The Apostles

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > The Apostles > Chapter I

Formation of beliefs relative to the resurrection of Jesus,
the apparitions at Jerusalem
Jesus, although speaking constantly of resurrection, of new life, never stated distinctly that he would rise again in the flesh. The disciples, in the hours immediately following his death, had not, in this respect, any settled expectations. The sentiments, in which they have so unaffectedly taken us into their confidence, implied even that they believed all was finished. They wept, and interred their friend, if not as they would at the death of a common person, at least as a person whose loss was irreparable. They were sad and cast down. The hope that they had cherished of seeing him realise the salvation of Israel is now proved to have been vanity. They were spoken of as men who had been robbed of a grand and dear illusion.

But enthusiasm and love do not recognise conditions barren of results. They dallied with the impossible, and, rather than abdicate hope, they did violence to all reality. Several phrases of the Master, which were recalled, especially those in which he predicted his future advent, might be interpreted in the sense that he would leave the tomb. Such a belief was, besides, so natural that the faith of the disciples would have sufficed to create it in every part. The great prophets, Enoch and Elijah, had not tasted death. They began even is believe that the patriarchs and the men of the first order in the old law, were not really dead, and that their bodies were in their sepulchres at Hebron, alive and animated. It was to happen to Jesus, what had happened to all men who have captivated the attention of their fellow-men. The world, accustomed to attribute to them superhuman virtues, cannot admit that they would have to undergo the unjust, revolting and iniquitous law, to wit, a common death. At the moment when Mahomet expired, Omar issued from the tent, sabre in hand, and declared that he would strike off the head of anyone who dared to say that the prophet was no more. Death is a thing so absurd—when it strikes down a man of genius, or the large-hearted man—that people will not believe in the possibility of such an error in nature. Heroes do not die. Is not true existence that which is implanted in the hearts of those whom we love? This adored Master had filled for some years the little world which pressed around him with joy and with hope; would people consent to leave him to rot in the tomb? No; he had lived too much in those who surrounded him for people not to declare after his death that he still lived.

The day which followed the burial of Jesus (Saturday, 15th April) was crowded with these thoughts. People were interdicted from all manner of manual labour, because of the Sabbath. But never was repose more fruitful. The Christian conscience had on that day but one object—the Master laid low in the tomb. The women, in particular, embalmed him in ointment with their most tender caresses. Not for a moment did their thoughts abandon that sweet friend, reposing in his myrrh, whom the wicked had killed! Ah! the angels are doubtless surrounding him, veiling their faces in his shroud! He, indeed, did say that he should die, that his death would be the salvation of the sinner, and that he should rise in the kingdom of his Father. Yes; he shall live again; God will not leave his Son to be a prey to hell; He will not suffer his chosen one to see corruption. What is this tombstone which weighs upon him? He will raise it up; he will reascend to the right hand of his Father, whence he descended. And we shall see him again; we shall hear his charming voice; we shall enjoy anew his conversations, and it is in vain that they have crucified him.

The belief in the immortality of the soul, which, through the influence of the Grecian philosophy, has become a dogma of Christianity, readily permits of one resigning oneself to death, inasmuch as the dissolution of the body in that hypothesis was only a deliverance of the soul, freed henceforth from vexatious bonds, without which it can exist. But that theory of man, considered as a being composed of two substances, did not appear very clear to the Jews. To them the reign of God and the reign of Spirit consisted in a complete transformation of the world and in the annihilation of death. To acknowledge that death could be victorious over Jesus, over him who came to extinguish its empire, was the height of absurdity. The very idea that he could suffer had previously disgusted his disciples. The latter, then, had no choice between despair or heroic affirmation. A man of penetration might have announced on that Saturday that Jesus would rise again; the little Christian Society on that day wrought the veritable miracle; it resurrected Jesus in its heart, because of the intense love that it bore for him. It decided that Jesus had not died. The love of these passionate souls was, in truth, stronger than death; and, as the property of passion is to be communicative, to light like a torch a sentiment which resembles itself, and, consequently, to be indefinitely propagated; Jesus, in a sense, at the moment of which we speak, is already risen from the dead. Let but one material fact, insignificant itself, permit the belief that his body is no longer here below, and the dogma of the resurrection will be established for eternity.

It was that which happened in the circumstances which, though part obscured, because of the incoherency of the traditions, and especially because of the contradictions which they presented, can, nevertheless, be grasped with a sufficient degree of probability.

Early on Sunday morning, the Galilean women who on Friday evening had hastily embalmed the body, visited the tomb in which he had been temporarily deposited. These were Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophas, Salome, Joanna, wife of Kouza, and others. They came, probably, each on her own account, for it is difficult to call in question the tradition of the three synoptical gospels, according to which several women came to the tomb; on the other hand, it is certain that in the two most authentic narratives which we possess of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene alone played a part. In any case she had, at that solemn moment, taken a part altogether out of line. It is she whom we must follow step by step, for she bore on that day, for an hour, all the burden of a Christian conscience; her testimony decided the faith of the future.

Let us not forget that the vault in which the body of Jesus had been enclosed, was a vault which had been recently cut in the rock, and was situated in a garden near the place of execution. It had, for the latter reason been specially taken, seeing that it was late in the day and that they were desirous of not desecrating the Sabbath. The first gospel alone adds one circumstance, to wit, that the vault belonged to Joseph of Arimathæa. But, in general, the anecdotical circumstances annexed by the first gospel to the common fund of the tradition, are without any value, especially when the matter in hand is the last days of the life of Jesus. The same gospel mentions another detail which, in view of the silence of the others, has not any probability; we refer to the public seals and a guard being placed at the tomb. We must also remember that the mortuary vaults were low chambers, cut into an inclining rock, in which was contrived a vertical cutting. The door, ordinarily downwards, was closed by a very heavy stone, fitted into a groove. These chambers had not a lock and key, the weight of the stone was the sole safeguard that one had against thieves or profaners of tombs; it was likewise so arranged that, to remove it, either a machine or the combined efforts of several persons were required. All the traditions agree on that point, that the stone had been put at the mouth of the vault on the Friday evening.

But when Mary Magdalene arrived on the Sunday morning, the stone was not in its place. The vault was open. The body was no longer there. In her mind the idea of the resurrection was as yet little developed. That which filled her soul was a tender regret and the desire to render funeral honours to the body of her divine friend. Her first sentiments, moreover, were those of surprise and of sadness. The disappearance of the cherished body had stripped her of the last joy upon which she had calculated. She could not touch him again with her hands! And what had become of him? The idea of a desecration was present to her and she was shocked at it. Perhaps, at the same time, a glimmer of hope crossed her mind. Without losing a moment, she ran to a house in which Peter and John were together. “They have taken away the body of our Master,” said she, “and I know not where they have laid him.”

The two disciples got up hastily and ran with all their might to see. John, the younger, arrived first. He stooped down to look into the interior. Mary was right. The tomb was empty. The linen which had served to enshroud him was scattered about the sepulchre. They both entered, examined the linen, which was no doubt stained with blood, and remarked in particular the napkin, which had enveloped his head, rolled up in a corner apart. Peter and John returned home extremely perplexed. If they did not now pronounce the decisive words: “He is risen!” we may be sure that such a consequence was the irrevocable conclusion, and that the generating dogma of Christianity was already established.

Peter and John departed from the garden; Mary remained alone at the mouth of the sepulchre. She wept profusely. One single thought engaged her: Where have they put the body? Her woman’s heart did not go beyond the desire of holding the well-beloved body again in her arms. Suddenly she heard a slight noise behind her. A man is standing near her. She thinks at first it is the gardener. “Sir,” said she, “if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.” In response, she heard herself called by her name, “Mary!” It was the voice which had so often before thrilled her. It was the voice of Jesus. “Oh, my master!” she exclaimed. She made as if to touch him. A sort of instinctive movement induced her to kneel down and kiss his feet. The vision gently receded, and said to her: “Touch me not!” Gradually the shadow disappeared. But the miracle of love was accomplished. What Cephas was not able to do, Mary had done. She knew how to extract life, sweet and penetrating words, from the empty tomb. It was no longer a question of deducing consequences or of framing conjectures. Mary had seen and heard. The resurrection had its first immediate witness.

Frantic with love, inebriated with joy, Mary returned to the city and said to the first disciples whom she met: “I have seen him; he has spoken to me.” Her greatly troubled imagination, her broken and incoherent discourse, made her to be taken by some as mad. Peter and John, in their turn, related what they had seen. Other disciples went to the tomb and saw likewise. The conviction reached by the whole of this first group was that Jesus had risen. Many doubts still existed. But the assurances of Mary, of Peter and of John, imposed upon the others. Subsequently, this was called “the vision of Peter.” Paul, in particular, does not speak of the vision of Mary, and awards all the honour of the first apparition to Peter. But that statement was very inexact. Peter only saw the empty sepulchre, the napkin and the winding sheet. Mary alone loved enough to dispense with nature and to have revived the phantom of the perfect master. In these sorts of marvellous crises, to see after others have seen—goes for nothing; all the merit consists in being the first to see; for others afterwards model their visions on the received type. It is the characteristic of good organisations to perceive the image promptly, accurately, and as if by a sort of innate sense of design. The glory, then, of the resurrection belongs to Mary Magdalene. Next to Jesus, it is Mary who has done the most for the establishment of Christianity. The image created by the delicate sensibility of Mary Magdalene hovers over the world still. Queen and patroness of idealists, Magdalene knew better than any other person how to verify her dream, how to impose upon all the holy vision of her passionate soul. Her great woman’s affirmation, “He is risen!” has been the basis of the faith of humanity. Begone hence, powerless reason! Seek not to apply cold analysis to this masterpiece of idealism and of love. If wisdom renounces the part of consoling that poor human race, betrayed by fate, let folly attempt the enterprise. Where is the sage who has given to the world so much joy as Mary Magdalene, the possessed of devils?

The other women who had been to the tomb spread meanwhile the news abroad. They had not seen Jesus; but they spoke of a man in white, whom they had seen in the sepulchre, and who had said to them: “He is not here; return into Galilee; he will go before you there; there shall ye see him.” Perhaps it was these white linen clothes which had originated this hallucination. Perhaps, again, they saw nothing, and only commenced to speak of their vision when Mary Magdalene had related hers. Indeed, according to one of the most authentic texts, they kept silence for some time—a silence which was afterwards attributed to terror. However this may be, these recitals increased every hour, and underwent some singular transformations. The man in white became the angel of God; it was told that his garments shone like the snow; that his face seemed like lightning. Others spoke of two angels; one of whom appeared at the head, the other at the foot of the sepulchre. By evening, many, perhaps, already believed that the women had seen this angel descend from heaven, move away the stone, and Jesus issue forth with a great noise. Doubtless they varied in their depositions; suffering from the effect of the imagination of others, as is always the case with common people; they borrowed every embellishment, and thus participated in the creation of the legend which grew up around them and suited their ideas.

The day was stormy and decisive. The little company was greatly dispersed. Some had already departed for Galilee; others hid themselves for fear. The deplorable scene of the Friday; the afflicting spectacle which they had had before their eyes, in seeing him of whom they had expected so much expire upon the gibbet, without his Father coming to deliver him, had, moreover, extinguished the faith of many. The news imparted by the women and Peter was received on every side with scarcely dissembled credulity. Of the diverse stories, some were believed; the women went hither and thither with singular and inconsistent stories, enriching them as they went. Statements, the most opposed, were put forth. Some still wept over the sad event of the day before; others were already triumphant; all were disposed to entertain the most extraordinary accounts. Nevertheless, the distrust which the excitement of Mary Magdalene inspired, the little authority which the women had, the incoherency of their narratives, produced grave doubts. People were living in the expectation of seeing new visions, and which could not fail but come. The state of the sect was altogether favourable to the propagation of strange rumours. If all the members of the little church had been assembled, the legendary creation would have been impossible; those who knew the secret of the disappearance of the body, would probably have reclaimed against the error. But in the confusion which prevailed, the door was opened for the most prolific misapprehensions.

It is the characteristic of those states of the soul, in which originate ecstasy and apparitions, to be contagious. The history of all the great religious crises, proves that these sort of visions are infectious. In an assembly of persons, entertaining the same beliefs, it is sufficient for one member of the body to affirm having seen or heard something supernatural for others to see and to hear also. Amongst the persecuted Protestants, a report was spread that people had heard the angels singing psalms upon a recently destroyed temple: They all went there and heard the same psalm. In cases of this kind, it is the most excited who give law, and who regulate the temperature of the common atmosphere. The exaltation of a few is transmitted to all; no one desires to be left behind, or likes to confess that he is less favoured than the others. Those who see nothing, are carried away, and finish by believing either that they are less clear-sighted, or that they do not take proper account of their sensations. In any case, they take care not to avow it; they would be disturbers of the common joy, would cause sadness to others, and would be playing a disagreeable part. When, therefore, one apparition is brought forward in such assemblies, it is customary for everyone to see it, or believe he has seen it. It is necessary to remember, however, what was the degree of intellectual culture possessed by the disciples of Jesus. What is called a weak head, very often, is associated with infinite goodness of heart. The disciples believed in phantoms; they imagined themselves to be compassed about with miracles; they participated in nothing which had relation to the positive science of the times. This science existed amongst some hundreds of men, scattered over those countries alone where Grecian culture had penetrated. But the commonality, in every country, participated very little in it. Palestine was, in this respect, one of the most backward countries. The Galileans were the most ignorant people of Palestine, and the disciples of Jesus might be counted amongst the persons the most simple of Galilee. It was to this very simplicity that they were indebted for their heavenly election. Among such people, belief in marvellous deeds found the most extraordinary facilities for propagating itself. Once the opinion on the resurrection of Jesus had been noised abroad, numerous visions were sure to follow. And so in fact they did follow.

On the same Sabbath day, at an advanced hour of the morning, when the tales of the women had already been circulated, two disciples, one of whom was named Cleopatros or Cleopas, set out on a short journey to a village named Emmaus, situated a short distance from Jerusalem. They talked together of recent events, and were filled with sadness On the way, an unknown companion joined them, and inquired as to the cause of their sorrow. “Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem?” said they, “And hast not known the things which are come to pass in these days?” And he said unto them, “What things?” And they said unto him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and besides all this, to-day is the third day since these things were done. Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre: and when they found not his body, they came, saying, that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive. And certain of them which were with us went to the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not.” The unknown individual was a pious man, well versed in the Scriptures, citing Moses and the prophets. These three good people became friendly. Approaching Emmaus, the stranger was making as if he would continue his journey, the two disciples begged him to come and break bread with them. The day was far spent; the recollections of the two disciples became then more vivid. This hour of the evening for refreshments, was the one which they looked back to as being at once the most charming and most melancholy. How many times had they not seen, during that hour, their beloved Master forget the burden of the day, in the abandon of gay conversation, and enlivened by several sips of excellent wine, spoke to them of the fruit of the vine, which he would drink anew with them in the Kingdom of his Father. The gesture which he made in the breaking of bread, and in offering it to them, according to the custom of the heads of Jewish families, was deeply engraven on their memories. Filled with a tender sadness, they forgot the stranger: it was Jesus they saw holding the bread, then breaking and offering it to them. These recollections engrossed them to such an extent, that they scarcely perceived that their companion, anxious to continue his journey, had quitted them. And when they had awakened out of their reverie: “Did we not perceive,” they said, “something strange? Do you not remember how our hearts burned while he talked with us by the way? And the prophecies which he cited, proved clearly that Messiah must suffer before entering into his glory.” “Did you not recognize him at the breaking of bread?” “Yes: up to that time our eyes were closed; they were only opened when he vanished.” The conviction of the two disciples was that they had seen Jesus. They returned with all haste to Jerusalem.

The main body of the disciples were, just at that moment, assembled at the house of Peter. Night had completely set in. Each was relating his impressions, and what he had seen and heard. The general belief already willed that Jesus had risen. At the entrance of the two disciples, the brethren hastened to speak to them of that which was called, “the vision of Peter.” They, on their side, told what had befallen them on the way to Emmaus, and how that they had recognized him in the breaking of bread. The imaginations of everyone became quite excited. The doors were shut; for they feared the Jews. Oriental cities are silent after sunset. The silence, hence, for some moments in the interior was frequently profound. Every slight sound which was accidentally produced was interpreted in the sense of the common expectation. Expectation, as is usual, was the progenitor of its object. During a moment of silence, a slight breath of wind passed over the face of the assembly. At these decisive times, a current of air, a creaking window, a casual murmur, suffices to fix the beliefs of people for centuries. At the same moment the breath of air was felt, they believed that they heard sounds. Some declared that they had seen the word schalom, “happiness” or “peace.” This was the ordinary salutation of Jesus, and the word by which he signalized his presence. It was impossible to doubt; Jesus was present; he was there, in the assembly. It was his dear voice; everyone recognized it. This idea was the more easily accepted, inasmuch as Jesus had said to them, that as often as they came together in his name, he would be in the midst of them. It was then an accepted fact, that on Sunday evening, Jesus had appeared before his assembled disciples. Some of them pretended to have distinguished the marks of the nails in his hands and his feet, and in his side the trace of the spear thrust. According to a widely-spread tradition, this was the self-same evening that he breathed upon his disciples the holy spirit. The idea, at least, that his breath had passed over them on re-assembling, was generally admitted.

Such were the incidents of that day, which has decided the fate of humanity. The opinion that Jesus had risen was, on that day, established in an irrevocable manner. The sect, which was believed to be extinguished by the death of the Master, was, from that instant, assured of a great future.

Some doubts were, nevertheless, ventilated. The apostle, Thomas, who was not present at the meeting on Sunday evening, avowed that he envied those who had seen the marks of the spear and of the nails. Eight days after, this envy, it is said, was allayed. But there has attached to him, in consequence, some slight blame and a mild reproach. By an instinctive feeling of exquisite justness, they understood that the ideal was not to be touched with hands, and that it must not be subjected to the test of experience. Noli, me tangere (touch me not) is the motto of all great affection. The sense of touch leaves nothing to faith; the eye, a purer and more noble organ than the hand, which nothing can sully, and by which nothing is sullied, became very soon a superfluous witness. A singular sentiment began to grow up; any hesitation was held to be a mark of disloyalty and lack of love; one was ashamed to remain behind hand, and one interdicted oneself from desiring to sec. The dictum: “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believed,” became the key-note of the situation. It was thought to be a thing so much more generous to believe without proof. The really sincere friends denied having seen any vision. Just as, in later times, Saint Louis refused to be a witness to an eucharistic miracle, so as not to detract from the merits of faith. From that time, credulity became a hideous emulation, and a kind of out-bidding one another. The merit consisted in believing without having seen; faith at any cost; gratuitous faith; the faith which went as far as folly—was exalted, as if it were the first of the gifts of the soul. The credo quia absurdum (I believe because I cannot understand) was established. The law of Christian dogmas was to be a strange progression, which no impossibility should be able to prevent. A sort of chivalrous sentiment prevented one from even looking back. The dogmas, the most dear to piety, those to which it was to attach itself with the most heedless frenzy, were the most repugnant to reason, in consequence of that touching idea, which the moral value of faith augments in proportion to the difficulty in believing, the reason of man not being compelled to prove any love when he admits that which is clear.

The first days were hence a period of intense feverishness, in which the faithful, infatuated with one another, and imposing one’s fancies each upon the other, mutually carried away, and imparting to each other the most exalted notions. Visions were multiplied without number. The evening assemblies were the most common occasions when they were produced. When the doors were closed, and when each was beset with his fixed idea, the first who was believed to hear the sweet word, schalom, “salutation,” or “peace,” would give the signal. All would then listen, and would soon hear the very same thing. It was hence a great joy to those unsophisticated souls to know that Jesus was in the midst of them. Each tasted of the sweetness of that thought, and believed himself to be favoured with some inward colloquy. Other visions were noised abroad of a different description, and recalled those of the sojourners to Emmaus. During meal time, Jesus was seen to appear, taking the bread, blessing it, breaking it, and offering it to him who had been honoured with a vision of himself. In a few days, a whole string of stories, greatly differing in details, but inspired by the same spirit of love, and of absolute faith, was invented and spread abroad. It is the gravest of errors to suppose that legends require any length of time to be formed. Legend is sometimes born in a day. On Sunday evening 15 (16 of Nisan, 5th April), the resurrection of Jesus was held to be a reality. Eight days after, the character of the life of the risen one, which had been conceived for him, was determined in regard at least to three essentials.

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