use the same specific terms: Father (in the metaphysical sense), Word, Archē, Life, Truth, Grace, Paraclete, Fulness, Only Son. The origins of Gnosticism and that of the fourth Gospel meet in the far distance; they both start from the same point in the horizon without our being able, on account of the distance, to point out more precisely the circumstances which attended their common appearance, for in such a thick atmosphere the visual rays of criticism are apt to become confused.
Naturally, the conditions under which a book became known, were so different then to what they are now, that we must not be surprised at singularities which would be inexplicable in these days. Nothing is more deceiving than to imagine to ourselves writings of that date, as a printed book, offered to everybody’s reading, with newspapers to review the new work, favourably or otherwise. All the Gospels were written for restricted circles of readers, and no edition aspired to being the last and final one. It was a species of literature which could be practised at will, like the legends of Hasan and Hossein amongst the modern Persians. The fourth Gospel was a composition of the same order. In the first instance the author may have written it for himself and a few friends as his conception of the life of Jesus. There is no doubt that he communicated his work with great reserve to those who knew that such a work could not have originated with John, and up till the end of the second century the work encountered nothing but indifference and opposition. During that time the Gospels which are called synoptic give the outlines of the life of Jesus, and the tone of the discourses attributed to him is that of Matthew and Luke. Towards the end of the second century, however, the idea of a fourth Gospel was accepted, and pious legends and mystic reasons were discovered to support this tetrad.
To sum up, it seems most probable that, several years after the Apostle John’s death, somebody or other determined to write in his name, and to his honour a gospel that should represent, or should be supposed to represent, his traditions. The definite success of the book was just as brilliant as its beginning had been obscure. This fourth Gospel, the last to appear, which had been manipulated in so many respects, where Philonian tirades were substituted for the actual discourses of Jesus, took more than half a century to assume its place, but then it triumphed all along the line. It was very convenient for the theological and apologetic requirements of the time, to have a sort of metaphysical drama which could escape from the objections which a Celsus was already preparing, instead of a small, very human history of a Jewish prophet in Galilee. The Divine Word in the bosom of God; the Word creating all things; the Word made flesh, dwelling amongst men, so that certain privileged mortals had the happiness of seeing and even touching him! flaying regard to the especial turn of the Greek intellect, which seized upon Christianity at a very early date, this seemed most sublime, and a whole system of theology after the manner of Plotinus might be extracted from it. The freshness of the Galilean idyl, illuminated by the sun of the kingdom of God, was but little to the taste of true Greeks. They naturally preferred a gospel in which they were transported to abstract dreams, and from which the belief in the approaching end of the world was banished. In the present instance, there was no mention of a material appearance in the clouds, no more parables, no persons possessed of devils, nothing about the kingdom of God or of the Jewish Messiah, no millennium, not even any more Judaism. It was forgotten and condemned; the Jews are held up to reprobation as enemies of the truth, for they would not receive the Word which came amongst them. The author will know nothing of them, except that they killed Jesus; just as amongst the modern Persian Shīies, the name of Arab is synonymous with an impious man and a miscreant, as Arabs slew the holiest amongst the founders of Islam.
The literary faults of the fourth Gospel thus make up its general character. It frees Christianity from a number of its original chains, and gives it free scope for that which is essential for any innovation, i.e., ingratitude towards what has preceded it. The author seriously believes that no prophet ever came out of Galilee. Christian metaphysics already sketched out in the Epistle to the Colossians, and in that which is called the Epistle to the Ephesians, are fully developed in the fourth Gospel. It would be dear to all those who, humiliated at the fact that Jesus was a Jew, would neither hear of Judeo-Christianity, nor of the millennium, and who would have liked to have burnt the Apocalypse. Thus the fourth Gospel takes its stand, in the great work of separating Judaism from Christianity, far above St Paul. He wished that Jesus had abrogated the Law, but he never denies that he lived under the Law. His disciple St Luke, by a certain devout improvement, presents Jesus to our view as fulfilling all the precepts of the Law. St Paul thought that the prerogatives of the Jews were still very great; whilst, on the other hand, the fourth Gospel shows a great antipathy to the Jews, both as a nation and as a religious society. Jesus, speaking to them, says: “Your law,” and there is no question now of justification by faith or by works, for the problem has gone far beyond the bounds of those simple terms. The knowledge of the truth and science have now become essential, and men are to be saved by their gnosis, their initiation into certain secret mysteries, so that Christianity has become a sort of hidden philosophy which certainly neither Paul nor Peter ever dreamt of.
The future belonged altogether to transcendental idealism. This Gospel, attributed to the well-beloved disciple, which transports us at first into the pure atmosphere of the Spirit and of Love, which substitutes the love of truth for everything else, and proclaims the sway of Mount Gerizim and of Jerusalem equally at an end, was bound in time to become the fundamental Gospel of Christianity. No doubt it will be said that this was a great historical and literary error; but it was also a theological and political necessity of the first order. The idealist is always the worst revolutionary, and a definite rupture with Judaism was the indispensable condition of the foundation of a new religious system. The only chance of success that Christianity had was, that it should be a perfectly pure form of worship, independent of any material creed. “God is a spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” If Jesus is understood in such a manner, he is no longer a prophet, and Christianity under that aspect is no longer a sect of Judaism; it becomes the Religion of Reason, and thus it came about that the fourth Gospel imparted consistency and stability to the Apostolic work. Whoever its author was, he was the cleverest of all the apologists. He was, successful in bringing Christianity out of its old beaten tracks that had got too narrow for it; which all the Christian orators of our time have attempted in vain. He betrayed Jesus in order to save him, just as those preachers do who put on a pretence of liberalism, and even of socialism, to win over those who may possibly be seduced by those words through a pious fraud. The author of the fourth Gospel has withdrawn Jesus from the Jewish reality in which he was lost, and has launched him boldly into metaphysics. That purely spiritual philosophical manner of understanding Christianity, to the detriment of facts, and to the profit of the mind, found in this singular book an example to encourage, and authority to justify it.
Only those who are not well acquainted with religious history will be surprised to see such a part filled by an anonymous writer in the history of Christianity. The editors of the Thora, most of the Psalmists, the author of the book of Daniel, the first editor of the Hebrew Gospel, the author of the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, which are attributed to St Paul, gave works of the greatest importance to the world, and yet they are anonymous. If it is admitted that the Gospel and the Epistle which is so closely connected with it are the work of Presbuteros Johannes, it might be thought that it would be all the less difficult to accept those writings as the works of St John, since the forger’s name was John, and he appears often to have been confounded with the apostle. He was merely called Presbuteros, and after the falsely so-called Epistle of John, there are two short letters by some one who seems to call himself “The Elder.” The style, the thoughts, and the doctrine are very nearly the same as in the Gospel and Epistle said to be written by St John. We believe that Presbuteros was also the author of them; but this time he did not wish to pass off his slight works as those of John; and, like the letters to Timothy and Titus, they ought rather to be called specimens of the pastoral style than Epistles. Thus, in the first, the name of the person for whom it is intended is left a blank, and is filled up with the formula: “To the Elect Lady;” In the second, the person to whom it is written is given as Gaius, which was often the equivalent for our So and so. In these short letters some resemblance to the pseudo-Johannine Epistle, and to those of St Paul, has been discovered, and it is probable that our Presbuteros has sometimes concealed his identity behind these anonymous presbuteroi who had seen the Apostles, and whose traditions Irenæus so mysteriously reproduces.
At the end of the third century two tombs were mentioned at Ephesus, which were held in the highest veneration, and to both of which the name of John was given. In the fourth century when, from the passage in Papias, the idea of the distinct existence of Presbuteros Johannes was being firmly established, one of these tombs was allotted to the Apostle and the other to the Presbuteros. We shall never know the exact truth of those extraordinary combinations in which history, legends, fable, and, up to a certain point, pious fraud were all united in proportions which we cannot separate now. An Ephesian called Polycrates, who was destined to become, one day, with his whole family, the centre of Asiatic Christianity, was converted A.D. 131, and this Polycrates fully admitted the pseudo-Johannine tradition, and cited it most confidently in his old age.
Everybody allows that the last chapter of the fourth Epistle is an appendix which was added after the work had been written, though possibly it was added by the author himself; in any case, the source from which it was drawn is the same. It was desirable to complete all that had to do with the relations between Peter, and John by some touching feature, and the author shows that he is a great partisan of Peter, and does his best to pay homage to him in his rank as supreme pastor which was attributed to him in various degrees. He also makes a point of explaining the views that prevailed about the long life of John, and of showing how the aged Apostle might die without the edifice of the promises of Jesus and of Christian hopes falling into ruins at his decease. Men began to fear that the unequalled privilege of those who had seen the Word during his life on earth might discourage future generations, and already that profound saying, which was attributed to Jesus, “Blessed are those that have not seen and yet have believed,” was incorporated into a Gospel anecdote.
With the Johannine writings begins the era of Christian philosophy and of abstract speculation, which had hitherto found but little room in the world, whilst at the same time dogmatic intolerance increased most lamentably. The more fact of saluting a heretic was represented as an act of communion with him. How far we are from Jesus here! He wished us to salute everybody, even at the risk of saluting the unworthy, in imitation of our Heavenly Father, who looks on all with a paternal eye, but yet how it was to be obligatory to ascertain the opinions of anyone before saluting him. The essence of Christianity was transferred to the realm of dogma; gnosis was every thing, and salvation consisted in knowing Jesus and knowing him in a certain manner. Theology, that is to say, a rather unwholesome application of the intellect, was the result of the fourth Gospel, and the Byzantine world, from the beginning of the fourth century, wore itself out by this study, which would have had just as fatal consequences for the West if the demon of subtility had not found firmer muscles and less volatile brains to deal with.
In this matter Christianity decidedly turned its back on Judaism; and Gnosticism, which is the highest expression of speculative Christianity, had some reason for pushing its hatred of Judaism to the highest point. The latter made religion consist in outward observances, and left everything that bordered on philosophic dogma as a matter of private opinion, and the Cabala and Pantheism would naturally find an easy development by the side of observances which were carried to the minutest details. A Jewish friend of mine, as liberal a thinker as can be found, and at the same time a scrupulous Talmudist, said to me, “One makes up for the other. Close observances are a compensation for wideness of ideas, and our poor humanity has not enough intelligence to support liberty in two directions at the same time. You Christians did wrong in insisting that the bonds of communion should consist in certain beliefs, for a man does what he pleases, but he believes what he can, and I would rather go without pork all my life, than be obliged to believe in the dogmas of the Trinity and of the Incarnation.”
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