The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter I

Place of Jesus in the history of the world
THE great event of the history of the world is the revolution by which the noblest portions of humanity have passed from the ancient religions, comprised under the vague name of Paganism, to a religion founded on the Divine Unity, the Trinity, and the Incarnation of the Son of God. It has taken nearly a thousand years to accomplish this conversion. The new religion had itself taken at least three hundred years in its formation. But the origin of the revolution in question is a fact which took place under the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius. At that time there lived a superior personage, who, by his bold originality, and by the love which he was able to inspire, became the object and fixed the starting-point of the future faith of humanity.

As soon as man became distinguished from the animal, he became religious -- that is to say, he saw in nature something beyond the phenomena, and for himself something beyond death. This sentiment, during some thousands of years, became corrupted in the strangest manner. In many races it did not pass beyond the belief in sorcerers, under the gross form in which we still find it in certain parts of Oceania. Among some, the religious sentiment degenered into the shameful scenes of butchery which form the character of the ancient religion of Mexico. Among others, especially in Africa, it became pure Fetichism -- that is, the adoration of a material object, to which were attributed supernatural powers. Like the instinct of love, which at times elevates the most vulgar man above himself, yet sometimes becomes perverted and ferocious, so this divine faculty of religion during a long period seems only to be a cancer which must be extirpated from the human race, a cause of errors and crimes which the wise ought to endeavour to suppress.

The brilliant civilisations which were developed from a very remote antiquity in China, in Babylonia, and in Egypt, caused a certain progress to be made in religion. China arrived very early at a sort of mediocre good sense, which prevented great extravagances. She neither knew the advantages nor the abuses of the religious spirit. At all events, she had not in this way any influence in directing the great current of humanity. The religions of Babylonia and Syria were never freed from a substratum of strange sensuality; these religions remained, until their extinction in the fourth and fifth centuries of our era, schools of immorality, in which at intervals glimpses of the divine world were obtained by a sort of poetic intuition. Egypt, notwithstanding an apparent kind of fetichism, had very early metaphysical dogmas and a lofty symbolism. But doubtless these interpretations of a refined theology were not primitive. Man has never, in the possession of a clear idea, amused himself by clothing it in symbols; it is oftener after long reflections, and from the impossibility felt by the human mind of resigning itself to the absurd, that we seek ideas under the ancient mystic images whose meaning is lost. Moreover, it is not from Egypt that the faith of humanity has come. The elements which, in the religion of a Christian, passing through a thousand transformations, came from Egypt and Syria, are exterior forms of little consequence, or dross of Which the most purified worships always retain some portion. The grand defect of the religions of which we speak was their essentially superstitious character. They only threw into the world millions of amulets and charms. No great moral thought could proceed from races oppressed by a secular despotism, and accustomed to institutions which precluded the exercise of individual liberty.

The poetry of the soul, faith, liberty, virtue, devotion, made their appearance in the world with the two great races which, in one sense have made humanity -- viz. the Indo-European and the Semitic races. The first religious intuitions of the Indo-European race were essentially naturalistic. But it was a profound and moral naturalism, a loving embrace of nature by man, a delicious poetry, full of the sentiment of the Infinite -- the principle, in fine, of all that which the Germanic and Celtic genius, of that which a Shakespeare and a Goethe, should express in later times. It was neither theology nor moral philosophy -- it was a state of melancholy, it was tenderness, it was imagination; it was, more than all, earnestness, the essential condition of morals and religion. The faith of humanity, however, could not come from thence, because these ancient forms of worships had great difficulty in detaching themselves from Polytheism, and could not attain to a very clear symbol. Brahminism has only survived to the present day by virtue of the astonishing faculty of conservation which India seems to posses. Buddhism failed in all its approaches towards the West. Druidism remained a form exclusively national, and without universal capacity. The Greek attempts at reform, Orpheism, the Mysteries, did not suffice to give "solid aliment to the soul. Persia alone succeeded in making a dogmatic religion, almost Monotheistic, and skillfully organized; but it is very possible that this organization itself was but an imitation, or borrowed. At all events, Persia has not converted the world; she herself, on the contrary, was converted when she saw the flag of the Divine unity as proclaimed by Mohamedanism appear on her frontiers.

It is the Semitic race which has the glory of having made the religion of humanity. Far beyond the confines of history, resting under his tent free from the taint of a corrupted world, the Bedouin patriarch prepared the faith of mankind. A strong antipathy against the voluptuous worships of Syria, a grand simplicity of ritual, the complete absence of temples, and the idol reduced to insignificant theraphim constituted his superiority. Among all the tribes of the nomadic Semites, that of the Beni-Israel was already chosen for immense destinies. Ancient relations with Egypt, whence perhaps resulted some purely material ingredients, did but augment their repulsion to idolatry. A "Law," or Thora, very anciently written on tables of stone, and which they attributed for their great liberator Moses, had become the code of Monotheism, and contained, as compared with the institutions of Egypt and Chaldea, powerful germs of social equality and morality. A chest or portable ark, having staples on each side to admit of bearing poles, constituted all their religious material; there were collected the sacred objects of the nation, its relics, its souvenirs, and lastly the "book," the, journal of the tribe, always open, but which was written in with great discretion. The family charged with bearing the ark and watching over the portable archives, being near the book and having the control of it very soon became important. From hence, however, the institution which was to control the future did not come. The Hebrew priest did not differ much from the other priests of antiquity. The character which essentially distinguishes Israel among theocratic peoples is that its priesthood has always been subordinated to individual inspiration. Besides its priests, each wandering tribe had its nabi or prophet, a sort of living oracle who was consulted for the solution of obscure questions supposed to require a high degree of clairvoyance. The nabis of Israel, organized in groups or schools, had great influence. Defenders of the ancient democratic spirit, enemies of the rich, opposed to all political organization, and to whatsoever might draw Israel into the paths of other nations, they were the true authors of the religious preeminence of the Jewish people. Very early they announced unlimited hopes, and when the people, in part the victims of their impolitic counsels, had been crushed by the Assyrian power, they proclaimed that a kingdom without bounds was reserved for them, that one day Jerusalem would be the capital of the whole world, and the human race become Jews. Jerusalem and its temple appeared to them as a city placed on the summit of a mountain, towards which all people should turn, as an oracle whence the universal law should proceed, as the center of an ideal kingdom, in which the human race, set at rest by Israel, should find again the joys of Eden.

Mystical utterances already make themselves heard, tending to exalt the martyrdom and celebrate the power of the "Man of Sorrows." Respecting one of those sublime sufferers, who, like Teremiah, stained the streets of Jerusalem with their blood, one of the inspired wrote a song upon the sufferings and triumph of the "servant of God," in which all the prophetic force of the genius of Israel seemed concentrated. "For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness. He is despised and rejected of men: and we hid, as it were, our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. And he made his grave with the wicked. When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand."

Important modifications were made at the same time in the Thora. New texts, pretending to represent the true law of Moses, such as Deuteronomy, were produced, and inaugurated in reality a very different spirit from that of the old nomads. A marked fanaticism was the dominant feature of this spirit. Furious believers unceasingly instigated violence against all who wandered from the worship of Jehovah -- they succeeded in establishing a code of blood, making death the penalty for religious faults. Piety brings, almost always, singular contradictions of vehemence and mildness. This zeal, unknown to the coarser simplicity of the time of the judges, inspired tones of moving prophecy and tender unction, which the world had never heard till then. A strong tendency towards social questions already made itself felt; Utopias, dreams of a perfect society, took a place in the code. The Pentateuch, a mixture of patriarchal morality and ardent devotion, primitive intuitions and pious subtleties, like those which filled the souls of Hezekiah, of Josiah, and of Jeremiah, was thus fixed in the form in which we now see it, and became for ages the absolute rule of the national mind.

This great book once created, the history of the Jewish people unfolded itself with an irresistible force. The great empires which followed each other in Western Asia, in destroying its hope of a terrestrial kingdom, threw it into religious dreams, which it cherished with a kind of somber passion. Caring little for the national dynasty or political independence, it accepted all governments which permitted it to practice freely its worship and follow ifs usages. Israel will henceforward have no other guidance than that of its religious enthusiasts, no other enemies than those of the Divine unity, no other country than its Law.

And this Law, it must be remarked, was entirely social and moral. It was the work of men penetrated with a high ideal of the present life, and believing that they had found the best means of realizing it. The conviction of all was that the Thora, well observed, could not fail to give perfect felicity. This Thora has nothing in common with the Greek or Roman "Laws," which, occupying themselves with scarcely anything but abstract right, entered little into questions of private happiness and morality. We feel beforehand that the results which will proceed from it will be of a social and not a political order, that the work at which this people labors is a kingdom of God, not a civil republic; a universal institution, not a nationality or a country.

Notwithstanding numerous failures, Israel admirably sustained this vocation. A series of pious men, Ezra, Nehemiah, Onias, the Maccabees, consumed with zeal for the Law, succeeded each other in the defence of the ancient institutions. The idea that Israel was a holy people, a tribe chosen by God and bound to him by covenant, took deeper and firmer root. An immense expectation filled their souls. All Indo-European antiquity had placed paradise in the beginning; all its poets had wept a vanished golden age. Israel placed the age of gold in the future. The perennial poesy of religious souls, the Psalms, blossomed from this exalted piety, with their divine and melancholy harmony. Israel became truly and specially the people of God, while around it the pagan religions were more and more reduced, in Persia and Babylonia, to an official charlatanism, in Egypt and Syria to a gross idolatry, and in the Greek and Roman world to mere parade. That which the Christian martyrs did in the first centuries of our era, that which the victims of persecuting orthodoxy have done, even in the bosom of Christianity, up to our time, the Jews did during the two centuries which preceded the Christian era. They were a living protest against superstition and religious materialism. An extraordinary movement of ideas, ending in the most opposite results, made of them, at this epoch, the most striking and original people in the world. Their dispersion along all the coast of the Mediterranean, and the use of the Greek language, which they adopted when out of Palestine, prepared the way for a propagandist of which ancient societies, divided into small nationalities, had never offered a single example.

Up to the time of the Maccabees, Judaism, in spite of its persistence in announcing that it would one day be the religion of the human race, had had the characteristic of all the other worships of antiquity -- it was a worship of the family and the tribe. The Israelite thought, indeed, that his worship was the best, and spoke with contempt of strange gods; but he believed also that the religion of the true God was made for himself alone. Only when a man entered into the Jewish family did he embrace the worship of Jehovah. No Israelite cared to convert the stranger to a worship which was the patrimony of the sons of Abraham. The development of the pietistic spirit, after Ezra and Nehemiah, led to a much firmer and more logical conception. Judaism became the true religion in a more absolute manner; to all who wished, the right of entering it was given; soon it became a work of piety to bring into it the greatest number possible. Doubtless the refined sentiment which elevated John the Baptist, Jesus, and St. Paul above the petty ideas of race did not yet exist; for, by a strange contradiction, these converts were little respected and were treated with disdain. But the idea of a sovereign religion, the idea that there was something in the world superior to country, to blood, to laws -- the idea which makes apostles and martyrs -- was founded. Profound pity for the pagans, however brilliant might be their worldly fortune, was henceforth the feeling of every Jew. By a cycle of legends destined to furnish models of immovable firmness, such as the histories of Daniel and his companions, the mother of the Maccabees and her seven sons, the romance of the racecourse of Alexandria -- the guides of the people sought above all to inculcate the idea that virtue consists in a fanatical attachment to fixed religious institutions.

The persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes made this idea a passion, almost a frenzy. it was something very analogous to that which happened under Nero two hundred and thirty years later. Rage and despair threw the believers into the world of visions and dreams. The first apocalypse, "The Book of Daniel," appeared. It was like a revival of prophecy, but under a very different form from the ancient one, and with a much larger idea of the destinies of the world. The Book of Daniel gave, in a manner, the last expression to the Messianic hopes. The Messiah was no longer a king, after the manner of David and Solomon, a theocratic and Mosaic Cyrus; he was a "Son of Man" appearing in the clouds -- a supernatural being, invested with human form, charged to rule the world, and to preside over the golden age. Perhaps the Sosiosh of Persia, the great prophet who was to come, charged with preparing the reign of Ormuzd, gave some features to this new ideal. The unknown author of the Book of Daniel had, in any case, a decisive influence on the religious event which was about to transform the world. He supplied the mise-en-scene, and the technical terms of the now belief in the Messiah; and we might apply to him what Jesus said of John the Baptist -- Before him, the prophets; after him, the kingdom of God.

It must not, however, be supposed that this profoundly religious and soul-stirring movement had particular dogmas for its primary impulse, as was the case in all the conflicts which have disturbed the bosom of Christianity. The Jew of this epoch was as little theological as possible. He did not speculate upon the essence of the Divinity: the beliefs about angels, about the destinies of man, about the Divine personality, of which the first germs might already be perceived, were quite optional -- they were meditations, to which each one surrendered himself according to the turn of his mind, but of which a great number of men had never heard. They were the most orthodox even, who did not share in these particular imaginations, and who adhered to the simplicity of the Mosaic law. No that which orthodox Christianity has given to the Church then existed. It was only at the beginning of the third century, when Christianity had fallen into the hands of reasoning races, mad with dialectics and metaphysics, that that fever for definitions commenced which made the history of the Church but the history of one immense controversy. There were disputes also among the Jews -- excited Schools brought opposite solutions to almost all the questions which were agitated; but in these contests, of which the Talmud has preserved the principal details, there is not a single word of speculative theology. To observe and maintain the law was just, and because, when well observed, it gave happiness -- such was Judaism. No credo, no theoretical symbol. One of the disciples of the boldest Arabian philosophy, Moses Maimonides, was able to become the oracle of the synagogue, because he was well versed in the canonical law.

The reigns of the last Asmoneans, and that of Herod, saw the excitement grow still stronger. They were filled by an uninterrupted series of religious movements. In the degree that power became secularized, and passed into the hands of unbelievers, the Jewish people lived less and less for the earth, and became more and more absorbed by the strange fermentation which was operating in their midst. The world, distracted by other spectacles, had little knowledge of that which passed in this forgotten corner of the East. The minds abreast of their age were, however, better informed. The tender and clear-sighted Virgil seems to answer, as by a secret echo, to the second Isaiah. The birth of a child throws him into dreams of a universal palingenesis. These dreams were of every-day occurrence and shaped into a kind of literature which was designated Sibylline, The quite recent formation of the empire exalted the imagination; the great era of peace on which it entered, and that impression of melancholy sensibility which the mind experiences after long periods of revolution, gave birth on all sides to unlimited hopes.

In Judea expectation was at its height. Holy persons -- among whom may be named the aged Simeon, who, legend tells us, held Jesus in his arms; Anna, daughter of Phanuel, regarded as a prophetess -- passed their life about the temple, fasting, and praying that it might please God not to take them from the world without having seen the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel. They felt a powerful presentiment; they were sensible of the approach of something unknown.

This confused mixture of clear views and dreams, this alternation of deceptions and hopes, these ceaseless aspirations, driven back by an odious reality, found at last their interpretation in the incomparable man, to whom the universal conscience has decreed the title of Son of God, and that with justice, since he has advanced religion as no other has done, or probably ever will be able to do.

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