by Ernest Renan
At the end of the month of December he celebrated at Jerusalem the feast established by Judas Maccabeus in memory of the purification of the temple after the sacrileges of Antiochus Epiphanes. It was also called the "Feast of Lights," because, during the eight days of the feast, lamps were kept lighted in the houses. Jesus undertook soon after a journey into Perea and to the banks of the Jordan -- that is to say, into the very country he had visited some years previously, when he followed the school of John, and in which he had himself administered baptism. He seems to have reaped consolation from this journey, specially at Jericho. This city, as the terminus of several important routes, or, it may be, on account of its gardens of spices and its rich cultivation, was a customs station of importance. The chief receiver, Zaccheus, a rich man, desired to see Jesus. As he was of small stature, he climbed a sycamore tree near the road which the procession had to pass. Jesus was touched with this simplicity in a person of consideration, and, at the risk of giving offence, he determined to stay with Zaccheus. There was much dissatisfaction at his honoring the house of a sinner by this visit. In parting, Jesus declared his host to be a good son of Abraham; and, as if to add to the vexation of the orthodox, Zaccheus became a Christian; he gave, it is said, the half of his goods to the poor, and restored fourfold to those whom he might have wronged. But this was not the only pleasure which Jesus experienced there. On leaving the town, the beggar Bartimeus pleased him much by persisting in calling him "son of David," although he was told to be silent. The cycle of Galilean miracles appeared for a time to recommence in this country, which was in many respects similar to the provinces of the north. The delightful oasis of Jericho, at that time well watered, must have been one of the most beautiful places in Syria. Josephus speaks of it with the same admiration as of Galilee, and calls it, like the latter province, a "divine country."
After Jesus had completed this kind of pilgrimage to the scenes of his earliest prophetic activity, he returned to his beloved abode in Bethany, where a singular event occurred, which seems to have had a powerful influence on the remaining days of his life. Tired of the cold reception which the kingdom of God found in the capital, the friends of Jesus wished for a great miracle which should strike powerfully the incredulity of the Hierosolymites. The resurrection of a man known at Jerusalem appeared to them most likely to carry conviction, We must bear in mind that the essential condition of true criticism is to understand the diversity of times, and to rid ourselves of the instinctive repugnance which are the fruit of a purely rational education. We must also remember that in this dull and impure city of Jerusalem Jesus was no longer himself. Not by any fault of his own, but by that of others, his conscience had lost something of its original purity. Desperate, and driven to extremity, he was no longer his own master. His mission overwhelmed him, and he yielded to the torrent. As always happens in the lives of great and inspired men, he suffered the miracles opinion demanded of him rather than performed them. At this distance of time, and with only a single text, bearing evident traces of artifices of composition, it is impossible to decide whether in this instance the whole is fiction, or whether a real fact which happened at Bethany has served as basis to the rumors which were spread about it. It must be acknowledged, however, that the way John narrates the incident differs widely from those descriptions of miracles, the offspring of the popular imagination, which fill the Synoptics. Let us add that John is the only evangelist who has a precise knowledge of the relations of Jesus with the family of Bethany, and that it is impossible to believe that a mere creation of the popular mind could exist in a collection of remembrances so entirely personal. It is, then, probable that the miracle in question was not one of those purely legendary ones for which no one is responsible. In other words, we think that something really happened at Bethany which was looked upon as a resurrection.
Fame already attributed to Jesus two or three works of this kind. The family of Bethany might be led, almost without suspecting it into taking part in the important act which was desired. Jesus was adored by them. it seems that Lazarus was sick, and that in consequence of receiving a message from the anxious sisters Jesus left Perea. They thought that the joy Lazarus would feel at his arrival might restore him to-life. Perhaps, also, the ardent desire of silencing those who violently denied the divine mission of Jesus carried his enthusiastic friends beyond all bounds. It may be that Lazarus, still pallid with disease, caused himself to be wrapped in bandages as if dead, and shut up in the tomb of his family. These tombs were large vaults cut in the rock, and were entered by a square opening, closed by an enormous stone. Martha and Mary went to meet Jesus, and, without allowing him to enter Bethany, conducted him to the cave. The emotion which Jesus experienced at the tomb of his friend, whom he believed to be dead, might be taken by those present for the agitation and trembling which accompanied miracles. Popular opinion required that the divine virtue should manifest itself in man as an epileptic and convulsive principle. Jesus (if we follow the above hypothesis) desired to see once more him whom he had loved; and, the stone being removed, Lazarus came forth in his bandages, his head covered with a winding- sheet. This reappearance would naturally be regarded by everyone as a resurrection. Faith knows no other law than the interest of that which it believes to be true. Regarding the object which it pursues as absolutely holy, it makes no scruple of invoking bad arguments in support of its thesis when good ones do not succeed. if such and such a proof be not sound, many others are! If such and such a wonder be not real, many others have been! Being intimately persuaded that Jesus was a thaumaturgus, Lazarus and his two sisters may have aided in the execution of one of his miracles, just as many pious men who, convinced of the truth of their religion, have sought to triumph over the obstinacy of their opponents by means of whose weakness they are well aware. The state of their conscience was that of the stigmatists, of the convulsionists, of the possessed ones in convents, drawn, by the influence of the world in which they live, and by their own belief, into feigned acts. As to Jesus, he was no more able than St. Bernard or St. Francis d'Assisi to moderate the avidity for the marvelous displayed by the multitude, and even by his own disciples. Death, moreover, in a few days would restore him his divine liberty, and release him from the fatal necessities of a position which each day became more exacting and more difficult to sustain.
Everything, in fact, seems to lead us to believe that the miracle of Bethany contributed sensibly to hasten the death of Jesus. The persons who had been witnesses of it were dispersed throughout the city, and spoke much about it. The disciples related the fact, with details as to its performance, prepared in expectation of controversy. The other miracles of Jesus were transitory acts, spontaneously accepted by faith, exaggerated by popular fame, and were not again referred to after they had once taken place. This was a real event, held to be publicly notorious, and one by which it was hoped to silence the Pharisees. The enemies of Jesus were much irritated at all this fame. They endeavored, it is said, to kill Lazarus. It is certain that from that time a council of the chief priests was assembled, and that in this council the question was clearly put: "Can Jesus and Judaism exist together?" To raise the question was to resolve it; and, without being a prophet, as thought by the evangelist, the high priest could easily pronounce his cruel axiom: "It is expedient that one man should die for the people."
"The high priest of that same year," to use an expression of the fourth Gospel, which well expresses the state of abasement to which the sovereign pontificate was reduced, was Joseph Kaiapha, appointed by Valerius Gratus, and entirely devoted to the Romans. From the time that Jerusalem had been under the government of procurators the office of high priest had been a temporary one; changes in it took place nearly every year. Kaiapha, however, held it longer than anyone else. He had assumed his office in the year 25, and he did not lose it till the year 36. His character is unknown to us, and many circumstances lead to the belief that his power was only nominal. In fact, another personage is always seen in conjunction with, and even superior to, him, who, at the decisive moment we have now reached, seems to have exercised a preponderating power.
This personage was Hanan or Annas, [The Ananus of Josephus. It is thus that the Hebrew name Johanan became in Greek Joannes, or Joanslas.] son of Seth, and father-in-law of Kaiapha. He was formerly the high priest, and had in reality preserved amid the numerous changes of the pontificate all the authority of the office. He had received the high priesthood from the legate Quirinius in the year 7 of our era. He lost his office in the year 14, on the accession of Tiberius; but he remained much respected. He was still called "high priest," although he was out of office, and he was consulted upon all important matters. During fifty years the pontificate continued in his family almost uninterruptedly; five of his sons successively sustained this dignity, besides Kaiapha, who was his son-in-law. His was called the "priestly family," as if the priesthood had become hereditary in it. The chief offices of the temple were almost all filled by them. Another family, that of Boethus, alternated, it is true, with that of Hanan's in the pontificate. But the Boethusim, whose fortunes were of not very honorable origin, were much less esteemed by the pious middle class. Hanan was then in reality the chief of the priestly party. Kaiapha did nothing without him; it was customary to associate their names, and that of Hanan was always put first. It will be understood, in fact, that under this regime of an annual pontificate, changed according to the caprice of the procurators, an old high priest, who had preserved the Secret of the traditions, who had seen many younger than himself succeed each other, and who had retained sufficient influence to get the office delegated to persons who were subordinate to him in family rank, must have been a very important personage. Like all the aristocracy of the temple, he was a Sadducee, "a sect," says Josephus, "particularly severe in its judgments." All his sons also were violent persecutors. One of them, named, like his father, Hanan, caused James, the brother of the Lord, to be stoned under circumstances not unlike those which surrounded the death of Jesus. The spirit of the family was haughty, bold, and cruel; it had that particular kind of proud and sullen wickedness which characterizes Jewish politicians. Therefore, upon this Hanan and his family must rest the responsibility of all the acts which followed. It was Hanan (or the party he represented) who killed Jesus. Hanan was the principal actor in the terrible drama, and far more than Kaiapha, far more than Pilate, ought to bear the weight of the maledictions of mankind.
it is in the mouth of Kaiapha that the evangelist places the decisive words which led to the death of Jesus. It was supposed that the high priest possessed a certain gift of prophecy; his declaration thus became an oracle full of profound meaning to the Christian community. But such an expression, whoever he might be that pronounced it, was the feeling of the whole sacerdotal party. This party was much opposed to popular seditions. It sought to put down religious enthusiasts, rightly foreseeing that by their excited preachings they would lead to the total ruin of the nation. Although the excitement created by Jesus was in nowise temporal, the priests saw, as an ultimate consequence of this agitation, an aggravation of the Roman yoke and the overturning of the temple, the source of their riches and honors. Certainly the causes which, thirty-seven years after, were to effect the ruin of Jerusalem did not arise from infant Christianity. They arose in Jerusalem itself, and not in Galilee. We cannot, however, say that the motive alleged in this circumstance by the priests was so improbable that we must necessarily regard it as insincere. In a general sense, Jesus, if he had succeeded, would have really effected the ruin of the Jewish nation. According to the principles, universally admitted by all ancient polity, Hanan and Kaiapha were right in saying: "Better the death of one man than the rain of a people!" In our opinion this reasoning is detestable. But it has been that of conservative parties from the commencement of all human society. The "party of order" (I use this expression in its mean and narrow sense) has ever been the same. Deeming the highest duty of government to be the prevention of popular disturbances, it believes it performs an act of patriotism in preventing, by judicial murder, the tumultuous effusion of blood. Little thoughtful of the future, it does not dream that, in declaring war against all innovations, it incurs the risk of crushing ideas destined one day to triumph. The death of Jesus was one of the thousand illustrations of this policy. The movement he directed was entirely spiritual, but it was still a movement; hence the men of order, persuaded that it was essential for humanity not to be disturbed, felt themselves bound to prevent the new spirit from extending itself. Never was seen a more striking example of how much such a course of procedure defeats its own object. Left free, Jesus would have exhausted himself in a desperate struggle with the impossible. The unintelligent hate of his enemies decided the success of his work, and sealed his divinity.
The death of Jesus was thus resolved upon from the month of February or the beginning of March. But he still escaped for a short time. He withdrew to an obscure town called Ephraim or Ephron, in the direction of Bethel, a short day's journey from Jerusalem. He spent a few days there with his disciples, letting the storm pass over. But the order to arrest him the moment he appeared at Jerusalem was given. The feast of the Passover was drawing nigh, and it was thought that Jesus, according to his custom, would come to celebrate it at Jerusalem. [For the order of the events, in all this part we follow the system of John. The Synoptics appear to have little information as to the period of the life of Jesus which precedes the Passion.]
→ next chapter
→ original version (in French) & notes
→ The Life of Jesus : contents
→ Bible in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English translation