|« Prev||Chapter I. Place of Jesus in the History of the…||Next »|
THE LIFE OF JESUS.
PLACE OF JESUS IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD.
The chief event in the world's history is the revolution by which the noblest portions of humanity passed from the ancient religions comprised under the name of Paganism to a religion based on the divine unity, the trinity, and the incarnation of the Son of God. It took nearly a thousand years to make this conversion. The new religion itself was three hundred years in forming. But the revolution in question had its origin in the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius. There lived then a superior person, who, through his daring originality and the love he could inspire, created the object and fixed the point of departure of the future faith of humanity.
Man, since he distinguished himself from the animal, has been religious: we mean, he sees something in nature beyond appearances, and in himself something beyond death. This sentiment, for thousands of years, was debased in the most singular manner. With many races it went no further than a belief in sorcerers, under the gross form in which it is still to be found in certain parts of 2Oceania. With other peoples the religious sentiment degenerated into the hideous scenes of butchery which characterised the ancient religion of Mexico. In other countries, Africa in particular, it did not get beyond Fetichism: we mean the adoration of a material object to which were attributed supernatural powers. Like the instinct of love, which at moments elevates the most vulgar man above himself, it sometimes takes the form of perversion and ferocity; similarly, this divine faculty of religion had for a long time the appearance of a cancer, which it was necessary to extirpate from the human species, the source of errors and of crimes which it was the duty of wise men to seek to suppress.
The brilliant civilisations developed at a remote period in China, in Babylonia, and in Egypt, were the cause of a certain progress in religion. China attained early to a sort of good common sense, which prevented her from going wildly astray. She was cognisant neither of the advantages nor the abuses of the religious spirit. At all events, she had in this instance no influence in directing the great current of human thought. The religions of Babylonia and Syria never disengaged themselves from a substratum of strange sensuality; those religions continued to be, until their extinction in the fourth and fifth centuries of our era, schools of immorality from which, at times, thanks to a kind of poetical instinct, glimpses of the divine world emanated. Egypt, in spite of an apparent kind of Fetichism, was able very early to embrace metaphysical dogmas and a lofty symbolism. But these interpretations of a refined theology were unquestionably not intuitive. Man, when possessed of a clear idea, has never amused himself by clothing it in symbols; most often it is the result of long reflection, and the impossibility felt by the human mind 3of giving itself up to the absurd, that we seek for ideas whose meaning is lost to us behind ancient mystic images. It is not from Egypt, moreover, whence has come the faith of humanity. The elements in the Christian religion which, after undergoing a thousand transformations, came from Egypt and Syria, are exterior forms of little consequence, or of dross such as is always retained in the purest worships. The grand defect of the religions in question was their superstitious character; they only threw into the world millions of amulets and charms. No great moral thought could emanate from races debased by a secular despotism and accustomed to institutions which prevented almost any exercise of individual liberty.
The poetry of the soul, faith, liberty, sincerity, devotion, appeared simultaneously in the world with the two great races which, in a sense, have made humanity; we refer to the Indo-European and the Semitic races. The first religious intuitions of the Indo-European race were essentially naturalistic. But it was a profound and moral naturalism, an amorous embrace of nature by man, a delicious poetry, full of the sentiment of the infinite; the principle, in a word, of all that which the Germanic and Celtic genius, of that which, in later times, a Shakespeare and a Goethe, should express. This was neither religion nor moral reflection; it was melancholy, tenderness, and imagination; above all, it was extreme earnestness—that is to say, the essential condition of morals and religion. The faith of mankind, nevertheless, could not issue thence, for the reason that these old religions had much difficulty in detaching themselves from polytheism, and could not attain to a very distinct symbolism. Brahmanism has survived to our day only by virtue of the astonishing conservatism which India seems to possess. Buddhism has been 4stranded in all its attempts to reach the West. Druidism was an exclusively national form, and without universal application. The Greek attempts at reform, Orpheism, the Mysteries, were not able to give solid nourishment to the soul. Persia alone attained to the making of a dogmatic religion, which was almost monotheistic, besides being skilfully organised; but it is very possible that this organisation itself was only an imitation or borrowed. In any case, Persia has not converted the world; on the contrary, she was converted when she saw the flag of the divine unity proclaimed by Islam appear on her frontiers.
It is the Semitic race whose glory it is to have founded the religion of humanity. Away beyond the confines of history, the Bedouin patriarch, resting under his tent and free from the disorders of an already corrupted world, prepared the faith of humanity. His superiority consisted in his strong antipathy against the voluptuous religions of Syria, a marked simplicity of ritual, a complete absence of temples, and the idol reduced to insignificant theraphim. Amongst all the tribes of the nomadic Semites that of the Beni-Israel was already marked out for a great future. From its ancient relations with Egypt there resulted impressions whose extent it would be difficult to determine, but this only served to enhance its hatred for idolatry. A “Law,” or Thora, written in very ancient times on tables of stone, which they attributed to Moses, their great liberator, was already the code of monotheism, and contained, when compared with the institutions of Egypt and Chaldea, powerful germs of social equality and of morality. A portable ark, surmounted by a sphinx, with staples on the two sides through which to pass poles, constituted all their religious matériel; all the sacred books of the nation were collected, its relics, 5its souvenirs, and, finally, the “book,” the journal of the tribe, which was always open, but in which entries were made with great discretion. The family charged with holding the poles and keeping watch over these portable archives, being near and having control of the book, acquired very soon some importance. The institution, however, which was to determine the future did not proceed thence. The Hebrew priest differed little from other priests of ancient times. The character which essentially distinguishes Israel among theocratic peoples is, that sacerdotalism has always been subordinated to individual inspiration. Besides its priests, each nomadic tribe had its nabi, or prophet, a sort of living oracle, who was consulted upon obscure questions, the solution of which presupposed the gift of clairvoyance in a high degree. The nabis of Israel, who were formed into groups or schools, possessed great superiority. Defenders of the ancient democratic spirit, enemies of the rich, opposed to all political organisation and to whatever might attract Israel into the paths of other nations, they were the true agents of the religious pre-eminence of the Jewish people. Very early they held forth boundless hopes, and when the people, victims to some extent of their impolitic counsels, were crushed by the might of Assyria, they proclaimed that an endless reign was in store for Judah, that Jerusalem would one day be the capital of the whole world, and that the human race would be made Jews. Jerusalem, with its temple, appeared to them as a city placed upon the summit of a mountain, towards which all peoples should turn, as an oracle whence universal law should issue, as the centre of an ideal kingdom, where the human race, pacified by Israel, should find once more the delights of Eden.
Obscure utterances began already to be heard, 6which extolled the martyrdom and celebrated the power, of “the Man of Sorrows.” Apropos of one of these sublime sufferers, who, like Jeremiah, were to dye the streets of Jerusalem with their blood, one of the inspired composed a song upon the sufferings and the triumph of the “servant of God,” in which all the prophetic force of the genius of Israel seemed concentrated.
“ For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant and as a root out of a dry ground; he hath no form nor comeliness. He is despised and rejected of men; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our grief, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. And he made his grave with the wicked. When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” [Isaiah lii. 13 et seq., and liii. entirely.]
Great alterations were made at the same time in the Thora. New texts, such as Deuteronomy, assuming to represent the true law of Moses, were produced, which inaugurated in reality a spirit very different from that of the old nomads. An ardent fanaticism was the dominant characteristic of this spirit. Infatuated believers provoked incessant persecutions against all who strayed from the worship of Jehovah; a code of blood, prescribing the penalty of death for religious derelictions, was successfully established. Piety almost always brings in its train the singular contradictions—vehemence and gentleness. This zeal, unknown to the coarser simplicity of the age of the Judges, inspired tones of eager prophecy and of tender unction of which the world until now had never 7heard. A strong tendency towards social questions already made itself felt. Utopias, dreams of a perfect society, were admitted to the code. The Pentateuch, a mélange of patriarchal morality and of ardent devotion, primitive intuitions and pious subtleties, like those with which the souls of Hezekiah, Josiah, and Jeremiah were charged, was thus determined in its present form, and was for ages the absolute rule of the national mind.
This great book once created, the history of the Jewish people developed with an irresistible force The great empires which succeeded each other in Western Asia, in destroying the hope of a terrestrial kingdom, threw them into religious dreams, which they cherished with a kind of sombre passion. Caring little for the national dynasty or for political independence, they accepted all governments which permitted them to practise freely their worship and to follow their usages. Israel will no longer have other guidance than that of its religious enthusiasts, other enemies than those of the Divine unity, other country than its Law.
And this Law, it must be remarked, was entirely social and moral. It was the work of men penetrated with a high ideal of the present life, who believed they had found the best means of realising it. The general conviction was that the Thora, closely followed, could not fail to give perfect felicity. This Thora has nothing in common with the Greek or Roman “Laws,” which are cognisant of little else than abstract right, and entered little into the questions of private happiness and morality. We feel beforehand that the results which will proceed from the Jewish Law will be of a social, and not of a political order, that the work at which this people labours is a kingdom of God, not a civil republic; a universal institution, not a nationality or a country.8
Despite numerous failures, Israel admirably sustained this vocation. A series of pious men, Ezra, Nehemiah, Onias, the Maccabees, eaten up with zeal for the Law, succeeded each other in the defence of the ancient institutions. The idea that Israel was a holy people, a tribe chosen by God and bound to Him by a covenant, took more and more a firm root. A great expectation filled their souls. The whole of the Indo-European antiquity had placed paradise in the beginning; its poets, who had wept a golden age, had passed away. Israel placed the age of gold in the future. The perennial poesy of religious souls, the Psalms, with their divine and melancholy harmony, blossomed from this exalted piety. Israel became actually and par excellence the people of God, while around it the Pagan religions were more and more reduced; in Persia and Babylonia to an official charlatanism, in Egypt and Syria to a gross idolatry, and in the Greek and Roman world to parade. That which the Christian martyrs did in the first centuries of our era; that which the victims of persecuting orthodoxy have done, even in the bosom of Christianity, up to our time, the Jews did during the two centuries which preceded the Christian era. They were a living protest against superstition and religious materialism. An extraordinary activity of ideas, terminating in the most opposite results, made of them, at this epoch, a people the most striking and original in the world. Their dispersion along the whole Mediterranean littoral, and the use of the Greek language, which they adopted when out of Palestine, prepared the way for a propagandism of which ancient societies, broken up into small nationalities, had not yet presented an example.
Up to the time of the Maccabees, Judaism, in spite of its persistence in announcing that it would 9one day be the religion of the human race, had had the characteristic of all the other worships of antiquity—it was a worship of the family and the tribe. The Israelite thought, indeed, that his worship was the best, and spoke with contempt of strange gods. Nevertheless, he believed also that the religion of the true God had only been made for himself. One embraced the religion of Jehovah when one entered the Jewish family; not otherwise. No Israelite dreamed of converting the stranger to a worship which was the patrimony of the sons of Abraham. The development of the pietistic spirit, beginning with Ezra and Nehemiah, led to a much firmer and more logical conception. Judaism became, in a more absolute manner, the true religion; the right of entering it was given to him who wished it; soon it became a work of piety to bring into it the greatest number possible. True, the generous sentiment which elevated John the Baptist, Jesus, and St. Paul above the petty ideas of race did not yet exist; for, by a strange contradiction, these converts (proselytes) were little respected, and were even treated with disdain. But the idea of an exclusive religion, the idea that there was something in the world superior to country, to blood, to laws, the idea which was to make apostles and martyrs, was founded. A profound pity for the Pagans, however brilliant might be their worldly fortune, was henceforward the sentiment of every Jew. By a series of legends, destined to furnish established models (Daniel and his companions, the mother of the Maccabees and her seven sons, the romance of the racecourse of Alexandria), the guides of the people sought above all to inculcate this idea—that virtue consists in a fanatical attachment to fixed religious institutions.
The persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes made of this idea a passion, almost a frenzy. It was 10something very analogous to what happened under Nero two hundred and thirty years later. Rage and despair threw believers into the world of visions and of dreams. The first apocalypse, “The Book of Daniel,” appeared. It was like a revival of prophecy, though under a very different form from the ancient one, and with a much larger conception of the destinies of the world. The Book of Daniel gave, in a manner, to the Messianic hopes their last expression. The Messiah was no longer a king, after the manner of David and Solomon, a theocratic and Mosaic Cyrus; he was a “Son of man” appearing in the clouds, a supernatural being, invested with human form, charged to rule the world, and to preside over the golden age. Perhaps the Sosiosch of Persia, the great prophet who was to come, charged with preparing the reign of Ormuzd, furnished some features for this new ideal. The unknown author of the Book of Daniel had, in any case, a decisive influence on the religious event which was going to transform the world. He devised the mise-en-scène, and the technical terms of the new Messianism; and it might be applied to him what Jesus said of John the Baptist,—“Before him, the prophets; after him, the kingdom of God.” A few years later the same ideas were reproduced under the name of the patriarch Enoch. Essenism, which seems to have been in direct relationship with the apocalyptic school, was created about the same time, and offered a first rough sketch of the grand discipline which was soon to constitute the education of humanity.
It must not, however, be supposed that this movement, so profoundly religious and soul-stirring, had particular dogmas to give it impulse, as was the case in all the conflicts which have broken out in the bosom of Christianity. The Jew of this time had as little of the theologian 11about him as may be. He did not speculate upon the essence of the Divinity; the beliefs about angels, about the end of man, about the Divine hypostasis, of which the first germs might already be perceived, were quite optional—they were meditations, which each one cherished according to the turn of his mind, but of which a great number of men had never heard. Those who did not share in these particular imaginings were even the most orthodox, and who adhered to the simplicity of the Mosaic law. No dogmatic power, analogous to that which orthodox Christianity has given to the Church, then existed. It was not until the beginning of the third century, when Christianity had fallen into the hands of reasoning races, crazy about dialectics and metaphysics, that that fever for definitions commenced which made the history of the Church the history of a great controversy. There were disputes also among the Jews; some ardent schools brought opposite solutions to almost all the questions which were agitated; but in these contests, the principal details of which are preserved in the Talmud, there is not a single word of speculative theology. Observe and maintain the Law, because the Law was just, and because, in being well observed, it gave happiness; this was the whole of Judaism. No credo, no theoretical symbol. A disciple of the boldest Arabic philosophy, Moses Maimonides, succeeded in becoming the oracle of the synagogue, because he was a well-informed canonist.
The reigns of the last Asmoneans, and that of Herod, saw the excitement grow still stronger. They were filled with an uninterrupted series of religious movements. In proportion as that power became secularised, and passed into the hands of unbelievers, the Jewish people lived less and less for the earth, and allowed themselves to become 12more and more absorbed by the strange force which was operating in their midst. The world, distracted by other spectacles, knew nothing of what was passing in this forgotten corner of the East. The minds in touch with their age were, however, better informed. The tender and prescient Virgil seems to respond, as by a secret echo, to the second Isaiah; the birth of a child throws him into dreams of a universal palingenesis. These dreams were general, and formed a species of literature which was indicated by the name Sibylline. The quite recent formation of the empire exalted the imagination; the great era of peace on which it entered, and that impression of melancholy sensibility which souls experience after long periods of revolution, gave rise everywhere to boundless hopes.
In Judæa expectation was at its zenith. Holy persons, such as old Simeon, who, legend tells us, held Jesus in his arms; Anna, daughter of Phanuel, regarded as a prophetess, passed their life about the temple, fasting and praying, that it might please God not to withdraw them from the world until they should see the fulfilment of the hopes of Israel. They felt a powerful presentiment of the approach of something unknown.
This confused mixture of clear views and of dreams, this alternation of deceptions and of hopes, these ceaseless aspirations, which were driven back by an odious reality, found at last their expression in the incomparable man, to whom the universal conscience has most justly decreed the title of Son of God, because he has given to religion a direction which no other can or probably ever will be able to emulate.13
|« Prev||Chapter I. Place of Jesus in the History of the…||Next »|