The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter XVI

Two means of proof -- miracles and the accomplishment of prophecies -- could alone, in the opinion of the contemporaries of Jesus, establish a supernatural mission. Jesus, and especially his disciples, employed these two processes of demonstration in perfect good faith. For a long time Jesus had been convinced that the prophets had written only in reference to him. He recognized himself in their sacred oracles; he regarded himself as the mirror in which all the prophetic spirit of Israel had read the future. The Christian school, perhaps even in the lifetime of its founder, endeavored to prove that Jesus responded perfectly to all that the prophets had predicted of the Messiah. In many cases these comparisons were quite superficial, and are scarcely appreciable by us. They were most frequently fortuitous or insignificant circumstances in the life of the Master which recalled to the disciples certain passages of the Psalms and the Prophets, in which, in consequence of their constant preoccupation, they saw images of him. The exegesis of the time consisted thus almost entirely in a play upon words, and in quotations made in an artificial and arbitrary manner. The synagogue had no officially settled list of the passages which related to the future reign. The Messianic references were very liberally created, and constituted artifices of style rather than serious reasoning.

As to miracles, they were regarded at this period as the indispensable mark of the divine, and as the sign of the prophetic vocation. The legends of Elijah and Elisha were full of them. It was commonly believed that the Messiah would perform many. In Samaria, a few leagues from where Jesus was, a magician, named Simon, acquired an almost divine character by his illusions. Afterwards, when it was sought to establish the reputation of Apollonius of Tyana, and to prove that his life had been the sojourn of a god upon the earth, it was not thought possible to succeed therein except by inventing a vast cycle of miracles. The Alexandrian philosophers themselves, Plotinus and others, are reported to have performed several. Jesus was, therefore, obliged to choose between these two alternatives -- either to renounce his mission or to become a thaumaturgus. It must be remembered that all antiquity, with the exception of the great scientific schools of Greece and their Roman disciples, accepted miracles; and that Jesus not only believed therein, but had not the least idea of an order of nature regulated by fixed laws. His knowledge on this point was in no way superior to that of his contemporaries. Nay, more, one of his most deeply-rooted opinions was that by faith and prayer man has entire power over nature. The faculty of performing miracles was regarded as a privilege frequently conferred by God upon men, and it had nothing surprising in it.

The lapse of time has changed that which constituted the power of the great founder of Christianity into something offensive to our ideas, and if ever the worship of Jesus loses its hold upon mankind, it will be precisely on account of those acts which originally inspired belief in him. Criticism experiences no embarrassment in presence of this kind of historical phenomenon. A thaumaturgus of our days, unless of an extreme simplicity, like that manifested by certain stigmatists of Germany, is odious, for he performs miracles without believing in them, and is a mere charlatan. But, if we take a Francis d'Assisi, the question becomes altogether different; the series of miracles attending the origin of the order of St. Francis, far from offending us, affords us real pleasure. The founder of Christianity lived in as complete a state of poetic ignorance as did St. Clair and the tres socii. The disciples deemed it quite necessary that their Master should have interviews with Moses and Elias, that he should command the elements, and that he should heal the sick. We must remember, besides, that every idea loses something of its purity as soon as it aspires to realize itself. Success is never attained without some injury being done to the sensibility of the soul. Such is the feebleness of the human mind that the best causes are ofttimes gained only by bad arguments. The demonstrations of the primitive apologists of Christianity are supported by very poor reasonings. Moses, Christopher Columbus, Mohammed, have only triumphed over obstacles by constantly making allowance for the weakness of men, and by not always giving the true reasons for the truth. It is probable that the hearers of Jesus were more struck by his miracles than by his eminently divine discourses. Let us add that doubtless popular rumor, both before and after the death of Jesus, exaggerated enormously the number of occurrences of this kind. The types of the Gospel miracles, in fact, do not present much variety: they are repetitions of each other, and seem fashioned from a very small number of models, accommodated to the taste of the country.

It is impossible, among the miraculous narratives so tediously enumerated in the Gospels, to distinguish the miracles attributed to Jesus by public opinion from those in which he consented to play an active part. It is especially impossible to ascertain whether the offensive circumstances attending them, the groanings, the strugglings, and other features savoring of jugglery, are really historical, or whether they are the fruit of the belief of the compilers, strongly imbued with theurgy, and living, in this respect, in a world analogous to that of the "spiritualists" of our times. Almost all the miracles which Jesus thought he performed appear to have been miracles of healing. Medicine was at this period in Judea what it still is in the East -- that is to say, in no respect scientific, but absolutely surrendered to individual inspiration. Scientific medicine, founded by Greece five centuries before, was at the time of Jesus unknown to the Jews of Palestine. In such a stale of knowledge, the presence of a superior man, treating the diseased with gentleness, and giving him by some sensible signs the assurance of his recovery, is often a decisive remedy. Who would dare to say that in many cases, always excepting certain peculiar injuries, the touch of a superior being is not equal to all the resources of pharmacy? The mere pleasure of seeing him cures. He gives only a smile, or a hope, but these are not in vain.

Jesus had no more idea than his countrymen of a rational medical science; he believed, like everyone else, that healing was to be effected by religious practices, and such a belief was perfectly consistent. From the moment that disease was regarded as the punishment of sin, or as the act of a demon, and by no means as the result of physical causes, the best physician was the holy man who had power in the supernatural world. Healing was considered a moral act; Jesus, who felt his moral power, would believe himself specially gifted to heal. Convinced that the touching of his robe, the imposition of his hands, did good to the sick, he would have been unfeeling if he had refused to those who suffered a solace which it was in his power to bestow. The healing of the sick was considered as one of the signs of the kingdom of God, and was always associated with the emancipation of the poor. Both were the signs of the great revolution which was to end in the redress of all infirmities.

One of the species of cure which Jesus most frequently performed was exorcism, or strange disposition to believe in demons pervaded all minds. It was a universal opinion, not only in Judea, but in the whole world, that demons seized hold of bodies of certain persons and made them act contrary to their will. A Persian div, often named in the Avesta, Aeschma-daiva, the "div of coneupiscence," adopted by the Jews under the name of Asmodeus, became the cause of all the hysterical afflictions of women. Epilepsy, mental and nervous maladies, in which the patient seems no longer to belong to himself, and infirmities the cause of which is not apparent, as deafness, dumbness, were explained in the same manner. The admirable treatise, On Sacred Disease, by Hippocrates, which set forth the true principles of medicine on this subject four centuries and a half before Jesus, had not banished from the world so great an error. It was supposed that there were processes more or less efficacious for driving away the demons; and the occupation of exorcist was a regular profession, like that of physician. There is no doubt that Jesus had in his lifetime the reputation of possessing the greatest secrets of this art. There were at that time many lunatics in Judea, doubtless in consequence of the great mental excitement. These mad persons, who were permitted to go at large, as they still are in the same districts, inhabited the abandoned sepulchral caves, which were the ordinary retreat of vagrants. Jesus had great influence over these unfortunates. A thousand singular incidents were related in connection with his cures, in which the credulity of the time gave itself full scope. But still these difficulties must not be exaggerated. The disorders, which were explained by "possessions," were often very slight. In our times, in Syria, they regard as mad or possessed by a demon (these two ideas were expressed by the same word, medjnoun [The phrase, Daemonium habes Matt. xi. 18; Luke vii. 33; John vii. 20. viii. 48, and following, X. 20, and following), should be translated by "Thou art mad," as we should say in Arabic, Medjnoun ente. The verb &aIloviv has also, in all classical antiquity, the meaning of "to be mad."]) people who are only somewhat eccentric. A gentle word often suffices in such cases to drive away the demon. Such were doubtless the means employed by Jesus. Who knows if his celebrity as exorcist was not spread almost without his own knowledge? Persons who reside in the East are occasionally surprised to find themselves, after some time, in possession of a great reputation, as doctors, sorcerers, or discoverers of treasures, without being able to account to themselves for the facts which have given rise to these strange fancies.

Many circumstances, moreover, seem to indicate that Jesus only became a thaumaturgus late in life and against his inclination. He often performs his miracles only after he has been besought to do so, and with a degree of reluctance, reproaching those who asked them for the grossness of their minds. One singularity, apparently inexplicable, is the care he takes to perform his miracles in secret, and the request he addresses to those whom he heals to tell no one. When the demons wish to proclaim him the Son of God, he forbids them to open their mouths; but they recognize him in spite of himself. These traits are especially characteristic in Mark, who is preeminently the evangelist of miracles and exorcisms. It seems that the disciple, who has furnished the fundamental teachings of this Gospel, importuned Jesus with his admiration of the wonderful, and that the Master, wearied of a reputation which weighed upon him, had often said to him, "See thou say nothing to any man." Once this discordance evoked a singular outburst, a fit of impatience, in which the annoyance these perpetual demands of weak minds caused Jesus breaks forth. One would say, at times, that the character of thaumaturgus was disagreeable to him, and that he sought to give as little publicity as possible to the marvels which, in a manner, grew under his feet. When his enemies asked a miracle of him, especially a celestial miracle, a "sign from heaven," he obstinately refused. We may therefore conclude that his reputation of thaumaturgus was imposed upon him, that he did not resist it much, but also that he did nothing to aid it, and that, at all events, he felt the vanity of popular opinion on this point.

We should neglect to recognize the first principles of history if we attached too much importance to our repugnance on this matter, and if, in order to avoid the objections which might be raised against the character of Jesus, we attempted to suppress facts which, in the eyes of his contemporaries, were considered of the greatest importance. It would be convenient to say that these are the additions of disciples much inferior to their Master who, not being able to conceive his true grandeur, have sought to magnify him by illusions unworthy of him. But the four narrators of the life of Jesus are unanimous in extolling his miracles: one of them, Mark, interpreter of the Apostle Peter, insists so much on this point that, if we trace the character of Christ only according to this Gospel, we should represent him as an exorcist in possession of charms of rare efficacy, as a very potent sorcerer, who inspired fear, and whom the people wished to get rid of. We will admit, then, without hesitation, that acts which would now be considered as acts of illusion or folly held a large place in the life of Jesus. Must we sacrifice to these uninviting features the sublimer aspect of such a life? God forbid. A mere sorcerer, after the manner of Simon the magician, would not have brought about a moral revolution like that effected by Jesus. If the thaumaturgus had effaced in Jesus the moralist and the religious reformer, there would have proceeded from him a school of theurgy, and not Christianity.

The problem, moreover, presents itself in the same manner with respect to all saints and religions founders. Things now considered morbid, such as epilepsy and seeing of visions, were formerly principles of power and greatness. Physicians can designate the disease which made the fortune of Mohammed. Almost in our own day the men who have done the most for their kind (the excellent Vincent de Paul himself!) were, whether they wished it or not, thaumaturgi. If we set out with the principle that every historical personage to whom acts have been attributed, which we in the nineteenth century hold to be irrational or savoring of quackery, was either a madman or a charlatan, all criticism is nullified. The school of Alexandria was a noble school, but, nevertheless, it gave itself up to the practices of an extravagant theurgy. Socrates and Pascal were not exempt from hallucinations. Facts ought to explain themselves by proportionate causes. The weaknesses of the human mind only engender weakness; great things have always great causes in the nature of man, although they are often developed amid a crowd of littlenesses which, to superficial minds, eclipse their grandeur.

In a general sense, it is therefore true to say that Jesus was only thaumaturgus and exorcist in spite of himself. Miracles are ordinarily the work of the public much more than of him to whom they are attributed. Jesus persistently shunned the performance of the wonders which the multitude would have created for him; the greatest miracle would have been his refusal to perform any; never would the laws of history and popular psychology have suffered so great a derogation. The miracles of Jesus were a violence done to him by his age, a concession forced from him by a passing necessity. The exorcist and the thaumaturgus have alike passed away; but the religious reformer will live eternally.

Even those who did not believe in him were struck with these acts, and sought to be witnesses of them. The pagans, and persons unacquainted with him, experienced a sentiment of fear, and sought to remove him from their district. Many thought perhaps to abuse his name by connecting it with seditious movements. But the purely moral and in no respect political tendency of the character of Jesus saved him from these entanglements. His kingdom was in the circle of disciples whom a like freshness of imagination and the same foretaste of heaven had grouped and retained around him.

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