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CHAPTER V.

SETTLEMENT OF THE LEGEND AND OF THE TEACHINGS OF JESUS.

When a great apparition of the religious, moral, and literary order is produced, the next generation usually feels the necessity of fixing the memory of the remarkable things which happened at the commencement of the new movement. Those who took part in the first hatching, those who have known according to the flesh, the master whom so many others have been able to adore in the spirit only, have a sort of aversion for the writings which diminish their privilege and appear to deliver to all the world a holy tradition which they keep secretly guarded in their hearts. It is when the last witnesses of the beginning threaten to disappear, that disquietude as to the future sets in, and that attempts are made to trace the image of the founder in durable tints. One circumstance in the case of Jesus, contributed to delay the period when the memoirs of disciples are usually written down, and that was the belief in the approaching end of the world, the assurance that the Apostolic generation would not pass away until the gentle Nazarene had returned as the Eternal Shepherd of his friends.

It has been remarked a thousand times, that the strength of man’s memory is in inverse proportion to the habit of writing. We can scarcely imagine what oral tradition might retain, when people did not resort to notes which had been taken or to papers which they possessed. The memory of a man was then as a book; he knew how to report conversation, to which he himself had not listened. “The Clamozenians had heard tell of one Antiphon, who was connected with a certain Pythadorus, friend of Zeno, who remembered the conversations of Socrates with 40Zeno and Parmenides, in order to repeat them to Pythadorus. Antiphon knew them by heart, and would repeat them to whomsoever would hear them.” Such is the opening of the Parmenides of Plato. A host of people who had never seen Jesus, knew him in this way, without the help of any book, almost as well as his disciples themselves. The life of Jesus, although not written, was the food of the Church; his maxims were incessantly repeated; the essentially symbolical parts of his biography were reproduced in the little recitals, in some sort stereotyped and known by heart. This is certain as regards the institution of the Supper. It was probably also the same as regards the essential lines of the story of the Passion; at all events, the agreement of the fourth Gospel with the three others on that essential part of the Life of Jesus, would lead one to suppose so.

The moral sentences which formed the most solid part of the teaching of Jesus were still more easy to retain. They were assiduously recited. “Towards midnight I always awake,” Peter is made to say in an Ebionite writing, composed about the year 135, “and then sleep returns to me no more. It is the effect of the habit which I have contracted of recalling to memory the words of my Lord which I have heard, so that I may retain them faithfully.” As, however, those who had directly received the divine words were dying day by day, and as many words and anecdotes seemed likely to be lost, the necessity for writing them down made itself felt. On various sides little collections were made. These collections presented, with much in common, strange variants; the order and arrangement especially differed; each author sought to make his copy complete by consulting the papers of others, and naturally every vigorously accentuated word took its origin in the community, provided it conformed to the spirit of Jesus, was greedily seized upon, and inserted in the collections. 41According to certain appearances, the Apostle Matthew composed one of these memoirs, which has generally been accepted. Doubt is permissible in this matter, however; it is much more probable that all these little collections of the words of Jesus were anonymous, in the condition of personal notes, and were only reproduced by copyists as works possessing an individuality.

One writing which may assist us to form an idea of this first Embryo of the Gospels is the Pirké Aboth, a collection of the sentences of celebrated Rabbis, from the Asmonean times to the second century of our era. Such a book could be formed only by successive accretions. The progress of the Buddhist writings on the life of Saka-Mouni followed a similar course. The Buddhist Sutras corresponded to the collections of the words of Jesus; they are not biographies; they begin simply by indications of this kind:—“At this time Bhagavat sojourned at Sravasti in the Vihara of Jetavana,” etc. The narrative part is very limited; the teaching, the parable, is the principal object. Entire parts of Buddhism only possess such Sutras. The Buddhism of the North, and the branches which have issued from it, have more books like the Lalita Vistara, complete biographies of Saka-Mouni, from his birth to the moment of his attaining to perfect intelligence. The Buddhism of the South has no such biographies, not that it ignores them, but because its theological teaching has been able to pass them by, and to hold to the Sutras.

We shall see, in speaking of the Gospel according to Matthew, that the state of these Christian Sutras may readily be imagined. They were a species of pamphlets, of sentences and parables without much order, which the editor of our Matthew inserted into his narrative. The Hebrew genius had always excelled in moral sentences; in the mouth of Jesus that exquisite style attained perfection. Nothing prevents 42our believing that Jesus himself spoke in this way But the “hedge” which according to the expression of the Talmud, protected the sacred word, was very weak. It is of the essence of such collections to grow by a slow accretion, without the outline of the first stone being ever lost. Thus the treatise Eduïoth, a little Mishna complete, which is the kernel of the great Mishna, and in which the deposits of successive crystallisations of tradition are very visible, is to be found complete in the great Mishna. The Sermon on the Mount may be considered as the Eduïoth of the Gospel, that is to say, as a first artificial grouping which does not prevent later combinations or the maxims thus strung together by a slender thread from shelling off anew.

In what language were those little collections of the sentences of Jesus composed, these Pirké Ieschou, if such an expression may be permitted? In the language of Jesus himself, in the vulgar tongue of Palestine—a sort of mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic which was still called Hebrew, and to which modern savants have given the name of Syro-Chaldaic. Upon this point the Pirké Aboth is perhaps still the book which gives us the best idea of the primitive Gospels, although the Rabbis who figure in this collection, being doctors of the pure Jewish school, speak there a language which is perhaps nearer to Hebrew than was that of Jesus. Naturally the catechists who spoke Greek translated those words as best they could, and in a fashion sufficiently free. It is this that is called the Logia Kyriaca, “the oracles of the Lord,” or simply the Logia. The Syro-Chaldaic collections of the sentences of Jesus having never had unity, the Greek collections have even less, and were only written down individually in the manner of notes for the personal use of each one. It was impossible that even in a sketchy fashion Jesus was entirely contained in a gnomic writing; the entire Gospel could 43not be confined within the narrow limits of a little treatise of morals. A choice of current proverbs or of precepts like the Pirké Aboth would not have changed humanity, even supposing it to have been filled with maxims of the most exalted character.

That which characterises Jesus in the highest degree is that with him teaching was inseparable from action. His lessons were acts, living symbols, bound indissolubly to his parables, and certainly in the most ancient pages which were written to fix his teachings, there are already anecdotes and short narratives. Very soon, however, the first framework became totally insufficient. The sentences of Jesus were nothing without his biography. That biography is the mystery par excellence, the realisation of the Messianic ideal; the texts of the prophets there find their justification. To relate the life of Jesus is to prove his Messiahship, is to make, in the eyes of the Jews, the most complete apology for the new movement.

Thus very early arose a framework which was in some sort the skeleton of all the Gospels, and in which word and action were mingled. In the beginning John the Baptist, forerunner of the Kingdom of God, announcing, welcoming, recommending Jesus; then Jesus preparing himself for his Divine mission by retirement and the fulfilling of the Law; then the brilliant period of his public life, the full sunshine of the Kingdom of God—Jesus in the midst of his disciples beaming with the gentle and tempered radiance of a prophet-son of God. As the disciples had scarcely any save Galilean reminiscences, Galilee was the almost exclusive stage of this exquisite theophany. The part of Jerusalem was almost suppressed. Jesus went there only eight days before his death. His two last days were told almost hour by hour. On the eve of his death he kept the Passover with his disciples and instituted the Divine rite of common 44communion. One of his disciples betrayed him; the official authorities of Judaism obtained his death from the Roman authority; he died upon Golgotha, he was buried. On the next day but one his tomb was found empty; it was because he had been resuscitated and had ascended to the right hand of the Father. Many disciples were then favoured with appearances of his shade wandering between heaven and earth.

The beginning and the end of the history were, as we see, sufficiently well defined. The interval, on the contrary, was in a state of anecdotic chaos without any chronology. For the whole of this part relative to the public life no order was consecrated; each distributed his matter in his own way. Altogether the compilation became what was called “the good news,” in Hebrew Besora, in Greek Evangelion, in allusion to the passage of the second Isaiah: “The spirit of Jehovah is upon me, because Jehovah hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn.” The Mebasser or “Evangelist” had as his especial duty to expound this excellent history which has been for eighteen hundred years the great instrument for the conversion of the world, which yet remains the great argument for Christianity in the struggle of the last days.

The matter was traditional: now tradition is in its essence a ductile and extensible matter. Every year sayings more or less apocryphal were mixed with the authentic words of Jesus. Did a new fact, a new tendency, make its appearance in the community, the question was asked what Jesus would have thought of it; and there was no difficulty in attributing it to the Master. The collection, in this way, grew from 45day to day, and was also purified. Words which were too strongly opposed to the opinions of the moment, or which had been found dangerous, were eliminated. But the basis remained; the foundation was really solid. The evangelical tradition is the tradition of the Church at Jerusalem transported into Perea. The Gospel was born amongst the family of Jesus, and, up to a certain point, is the work of his immediate disciples.

This fact it is which gives us the right to believe that the image of Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, resembles the original in all essential particulars. These narratives are at once historical and figurative. Whatever of fable may have mixed itself with them, it would be erring, out of fear of erring, to conclude that nothing in the Gospels is true. If we had known St Francis of Assisi only by the book of the “Conformities,” we should have to say that it was a biography like that of Buddha or of Jesus, a biography written à priori to exhibit the realisation of a preconceived type. Still, Francis of Assisi certainly existed. All has become an altogether mythical personage amongst the Shieks. His sons, Hassan and Hosein, have been substituted for the fabulous part of Thammuz. Yet, Ali Hassan and Hosein are real personages. The myth is frequently grafted upon a historical biography. The ideal is sometimes the true. Athens offers the absolutely beautiful in the arts, and Athens exists. Even the personages who may sometimes be taken for symbolical statues, have really at certain times lived in flesh and bone. These histories follow, in fact, certain orderly patterns so closely that there is a certain resemblance amongst all of them. Babism, which is a fact of our days, offers, in its nascent legend, parts that seem drawn from the Life of Jesus; the type of the disciple who denies; the details of the sufferings and the death of Bab, appear to be imitated from the Gospel, which does not imply 46that these facts did not happen as they are described to have done.

We may add that by the side of these ideal traits, which make up the figure of the hero of the Gospels, there are also characteristics of the time, of the race, and of individual character. This young Jew, at once gentle and terrible, subtle and imperious, childlike and sublime, filled with a disinterested zeal, with a pure morality, and with the ardour of an exalted personality, most certainly existed. He should have his place in one of Bida’s pictures, the face encircled with long locks of hair. He was a Jew, and he was himself. The loss of his supernatural aureole has deprived him in no way of his charm. Our race restored to itself and disengaged from all that Jewish influences have introduced into its manner of thought, will continue to love him.

Assuredly in writing concerning such lives, one is perpetually compelled to say, with Quintus Curtius. Equidem plura transcribo quam credo. On the other hand, by an excess cf scepticism, one is deprived of many great truths. For our clear and scholastic minds, the distinction between a real and a fictitious history is absolute. The epic poem, the heroic narrative, or the Homerides, the troubadours, the antari, the cantistorie, exhibit themselves with so much ease, are reduced in the poetic of a Lucan or of a Voltaire to the cold puppets of stage machines which deceive nobody. For the success of such narratives, the auditor must accept them; but it is necessary that the author should believe them possible. The legendary, the Agadist, are no more impostors than the authors of the Homeric poems, or than were the Christians of Troyes. One of the essential dispositions of those who create the really fertile fables, is their complete carelessness with regard to material truth. The Agadist would smile if we put a question with all sincerity, “Is what you tell us true?” In 47such a state of mind no one is uneasy save about the doctrine to be inculcated, the sentiment to be expressed. The spirit is everything; the letter is of no importance. Objective curiosity which proposes to itself no other end than to know as exactly as possible the reality of the facts, is a thing of which there is almost no example in the East.

Just as the life of a Buddha in India was in some sense written in advance, so the life of a Jewish Messiah was traced à priori; it was easy to say what it would be and what it ought to be. His type was as it were sculptured by the prophets, thanks to the exegesis which applied to the Messiah all that belonged to an obscure ideal. Most frequently, however, it was the inverse process which prevailed amongst the Christians. In reading the prophets, especially the prophets of the end of the captivity, the second Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah, they found Jesus in every line. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold thy King cometh unto thee, he is just and having salvation, lowly and riding upon an ass and a colt the foal of an ass” (Zech. ix. 9). The King of the poor was Jesus, and the circumstance which they recalled was regarded as the fulfilment of that prophecy. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner,” they read in a psalm. “He shall be a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence,” they read in Isaiah, “to both the houses of Israel, a gin and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble and fall” (Isaiah viii. 14, 15). “There indeed it is!” they said. Above all things, they went ardently over the circumstances of the Passion to find figures. All that passed hour by hour in that terrible drama happened in order to fulfil some prediction, to signify some mystery. It was remembered that he had refused to drink the posca, that his bones bad not been broken, 48that the soldiers had drawn lots for his garments. The prophets had predicted all. Judas and his pieces of silver (true or supposed) suggested analogous comparisons. All the old history of the people of God became as it were a model which they copied. Moses and Elias, with their luminous apparitions, gave rise to imaginary ascents to glory. All the ancient Theophanies took place on high ground. Jesus revealed himself principally on the mountains; he was transfigured on Tabor. They were not dismayed by apparent contradictions. “Out of Egypt have I called My Son,” said Jehovah in Hosea. The words, of course, applied to Israel, but the Christian imagination applied them to Jesus, and made his parents carry him when a child into Egypt. By a yet more strained exegesis they discovered that his birth in Nazareth was the fulfilment of a prophecy.

The whole tissue of the life of Jesus was thus an express fact, a sort of superhuman arrangement intended to realise a series of ancient texts reputed to relate to him. It is a kind of exegesis which the Jews call Midrasch, into which all equivoques, all plays upon words, letters, sense, are admitted. The old biblical texts were for the Jews of this time not as for us an historical and literary whole but a book of gramarye whence were drawn fates, images, inductions of every description. The sense proper for such an exegesis did not exist; the chimeras of the cabbalist were already approached; the sacred text was treated simply as an agglomeration of letters. It is unnecessary to say that all this work was done in an impersonal and in some sense an anonymous fashion. Legends, myths, popular songs, proverbs, historical words, calumnies characteristic of a party—all this is the work of that great impostor who is called the crowd. Assuredly every legend, every proverb, every spiritual word, has its father, but an unknown father. Someone says the word; thousands repeat it, perfect it, refine it, acuminate 49it; even he who first spoke it has been in saying it only the interpreter of all.

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