The Life of Jesus
by Ernest Renan


The Life of Jesus > Chapter XV



Commencement of the legends concerning Jesus
His own idea of his supernatural character
JESUS returned to Galilee, having completely lost his Jewish faith, and filled with revolutionary ardor. His ideas are now expressed with perfect clearness. The innocent aphorisms of the first part of his prophetic career, in part borrowed from the Jewish rabbis anterior to him and the beautiful moral precepts of his second period, are exchanged for a decided policy. The Law would be abolished; and it was to be abolished by him. The Messiah had come, and he was the Messiah. The kingdom of God was about to be revealed; and it was he who would reveal it. He knew well that he would be the victim of his boldness; but the kingdom of God could not be conquered without violence; it was by crises and commotions that it was to be established. The Son of man would reappear in glory, accompanied by legions of angels, and those who had rejected him would be confounded.

The boldness of such a conception ought not to surprise us. Long before this Jesus had regarded his relation to God as that of a son to his father. That which in others would be an insupportable pride ought not in him to be regarded as presumption.

The title of "Son of David" was the first which he accepted, probably without being concerned in the innocent frauds by which it was sought to secure it to him. The family of David had, as it seems, been long extinct; the Asmoneans, being of priestly origin, could not pretend to claim such a descent for themselves; neither Herod nor the Romans dreamt for a moment that any representative whatever of the ancient dynasty existed in their midst. But from the close of the Asmonean dynasty the dream of an unknown descendant of the ancient kings, who should avenge the nation of its enemies, filled every mind. The universal belief was that the Messiah would be son of David, and, like him, would be born at Bethlehem. The first idea of Jesus was not precisely this. The remembrance of David, which was uppermost in the minds of the Jews, had nothing in common with his heavenly reign. He believed himself the Son of God, and not the son of David. His kingdom and the deliverance which he meditated were of quite another order. But public opinion on this point made him do violence to himself. The immediate consequence of the proposition, "Jesus is the Messiah," was this other proposition, "Jesus is the son of David." He allowed a title to be given him without which he could not hope for success. He ended, it seems, by taking pleasure therein, for he performed most willingly the miracles which were asked of him by those who used this title in addressing him. In this, as in many other circumstances of his life, Jesus yielded to the ideas which were current in his time, although they were not precisely his own. He associated with his doctrine of the "kingdom of God" all that could warm the heart and the imagination. It was thus that we have seen him adopt the baptism of John, although it could not have been of much importance to him.

One great difficulty presented itself, his birth at Nazareth, which was of public notoriety. We do not know whether Jesus strove against this objection. Perhaps it did not present itself in Galilee, where the idea that the son of David should be a Bethlehemite was less spread. To the Galilean idealist, moreover, the title of "son of David" was sufficiently justified if he to whom it was given revived the glory of his race and brought back the great days of Israel. Did Jesus authorize by his silence the fictitious genealogies which his partisans invented in order to prove his royal descent? Did he know anything of the legends invented to prove that he was born at Bethlehem; and particularly of the attempt to connect his Bethlehemite origin with the census which had taken place by order of the Imperial legate, Quirinus? We know not. The inexactitude and the contradictions of the genealogies lead to the belief that they were the result of popular ideas operating at various points, and that none of them were sanctioned by Jesus. Never does he designate himself as son of David. His disciples, much less enlightened than he, frequently magnified that which he said of himself; but, as a rule, he had no knowledge of these exaggerations. Let us add that during the first three centuries considerable portions of Christianity absolutely denied the royal descent of Jesus and the authenticity of the genealogies.

The legends about him were thus the fruit of a great and entirely spontaneous conspiracy, and were developed around him during his lifetime. No great event in history has happened without having given rise to a cycle of fables; and Jesus could not have put a stop to these popular creations, even if he had wished to do so. Perhaps a sagacious observer would have recognized from this point the germ of the narratives which were to attribute to him a supernatural birth, and which arose, it may be, from the idea, very prevalent in antiquity, that the incomparable man could not be born of the ordinary relations of the two sexes; or, it may be, in order to respond to an imperfectly understood chapter of Isaiah, which was thought to foretell that the Messiah should be born of a virgin; or, lastly, it may be in consequence of the idea that the "breath of God," already regarded as a divine hypostasis, was a principle of fecundity. Already, perhaps, there was current more than one anecdote about his infancy, conceived with the intention of showing in his biography the accomplishment of the Messianic ideal; or, rather, of the propfiecies which the allegorical exegesis of the time referred to the Messiah. At other times they connected him from his birth with celebrated men, such as John the Baptist Herod the Great, Chaldean astrologers, who, it was said visited Jerusalem about this time, and two aged persons, Simeon and Anna, who had left memories of great sanctity. A rather loose chronology characterized these combinations, which for the most part were founded upon real facts travestied. But a singular spirit of gentleness and goodness, a profoundly popular sentiment, permeated all these fables, and made them a supplement to his preaching. It was especially after the death of Jesus that such narratives became greatly developed; we may, however, believe that they circulated even during his life, exciting only a pious credulity and simple admiration.

That Jesus never dreamt of making himself pass for an incarnation of God is a matter about which there can be no doubt. Such an idea was entirely foreign to the Jewish mind; and there is no trace of it in the Synoptical Gospels: we only find it indicated in portions of the Gospel of John, which cannot be accepted as expressing the thoughts of Jesus. Sometimes Jesus even seems to take precautions to put down such a doctrine. The accusation that he made himself God, or the equal of God, is presented even in the Gospel of John, as a calumny of the Jews. In this last Gospel he declares himself less than his Father. Elsewhere he avows that the Father has not revealed everything to him. He believes himself to be more than an ordinary man, but separated from God by an infinite distance. He is Son of God; but all men are, or may become so, in divers degrees. Everyone ought daily to call God his father; all who are raised again will be sons of God. The Divine sonship was attributed in the Old Testament to beings whom it was by no means pretended were equal with God, The word "son" has the widest meanings in the Semitic language, and in that of the New Testament. Besides, the idea Jesus had of man was not that low idea which a cold Doism has introduced. In his poetic conception of nature one breath alone penetrates the universe the breath of man is that of God; God dwells in man and lives by man, the same as man dwells in God and lives by God. The transcendent idealism of Jesus never permitted him to have a very clear notion of his own personality. He is his Father his Father is he. He lives in his disciples; he is everywhere with them; his disciples are one, as he and his Father are one. The idea to him is everything; the body, which makes the distinction of persons, is nothing.

The title "Son of God," or simply "Son," thus became for Jesus a title analogous to "Son of man," and, like that, synonymous with the Messiah," with the sole difference that he called himself "Son of man," and does not seem to have made the same use of the phrase "Son of God." The title Son of man expressed his character as judge; that of Son of God his power and his participation in the supreme designs. This power had no limits. His Father had given him all power. He had the power to alter even the Sabbath. No one could know the Father except through him. The Father had delegated to him exclusively the right of judging. Nature obeyed him; but she obeys also all who believe and pray, for faith can do everything. We must remember that no idea of the laws of nature marked the limit of the impossible, either in his own mind or in that of his hearers. The witnesses of his miracles thanked God "for having given such power unto men." He pardoned sins; he was superior to David, to Abraham, to Solomon, and to the prophets. We do not know in what form, nor to what extent, these affirmations of himself were made. Jesus ought not to be judged by the law of our petty conventionalities. The admiration of his disciples overwhelmed him and carried him away. It is evident that the title of Rabbi, with which he was at first contented, no longer sufficed him; even the title of prophet or messenger of God responded no longer to his ideas. The position which he attributed to himself was that of a superhuman being, and he wished to be regarded as sustaining a higher relationship to God than other men. But it must be remarked that these words, "superhuman" and "supernatural," borrowed from our petty theology, had no meaning in the exalted religious consciousness of Jesus. To him nature and the development of humanity were not limited kingdoms apart from God -- paltry realities subjected to the laws of a hopeless empiricism. There was no supernatural for him, because there was no nature. Intoxicated with infinite love, he forgot the heavy chain which holds the spirit captive; he cleared at one bound the abyss, impossible to most, which the weakness of the human faculties has created between God and man.

We cannot mistake in these affirmations of Jesus the germ of the doctrine which was afterwards to make of him a divine hypostasis, in identifying him with the Word, or "second God," or eldest Son of God, or Angel Metathronos, [that is, sharing the throne of God; a kind of divine secretary, keeping the register of merits and demerits.] which Jewish theology created apart from him. A kind of necessity caused this theology, in order to correct the extreme rigor of the old Monotheism, to place near God an assessor, to whom the eternal Father is supposed to delegate the government of the universe. The belief that certain men are incarnations of divine faculties or "powers" was widespread; the Samaritans possessed about the same time a thaumaturgus named Simon, whom they identified with the "great power of God." For nearly two centuries the speculative minds of Judaism had yielded to the tendency to personify the divine attributes, and certain expressions which were connected with the Divinity. Thus, the "breath of God," which is often referred to in the Old Testament, is considered as a separate being, the "Holy Spirit." In the same manner the "Wisdom of God " and the "Word of God" became distinct personages. This was the germ of the process which has engendered the Sephiroth of the Cabbala, the AEons of Gnosticism, the hypostasis of Christianity, and all that dry mythology, consisting of personified abstractions, to which Monotheism is obliged to resort when it wishes to pluralize the Deity.

Jesus appears to have remained a stranger to these refinements of theology, which were soon to fill the world with barren disputes. The metaphysical theory of the Word, such as we find it in the writings of his contemporary Philo, in the Chaldean Targums, and even in the book of "Wisdom," is neither seen in the Logia of Matthew nor in general in the Synoptics, the most authentic interpreters of the words of Jesus. The doctrine of the Word, in fact, had nothing in common with Messianism. The "Word" of Philo, and of the Targums, is in no sense the Messiah. It was John the Evangelist, or his school, who afterwards endeavored to prove that Jesus was the Word, and who created, in this sense, quite a new theology, very different from that of the "kingdom of God." The essential character of the Word was that of Creator and of Providence. Now, Jesus never pretended to have created the world, nor to govern it. His office was to judge it, to renovate it. The position of president at the final judgment of humanity was the essential attribute which Jesus attached to himself, and the character which all the first Christians attributed to him. Until the great day he will sit at the right hand of God, as his Metathronos, his first minister, and his future avenger. The superhuman Christ of the Byzantine apsides, seated as judge of the world, in the midst of the apostles in the same rank with him, and superior to the angels who only assist and serve, is the exact representation of that conception of the "Son of man" of which we find the first features so strongly indicated in the book of Daniel.

At all events, the strictness of a studied theology by no means existed in such a state of society. All the ideas we have just stated formed in the mind of the disciples a theological system so little settled that the Son of God, this species of divine duplicate, is made to act purely as man. He is tempted -- he is ignorant of many things -- he corrects himself -- he is cast down, discouraged -- he asks his Father to spare him trials -- he is submissive to God as a son. He who is to judge the world does not know the day of judgment. He takes precautions for his safety. Soon after his birth he is obliged to be concealed to avoid powerful men who wish to kill him. In exorcisms the devil cheats him, and does not come out at the first command, In his miracles we are sensible of painful effort -- an exhaustion as if something went out of him. All these are simply the acts of a messenger of God, of a man protected and favored by God. We must not look here for either logic or sequence. The need Jesus had of obtaining credence, and the enthusiasm of his disciples, heaped up contradictory notions. To the Messianic believers of the millenarian school, and to the enthusiastic readers of the books of Daniel and of Enoch, he was the Son of man -- to the Jews holding the ordinary faith, and to the readers of Isaiah and Micah, he was the Son of David -- to the disciples he was the Son of God, or simply the Son. Others, without being blamed by the disciples, took him for John the Baptist risen from the dead, for Elias, for Jeremiah, conformable to the popular belief that the ancient prophets were about to reappear, in order to prepare the time of the Messiah.

An absolute conviction, or rather the enthusiasm, which freed him from even the possibility of doubt, shrouded all these boldnesses. We little understand, with our cold and scrupulous natures, how any one can be so entirely possessed by the idea of which he has made himself the apostle. To the deeply earnest races of the West, conviction means sincerity to one's self. But sincerity to one's self has not much meaning to Oriental peoples, little accustomed to the subtleties of a critical spirit. Honesty and imposture are words which, in our rigid consciences, are opposed as two irreconcilable terms. In the East they are connected by numberless subtle links and windings. The authors of the Apocryphal books (of "Daniel" and of "Enoch," for instance), men highly exalted, in order to aid their cause, committed, without a shadow of scruple, an act which we should term a fraud. The literal truth has little value to the Oriental; he sees everything through the medium of his ideas, his interests, and his passions.

History is impossible if we do not fully admit that there are many standards of sincerity. All great things are done through the people; now, we can only lead the people by adapting ourselves to its ideas. The philosopher who, knowing this, isolates and fortifies himself in his integrity is highly praiseworthy. But he who takes humanity with its illusions, and seeks to act with it and upon it, cannot be blamed. Caesar knew well that he was not the son of Venus; France would not be what it is if it had not for a thousand years believed in the Holy Ampulla of Rheims. It is easy for us, who are so powerless, to call this falsehood, and, proud of our timid honesty, to treat with contempt the heroes who have accepted the battle of life under other conditions. When we have effected by our scruples what they accomplished by their falsehoods, we shall have the right to be severe upon them. At least, we must make a marked distinction between societies like our own, where everything takes place in the full light of reflection, and simple and credulous communities, in which the beliefs that have governed ages have been born. Nothing great has been established which does not rest on a legend. The only culprit in such cases is the humanity which is willing to be deceived.

-> next chapter

-> original version (in French) & notes

-> The Life of Jesus : contents

-> Bible in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English translation