The Life of Jesus
by Ernest Renan


The Life of Jesus > Chapter XVIII



Institutions of Jesus
THAT Jesus was never entirely absorbed in his apocalyptic ideas is proved, moreover, by the fact that at the very time he was most preoccupied with them he laid with rare forethought the foundation of a Church destined to endure. It is scarcely possible to doubt that he himself chose from among his disciples those who were preeminently called the "Apostles," or the "Twelve," since on the day after his death we find them forming a distinct body, and filling up by election the vacancies that had arisen in their midst. They were the two sons of Jonas, the two sons of Zebedee; James, son of Cleophas; Philip; Nathaniel bar-Tolmai; Thomas; Levi, or Matthew, the son of Alphoeus; Simon Zelotes; Thaddeus or Lebbaeus; and Judas of Kerioth. it is probable that the idea of the twelve tribes of Israel had had some share in the choice of this number.

The "Twelve," at all events, formed a group of privileged disciples, among whom Peter maintained a fraternal priority, and to them Jesus confided the propagation of his work. There was nothing, however, which presented the appearance of a regularly organized sacerdotal school. The lists of the "Twelve," which have been preserved, contain many uncertainties and contradictions; two or three of those who figure in them have remained completely obscure. Two, at least, Peter and Philip, were married and had children.

Jesus evidently confided secrets to the Twelve, which he forbade them to communicate to the world. It seems as if his plan at times was to surround himself with a degree of mystery, to postpone the most important testimony respecting himself till after his death, and to reveal himself completely only to his disciples, confiding to them the care of demonstrating him afterwards to the world. "What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light; and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops." This spared him the necessity of too precise declarations, and created a kind of medium between the public and himself. It is clear that there were certain teachings confined to the Apostles, and that he explained many parables to them, the meaning of which was ambiguous to the multitude. An enigmatical form and a degree of oddness in connecting ideas were customary in the teachings of the doctors, as may be seen in the sentences of the Pirke Aboth. Jesus explained to his intimate friends whatever was peculiar in his apothegms or in his apologies, and showed them his meaning stripped of the wealth of illustration which sometimes obscured it. Many of these explanations appear to have been carefully preserved.

During the lifetime of Jesus the Apostles preached, but without ever departing far from him. Their preaching, moreover, was limited to the announcement of the speedy coming of the kingdom of God. They went from town to town, receiving hospitality, or rather taking it themselves, according to the custom of the country. The guest in the East has much authority; he is superior to the master of the house, who has the greatest confidence in him. This fireside preaching is admirably adapted to the propagation of new doctrines. The hidden treasure is communicated, and payment is thus made for what is received; politeness and good feeling lend their aid; the household is touched and converted. Remove Oriental hospitality, and it would be impossible to explain the propagation of Christianity. Jesus, who adhered greatly to good old customs, encouraged his disciples to make no scruple of profiting by this ancient public right, probably already abolished in the great towns where there were hostelries. "The laborer," said he, "is worthy of his hire!" Once installed in any house, they were to remain there, eating and drinking what was offered them as long as their mission lasted.

Jesus desired that, in imitation of his example, the messengers of the glad tidings should render their preaching agreeable by kindly and polished manners. He directed that, on entering into a house, they should give the salaam or greeting. Some hesitated; the salaam being then, as now, in the East, a sign of religious communion, which is not risked with persons of a doubtful faith. "Fear nothing," said Jesus; "if no one in the house is worthy of your salute, it will return unto you." Sometimes, in fact, the Apostles of the kingdom of God were badly received, and came to complain to Jesus, who generally sought to soothe them. Some of them, persuaded of the omnipotence of their Master, were hurt at this forbearance. The sons of Zebedee wanted him to call down fire from heaven upon the inhospitable towns. Jesus received these outbursts with a subtle irony, and stopped them by saying: "The Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them."

He sought in every way to establish as a principle that his Apostles were as himself. It was believed that he had communicated his marvelous virtues to them. They cast out demons, prophesied, and formed a school of renowned exorcists, although certain cases were beyond their power. They also wrought cures, either by the imposition of hands or by the anointing with oil, one of the fundamental processes of Oriental medicine. Lastly, like the Psylli, they could handle serpents and could drink deadly potions with impunity. The further we get from Jesus, the more offensive does this theurgy become. But there is no doubt that it was generally received by the primitive Church, and that it held an important place in the estimation of the world around. Charlatans, as generally happens, took advantage of this movement of popular credulity. Even in the lifetime of Jesus many, without being his disciples, cast out demons in his name. The true disciples were much displeased at this, and sought to prevent them. Jesus, who saw that this was really an homage paid to his renown, was not very severe towards them. It must be observed, moreover, that the exercise of these gifts had to some degree become a trade, Carrying the logic of absurdity to the extreme, certain men cast out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons. They imagined that this sovereign of the infernal regions must have entire authority over his subordinates, and that in acting through him they were certain to make the intruding spirit depart. Some even sought to buy from the disciples of Jesus the secret of the miraculous powers which had been conferred upon them. The germ of a Church from this time began to appear. This fertile idea of the power of men in association (ecclesia) was doubtless derived from Jesus. Full of the purely idealistic doctrine that it is the union of love which brings souls together, he declared that whenever men assembled in his name he would be in their midst. He confided to the Church the right to bind and to unbind (that is to say, to render certain things lawful or unlawful), to remit sins, to reprimand, to warn with authority, and to pray with the certainty of being heard favorably. It is possible that many of these words may have been attributed to the Master in order to give a warrant to the collective authority which was afterwards sought to be substituted for that of Jesus. At all events, it was only after his death that particular Churches were established, and even this first constitution was made purely and simply on the model of the Synagogue. Many personages who had loved Jesus much, and had founded great hopes upon him, as Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, and Nicodemus, did not, it seems, join these Churches, but clung to the tender or respectful memory which they had preserved of him.

Moreover, there is no trace, in the teaching of Jesus, of an applied morality or of a canonical law, ever so slightly defined. once only, respecting marriage, he spoke decidedly, and forbade divorce. Neither was there any theology or creed. There were indefinite views respecting the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, from which, afterwards, were drawn the Trinity and the Incarnation, but they were then only in a state of indeterminate imagery. The later books of the Jewish canon recognized the Holy Spirit, a sort of divine hypostasis, sometimes identified with Wisdom or the Word. Jesus insisted upon this point, and announced to his disciples a baptism by fire and by the spirit, as much preferable to that of John, a baptism which they believed they had received, after the death of Jesus, in the form of a great wind and tongues of fire. The Holy Spirit thus sent by the Father was to teach them all truth, and testify to that which Jesus himself had promulgated. In order to designate this Spirit, Jesus made use of the word Peraklit, which the Syro-Chaldaic had borrowed from the Greek (770epckx),-n'roq), and which appears to have had in his mind the meaning of "advocate." "counsellor," and sometimes that of "interpreter of celestial truths," and of "teacher charged to reveal to men the hitherto hidden mysteries." He regarded himself as a Peraklit to his disciples, and the Spirit which was to come after his death would only take his place. This was an application of the process which the Jewish and Christian theologies would follow during centuries, and which was to produce a whole series of divine assessors, the Metathronos, the Synadelphe or Sandalphon, and all the personifications of the Cabbala. But in Judaism these creations were to remain free and individual speculations, while in Christianity, commencing with the fourth century, they were to form the very essence of orthodoxy and of the universal doctrine.

It is unnecessary to remark how remote from the thought of Jesus was the idea of a religious book containing a code and articles of faith. Not only did he not write, but it was contrary to the spirit of the infant sect to produce sacred books. They believed themselves to be on the eve of the great final catastrophe. The Messiah came to put the seal upon the Law and the Prophets, not to promulgate new Scriptures. With the exception of the Apocalypse, which was in one sense the only revealed book of the infant Christianity, all the other writings of the Apostolic age were works evoked by existing circumstances, making no pretensions to furnish a completely dogmatic whole. The Gospels had at first an entirely personal character, and much less authority than tradition.

Had the sect, however, no sacrament, no rite, no sign of union? It had one which all tradition ascribes to Jesus. One of the favorite ideas of the Master was that he was the new bread -- bread very superior to manna, and on which mankind was to live. This idea, the germ of the Eucharist, was at times expressed by him in singularly concrete forms. On one occasion especially, in the synagogue of Capernaum, he took a decided step, which cost him several of hisciples. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven." And he added, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst." These words excited much murmuring. "The Jews then murmured at him because he said, I am the bread which came down from heaven. And they said, Is not this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven?" But Jesus insisting with still more force, said, "I am that bread of life; your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." The offence was now at its height: "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Jesus going still further, said, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life, and I win raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father has sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he Shall live by me. This bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever." Several of his disciples were offended at such obstinacy in paradox, and ceased to follow him. Jesus did not retract; he only added: "It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing. The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life." The Twelve remained faithful, notwithstanding this strange preaching. It gave to Cephas, in particular, an opportunity of showing his absolute devotion, and of proclaiming once more, "Thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God."

It is probable that from that time, in the common repasts of the sect, there was established some custom which was derived from the discourse so badly received by the men of Capernaum. But the Apostolic traditions on this subject are very diverse and probably intentionally incomplete. The Synoptical Gospels suppose that a unique sacramental act, served as basis to the mysterious rite, and declare this to have been "the last supper." John, who has preserved the incident at the synagogue of Capemaum, does not speak of such an act, although he describes the last supper at great length. Elsewhere we see Jesus recognized in the breaking of bread, as if this act had been to those who associated with him the most characteristic of his person. When he was dead, the form under which he appeared to the pious memory of his disciples was that of president of a mysterious banquet, taking the bread, blessing it, breaking and presenting it to those present. It is probable that this was one of his habits, and that at such times he was particularly loving and tender. One material circumstance, the presence of fish upon the table (a striking indication, which proves that the rite had its bath on the shore of Lake Tiberias) was itself almost sacramental, and became a necessary part of the conceptions of the sacred feast.

Their repasts were among the sweetest moments of the infant community. At these times they all assembled; the Master spoke to each one, and kept up a charming and lively conversation. Jesus loved these seasons, and was pleased to see his spiritual family thus grouped around him. The participation of the same bread was considered as a Kind of communion, a reciprocal bond. The Master used, in this respect, extremely strong terms, which were afterwards taken in a very literal sense. Jesus was, at the same time, very idealistic in his conceptions, and very materialistic in his expression of them. Wishing to express the thought that the believer only lives by him, that altogether (body, blood, and soul) he was the life of the truly faithful, he said to his disciples, "I am your nourishment," a phrase which, turned in figurative style, became, "My flesh is your bread, my blood your drink." Added to this the modes of speech employed by Jesus, always strongly subjective, carried him still further. At table, pointing to the food, he said, "I am here" -- holding the bread -- "this is my body"; and of the wine, "This is my blood" -- all modes of speech which were equivalent to, "I am your nourishment."

This mysterious rite obtained great importance in the lifetime of Jesus. It was probably established some time before the last journey to Jerusalem, and it was the result of a general doctrine much more than a determinate act. After the death of Jesus it became the great symbol of Christian communion, and it is to the most solemn moment of the life of the Savior that its establishment is referred. It was wished to see, in the consecration of bread and wine, a farewell memorial which Jesus, at the moment of quitting life, had left to his disciples. They recognized Jesus himself in this sacrament. The wholly spiritual idea of the presence of souls, which was one of the most familiar to the Master, which made him say, for instance, that he was personally with his disciples when they were assembled in his name, rendered this easily admissible. Jesus, we have already said, never had a very defined notion of that which constitutes individuality. In the degree of exaltation to which he had attained, the ideal surpassed everything to such an extent that the body counted for nothing. We are one when we love one another, when we live in dependence on each other; it was thus that he and his disciples were one. His disciples adopted the same language. Those who for years had lived with him had seen him constantly take the bread and the cup "between his holy and venerable hands," and thus offer himself to them, It was he whom they ate and drank; he became the true passover, the former one having been abrogated by his blood. It is impossible to translate into our essentially determined idiom, in which a rigorous distinction between the material and the metaphorical must always be observed, habits of style the essential character of which is to attribute to metaphor, or rather to the idea it represents, a complete reality.

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