IN beginning the study of the life of Jesus we asked ourselves if we should take M. Renan for our guide: we have seen what amount of confidence his work is entitled to receive.
Whom, then, shall we follow, if we forsake so learned a guide? No one. We will go at once to the source, to the Gospels themselves, for it is there that all commentators are finally constrained to return.' We will consult the books written by the immediate disciples of the Lord; first, to ascertain what were their Master's moral principles, and how he practiced them; and then we will proceed with the examination both of the precepts and the conduct of Jesus in the matter of truthfulness.
What, then, are the moral principles of Jesus Christ? And first, what are his principles on the subject of veracity? Is man, in this matter, entitled to the use of different weights and measures, according as he. lives in the East or in the West? Is he at liberty to regulate himself by the rule of honesty adopted by his race and the age in which he lives? Does Jesus know any thing of the theory of Oriental sincerity? Does he admit that the end justifies the means? Will he say, with M. Renan, |There exists no broad foundation which is not laid in legends. The only guilty party is the humanity which desires to be deceived?| Will he allow the concealments and the mental reservations which are sanctioned by that too notorious society which bears too beautiful a name? In a word, will Jesus authorize divers sorts of truthfulness, divers kinds of convenient affirmations? No. Jesus has but one word for all. His rule is admirably simple; it is a golden rule, a divine rule, a rule we may challenge all the philosophers to surpass or even to equal: |Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.| Noble and impressive maxim, which bears in itself the seal of its divinity!
But did Jesus obey this precept of perfect integrity? Yes; always and every-where. Follow him from Jerusalem to Gethsemane, and from Gethsemane to the Sanhedrim, you will find him perfectly calm and truthful. Whether it be necessary to assert his divine mission or to brave a danger, he does both with the same simplicity. |Who is the Son of God, that I might believe on him?| asks the man born blind. |It is he that talketh with thee,| answers Jesus. The soldiers search for him in the garden, that they may take him before the tribunal: he comes to meet them, and says, |I am he.| |Art thou the Son of God?| ask the priests who seek to crucify him. |You have said,| he replies, |I am.| |Art thou a king, then?| asks Pilate. Again Jesus replies, |I am.| Neither hope nor fear, neither honor nor shame, can alter his word: it is ever his own, |Yea, yea.| If there be one conviction stronger than any other forced upon the reader of the Gospels, it is this: when Jesus speaks he has no after-thought; he speaks the truth, the whole truth. Unbelievers may accuse him of prejudice, of ignorance, of provincialism, but never of falsehood; and when an adversary does so. he rouses against himself a public opinion which is otherwise very indulgent: a striking proof, this, that there exists in the world the firm conviction that Jesus was incapable of knowingly altering truth.
What conclusion are we to draw from this? Not that Jesus was the Son of God, but that he believed himself to be so. Whatever else may be questioned, his sincerity must not be doubted: he said often, and in many ways, I am the Son of God. Let it be confessed that he believed he spoke the truth. Jesus, then, either was the Son of God or else he was a madman! There is no other alternative. But how are we to reconcile this madness with these calm words, these profound thoughts, these humble sentiments, this pure and holy life? A madman may believe himself to be a god, but can a madman transform a world? Was it possible for a madman to conceive the soundest of moral systems, and specially to live consistently with the principles of this morality? Is it likely that a madman could be so wise as to surpass all mankind in virtue, and that his insanity should only be seen in the name he assumes? No; M. Renan himself has said it: |If the madman walks side by side with the inspired man, it is with this difference, that the madman never succeeds.| If, therefore, the success of a moral enterprise be the test of wisdom, who was ever wise as Jesus Christ?
Already we may say, Jesus made it a rule to be absolutely truthful; Jesus was faithful to his precept, as M. Renan is to his: and judging them both on this common basis, we may rightfully add, Jesus, in declaring that he was God's only begotten Son, proclaimed a pure and simple truth.
We are not, however, anxious to conclude. We wish, before we do so, to exhibit the moral doctrines of Jesus on some important points, and then to compare his life with the principles he himself laid down. We shall then be better able to judge whether the word of Christ deserves our belief or not.
Among the rules of conduct taught by Jesus upon earth, we seek those which are peculiarly his own. We say nothing, therefore, about honesty in our social relationships, or purity of morals, or almsgiving, or hospitality. These principles, if not practiced, at least were known before Jesus came into the world. That which we shall point out as an essentially Christian virtue is humility. Surely there is no one else who claims to be the inventor of this! Neither in ancient nor in modern times has humility been held to be worthy of much attention, much less worthy of praise. In our natural pride, or, should a less distasteful phrase be preferred, in our human dignity, we have never much appreciated the bliss of self-abasement. Our common tendency is rather to exaggerate our own worth, and to seek our own honor. And we think no one will claim the discovery of humility for any besides Jesus Christ. He alone said to his disciples, |Be humble as this little child. Whosoever will be greatest among you, let him be your servant. God exalts the humble, and abases the proud.|
This is the first moral principle of Jesus. Did he practice it? In proof that he did, although from the Christian point of view it would be allowable, yet we will not instance his obscure birth, the manger at Bethlehem, the workshop at Nazareth, his death on the cross. No: we might be told in reply that Jesus, a mere man, had no choice either with respect to his cradle or his grave. The proof we give we find in the positions he himself chose. He sits at table with the poorest and the most despised of the people; he washes his disciples' feet; he declares himself meek and lowly in heart; he spends his nights in the mountains without troubling himself to procure a place where he may lay his head; he refuses a crown offered to him by the people; and after having refused a throne, he accepts that cross so ignominious for him, but so blessed for the world. When did Jesus cease to be humble -- he who always called himself Son of man, who called his followers little ones, and who pronounced |blessed| the mourners, the peace-makers, the merciful, and the persecuted?
We insist no longer upon this point, for we do not suppose that any one will refuse to Jesus the glory of a virtue so little coveted! We are, therefore, content to leave this part of the subject by affirming, that he who first established humility in principle admirably illustrated it in practice. We would, nevertheless, say one thing more. Is not this humility, which no one covets for himself, yet desired in children and servants? Who would not be glad if his neighbors, his friends, his fellow-citizens, were humble in their relations to himself? What is the greatest obstacle to peace and order in the world? Is it not that pride, which is more insatiable than hunger and thirst? And should we not esteem it a great blessing if this pride could be extirpated from the bosom of humanity, without doing damage to our individual claims? Yea, doubtless. We approve of humility in a treatise on morals; we desire it in the family and in society; we may even, while talking about it, profess it for one's self; but in active life it is quite another thing: in a word, we desire humility for all save in ourselves; fresh proof, therefore, that Jesus, who not only proclaimed it, but lived it, was superior to our race, puffed up as it is with pride and vanity. We measure the true greatness of Jesus by his voluntary humility.
The last proof of humility afforded by the life of Jesus, namely, his voluntary death, leads us to the second moral principle which distinguishes his teaching -- devotedness. He demands of his disciples that they should forsake all in order to follow him; that they should take up their cross, accept persecutions, and devote themselves, their goods, and their families, to the service of God and of their fellow-creatures. Doubtless this is an admirable principle, and one which all men accept in theory. In practice, however, it is very different. We admire the precept, Serve your brethren; but we practice the proverb, Every one for himself.
What was the conduct of Jesus in this respect? Did he act consistently? We do not now say that he gave his life that our sins might be blotted out, and that he left heaven to come and teach us; no, we might be told that we must first prove that he really did come from heaven. No one, though looking upon Jesus as no more than a superior man, will deny his devotedness. If we may credit M. Renan, Jesus was a transcendent genius, and therefore able to win his way to the highest ranks of society, as so many others have done. On the contrary, he devoted himself entirely to the moral education of the people. In order to accomplish this task he accepted the conflict with the great, whom he unmasked; he incurred their hatred; he voluntarily submitted to the wrongs they did him, to their attacks and their calumnies. When, by a simple recantation, he might have avoided death, he was the first to say, I cannot do it! I am the Son of God. Under the lash and nailed to the cross, he never shrunk from the trial of suffering. It is unnecessary to describe his martyrdom, it is sufficiently well known; but this martyrdom was the most sublime devotedness! Thus, by choosing an obscure life, mostly spent in the streets, while he might have obtained a brilliant career, and have sat in the chair of Moses; by accepting death upon the scaffold when he could have placed himself under the protection of Pilate; by living on alms, teaching the people, exposing himself to scorn, having no prospect of worldly compensation either in the present or in the future, leaving behind him the memory of his name only in the recollections of a few poor men, many of whom probably could scarcely read or write; surely, in the presence of all these facts, it will not be credited that even the most discerning eye has discovered, in such a life, the secret and selfish motive which tarnishes this sublime self-denial!
We now point out two other moral principles, which, though of less frequent application, are yet not the less striking. Jesus, in his sermon on the mount, had taught the forgiveness of injuries; and when Simon Peter asked him, |Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? until seven times?| the reply Jesus gave him was, |I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.| He also said, |Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.|
Such is the precept. Did Jesus follow it? Yes; and we venture to add that he went beyond the letter of the precept, and admirably fulfilled it in its spirit. A servant struck him on one cheek: did he turn the other? He did better: without retaliation or complaint, he instructed the man who thus insulted him by calmly answering, |If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil: but if well, why smitest thou me?| What dignity and sweetness is here! What a noble lesson! If ever in the course of our life-time we have been, like him, the victims of an undeserved and brutal assault, which flushed our cheeks and clenched our fists in resentment, did it occur to us to say, |If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil: but if well, why smitest thou me?| Alas! these are not the words which proceed from our poor humanity under its provocations. In this reply we have the loving spirit, not the dead letter, It is better than forgiveness; it is love, seeking to bring the guilty one to repentance.
On another occasion, Jesus and his Apostles came to a certain village, where they were refused admission by the inhabitants. The Apostles, angry at this insult, asked Jesus to call down fire from heaven upon the guilty place. With his characteristic gentleness the Master replied, |Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them.| Here we have the forgiveness of injuries, without pomp or ostentation.
Lastly, Jesus proclaimed a principle which is as universally approved as it is rarely practiced; that, namely, of love for our enemies -- |Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which persecute you.| The precept is explicit. Did Jesus follow it? We shall judge for ourselves. At Gethsemane he rebukes his disciple who is anxious to avenge him. |Put up again,| says he, |thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish by the sword.| At the gate of Jerusalem, he weeps over the fickle people who would not listen to them: |O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the Prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!| Though at liberty to defend himself, Jesus remains silent before his enraged foes, Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod, who seek to entrap him, who insult and strike him. He might have retaliated, and the more so because he was prepared to die. A mere man would have afforded himself the satisfaction of confounding his unjust judges. No, Jesus keeps silence, and this silence reveals as much the calmness of his spirit as the gentleness of his heart.
An arrest, however, is not an execution; mockings do not torture like bearing the cross; this does not lacerate like the nails. What will Jesus do when the soldiers, the priests, and the mob unite to abuse him, to laugh him to scorn, to pierce his hands, and to make him drink the cup of bitterness? What will he reply to the taunt of the infatuated crowd, the thieves, and the priests: |If thou be the son of God, come down from the cross. He saved others; himself he cannot save. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him?| Alas! we confess that had we been in his place we should have made a last great effort to come down; and, in our impotence, we should at least have given vent to our fury by throwing back their insults: |Cowards, who mock a condemned man to whose words you but lately listened with admiration! hypocrites, who should at this very hour be purifying yourselves, in the Temple, for the Passover, but who prefer to make yourselves impure by witnessing an execution! worthy sons are ye of your fathers, who in all ages have been executioners and murderers?| Was it thus Jesus spoke to his enemies? No; but addressing God and forgetting himself, he exclaims, |Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!| To pray for those who tear your flesh, insult your agony, and rail at your devotedness; to excuse them even because of their ignorance -- is not this to love your enemies, to bless them that curse you, and to pray for them that persecute you?
Such is the saint whom a critic thinks he honors by transforming into his own image! such is the hero to whom are attributed a |transcendent scorn| and |subtle raillery,| and who is styled |a master of irony!| Is it scorn that sparkles in this appeal: |Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest; learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart?| Is it derision that we find in these words to the Apostles: |I call you no more servants, but friends: love one another, as I have loved you?| Is there any subtle railing in the prayer: |Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name; Thy kingdom come: Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven?| Ah, if scorn, mockery, and irony are to be found any where, it is not in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but in a book which lacks honesty, and dissembles its scorn and its railing under the appearances of respect and admiration; a book whose false praises sweeten the edges of a cup which is full of bitterness and poison.
How deeply we feel that neither our own pen, nor that of any uninspired man, can ever worthily reproduce the character of Jesus Christ. After having so many times vainly attempted it, we despair of success. Have our readers, for instance, ever met with a head of Christ which has satisfied them? We never have. Artists and writers only give us magnified men. Nature furnishes no model which resembles Jesus. The most perfect of these are still essentially men. Alexander, Cesar, Napoleon, all have our passions, though we have not their genius. In Socrates and Plato we discover the germs of our weakness, though they are wiser than we. A St. Paul, an Augustine, and a Pascal, leave us far behind on the road to holiness; yet we recognize them, by means of their defects, as members of our poor human family; and even were we disposed to be too indulgent toward them, their own confessions are there to correct us. Thus, always and every-where, man remains essentially man.
The Evangelists alone have made us conceive an ideal which no man, whether in his life or by his pen, has ever reproduced; and if, as we may well suppose, their picture is as far from the reality, as we are from their copy, what must not the living Christ have been?
Jesus resembles no other man; he speaks and acts as none of our kind ever spoke and acted. At first he surprises us, but as we contemplate him, our surprise changes into admiration. The more we examine, the more we discover in his words profound thoughts and lofty sentiments which, till then, had never entered our minds or our hearts. In the midst of his superior world and his superhuman atmosphere, Jesus lives and breathes as in his own element. There he moves freely, he speaks without effort; all is familiar to him -- he is at home. Heaven is his country, holiness is his nature, eternity is his life. He does not demonstrate, as we mere men are obliged to do, who have no right to be believed on our simple assertions; he speaks like a God, whose word is law. Nothing embarrasses him; he speaks of heaven and hell, life and death, the judgment and eternity, as of things he has seen, and which belong to his domain. His constant thought is about the kingdom of God, and he is solely occupied with the will of his Father, and the sanctification of humanity. His feet scarcely touch the earth, his heart is ever in heaven. We feel that he is a stranger to the petty affairs of this world; even the functions of a secular judge are beneath him; possibly his hand was never soiled by contact with money. He is simple and humble, but grave. He never utters a jesting word, not even a useless one; nor does he ever speak in order to display his intellectual superiority. And as a last noteworthy feature, Jesus certainly wept; but we do not learn that he ever laughed. Yet he never forgot his disciples, nor ever lost sight of the most remote generations of sinners that were to come after him. His thoughts, like his love, embrace the universe. Surely, this is the Son of God!
If now we pass from the words to the actions of Jesus, we are filled with the same admiration. It has been asserted that Jesus patronizes the poor and threatens the rich: it would be more truthful to say, that he takes no account of either poverty or riches; gold and stubble are of equal value to him. It is the spiritual condition of those who approach him which claims his attention. What he demands is not lofty thoughts or noble sentiments, but a moral condition which is possible to all. He asks for a heart which, though broken and contrite, yet expects every thing at his hands-healing grace, salvation, and eternal life. When Jesus performs miracles they do not astonish him: he is engaged in his own proper work, We may, indeed, reject them without examination; but when we honestly study them, we find it to be quite natural that the Son of God should work such miracles; specially since these miracles have nothing in common with the prodigies of a thaumaturgus, whose aim is to fascinate the eye and to mislead the imagination. The mighty works of Jesus are just what we might expect from a God who created and now sustains us: he gives food, health, life, forgiveness, to all who, in faith, lay their wants before him. Unbeliever, you are surprised, and you do not know what conclusion to draw from these miracles, but you dare not deny them. Be sincere, and confess that there is something in them beyond your apprehension. Believer, you are delighted. These miracles seem to you the natural operations of the Son of God. You learn from them that he gives comfort, healing, and forgiveness. He were not God did he act otherwise. Let but Jesus speak, and your attention is redoubled. His maxims, by penetrating into your spirit, give you light: the more you study them, the more you find them beautiful and brilliant with the light of truth. They are like the starry heavens, which reveal to your earnest gaze new depths, filled with new lights, of which even the most dim are clear. Moreover, that which removes from you the fear of delusion, is the fact that all these marvels have, as their end and aim, not the satisfaction of your curiosity, but the purification of your heart, the raising of your mind, and the kindling of your devotion. Yes; this is the test by which we prove the pure gold of the character of Jesus Christ. It is not possible to contemplate him without moral gain. The glow of life is communicated from him to us: it pervades our being, it blesses and sanctifies us. Jesus is the spiritual Sun that warms and vivifies our souls. No one but a God can make us thus at once better and happier.
We know that all we have said reposes on the authenticity of the Gospels and on the historic fidelity of their narratives. We also know that M. Renan, who admits in general this authenticity and this fidelity, nevertheless contradicts them in their details. We would observe that the authenticity of the Gospels is not at the mercy of any critic, whatever may be his ability. Christianity proves the purity of its root by the excellence of its fruits. If necessary, we might accept the invalidation of the Gospels and of the miracles of Jesus; further still, we might grant that there is no proof of his resurrection, his ascension, and the inspiration of his Apostles: let every thing else be denied, yet we cannot deny what we see to-day. Three hundred millions of men acknowledge Jesus Christ, and the civilization of Christendom exceeds all others both in its extent and its depth. Pure morals; a mild legislation; the raising of woman to her true standard; the freedom of slaves; the relief of the sick, the helpless, and the poor; the brotherhood of nations -- these are things before our very eyes, but only to be found in the Christian world. What we ask, therefore, is this: Do all these things exist without cause? Do they date from yesterday? If, in searching for their origin, we must go back to the first century of our era, shall we find them to have been spontaneous growths? Is this transformation without parentage? Did it spring from the previous moral rottenness? Let the divine mission of Jesus Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the existence of the miracles, be denied; will the void thus made better explain the immense results of which we are witnesses than do the evangelical histories? Is Christianity the offspring of a dream? Did it grow in a night? Did humanity wake up one morning and find it already established in the earth? Men are anxious to lessen the causes; but the smaller these are, the more astounding do the results become. By substituting feeble beginnings for great ones we do not destroy the miracle; on the contrary, we make it all the greater. To be rational, then, we must admit a Divine intervention; and this intervention restores to us again the existence of Jesus, his veracity, his miracles, and the whole train of proofs which had been before rejected.
Thus, whatever may be affirmed or denied, actual facts cannot be overturned. The work of Christianity is before us, and the grandeur of its origin is proved both by its nature and its extent. Its sources may be many, but they must be Divine; for man, in his inability to change his own heart, never could have the power to transform the hearts and lives of twenty generations.
It must be understood that we have not pretended, in this short sketch, to trace the entire life of Jesus Christ. To know that life we must read and study the New Testament. Our aim has been to show that the Jesus of the Gospels is not that of M. Renan. His Jesus is a compound of cunning and fanaticism; an imaginary being created for the amusement of novel-readers. The historic Jesus is quite another being; pre-eminently sincere, always calm, profound in his teaching, holy in his conduct, devoted both in life and death, and so much above the greatest men of every age, that we may well believe him when he says, and says again, |I am the Son of God.|