The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter XX

Opposition to Jesus
During the first period of his career it does not appear that Jesus met with any serious opposition. His preaching, thanks to the extreme liberty which was enjoyed in Galilee, and to the number of teachers who arose on all hands, made no noise beyond a restricted circle. But when Jesus entered upon a path brilliant with wonders and public successes, the storm began to gather. More than once he was obliged to conceal himself and fly. Antipas, however, did not interfere with him, although Jesus expressed himself sometimes very severely respecting him. At Tiberias, his usual residence, the Tetrarch was only one or two leagues distant from the district chosen by Jesus for the center of his activity; he heard speak of his miracles, which he doubtless took to be clever tricks, and desired to see them. The incredulous were at that time very curious about this class of illusions. With his ordinary tact, Jesus refused to gratify him. He took care not to prejudice his position by mingling with an irreligious world, which wished to draw from him an idle amusement; he aspired only to gain the people; he reserved for the simple means suitable to them alone.

On one occasion the report was spread that Jesus was no other than John the Baptist risen from the dead. Antipas became anxious and uneasy, and employed artifice to rid his dominions of the new prophet. Certain Pharisees, under the pretence of regard for Jesus, came to tell him that Antipas was seeking to kill him. Jesus, notwithstanding his great simplicity, saw the snare, and did not depart. His peaceful manners, and his remoteness from popular agitation, ultimately reassured the Tetrarch and dissipated the danger.

The new doctrine was by no means received with equal favor in all the towns of Galilee. Not only did incredulous Nazareth continue to reject him who was to become her glory: not only did his brothers persist in not believing in him, but the cities of the lake themselves, in general well disposed, were not all converted. Jesus often complained of the incredulity and hardness of heart which he encountered, and although it is natural that in such reproaches we make allowance for the exaggeration of the preacher, although we are sensible of that kind of convicium seculi which Jesus affected in imitation of John the Baptist, it is clear that the country was far from yielding itself entirely a second time to the kingdom of God. "Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida!" cried he; "for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell; for if the mighty works which have been done in thee had been done in Sodom it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for thee." "The queen of the south," added he, " shall rise up in the judgment of this generation, and shall condemn it : for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, a greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and behold, a greater than Jonas is here." His wandering life, at first so full of charm, now began to weigh upon him. " The foxes," he said, " have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head." Bitterness and reproach took more and more hold upon him. He accused unbelievers of not yielding to evidence, and said that, even at the moment in which the Son of man should appear in his celestial glory, there would still be men who would not believe in him.

Jesus, in fact, was not able to receive opposition with the coolness of the philosopher, who, understanding the reason of the various opinions which divide the world, finds it quite natural that all should not agree with him. One of the principal defects of the Jewish race is its harshness in controversy and the abusive tone which it almost always infuses into it. There never were in the world such bitter quarrels as those of the Jews among themselves. It is the faculty of nice discernment which makes the polished and moderate man. Now, the lack of this faculty is one of the most constant features of the Semitic mind. Subtle and refined works, the dialogues of Plato, for example, are altogether unknown to these nations. Jesus, who was exempt from almost all the defects of his race, and whose leading quality was precisely an infinite delicacy was led, in spite of himself, to make use of the general style in Polemics. Like John the Baptist, he employed very harsh terms against his adversaries. Of an exquisite gentleness with the simple, he was irritated at incredulity, however little aggressive. He was no longer the mild teacher who delivered the "Sermon on the Mount," who had met with neither resistance nor difficulty. The passion that underlay his character led him to make use of the keenest invectives. This singular mixture ought not to surprise us. M. de Lamennais, a man of our own times, has strikingly presented the same contrast. in his beautiful book, The Words of a Believer, the most immoderate anger and the sweetest relentings alternate, as in a mirage. This man, who was extremely kind in the intercourse of life, became madly intractable towards those who did not agree with him. Jesus, in like manner, applied to himself, not without reason, the passage from Isaiah: "He shall not strive nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall be not quench." And yet many of the recommendations which he addressed to his disciples contain the germs of a true fanaticism -- germs which the Middle Ages were to develop in a cruel manner. Must we reproach him for this? No revolution is effected without some harshness. If Luther, or the actors in the French Revolution, had been compelled to observe the rules of politeness, neither the Reformation nor the Revolution would have taken place. Let us congratulate ourselves in like manner that Jesus encountered no law which punished the invectives he uttered against one class of citizens. Had such a law existed, the Pharisees would have been inviolate. All the great things of humanity have been accomplished in the name of absolute principles. A critical philosopher would have said to his disciples: Respect the opinion of others, and believe that no one is so completely right that his adversary is completely wrong. But the action of Jesus has nothing in common with the disinterested speculation of the philosopher. To know that we have touched the ideal for a moment, and have been deterred by the wickedness of a few, is a thought insupportable to an ardent soul. What must it have been for the founder of a new world?

The invincible obstacle to the ideas of Jesus came especially from orthodox Judaism, represented by the Pharisees. Jesus became more and more alienated from the ancient Law. Now, the Pharisees were the true Jews -- the nerve and sinew of Judaism. Although this party had its center at Jerusalem, it had adherents either established in Galilee or who often came there. They were, in general, men of a narrow mind, caring much for externals; their devoutness was haughty, formal, and self- satisfied. Their manners were ridiculous, and excited the smiles of even those who respected them. The epithets which the people gave them, and which savoir of caricature, prove this. There was the "bandy-legged Pharisee" (Nikfi), who walked in the streets dragging his feet and knocking them against the stones; the "bloody-browed Pharisee" (Kizai), who went with his eyes shut in order not to see the women, and dashed his head so much against the walls that it was always bloody; the "pestle Pharisee" (Medinkia), who kept himself bent double like the handle of a pestle; the "Pharisee of strong shoulders" (Shikmi), who walked with his back bent as if he carried on his shoulders the whole burden of the Law; the "What-is-there-to-do?-I-do-it Pharisee," always on the search for a precept to fulfil and, lastly, the "dyed Pharisce," whose externals of devotion were but a varnish of hypocrisy. This strictness was, in fact, often only apparent, and concealed in reality great moral laxity. The people, nevertheless, were duped by it. The people, whose instinct is always right, even when it is most astray respecting individuals, is very easily deceived by false devotees. That which it loves in them is good and worthy of being loved; but it has not sufficient penetration to distinguish the appearance from the reality.

It is easy to understand the antipathy which, in such an impassioned state of society, must necessarily break out between Jesus and persons of this character. Jesus recognized only the religion of the heart, while that of the Pharisees consisted almost exclusively in observances. Jesus sought the humble and outcasts of all kinds, and the Pharisees saw in this an insult to their religion of respectability. The Pharisee was an infallible and faultless man, a pedant always right in his own conceit, taking the first place in the synagogue, praying in the street, giving alms to the sound of a trumpet, and caring greatly for salutations. Jesus maintained that each one ought to await the kingdom of God with fear and trembling. The bad religious tendency represented by Pharisaism did not reign without opposition. Many men before or during the time of Jesus, such as Jesus, son of Sirach (one of the true ancestors of Jesus of Nazareth), Gamaliel, Antigonus of Soco, and especially the gentle and noble Hillel, had taught much more elevated, and almost Gospel, doctrines. But these good seeds had been choked. The beautiful maxims of Hillel, summing up the whole Law as equity, those of Jesus, son of Sirach, making worship consist in doing good, were forgotten or anathematized, Shammai, with his narrow and exclusive spirit, had prevailed. An enormous mass of "traditions" had stifled the Law, under pretext of protecting and interpreting it. Doubtless these conservative measures had their share of usefulness; it is well that the Jewish people loved its Law even to excess, since it is this frantic love which, in saving Mosaism under Antiochus Epiphanes and under Herod, has preserved the leaven from which Christianity was to emanate. But, taken in themselves, all these old precautions were only puerile. The synagogue, which was the depository of them, was no more than a parent of error. Its reign was ended; and yet to require its abdication was to require the impossible, that which an established power has never done or been able to do.

The conflicts of Jesus with official hypocrisy were continual. The ordinary tactics of the reformers who appeared in the religious state which we have just described, and which might be called "traditional formalism," were to oppose the "text" of the sacred books to "traditions." Religions zeal is always an innovator, even when it pretends to be in the highest degree conservative. Just as the neo-Catholics of our days become more and more remote from the Gospel, so the Pharisees left the Bible at each step more and more. This is why the Puritan reformer is generally essentially " biblical," taking the unchangeable text for his basis in criticizing the current theology, which has changed with each generation. Thus acted later the Karaites and the Protestants. Jesus applied the axe to the root of the tree much more energetically. We see him sometimes, it is true, invoke the text against the false Masores or traditions of the Pharisees. But in general he dwelt little on exegesis -- it was the conscience to which he appealed. With one stroke he cut through both text and commentaries. He showed indeed to the Pharisees that they seriously perverted Mosaism by their traditions, but he by no means pretended himself to return to Mosaism. His mission was concerned with the future, not with the past. Jesus was more than the reformer of an obsolete religion; he was the creator of the eternal religion of humanity.

Disputes broke out especially respecting a number of external practices introduced by tradition, which neither Jesus nor his disciples observed. The Pharisees reproached him sharply for this. When he dined with them, he scandalized them much by not observing the customary ablutions. "Give alms," said he, "of such things as ye have; and behold, all things are clean unto you." That which in the highest degree hurt his refined feeling was the air of assurance which the Pharisees carried into religious matters; their paltry worship, which ended in a vain seeking after precedents and titles, to the utter neglect of the improvement of their hearts. An admirable parable rendered this thought with infinite charm and justice. "Two men," said he, "went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself: God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other."

A hate which death alone could satisfy was the consequence of these struggles. John the Baptist had already provoked enmities of the same kind. But the aristocrats of Jerusalem, who despised him, had allowed simple men to take him for a prophet. In the case of Jesus, however, the war was to the death. A new spirit had appeared in the world, causing all that preceded to pale before it. John the Baptist was completely a Jew; Jesus was scarcely one at all. Jesus always appealed to the delicacy of the moral sentiment. He was only a disputant when he argued against the Pharisees, his opponents forcing him, as generally happens, to adopt their tone. His exquisite irony, his arch and provoking remarks, always struck home. They were everlasting stigmas, and have remained festering in the wound. This Nessus-shirt of ridicule which the Jew, son of the Pharisees, has dragged in tatters after him during eighteen centuries, was woven by Jesus with a divine skill. Masterpieces of fine raillery, their features are written in lines of fire upon the flesh of the hypocrite and the false devotee. Incomparable traits, worthy of a son of God! A god alone knows how to kill after this fashion. Socrates and Moliere only touched the skin. He carried fire and rage to the very marrow.

But it was also just that this great master of irony should pay for his triumph with his life. Even in Galilee the Pharisees sought to ruin him, and employed against him the manoeuvre which ultimately succeeded at jerusalem. They endeavored to interest in their quarrel the partisans of the new political faction which was established. The facilities Jesus found for escape in Galilee, and the weakness of the government of Antipas, baffled these attempts. He ran into danger of his own free will. He saw clearly that his action, if he remained confined to Galilee, was necessarily limited. Judea drew him as by a charm; he wished to try a last effort to gain the rebellious city; and seemed anxious to fulfil the proverb -- that a prophet must not die outside Jerusalem.

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