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THE POPULAR BELIEFS OF ANTIQUITY.
IT is no doubt true that Christianity is a daughter of the Jewish faith: yet it strikes its roots deep down into a soil which we may call beliefs common to all the religions of antiquity. In that soil the characteristic features of the various religions of the ancient world are not as yet distinguishable. Among these common beliefs may be included the whole body of ideas concerning the earth, nature, man, the soul, and the world of spirits. Before the dawn of science these popular ideas bore undisputed sway, and they live on even to the present time engaged in a ceaseless struggle with scientific conceptions of the universe.
According to the popular beliefs of antiquity, this earth is, of course, the centre of creation, the only scene of any history concerning God and mankind. Over it is the vault of heaven, and there the sun and all the stars, “the powers of the heavens,” run their 2courses, yet the earth is the world; in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, the two terms are interchanged as denoting the same idea. But the earth itself is small and little known. The thoughts of men can fly to the “ends of the world” in an instant. From one end to another flashes the lightning, and, like the lightning, so shall the Son of man appear to all men at once. The devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them from the top of one exceeding high mountain. If one wished to speak of a geography of the New Testament—the term would be a misnomer—its western limits would be Spain and its eastern the kingdom of the Parthians.
This limited view of earth and world had naturally not been without influence upon religion. The unwavering faith in Providence, as well as the hope in the coming of the kingdom of God upon earth, have their chief support in this undoubted geocentric system. In like manner missionary zeal was kindled by the belief that it would be possible to preach the gospel to all the world in one single generation. Men had no idea then of the size of this earth, such as we know it now, nor of the infinite and persistent variety among the different races of men, which cause such great difficulties to missionary enterprise. And in like manner they had no conception of the universe as a whole or of this earth’s nothingness in comparison with it. However little reason we may have to boast of knowledge for which we are not indebted to ourselves, as little right have we to hide from our selves the chasm which separates us in this point from early Christianity as a child of antiquity.
The next point of difference goes a good deal 3deeper still. It is the boundless faith in the miraculous which early Christianity shares with all world-religions. The whole earth is thereby transformed into an enchanted world. As yet there is no trace of any knowledge of the law of natural causation. All things are possible for God and for those that believe, and all things are mystery.
In the first place, the world of nature is a world of wonders. St. John iii. 8 is a typical instance: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.” And just because of this arbitrary and mysterious character it is so well suited to represent the supernatural powers of the spirit. This belief in nature as a realm of marvels meets us most distinctly in the various eschatologies of the New Testament. According to these conceptions the fashion of this world shall pass suddenly away, and the heavens shall vanish with a great noise, the elements shall melt with fervent heat, and there shall be new heavens and a new earth. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood; the stars shall fall from heaven, the sign of the cross shall appear in the air, and the Son of man shall descend upon the clouds of heaven. Faith in the miraculous positively revels in the enumeration of signs of the approaching end of all things; in the vision of the seven seals and of the seven trumpets and of the seven bowls the fancy of the writer of the Apocalypse runs riot altogether, passing the bounds of all possibility. But this faith will not suffer itself to be limited to the distant future. In the history of Jesus and of His apostles it finds and creates for itself the 4material for an actual embodiment in the present. Here, too, there is nothing that is impossible, and the truth of the saying as to the faith that removeth mountains receives a striking confirmation. Jesus stills the tempest on the sea and causes the fig tree to wither, in both cases merely by the utterance of a word. He walks on the sea by night and enables Peter to do likewise. He changes water into wine, He divides a few loaves and fishes among five thousand and again among four thousand people. He calls Lazarus forth from the tomb on the third day in spite of the corruption that had already set in; He himself rises on the third day from the grave that is closed with a sealed stone and guarded by a watch; He enters the room though the doors are closed, and yet He can eat and suffer Himself to be touched; and finally, so we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, He ascends visibly to heaven, whence He shall come again visibly. The Acts now become the great book of the miracles of the Apostles and of the first Christian saints, whose leaders work wonders even with their shadows and their napkins. Thus faith in the miraculous surpasses all bounds, and yet it is not consciously dealing with exceptional cases, far less with breaches of the law of nature the very conception of such a law does not exist—but with everyday phenomena which are perfectly natural.
The religious value attached by the early Christians to miracles surprises us to-day, even more than the entire absence of the critical faculty. It is not merely those Christians to whom we owe our Gospels, who find the proof of the truths of their doctrine in the stories of the miracles. Jesus Himself appeals 5to His miracles (and that not only in the Fourth Gospel), and sees in them the beginning of the kingdom of God. Hence we can readily understand that the miracle of the Resurrection must needs serve as the foundation of the Christian faith. Whereas, amongst the Jews, miracles were intended as a proof of doctrine; amongst the Gentiles they bear witness to the manifestation of a God (Renan); and just as it twice happened in St Paul’s journeys, that he was on the point of receiving divine honours because of his miracles—once when he healed the lame man, and again when the viper’s bite did him no harm—so Jesus was actually regarded by the Gentile Christians as God, because of the miracles that were related of Him. The theology of miracles occupies a higher position in the New Testament than one is usually inclined to accord to it, and the Divinity of Christ is bound up with this theology.
Nowhere is the difference between modern and early Christian modes of thought seen in so clear a light as in the fact that the stories of the miracles of the New Testament, which were once one of the chief proofs of the truths of our religion, are themselves to-day the object of long apologetic writings.
Like nature without, so the human mind within is a mystery to the early Christians. Here, too, they have no idea of a fixed sequence of events, but everything happens independently and arbitrarily. It is true that Jesus, and after Him the theologians Paul and John, just touched upon the thought of an inner necessity, but it was only by the way, and led to no further consequences. The belief in the freedom of man under all circumstances and 6at all times is for all that presupposed by the New Testament authors without an exception. Jesus confirmed this belief by the great demand that He made upon man, and it is the very life of Christian missionary work. But this belief is simply a special instance of belief in the miraculous.
But the true domain of mystery lies in the real inner life of the soul, in the unconscious with its enigmatic utterances. The miraculous itself is contained in every human being, and can manifest itself suddenly in ecstatic conditions. Unchecked by any Philistine spirit of rationalism, the early Christians bestowed upon all manifestations of the mysterious inner life of the soul a far more serious and more impartial attention than we moderns, who are often inclined to be somewhat too precipitate in determining the limits of that which is possible. In those days men were at once more childlike and more dogmatic in their explanation of mental processes. Even though they built up no system, the conception prevailed amongst them that these phenomena were the manifestations of some external agent. It was not we ourselves, but a demon, an angel, or a spirit that was the efficient cause; sometimes this agent is conceived of as intimately connected with our soul, but at others he is an entirely extraneous being that has forced his way into our body from without through one of its many pores, and now dwells within it and rules over it. Here we have the origin of the conception, not only of demoniacal possession, but of that of the Holy Spirit, whose operations, save that they work the will of a beneficent Deity, are pictured as analogous to those of the demons. Speaking 7with tongues and prophesying, the seeing of visions and the state of enhancement, the working of miracles, are above all else the manifestations of this one and the same spirit, as they are presented to us in chaps. xii. and xiv. of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, our principal New Testament authority on this subject. The conception of the double appears rudely materialized in St Peter’s conversation with Rhoda, and then in a lovely form in Jesus’ words concerning the little children’s angels, and especially spiritualized in that passage in St Paul where God’s Spirit testifies to our spirit that we are the children of God. We trace these naive conceptions in theological trains of thought: the whole dogma of the Atonement, as well as, on the other hand, that of Inspiration, stand and fall in their ecclesiastical shape with this childlike psychology of the ancient world. Where we stand face to face with the phenomena of the unconscious in man and marvel, and yet even here at least suspect natural causation, the early Christians at once presupposed the supernatural agency of a good or of an evil spirit.
We may here mention in passing that in like manner the anthropology of the early Christian laity—possibly not that of the theologian St Paul—maintains its close connection with the popular beliefs of the ancient world, when it still conceives of matter and spirit as in some manner merged in each other. The soul, the spirit itself, is something corporeal, though far more sublimated than our flesh and blood. The rich man in Hades sees, hears, suffers thirst and torments in the flames, although his body already 8rests in the grave. At the foundation of the rite of Baptism lies the conception, though possibly no longer consciously, that the water cleanses the soul together with the body.
How strange at bottom do the words of Jesus sound to our modern modes of thought! “Be not over-anxious for the soul what ye shall eat and drink, nor for the body wherewith ye shall be clothed.” The appearances, too, of the risen Master, with their hybrid character of visionary and grossly material features, can be more readily understood from the point of view of this anthropology, which is as yet not strictly dualistic. It is true that St Paul, as a clear thinker, endeavoured to arrive at a distinct separation of body and soul, but after all his efforts he only reaches the conception of the spiritual body, which still betrays his original starting-point.
After external nature and the mystery of the soul, we come finally to the third great wonderland, the domain of the Spirit. That which has become for us moderns a dead formula, or else the play of the freest fancy, was the deepest of all realities that regulated life for the age of early Christianity. Jews and Persians did, it is true, divide spirits according to an ethical standard into angels and demons, but as Satan can transform himself into an angel of light, the operations of the two groups are often surprisingly similar; and finally, the original contrast of harmful and helpful spirits can be plainly traced even in the New Testament itself. The spirits fill the whole of the upper world, the realm of the air, and yet they live at the same time upon earth and among men. All kinds of diseases—even fevers or 9dumbness, but in the highest degree, of course, mental diseases—are caused by them. A spirit can enter into a man with seven others or even with a whole legion. The expulsion of these inmates is itself the effect of a spiritual process, the means employed being fasting and disenchantment. The helpful spirits, on the other hand, are welcome saviours in every kind of distress, and mediators between men and the highest God. Now, no one lived in the midst of these conceptions regarding the world of spirits with a more childlike simplicity of belief than Jesus Himself. He fights with Satan, and with the hosts of Beelzebub in the solitude of the wilderness, and in the midst of the habitations of men. He is under the painful necessity of seeing His most trusted follower become the emissary of Satan. St Paul is ever being parted from God by dominions, principalities and powers, and it is in defiance of them that he clings so fast to God’s love. In one of his last letters he tells us of the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that worketh even now in the children of disobedience, and he thus summons the Christian to the last struggle of all, not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. The weapons which he there recommends are the grand Christian substitutes for the ancient spells and charms. It was only by assuming the existence of demons that the early Christian Church could explain the might of Rome and the power of the heathen world. And everywhere the clear distinction between good and bad spirits rests 10upon the foundation of the ancient conception of the spirit world.
Nothing is easier than the proof that all these conceptions of the enchanted world with its three wonderlands are neither specifically Christian nor Jewish, but simply belong to the ancient popular belief, and not to it alone. The early Christians were perfectly conscious that they shared this belief with the heathen. That is why they made such frequent use of all these elements in their apologetic writings. The myths and miracles of Jesus are there compared with perfect ingenuousness with their Greek parallels (the earliest passage is in Justin Martyr, First Apology, chaps. xxi. and xxii.): “If the Christians relate cures of lame and palsied men, and of men sick from their birth, and the raising of the dead, then all this is similar to that which is said to have been done by Asclepius.” The belief in the Resurrection of Jesus has its parallel among the Jews in the report of the risen Baptist, and among the heathen in the belief in Asclepius, who was struck by lightning and ascended into heaven. For the miraculous birth of the Son of God, both friends and foes of Christianity adduced, though with opposite intentions, the corresponding cases of the origin of sons of God amongst the heathen. Though Jesus compared His casting out of devils with that of the Jewish exorcists, this art was not specifically Jewish, but belonged to the ancient world in general. The Jew whom Celsus introduces as the opponent of the Christian, mentions Egyptian, i.e. heathen ‘Goetes,’ who for a few obols cast out devils, blow away diseases, bring up the souls of the dead, etc. The same applies to the prediction 11of future events. If we find Christians as early as in the New Testament appealing to the so-called proof from prophecy in order to convince the heathen, they presuppose the fact that their heathen adversaries attach a high value to the gift of divination.
So deeply spread and so deeply rooted was the belief in ecstasy as a divinely-caused state, that the apologists declared that euhemerism—i.e. the attempt to explain the heathen religions by the deification of men—failed because of the fact of oracles. But the agreement of Christians with heathen in the belief in demons is most palpable in the controversy of Origen with Celsus. Both entirely concur in the assumption of an intermediary race or species of beings who are the givers of all gifts such as bread, wine, water, air, only Celsus calls them demons and Origen angels,—so narrow is the dividing line which here separates the friends and the foes of Christianity. A pure monotheist was hardly to be found either then or in the time of Jesus.
Such are some of the reasons that may be advanced in confirmation of the statement that the popular belief of the ancient world is the soil from which Christianity took its rise. In all these conceptions it is a child of its age and no revelation of God. Owing to the rise of science the props which still supported this belief in the midst of Christianity have gradually been withdrawn. Thus originated the great conflict between faith and knowledge. If it were really true, as many of its defenders maintain, that faith in the enchanted world constitutes the substance of Christianity, then, of course, the doom of our religion would be sealed.12
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