The Unseen World and Other Essays
By John Fiske

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[15] The Jesus of History. Anonymous. 8vo. pp. 426. London: Williams & Norgate, 1869.

Vie de Jesus, par Ernest Renan. Paris, 1867. (Thirteenth edition, revised and partly rewritten.)

In republishing this and the following article on “The Christ of Dogma,” I am aware that they do but scanty justice to their very interesting subjects. So much ground is covered that it would be impossible to treat it satisfactorily in a pair of review-articles; and in particular the views adopted with regard to the New Testament literature are rather indicated than justified. These defects I hope to remedy in a future work on “Jesus of Nazareth, and the Founding of Christianity,” for which the present articles must be regarded as furnishing only a few introductory hints. This work has been for several years on my mind, but as it may still be long before I can find the leisure needful for writing it out, it seemed best to republish these preliminary sketches which have been some time out of print. The projected work, however, while covering all the points here treated, will have a much wider scope, dealing on the one hand with the natural genesis of the complex aggregate of beliefs and aspirations known as Christianity, and on the other hand with the metamorphoses which are being wrought in this aggregate by modern knowledge and modern theories of the world.

The views adopted in the present essay as to the date of the Synoptic Gospels may seem over-conservative to those who accept the ably-argued conclusions of “Supernatural Religion.” Quite possibly in a more detailed discussion these briefly-indicated data may require revision; but for the present it seems best to let the article stand as it was written. The author of “Supernatural Religion” would no doubt admit that, even if the synoptic gospels had not assumed their present form before the end of the second century, nevertheless the body of tradition contained in them had been committed to writing very early in that century. So much appears to be proved by the very variations of text upon which his argument relies. And if this be granted, the value of the synoptics as HISTORICAL evidence is not materially altered. With their value as testimony to so-called SUPERNATURAL events, the present essay is in no way concerned.

Of all the great founders of religions, Jesus is at once the best known and the least known to the modern scholar. From the dogmatic point of view he is the best known, from the historic point of view he is the least known. The Christ of dogma is in every lineament familiar to us from early childhood; but concerning the Jesus of history we possess but few facts resting upon trustworthy evidence, and in order to form a picture of him at once consistent, probable, and distinct in its outlines, it is necessary to enter upon a long and difficult investigation, in the course of which some of the most delicate apparatus of modern criticism is required. This circumstance is sufficiently singular to require especial explanation. The case of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, which may perhaps be cited as parallel, is in reality wholly different. Not only did Sakyamuni live five centuries earlier than Jesus, among a people that have at no time possessed the art of insuring authenticity in their records of events, and at an era which is at best but dimly discerned through the mists of fable and legend, but the work which he achieved lies wholly out of the course of European history, and it is only in recent times that his career has presented itself to us as a problem needing to be solved. Jesus, on the other hand, appeared in an age which is familiarly and in many respects minutely known to us, and among a people whose fortunes we can trace with historic certainty for at least seven centuries previous to his birth; while his life and achievements have probably had a larger share in directing the entire subsequent intellectual and moral development of Europe than those of any other man who has ever lived. Nevertheless, the details of his personal career are shrouded in an obscurity almost as dense as that which envelops the life of the remote founder of Buddhism.

This phenomenon, however, appears less strange and paradoxical when we come to examine it more closely. A little reflection will disclose to us several good reasons why the historical records of the life of Jesus should be so scanty as they are. In the first place, the activity of Jesus was private rather than public. Confined within exceedingly narrow limits, both of space and of duration, it made no impression whatever upon the politics or the literature of the time. His name does not occur in the pages of any contemporary writer, Roman, Greek, or Jewish. Doubtless the case would have been wholly different, had he, like Mohammed, lived to a ripe age, and had the exigencies of his peculiar position as the Messiah of the Jewish people brought him into relations with the Empire; though whether, in such case, the success of his grand undertaking would have been as complete as it has actually been, may well be doubted.

Secondly, Jesus did not, like Mohammed and Paul, leave behind him authentic writings which might serve to throw light upon his mental development as well as upon the external facts of his career. Without the Koran and the four genuine Epistles of Paul, we should be nearly as much in the dark concerning these great men as we now are concerning the historical Jesus. We should be compelled to rely, in the one case, upon the untrustworthy gossip of Mussulman chroniclers, and in the other case upon the garbled statements of the “Acts of the Apostles,” a book written with a distinct dogmatic purpose, sixty or seventy years after the occurrence of the events which it professes to record.

It is true, many of the words of Jesus, preserved by hearsay tradition through the generation immediately succeeding his death, have come down to us, probably with little alteration, in the pages of the three earlier evangelists. These are priceless data, since, as we shall see, they are almost the only materials at our command for forming even a partial conception of the character of Jesus’ work. Nevertheless, even here the cautious inquirer has only too often to pause in face of the difficulty of distinguishing the authentic utterances of the great teacher from the later interpolations suggested by the dogmatic necessities of the narrators. Bitterly must the historian regret that Jesus had no philosophic disciple, like Xenophon, to record his Memorabilia. Of the various writings included in the New Testament, the Apocalypse alone (and possibly the Epistle of Jude) is from the pen of a personal acquaintance of Jesus; and besides this, the four epistles of Paul, to the Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans, make up the sum of the writings from which we may expect contemporary testimony. Yet from these we obtain absolutely nothing of that for which we are seeking. The brief writings of Paul are occupied exclusively with the internal significance of Jesus’ work. The epistle of Jude—if it be really written by Jesus’ brother of that name, which is doubtful—is solely a polemic directed against the innovations of Paul. And the Apocalypse, the work of the fiery and imaginative disciple John, is confined to a prophetic description of the Messiah’s anticipated return, and tells us nothing concerning the deeds of that Messiah while on the earth.

Here we touch upon our third consideration,—the consideration which best enables us to see why the historic notices of Jesus are so meagre. Rightly considered, the statement with which we opened this article is its own explanation. The Jesus of history is so little known just because the Christ of dogma is so well known.[16] Other teachers—Paul, Mohammed, Sakyamuni—have come merely as preachers of righteousness, speaking in the name of general principles with which their own personalities were not directly implicated. But Jesus, as we shall see, before the close of his life, proclaimed himself to be something more than a preacher of righteousness. He announced himself—and justly, from his own point of view—as the long-expected Messiah sent by Jehovah to liberate the Jewish race. Thus the success of his religious teachings became at once implicated with the question of his personal nature and character. After the sudden and violent termination of his career, it immediately became all-important with his followers to prove that he was really the Messiah, and to insist upon the certainty of his speedy return to the earth. Thus the first generation of disciples dogmatized about him, instead of narrating his life,—a task which to them would have seemed of little profit. For them the all-absorbing object of contemplation was the immediate future rather than the immediate past. As all the earlier Christian literature informs us, for nearly a century after the death of Jesus, his followers lived in daily anticipation of his triumphant return to the earth. The end of all things being so near at hand, no attempt was made to insure accurate and complete memoirs for the use of a posterity which was destined, in Christian imagination, never to arrive. The first Christians wrote but little; even Papias, at the end of a century, preferring second-hand or third-hand oral tradition to the written gospels which were then beginning to come into circulation.[17] Memoirs of the life and teachings of Jesus were called forth by the necessity of having a written standard of doctrine to which to appeal amid the growing differences of opinion which disturbed the Church. Thus the earlier gospels exhibit, though in different degrees, the indications of a modifying, sometimes of an overruling dogmatic purpose. There is, indeed, no conscious violation of historic truth, but from the varied mass of material supplied by tradition, such incidents are selected as are fit to support the views of the writers concerning the personality of Jesus. Accordingly, while the early gospels throw a strong light upon the state of Christian opinion at the dates when they were successively composed, the information which they give concerning Jesus himself is, for that very reason, often vague, uncritical, and contradictory. Still more is this true of the fourth gospel, written late in the second century, in which historic tradition is moulded in the interests of dogma until it becomes no longer recognizable, and in the place of the human Messiah of the earlier accounts, we have a semi-divine Logos or Aeon, detached from God, and incarnate for a brief season in the likeness of man.

[16] “Wer einmal vergottert worden ist, der hat seine Mensetheit unwiederbringlich eingebusst."—Strauss, Der alte und der neue Glaube, p. 76.

[17] “Roger was the attendant of Thomas [Becket] during his sojourn at Pontigny. We might have expected him to be very full on that part of his history; but, writing doubtless mainly for the monks of Pontigny, he says that HE WILL NOT ENLARGE UPON WHAT EVERY ONE KNOWS, and cuts that part very short."—Freeman, Historical Essays, 1st series, p. 90.

Not only was history subordinated to dogma by the writers of the gospel-narratives, but in the minds of the Fathers of the Church who assisted in determining what writings should be considered canonical, dogmatic prepossession went very much further than critical acumen. Nor is this strange when we reflect that critical discrimination in questions of literary authenticity is one of the latest acquisitions of the cultivated human mind. In the early ages of the Church the evidence of the genuineness of any literary production was never weighed critically; writings containing doctrines acceptable to the majority of Christians were quoted as authoritative while writings which supplied no dogmatic want were overlooked, or perhaps condemned as apocryphal. A striking instance of this is furnished by the fortunes of the Apocalypse. Although perhaps the best authenticated work in the New Testament collection, its millenarian doctrines caused it to become unpopular as the Church gradually ceased to look for the speedy return of the Messiah, and, accordingly, as the canon assumed a definite shape, it was placed among the “Antilegomena,” or doubtful books, and continued to hold a precarious position until after the time of the Protestant Reformation. On the other hand, the fourth gospel, which was quite unknown and probably did not exist at the time of the Quartodeciman controversy (A. D. 168), was accepted with little hesitation, and at the beginning of the third century is mentioned by Irenaeus, Clement, and Tertullian, as the work of the Apostle John. To this uncritical spirit, leading to the neglect of such books as failed to answer the dogmatic requirements of the Church, may probably be attributed the loss of so many of the earlier gospels. It is doubtless for this reason that we do not possess the Aramaean original of the “Logia” of Matthew, or the “Memorabilia” of Mark, the companion of Peter,—two works to which Papias (A. D. 120) alludes as containing authentic reports of the utterances of Jesus.

These considerations will, we believe, sufficiently explain the curious circumstance that, while we know the Christ of dogma so intimately, we know the Jesus of history so slightly. The literature of early Christianity enables us to trace with tolerable completeness the progress of opinion concerning the nature of Jesus, from the time of Paul’s early missions to the time of the Nicene Council; but upon the actual words and deeds of Jesus it throws a very unsteady light. The dogmatic purpose everywhere obscures the historic basis.

This same dogmatic prepossession which has rendered the data for a biography of Jesus so scanty and untrustworthy, has also until comparatively recent times prevented any unbiassed critical examination of such data as we actually possess. Previous to the eighteenth century any attempt to deal with the life of Jesus upon purely historical methods would have been not only contemned as irrational, but stigmatized as impious. And even in the eighteenth century, those writers who had become wholly emancipated from ecclesiastic tradition were so destitute of all historic sympathy and so unskilled in scientific methods of criticism, that they utterly failed to comprehend the requirements of the problem. Their aims were in the main polemic, not historical. They thought more of overthrowing current dogmas than of impartially examining the earliest Christian literature with a view of eliciting its historic contents; and, accordingly, they accomplished but little. Two brilliant exceptions must, however, be noticed. Spinoza, in the seventeenth century, and Lessing, in the eighteenth, were men far in advance of their age. They are the fathers of modern historical criticism; and to Lessing in particular, with his enormous erudition and incomparable sagacity, belongs the honour of initiating that method of inquiry which, in the hands of the so-called Tubingen School, has led to such striking and valuable conclusions concerning, the age and character of all the New Testament literature. But it was long before any one could be found fit to bend the bow which Lessing and Spinoza had wielded. A succession of able scholars—Semler, Eichhorn, Paulus, Schleiermacher Bretschneider, and De Wette—were required to examine, with German patience and accuracy, the details of the subject, and to propound various untenable hypotheses, before such a work could be performed as that of Strauss. The “Life of Jesus,” published by Strauss when only twenty-six years of age, is one of the monumental works of the nineteenth century, worthy to rank, as a historical effort, along with such books as Niebuhr’s “History of Rome,” Wolf’s “Prolegomena,” or Bentley’s “Dissertations on Phalaris.” It instantly superseded and rendered antiquated everything which had preceded it; nor has any work on early Christianity been written in Germany for the past thirty years which has not been dominated by the recollection of that marvellous book. Nevertheless, the labours of another generation of scholars have carried our knowledge of the New Testament literature far beyond the point which it had reached when Strauss first wrote. At that time the dates of but few of the New Testament writings had been fixed with any approach to certainty; the age and character of the fourth gospel, the genuineness of the Pauline epistles, even the mutual relations of the three synoptics, were still undetermined; and, as a natural. result of this uncertainty, the progress of dogma during the first century was ill understood. At the present day it is impossible to read the early work of Strauss without being impressed with the necessity of obtaining positive data as to the origin and dogmatic character of the New Testament writings, before attempting to reach any conclusions as to the probable career of Jesus. These positive data we owe to the genius and diligence of the Tubingen School, and, above all, to its founder, Ferdinand Christian Baur. Beginning with the epistles of Paul, of which he distinguished four as genuine, Baur gradually worked his way through the entire New Testament collection, detecting—with that inspired insight which only unflinching diligence can impart to original genius—the age at which each book was written, and the circumstances which called it forth. To give any account of Baur’s detailed conclusions, or of the method by which he reached them, would require a volume. They are very scantily presented in Mr. Mackay’s work on the “Tubingen School and its Antecedents," to which we may refer the reader desirous of further information. We can here merely say that twenty years of energetic controversy have only served to establish most of Baur’s leading conclusions more firmly than ever. The priority of the so-called gospel of Matthew, the Pauline purpose of “Luke,” the second in date of our gospels, the derivative and second-hand character of “Mark,” and the unapostolic origin of the fourth gospel, are points which may for the future be regarded as wellnigh established by circumstantial evidence. So with respect to the pseudo-Pauline epistles, Baur’s work was done so thoroughly that the only question still left open for much discussion is that concerning the date and authorship of the first and second “Thessalonians,"—a point of quite inferior importance, so far as our present subject is concerned. Seldom have such vast results been achieved by the labour of a single scholar. Seldom has any historical critic possessed such a combination of analytic and of co-ordinating powers as Baur. His keen criticism and his wonderful flashes of insight exercise upon the reader a truly poetic effect like that which is felt in contemplating the marvels of physical discovery.

The comprehensive labours of Baur were followed up by Zeller’s able work on the “Acts of the Apostles,” in which that book was shown to have been partly founded upon documents written by Luke, or some other companion of Paul, and expanded and modified by a much later writer with the purpose of covering up the traces of the early schism between the Pauline and the Petrine sections of the Church. Along with this, Schwegler’s work on the “Post-Apostolic Times” deserves mention as clearing up many obscure points relating to the early development of dogma. Finally, the “New Life of Jesus,” by Strauss, adopting and utilizing the principal discoveries of Baur and his followers, and combining all into one grand historical picture, worthily completes the task which the earlier work of the same author had inaugurated.

The reader will have noticed that, with the exception of Spinoza, every one of the names above cited in connection with the literary analysis and criticism of the New Testament is the name of a German. Until within the last decade, Germany has indeed possessed almost an absolute monopoly of the science of Biblical criticism; other countries having remained not only unfamiliar with its methods, but even grossly ignorant of its conspicuous results, save when some German treatise of more than ordinary popularity has now and then been translated. But during the past ten years France has entered the lists; and the writings of Reville, Reuss, Nicolas, D’Eichthal, Scherer, and Colani testify to the rapidity with which the German seed has fructified upon her soil.[18]

[18] But now, in annexing Alsace, Germany has “annexed” pretty much the whole of this department of French scholarship,—a curious incidental consequence of the late war.

None of these books, however, has achieved such wide-spread celebrity, or done so much toward interesting the general public in this class of historical inquiries, as the “Life of Jesus,” by Renan. This pre-eminence of fame is partly, but not wholly, deserved. From a purely literary point of view, Renan’s work doubtless merits all the celebrity it has gained. Its author writes a style such as is perhaps surpassed by that of no other living Frenchman. It is by far the most readable book which has ever been written concerning the life of Jesus. And no doubt some of its popularity is due to its very faults, which, from a critical point of view, are neither few nor small. For Renan is certainly very faulty, as a historical critic, when he practically ignores the extreme meagreness of our positive knowledge of the career of Jesus, and describes scene after scene in his life as minutely and with as much confidence as if he had himself been present to witness it all. Again and again the critical reader feels prompted to ask, How do you know all this? or why, out of two or three conflicting accounts, do you quietly adopt some particular one, as if its superior authority were self-evident? But in the eye of the uncritical reader, these defects are excellences; for it is unpleasant to be kept in ignorance when we are seeking after definite knowledge, and it is disheartening to read page after page of an elaborate discussion which ends in convincing us that definite knowledge cannot be gained.

In the thirteenth edition of the “Vie de Jesus,” Renan has corrected some of the most striking errors of the original work, and in particular has, with praiseworthy candour, abandoned his untenable position with regard to the age and character of the fourth gospel. As is well known, Renan, in his earlier editions, ascribed to this gospel a historical value superior to that of the synoptics, believing it to have been written by an eyewitness of the events which it relates; and from this source, accordingly, he drew the larger share of his materials. Now, if there is any one conclusion concerning the New Testament literature which must be regarded as incontrovertibly established by the labours of a whole generation of scholars, it is this, that the fourth gospel was utterly unknown until about A. D. 170, that it was written by some one who possessed very little direct knowledge of Palestine, that its purpose was rather to expound a dogma than to give an accurate record of events, and that as a guide to the comprehension of the career of Jesus it is of far less value than the three synoptic gospels. It is impossible, in a brief review like the present, to epitomize the evidence upon which this conclusion rests, which may more profitably be sought in the Rev. J. J. Tayler’s work on “The Fourth Gospel,” or in Davidson’s “Introduction to the New Testament.” It must suffice to mention that this gospel is not cited by Papias; that Justin, Marcion, and Valentinus make no allusion to it, though, since it furnishes so much that is germane to their views, they would gladly have appealed to it, had it been in existence, when those views were as yet under discussion; and that, finally, in the great Quartodeciman controversy, A. D. 168, the gospel is not only not mentioned, but the authority of John is cited by Polycarp in flat contradiction of the view afterwards taken by this evangelist. Still more, the assumption of Renan led at once into complicated difficulties with reference to the Apocalypse. The fourth gospel, if it does not unmistakably announce itself as the work of John, at least professes to be Johannine; and it cannot for a moment be supposed that such a book, making such claims, could have gained currency during John’s lifetime without calling forth his indignant protest. For, in reality, no book in the New Testament collection would so completely have shocked the prejudices of the Johannine party. John’s own views are well known to us from the Apocalypse. John was the most enthusiastic of millenarians and the most narrow and rigid of Judaizers. In his antagonism to the Pauline innovations he went farther than Peter himself. Intense hatred of Paul and his followers appears in several passages of the Apocalypse, where they are stigmatized as “Nicolaitans,” “deceivers of the people,” “those who say they are apostles and are not,” “eaters of meat offered to idols," “fornicators,” “pretended Jews,” “liars,” “synagogue of Satan," etc. (Chap. II.). On the other hand, the fourth gospel contains nothing millenarian or Judaical; it carries Pauline universalism to a far greater extent than Paul himself ventured to carry it, even condemning the Jews as children of darkness, and by implication contrasting them unfavourably with the Gentiles; and it contains a theory of the nature of Jesus which the Ebionitish Christians, to whom John belonged, rejected to the last.

In his present edition Renan admits the insuperable force of these objections, and abandons his theory of the apostolic origin of the fourth gospel. And as this has necessitated the omission or alteration of all such passages as rested upon the authority of that gospel, the book is to a considerable extent rewritten, and the changes are such as greatly to increase its value as a history of Jesus. Nevertheless, the author has so long been in the habit of shaping his conceptions of the career of Jesus by the aid of the fourth gospel, that it has become very difficult for him to pass freely to another point of view. He still clings to the hypothesis that there is an element of historic tradition contained in the book, drawn from memorial writings which had perhaps been handed down from John, and which were inaccessible to the synoptists. In a very interesting appendix, he collects the evidence in favour of this hypothesis, which indeed is not without plausibility, since there is every reason for supposing that the gospel was written at Ephesus, which a century before had been John’s place of residence. But even granting most of Renan’s assumptions, it must still follow that the authority of this gospel is far inferior to that of the synoptics, and can in no case be very confidently appealed to. The question is one of the first importance to the historian of early Christianity. In inquiring into the life of Jesus, the very first thing to do is to establish firmly in the mind the true relations of the fourth gospel to the first three. Until this has been done, no one is competent to write on the subject; and it is because he has done this so imperfectly, that Renan’s work is, from a critical point of view, so imperfectly successful.

The anonymous work entitled “The Jesus of History,” which we have placed at the head of this article, is in every respect noteworthy as the first systematic attempt made in England to follow in the footsteps of German criticism in writing a life of Jesus. We know of no good reason why the book should be published anonymously; for as a historical essay it possesses extraordinary merit, and does great credit not only to its author, but to English scholarship and acumen.[19] It is not, indeed, a book calculated to captivate the imagination of the reading public. Though written in a clear, forcible, and often elegant style, it possesses no such wonderful rhetorical charm as the work of Renan; and it will probably never find half a dozen readers where the “Vie de Jesus” has found a hundred. But the success of a book of this sort is not to be measured by its rhetorical excellence, or by its adaptation to the literary tastes of an uncritical and uninstructed public, but rather by the amount of critical sagacity which it brings to bear upon the elucidation of the many difficult and disputed points in the subject of which it treats. Measured by this standard, “The Jesus of History” must rank very high indeed. To say that it throws more light upon the career of Jesus than any work which has ever before been written in English would be very inadequate praise, since the English language has been singularly deficient in this branch of historical literature. We shall convey a more just idea of its merits if we say that it will bear comparison with anything which even Germany has produced, save only the works of Strauss, Baur, and Zeller.

[19] “The Jesus of History” is now known to have been written by Sir Richard Hanson, Chief Justice of South Australia.

The fitness of our author for the task which he has undertaken is shown at the outset by his choice of materials. In basing his conclusions almost exclusively upon the statements contained in the first gospel, he is upheld by every sound principle of criticism. The times and places at which our three synoptic gospels were written have been, through the labours of the Tubingen critics, determined almost to a certainty. Of the three, “Mark” is unquestionably the latest; with the exception of about twenty verses, it is entirely made up from “Matthew” and “Luke," the diverse Petrine and Pauline tendencies of which it strives to neutralize in conformity to the conciliatory disposition of the Church at Rome, at the epoch at which this gospel was written, about A. D. 130. The third gospel was also written at Rome, some fifteen years earlier. In the preface, its author describes it as a compilation from previously existing written materials. Among these materials was certainly the first gospel, several passages of which are adopted word for word by the author of “Luke.” Yet the narrative varies materially from that of the first gospel in many essential points. The arrangement of events is less natural, and, as in the “Acts of the Apostles,” by the same author, there is apparent throughout the design of suppressing the old discord between Paul and the Judaizing disciples, and of representing Christianity as essentially Pauline from the outset. How far Paul was correct in his interpretation of the teachings of Jesus, it is difficult to decide. It is, no doubt, possible that the first gospel may have lent to the words of Jesus an Ebionite colouring in some instances, and that now and then the third gospel may present us with a truer account. To this supremely important point we shall by and by return. For the present it must suffice to observe that the evidences of an overruling dogmatic purpose are generally much more conspicuous in the third synoptist than in the first; and that the very loose manner in which this writer has handled his materials in the “Acts” is not calculated to inspire us with confidence in the historical accuracy of his gospel. The writer who, in spite of the direct testimony of Paul himself could represent the apostle to the Gentiles as acting under the direction of the disciples at Jerusalem, and who puts Pauline sentiments into the mouth of Peter, would certainly have been capable of unwarrantably giving a Pauline turn to the teachings of Jesus himself. We are therefore, as a last resort, brought back to the first gospel, which we find to possess, as a historical narrative, far stronger claims upon our attention than the second and third. In all probability it had assumed nearly its present shape before A. D. 100, its origin is unmistakably Palestinian; it betrays comparatively few indications of dogmatic purpose; and there are strong reasons for believing that the speeches of Jesus recorded in it are in substance taken from the genuine “Logia” of Matthew mentioned by Papias, which must have been written as early as A. D. 60-70, before the destruction of Jerusalem. Indeed, we are inclined to agree with our author that the gospel, even in its present shape (save only a few interpolated passages), may have existed as early as A. D. 80, since it places the time of Jesus’ second coming immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem; whereas the third evangelist, who wrote forty-five years after that event, is careful to tell us, “The end is NOT immediately.” Moreover, it must have been written while the Paulo-Petrine controversy was still raging, as is shown by the parable of the “enemy who sowed the tares,” which manifestly refers to Paul, and also by the allusions to “false prophets” (vii. 15), to those who say “Lord, Lord,” and who “cast out demons in the name of the Lord” (vii. 21-23), teaching men to break the commandments (v. 17-20). There is, therefore, good reason for believing that we have here a narrative written not much more than fifty years after the death of Jesus, based partly upon the written memorials of an apostle, and in the main trustworthy, save where it relates occurrences of a marvellous and legendary character. Such is our author’s conclusion, and in describing the career of the Jesus of history, he relies almost exclusively upon the statements contained in the first gospel. Let us now after this long but inadequate introduction, give a brief sketch of the life of Jesus, as it is to be found in our author.

Concerning the time and place of the birth of Jesus, we know next to nothing. According to uniform tradition, based upon a statement of the third gospel, he was about thirty years of age at the time when he began teaching. The same gospel states, with elaborate precision, that the public career of John the Baptist began in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, or A. D. 28. In the winter of A. D. 35-36, Pontius Pilate was recalled from Judaea, so that the crucifixion could not have taken place later than in the spring of 35. Thus we have a period of about six years during which the ministry of Jesus must have begun and ended; and if the tradition with respect to his age be trustworthy, we shall not be far out of the way in supposing him to have been born somewhere between B. C. 5 and A. D. 5. He is everywhere alluded to in the gospels as Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee, where lived also his father, mother brothers and sisters, and where very likely he was born. His parents’ names are said to have been Joseph and Mary. His own name is a Hellenized form of Joshua, a name very common among the Jews. According to the first gospel (xiii. 55), he had four brothers,—Joseph and Simon; James, who was afterwards one of the heads of the church at Jerusalem, and the most formidable enemy of Paul; and Judas or Jude, who is perhaps the author of the anti-Pauline epistle commonly ascribed to him.

Of the early youth of Jesus, and of the circumstances which guided his intellectual development, we know absolutely nothing, nor have we the data requisite for forming any plausible hypothesis. He first appears in history about A. D. 29 or 30, in connection with a very remarkable person whom the third evangelist describes as his cousin, and who seems, from his mode of life, to have been in some way connected with or influenced by the Hellenizing sect of Essenes. Here we obtain our first clew to guide us in forming a consecutive theory of the development of Jesus’ opinions. The sect of Essenes took its rise in the time of the Maccabees, about B. C. 170. Upon the fundamental doctrines of Judaism it had engrafted many Pythagorean notions, and was doubtless in the time of Jesus instrumental in spreading Greek ideas among the people of Galilee, where Judaism was far from being so narrow and rigid as at Jerusalem. The Essenes attached but little importance to the Messianic expectations of the Pharisees, and mingled scarcely at all in national politics. They lived for the most part a strictly ascetic life, being indeed the legitimate predecessors of the early Christian hermits and monks. But while pre-eminent for sanctity of life, they heaped ridicule upon the entire sacrificial service of the Temple, despised the Pharisees as hypocrites, and insisted upon charity toward all men instead of the old Jewish exclusiveness.

It was once a favourite theory that both John the Baptist and Jesus were members of the Essenian brotherhood; but that theory is now generally abandoned. Whatever may have been the case with John, who is said to have lived like an anchorite in the desert, there seems to have been but little practical Essenism in Jesus, who is almost uniformly represented as cheerful and social in demeanour, and against whom it was expressly urged that he came eating and drinking, making no presence of puritanical holiness. He was neither a puritan, like the Essenes, nor a ritualist, like the Pharisees. Besides which, both John and Jesus seem to have begun their careers by preaching the un-Essene doctrine of the speedy advent of the “kingdom of heaven,” by which is meant the reign of the Messiah upon the earth. Nevertheless, though we cannot regard Jesus as actually a member of the Essenian community or sect, we can hardly avoid the conclusion that he, as well as John the Baptist, had been at some time strongly influenced by Essenian doctrines. The spiritualized conception of the “kingdom of heaven” proclaimed by him was just what would naturally and logically arise from a remodelling of the Messianic theories of the Pharisees in conformity to advanced Essenian notions. It seems highly probable that some such refined conception of the functions of the Messiah was reached by John, who, stigmatizing the Pharisees and Sadducees as a “generation of vipers,” called aloud to the people to repent of their sins, in view of the speedy advent of the Messiah, and to testify to their repentance by submitting to the Essenian rite of baptism. There is no positive evidence that Jesus was ever a disciple of John; yet the account of the baptism, in spite of the legendary character of its details, seems to rest upon a historical basis; and perhaps the most plausible hypothesis which can be framed is, that Jesus received baptism at John’s hands, became for a while his disciple, and acquired from him a knowledge of Essenian doctrines.

The career of John seems to have been very brief. His stern puritanism brought him soon into disgrace with the government of Galilee. He was seized by Herod, thrown into prison, and beheaded. After the brief hints given as to the intercourse between Jesus and John, we next hear of Jesus alone in the desert, where, like Sakyamuni and Mohammed, he may have brooded in solitude over his great project. Yet we do not find that he had as yet formed any distinct conception of his own Messiahship. The total neglect of chronology by our authorities[20] renders it impossible to trace the development of his thoughts step by step; but for some time after John’s catastrophe we find him calling upon the people to repent, in view of the speedy approach of the Messiah, speaking with great and commanding personal authority, but using no language which would indicate that he was striving to do more than worthily fill the place and add to the good work of his late master. The Sermon on the Mount, which the first gospel inserts in this place, was perhaps never spoken as a continuous discourse; but it no doubt for the most part contains the very words of Jesus, and represents the general spirit of his teaching during this earlier portion of his career. In this is contained nearly all that has made Christianity so powerful in the domain of ethics. If all the rest of the gospel were taken away, or destroyed in the night of some future barbarian invasion, we should still here possess the secret of the wonderful impression which Jesus made upon those who heard him speak. Added to the Essenian scorn of Pharisaic formalism, and the spiritualized conception of the Messianic kingdom, which Jesus may probably have shared with John the Baptist, we have here for the first time the distinctively Christian conception of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men, which ultimately insured the success of the new religion. The special point of originality in Jesus was his conception of Deity. As Strauss well says, “He conceived of God, in a moral point of view, as being identical in character with himself in the most exalted moments of his religious life, and strengthened in turn his own religious life by this ideal. But the most exalted religious tendency in his own consciousness was exactly that comprehensive love, overpowering the evil only by the good, which he therefore transferred to God as the fundamental tendency of His nature.” From this conception of God, observes Zeller, flowed naturally all the moral teaching of Jesus, the insistence upon spiritual righteousness instead of the mere mechanical observance of Mosaic precepts, the call to be perfect even as the Father is perfect, the principle of the spiritual equality of men before God, and the equal duties of all men toward each other.

[20] “The biographers [of Becket] are commonly rather careless as to the order of time. Each .... recorded what struck him most or what he best knew, one set down one event and another; and none of them paid much regard to the order of details."—Freeman, Historical Essays, 1st series, p. 94.

How far, in addition to these vitally important lessons, Jesus may have taught doctrines of an ephemeral or visionary character, it is very difficult to decide. We are inclined to regard the third gospel as of some importance in settling this point. The author of that gospel represents Jesus as decidedly hostile to the rich. Where Matthew has “Blessed are the poor in spirit," Luke has “Blessed are ye poor.” In the first gospel we read, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled"; but in the third gospel we find, “Blessed are ye that hunger now, for ye will be filled"; and this assurance is immediately followed by the denunciation, “Woe to you that are rich, for ye have received your consolation! Woe to you that are full now, for ye will hunger.” The parable of Dives and Lazarus illustrates concretely this view of the case, which is still further corroborated by the account, given in both the first and the third gospels, of the young man who came to seek everlasting life. Jesus here maintains that righteousness is insufficient unless voluntary poverty be superadded. Though the young man has strictly fulfilled the greatest of the commandments,—to love his neighbour as himself,—he is required, as a needful proof of his sincerity, to distribute all his vast possessions among the poor. And when he naturally manifests a reluctance to perform so superfluous a sacrifice, Jesus observes that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to share in the glories of the anticipated Messianic kingdom. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that we have here a very primitive and probably authentic tradition; and when we remember the importance which, according to the “Acts,” the earliest disciples attached to the principle of communism, as illustrated in the legend of Ananias and Sapphira, we must admit strong reasons for believing that Jesus himself held views which tended toward the abolition of private property. On this point, the testimony of the third evangelist singly is of considerable weight; since at the time when he wrote, the communistic theories of the first generation of Christians had been generally abandoned, and in the absence of any dogmatic motives, he could only have inserted these particular traditions because he believed them to possess historical value. But we are not dependent on the third gospel alone. The story just cited is attested by both our authorities, and is in perfect keeping with the general views of Jesus as reported by the first evangelist. Thus his disciples are enjoined to leave all, and follow him; to take no thought for the morrow; to think no more of laying up treasures on the earth, for in the Messianic kingdom they shall have treasures in abundance, which can neither be wasted nor stolen. On making their journeys, they are to provide neither money, nor clothes, nor food, but are to live at the expense of those whom they visit; and if any town refuse to harbour them, the Messiah, on his arrival, will deal with that town more severely than Jehovah dealt with the cities of the plain. Indeed, since the end of the world was to come before the end of the generation then living (Matt. xxiv. 34; 1 Cor. xv. 51-56, vii. 29), there could be no need for acquiring property or making arrangements for the future; even marriage became unnecessary. These teachings of Jesus have a marked Essenian character, as well as his declaration that in the Messianic kingdom there was to be no more marriage, perhaps no distinction of sex (Matt. xxii. 30). The sect of Ebionites, who represented the earliest doctrine and practice of Christianity before it had been modified by Paul, differed from the Essenes in no essential respect save in the acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah, and the expectation of his speedy return to the earth.

How long, or with what success, Jesus continued to preach the coming of the Messiah in Galilee, it is impossible to conjecture. His fellow-townsmen of Nazareth appear to have ridiculed him in his prophetical capacity; or, if we may trust the third evangelist, to have arisen against him with indignation, and made an attempt upon his life. To them he was but a carpenter, the son of a carpenter (Matt. xiii. 55; Mark vi. 3), who told them disagreeable truths. Our author represents his teaching in Galilee to have produced but little result, but the gospel narratives afford no definite data for deciding this point. We believe the most probable conclusion to be that Jesus did attract many followers, and became famous throughout Galilee; for Herod is said to have regarded him as John the Baptist risen from the grave. To escape the malice of Herod, Jesus then retired to Syro-Phoenicia, and during this eventful journey the consciousness of his own Messiahship seems for the first time to have distinctly dawned upon him (Matt. xiv. 1, 13; xv. 21; xvi. 13-20). Already, it appears, speculations were rife as to the character of this wonderful preacher. Some thought he was John the Baptist, or perhaps one of the prophets of the Assyrian period returned to the earth. Some, in accordance with a generally-received tradition, supposed him to be Elijah, who had never seen death, and had now at last returned from the regions above the firmament to announce the coming of the Messiah in the clouds. It was generally admitted, among enthusiastic hearers, that he who spake as never man spake before must have some divine commission to execute. These speculations, coming to the ears of Jesus during his preaching in Galilee, could not fail to excite in him a train of self-conscious reflections. To him also must have been presented the query as to his own proper character and functions; and, as our author acutely demonstrates, his only choice lay between a profitless life of exile in Syro-Phoenicia, and a bold return to Jewish territory in some pronounced character. The problem being thus propounded, there could hardly be a doubt as to what that character should be. Jesus knew well that he was not John the Baptist; nor, however completely he may have been dominated by his sublime enthusiasm, was it likely that he could mistake himself for an ancient prophet arisen from the lower world of shades, or for Elijah descended from the sky. But the Messiah himself he might well be. Such indeed was the almost inevitable corollary from his own conception of Messiahship. We have seen that he had, probably from the very outset, discarded the traditional notion of a political Messiah, and recognized the truth that the happiness of a people lies not so much in political autonomy as in the love of God and the sincere practice of righteousness. The people were to be freed from the bondage of sin, of meaningless formalism, of consecrated hypocrisy,—a bondage more degrading than the payment of tribute to the emperor. The true business of the Messiah, then, was to deliver his people from the former bondage; it might be left to Jehovah, in his own good time, to deliver them from the latter. Holding these views, it was hardly possible that it should not sooner or later occur to Jesus that he himself was the person destined to discharge this glorious function, to liberate his countrymen from the thraldom of Pharisaic ritualism, and to inaugurate the real Messianic kingdom of spiritual righteousness. Had he not already preached the advent of this spiritual kingdom, and been instrumental in raising many to loftier conceptions of duty, and to a higher and purer life? And might he not now, by a grand attack upon Pharisaism in its central stronghold, destroy its prestige in the eyes of the people, and cause Israel to adopt a nobler religious and ethical doctrine? The temerity of such a purpose detracts nothing from its sublimity. And if that purpose should be accomplished, Jesus would really have performed the legitimate work of the Messiah. Thus, from his own point of view, Jesus was thoroughly consistent and rational in announcing himself as the expected Deliverer; and in the eyes of the impartial historian his course is fully justified.

“From that time,” says the first evangelist, “Jesus began to show to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be put to death, and rise again on the third day.” Here we have, obviously, the knowledge of the writer, after the event, reflected back and attributed to Jesus. It is of course impossible that Jesus should have predicted with such definiteness his approaching death; nor is it very likely that he entertained any hope of being raised from the grave “on the third day.” To a man in that age and country, the conception of a return from the lower world of shades was not a difficult one to frame; and it may well be that Jesus’ sense of his own exalted position was sufficiently great to inspire him with the confidence that, even in case of temporary failure, Jehovah would rescue him from the grave and send him back with larger powers to carry out the purpose of his mission. But the difficulty of distinguishing between his own words and the interpretation put upon them by his disciples becomes here insuperable; and there will always be room for the hypothesis that Jesus had in view no posthumous career of his own, but only expressed his unshaken confidence in the success of his enterprise, even after and in spite of his death.

At all events, the possibility of his death must now have been often in his mind. He was undertaking a wellnigh desperate task,—to overthrow the Pharisees in Jerusalem itself. No other alternative was left him. And here we believe Mr. F. W. Newman to be singularly at fault in pronouncing this attempt of Jesus upon Jerusalem a foolhardy attempt. According to Mr. Newman, no man has any business to rush upon certain death, and it is only a crazy fanatic who will do so.[21] But such “glittering generalizations” will here help us but little. The historic data show that to go to Jerusalem, even at the risk of death, was absolutely necessary to the realization of Jesus’ Messianic project. Mr. Newman certainly would not have had him drag out an inglorious and baffled existence in Syro-Phoenicia. If the Messianic kingdom was to be fairly inaugurated, there was work to be done in Jerusalem, and Jesus must go there as one in authority, cost what it might. We believe him to have gone there in a spirit of grand and careless bravery, yet seriously and soberly, and under the influence of no fanatical delusion. He knew the risks, but deliberately chose to incur them, that the will of Jehovah might be accomplished.

We next hear of Jesus travelling down to Jerusalem by way of Jericho, and entering the sacred city in his character of Messiah, attended by a great multitude. It was near the time of the Passover, when people from all parts of Galilee and Judaea were sure to be at Jerusalem, and the nature of his reception seems to indicate that he had already secured a considerable number of followers upon whose assistance he might hope to rely, though it nowhere appears that he intended to use other than purely moral weapons to insure a favourable reception. We must remember that for half a century many of the Jewish people had been constantly looking for the arrival of the Messiah, and there can be little doubt that the entry of Jesus riding upon an ass in literal fulfilment of prophecy must have wrought powerfully upon the imagination of the multitude. That the believers in him were very numerous must be inferred from the cautious, not to say timid, behaviour of the rulers at Jerusalem, who are represented as desiring to arrest him, but as deterred from taking active steps through fear of the people. We are led to the same conclusion by his driving the money-changers out of the Temple; an act upon which he could hardly have ventured, had not the popular enthusiasm in his favour been for the moment overwhelming. But the enthusiasm of a mob is short-lived, and needs to be fed upon the excitement of brilliant and dramatically arranged events. The calm preacher of righteousness, or even the fiery denouncer of the scribes and Pharisees, could not hope to retain undiminished authority save by the display of extraordinary powers to which, so far as we know, Jesus (like Mohammed) made no presence (Matt. xvi. 1-4). The ignorant and materialistic populace could not understand the exalted conception of Messiahship which had been formed by Jesus, and as day after day elapsed without the appearance of any marvellous sign from Jehovah, their enthusiasm must naturally have cooled down. Then the Pharisees appear cautiously endeavouring to entrap him into admissions which might render him obnoxious to the Roman governor. He saw through their design, however, and foiled them by the magnificent repartee, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Nothing could more forcibly illustrate the completely non-political character of his Messianic doctrines. Nevertheless, we are told that, failing in this attempt, the chief priests suborned false witnesses to testify against him: this Sabbath-breaker, this derider of Mosaic formalism, who with his Messianic pretensions excited the people against their hereditary teachers, must at all events be put out of the way. Jesus must suffer the fate which society has too often had in store for the reformer; the fate which Sokrates and Savonarola, Vanini and Bruno, have suffered for being wiser than their own generation. Messianic adventurers had already given much trouble to the Roman authorities, who were not likely to scrutinize critically the peculiar claims of Jesus. And when the chief priests accused him before Pilate of professing to be “King of the Jews,” this claim could in Roman apprehension bear but one interpretation. The offence was treason, punishable, save in the case of Roman citizens, by crucifixion.

[21] Phases of Faith, pp. 158-164.

Such in its main outlines is the historic career of Jesus, as constructed by our author from data furnished chiefly by the first gospel. Connected with the narrative there are many interesting topics of discussion, of which our rapidly diminishing space will allow us to select only one for comment. That one is perhaps the most important of all, namely, the question as to how far Jesus anticipated the views of Paul in admitting Gentiles to share in the privileges of the Messianic kingdom. Our author argues, with much force, that the designs of Jesus were entirely confined to the Jewish people, and that it was Paul who first, by admitting Gentiles to the Christian fold without requiring them to live like Jews, gave to Christianity the character of a universal religion. Our author reminds us that the third gospel is not to be depended upon in determining this point, since it manifestly puts Pauline sentiments into the mouth of Jesus, and in particular attributes to Jesus an acquaintance with heretical Samaria which the first gospel disclaims. He argues that the apostles were in every respect Jews, save in their belief that Jesus was the Messiah; and he pertinently asks, if James, who was the brother of Jesus, and Peter and John, who were his nearest friends, unanimously opposed Paul and stigmatized him as a liar and heretic, is it at all likely that Jesus had ever distinctly sanctioned such views as Paul maintained?

In the course of many years’ reflection upon this point, we have several times been inclined to accept the narrow interpretation of Jesus’ teaching here indicated; yet, on the whole, we do not believe it can ever be conclusively established. In the first place it must be remembered that if the third gospel throws a Pauline colouring over the events which it describes, the first gospel also shows a decidedly anti-Pauline bias, and the one party was as likely as the other to attribute its own views to Jesus himself. One striking instance of this tendency has been pointed out by Strauss, who has shown that the verses Matt. v. 17-20 are an interpolation. The person who teaches men to break the commandments is undoubtedly Paul, and in order to furnish a text against Paul’s followers, the “Nicolaitans,” Jesus is made to declare that he came not to destroy one tittle of the law, but to fulfil the whole in every particular. Such an utterance is in manifest contradiction to the spirit of Jesus’ teaching, as shown in the very same chapter, and throughout a great part of the same gospel. He who taught in his own name and not as the scribes, who proclaimed himself Lord over the Sabbath, and who manifested from first to last a more than Essenian contempt for rites and ceremonies, did not come to fulfil the law of Mosaism, but to supersede it. Nor can any inference adverse to this conclusion be drawn from the injunction to the disciples (Matt. x. 5-7) not to preach to Gentiles and Samaritans, but only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel"; for this remark is placed before the beginning of Jesus’ Messianic career, and the reason assigned for the restriction is merely that the disciples will not have time even to preach to all the Jews before the coming of the Messiah, whose approach Jesus was announcing (Matt. x. 23)

These examples show that we must use caution in weighing the testimony even of the first gospel, and must not too hastily cite it as proof that Jesus supposed his mission to be restricted to the Jews. When we come to consider what happened a few years after the death of Jesus, we shall be still less ready to insist upon the view defended by our anonymous author. Paul, according to his own confession, persecuted the Christians unto death. Now what, in the theories or in the practice of the Jewish disciples of Jesus, could have moved Paul to such fanatic behaviour? Certainly not their spiritual interpretation of Mosaism, for Paul himself belonged to the liberal school of Gamaliel, to the views of which the teachings and practices of Peter, James, and John might easily be accommodated. Probably not their belief in Jesus as the Messiah, for at the riot in which Stephen was murdered and all the Hellenist disciples driven from Jerusalem, the Jewish disciples were allowed to remain in the city unmolested. (See Acts viii. 1, 14.) This marked difference of treatment indicates that Paul regarded Stephen and his friends as decidedly more heretical and obnoxious than Peter, James, and John, whom, indeed, Paul’s own master Gamaliel had recently (Acts v. 34) defended before the council. And this inference is fully confirmed by the account of Stephen’s death, where his murderers charge him with maintaining that Jesus had founded a new religion which was destined entirely to supersede and replace Judaism (Acts vi. 14). The Petrine disciples never held this view of the mission of Jesus; and to this difference it is undoubtedly owing that Paul and his companions forbore to disturb them. It would thus appear that even previous to Paul’s conversion, within five or six years after the death of Jesus, there was a prominent party among the disciples which held that the new religion was not a modification but an abrogation of Judaism; and their name “Hellenists” sufficiently shows either that there were Gentiles among them or that they held fellowship with Gentiles. It was this which aroused Paul to persecution, and upon his sudden conversion it was with these Hellenistic doctrines that he fraternized, taking little heed of the Petrine disciples (Galatians i. 17), who were hardly more than a Jewish sect.

Now the existence of these Hellenists at Jerusalem so soon after the death of Jesus is clear proof that he had never distinctly and irrevocably pronounced against the admission of Gentiles to the Messianic kingdom, and it makes it very probable that the downfall of Mosaism as a result of his preaching was by no means unpremeditated. While, on the other hand, the obstinacy of the Petrine party in adhering to Jewish customs shows equally that Jesus could not have unequivocally committed himself in favour of a new gospel for the Gentiles. Probably Jesus was seldom brought into direct contact with others than Jews, so that the questions concerning the admission of Gentile converts did not come up during his lifetime; and thus the way was left open for the controversy which soon broke out between the Petrine party and Paul. Nevertheless, though Jesus may never have definitely pronounced upon this point, it will hardly be denied that his teaching, even as reported in the first gospel, is in its utter condemnation of formalism far more closely allied to the Pauline than to the Petrine doctrines. In his hands Mosaism became spiritualized until it really lost its identity, and was transformed into a code fit for the whole Roman world. And we do not doubt that if any one had asked Jesus whether circumcision were an essential prerequisite for admission to the Messianic kingdom, he would have given the same answer which Paul afterwards gave. We agree with Zeller and Strauss that, “as Luther was a more liberal spirit than the Lutheran divines of the succeeding generation, and Sokrates a more profound thinker than Xenophon or Antisthenes, so also Jesus must be credited with having raised himself far higher above the narrow prejudices of his nation than those of his disciples who could scarcely understand the spread of Christianity among the heathen when it had become an accomplished fact.”

  January, 1870.



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