by Ernest Renan
Those who will consult the following excellent writings will there find explained. a number of points upon which I have been obliged to be very brief:
• Études critiques sur l'Évangile de saint Matthieu, par M. Albert Reville, pasteur de l'Église wallonne de Rotterdam.
• Histoire de la théologie chrétienne au siècle apostolique, par M. Reuss, professeur à la Faculté de théologie et au séminaire protestant de Strasbourg
• Des doctrines religieuses des Juifs pendant les deux siècles antérieurs à l'ère chrétienne, par M. Michel Nicolas, professeur à la Faculté de théologie protestante de Montauban
• Vie de Jésus, par le Dr Strauss, traduite par M. Littré, membre de l'Institut.
• Revue de théologie et de philosophie chrétienne, publiée sous la direction de M. Colani, de 1850 à 1857. — Nouvelle Revue de théologie, faisant suite à la précédente, depuis 1858.
• While this work was in the press, a book has appeared which I do not hesitate to add to this list, although I have not read it with the attention it deserves -- Les Évangiles, par M. Gustave d'Eichthal. Première partie: Examen critique et comparatif des trois premiers Évangiles. Paris, Hachette, 1863.
The criticism of the details of the Gospel texts especially has been done by Strauss in a manner which leaves little to be desired. Although Strauss may be mistaken in his theory of the compilation of the Gospels; and although his book has, in my opinion, the fault of taking up the theological ground too much, and the historical ground too little, it will be necessary, in order to understand the motives which have guided me amid a crowd of minutiae, to study the always judicious, though sometimes rather subtle, argument of the book, so well translated by my learned friend, M. Littré.
I do not believe I have neglected any source of information as to ancient evidences. Without speaking of a crowd of other scattered data, there remain, respecting Jesus, and the time in which he lived,
five great collections of writings:
1st, The Gospels, and the writings of the New Testament in general;
2nd, The compositions called the "Apocrypha of the Old Testament";
3rd, The works of Philo;
4th, Those of Josephus;
5th, The Talmud.
The writings of Philo have the priceless advantage of showing us the thoughts which, in the time of Jesus, fermented in minds occupied with great religious questions. Philo lived, it is true, in quite a different province of Judaism to Jesus, but, like him, he was very free from the littlenesses which reigned at Jerusalem; Philo is truly the elder brother of Jesus. He was sixty-two years old when the Prophet of Nazareth was at the height of his activity, and he survived him at least ten years. What a pity that the chances of life did not conduct him into Galilee! What would he not have taught us!
Josephus, writing specially for pagans, is not so candid. His short notices of Jesus, of John the Baptist, of Judas the Gaulonite, are dry and colourless. We feel that he seeks to present these movements, so profoundly Jewish in character and spirit, under a form which would be intelligible to Greeks and Romans. I believe the passage respecting Jesus to be authentic. It is perfectly in the style of Josephus, and, if this historian has made mention of Jesus, it is thus that he must have spoken of him. We feel only that a Christian hand has retouched the passage, has added a few words -- without which it would almost have been blasphemous ["If it be lawful to call him man."] -- has perhaps retrenched or modified some expressions. It must be recollected that the literary fortune of Josephus was made by the Christians, who adopted his writings as essential documents of their sacred history. They made, probably in the second century, an edition corrected according to Christian ideas. At all events, that which constitutes the immense interest of Josephus on the subject which occupies us is the clear light which he throws upon the period. Thanks to him, Herod, Herodias, Antipas, Phihp, Annas, Caiaphas, and Pilate are personages whom we can touch with a finger, and whom we see living before us with a striking reality.
The Apocryphal books of the Old Testament, especially the Jewish part of the Sibylline verses, and the Book of Enoch together with the Book of Daniel, which is also really an Apocrypha, have a primary importance in the history of the development of the Messianic theories, and for the understanding of the conceptions of Jesus respecting the kingdom of God. The Book of Enoch especially, which was much read at the time of Jesus, gives us the key to the expression "Son of Man", and to the ideas attached to it. The ages of these different books, thanks to the labors of Alexander, Ewald, Dillmann, and Reuss, are now beyond doubt. Every one is agreed in placing the compilation of the most important of them in the second and first centuries before Jesus Christ. The date of the Book of Daniel is still more certain. The character of the two languages in which it is written, the use of Greek words, the clear, precise, dated announcement of events which reach even to the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, the incorrect descriptions of Ancient Babylonia there given, the general tone of the book, which in no respect recalls the writings of the captivity, but, on the contrary, responds, by a crowd of analogies, to the beliefs, the manners, the turn of imagination of the time of the Seleucidae; the Apocalyptic form of the visions, the place of the book in the Hebrew canon, out of the sense of the prophets, the omission of Daniel in the panegyrics of chapter xlix. of Ecclesiastics, in which his position is all but indicated, and many other proofs which have been deduced a hundred times, do not permit of a doubt that the Book of Daniel was but the fruit of the great excitement produced among the Jews by the persecution of Antiochus. It is not in the old prophetical literature that we must class this book, but rather at the head of Apocalyptic literature, as the first model of a kind of composition, after which come the various Sibylline poems, the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of John, the Ascension of Isaiah, and the Fourth Book of Esdras.
In the history of the origin of Christianity, the Talmud has hitherto been too much neglected. I think, with M. Geiger, that the true notion of the circumstances which surrounded the development of Jesus must be sought in this strange compilation, in which so much precious information is mixed with the most insignificant scholasticism. The Christian and the Jewish theology, having in the main followed two parallel ways, the history of the one cannot well be understood without the history of the other. Innumerable important details in the Gospels find, moreover, their commentary in the Talmud. The vast Latin collection of Lightfoot, Schoettgen, Buxtorf, and Otho contained already a mass of information on this point. I have imposed on myself the task of verifying in the original all the citations which I have admitted, without a single exception. The assistance which has been given me for this part of my task by a learned Israelite, M. Neubauer, well versed in Talmudic literature, has enabled me to go further, and to clear up the most intricate parts of my subject by new researches. The distinction of epochs is here most important, the compilation of the Talmud extending from the year 200 to about the year 500. We have brought to it as much discernment as is possible in the actual state of the studies. Dates so recent will excite some fears among persons habituated to accord value to a document only for the period in which it was written. But such scruples would here be out of place. The teaching of the Jews from the Asmonean epoch down to the second century was principally oral. We must not judge of this state of intelligence by the habits of an age of much writing. The Vedas, and the ancient Arabian poems, have been preserved for ages from memory, and yet these compositions present a very distinct and delicate form. In the Talmud on the contrary, the form has no value. Let us add that before the Mishnah of Judas the Saint, which has caused all others to be forgotten, there were attempts at compilation, the commencement of which is probably much earlier than is commonly supposed. The style of the Talmud is that of loose notes; the collectors did probably than classify under certain titles the enormous mass of writings which had been accumulating in the different schools for generations.
It remains for us to speak of the documents which, presenting themselves as biographies of the Founder of Christianity, must naturally hold the first place in a Life of Jesus. A complete treatise upon the compilation of the Gospels would be a work of itself. Thanks to the excellent researches of which this question has been the object during thirty years, a problem which was formerly judged insurmountable has obtained a solution which, though it leaves room for many uncertainties, fully suffices for the necessities of history. We shall have occasion to return to this in our Second Book, the composition of the Gospels having been one of the most important facts for the future of Christianity in the second half of the first century. We will touch here only a single aspect of the subject, that which is indispensable to the completeness of our narrative. Leaving aside all which belongs to the portraiture of the Apostolic times, we will inquire only in what degree the data furnished by the Gospels may be employed in a history formed according to rational principles.
That the Gospels are in part legendary is evident, since they are full of miracles and of the supernatural; but legends have not all the same value. No one doubts the principal features of the life of Francis d'Assisi, although we meet the supernatural at every step. No one, on the other hand, accords credit to the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, because it was written long after the time of the hero, and purely as a romance. At what time, by what hands, under what circumstances, have the Gospels been compiled? This is the Primary question upon which depends the opinion to be formed of their credibility.
Each of the four Gospels bears at its head the name of a Perspoenagie known either in the Apostolic history or in the Gospel story itself. These four personages are not strictly given us as the authors. The formulae, "according to Matthew", "according to Mark", "according to Luke", "according to John", do not imply that, in the most ancient opinion, these recitals were written from beginning to end by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; they merely signify that these were the traditions proceeding from each of these Apostles and claiming their authority. It is clear that, if these titles are exact, the Gospels, without ceasing to be in part legendary, are of great value, since they enable us to go back to the half-century which followed the death of Jesus, and, in two instances, even to the eye-witnesses of his actions.
Firstly, as to Luke, doubt is scarcely possible. The Gospel of Luke is a regular composition, founded on anterior documents. It is the work of a man who selects, prunes, and combines. The author of this Gospel is certainly the same as that of the Acts of the Apostles. Now, the author of the Acts is a companion of St. Paul, a title which applies to Luke exactly. I know that more than one objection may be raised against this reasoning; but one least, is beyond doubt -- namely, that the author of the third Gospel and of the Acts was a man of the second Apostolic generation, and that is sufficient for our object. The date of this Gospel can, moreover, be determined with much precision by considerations drawn from the book itself. The 21st chapter of Luke, inseparable from the rest of the work, was certainly written after the siege of Jerusalem and but a short time after. We are here, then, upon solid ground; for we are concerned with a work written entirely by the same hand, and of the most perfect unity.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark have not nearly the same stamp of individuality. They are impersonal compositions, in which the author totally disappears. A proper name written at the head of works of this kind does not amount to much. But if the Gospel of Luke is dated, those of Matthew and Mark are dated also; for it is certain that the third Gospel is posterior to the first two, and exhibits the character of a much more advanced compilation. We have, besides, on this point, an excellent testimony from a writer of the first half of the second century -- namely, Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, a grave man, a man of traditions, who was all his life seeking to collect whatever could be known of the person of Jesus. After having declared that on such matters he preferred oral tradition to books, Papias mentions two writings on the acts and words of Christ: first a writing of Mark, the interpreter of Apostle Peter, written briefly, incomplete, and not arranged in chronological order, including narratives and discourses (λεχθέντα ἢ πραχθέντα), composed from the information and recollections of the Apostle Peter; second, a collection of sentences (λόγια) written in Hebrew by Matthew, "and which each one has translated as he could." it is certain that these two descriptions answer pretty well to the general physiognomy of the two books now called "Gospel according to Matthew." "Gospel according to Mark"; the first characterized by its long discourses; the second, above all, by anecdote -- much more exact than the first upon small facts, brief even to dryness, containing few discourses, and indifferently composed. That these two works, such as we now read them, are absolutely similar to those read by Papias, cannot be sustained: firstly, because the writings of Matthew were to Papias solely discourses in Hebrew of which there were in circulation very varying translations; and, secondly, because the writings of Mark and Matthew, were to him profoundly distinct, written without any knowledge of each other, and, as it seems, in different languages. Now, in the present state of the texts, the "Gospel according to Matthew" and the "Gospel according to Mark" present parallel parts so long and so perfectly identical, that it must be supposed, either that the final compiler of the first had the second under his eyes, or vice versi, or that both copied from the same prototype. That which appears the most likely is that we have not the entirely original compilations of either Matthew or Mark, but that our first two Gospels are versions in which the attempt is made to fill up the gaps of the one text by the other. Every one wished, in fact, to possess a complete copy. He who had in his copy only discourses wished to have narratives, and vice versa. It is thus that "the Gospel according to Matthew" is found to have included almost all the anecdotes of Mark, and that "the Gospel according to Mark" now contains numerous features which come from the Logia of Matthew. Every one, besides, drew largely on the Gospel tradition then current. This tradition was so far from having been exhausted by the Gospels that the Acts of the Apostles and the most ancient Fathers quote many words of Jesus which appear authentic, and are not found in the Gospels we possess.
It matters little for our present object to push this delicate analysis funher, and to endeavor to reconstruct in some manner on the one hand the original Logia of Matthew, and on the other the primitive narrative such as it left the pen of Mark. The Logia are doubtless represented by the great discourses of Jesus which fill a considerable part of the first Gospel. These discourses form, in fact, when detached from the rest, a sufficiently complete whole. As to the narratives of the first and second Gospels, they seem to have for basis a common document, of which the text reappears sometimes in the one and sometimes in the other, and of which the second Gospel, such as we read it to-day, is but a slightly modified reproduction. In other words, the scheme of the Life of Jesus, in the Synoptics, rests upon two original documents -- first, the discourses of Jesus collected by Matthew; second, the collection of anecdotes and personal reminiscences which Mark wrote from the recollections of peter. We may say that we have these two documents still, mixed with accounts from another source, in the two first Gospels, which bear, not without reason, the name of the "Gospel according to Matthew" and of the Gospel according to Mark."
What is undubitable, in any case, is that very early the discourses of Jesus were written in the Aramean language, and very early also his remarkable actions were recorded. These were not texts defined and fixed dogmatically. Besides the Gospels which have come to us, there were a number of others professing to represent the tradition of eye-witnesses. Little importance was attached to these writings, and the preservers, such as Papias, greatly preferred oral tradition. As men still believed that the world was nearly at an nd, they cared little to compose books for the future; it was sufficient merely to preserve in their hearts a lively image of him whom they hoped soon to see again in the clouds. Hence the little authority which the Gospel texts enjoyed during one hundred and fifty years. There was no scruple in inserting additions, in variously combining them, and in completing some by others. The poor man who has but one book wishes that it may contain all that is dear to his heart. These little books were lent, each one transcribed in the margin of his copy the words, and the parables he found elsewhere, which touched him. The most beautiful thing in the world has thus proceeded from an obscure and purely popular elaboration. No compilation was of absolute value. Justin, who often appeals to that which he calls "The Memoirs of the Apostles", had under his notice Gospel documents in a state very different from that in which we possess them. At all events, he never cares to quote them textually. The Gospel quotations in the pseudo-Clementinian writings, of Ebionite origin, present the same character, The spirit was everything; the letter was nothing. it was when tradition became weakened, in the second half of the second century, that the texts bearing the names of the Apostles took a decisive authority and obtained the force of law.
Who does not see the value of documents posed of the tender remembrances, and simple narratives, of the first two Christian generations, still full of the strong impression which the illustrious Founder has produced, and which seemed long to survive him? Let us add, that the Gospels in question seem to proceed from that branch of the Christian family which stood nearest to Jesus. The last work of compilation, at least of the text which bears the name of Matthew, appears to have been done in one of the countries situated at the north-east of Palestine such as Gaulonitis, Auranitis, Batanea, where many Christians took refuge at the time of the Roman war, where were found relatives of Jesus even in the second century, and where the first Galilean tendency was longer preserved than in other parts,
So far we have only spoken of the three Gospels named the Synoptics. There remains a fourth, that Which bears the name of John. Concerning this one, doubts have a much better foundation, and the question is further from solution. Papias -- who was connected with the school of John, and who, if not One of his auditors, as Irenaeus thinks, associated with his immediate disciples, among others, Aristion, and the one called Presbyteros Joannes -- says not a word of a "Life of Jesus" written by John, although he had zealously collected the oral narratives of both Aristion and Presbyteros Joannes. If any such mention had been found in his work, Eusebius, who points out everything therein that can contribute to the literary history of the Apostolic age, would doubtless have mentioned it.
The intrinsic difficulties drawn from the peru fourth Gospel itself are not less strong. How is it that, side by side with narration so precise and so evidently that of an eye-witness, we find discourses so totally different from those of Matthew? How is it that, connected with a general plan of the life of Jesus, which appears much more satisfactory and exact than that of the Synoptics, these singular passages occur in which we are sensible of a dogmatic interest peculiar to the compiler, of ideas foreign to Jesus, and sometimes of indications which place us on our guard against the good faith of the narrator? Lastly, how is it that, united with views the most pure, the most just, the most truly evangelical, we find these blemishes, which we would fain regard as the interpolations of an ardent sectarian? Is it indeed John, son of Zebedee, brother of James (of whom there is not a single mention made in the fourth Gospel), who is able to write in Greek these lessons of abstract metaphysics, to which neither the Synoptics nor the Talmud offer any analogy? All this is of great importance; and, for myself, I dare not be sure that the fourth Gospel has been entirely written by the pen of a Galilean fisherman. But that, as a whole, this Gospel may have originated towards the end of the first century from the great school of Asia Minor, which was connected with John, that it represents to us a version of the life of the Master, worthy of high esteem, and often to be preferred, is demonstrated in a manner which leaves us nothing to be desired, both by exterior evidences and by examination of the document itself.
And, firstly, no one doubts that, towards the year 150, the fourth Gospel did exist, and was attributed to John. Explicit texts from St. Justin, from Athenagoras, from Tatian, from Theophilus of Antioch, from Irenaeus, show that henceforth this Gospel mixed in every controversy, and served as corner-stone for the development of the faith. Irenaeus is explicit; now, Irenneus came from the school of John, and between him and the Apostle there was only Polycarp. The part played by this Gospel in Gnosticism, and especially in the system of Valentinus, in Montanism, and in the quarrel of the Quartodecimans, is not less decisive. The school of John was the most influential one during the second century; and it is only by regarding the origin of the Gospel as coincident with the rise of the school that the existence of the latter can be understood at all. Let us add that the first Epistle attributed to St. John is certainly by the same author as the fourth Gospel; now, this Epistle is recognized as from John by Polycarp, Papias, and Irenaeus.
But it is, above all, the perusal of the work itself which is calculated to give this impression. The author always speaks as an eye-witness; he wishes to pass for the Apostle John. If, then, this work is not really by the Apostle, we must admit a fraud, of which the author convicts himself. Now, although the ideas of the time respecting literary honesty differed essentially from ours, there is no example in the Apostolic world of a falsehood of this kind. Besides, not only does the author wish to pass for the Apostle John, but we see clearly that he writes in the interest of this Apostle. On each page he betrays the desire to fortify his authority, to show that he has been the favorite of Jesus; that in all the solemn circumstances (at the lord's supper, at Calvary, at the tomb) he held the first place. His relations on the whole fraternal, although not excluding a certain rivalry with Peter; his hatred, on the contrary, of Judas, a hatred, probably anterior to the betrayal, seems to pierce through here and there. We are tempted to believe that John, in his old age, having read the Gospel narratives, on the one hand remarked their various inaccuracies, on the other was hurt at seeing that there was not accorded to him a sufficiently high place in the history of Christ; that then he commenced to dictate a number of things which he knew better than the rest, with the intention of showing that in many instances, in which only Peter was spoken of, he had figured with him and even before him. Already during the life of Jesus, these trifling sentiments of jealousy had been manifested between the sons of Zebedee and the other disciples. After the death of James, his brother, John remained sole inheritor of the intimate remembrances of which these two Apostles, by the common consent, were the depositaries. Hence his perpetual desire to recall that he is the last surviving eye-witness, and the pleasure which he takes in relating circumstances which he alone could know. Hence, too, so many minute details which seem like the commentaries of an annotator -- "it was the sixth hour"; "it was night"; "the servant's name was Malchus"; "they had made a fire of coals, for it was cold"; the coat was without seam." Hence, lastly, the disorder of the compilation, the irregularity of the narration, the disjointedness of the first chapters, all so many inexplicable features on the supposition that this Gospel was but a theological thesis, without historic value, and which, on the contrary, are perfectly intelligible, if, in conformity with tradition, we see in them the remembrances of an old man, sometimes of remarkable freshness, sometimes having undergone strange modifications.
A primary distinction, indeed, ought to be made in the Gospel of John. On the one side this Gospel presents us with a rough drought of the life of Jesus, which differs considerably from that of the Synoptics. On the other, it puts into the mouth of Jesus discourses of which the tone, the style, the treatment, and the doctrines have nothing in common with the Logia given us by the Synoptics. In this second respect the difference is such that we must make choice in a decisive manner. If Jesus spoke as Matthew represents, he could not have spoken as John relates. Between these two authorities no critic has ever hesitated, or can ever hesitate. Far removed from the simple, disinterested, impersonal tone of the Synoptics, the Gospel of John shows incessantly the preoccupation of the apologist -- the mental reservation of the sectarian, the desire to prove a thesis, and to convince adversaries. It was not by pretentious tirades, heavy, badly written, and appealing little to the moral sense, that Jesus founded his divine work. If even Papias had not taught us that Matthew wrote the sayings of Jesus in their original tongue, the natural, ineffable truth, the charm beyond comparison of the discourses in the Synoptics, their profoundly Hebraistic idiom, the analogies which they present with the sayings of the Jewish doctors of the period, their perfect harmony with the natural phenomena of Galilee -- all these characteristics, compared with the obscure Gnosticism, with the distorted metaphysics, which fill the discourses of John, would speak loudly enough. This by no means implies that there are not in the discourses of John some admirable gleams, some traits which truly come from Jesus. But the mystic tone of these discourses does not correspond at all to the character of the eloquence of Jesus, such as we picture it according to the Synoptics. A new spirit has breathed; Gnosticism has already commenced; the Galilean era of the kingdom of God is finished; the hope of the near advent of Christ is more distant; we cater on the barrenness of metaphysics, into the darkness of abstract dogma. The spirit of Jesus is not there, and, if the son of Zebedee has truly traced these pages, he had certainly, in writing them, quite forgotten the Lake of Gennesareth, and the charming discourses which he had heard upon its shores.
One circumstance, moreover, which strongly proves that the discourses given us by the fourth Gospel are not historical, but compositions intended to cover with the authority of Jesus certain doctrines dear to the compiler, is their perfect harmony with the intellectual state of Asia Minor at the time when they were written, Asia Minor was then the theater of a strange movement of syncretical philosophy; all the germs of Gnosticism existed there already. John appears to have drunk deeply from these strange springs. It may be that, after the crisis of the year 68 (the date of the Apocalypse) and of the year 70 (the destruction of Jerusalem), the old Apostle, with an ardent and plastic spirit, disabused of the belief in a near appearance of the Son of Man in the clouds, may have inclined towards the ideas that he found around him, of which several agreed sufficiently well with certain Christian doctrines. In attributing these new ideas to Jesus, he only followed a very natural tendency. Our remembrances are transformed with our circumstances; the ideal of a person that we have known changes as we change. Considering Jesus as the incarnation of truth, John could not fail to attribute to him that which he had come to consider as the truth.
If we must speak candidly, we will add that probably John himself had little share in this; that the change was made around him rather than by him. One is sometimes tempted to believe that precious notes, coming from the Apostle, have been employed by his disciples in a very different sense from the primitive Gospel spirit. In fact, certain portions of the fourth Gospel have been added later; such is the entire twenty-first chapter, in which the author seems to wish to render homage to the Apostle Peter after his death, and to reply to the objections which would be drawn, or alrbady had been drawn, from the death of John himself (ver. 21-23). Many other places bear the traces of erasures and corrections. It is impossible at this distance to understand these singular problems, and without doubt many surprises would be in store for us, if we were permitted to netrate the secrets of that mysterious school of Ephesus, which, more than once, appears to have delighted in obscure paths. But there is a decisive test. Everyone who sets himself to write the life of Jesus without any predetermined theory as to the relative value of the Gospels, letting himself be guided solely by the sentiment of the subject, will be led in numerous instances to prefer the narration of John to that of the Synoptics. The last months of the life of Jesus especially are explained by John alone; a number of the features of the passion, unintelligible in the Synoptics, resume both probility and possibility in the narrative of the fourth Gospel. On the contrary, I dare defy anyone to compose a Life of Jesus with any meaning from the discourses which John attributes to him. This manner of incessantly preaching and demonstrating himself, this erpetual argumentation, this stage-effect devoid of simpplicity, these long arguments after each miracle, these stiff and awkward discourses, the tone of which is so often false and unequal, wouId not be tolerated by a man of taste compared with the delightful sentences of the Synoptics. There are here evidently artificial portions, which represent to us the sermons of Jesus, as the dialogues of Plato render us the conversations of Socrates. They are, so to speak, the variations of a musician improvising on a given theme. The theme is not without some authenticity; but in the execution the imagination of the artist has given itself full scope. We are sensible of the factitious mode of procedure, of rhetoric, of gloss. Let us add that the vocabulary of Jesus cannot be recognised in the portions of which we speak. The expression "kingdom of God", which was so familiar to the Master, occurs there but once. On the other hand, the style of the discourses attributed to Jesus by the fourth Gospel presents the most complete analogy with that of the Epistles of St. John; we see that, in writing the discourses, the author followed not his recollections, but rather the somewhat monotonous movement of his own thought. Quite a new mystical language is introduced, a language of which the Synoptics had not the least idea ("world", "truth", "life", "light", "darkness", etc.). If Jesus had ever spoken in this style, which has nothing of Hebrew, nothing Jewish, nothing Talmudic in it, how, if I may thus express myself, is it that but a single one of his hearers should have so well kept the secret?
Literary history offers, besides, another example, which presents the greatest analogy with the historic phenomenon we have just described and serves to explain it. Socrates, who, like Jesus, never wrote, is known to us by two of his disciples, Xenophon and Plato; the first corresponding to the Synoptics in his clear, transparent, impersonal compilation; the second recalling the author of the fourth Gospel, by his vigorous individuality. In order to describe the Socratic teaching, should we follow the "dialogues" of Plato or the "discourses" of Xenophon? Doubt, in this respect, is not possible; everyone chooses the "discourses", and not the "dialogues." Does Plato, however, teach us nothing about Socrates? Would it be good criticism, in writing the biography of the latter, to neglect the "dialogues"? Who would venture to maintain this? The analogy, moreover, is not complete, and the difference is in favour of the fourth Gospel. The author of this Gospel is, in fact, the better biographer; as if Plato, who, while attributing to his master fictitious discourses, had known important matters about his life, which Xenophon ignored entirely. Without pronouncing upon the material question as to what hand has written the fourth Gospel, and while inclined to believe that the discourses, at least, are not from the son of Zebedee, we admit still that it is indeed "the Gospel according to John", in the same sense that the first and second Gospels are the Gospels "according to Matthew" and "according to Mark." The historical sketch of the fourth Gospel is the Life of Jesus, such as it was known in the school of John; it is the recital which Aristion and Presbyteros Joannes made to Papias, without telling him that it was written, or rather attaching no importance to this point. I must add that, in my opinion, this school was better acquainted with the exterior circumstances of the life of the founder than the group whose remembrances constituted the Synoptics. It had, especially upon the sojourns of Jesus at Jerusalem, data which the others did not possess. The disciples of this school treated Mark as an indifferent biographer, and devised a system to explain his omissions. Certain passages of Luke, where there is, as it were, an echo of the traditions of John, prove also that these traditions were entirely unknown to the rest of the Christian family.
These explanations will suffice, I think, to show, in the course of my narrative, the motives which have determined me to give the preference to this or that of the four guides whom we have for the Life of Jesus. On the whole, I admit as authentic the four Canonical Gospels. All, in my opinion, date from the first century, and the authors are, generally speaking, those to whom they are attributed; but their historic value is very diverse. Matthew evidently merits an unlimited confidence as to the discourses; they are the logia, the identical notes taken from a clear and lively remembrance of the teachings of Jesus. A kind of splendour at once mild and terrible -- a divine strength, if we may so speak -- emphasises these words, detaches them from the context, and renders them easily distinguishable. The person who imposes upon himself the task of making a continuous narrative from the gospel history possesses, in this respect, an excellent touchstone. The real words of Jesus disclose themselves; as soon as we touch them in this chaos of traditions of varied authenticity, we feel them vibrate -- they betray themselves spontaneously, and shine out of the narrative with unsqualled brilliancy.
The narrative portions grouped in the first Gospel around this primitive nucleus have not the same authority. There are many not well-defined legends which have proceeded from the zeal of the second Christian generation. The Gospel of Mark is much firmer, more precise, containing fewer subsequent additions. He is the one of the three Synoptics who has remanied the most primitive the most original, the one to whom the fewest after-elements have been added. In Mark the facts are related with a clearness for which we seek in vain among the other evangelists. He likes to report certain words of Jesus in Syro-Chaldean. He is full of minute observations, coming doubtless from an eve-witness. There is nothing to prevent our agreeing with Papias in regarding this eve- witness, who evidently had followed Jesus, who had loved him and observed him very closely, and who had preserved a lively image of him, as the Apostle Peter himself.
As to the work of Luke, its historical value is sensibly weaker. It is a document which comes to us second-hand, The narrative is more mature. The words of Jesus are there, more deliberate, more sententious. Some sentences are distorted and exaggerated. Writing outside of Palestine, and certainly after the siege of Jerusalem, the author indicates the places with less cxactitude than the other two Synoptics; he has an erroneous idea of the temple, which he represents as an oratory where people went to pay their devotions. He subdues some details in order to make the different narratives agree; he softens the passages which had become embarrassing on account of a more exalted idea of the divinity of Christ; he exaggerates the marvellous; commits errors in chronology; omits Hebraistic comments; quotes no word of Jesus in this language, and gives to all the localities their Greek names. We feel we have to do with a compiler -- with a man who has not himself seen the witnesses, but who labours at the texts and wrests their sense to make them agree. Luke had probably under his eyes the biographical collection of Mark and the Logia of Matthew. But he treats them with much freedom; sometimes he fuses two anecdotes or two parables in one; sometimes he divides one in order to make two. He interprets the documents according to his own idea, he has not the absolute impassibility of Matthew and Mark. We might affirm certain things of his individual tastes and tendencies; he is a very exact devotee; he insists that Jesus had performed all the Jewish rites; he is a warm Ebionite and democrat -- that is to say, much opposed to property -- and persitided that the triumph of the poor is approaching; he likes especially all the anecdotes showing prominently the conversion of sinners -- the exaltation of the humble he often modifies the ancient traditions in order to give them this meaning; he admits into his first pages the legends about the infancy of Jesus, related with the long amplifications, the spiritual songs, and the conventional proceedings which form the essential features of the Apocryphal Gospels. Finally, he has in the narrative of the last hours of Jesus some circumstances full of tender feeling, and certain words of Jesus of delightful beauty, which are not found in more authentic accounts, and in which we detect the presence of legend. Luke probably borrowed them from a more recent collection, in which the principal aim was to excite sentiments of piety.
A great reserve was naturally enforced in presence of a document of this nature. It would have been as uncritical to neglect it as to employ it without discernment. Luke has had under his eyes originafs which we no longer possess. He is less an evangelist than a biographer of Jesus, a "harmoniser", a corrector after the manner of Marcion and Tatian. But he is a biographer of the first century, a divine artist, who, independently of the information which he has drawn from more ancient sources, shows us the character of the founder with a happiness of treatment, with a uniform inspiration, and a distinctness which the other two Synoptics do not possess. In the perusal of his Gospel there is the greatest charm; for to the incomparable beauty of the foundation, common to them all, he adds a degree of skill in composition which singularly augments the effect of the portrait, without seriously injuring its truthfulness.
On the whole, we may say that the Synoptical compilation has passed through three stages: first, the original documentary state (λόγια of Matthew, λεχθέντα ἢ πραχθέντα of Mark), primary compilations which no longer exist; second, the state of simple mixture, in which the original documents are amalgamated without any effort at composition, without there appearing any personal bias of the authors (the existing Gosiels of Matthew and Mark); third, the state of combination or of intentional and deliberate compiling, in which we are sensible of an attempt to reconcile the different versions (Gospel of Luke). The Gospel of John, as we have said, forms a composition of another order, and is entirely distinct.
It will be remarked that I have made no use of the Apocryphal Gospels. These compositions ought not in any manner to be put upon the same footing as the Canonical Gospels. They are insipid and puerile amplifications, having the Canonical Gospels for their basis, and adding nothing thereto of any value. On the other hand, I have been very attentive to collect the shreds preserved by the Fathers of the Church, of the ancient Gospels which formerly existed parallel with the Canonical Gosfels, and which are now lost -- such as the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel according to the Egyptians, the Gospels styled those of Justin, Marcion, and Tatian. The first two are principally important because they were written in Aramean, like the Logia of Matthew, and appear to constitute one version of the Gospel of this Apostle, and because they were the Gospel of the Ebionim -- that is, of those small Christian sects of Batanea who preserved the use of Syro-Chaldean, and who appear in some respects to have followed the course marked out by Jesus. But it must be confessed that, in the state in which they have come to us, these Gospels are inferior, as critical authorities, to the compilation of Matthew's Gospel which we now possess.
It will now be seen, I think, what kind of historical value I attribute to the Gospels. They are neither biographies after the manner of Suetonius, nor fictitious legends in the style of Philostratus; they are legendary biographics. I should willingly compare them with the Legends of the Saints, the Lives of Plotinus, Proclus, Isidore, and other writings of the same kind, in which historical truth and the desire to present models of virtue are combined in various degrees. Inexactitude, which is one of the features of all popular compositions, is there particularly felt. Let us suppose that, ten or twelve years ago, three or four old soldiers of the Empire had each undertaken to write the life of napoleon from memory. It is clear that their narratives would contain numerous errors and great discordances. One of them would place Wagram before Marengo: another would write without hesitation that Napoleon drove the Government of Robespierre from the Tuileries; a third would omit expeditions of the highest importance. But one thing would certainly result with a great degree of truthfulness from these simple recitals, and that is the character of the hero, the impression which he made around him. In this sense such popular narratives would be worth more than a formal and official history. We may say as much of the Gospels. Solely attentive to bring out strongly the excellency of the Master, his miracles, his teaching, the evangelists display entire indifference to everything that is not of the very spirit of Jesus. The contradictions respecting time, place, and persons were regarded as insignificant; for the higher the degree of inspiration attributed to the words of Jesus, the less was granted to the compilers themselves. The latter regarded themselves as simple scribes, and cared but for one thing -- to omit nothing they knew.
Unquestionably certain preconceived ideas associated themselves with such recollections. Several narratives, especially in Luke, are invented in order to bring out more vividly certain traits of the character of Jesus. This character itself constantly underwent alteration. Jesus would be a phenomenon unparalleled in history if, with the part which he played, he had not early become idealised. The legends respecting Alexander were invented before the generation of his companions in arms became extinct; those respecting St. Francis d'Assisi began in his lifetime. A rapid metamorphosis operated in the same manner in the twenty or thirty years which followed the death of Jesus, and imposed upon his biography the peculiarities of all ideal legend. Death adds perfection to the most perfect man; it frees him from all defect in the eyes of those who have loved him. With the wish to paint the Master, there was also the desire to explain him. Many anecdotes were conceived to prove that in him the prophecies regarded as Messianic had had their accomplishment. But this procedure, of which we must not deny the importance, would not suffice to explain everything. No Jewish work of the time gives a series of prophecies exactly declaring what the Messiah should accomplish. Many Messianic allusions quoted by the evangelists are so subtle, so indirect, that one cannot believe they all responded to a generally admitted doctrine. Sometimes they reasoned thus; "The Messiah ought to do such a thing; now, Jesus is the Messiah; therefore Jesus has done such a thing." At other times, by an inverse process, it was said: "Such a thing has happened to Jesus; now, Jesus is the Messiah; therefore such a thing was to happen to the Messiah." Too simple explanations are always false when analysing those profound creations of popular sentiment which baffle all systems by their fullness and infinite variety. It is scarcely necessary to say that, with such documents, in order to present only what is indisputable, we must limit ourselves to general features. In almost all ancient histories, even in those which are much less legendary than these, details open up innumerable doubts. When we have two accounts of the same fact, it is extremely rare that the two accounts agree. Is not this a reason for anticipating many difficulties when we have but one? We may say that among the anecdotes, the discourses, the celebrated sayings which have been given us by the historians, there is not one strictly authentic. Were there stenographers to fix these fleeting words? Was there an annalist always present to note the gestures, the manners, the sentiments, of the actors? Let anyone endeavor to get at the truth as to the way in which such or such contemporary fact has happened; he will not succeed. Two accounts of the same event given by different eye-witnesses differ essentially. Must we, therefore, reject all the colouring of the narratives, and limit ourselves to the bare facts only? That would be to suppress history. Certainly, I think that, if we except certain short and almost mnemonic axioms, none of the discourses reported by Matthew are textual; even our stenographic reports are scarcely so. I freely admit that the admirable account of the Passion contains many trifling inaccuracies. Would it, however, be writing the history of Jesus to omit those sermons which give to us in such a vivid manner the character of his discourses, and to limit ourselves to saying, with Josephus and Tacitus, "that he was put to death by the order of Pilate at the instigation of the priests"? That would be, in my opinion, a kind of inexactittide worse than that to which we are exposed in admitting the details supplied by the texts. These details are not true to the letter, but they are true with a superior truth, they are more true than the naked truth, in the sense that they are truth rendered expressive and articulate -- truth idealised.
I beg those who think that I have placed an exaggerated confidence in narratives in great part legendary to take note of the observation I have just made. To what would the life of Alexander be reduced if it were confined to that which is materially certain? Even partly erroneous traditions contain a portion of truth which history cannot neglect. No one has blamed M. Spranger for having, in writing the life of Mohammed, made much of the hadith or oral traditions concerning the prophet, and for often having attributed to his hero words which are only known through this source. Yet the traditions respecting Mohammed are not superior in historical value to the discourses and narratives which compose the Gospels. They were written between the year 50 and the year 140 of the Hegira. When the history of the Jewish schools in the ages which immediately preceded and followed the birth of Christianity shall be written, no one will make any scruple of attributing to Hillel, Shammai, Gamaliel, the maxims ascribed to them by the Mishnah and the Gemara, although these great compilations were written many hundreds of years after the time of the doctors in question.
As to those who believe, on the contrary, that history should consist of a simple reproduction of the documents which have come down to us, I beg to observe that such a course is not allowable. The four principal documents are in flagrant contradiction one with another. Josephus rectifies them sometimes. It is necessary to make a selection. To assert that an event cannot take place in two ways at once, or in an impossible manner, is not to impose an a'pyiori philosophy upon history. The historian ought not to conclude that a fact is false because he possesses several versions of it, or because credulity has mixed with them much that is fabulous. He ought in such a case to be very cautious, to examine the texts, and to proceed carefully by induction. There is one class of narratives especially to which this principle must necessarily be applied. Such are narratives of supernatural events. To seek to explain these, or to reduce them to legends, is not to mutilate facts in the name of theory; it is to make the observation of facts our groundwork. None of the miracles with which the old histories are filled took place under scientific conditions. Observation, which has never once been falsified, teaches us that miracles never happen but in times and countries in which they are believed, and before persons disposed to believe them. No miracle ever occurred in the presence of men capable of testing its miraculous character. Neither common people nor men of the world are able to do this. It requires great precautions and long habits of scientific research. In our days have we not seen almost all respectable people dupes of the grossest frauds or of puerile illusions? Marvellous facts, attested by the whole population of small towns, have, thanks to a severer scrutiny, been exploded. If it is proved that no contemporary miracle will bear inquiry, is it nut probable that the miracles of the past which have all been performed in popular gatherings would equally present their share of illusion, if it were possible to criticise them in detail?
It is not, then, in the name of this or that philosophy, but in the name of universal experience, that we banish miracle from history. We do not say, "Miracles are impossible". We say, "Up to this time a miracle has never been proved." If to-morrow a thaumaturgus present himself with credentials sufficiently important to be discussed, and announce himself as able, say, to raise the dead, what would be done? A commission, composed of physiologists, physicists, chemists, persons accustomed to historical criticism, would be named. This commission would choose a corpse, would assure itself that the death was real, would select the room in which the experiment should be made, would arrange the whole system of precautions, so as to leave no chance of doubt. If, under such conditions, the resurrection were effected, a probability almost equal to certainty would be established. As, however, it ought to be possible always to repeat an experiment -- to do over again which has been done once; and as, in the order of miracle, there can be no question of ease or dffficulty, the thaumaturgus would be invited to reproduce his marvellous act under other circumstances, upon other corpses, in another place. If the miracle succeeded each time, two things would be proved: first, that supernatural events happen in the world; second, that the power of producing them belongs, or is delegated to, certain persons. But who does not see that no miracle ever took place under these conditions, but that always hitherto the thaumaturgus has chosen the subject of the experiment, chosen the spot, chosen the public; that, besides, the people themselves most commonly in consequence of the invincible want to see something divine in great events and great men -- create the marvellous legends afterwards? Until a new order of things prevails, we shall maintain, then, this principle of historical criticism -- that a supernatural account cannot be admitted as such, that it always implies credulity or imposture, that the duty of the historian is to explain it, and seek to asceitain what share of truth, or of error, it may conceal.
Such are the rules which have been followed in the composition of this work. To the perusal of documentary evidences I have been able to add an important source of information -- the sight of the places where the events occurred. The scientific mission, having for its object the exploration of ancient Phoenicia, which I directed in i86o and 1861, led me to reside on the frontiers of Galilee, and to travel there frequently. I have traversed, in all directions, the country of the Gospels; I have visited Jerusalem, Hebron, and Samaria; scarcely any important locality of the history of Jesus has escaped me. All this history, which at a distance seems to float in the clouds of an unreal world, thus took a form, a solidity which astonished me. The striking agreement of the texts with the places, the marvellous harmony of the Gospel ideal with the country which served it as a framework, were like a revelation to me, I had before my eyes a fifth Gospel, torn, but still legible, and henceforward, through the recitals of Matthew and Mark, in place of an abstract being, whose existence might have been doubted, I saw living and moving an admirable human figure. During the summer, having to go up to Ghazir, in Lebanon, to take a little repose, I fixed, in rapid sketches, the image which had appeared to me, and from them resulted this history. When a cruel bereavement hastened my departure, I had but a few pages to write. In this manner the book has been composed almost entirely near the very places where Jesus was born, and where his character was developed. Since my return I have laboured unceasingly to verify and check in detail the rough sketch which I had written in haste in a Maronite cabin, with five or six volumes around me.
Many will regret, perhaps, the biographical form which my work has thus taken. When I first conceived the idea of a history of the origin of Christianity, what I wished to write was, in fact, a history of doctrines, in which men and their actions would have hardly had a place. Jesus would scarcely have been named; I should have endeavoured to show how the ideas which have grown under his name took root and covered the world. But I have learned since that history is not a simple game of abstractions; that men are more than doctrines. It was not a certain theory on justification and redemption which brought about the Reformation; it was Luther and Calvin. Parseeism, Hellenism, Judaism, might have been able to have combined under every form; the doctrines of the Resurrection and of the Word might have developed themselves during ages without producing this grand, unique, and fruitful fact, called Christianity. This fact is the work of Jesus, of St. Paul, of St. John. To write the history of Jesus, of St. Paul, of St. John, is to write the history of the origin of Christianity. The anterior movements belong to our subject only in so far as they serve to throw light upon these extraordinary men, who naturally could not have existed without connection with that which preceded them.
In such an effort to make the great souls of the past live again, some share of divination and conjecture must be permitted. A great life is an organic whole which cannot be rendered by the simple agglomeration of small facts. It requires a profound sentiment to embrace them all, moulding them into perfect unity. The method of art in a similar subject is a good guide; the exquisite tact of a Goethe would know how to apply it. The essential condition of the creations of art is, that they shall form a living system of which all the parts are mutually dependent and related.
In histories such as this, the great test that we have got the truth is to have succeeded in combining the texts in such a manner that they shall constitute a logical, probable narrative, harmonious throughout. The secret laws of life, of the progression of organic products, of the melting of minute distinctions, ought to be consulted at each moment; for what is required to be reproduced is not the material circumstance, which it is impossible to verify, but the very soul of history; what must be sought is not the petty certainty about trifles, it is the correctness of the general sentiment, the truthfulness of the colouring. Each trait which departs from the rules of classic narration ought to warn us to be careful; for the fact which has to be related has been living, natural, and harmonious. If we do not succeed in rendering it such by the recital, it is surely because we have not succeeded in seeing it aright. Suppose that, in restoring the Minerva of Phidias according to the texts, we produced a dry, jarring, artificial whole, what must we conclude? Simply that the texts want an appreciative interpretation; that we must study them quietly until they dovetail and furnish a whole in which all the parts are happily blended. Should we then be sure of having a perfect reproduction of the Greek statue? No; but at least we should not have the caricature of it; we should have the general spirit of the work -- one of the forms in which it could have existed.
This idea of a living organism we have not hesitated to take as our guide in the general arrangement of the narrative. The perusal of the Gospels would suffice to prove that the compilers, although having a very true plan of the Life of Jesus in their minds, have not been guided by very exact chronological data; Papias, besides, expressly teaches this. The expressions, "At this time… after that… then… and it came to pass…" etc., are the simple transitions intended to connect different narratives with each other. To leave all the information furnished by the Gospels in the disorder in which tradition supplies it, would only be to write the history of Jesus as the history of a celebrated man would be written, by giving pell-mell the letters and anecdotes of his youth, his old age, and of his maturity. The Koran, which presents to us, in the loosest manner, fragments of the different epochs in the life of Mohammed, has yielded its secret to an ingenious criticism; the chronological order in which the fragments were composed has been discovered so as to leave little room for doubt. Such a rearrangement is much more difficult in the case of the Gospels, the public life of Jesus having been shorter and less eventful than the life of the founder of Islamism. Meanwhile, the attempt to find a guiding thread through this labyrinth ought not to be taxed with gratuitous subtlety. There is no great abuse of hypothesis in supposing that a founder of a new religion commences by attaching himself to the moral aphorisms aleady in circulation in his time, and to the practices which are in vogue; that, when riper, and in full posession of his idea, he delights in a kind of calm and in full poetical eloquence, remote from all controversy, sweet and free as pure feeling; that he warms by degrees, becomes animated by opposition, and finishes by polemics and strong invectives. Such are the periods which may plainly be distinguished in the Koran. The order adopted with an extremely fine tact by the Synoptics supposes an analogous progress, If Matthew be attentively read, we shall find in the distribution of the discourses a gradation perfectly analogous to that which we have just indicated. The reserved turns of expression of which we make use in unfoldin the progress of the ideas of Jesus will also be observed. The reader may, if he likes, see in the divisions adopted in doing this only the indispensable breaks for the methodical expsition of a profound and complicated thought.
If the love of a subject can help one to understand it, it will also, I hope, be recognised that I have not been wanting in this condition. To write the history of a religion, it is necessary, firstly, to have believed it (otherwise we should not be able to understand how it has charmed and satisfied the human conscience); in the second place, to believe it no longer in an absolute manner, for absolute faith is incompatible with sincere history. But love is possible without faith. To abstain from attaching one's self to any of the forms which captivate the adoration of men is not to deprive ourselves of the enjoyment of that which is good and beautiful in them. No transitory appearance exhausts the Divinity; God was revealed before Jesus -- God will reveal himself after him. Profoundly unequal, and so much the more Divine, as they are grander and more spontaneous, the manifestations of God hidden in the depths of the human conscience are all of the same order. Jesus cannot belong solely to those who call themselves his disciples. He is the common honour of all who share a common humanity. His glory does not consist in being relegated out of history; we render him a truer worship in showing that all history is incomprehensible without him.
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