The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter XXI

Last journey of Jesus to Jerusalem
JESUS had for a long time been sensible of the dangers that surrounded him. During a period of time which we may estimate at eighteen months, he avoided going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. At the feast of Tabernacles of the year 32 (according to the hypothesis we have adopted) his relations, always malevolent and incredulous, pressed him to go there. The evangelist John seems to insinuate that there was some hidden project to ruin him in this invitation. "Depart hence, and go into Judea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest. For there is no man that doeth anything in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou do these things, show thyself to the world." Jesus, suspecting some treachery, at first refused; but when the caravan of pilgrims had set out, he started on the journey, unknown to everyone, and almost alone. It was the last farewell which he bade to Galilee. The feast of Tabernacles fell at the autumnal equinox. Six months still had to elapse before the fatal denouement. But during this interval Jesus saw no more his beloved provinces of the north. The pleasant days had passed away; he must now traverse, step by step, the painful path that will terminate only in the anguish of death.

His disciples, and the pious women who tended him, met him again in Judea. But how much everything was changed for him there! Jesus was a stranger at Jerusalem. He felt that there was a wall of resistance he could not penetrate. Surrounded by snares and difficulties, he was unceasingly pursued by the ill-will of the Pharisees. Instead of that illimitable faculty of belief, happy gift of youthful natures, which he found in Galilee -- instead of those good and gentle people, among whom objections (always the fruit of some degree of ill-will and indocility) had no existence, he met there at each step an obstinate incredulity, upon which the means of action that had so well succeeded in the north had little effect. His disciples were despised as being Galileans. Nicodemus, who, on one of his former journeys, had had a conversation with him by night, almost compromised himself with the Sanhedrim by having wished to defend him. "Art thou also of Galilee?" they said to him. "Search and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet."

The city, as we have already said, displeased Jesus. Until then he had always avoided great centers, preferring for his action the country and the towns of small importance. Many of the precepts which he gave to his Apostles were absolutely inapplicable, except in a simple society of humble men. Having no idea of the world, and accustomed to the kindly communism of Galilee, remarks continually escaped him whose simplicity would at Jerusalem appear very singular. His imagination and his love of nature found themselves constrained within these walls. True religion does not proceed from the tumult of towns, but from the tranquil serenity of the fields.

The arrogance of the priests rendered the courts of the temple disagreeable to him. One day some of his disciples, who knew Jerusalem better than he, wished him to notice the beauty of the buildings of the temple, the admirable choice of materials, and the richness of the votive offerings that covered the walls. "Seest thou these buildings?" said he; "there shall not be left one stone upon another." He refused to admire anything, except it was a poor widow who passed at that moment and threw a small coin into the box. "She has cast in more than they all," said he; "for all these have of their abundance cast unto the offerings of God: but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had." This manner of criticizing all he observed at Jerusalem, of praising the poor who gave little, of slighting the rich who gave much, and of blaming the opulent priesthood who did nothing for the good of the people, naturally exasperated the sacerdotal caste. As the seat of a conservative aristocracy, the temple, like the Mussulman harem which succeeded it, was the last place in the world where revolution could prosper. Imagine an innovator going in our days to preach the overthrow of Islamism round the mosque of Omar! There, however, was the center of the Jewish life, the point where it was necessary to conquer or die. On this Calvary, where certainly Jesus suffered more than at Golgotha, his days passed away in disputation and bitterness, in the midst of tedious controversies respecting canonical law and exegesis, for which his great moral elevation, instead of giving him the advantage, positively unfitted him.

In the midst of this troubled life, the sensitive and kindly heart of Jesus found a refuge, where he enjoyed moments of sweetness. After having passed the day disputing in the temple, towards evening Jesus descended into the valley of Kedron, and rested a while in the orchard of a farming establishment (probably for the making of oil) named Gethsemane, which served as a pleasure garden to the inhabitants. Thence he proceeded to pass the night upon the Mount of Olives, which limits the horizon of the city on the east. This side is the only one in the environs of Jerusalem which offers an aspect in any degree pleasing and verdant. The plantations of olives, figs, and palms were numerous there, and gave their names to the villages, farms, or enclosures of Bethphage, Gethsemane, and Bethany. There were upon the Mount of Olives two great cedars, the memory of which was long preserved among the dispersed Jews; their branches served as an asylum to clouds of doves, and under their shade were established small bazaars. All this precinct was in a manner the abode of Jesus and his disciples; they knew it field by field and house by house.

The village of Bethany, in particular, situated at the summit of the hill, upon the incline which commands the Dead Sea and the Jordan, at a journey of an hour and a half from Jerusalem, was the place especially beloved by jesus. He there made the acquaintance of a family composed of three persons, two sisters and a brother, whose friendship had a great charm for him. Of the two sisters, the one named Martha was an obliging, kind, and assiduous person; the other, named Mary, on the contrary, pleased Jesus by a sort of languor and by her strongly- developed speculative instincts. Seated at the feet of Jesus, she often forgot, in listening to him, the duties of real life. Her sister, upon whom fell all the duty at such times, gently complained. "Martha, Martha," said Jesus to her, "thou art troubled, and carest about many things; now, one thing only is needful. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away." Her brother, Eleazar, or Lazarus, was also much beloved by Jesus. Lastly, a certain Simon, the leper, who was the owner of the house, formed, it appears, part of the family. It was there, in the enjoyment of a pious friendship, that Jesus forgot the vexations of public life. In this tranquil home he consoled himself for the bickerings with which the scribes and the Pharisees unceasingly surrounded him. He often sat on the Mount of Olives, facing Mount Moriah, having beneath his view the splendid perspective of the terraces of the temple, and its roofs covered with glittering plates of metal. This view struck strangers with admiration; at the rising of the sun, especially, the sacred mountain dazzled the eyes, and appeared like a mass of snow and of gold. But a profound feeling of sadness poisoned for Jesus the spectacle that filled all other Israelites with joy and pride. He cried out, in his moments of bitterness, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not."

It was not that many good people here, as in Galilee, were not touched; but such was the power of the dominant orthodoxy that very few dared to confess it. They feared to discredit themselves in the eyes of the Hierosolymites by placing themselves in the school of a Galilean. They would have risked being driven from the synagogue, which, in a mean and bigoted society, was the greatest degradation. Excommunication, besides, carried with it the confiscation of all possessions. By ceasing to be a Jew, a man did not become a Roman; but remained without protection, in the power of a theocratic legislation of the most atrocious severity. One day the inferior officers of the temple, who had been present at one of the discourses of Jesus, and had been enchanted with it, came to confide their doubts to the priests: "Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?" was the reply to them; "but this people who knoweth not the Law are cursed." Jesus remained thus at Jerusalem, a provincial admired by provincials like himself, but rejected by all the aristocracy of the nation. The chiefs of schools and of sects were too numerous for anyone to be stirred by seeing one more appear. His voice made little noise in Jerusalem. The prejudices of race and of sect, the direct enemies of the spirit of the Gospel, were too deeply rooted there.

His teaching in this new world necessarily became much modified. His beautiful discourses, the effect of which was always observable upon youthful imaginations and consciences morally pure, here fell upon stone. He who was so much at his ease on the shores of his charming little lake felt constrained and not at home in the company of pedants. His perpetual self- assertion appeared somewhat fastidious. He was obliged to become controversialist, jurist, exegetist, and theologian. His conversations, generally so full of charm, became a rolling fire of disputes, an interminable train of scholastic battles. His harmonious genius was wasted in insipid argumentations upon the Law and the prophets, in which we should have preferred not seeing him sometimes play the part of aggressor. He lent himself, with a condescension we cannot but regret, to the captious criticisms to which the merciless cavillers subjected him. In general, he extricated himself from difficulties with much skill. His reasonings, it is true, were often subtle (simplicity of mind and subtlety touch each other; when simplicity reasons, it is often a little sophistical); we find that sometimes he courted misconceptions, and prolonged them intentionally; his reasoning, judged according to the rules of Aristotelian logic, was very weak. But when the unequalled charm of his mind could be displayed, he was triumphant. One day it was intended to embarrass him by presenting to him an adulteress and asking him what was to be done to her. We know the admirable answer of Jesus. The fine raillery of a man of the world, tempered by a divine goodness, could not be expressed in a more exquisite manner. But the wit which is allied to moral grandeur is that which fools forgive the least. In pronouncing this sentence of so just and pure a taste, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her," Jesus pierced hypocrisy to the heart, and with the same stroke sealed his own death-warrant.

It is probable, in fact, that but for the exasperation caused by so many bitter shafts, Jesus might long have remained unnoticed, and have been lost in the dreadful storm which was soon about to overwhelm the whole Jewish nation. The high priesthood and the Sadducees had rather disdained than hated him. The great sacerdotal families, the Boethusim, the family of Hanan, were only fanatical in their conservatism. The Sadducees, like Jesus, rejected the "traditions" of the Pharisees. By a very strange singularity, it was these unbelievers who, denying the resurrection, the oral Law, and the existence of angels, were the true Jews. Or rather, as the old Law in its simplicity no longer satisfied the religious wants of the time, those who strictly adhered to it, and rejected modern inventions, were regarded by the devotees as impious, just as an evangelical Protestant of the present day is regarded as an unbeliever in Catholic countries. At all events, from such a party no very strong reaction against Jesus could proceed. The official priesthood, with its attention turned towards political power, and intimately connected with it, did not comprehend these enthusiastic movements. It was the middle-class Pharisees, the innumerable soferim, or scribes, living on the science of "traditions," who took the alarm, and whose prejudices and interests were in reality threatened by the doctrine of the new teacher.

One of the most constant efforts of the Pharisees was to involve Jesus in the discussion of political questions, and to compromise him as connected with the party of Judas the Gaulonite. These tactics were clever; for it required all the deep wisdom of Jesus to avoid collision with the Roman authority while proclaiming the kingdom of God. They wanted to break through this ambiguity, and compel him to explain himself. One day a group of Pharisees and of those politicians named "Herodians" (probably some of the Boethusim), approached him, and, under pretence of pious zeal, said unto him, "Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man. Tell us, therefore, what thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not?" They hoped for an answer which would give them a pretext for delivering him up to Pilate. The reply of Jesus was admirable. He made them show him the image on the coin; "Render," said he, "unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." Profound words, which have decided the future of Christianity! Words of a perfected spiritualism, and of marvelous justness, which have established the separation between the spiritual and the temporal, and laid the basis of true liberalism and civilization!

His gentle and penetrating genius inspired him when alone with his disciples with accents full of tenderness; "Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. The sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. He goeth before them, and the sheep follow him; for they know his voice. The thief cometh not but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth. I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine; and I lay down my life for the sheep." The idea that the crisis of humanity was close at hand frequently recurred to him. "Now," said he, "learn a parable of the fig-tree: When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh. Lift up your eyes and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest."

His powerful eloquence always burst forth when contending with hypocrisy. "The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. All, therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.

"But all their works they do to be seen of men; they make broad their phylacteries, enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men Rabbi, Rabbi. Woe unto them! …

"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you have taken away the key of knowledge, shut up the kingdom of heaven against men! for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, for ye devour widows' houses, and, for a pretence, make long prayers: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves! Woe unto you, for ye are as graves which appear not; and the men that walk over them are not aware of them.

"Ye fools, and blind! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumming and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Woo unto you!

"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.

"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto them, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous, and say, 'If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.' Wherefore, ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. 'Therefore, also,' said the Wisdom of God, 'I will send unto you prophets and wise men and scribes; and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city. That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.' Verily, I say unto you, all these things shall come upon this generation."

His terrible doctrine of the substitution of the Gentiles -- the idea that the kingdom of God was about to be transferred to others, because those for whom it was destined would not receive it -- is used as a fearful menace against the aristocracy. The title "Son of God," which he openly assumed in striking parables, wherein his enemies appeared as murderers of the heavenly messengers, was as an open defiance to the Judaism of the Law. The bold appeal he addressed to the poor was still more seditious. He declared that he had "come that they which see not might see, and that they which see might be made blind." One day his dislike of the temple forced from him an imprudent speech: "I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands." His disciples found strained allegories in this sentence; but we do not know what meaning Jesus attached to it. But as only a pretext was wanted, this sentence was quickly laid hold of. It reappeared in the preamble of his death warrant, and rang in his ears amid the last agonies of Golgotha. These irritating discussions always ended in tumult. The Pharisees threw stones at him; in doing which they only fulfilled an article of the Law, which commanded every prophet, even a thaumaturgus, who should turn the people from the ancient worship, to be stoned without a hearing. At other times they called him mad, possessed, Samaritan, and even sought to kill him. These words were taken note of in order to invoke against him the laws of an intolerant theocracy, which the Roman Government had not yet abrogated.

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