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The Life Of Jesus Of Nazareth by Rush Rhees

V The Early Years of Jesus

Matt. i.1 to ii.23; Luke i.5 to ii.52; iii.23-38

58. It is surprising that within a century of the life of the apostles, Christian imagination could have so completely mistaken the real greatness of Jesus as to let its thirst for wonder fill his early years with scenes in which his conduct is as unlovely as it is shocking. That he who in manhood was |holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners| (Heb. vii.26), could in youth, in a fit of ill-temper, strike a companion with death and then meet remonstrance by cursing his accusers with blindness (Gospel of Thomas, 4, 5); that he could mock his teachers and spitefully resent their control (Pseudo-Matthew, 30, 31); that it could be thought worthy of him to exhibit his superiority to common human conditions by carrying water in his mantle when his pitcher had been broken (same, 33), or by making clay birds in play on the Sabbath and causing them to fly when he was rebuked for naughtiness (same, 27); -- these and many like legends exhibit incredible blindness to the real glory of the Lord. Yet such things abound in the early attempts of the pious imagination to write the story of the youth of Jesus, and the account of the nativity and its antecedents fares as ill, being pitifully trivial where it is not revolting.

59. How completely foreign all this is to the apostolic thought and feeling is clear when we notice that excepting the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke the New Testament tells us nothing whatever of the years which preceded John the Baptist's ministry in the wilderness. The gospels are books of testimony to what men had seen and heard (John i.14); and the epistles are practical interpretations of the same in its bearing on religious life and hope. The apostles found no difficulty in recognizing the divinity and sinlessness of their Lord without inquiring how he came into the world or how he spent his early years; it was what he showed himself to be, not how he came to be, that formed their conception of him. Yet the early chapters of Matthew and Luke should not be classed with the later legends. Notwithstanding the attempts of Keim to associate the narratives of the infancy in the canonical and apocryphal gospels, a great gulf separates them: on the one side there is a reverent and beautiful reserve, on the other indelicate, unlovely, and trivial audacity.

60. The gospel narratives have, however, perplexities of their own, for the two accounts agree only in the main features, -- the miraculous birth in Bethlehem in the days of Herod, Mary being the mother and Joseph the foster-father, and Nazareth the subsequent residence. In further details they are quite different, and at first sight seem contradictory. Moreover, while Matthew sheds a halo of glory over the birth of Jesus, Luke draws a picture of humble circumstances and obscurity. These differences, taken with the silence of the rest of the New Testament concerning a miraculous birth, constitute a real difficulty. To many it seems strange that the disciples and the brethren of Jesus did not refer to these things if they knew them to be true. But it must not be overlooked that any familiar reference to the circumstances of the birth of Jesus which are narrated in the gospels would have invited from the Jews simply a challenge of the honor of his home. Moreover, as the knowledge of these wonders did not keep Mary from misunderstanding her son (Luke ii.19, 51; compare Mark in.21, 31-35), the publication of them could hardly have helped greatly the belief of others. The fact that Mary was so perplexed by the course of Jesus in his ministry makes it probable that even until quite late in her life she |kept these things and pondered them in her heart.|

61. No parts of the New Testament are challenged so widely and so confidently as these narratives of the infancy. But if they are not to be credited with essential truth it is necessary to show what ideas cherished in the apostolic church could have led to their invention. That John and Paul maintain the divinity of their Lord, yet give no hint that this involved a miraculous birth, shows that these stories are no necessary outgrowth of that doctrine. The early Christians whether Jewish or Gentile would not naturally choose to give pictorial form to their belief in their Lord's divinity by the story of an incarnation. The heathen myths concerning sons of the gods were in all their associations revolting to Christian feeling, and, while the Jewish mind was ready to see divine influence at work in the birth of great men in Israel (as Isaac, and Samson, and Samuel), the whole tendency of later Judaism was hostile to any such idea as actual incarnation. Some would explain the story of the miraculous birth as a conclusion drawn by the Christian consciousness from the doctrine of the sinlessness of Jesus. Yet neither Paul nor John, who are both clear concerning the doctrine, give any idea that a miraculous birth was essential for a sinless being. Some appeal to the eagerness of the early Christians to exalt the virginity of Mary, This is certainly the animus of many apocryphal legends. But the feeling is as foreign to Jewish sentiment and New Testament teaching as it is contradictory to the evidence in the gospels that Mary had other children born after Jesus.

62. Moreover, the songs of Mary (Luke i.46-55) and Zachariah (Luke i.68 -- 79) bear in themselves the evidence of origin before the doctrine of the cross had transformed the Christian idea of the Messiah. That transformed idea abounds in the Epistles and the Acts, and it is difficult to conceive how these songs (if they were later inventions) could have been left free of any trace of specifically Christian ideas. A Jewish Christian would almost certainly have made them more Christian than they are; a Gentile Christian could not have made them so strongly and naturally Jewish as they are; while a non-Christian Jew would never have invented them. Taken with the evidence in Ignatius (Ad Eph. xviii., xix.) of the very early currency of the belief in a miraculous birth, they confirm the impression that it is easier to accept the evidence offered for the miracle than to account for the origin of the stories as legends. The idea of a miraculous birth is very foreign to modern thought; it becomes credible only as the transcendent nature of Jesus is recognized on other grounds. It may not be said that the incarnation required a miraculous conception, yet it may be acknowledged that a miraculous conception is a most suitable method for a divine incarnation.

63. These gospel stories are chiefly significant for us in that they show that he in whom his disciples came to recognize a divine nature began his earthly life in the utter helplessness and dependence of infancy, and grew through boyhood and youth to manhood with such naturalness that his neighbors, dull concerning the things of the spirit, could not credit his exalted claims. He is shown as one in all points like unto his brethren (Heb. ii.17). Two statements in Luke (ii.40, 52) describe the growth of the divine child as simply as that of his forerunner (Luke i.80), or that of the prophet of old (I. Sam. ii.26). The clear impression of these statements is that Jesus had a normal growth from infancy to manhood, while the whole course of the later life as set before us in the gospels confirms the scripture doctrine that his normal growth was free from sin (Heb. iv.15).

64. The knowledge of the probable conditions of his childhood is as satisfying as the apocryphal stories are revolting. The lofty Jewish conception of home and its relations is worthy of Jesus. The circumstances of the home in Nazareth were humble (Matt. xiii.55; Luke ii.24; compare Lev. xii.8). Probably the house was not unlike those seen to-day, of but one room, or at most two or three, -- the tools of trade mingling with the meagre furnishings for home-life. We should not think it a home of penury; doubtless the circumstances of Joseph were like those of his neighbors. In one respect this home was rich. The wife and mother had an exalted place in the Jewish life, notwithstanding the trivial opinions of some supercilious rabbis; and what the gospel tells of the chivalry of Joseph renders it certain that love reigned in his home, making it fit for the growth of the holy child.

65. Religion held sway in all the phases of Jewish life. With some it was a religion of ceremony, -- of prayers and fastings, tithes and boastful alms, fringes and phylacteries. But Joseph and Mary belonged to the simpler folk, who, while they reverenced the scribes as teachers, knew not enough of their subtlety to have substituted barren rites for sincere love for the God of their fathers and childlike trust in his mercy. Jesus knew not only home life at its fairest, but religion at its best. A father's most sacred duty was the teaching of his child in the religion of his people (Deut. vi.4-9), and then, as ever since, the son learned at his mother's side to know and love her God, to pray to him, and to know the scriptures. No story more thrilling and full of interest, no prospect more rich and full of glowing hope, could be found to satisfy the child's spirit of wonder than the story of Israel's past and God's promises for the future. Religious culture was not confined to the home, however. The temple at Jerusalem was the ideal centre of religious life for this Nazareth household (Luke ii.41) as for all the people, yet practically worship and instruction were cultivated chiefly by the synagogue (Luke iv.16); there God was present in his Holy Word. Week after week the boy Jesus heard the scripture in its original Hebrew form, followed by translation into Aramaic, and received instruction from it for daily conduct. The synagogue probably influenced the boy's intellectual life even more directly. In the time of Jesus schools had been established in all the important towns, and were apparently under the control of the synagogue. To such a school he may have been sent from about six years of age to be taught the scriptures (compare II. Tim. iii.15), together with the reading (Luke iv.16-19), and perhaps the writing, of the Hebrew language. Of his school experience we know nothing beyond the fact that he grew in |wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man| (Luke ii.52), -- a sufficient contradiction of the repulsive legends of the apocryphal gospels.

66. The physical growth incident to Jesus' development from boyhood to manhood is a familiar thought. The intellectual unfolding which belongs to this development is readily recognized. Not so commonly acknowledged, but none the less clearly essential to the gospel picture, is the gradual unfolding of the child's moral life under circumstances and stimulus similar to those with which other children meet (Heb. iv.15). The man Jesus was known as the carpenter (Matt. xiii.55). The learning of such a trade would contribute much to the boy's mastery of his own powers. Far more discipline would come from his fellowship with brothers and sisters who did not understand his ways nor appreciate the deepest realities of his life. Without robbing boyhood days of their naturalness and reality, we may be sure that long before Jesus knew how and why he differed from his fellows he felt more or less clearly that they were not like him. The resulting sense of isolation was a school for self-mastery, lest isolation foster any such pride or unloveliness as that with which later legend dared to stain the picture of the Lord's youth. Four brothers of Jesus are named by Mark (vi.3), -- James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon, -- the gospel adds also that he had sisters living at a later time in Nazareth. They were all subject with him to the same home influences, and apparently were not unresponsive to them. The similarity of thought and feeling between the sermon on the mount and the Epistle of James is not readily explained by the influence of master over disciple, since the days of James's discipleship began after the resurrection of Jesus. In any case there is no reason to think that the companions of Jesus' home were uncommonly irritating or in any way irreligious, only Jesus was not altogether like them (John vii.5), and the fact of difference was a moral discipline, which among other things led to that moral growth by which innocence passed into positive goodness. If the home was such a school of discipline, its neighbors, less earnest and less favored with spiritual training, furnished more abundant occasion for self-mastery and growth. The very fact that in his later years Jesus was no desert preacher, like John, but social, and socially sought for, indicates that he did not win his manhood's perfection in solitude, but in fellowship with common life and in victory over the trials and temptations incident to it (Heb. ii.17, 18).

67. Yet he must have been familiar with the life which is in secret (Matt. vi.1-18). He who in his later years was a man of much prayer, who began (Luke iii.21) and closed (Luke xxiii.46) his public life with prayer, as a boy was certainly familiar not only with the prayers of home and synagogue, but also with quiet, personal resort to the presence of God. It would be unjust to think of any abnormal religious precocity. Jesus was the best example the world has seen of perfect spiritual health, but we must believe that he came early to know God and to live much with him.

68. It is instructive in connection with this inwardness of Jesus' life to recall the rich familiarity with the whole world of nature which appears in his parables and other teachings. The prospect which met his eye if he sought escape from the distractions of home and village life, has been described by Renan: |The view from the town is limited; but if we ascend a little to the plateau swept by a perpetual breeze, which stands above the highest houses, the landscape is magnificent. On the west stretch the fine outlines of Carmel, terminating in an abrupt spur which seems to run down sheer to the sea. Next, one sees the double summit which towers above Megiddo; the mountains of the country of Shechem, with their holy places of the patriarchal period; the hills of Gilboa, the small picturesque group to which is attached the graceful or terrible recollections of Shunem and of Endor; and Tabor, with its beautiful rounded form, which antiquity compared to a bosom. Through a gap between the mountains of Shunem and Tabor are visible the valley of the Jordan and the high plains of Perea, which form a continuous line from the eastern side. On the north, the mountains of Safed, stretching towards the sea, conceal St. Jean d'Acre, but leave the Gulf of Khaifa in sight. Such was the horizon, of Jesus. This enchanted circle, cradle of the kingdom of God, was for years his world. Indeed, during his whole life he went but little beyond the familiar bounds of his childhood. For yonder, northwards, one can almost see, on the flank of Hermon, Caesarea-Philippi, his farthest point of advance into the Gentile world; and to the south the less smiling aspect of these Samaritan hills foreshadows the dreariness of Judea beyond, parched as by a burning wind of desolation and death.| In the midst of such scenes we are to understand that, with the physical growth, and opening of mind, and moral discipline which filled the early years of Jesus, there came also the gradual spiritual unfolding in which the boy rose step by step to the fuller knowledge of God and himself.

69. That unfolding is pictured in an early stage in the story given us from the youth of Jesus. It was customary for a Jewish boy not long after passing his twelfth year to come under full adult obligation to the law. The visit to Jerusalem was probably in preparation for such assumption of obligation by Jesus. All his earlier training had filled his mind with the sacredness of the Holy City and the glory of the temple. It is easy to feel with what joy he would first look upon Zion from the shoulder of the Mount of Olives, as he came over it on his journey from Galilee; to conceive how the temple and the ritual would fill him with awe in his readiness not to criticise, but to idealize everything he saw, and to think only of the significance given by it all to the scripture; to imagine how eagerly he would talk in the temple court with the learned men of his people about the law and the promises with which in home and school his youth had been made familiar. Nor is it difficult to appreciate his surprise, when Joseph and Mary, only after long searching for him, at last found him in the temple, for he felt that it was the most natural place in which he could be found. In his wondering question to Mary, |Did not you know that I must be in my Father's house?| (Luke ii.49), there is a premonition of his later consciousness of peculiarly intimate relation to God. The question was, however, a sincere inquiry. It was no precocious rebuke of Mary's anxiety. The knowledge of himself as Son of God was only dawning within him, and was not yet full and clear. This is shown by his immediate obedience and his subjection to his parents in Nazareth through many years. It is safe, in the interpretation of the acts and words of Jesus, to banish utterly as inconceivable anything that savors of the theatrical. We must believe that he was always true to himself, and that the subjection which he rendered to Joseph and Mary sprang from a real sense of childhood's dependence, and was not a show of obedience for any edifying end however high.

70. That question |Did not you know?| is the only hint we possess of Jesus' inner life before John's call to repentance rang through the land. Meanwhile the carpenter's son became himself the carpenter. Joseph seems to have died before the opening of Jesus' ministry. For Jesus as the eldest son, this death made those years far other than a time of spiritual retreat; responsibility for the home and the pressing duties of trade must have filled most of the hours of his days. This is a welcome thought to our healthiest sentiment, and true also to the earliest Christian feeling (Heb. iv.15). John the Baptist had his training in the wilderness, but Jesus came from familiar intercourse with men, was welcomed in their homes (John ii.2), knew their life in its homely ongoing, and was the friend of all sorts and conditions of men. After that visit to Jerusalem, a few more years may have been spent in school, for, whether from school instruction, or synagogue preaching, or simple daily experience, the young man came to know the traditions of the elders and also to know that observance of them is a mockery of the righteousness which God requires. Yet he seems to have felt so fully in harmony with God as to be conscious of nothing new in the fresh and vital conceptions of righteousness which he found in the law and prophets. We may be certain that much of his thought was given to Israel's hope of redemption, and that with the prophets of old and the singer much nearer his own day (Ps. of Sol. xvii.23), he longed that God, according to his promise, would raise up unto his people, their King, the Son of David.

71. He must also have read often from that other book open before him as he walked upon the hills of Nazareth. The beauty of the grass and of the lilies was surely not a new discovery to him after he began to preach the coming kingdom, nor is it likely that he waited until after his baptism to form his habit of spending the night in prayer upon the mountain. We may be equally sure that he did not first learn to love men and women and long for their good after he received the call, |Thou art my beloved son| (Mark i.11). He who in later life read hearts clearly (John ii.25) doubtless gained that skill, as well as the knowledge of human sin and need, early in his intercourse with his friends and neighbors in Nazareth; while a clear conviction that God's kingdom consists in his sovereignty over loyal hearts must have filled much of his thought about the promised good which God would bring to Israel in due time. Thus we may think that in quietness and homely industry, in secret life with God and open love for men, in study of history and prophecy, in longing for the actual sway of God in human life, Jesus lived his life, did his work, and grew in |wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man| (Luke ii.52).

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