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This exposition of the Messianic life of Jesus, mixed up with texts of the old prophets, always the same, and capable of being recited in a single sitting, was early settled in almost invariable terms, at least so far as the sense is concerned. Not merely did the narrative unfold itself according to a predetermined plan, but the characteristic words were settled so that the word often guided the thought and survived the modifications of the text. The framework of the Gospel thus existed even before the Gospel itself, almost in the same way as in the Persian dramas of the death of the sons of Ali the order of the action is settled, whilst the dialogue is left to be improvised by the actors. Designed for preaching, for apology, for the conversion of the Jews, the Gospel story found all its individuality before it was written. Had the Galilean disciples, the brothers of the Lord, been consulted as to the necessity for having the sheets containing this narrative worked into a consecrated form, they would have laughed. What necessity is there for a paper to contain our fundamental thoughts, those which we repeat and apply every day? The young catechists might avail themselves, for some time, of such aids to memory; the old masters felt only contempt for those who used them.

Thus it was that until the middle of the second century the words of Jesus continued to be cited from 50memory often with considerable variations. The texts of the evangelists which we possess, existed; but other texts of the same kind existed by the side of them; and, besides, to quote the words or the symbolical features of the life of Jesus no one felt obliged to have recourse to the written text. The living tradition was the great well from which all alike drew. Hence the explanation of the fact which is in appearance surprising, that the texts which have become the most important part of Christianity were produced obscurely, confusedly, and at first were not received with any consideration.

The same phenomenon makes its appearance furthermore in almost all sacred literatures. The Vedas have been handed down for centuries without having been written; a man who respected himself ought to know them by heart. He who had need of a manuscript to recite these ancient hymns confessed his ignorance; so that the copies have never been held in much esteem. To quote from memory from the Bible, the Koran, is, even in our days, a point of honour amongst Orientals. A part of the Jewish Thora must have been oral before it was written down. It was the same with the Psalms. The Talmud, finally, existed for two hundred years before it was written down. Even after it was written, scholars long preferred the traditional discourses to the MSS. which contained the opinions of the doctors. The glory of the scholar was to be able to cite from memory the greatest possible number of the solutions of the casuists. In presence of these facts, far from being astonished at the contempt of Papias for the Gospel texts existing in his time, amongst which were certainly two of the books which Christianity has since so deeply revered, we find his contempt in perfect harmony with what might be expected from a “man of tradition,” an “elder,” as those who had spoken of him have called him.


It may be doubted whether before the death of the Apostles, and the destruction of Jerusalem, all that collection of narratives, sentences, parables, and prophetic citations had been reduced to writing. The features of the divine figure before which eighteen centuries of Christians have prostrated themselves, were first sketched about the year 75. Batanea, where the brothers of Jesus lived, and where the remnant of the Church of Jerusalem had taken refuge, appears to have been the country where this important work was executed. The tongue employed was that in which the very words of Jesus had been uttered, that is to say, Syro-Chaldaic, which was abusively called Hebrew. The brothers of Jesus, the fugitive Christians of Jerusalem, spoke that language, little different besides from that of the Bataneans, who had not adopted the Greek tongue. It was in an obscure dialect, and without literary culture, that the first draft of the book which has charmed so many souls was traced. It was in Greek that the Gospel was to attain its perfection, the last form which has made the tour of the world. It must not, however, be forgotten that the Gospel was first a Syrian book, written in a Semitic language. The style of the Gospel—that charming turn of childlike narrative which recalls the most limpid pages of the old Hebrew books—penetrated with a species of idealistic ether that the ancient people did not know, and which has nothing of Greek in it. Hebrew is its basis. A just proportion of materialism and spirituality, or rather an indiscernible confusion of soul and sense, makes that adorable language the very synonym of poetry, the pure vestment of the moral idea, something analogous to Greek sculpture, where the ideal allows itself to be touched and loved.

Thus was sketched out by an unconscious genius that masterpiece of spontaneous art, the Gospel, not such and such a gospel, but this species of unfixed 52poem, this unrevised masterpiece where every defect is a beauty, and the indefiniteness of which has been the chief cause of its success. A portrait of Jesus, finished, revised, classic, would not have had so great a charm. The Agada, the parable, do not require hard outlines. They require the floating chronology, the light transition, careless of reality. It is by the Gospel that the Jewish agada has been universally accepted. The air of candour is fascinating. He who knows how to tell a tale can catch the crowd. Now, to know how to tell stories is a rare privilege; a naïveté, an absence of pedantry of which a solemn doctor is hardly capable, are absolutely necessary. The Buddhists and the Jewish Agadists (the evangelists are true Agadists) have alone possessed this art in the degree of perfection which makes the entire universe accept a story. All the stories, all the parables which are repeated from one end of the world to the other, have but two origins, one Buddhist and the other Christian, because Buddhists and the founders of Christianity alone had the care of the popular preaching. The situation of the Buddhists with regard to the Brahmans was in a sense analogous to that of the Agadists with regard to the Talmudists. The latter have nothing which resembles the Gospel parable, any more than the Brahmans would have arrived by themselves at a turn so light, so agile, and so flowing as the Buddhist narrative. Two great lives well told, that of Buddha and that of Jesus—there lies the secret of the two vastest religious propaganda that humanity has ever seen.

The Halaka has converted no one; the Epistles of St Paul alone would not have won a hundred disciples to Jesus. That which has conquered the hearts of man is the Gospel, that delicious mixture of poetry and the moral sense, that narrative floating between dreams and reality in a Paradise where no note is taken of time. In all that there is assuredly a little literary 53surprise. The success of the Gospel was due on the one hand to the astonishment caused amongst our heavy races by the delicious strangeness of the Semitic narrative, by the skilful arrangement of these sentences and discourses, by these cadences, so happy, so serene, so balanced. Strangers to the artifices of the agada, our good ancestors were so charmed with them that even in the present day we can scarcely persuade ourselves that this species of narrative may be devoid of objective truth. But to explain how it has happened that the Gospel may have become amongst all nations what it is, the old family book whose worn pages have been moistened with tears, and on which the finger of generations has been impressed, more is required. The literary success of the Gospel is due to Jesus himself. Jesus was, if we may so express ourselves, the author of his own biography. One experience proves the fact. There have been many Lives of Jesus in the past. Now the life of Jesus will always obtain a great success when the writer has the necessary degree of ability, of boldness, and of naïveté to translate the Gospel into the style of his time. A thousand reasons for this success may be looked for, but there is never more than one, and that is the incomparable intrinsic beauty of the Gospel itself. When the same writer later on attempts a translation of St Paul, the public will not be attracted. So true it is that the eminent person of Jesus trenching vigorously on the mediocrity of his disciples was pre-eminently the soul of the new apparition, and gave to it all its originality.

The Hebrew Protavangel was preserved in the original amongst the Nazarenes of Syria until the fifth century. There are besides Greek translations of it. A specimen was found in the library of the priest Pamphilus of Cæsarea; St Jerome is said to have copied the Hebrew text at Aleppo, and even to have translated it. All the Fathers of the Church have found that this Hebrew Gospel is much like the Greek 54Gospel which bears the name of St Matthew. They usually assume that the Greek Gospel attributed to St Matthew was translated from the Hebrew, but the deduction is erroneous. The generation of our Gospel of St Matthew was a much more complicated matter. The resemblance of the Gospel with the Gospel of the Hebrews does not go so far as identity. Our St Matthew is anything but a translation. We will explain later on why of all the Gospel texts the latter approaches most nearly to the Hebrew prototype.

The destruction of the Judeo-Christians of Syria brought about the disappearance of the Hebrew text. The Greek and Latin translations, which created a disagreeable discord by the side of the canonical Gospels, also perished. The numerous quotations made from it by the Fathers, allow us to imagine the original up to a certain point. The Fathers had reason to connect it with the first of our Gospels. This Gospel of the Hebrews, of the Nazarenes, resembled in truth much of that which bears the name of Matthew, both in plan and in arrangement. As to length, it holds the middle place between Mark and Matthew. It is impossible sufficiently to regret the loss of such a text, though it is certain that even supposing we still possessed the Gospel of the Hebrews seen by St Jerome, our Matthew would be preferred to it. Our Matthew, in a word, has been preserved intact since its final revision in the last years of the first century, whilst the Gospel of the Hebrews, through the absence of an orthodoxy (the jealous guardian of the text) amongst the Judaising Churches of Syria, has been revised from century to century, so that at the last it was no better than one of the apocryphal Gospels.

In its origin it appears to have possessed the characteristics which one expects to find in a primitive work. The plan of the narrative was like that of Mark, simpler than that of Matthew and Luke. The 55virginal birth of Jesus does not figure in it at all. The struggle about the genealogies was lively, and the great battle of Ebionism took place on this point. Some admitted the genealogical tables into their copies, while others rejected them. Compared with the Gospel which bears the name of Matthew, the Gospel of the Hebrews, so far as we can judge by the fragments which remain to us, was less refined in its symbolism, more logical, less subject to certain objections of exegesis, but of a stranger, coarser supernaturalism, more like that of Mark. Thus the fable that the Jordan took fire at the Baptism of Jesus—a fable dear to popular tradition in the earlier ages of the Church—is to be found there. The form under which it was supposed that the Holy Spirit entered into Jesus at that moment, as a force wholly distinct from himself, appears also to have been the oldest Nazarene conception. For the transfiguration, the Spirit, which was the Mother of Jesus, takes her Son by a hair, according to an imagination of Ezekiel (Ezek. viii. 3), and in the additions to the book of Daniel, and transports him to Mount Tabor. Some material details are shocking, but are altogether in the style of Mark. Finally some features which had remained sporadic in the Greek tradition, such as the anecdote of the woman taken in adultery, which is thrust rightly or wrongly into the fourth Gospel, had their place in the Gospel of the Hebrews.

The stories of the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection, presented evidently in that Gospel a character apart. Whilst the Galilean tradition represented by Matthew will have it that Jesus appointed a meeting with his disciples in Galilee, the Gospel of the Hebrews—without doubt because it represented the tradition of the Church of Jerusalem—supposed that all the appearances took place in that city, and attributed the first vision to James. The endings of the Gospels of St Mark and St Luke place, in the same 56way, all the apparitions at Jerusalem. St Paul followed an analogous tradition.

One very remarkable fact is that James, the man of Jerusalem, played in the Gospel of the Hebrews a more important part than in the evangelical tradition which has survived. It appears that there was amongst the Greek evangelists a sort of agreement to efface the brother of Jesus, or even to allow it to be supposed that he played an odious part. In the Nazarene Gospel, on the contrary, James is honoured with an appearance of Jesus after his resurrection; that apparition is the first of all; it is for him alone; it is the reward of the vow, full of lively faith, that James had made, that he would neither eat nor drink until he had seen his brother raised from the dead. We might be tempted to regard this narrative as a sufficiently modern resetting of the legend, without a single important circumstance. St Paul in the year 57 also tells us that, according to the tradition which he had received, James had had his vision. Here, then, is an important fact which the Greek evangelists suppressed, and which the Gospel of the Hebrews related. On the other hand, it appears that the first Hebrew edition embodies more than one hostile allusion to Paul. People have prophesied, and cast out devils in the name of Jesus: Jesus openly repulses them because they have “practised illegality.” The parable of the tares is still more characteristic. A man has sown in his field only good seed; but whilst he slept an enemy came, sowed tares in the field, and departed. “Master,” said the servants, “didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?” And he said unto them, “An enemy hath done this.” The servants said unto him, “Wilt thou that we go and gather them up?” But he said unto them, “Nay, lest while ye gather up the tares ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and in the time of harvest I will say to the 57reapers, gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.” It must be remembered that the expression “the enemy” was the name habitually given by the Ebionites to Paul.

Was the Gospel of the Hebrews considered by the Christians of Syria, who made use of it, as the work of the Apostle Matthew? There is no valid reason for such a belief. The witness of the fathers of the Church proves nothing about the matter. Considering the extreme inexactitude of the ecclesiastical writers, when Hebrew affairs are in question, this perfectly accurate proposition, “The Gospel of the Hebrews of the Syrian Christians resembles the Greek Gospel known by the name of St Matthew,” transforms itself into this, with which it is by no means synonymous:—“The Christians of Syria possessed the Gospel of St Matthew in Hebrew,” or rather, “St Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew.” We believe that the name of St Matthew was not applied to one of the versions of the Gospel until the Greek version which now bears his name was composed, which will be much later. If the Hebrew Gospel never bore an author’s name, or rather a title of traditional guarantee, it was the title of “the Gospel of the Twelve Apostles,” sometimes also that of “the Gospel of Peter.” Still, we believe that these names were given later, when Gospels bearing the names of the Apostles came into use. A decisive method of preserving to the original Gospel its high authority, was to cover it with the authority of the entire Apostolic College.

As we have already said, the Gospel of the Hebrews was ill preserved. Every Judaising sect of Syria added to it, and suppressed parts of it, so that the orthodox sometimes presented it as swollen by interpolation to a greater size than St Matthew, and sometimes as mutilated. It was especially in the 58hands of the Ebionites of the second century that the Gospel of the Hebrews arrived at the lowest point of corruption. These heretics issued a Greek version the style of which appears to have been awkward, heavy, overloaded, and in which, moreover, the writer did not fail to imitate Luke and the other Greek evangelists. The so-called Gospels of Peter and of the Egyptians came from the same source, and presented equally an apocryphal character and a mediocre standard.

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