The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter XIII

First attempts on Jerusalem
JESUS, almost every year, went to Jerusalem for the feast of the passover. The details of these journeys are little known, for the Synoptics do not speak of them, and the notes of the fourth Gospel are very confused on this point. It was, it appears, in the year 31, and certainly after the death of John, that the most important of the visits of Jesus to Jerusalem took place. Many of the disciples followed him. Although Jesus attached from that time little value to the pilgrimage, he conformed himself to it in order not to wound Jewish opinion, with which he had not yet broken. These journeys, moreover, were essential to his design; for he felt already that, in order to play a leading part, he must go from Galilee, and attack Judaism in its stronghold, which was Jerusalem.

The little Galilean community were here far from being at home. Jerusalem was then nearly what it is to-day, a city of pedantry, acrimony, disputes, hatreds, and littleness of mind. Its fanaticism was extreme, and religious seditions very frequent. The Pharisees were dominant; the study of the Law, pushed to the most insignificant minutiae, and reduced to questions of casuistry, was the only study. This exclusively theological and canonical culture contributed in no respect to define the intellect. It was something analogous to the barren doctrine of the Mussulman fakir, to that empty science discussed round about the mosques, and which is a great expenditure of time and useless argumentation, by no means calculated to advance the right discipline of the mind. The theological education of the modern clergy, although very dry, gives us no idea of this, for the Renaissance has introduced into all our teachings, even the most irregular, a share of belles lettres and of method, which has infused more or less of the humanities into scholasticism. The science of the Jewish doctor, of the sofer or scribe, was purely barbarous, unmitigatedly absurd, and denuded of all moral element. To crown the evil, it filled with ridiculous pride those who had wearied themselves in acquiring it. The Jewish scribe, proud of the pretended knowledge which had cost him so much trouble, had the same contempt for Greek culture which the learned Mussulman of our time has for European civilization, and which the old Catholic theologian had for the knowledge of men of the world. The tendency of this scholastic culture was to close the mind to all that was refined, to create esteem only for those difficult triflings on which they had wasted their lives, and which were regarded as the natural occupation of persons professing a degree of seriousness.

This odious society could not fail to weigh heavily on the tender and susceptible minds of the north. The contempt of the Hierosolymites for the Galileans rendered the separation still more complete. In the beautiful temple which was the object of all their desires they often only met with insult. A verse of the pilgrim's psalm, "I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God," seemed made expressly for them. A contemptuous priesthood laughed at their simple devotion, as formerly in Italy the clergy, familiarized with the sanctuaries, witnessed coldly and almost jestingly the fervor of the pilgrim come from afar. The Galileans spoke a rather corrupt dialect; their pronunciation was vicious; they confounded the different aspirations of letters, which led to mistakes which were much laughed at. In religion they were considered as ignorant and somewhat heterodox; the expression, "foolish Galileans," had become proverbial. It was believed (not without reason) that they were not of pure Jewish blood, and no one expected Galilee to produce a prophet. Placed thus on the confines of Judaism., and almost outside of it, the poor Galileans had only one badly interpreted passage in Isaiah to build their hopes upon. "Land of Zebulon, and land of Naphtali, way of the sea, Galilee of the nations! The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined." The reputation of the native city of Jesus was particularly bad. It was a popular proverb "Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?

The parched appearance of nature in the neighborhood of Jerusalem must have added to the dislike Jesus had for the place. The valleys are without water; the soil arid and stony. Looking into the valley of the Dead Sea, the view is somewhat striking; elsewhere it is monotonous. The hill of Mizpeh, around which cluster the most ancient historical remembrances of Israel, alone relieves the eye. The city presented, at the time of Jesus, nearly the same form that it does now. It had scarcely any ancient monuments, for, until the time of the Asmoneans, the Jews had remained strangers to all the arts. John Hyrcanus had begun to embellish it, and Herod the Great had made it one of the most magnificent cities of the East. The Herodian constructions, by their grand character, perfection of execution, and beauty of material, may dispute superiority with the most finished works of antiquity. A great number of superb tombs, of original taste, were raised at the same time in the neighborhood of Jerusalem. The style of these monuments was Grecian, but appropriate to the customs of the Jews, and considerably modified in accordance with their principles. The ornamental sculptures of the human figure which the Herods had sanctioned, to the great discontent of the purists, were banished, and replaced by floral decorations. The taste of the ancient inhabitants of Phoenicia and Palestine for monoliths in solid stone seemed to be revived in these singular tombs cut in the rock, and in which Grecian orders are so strangely applied to an architecture of troglodytes. Jesus, who regarded works of art as a pompous display of vanity, viewed these monuments with displeasure. His absolute spiritualism, and his settled conviction that the form of the old world was about to pass away, left him no taste except for things of the heart.

The temple, at the time of Jesus, was quite new, and the exterior works of it were not completed. Herod had begun its reconstruction in the year 20 or 21 before the Christian era, in order to make it uniform with his other edifices. The body of the temple was finished in eighteen months; the porticoes took eight years; and the accessory portions were continued slowly, and were only finished a short time before the taking of Jerusalem. Jesus probably saw the work progressing, not without a degree of secret vexation. These hopes of a long future were like an insult to his approaching advent. Clearer-sighted than the unbelievers and the fanatics, he foresaw that these superb edifices were destined to endure but for a short time.

The temple formed a marvelously imposing whole, of which the present harem, notwithstanding its beauty, scarcely gives us any idea. The courts and the surrounding porticoes served as the daily rendezvous for a considerable number of persons -- so much so that this great space was at once temple, forum, tribunal, and university. All the religious discussions of the Jewish schools, all the canonical instruction, even the legal processes and civil causes -- in a word, all the activity of the nation was concentrated there. It was an arena where arguments were perpetually clashing, a battle-field of disputes, resounding with sophism and subtle questions. The temple had thus much analogy with a Mohammedan mosque. The Romans at this period treated all strange religions with respect when kept within proper limits, and carefully refrained from entering the sanctuary. Greek and Latin inscriptions marked the point up to which those who were not Jews were permitted to advance, But the tower of Antonia, the headquarters of the Roman forces, commanded the whole enclosure, and allowed all that passed therein to be seen. The guarding of the temple belonged to the Jews; the entire superintendence was committed to a captain, who caused the gates to be opened and shut, and prevented any one from crossing the enclosure with a stick in his hand, or with dusty shoes, or when carrying parcels, or to shorten his path. They were especially scrupulous in watching that no one entered within the inner gates in a state of legal impurity. The women had an entirely separate court.

It was in the temple that Jesus passed his days while he remained at Jerusalem. The period of the feasts brought an extraordinary concourse of people into the city. Associated in parties of ten to twenty persons, the pilgrims invaded everywhere, and lived in that disordered state in which Orientals delight. Jesus was lost in the crowd, and his poor Galileans grouped around him were of small account. He probably felt that he was in a hostile world which would receive him only with disdain. Everything he saw set him against it. The temple, like much-frequented places of devotion in general, offered a not very edifying spectacle. The accessories of worship entailed a number of repulsive details, especially of mercantile operations, in consequence of which real shops were established within the sacred enclosure. There were sold beasts for the sacrifices; there were tables for the exchange of money; at times it seemed like a bazaar. The inferior officers of the temple fulfilled their functions doubtless with the irreligious vulgarity of the sacristans of all ages. This profane and heedless air in the handling of holy things wounded the religious sentiment of Jesus, which was at times carried even to a scrupulous excess. He said that they had made the house of prayer into a den of thieves. One day, it is even said, that, carried away by his anger, he scourged the vendors with a "scourge of small cords," and overturned their tables. In general, he had little love for the temple. The worship which he had conceived for his Father had nothing in common with scenes of butchery -- All these old Jewish institutions displeased him, and he suffered in being obliged to conform to them. Except among the Judaising Christians, neither the temple nor its site inspired pious sentiments. The true disciples of the new faith held this ancient sanctuary in aversion. Constantine and the first Christian emperors left the pagan construction of Adrian existing there, and only the enemies of Christianity, such as Julian, remembered the temple. When Omar entered into Jerusalem, he found the site designedly polluted in hatred of the Jews. It was Islamism -- that is to say, a sort of resurrection of Judaism in its exclusively Semitic form -- which restored its glory. The place has always been anti-Christian.

The pride of the Jews completed the discontent of Jesus, and rendered his stay in Jerusalem painful. In the degree that the great ideas of Israel ripened, the priesthood lost its power. The institution of synagogues had given to the interpreter of the Law, to the doctor, a great superiority over the priest, There were no priests except at Jerusalem, and even there, reduced to functions entirely ritual, almost, like our parish priests, excluded from preaching, they were surpassed by the orator of the synagogue, the casuist, and the sofer or scribe, although the latter was only a layman. The celebrated men of the Talmud were not priests; they were learned men according to the ideas of the time. The high priesthood of Jerusalem held, it is true, a very elevated rank in the nation; but it was by no means at the head of the religious movement. The sovereign pontiff, whose dignity had already been degraded by Herod, became more and more a Roman functionary, who was frequently removed in order to divide the profits of the office". Opposed to the Pharisees, who were very warm lay zealots, the priests were almost all Sadducees -- that is to say, members of that unbelieving aristocracy which had been formed around the temple, and which lived by the altar, while they saw the vanity of it. The sacerdotal caste was separated to such a degree from the national sentiment, and from the great religious movement which dragged the people along, that the name of "Sadducee" (sadoki), which at first simply designated a member of the sacerdotal family of Sadok, had become synonymous with "Materialist" and with "Epicurean." A still worse element had begun, since the reign of Herod the Great, to corrupt the high-priesthood. Herod having fallen in love with Mariamne, daughter of a certain Simon, son of Bogthus of Alexandria, and having wished to marry her (about the year 28 B.C.), saw no other means of ennobling his father-in-law and raising him to his own rank than by making him high-priest. This intriguing family remained master, almost without interruption, of the sovereign pontificate for thirty-five years. Closely allied to the reigning family, it did not lose the office until after the deposition of Archelaus, and recovered it (the year 42 of our era) after Herod Agrippa had for some time re-enacted the work of Herod the Great. Under the name of Boethusim, a new sacerdotal nobility was formed, very worldly and little devotional, and closely allied to the Sadokites. The Boethusim, in the Talmud and the rabbinical writings, are depicted as a kind of unbelievers, and always reproached as Sadducees. From all this there resulted a miniature court of Rome around the temple, living on politics, little inclined to excesses of zeal, even rather fearing them, not wishing to hear of holy personages or of innovators, for it profited from the established routine. These epicurean priests had not the violence of the Pharisees; they only wished for quietness; it was their moral indifference, their cold irreligion, which revolted Jesus. Although very different, the priests and the Pharisees were thus confounded in his antipathies. But a stranger, and without influence, he was long compelled to restrain his discontent within himself, and only to communicate his sentiments to the intimate friends who accompanied him.

Before his last stay, which was by far the longest of all that he made at Jerusalem, and which was terminated by his death, Jesus endeavored, however, to obtain a hearing. He preached; people spoke of him; and they conversed respecting certain deeds of his which were looked upon as miraculous. But from all that there resulted neither an established Church at Jerusalem nor a group of Hierosolymite disciples. The charming teacher who forgave everyone, provided they loved him, could not find much sympathy in this sanctuary of vain disputes and obsolete sacrifices. The only result was that he formed some valuable friendships, the advantage of which he reaped afterwards. He does not appear at that time to have made the acquaintance of the family of Bethany, which, amid the trials of the latter months of his life, brought him so much consolation. But very early he attracted the attention of a certain Nicodemus, a rich Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, and a man occupying a high position in Jerusalem. This man, who appears to have been upright and sincere, felt himself attracted towards the young Galilean. Not wishing to compromise himself, he came to see Jesus by night, and had a long conversation with him. He doubtless preserved a favorable impression of him, for afterwards he defended Jesus against the prejudices of his colleagues, and, at the death of Jesus, we shall find him tending with pious care the corpse of the Master. Nicodemus did not become a Christian; he had too much regard for his position to take part in a revolutionary movement which as yet counted no men of note among its adherents. But he evidently felt great friendship for Jesus, and rendered him service, though unable to rescue him from a death which even at this period was all but decreed.

As to the celebrated doctors of the time, Jesus does not appear to have had any connection with them. Hillel and Shammai were dead; the greatest authority of the time was Gamaliel, grandson of Hillel. He was of a liberal spirit, and a man of the world, not opposed to secular studies, and inclined to tolerance by his intercourse with good society. Unlike the very strict Pharisees, who walked veiled or with closed eyes, he did not scruple to gaze even upon Pagan women. This, as well as his knowledge of Greek, was tolerated because he had access to the Court. After the death of Jesus, he expressed very moderate views respecting the new sect. St. Paul sat at his feet, but it is not probable that Jesus ever entered his school.

One idea, at least, which Jesus brought from Jerusalem, and which henceforth appears rooted in his mind, was that there was no possible union between him and the ancient Jewish religion. The abolition of the sacrifices which had caused him so much disgust, the suppression of an impious and haughty priesthood, and, in a general sense, the abrogation of the Law, appeared to him absolutely necessary. From this time he appears no more as a Jewish reformer, but as a destroyer of Judaism. Certain advocates of the Messianic ideas had already admitted that the Messiah would bring a new law, which should be common to all the earth. The Essenes, who were scarcely Jews, also appear to have been indifferent to the temple and to the Mosaic observances. But these were only isolated or unavowed instances of boldness. Jesus was the first who dared to say that from his time, or rather from that of John, the Law was abolished. If sometimes he used more measured terms, it was in order not to offend existing prejudices too violently. When he was driven to extremities, he lifted the veil entirely, and declared that the Law had no longer any force. On this subject he used striking comparisons. "No man putteth a piece of new cloth into an old garment, neither do men put new wine into old bottles." This was really his chief characteristic as teacher and creator. The temple excluded all except Jews from its enclosure by scornful announcements. Jesus had no sympathy with this. The narrow, hard, and uncharitable Law was only made for the children of Abraham. Jesus maintained that every well-disposed man, every man who received and loved him, was a son of Abraham. The pride of blood appeared to him the great enemy which was to be combated. In other words, Jesus was no longer a Jew. He was in the highest degree revolutionary; he called all men to a worship founded solely on the fact of their being children of God. He proclaimed the rights of man, not the rights of the Jew; the religion of man, not the religion of the Jew; the deliverance of man, not the deliverance of the Jew. How far removed was this from a Gaulonite Tudas or a Matthias Margaloth, preaching revolution in the name of the Law! The religion of humanity, established, not upon blood, but upon the heart, was founded. Moses was puperseded, the temple was rendered useless, and was irrevocably condemned.

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