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WHICH TREATS PRINCIPALLY OF THE ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS OF THIS HISTORY.
A HISTORY of the “Origins of Christianity” ought to embrace the whole obscure and, so to speak, subterranean period which extends from the first beginnings of this religion to the time when its existence became a public fact, notorious and apparent to everybody. Such a history ought to consist of four parts. The first, which is now presented to the public, treats of the particular fact which was the starting point of the new religion, and is wholly concerned with the sublime personality of the Founder. The second should treat of the Apostles and their immediate disciples, or rather, of the revolutions which took place in religious thought in the first two generations of Christianity. This should end about the year 100, when the last friends of Jesus were just dead, and when the whole of the books of the New Testament had almost assumed the form in which they are now read. The third book should set forth the state of Christianity under the Antonines. We should then observe its slow development and its waging of an almost permanent war against the empire, which latter, having at that moment attained to the highest degree of administrative perfection and being governed by philosophers, combated in the nascent sect a secret and theocratic society, which the latter obstinately disowned, but which was a continual source of weakness. This book would embrace the whole of the second century. The fourth and last part should show the decided progress which Christianity had made from the time of Syrian emperors. In it we should see the learned constitution of the Antonines crumble away, the decadence of ancient civilisation set in irrevocably and Christianity profit by its ruin, Syria conquer the entire West, and Jesus, in combination with the gods and the deified sages of Asia, take possession of a society which philosophy and a purely civil government were unable longer to cope with. It was then that the religious ideas of the races established upon the coasts of the Mediterranean underwent a great change; that the Eastern religions everywhere took the lead; that Christianity, having become a large Church, totally forgot xxxivits millennium dreams, broke its last connections with Judaism, and passed entirely into the Greek and Roman world. The strifes and the literary labours of the third century, which had already taken place openly, have to be described only in their general features. Again, the persecutions of the commencement of the fourth century, the last effort of the empire to return to its old principles, which denied to religious associations a place in the State, should be recounted more briefly. Finally, the change of policy which, under Constantine, inverted the position, and made of the most free and most spontaneous religious movement an official worship subject to State control, and in its turn persecutor, would need only to be foreshadowed.
I do not know whether I shall have life and strength to execute no vast a plan. I should be satisfied if, after writing the life of Jesus, it is given to me to relate, as I understand it, the history of the Apostles; the condition of the Christian conscience during the weeks which immediately succeeded the death of Jesus; the formation of the cycle of legends touching the resurrection; the first acts of the Church of Jerusalem, the life of St. Paul, the crisis at the time of Nero, the appearance of the Apocalypse, the ruin of Jerusalem, the foundation of the Hebrew-Christian sects of Batanea, the compilation of the Gospels, and the rise of the great schools of Asia Minor. Everything pales by the side of that marvellous first century. By a peculiarity rare in history, we can judge better of what passed in the Christian world from the year 50 to 75 than from the year 80 to 150.
The plan upon which this history proceeds prevents the introduction into the text of long critical dissertations upon controversial points. A continuous succession of notes places likewise the reader in a position to verify the sources of all the propositions in the text. These notes are strictly limited to quotations at first hand—I mean, to the indication of the original passages upon which each assertion or hypothesis rests. I am aware that, to persons who have had little experience in these studies, many other explanations might be necessary; but it is not my habit to do over again what has once been done and done well. To cite only books written in French, the following can be recommended:11See Volume VIII. of this series, which contains the author's notes of the whole seven volumes of the series, together with a complete index.—Ed.
The above works are for the most part excellent, and in them will be found explained a multitude of details upon which I have had to be very succinct. In particular, the criticism of the details of evangelical texts has been done by M. Strauss in a manner which leaves little to be desired. Although M. Strauss may at first have been deceived in his theory in regard to the authorship of the Gospels, and although his book, in my opinion, has the fault of occupying too much theological and too little historical ground, it is indispensable, so as to understand the motives which have guided me in a multitude of details, to follow xxxvthe argument (always judicious, though sometimes a little subtle) of the book which has been so well translated by my learned co-worker M. Littré.
I am not aware that, in respect of ancient testimony, I have overlooked any source of information. Not to mention a multitude of scattered data respecting Jesus and the times in which he lived, we still have five great collections of writings. These are: first, the Gospels and the New Testament writings in general; second, the compositions called the “Apocrypha of the Old Testament;” third, the works of Philo; fourth, those of Josephus; fifth, the Talmud. The writings of Philo have the inestimable advantage of showing us the thoughts which, in the time of Jesus, stirred souls occupied with great religious questions. Philo lived, it is true, in quite a different sphere of Judaism from Jesus; yet, like him, he was quite free from the pharisaic spirit which reigned at Jerusalem; Philo is in truth the elder brother of Jesus. He was sixty-two years of age when the prophet of Nazareth had reached the highest point of his activity, and he survived him at least ten years. What a pity it is that the accidents of life did not direct his steps into Galilee! What would he not have taught us!
Josephus, who wrote chiefly for the Pagans, did not exhibit the some sincerity. His meagre accounts of Jesus, John the Baptist, and of Judas the Gaulonite are colourless and lifeless. We feel that he sought to represent these movements, so profoundly Jewish in character and spirit, in a form which would be intelligible to the Greeks and Romans. Taken as a whole I believe the passage in regard to Jesus to be authentic. It is perfectly in the style of Josephus, and, if that historian mentioned Jesus at all, it is indeed in this manner that he would have spoken of him. We feel, however, that the hand of a Christian has retouched the fragment, and has added to it passages without which it would have been well nigh blasphemous, as well as abridged and modified some expressions. It is necessary to remember that Josephus owed his literary fortune to the Christians, who adopted his writings as essential documents of their sacred history. It is probable that in the second century they circulated an edition of them, corrected according to Christian ideas. At all events that which constitutes the immense interest of the books of Josephus in respect of our present subject is the vivid picture he gives of the times. Thanks to this Jewish historian, Herod, Herodias, Antipas, Philip, Annas, Kaïaphas, and Pilate are personages whom, so to speak, we can touch, and whom we can actually see living before us.
The Apocrypha of the Old Testament, especially the Jewish part of the Sibylline verses, the book of Enoch, the Assumption of Moses, the fourth book of Esdras, the Apocalypse of Baruch, together with the book of Daniel, which is also itself a real Apocrypha, possess a primary importance in the history of the development of the Messianic theories, and in the understanding of the conceptions of Jesus in regard to the kingdom of God. The book of Enoch, in particular, and the Assumption of Moses, were much read in the circle of Jesus. Some expressions imputed to Jesus by the synoptics are presented in the epistle attributed to Saint Barnabas as belonging to Enoch: xxxviΟς Ενὸχ λεγει. It is very difficult to determine the date of the different sections of which the book attributed to that patriarch in composed. None of them are certainly anterior to the year 150 B.C.: some of them may even have been written by a Christian pen. The section containing the discourses entitled “Similitudes,” and extending from chapter xxvii. to chapter lxxi., is suspected of being a Christian work. But this has not been proved. Perhaps this part is only a proof of alterations. Other additions or Christian revisions are recognisable here and there.
The collection of the Sibylline verses needs to be regarded in the same light; but the latter is more easily established. The oldest part in the poem contained in Book III., v. 97–817; it appeared about the year 140 B.C. Respecting the date of the fourth book of Esdras everybody now is nearly agreed in assigning this Apocalypse to the year 97 A.D. It has been altered by the Christians. The Apocalypse of Baruch has a great resemblance to that of Esdras; we find there, as in the book of Enoch, several utterances imputed to Jesus. As to the book of Daniel, the character of the two languages in which it is written, the use of Greek words, the clear, precise, dated announcements of events which go back as far as the times of Antiochus Epiphanes; the false descriptions which are there drawn of ancient Babylon; the general tone of the book, which has nothing suggestive of the writings of the captivity, but, on the contrary, corresponds, by numerous analogies, to the beliefs, the manners, the turn of imagination of the epoch of Seleucidæ; the Apocalyptic form of the visions; the position of the book in the Hebrew canon which is outside the series of the prophets; the omission of Daniel in the panegyrics of chapter xlix. of Ecclesiasticus, in which his position is all but indicated; and a thousand other proofs, which have been deduced a hundred times, do not permit of a doubt that this book was but the product of the general exaltation produced among the Jews by the persecution of Antiochus. It is not in the old prophetic literature that it most be classed; its place is at the head of Apocalyptic literature, the first model of a kind of composition, after which were to come the various Sibylline poems, the book of Enoch, the Assumption of Moses, the Apocalypse of John, the Ascension of Isaiah, the fourth book of Esdras.
Hitherto, in the history of the origins of Christianity, the Talmud has been too much neglected. I think with M. Geiger that the true notion of the circumstances which produced Jesus must be sought in this peculiar compilation, in which so much knowledge is mixed with the most insignificant scholasticism. The Christian theology and the Jewish theology having followed uniformly two parallel paths, the history of the one cannot be understood without the history of the other. Innumerable material details in the Gospels find, moreover, their commentary in the Talmud. The vast Latin collections of Lightfoot, Schœttgen, Buxtorf, and Otho contained already on this point a mass of information. I have taken upon myself to verify in the original all the quotations which I have made use of, without an exception. The assistance which has been given in this part of xxxviimy task by a learned Israelite, M. Newbauer, well-versed in Talmudic literature, has enabled me to go further and to elucidate certain parts of my subject by some new researches. The distinction here between epochs is very important, the compilation of the Talmud extending from the year 200 to the year 500, or thereabout. In the actual condition of these studies, we have brought to it as much discernment as it was possible in the actual state of these studies. Dates no recent will excite fears among persons accustomed to attach value to a document only for the epoch in which it was written. But such scruples would here be out of place. Jewish teaching from the Asmonean epoch up to the end of the second century was chiefly oral. These sorts of intellectual states must not be judged by the customs of an age in which much writing takes place. The Vedas, the Homeric poems, the ancient Arabic poems, were for centuries preserved only in memory, and yet these compositions present a very distinct and delicate form. In the Talmud, on the other hand, the form possesses no value. Let us add that before the Mischnah of Juda the saint, which obliterated the recollection of all others, there had been several essays at compilation, the commencement of which goes further back perhaps than is commonly supposed. The style of the Talmud is that of careless notes; the editors probably did no more than range under certain titles the enormous medley of writings which, for generations, had accumulated in the different schools.
It remains for us to speak of the documents which, pretending to be biographies of the Founder of Christianity, must naturally take the place of honour in a life of Jesus. A complete treatise upon the compilation of the Gospels would be a work of itself. Thanks to the excellent work which, for the last thirty years, has been devoted to this question, a problem which was formerly held to be insoluble has been resolved, and, though there is room still left for much uncertainty, it is quite sufficient for the requirements of history. We shall have occasion later on to revert to this in our second book, seeing that the composition of the Gospels was one of the most important facts in the future of Christianity in the second half of the first century. We shall only touch in this place a single aspect of the subject, but one which is indispensable to the solidarity of our narrative. Putting to one side all that belongs to a picture of the apostolic times, we will inquire only to what extent the data furnished by the Gospels can be employed in a history arranged according to rational principles.
That the Gospels are in part legendary is quite evident, inasmuch as they are full of miracles and of the supernatural; but there are legends and legends. Nobody disputes the principal traits in the life of Francis d'Assisi, although at every step the supernatural is encountered in it. Contrariwise, no one gives credence to the “Life of Apollonius of Tyana,” for the reason that it was written long after the hero, and avowedly as a pure romance. When, by whom, and under what conditions were the Gospels compiled? This is the chief question upon which the opinion, it is necessary to form of their credibility, depends.
We know that each of the four Gospels bears at its head the name xxxviiiof a personage known either in Apostolic history or in evangelical history itself. If these titles are correct it is clear that the Gospels, without ceasing to be in part legendary, possess a high value, since they take us back to the half century which followed the death of Jesus, and even in two cases to eyewitnesses of his acts.
As for Luke, doubt is hardly possible. The Gospel of Luke is a studied composition, founded upon anterior documents. It is the work of a man who selects, adapts, and combines. The author of this Gospel is undoubtedly the same as that of the Acts of the Apostles. Now, the author of the Acts appears to be a companion of Paul, an appellation which exactly fits Luke. I am aware that more than one objection can be raised against this opinion; but one thing is beyond question, to wit, the author of the third Gospel and of the Acts is a man belonging to the second Apostolic generation, and that is sufficient for our purpose. The date of that Gospel may, however, be determined with quite enough precision by considerations drawn from the book itself. The 21st chapter of Luke, which is an inseparable part of the work, was certainly written subsequently to the siege of Jerusalem, but not very long afterwards. We are here, then, upon solid ground; for the work in question has been written by the same person, and its unity is perfect.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark do not nearly possess the same stamp of individuality. They are impersonal compositions, in which the author wholly disappears. A proper name inscribed at the head of such works does not count for much.
We cannot, moreover, reason here as in the case of Luke. The date which belongs to a particular chapter (to Matthew xiv. and Mark xiii. for example) cannot he rigorously applied to the works as a whole, for the latter are made up of fragments of epochs and of productions which are quite distinct. In general, the third Gospel appears to be posterior to the two first, and exhibits the character of a much more advanced composition. We cannot, nevertheless, conclude hence that the two Gospels of Mark and Matthew were in the some condition as we have them when Luke wrote his. These two works, entitled Mark and Matthew, in fact, remained for a long time in a loose state, if I may so speak, and were susceptible of additions. On this point we have an excellent witness, who lived in the first half of the second century. This was Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, a grave man, a traditionist, who was busy all his life in collecting what was known by any one of Jesus. After declaring that in such cases he preferred oral tradition to books, Papias mentions two accounts of the acts and words of Christ. First a writing of Mark, the interpreter of the Apostle Peter, a short incomplete composition, without chronological order, including narratives and discourses (λεχθέυτα ἢ πραχθέυτα), composed from the information and recollections of the Apostle Peter; second, a collection of sayings (λόγια) written in Hebrew by Matthew, which everybody has translated as he listed. Certain it is that these two descriptions accord pretty well with the general tenor of the two books now called the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to Mark—xxxixthe former characterised by its long discourses; the second, above all, by anecdote, and being much more exact than the other on minor details—brief even to dryness, the discourses few in number and indifferently composed. Nevertheless, that these two works as read by us are absolutely identical with those which were read by Papias is not sustainable, because, first, the writings of Matthew which were perused by Papias were composed solely of discourses in Hebrew, different translations of which were in circulation, and, secondly, because the writings of Mark and those of Matthew were to him perfectly distinct, written without any collusion, and it would seem m different languages. Now in the actual state of the texts, the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to Mark present parallelisms so long, and so perfectly identical, that it must be supposed that the final compiler of the first had the second before him, or vice versâ, or that both copied from the same source. That which appears the most probable is that we have not the original compilation of either Matthew or Mark, that the two first Gospels as we have them are adaptations in which each sought to fill up the lacunes of one text from the other. In fact, each was desirous of possessing a complete copy. He whose copy contained discourses only filled it out with narratives, and contrariwise. It is in this way that “The Gospel according to Matthew” is found to have appropriated all the anecdotes of Mark, and that “The Gospel according to Mark” contains to-day many of the details which have come from the Logia of Matthew. Each, moreover, imbibed largely of the oral tradition which floated around him. This tradition is so far from having been exhausted by the Gospels that the Acts of the Apostles, and of the most ancient Fathers, cite many sayings of Jesus which appear authentic and are not found in the Gospels that we possess.
It matters little for our present purpose that we should press this analysis further, or attempt, on the one hand, to reconstruct in a kind of way the original Logia of Matthew, or, on the other, to restore the primitive narrative to what it was when it left the pen of Mark. The Logia are doubtless presented to us in the great discourses of Jesus, which make up a considerable portion of the first Gospel. These discourses, in fact, form, when detached from the rest, a complete enough narrative. As for the original narratives of Mark, the text of them seems to make its appearance now in the first, now in the second Gospel, but most often in the second. In other words, the plan of the life of Jesus in the synoptics is founded upon two original documents: first, the discourses of Jesus collected by the Apostle Matthew; second, the collection of anecdotes and of personal information which Mark committed to writing from the recollections of Peter. It may be said that we still possess these two documents, mixed up with the facts of another production, in the two first Gospels, which bear, not without reason, the titles of “The Gospel according to Matthew” and “The Gospel according to Mark” respectively.
In any case, that which is indubitable is that very early the discourses of Jesus were reduced to writing in the Aramean tongue; also, that very early his remarkable actions were taken down. These were not xltexts to be settled and fixed dogmatically. Besides the Gospels which have come down to us, there might be others which professed equally to set forth the tradition of eyewitnesses. We attach little importance to these writings, while their preservers, such as Papius, who lived in the first half of the second century, preferred always to them oral tradition. Seeing that the world was believed to be near an end, people had not much inclination to write books for the future; they were solely concerned about preserving in their heart the living image of him whom they hoped to see soon again in the clouds. Hence, the small authority which, for nearly a hundred years, evangelical texts enjoyed. People made no scruple about inserting paragraphs in them, of combining various narratives, and in perfecting the one by the other. The poor man who had only one book was anxious that it should contain all that was dear to his heart. These little books were lent by one to another; each transcribed into the margin of his copy the phrases and parables he found in others which affected him. The most beautiful thing in the world has thus proceeded from an obscure and wholly popular elaboration. No edition possessed an absolute value. The two editions attributed to Clement Romanus quote the sayings of Jesus with two notable variances. Justin, who often appeals to that which he calls “The Memoirs of the Apostles,” had before him a set of evangelical documents a little different from that which we have; at all events, he does not take the trouble to give them textually. The evangelical quotations in the pseudo-Clementine homilies of Ebionite origin present the some character. The spirit was everything; the letter nothing. It was when tradition, in the latter half of the second century, lost its power, that the text bearing the names of apostles or of apostolic men assumed a decisive authority and obtained the force of law. Even then free compositions were not absolutely interdicted; following the example of Luke people continued to write special Gospels by changing the ensemble of older texts.
Who does not recognise the value of documents constructed thus out of the tender recollections and simple narratives of the first two Christian generations, still full of the strong impressions produced by the illustrious Founder, and which seems to have survived him for a long time? Let us add that those Gospels seemed to proceed from those branches of the Christian family which were most closely related to Jesus. The final labour of compilation of the text which bears the name of Matthew appears to have been done in one of the countries situated to the north-east of Palestine, such as Gaulonitis, Auranitis, and Batanea, where many Christians took refuge at the time of the Roman war, where were still to be found at the end of the second century relatives of Jesus, and where the first Galilean tendency was longer felt than elsewhere.
So far we have only spoken of the three Gospels called the synoptic. It now remains to speak of the fourth, the one which bears the name of John. Here the question is much more difficult. Polycarp, the most intimate disciple of John, who often quotes the synoptics in his epistle to the Philippians, makes no allusion to the fourth Gospel. Papias, who was equally attached to the school of John, and who, if he had not been his disciple, as Irenæus believes he was, had associated a great xlideal with his immediate disciples—Papias, who had eagerly collected all the oral accounts relative to Jesus, does not say a word of a “Life of Jesus” written by the Apostle John. If such a mention could have been found in his work, Eusebius, who notices everything in it which bears on the literary history of the apostolic age, would undoubtedly have mentioned it. Justin, perhaps, knew the fourth Gospel; but he certainly did not regard it as the work of the Apostle John, since he expressly designates that apostle as the author of the Apocalypse, and takes not the least account of the fourth Gospel in the numerous facts which he extracts from the “Memoirs of the Apostles.” More than this, upon all the points where the synoptics and the fourth Gospel differ he adopts opinions at complete variance with the latter. This is all the more surprising, seeing that the dogmatic tendencies of the fourth Gospel are marvellously adapted to Justin.
The same remarks apply to the pseudo-Clementine homilies. The words of Jesus quoted by that book are of the synoptic type. In two or three places there are, it would seem, facts borrowed from the fourth Gospel. But the author of the Homilies certainly does not accord to that Gospel an apostolic authority, since on many points be puts himself in direct contradiction with him. It appears that Marcion (about 140) could not have known the said Gospel, or attributed to it no importance as an inspired book. This Gospel accorded so well with his ideas that, if he had known it, he would have adopted it eagerly, and would not have been obliged, so as to have an ideal Gospel, to make a corrected edition of the Gospel of Luke. Finally, the apocryphal Gospels which may be referred to the second century, like the Protevangel of James, the Gospel of Thomas the Israelite, embellished the synoptic canvas, but they took no account of the Gospel of John.
The intrinsic difficulties which result from the reading of the fourth Gospel itself are not less forcible. How is it that, by the side of information so precise, and in places felt to be that of eyewitnesses, we find discourses totally different from those of Matthew? How is it that the Gospel in question does not contain a parable or an exorcism? How is it to be explained that side by side with a general plan of the life of Jesus, which plan in some respects seems more satisfactory and more exact than that of the synoptics, appear those singular passages in which one perceives a dogmatic interest peculiar to the author, ideas most foreign to Jesus, and sometimes indications which put us on our guard to the good faith of the narrator? How is it, finally, that by the side of views the most pure, the most just, the most truly evangelical, we find those blemishes which we would rather look upon as the interpolation of an ardent sectary? Is this indeed John, son of Zebedee, the brother of James (who is not mentioned once in the fourth Gospel), who has written in Greek those abstract lessons on metaphysics, to which the synoptics offer no analogy? Is this the essentially Judaising author of the Apocalypse, who, in so few years, should have been stripped to this extent of his style and of his ideas? Is it an “Apostle of Circumcision,” who is likely to have composed a narrative more hostile to Judaism than the whole of St. Paul's, a narrative in which the word “Jew” is almost equivalent to That of “enemy of Jesus”? Is it indeed he whose example xliiwas invoked by the partisans of the celebration of the Jewish passover in favour of their opinion, who could speak with a sort of disdain of the “Feasts of the Jews” and of the “Passover of the Jews”? All of this is important. For my part, I reject the idea that the fourth Gospel could have been written by the pen of a quondam Galilean fisherman. But that, taken all in all, this Gospel may have proceeded, about the end of the first century or the beginning of the second, from one of the schools of Asia Minor which was attached to John, that it presents to us a version of the life of the Master worthy of high consideration and often of being preferred, is indeed rendered probable, both by external evidence and by examining the document under consideration.
And, in the first place, no one doubts that about the year 170 the fourth Gospel did exist. At that date there broke out at Laodicea on the Lycus a controversy relative to the Passover, in which our Gospel played an important part. Apollinaris, Athenagoras, Polycrates, the author of the epistle to the Churches of Vienne and of Lyons, professed already in regard to the alleged narrative of John the opinion that it would soon become orthodox. Theophilus of Antioch (about 180) said positively that the Apostle John was the author of it. Irenæus and the Canon of Muratori attest the complete triumph of our Gospel, a triumph in respect of which there could no longer be any doubt.
But, if about the year 170 the fourth Gospel appeared as a writing of the Apostle John and invested with full authority, is it not evident that at this date it was not of ancient creation? Tatian, the author of the epistle to Diogenatus, seems indeed to have made use of it. The part played by our Gospel in Gnosticism, and especially in the system of Valentinus, in Montanism and in the controversy of the Aloges, is not less remarkable, and shows that from the last half of the second century this Gospel was included in every controversy, and served as a corner stone for the development of the dogma. The school of John is the one whose progress is the most apparent during the second century; Irenæus proceeded from the school of John, and between him and the Apostle there was only Polycarp. Now, Irenæus has not a doubt as to the authenticity of the fourth Gospel. Let as add that the first epistle attributed to Saint John is, according to all appearances, by the same author as the fourth Gospel; now the epistle seems to have been known to Polycarp; it was, it is said, cited by Papias; Irenæus recognised it as John's.
But, as some light is now required to be cast upon the reading of the work itself, we shall remark, first, that the author therein always speaks as an eyewitness. He wishes to pass for the Apostle John, and it is clearly seen that he writes in the interest of that apostle. In each he betrays the design of fortifying the authority of the son of Zebedee, of showing that he was the favourite of Jesus, and the most far-seeing of his disciples; that on all the most solemn occasions (at the Supper, at Calvary, at the Tomb), he occupied the chief place. The relations of John with Peter, which were on the whole fraternal, although not excluding a certain rivalry; the hatred, on the other hand, of Judas, a hatred probably anterior to the betrayal, seem to break through here xliiiand there. At times one is constrained to believe that John, in his old age, having perused the evangelical narratives which were in circulation, on the one hand, remarked various inaccuracies; on the other, was chagrined at seeing that in the history of Christ he was not accorded an important enough place; that then he commenced to recount a multitude of things which were better known to him than to the others, with the intention of showing that, in many instances where Peter only was mentioned, he had figured with and before him. Even during the life of Jesus these petty sentiments of jealousy had been betrayed between the sons of Zebedee and the other disciples. Since the death of James, his brother, John remained the sole inheritor of the intimate remembrances of which the two apostles, by common consent, were the depositaries. Those clear remembrances were preserved in the circle of John, and as the ideas of the times in the matter of literary good faith differed much from ours, a disciple, or rather one of those numerous sectaries, already semi-Gnostics, who from the end of the first century, in Asia Minor, commenced to modify greatly the idea of Christ, might have been tempted to take the pen for the apostle and to make on his own account a free revision of his Gospel. It would cost him no more to speak in the name of John than it cost the pious author of the second Epistle of Peter to write a letter in the name of the latter. To identify himself with the beloved Apostle of Jesus, he espoused all his sentiments, even his littlenesses. Hence this perpetual design of the alleged author to recall that he is the last surviving eyewitness, and the pleasure he takes in relating circumstances which could only be known to him. Hence, so many petty minute details which he would like passed off as the commentaries of an annotator: “It was the sixth hour;” “it was night;” “that man was called Malchus;” “they had lighted a fire, for it was cold;” “the coat was without seam.” Hence, finally, the bad arrangement of the compilation, the irregularity of the narrative, the disjointedness of the first chapters—so many inexplicable features, if we go on the supposition that our Gospel is a mere theological thesis without any historic value, yet perfectly comprehensible if we regard it as the recollections of an old man arranged without the assistance of those from whom they proceeded—recollections, sometimes possessing uncommon freshness, at others having been subjected to singular modifications.
An important distinction, in fact, is to he remarked in the Gospel of John. This Gospel, on the one hand, presents a sketch of the life of Jesus which differs considerably from that of the synoptics. On the other, it puts into the mouth of Jesus discourses whose tone, style, character and doctrines have nothing in common with the Logia contained in the synoptics. In respect of the latter, the difference is such that one must make an unqualified choice. If Jesus spoke as Matthew would have us believe, he could not have spoken in the manner represented by John. Between these two authorities no one has hesitated, or will ever hesitate. Removed by a thousand leagues from the simple, disinterested and impersonal tone of the synoptics, the Gospel of John shows at every step the prepossession of the apologist, xlivthe arrière pensée of the sectary, the desire to establish a thesis and to overcome his adversaries. It was not by pretentious tirades, clumsy, badly written, and appealing little to the moral sense, that Jesus founded his divine work. Even though Papias had not informed us that Matthew wrote the sayings of Jesus in their original tongue, the natural, the ineffable truth, the incomparable charm contained in the synoptic Gospels, the profoundly Hebraic turn of these discourses, the analogies which they present to the sayings of the Jewish doctors of the period, their perfect harmony with the Galilean nature—all these characteristics, compared with the obscure Gnosticism and the distorted metaphysics which fill the discourses of John, speak loudly enough. We do not mean to say that there are not to be found in the discourses of John some brilliant flashes, some traits which really proceeded from Jesus. But the mystical tone of these discourses corresponds in nothing to the character of the eloquence of Jesus, such as it is pictured to us in the synoptics. A new spirit breathes through them; Gnoticism has previously found a footing; the Galilean era of the kingdom of God is at an end, the hope of the near advent of Jesus is further off; we enter the arid realm of metaphysics, into the darkness of abstract dogmatism. The spirit of Jesus is not there, and if the son of Zebedee has indeed traced those pages, it is to be supposed that in writing them he had forgotten the Lake of Gennesareth and the charming conversations he had heard upon its banks.
One circumstance, moreover, which proves indeed that the discourses reported by the fourth Gospel are historical fragments, but that they ought to be regarded as compositions, intended to cover, with the authority of Jesus, certain doctrines dear to the author, is their complete harmony with the intellectual condition of Asia Minor at the time they were written. Asia Minor was then the theatre of a strange movement of syncretic philosophy; all the germs of Gnosticism existed there already. Cerinthus, a contemporary of John, said that æon named Christos was united by baptism to the man named Jesus, and had separated from him on the cross. Some of the disciples of John would appear to have drunk deeply from these strange springs. Can we affirm that the Apostle himself had not been subject to the same influences, that he did not experience something anolagous to the change which was wrought in St. Paul, and of which the epistle to the Colossians is the principal witness? No, certainly not. It may be that after the crisis of 68 (the date of the Apocalypse), and of the year 70 (the ruin of Jerusalem), the old Apostle, with an ardent and plastic soul, disabused of the belief of the near appearance of the Son of Man in the clouds, inclined towards the ideas that he found around him, many of which amalgamated quite well with certain Christian doctrines. In imputing these new ideas to Jesus, he only followed a very natural leaning. Our recollections are, like everything else, transformable; the ideal of a person we have known changes as we change. Regarding Jesus as the incarnation of truth, John has succeeded in attributing to him that which he had come to accept as the truth.
It is nevertheless much more probable that John himself had no part in them, that the change was made around him rather than by him, xlvand doubtless after his death. The long age of the apostle may have terminated in such a state of feebleness that he was in a measure at the mercy of those around him. A secretary might take advantage of this state to speak in his name that which the world called par excellence, “the old man,” Ὁ Πρεσβύτερος. Certain parts of the fourth Gospel have been added subsequently; such is the whole xxi. chapter, in which the author seems to have resolved to render homage to the apostle Peter after his death, and to answer the objections which might be drawn or were already drawn from the death of John himself (v. 21-23). Several other places bear the traces of erasures and of corrections. Not being accounted as wholly the work of John, the book could well remain fifty years in obscurity. Little by little people got accustomed to it, and finished by accepting it. Even before it had become canonical many simply made use of it as a book of mediocre authority, yet very edifying. On the other hand, the contradictions that it offered to the synoptic Gospels, which were much more widely circulated, prevented its being taken into account when setting forth the contexture of the life of Jesus, such as it was imagined to be.
In this mode some explain away the whimsical contradictions presented in the writings of Justin and in the pseudo-Clementine Homilies, in which are to be found traces of our Gospel, but which certainly are not to be placed upon the same footing as the synoptics. Hence also those species of allusions, which are not faithful quotations, but were made from it about the year 180. Hence, finally, this singularity, that the fourth Gospel appeared to emerge slowly from the Church of Asia in the second century, was first adopted by the Gnostics, but only obtained in the orthodox Church very limited credence, as can be seen from the controversy on the Passover, then it was universally recognised. I am sometimes led to believe that it was the fourth Gospel of which Papias was thinking when he opposed to the exact information in regard to the life of Jesus the long discourses and the singular precepts which others have attributed to him. Papias and the old Jadæo-Christian party came to esteem such novelties as very reprehensible. This could not have been the only instance that a book which was at first heretical would have forced the gates of the orthodox Church and become one of its rules of faith.
There is one thing, at least, which I regard as very probable, and that is, that the book was written before the year 100; that is to say, at a time when the synoptics had not yet a complete canonicity. After this date it is impossible any longer to conceive that the author could force himself to go beyond the limits of the “Apostolic Memoirs.” To Justin, and apparently to Papias, the synoptic cadre constitutes the true and only plan of the life of Jesus. An impostor who wrote about the year 120 to 130 a fantastic gospel contented himself with treating in his own way the received version, as had been done in the apocryphal Gospels, and did not reverse from top to bottom what was regarded as the essential lines of the life of Jesus. This is so true that, from the second half of the second century, these contradictions became a serious difficulty in the hands of the aloges, and obliged the defenders of the fourth Gospel to invent the most embarrassing xlvisolutions. There is nothing to prove that the author of the fourth Gospel had, when writing, any of the synoptic Gospels under his eyes. The striking similarities of his narrative to the other three Gospels as touching the Passion leads one to suppose that there was then for the Passion as well as for the Last Supper an almost fixed account, which people knew by heart.
It is impossible at this distance of time to comprehend all these singular problems, and we should undoubtedly encounter many surprises if it were given to us to penetrate the secrets of that mysterious school of Ephesus, which appeared frequently to take pleasure in pursuing obscure paths. But the latter is a capital test. Every person who sets himself to write the life of Jesus without having a decided opinion upon the relative value of the Gospels, who allows himself to be guided solely by the sentiment of the subject, would, in many instances, be induced to prefer the narrative of the fourth Gospel to that of the synoptics. The last months of the life of Jesus especially are explained only by John; several details of the Passion, which are unintelligible in the synoptics, assume both probability and possibility in the narrative of the fourth Gospel. On the other hand, I can defy anybody to compose a life of Jesus that is understandable, which takes into account the discourses that the alleged John imputes to Jesus. This fashion of his of incessantly preaching himself up and of exhibiting himself, this perpetual argumentation, this studied stage-effect, these long reasonings attached to each miracle, these lifeless and incoherent discourses, the tone of which is so often false and unequal, could not be endured by a man of taste alongside of the delightful phraseology which, according to the synoptics, constituted the soul of the teaching of Jesus. There are here evidently fictitious fragments, which represent to us the sermons of Jesus in the same way as the dialogues of Plato set forth the conversations of Socrates. They resemble the variations of a musician improvising on his own account upon a given theme. The theme in question may have existed previously; but in the execution the artist gives his fancy free scope. We perceive the factitious progressions, the rhetoric, the verisimilitude. Let us add that the vocabulary of Jesus is nowhere to be found in the fragments of which we speak. The expression of “Kingdom of God,” which was so common with the master, does not appear even once. But, contrariwise, the style of the discourses attributed to Jesus by the fourth Gospel offers the most complete analogy to that of parts of the narrative of the same Gospel and to that of the author of the epistles called John. We see that the author of the fourth Gospel, in writing these discourses, did not give his recollections, but the somewhat monotonous workings of his own thought. Quite a new mystical language is displayed in them, language characterised by the frequent employment of the words “world,” “truth,” “life,” “light,” “darkness,” and which resembles much less that of the synoptics than that of the book of the sages—Philo and the Valentinians. If Jesus had ever spoken in that style, which is neither Hebraic nor Jewish, how does it come that, amongst the auditors, only a single one of the latter has kept the secret?
For the rest, literary history offers one example which presents a certain xlviianalogy to the historic phenomenon we have just been describing, and which serves to explain it. Socrates, who, like Jesus, did not write, is known to us through two of his disciples, Xenophon and Plato; the former corresponding with the synoptics by reason of his compilation, at once consecutive, transparent and impersonal; the latter, by reason of his robust individuality, recalling the author of the fourth Gospel. In order to describe the Socratic teaching must we follow the “Dialogues” of Plato, or the “Discourses” of Xenophon? In such a case doubt is not possible; everyone sticks to the “Discourses” and not to the “Dialogues.” Does Plato nevertheless teach us nothing concerning Socrates? In writing the biography of the latter, would it be good criticism to neglect the dialogues? Who would dare to maintain this?
Without pronouncing upon the question, it is material to know as to what hand indited the fourth Gospel; even if we were persuaded it was not that of the son of Zebedee, we can at least admit that this work possesses some title to be called “the Gospel according to John.” The historical sketch of the fourth Gospel is, in my opinion, the life of Jesus, such as it was known to the immediate circle of John. It is also my belief that this school was better acquainted with the different exterior circumstances of the life of the Founder than the group whose recollections go to make up the synoptic Gospels. Notably, in regard to the sojourns of Jesus at Jerusalem, it was in possession of facts that the other Gospels had not. Presbyteros Joannes, who is probably not a different person from the Apostle John, regarded, it is said, the narrative of Mark as incomplete and confused; he even had a theory which explained the omissions of the latter. Certain passages in Luke, which are a kind of echo of the Johannine traditions, prove, moreover, that the traditions preserved by the fourth Gospel were not to the rest of the Christian family something which was entirely unknown.
These explanations will suffice, I think, to show the motives which in the course of my narrative have determined me to give the preference to this or that one of the four guides which we have for the life of Jesus. On the whole, I admit the four canonical Gospels to be important documents. All four ascend to the century which succeeded the death of Jesus; but their historic value is very diverse. Matthew evidently merits unlimited confidence in respect of the discourses; the latter are the Logia, the very notes which have been extracted from a clear and lively memory of the teaching of Jesus. A species of éclat at once mild and terrible, a divine force, if I may so speak, underlines these words, detaches them from the context, and to the critic renders them easily distinguishable. The person who undertakes the task of carving out of evangelical history a consecutive narrative possesses, in this regard, an excellent touchstone. The actual words of Jesus, so to speak, reveal themselves; as soon as we touch them in this chaos of traditions of unequal authority, we feel them vibrate; they translate themselves spontaneously and fit into the narrative naturally, where they constitute an unsurpassable relief.
The narrative parts which are grouped in the first Gospel around this primitive nucleus do not possess the same authority. In them are to be found many silly enough legends, which proceeded from the piety of xlviiithe second Christian generation. The accounts which Matthew gives in common with Mark present faults of transcription which prove a mediocre acquaintance with Palestine. Many of the episodes are repeated twice, several persons are duplicated, which shows that different sources have been utilised and largely amalgamated. The Gospel of Mark is much more firm, more precise, and less weighted with circumstances which have been added. Of the three synoptics it is the one which has remained the most primitive, the most original, the Gospel to which has been annexed the fewest posterior elements. Material details are given in Mark with a clearness which we should seek in vain for in the other evangelists. He delights to report certain sayings of Jesus in Syro-Chaldean. His observations are most minute, and come, no doubt, from an eyewitness. There is nothing to disprove that this eyewitness, who evidently had followed Jesus, who had loved him and observed him very closely, and who had preserved a lively image of him, was the Apostle Peter himself, as is maintained by Papias.
As for the work of Luke, its historic value is sensibly more feeble. It is a document at second hand. Its manner of narration is more matured. The sayings of Jesus are there more reflective, more sententious. Some sentences are carried to excess and are false. Writing outside Palestine, and certainly after the siege of Jerusalem, the author indicates the places with less exactness than the two other synoptics; he is too fond of representing the temple as an oratory, where people go to do their devotions; he does not speak of the Herodians; he modifies details in order to bring the different narratives into closer agreement; he softens down passages which had become embarrassing because of the more exalted idea which people around him had attained to in regard to the divinity of Jesus; he exaggerates the marvellous; he commits errors of geography and of topography; he omits the Hebraic glosses; he appears to know little of Hebrew; he does not quote a word of Jesus in that language; he calls all the localities by their Greek names; he corrects at times in a clumsy manner the sayings of Jesus. We perceive in the author a compiler, a man who has not seen directly the witnesses, who labours at the texts, and permits himself to do them great violence in order to make them agree. Luke had probably under his eyes the original narrative of Mark and the Logia of Matthew. But he treats them with great freedom; at times he runs two anecdotes or two parables together to make one; sometimes he divides one in order to make two. He interprets the documents according to his own mind; he has not the absolute impassibility of Matthew and Mark. We might affirm this of his tastes and of his personal tendencies: he is a very exact devotee; he holds that Jesus has accomplished all the Jewish rites; he is a passionate democrat and Ebionite; that is to say, much opposed to property, and is persuaded that the poor will soon have their revenge; he is specially partial to the anecdotes which put into relief the conversion of sinners and the exaltation of the humble; he frequently modifies the ancient traditions so as to give them this acceptation. In his first pages he includes the legends touching the infancy of Jesus, related with the long amplifications, the canticles and the conventional proceedings which constitute the essential feature of xlixthe apocryphal Gospels. Finally, in the account of the last hours of Jesus, he introduces some circumstances which are full of a tender sentiment, as well as certain sayings of Jesus of rare beauty, which are not to be found in the more authentic narratives, and in which can be detected the hand of the legendary. Luke has probably borrowed them from a more recent collection, in which it is seen his chief aim was to excite sentiments of piety.
A great reserve was naturally bespoken in regard to a document of this nature. It would have been as little scientific to neglect it as to employ it without discernment. Luke had under his eyes originals which we no longer have. He is less an evangelist than a biographer of Jesus, a “harmonist,” a reviser, after the manner of Marcion and Tatian. But he is a biographer of the first century, a divine artist who, independently of the information he has extracted from more ancient sources, shows us the character of the Founder with a happiness of treatment, a uniformity of inspiration, and a clearness that the other two synoptic do not possess. His Gospel is the one the reading of which possesses most charm: for, not to mention the incomparable beauty of its common basis, he combines a degree of art and of skill in composition which singularly enhances the effect of the picture, without seriously marring its truthfulness.
To sum up, we are warranted in saying that the synoptic compilation has passed through three stages: first, the original documentary stage (λόγια of Matthew, λεχθέντα ἢ πραχθέντα of Mark), primary compilations no longer in existence; second, the simple amalgamation stage, in which the original documents were thrown together without any regard to literary form, and without any personal traits on the part of the authors becoming manifest (the present Gospels of Matthew and Mark); third, the combination stage, that of careful composition and reflection, in which we are conscious of an effort made to reconcile the different versions (the Gospel of Luke, the Gospels of Marcion, Tatian, &c.). The Gospel of John, as we have above said, is a composition of another order and altogether distinct.
It will be observed that I have not made any use of apocryphal Gospels. In no sense ought these compositions to be placed on the same footing as the canonical Gospels. They are tiresome and puerile amplifications, having almost entirely the canonicals for a basis, and adding almost nothing to them of any particular value. Contrariwise, I have been most careful in collecting the shreds which have been preserved by the Fathers of the Church, by the ancient Gospels which formerly existed simultaneously with the canonicals, but which are now lost, such as the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel according to the Egyptians, the Gospels attributed to Justin, Marcion, and Tatian. The first two possess a peculiar importance, inasmuch as they were indited in Aramean like the Logia of Matthew; as they appear to have formed a version of the Gospel attributed to that apostle, and as they were the Gospel of Ebionim, that is to say, of those small Christian sects of Batanea who preserved the use of the Syro-Chaldean tongue, and appear to have continued, to some extent, in the footsteps of Jesus. But it most be owned that, in the condition they have come down to us, lthese Gospels are inferior, for the purposes of criticism, to the edition of the Gospel of Matthew which we possess.
It will now, I presume, be understood what sort of historic value I put upon the Gospels. They are neither biographies after the manner of Suetonius, nor fictitious legends, after the manner of Philostratus; they are legendary biographies. I place them at once alongside of the legends of the saints, the lives of Plotinus, Proclus, Isidore, and other compositions of the same sort, in which historical truth and the desire to present models of virtue are combined in divers degrees. Inexactitude, a trait common to all popular compositions, makes itself particularly felt in them. Let us suppose that fifteen or twenty years ago three or four old soldiers of the Empire had individually set themselves to write a life of Napoleon from recollections of him. It is clear that their narratives would present numerous errors, great discordances. One of them would place Wagram before Marengo; another would boldly state that Napoleon ousted the government of Robespierre from the Tuileries; a third would omit expeditions of the highest importance. But one thing, possessing a great degree of truthfulness, would certainly result from these simple narratives—that is, the character of the hero, the impression he made around him. In this sense such popular narratives would be worth more than a solemn and official history. The same can also be said of the Gospels. Bent solely on bringing out strongly the excellency of the master, his miracles, his teaching, the evangelists manifest entire indifference to everything that is not of the very spirit of Jesus. The contradictions in respect of time, place, and persons were regarded as insignificant; for just as the greater the degree of inspiration that is attributed to the words of Jesus, so the less was granted to the compilers themselves. The latter looked upon themselves as simple scribes, and cared only for one thing—to omit nothing they knew.22See the passage from Papias, before cited.
Without doubt some certain preconceived ideas must have been associated with such recollections. Several narratives, especially in Luke, are invented in order to bring out more vividly certain traits of the personality of Jesus. This personality itself underwent alteration each day. Jesus would be a unique phenomenon in history if, with the part which he played, he had not soon become imbued with it. The legend respecting Alexander was concocted before the generation of his companions in arms was extinct; that respecting St. Francis d'Assisi began in his lifetime. A rapid work of transformation went on in the same manner in the twenty or thirty years which followed the death of Jesus, and imposed upon his biography the absolute traits of an ideal legend. Death makes perfect the most perfect man; it renders him faultless to those who have loved him. At the same time, the wish to paint the Master created likewise the desire to explain him. Many anecdotes were concocted in order to prove that the prophecies regarded as Messianic had been fulfilled in him. But this procedure, the importance of which is undeniable, would not suffice to explain everything. No Jewish work of the time gives a series of prophecies lideclaring formally what the Messiah was to accomplish. Many of the Messianic allusions referred to by the evangelists are so subtle, so indirect, that it is impossible to believe they all had relation to a generally admitted doctrine. Sometimes they reasoned thus: “The Messiah was to do such a thing; now Jesus is the Messiah; therefore Jesus has done such a thing.” Sometimes they reasoned inversely: “Such a thing has happened to Jesus; now Jesus is the Messiah; therefore such a thing was to happen to the Messiah.”33See, for example, John xix. 23, 24. Explanations which are too simple are always false when it is a question of analysing the tissues of those profound creations of popular sentiment which baffle all science by their fulness and infinite variety.
It is scarcely necessary to say that with such documents, in order to present only what is incontestable, we must confine ourselves to general lines. In almost all ancient histories, even in those which are much less legendary than these, details give rise to infinite doubts. When we have two accounts of the some fact, it is extremely rare that the two accounts are in accord. Is not this a reason, when we are confronted with but one perplexity, for falling into many? We may say that amongst the anecdotes, the discourses, the celebrated sayings reported by the historians, there is not one strictly accurate. Were there stenographers to take down these fleeting words? Was there an annalist always present to note the gestures, the conduct, the sentiments, of the actors? Let any one essay to attain to the truth as to the manner in which such or such a contemporary fact took place; he will not succeed. Two accounts of the same event given by two eyewitnesses differ essentially. Must we, hence, reject all the colouring of the narratives, and confine ourselves to recording the bare facts only? That would be to suppress history. Certainly I think, however, that if we except certain short and almost mnemonic axioms, none of the discourses reported by Matthew are textual; there is hardly one of our stenographic reports which is so. I willingly admit that that admirable account of the Passion embraces a multitude of trifling inaccuracies. Would it, however, be writing the history of Jesus to omit those sermons which exhibit to us in such a vivid manner the nature of his discourses, and to limit ourselves to saying, with Josephus and Tacitus, “that he was put to death by the order of Pilate” at the instigation of the priests”? That would be, in my opinion, a kind of inexactitude worse than that to which one exposes himself when admitting the details supplied by the texts. These details are not true to the letter, but they are rendered true by a superior truth; they are more true than the naked truth, in the sense that they are truths rendered expressive and articulate and raised to the height of an idea.
I beg those who think that I have placed an exaggerated confidence in narratives which are in great part legendary to take note of the observation I have just made. To what would the life of Alexander be reduced if it were limited to that which is materially certain? Even partly erroneous traditions contain a portion of truth which history liimay not pass over. No one has reproached M. Sprenger for having, in writing the life of Mahomet, set much store by the hadith or oral traditions concerning the prophet, and for often having imputed to his hero words which are only known through this source. The traditions respecting Mahomet, nevertheless, do not have a superior historical character to the discourses and narratives which compose the Gospels. They were written between the year 50 and the year 140 of the Hegira. When the history of the Jewish schools in the ages which immediately preceded and followed the birth of Christianity shall be written, no one will make any scruple of attributing to Hillel, Shammai, Gamaliel, the maxims imputed to them by the Mishna and the Gemara, although these great compilations were written many centuries after the time of the doctors just mentioned.
Contrariwise, those who believe that history ought to consist of a reproduction without comments of the documents which have come down to us, I beg them to take notice that such a course is not allowable. The four principal documents are in flagrant contradiction with one another; Josephus, moreover, sometimes rectifies them. It is necessary to make a choice. To allege that an event cannot take place in two ways at once, or in an absurd manner, is not to impose à priori philosophy upon history. Because he possesses several different versions of the same fact, or because credulity has mixed with all these versions fabulous circumstances, the historian most not conclude that the fact is not a fact; but he ought, in such a case, to be very cautious,—to examine the texts, and to proceed by induction. There is one class of narratives especially, apropos of which this principle must necessarily be applied—narratives of the supernatural. To seek to explain these narratives, or to transform them into legends, is not to mutilate facts in the name of theory; it is to begin with the observation of the very facts themselves. None of the miracles with which the old histories are filled took place under scientific conditions. Observation, which has not once been falsified, teaches us that miracles never take place save in times and countries in which they are believed, and in presence of persons disposed to believe them. No miracle ever took place in presence of an assembly of men capable of testing the miraculous character of the event. Neither common people nor men of the world are equal to the latter. It requires great precautions and long habit of scientific research. In our own days, have we not seen the great majority of people become dupes of the grossest frauds or of puerile illusions! Marvellous facts, attested by the populations of small towns, have, thanks to closer investigation, been condemned.44See the Gazette des Tribunaux, 10th Sept, and 11th Nov., 1851; 28th May, 1857. Since it is proved that no contemporary miracle will bear discussion, is it not probable that the miracles of the past, which have all been performed in popular gatherings, would equally present their share of illusion, if It were possible to criticise them in detail?
It is not, then, in the name of this or that philosophy, but in the liiiname of unbroken experience, that we banish the miracle from history. We do not say, “The miracle is impossible.” We say, “So far, a miracle has never been proved.” If to-morrow a thaumaturgist were to come forward with credentials sufficiently important to be discussed; if he were to announce that he was able, say, to raise the dead; what would be done? A commission, composed of physiologists, physicists, chemists, persons accustomed to historical criticism, would be named. That commission would choose a corpse, would assure itself that the death was indeed real, would designate the room in which the experiment should be made, would arrange a whole series of precautions, so as to leave no chance of doubt. If, under such conditions, resuscitation were effected, a probability, almost equal to certainty, would be established. As, however, it ought always to be possible to repeat an experiment—to do over again that which has been done once—and as, in the case of miracle, there can be no question of facility or difficulty, the thaumaturgist would be invited to reproduce his marvellous feat under different circumstances, upon other corpses, in another place. If the miracle was repeated each time, two things would be proved: first, that supernatural facts take place in the world; second, that the power of producing them belongs, or is delegated to, certain individuals. But who does not perceive that a miracle never took place under these conditions? that hitherto the thaumaturgist has always chosen the subject of the experiment, chosen the spot, chosen the public; that, moreover, it is the people themselves who most often, in consequence of the invincible desire to see something divine in great events and great men, create afterwards the marvellous legends? Until the order of things changes, we maintain it, then, as a principle of historical criticism, that a supernatural account cannot be admitted as such, that it always implies credulity or imposture, that it is the duty of the historian to explain it, and search out what share of truth, or of error, it may conceal.
Such are the rules which have been adhered to in the composition of this narrative. In the reading of the texts, I have been able to combine with it an important source of information—the viewing of the places where the events occurred. The scientific mission, having for its object the exploration of ancient Phœnicia, which I directed in 1860 and 1861,55The work which will contain the results of this mission is in the press. led me to reside on the frontiers of Galilee, and to travel thither frequently. I have traversed, in every sense of the term, the country of the Gospels; I have visited Jerusalem, Hebron, and Samaria; scarcely any important locality in the history of Jesus has escaped me. All this history, which seems at a distance to float in the clouds of an unreal world, took thus a form, a solidity, which astonished me. The striking agreement of the texts and the places, the marvellous harmony of the evangelical idea, and of the country which served it as a framework, were to me a revelation. Before my eyes I had a fifth Gospel, disfigured though still legible, and from that time, in the narratives of Matthew and Mark, I saw instead of an abstract being, who could be said never to have existed, an admirable livhuman figure living and moving. During the summer, having to go up to Ghazir, in Lebanon, to take a little repose, I fixed, in rapid sketches, the picture as it had appeared to me, and from them resulted this history. When a cruel affliction came to hasten my departure, I had only a few pages to write. In this manner the book was almost entirely composed near the very places where Jesus was born and lived. Since my return, I have laboured unceasingly to complete and arrange in detail the rough sketch which I had hastily written in a Maronite cabin, with five or six volumes around me.
Many will perhaps regret the biographical form which my work has thus taken. When, for the first time, I conceived the idea of writing a history of the origins of Christianity, my intention was, in fact, to produce a history of doctrines, in which men and their actions would have hardly had a place. Jesus was scarcely to be named; I was especially bent on showing how the ideas which, under cover of his name, were produced, took root and covered the world. But I have since learned that history is not a simple game of abstractions; that men are more important than doctrines. It was not a certain theory in regard to justification and redemption which caused the Reformation; it was Luther and Calvin. Parseeism, Hellenism, Judaism, might have been able to combine under all forms; the doctrines of the Resurrection and of the Word might have gone on developing for ages without producing that grand, unique, and fruitful fact, which is called Christianity. That fact is the work of Jesus, of St. Paul, and of the apostles. To write the history of Jesus, of St. Paul, and of the apostles, is to write the history of the origins of Christianity. The anterior movements do not belong to our subject except as serving to explain the characters If these extraordinary men, who, naturally, could not be severed from that which preceded them.
In such an effort, to make the great souls of the past live again, some degree of divination and of conjecture must be permitted. A great life is an organic whole which cannot be exhibited by the mere agglomeration of small facts. It requires a profound sentiment to embrace the whole, and to make it a perfect unity. The artist method in such a subject is a good guide; the exquisite tact of a Goethe would discover how to apply it. The essential condition of the creations of art is to form a living system of which all the parts are mutually dependent and connected. In histories of this kind, the great indication that we hold to the truth is to have succeeded in combining the texts in such a fashion that they shall constitute a logical and probable narrative, in which nothing shall be out of tune. The secret laws of life, of the progression of organic products, of the action of minute particles, ought to be consulted at each moment; for what is required to be reproduced is not the material circumstance, which it is impossible to verify; it is the soul itself of history; what most be sought after is not the petty certainty of minutiæ, it is the correctness of the general sentiment, the truthfulness of the colouring. Each detail which departs from the rules of classic narration ought to warn us to be on our guard; for the fact which requires to be related has been confined to the necessities of things, natural and lvharmonious. If we do not succeed in rendering it such by our narrative, it is only because we have not attained to seeing it aright. Suppose that, in restoring the Minerva of Phidias according to the texts, we produced an ensemble at once dry, jarring artificial; what must we conclude? Only one thing: the texts lack an appreciative interpretation; we must inquire into them calmly until they can be made to approximate and furnish a whole in which all the parts are happily blended. Should we then be sure of having feature for feature of the Greek statue? No; but we should not, at least, have the caricature of it; we should have the general spirit of the work—one of the forms in which it might have existed.
This sentiment of a living organism we have not hesitated to take as our guide in the general arrangement of the narrative. The reading of the Gospels would be sufficient to prove that the authors, although conceiving a very true idea of the Life of Jesus, have not been guided by very rigorous chronological data; Papias, moreover, expressly teaches this, and bases his opinion upon evidence which seems to emanate from the Apostle John himself. The expressions, “At this time . . . after that . . . then . . . and it came to pass . . .” &c., are the simple transitions designed to connect different narratives with each other. To leave all the information furnished by the Gospels in the disorder in which tradition gives it, would no more be writing the history of Jesus than it would be writing the history of a celebrated man to give pell-mell the letters and anecdotes of his youth, his old age, and of his maturity. The Koran, which presents to us, in the loosest manner possible, fragments of the different epochs in the life of Mahomet, has discovered its secret to ingenious criticism; the chronological order in which the fragments were composed has been hit upon in such a way as to leave little room for doubt Such a re-arrangement is much more difficult in the Gospel, owing to the public life of Jesus having been shorter and less eventful than the life of the founder of Islamism. Nevertheless, the attempt to find a thread which shall serve as a guide through this labyrinth, ought not to be taxed with gratuitous subtlety. There is no great abuse of hypothesis in premising that a religious founder commences by attaching himself to the moral aphorisms which are already in circulation, and to the practices which are in vogue; nor, as he advances and gets full possession of his idea, that he delights in a kind of calm and poetical eloquence, remote from all controversy, sweet and free as pure feeling; nor, as he gradually warms, that he is animated by opposition, and finishes by polemics and strong invectives. Such are the periods which are plainly distinguishable in the Koran. The order which, with extremely fine tact, is adopted by the synoptic, supposes an analogous progress. If we read Matthew attentively, we shall find, in the arrangement of the discourses, a gradation greatly analogous to that just indicated. We may observe also the studied turns of expression which are made use of when it is desired to show the progress of the ideas of Jesus. The reader may, if he prefers, see in the divisions adopted in this respect, only the breaks indispensable for the methodical exposition of a profound and complicated thought.lvi
If love for a subject can assist in the understanding of it, it will also, I hope, be recognised that I have not been wanting in this condition. To construct the history of a religion, it is necessary first to have believed it (without this, we should not be able to understand why it has charmed and satisfied the human conscience); in the second place, to believe it no longer in an absolute manner, for absolute faith is incompatible with sincere history. But love exists apart from faith. In order not to attach one's self to any of the forms which captivate the adoration of men, one need not renounce the appreciation of that which they contain of good and of beautiful. No transitory apparition exhausts the Divinity; God was revealed before Jesus—God will reveal Himself after him. Profoundly unequal, and so much the more Divine, because they are grander and more spontaneous, the manifestations of God which are hidden in the depths of the human conscience are all of the same order. Jesus cannot then belong solely to those who call themselves his disciples. He is the common honour of him who carries a human heart. His glory does not consist in being banished from history; we render him a truer worship in showing that all history is incomprehensible without him.
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