The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter XXIII

Last week of Jesus
JESUS did, in fact, set out with his disciples to see once more, and for the last time, the unbelieving city. The hopes of his companions were more and more exalted. All believed, in going up to Jerusalem, that the kingdom of God was about to be realized there. The impiety of men being at its height was regarded as a great sign that the consummation was at hand. The persuasion in this sect was such that they already disputed for precedence in the kingdom. This was, it is said, the moment chosen by Salome to ask, on behalf of her sons, the two seats on the right and left of the Son of man. The Master, on the other hand, was beset by grave thoughts. Sometimes he allowed a gloomy resentment against his enemies to appear; he related the parable of a nobleman who went to take possession of a kingdom in a far country; but no sooner had he gone than his fellow-citizens wished to get rid of him. The king returned, and commanded those who had conspired against him to be brought before him, and had them all put to death. At other times he summarily destroyed the illusions of the disciples. As they marched along the stony roads to the north of Jerusalem, Jesus pensively preceded the group of his companions. All regarded him in silence, experiencing a feeling of fear, and not daring to interrogate him. Already, on various occasions, he had spoken to them of his future sufferings, and they had listened to him reluctantly. Jesus at last spoke to them, and, no longer concealing his presentiments, discoursed to them of his approaching end. There was great sadness in the whole company. The disciples were expecting soon to see the sign appear in the clouds. The inaugural cry of the kingdom of God, "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord," resounded already in joyous accents in their ears. The fearful prospect he foreshadowed troubled them. At each step of the fatal road the kingdom of God became nearer or more remote in the mirage of their dreams. As to Jesus he became confirmed in the idea that he was about to die, but that his death would save the world. The misunderstanding between him and his disciples became greater each moment.

The custom was to come to Jerusalem several days before the Passover, in order to prepare for it. Jesus arrived late, and at one time his enemies thought they were frustrated in their hope of seizing him. The sixth day before the feast (Saturday, 8th of Nisan, equal to the 28th March) he at last reached Bethany. He entered, according to his custom, the house of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, or of Simon the leper. They gave him a great reception. There was a dinner at Simon the leper's, where many persons were assembled, drawn thither by the desire of Seeing him, and also of seeing Lazarus, of whom for some time so many things had been related. Lazarus was seated at the table, and attracted much attention. Martha served, according to her custom. It seems that they sought, by an increased show of respect, to overcome the coolness of the public, and to assert the high dignity of their guest. Mary, in order to give to the event a more festive appearance, entered during dinner, bearing a vase of perfume, which she poured upon the feet of Jesus. She afterwards broke the vase, according to an ancient custom by which the vessel that had been employed in the entertainment of a stranger of distinction was broken. Then, to testify her worship in an extraordinary manner, she prostrated herself at the feet of her Master and wiped them with her long hair. All the house was filled with the odor of the perfume, to the great delight of everyone except the avaricious Judas of Kerioth. Considering the economical habits of the community, this was certainly prodigality. The greedy treasurer calculated immediately how much the perfume might have been sold for, and what it would have realized for the poor. This not very affectionate feeling, which seemed to place something above Jesus, dissatisfied him. He liked to be honored, for honors served his aim and established his title of son of David. Therefore, when they spoke to him of the poor, he replied rather sharply: "Ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always." And, exalting himself, he promised immortality to the woman who in this critical moment gave him a token of love.

The next day (Sunday, 9th of Nisan) Jesus descended from Bethany to Jerusalem. When, at a bend of the road, upon the summit of the Mount of Olives, he saw the city spread before him, it is said he wept over it, and addressed to it a last appeal. At the base of the mountain, at some steps from the gate, on entering the neighboring portion of the eastern wall of the city, which was called Bethphage, no doubt on account of the fig-trees with which it was planted, he had experienced a momentary pleasure. His arrival was noised abroad. The Galileans who had come to the feast were highly elated, and prepared a little triumph for him. An ass was brought to him, followed, according to custom, by its colt. The Galileans spread their finest garments upon the back of this humble animal as saddle-cloths, and seated him thereon. Others, however, spread their garments upon the road, and strewed it with green branches. The multitude which preceded and followed him, carrying palms, cried: "Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord!" Some persons even gave him the title of king of Israel. "Master, rebuke thy disciples," said the Pharisees to him. "If these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out," replied Jesus, and he entered into the city. The Hierosolymites, who scarcely knew him, asked who he was. "It is Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth, in Galilee," was the reply. Jerusalem was a city of about 50,000 souls. A trifling event, such as the entrance of a stranger, however little celebrated, or the arrival of a band of provincials, or a movement of people to the avenues of the city, could not fail, under ordinary circumstances, to be quickly noised about. But at the time of the feast the confusion was extreme. Jerusalem at these times was taken possession of by strangers. It was among the latter that the excitement appears to have been most lively. Some proselytes, speaking Greek, who had come to the feast, had their curiosity piqued, and wished to see Jesus. They addressed themselves to his disciples; but we do not know the result of the interview. Jesus, according to his custom, went to pass the night at his beloved village of Bethany. The three following days (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday) he descended regularly to Jerusalem; and, after the setting of the sun, he returned either to Bethany, or to the farms on the western side of the Mount of Olives, where he had many friends.

A deep melancholy appears, during these last days, to have filled the soul of Jesus, who was generally so joyous and serene. All the narratives agree in relating that before his arrest he underwent a short experience of doubt and trouble; a kind of anticipated agony. According to some, he suddenly exclaimed, "Now is my soul troubled. O Father, save me from this hour." It was believed that a voice from heaven was heard at this moment: others said that an angel came to console him. According to one widely-spread version, the incident took place in the garden of Gethsemany. Jesus, it was said, went about a stone's throw from his sleeping disciples, taking with him only Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and fell on his face and prayed. His soul was sad even unto death; a terrible anguish weighed upon him; but resignation to the Divine will sustained him. This scene, owing to the instinctive art which regulated the compilation of the Synoptics, and often led them in the arrangement of the narrative to study adaptability and effect, has been given as occurring on the last night of the life of Jesus, and at the precise moment of his arrest. If this version were the true one, we should scarcely understand why John, who had been the intimate witness of so touching an episode, should not mention it in the very circumstantial narrative which he has furnished of the evening of the Thursday. All that we can safely say is, that during his last days the enormous weight of the mission he had accepted pressed cruelly upon Jesus. Human nature asserted itself for a time. Perhaps he began to hesitate about his work. Terror and doubt took possession of him, and threw him into a state of exhaustion worse than death. He who has sacrificed his repose and the legitimate rewards of life to a great idea always experiences a feeling of revulsion when the image of death presents itself to him for the first time, and seeks to persuade him that all has been in vain. Perhaps some of those touching reminiscences which the strongest souls preserve, and which at times pierce like a sword, came upon him at this moment. Did he remember the clear fountains of Galilee where he was wont to refresh himself; the vine and the fig-tree under which he had reposed, and the young maidens who, perhaps, would have consented to love him? Did he curse the hard destiny which had denied him the joys conceded to all others? Did he regret his too lofty nature, and, victim of his greatness, did he mourn that he had not remained a simple artisan of Nazareth? We know not. For all these internal troubles evidently were a sealed letter to his disciples. They understood nothing of them, and supplied by simple conjectures that which in the great soul of their Master was obscure to them. It is certain at least that his Divine nature soon regained the supremacy. He might still have avoided death; but he would not. Love for his work sustained him. He was willing to drink the cup to the dregs. Henceforth we behold Jesus entirely himself; his character unclouded. The subtleties of the polemic, the credulity of the thaumaturgus and of the exorcist, are forgotten. There remains only the incomparable hero of the Passion, the founder of the rights of the free conscience, and the complete model which all suffering souls will contemplate in order to fortify and console themselves.

The triumph of Bethphage -- that bold act of the provincials in celebrating at the very gates of Jerusalem the advent of their Messiah-King -- completed the exasperation of the Pharisees and the aristocracy of the temple. A new council was held on the Wednesday (12th of Nisan) in the house of Joseph Kaiapha. The immediate arrest of Jesus was resolved upon. A great idea of order and of conservative policy governed all their plans. The desire was to avoid a scene. As the feast of the Passover, which commenced that year on the Friday evening, was a time of bustle and excitement, it was resolved to anticipate it. Jesus being popular, they feared an outbreak; the arrest was therefore fixed for the next day, Thursday. It was resolved, also, not to seize him in tho temple, where he came every day, but to observe his habits, in order to seize him in some retired place. The agents of the priests sounded his disciples, hoping to obtain useful information from their weakness or their simplicity. They found what they sought in Judas of Kerioth. This wretch, actuated by motives impossible to explain, betrayed his Master, gave all the necessary information, and even undertook himself (although such an excess of vileness is scarcely credible) to guide the troop which was to effect his arrest. The remembrance of horror which the folly or the wickedness of this man has left in the Christian tradition has doubtless given rise to some exaggeration on this point. Judas until then had been a disciple like the others; he had even the title of Apostle; and he had performed miracles and driven out demons. Legend, which always uses strong and decisive language, describes the occupants of the little supper room as eleven saints and one reprobate. Reality does not proceed by such absolute categories. Avarice, which the Snoptics give as the motive of the crime in question, does not suffice to explain it. It would be very singular if the man who kept the purse, and who knew what he would lose by the death of his chief, were to abandon the profits of his occupation in exchange for a very small sum of money. Had the self-love of Judas been wounded by the rebuff which he had received at the dinner at Bethany? Even that would not explain his conduct. John would have us regard him as a thief, an unbeliever from the beginning, for which, however, there is no probability. We would rather ascribe it to some feeling of jealousy or to some dissension among the disciples. The peculiar hatred John manifests towards Judas confirms this hypothesis. Less pure in heart than the others, Judas had, from the very nature of his office, become unconsciously narrow- minded. By a caprice very common to men engaged in active duties, he had come to regard the interests of the treasury as superior even to those of the work for which it was intended. The treasurer had overcome the Apostle. The murmurings which escaped him at Bethany seem to indicate that sometimes he thought the Master cost his spiritual family too dear. No doubt this mean economy had caused many other collisions in the little society.

Without denying that judas of Kerioth may have contributed to the arrest of his Master, we still believe that the curses with which he is loaded are somewhat unjust. There was, perhaps, in his deed more awkwardness than perversity. The moral conscience of the man of the people is quick and correct, but unstable and inconsistent. it is at the mercy of the impulse of the moment. The secret societies of the republican party were characterized by much earnestness and sincerity, and yet their denouncers were very numerous. A trifling spite sufficed to convert a partisan into a traitor. But if the foolish desire for a few pieces of silver turned the head of poor Judas, he does not seem to have lost the moral sentiment completely, since, when he had seen the consequences of his fault, he repented, and, it is said, killed himself.

Each moment of this eventful period is solemn, and counts more than whole ages in the history of humanity. We have arrived at the Thursday, 13th of Nisan (2nd April). The evening of the next day commenced the festival of the Passover, begun by the feast in which the Paschal lamb was eaten. The festival continued for seven days, during which unleavened bread was eaten. The first and the last of these seven days were peculiarly solemn. The disciples were already occupied with preparations for the feast. As to Jesus, we are led to believe that he knew of the treachery of Judas, and that he suspected the fate that awaited him. In the evening he took his last repast with his disciples. It was not the ritual feast of the passover, as was afterwards supposed, owing to an error of a day in reckoning; but for the primitive Church this supper of the Thursday was the true passover, the seat of the new covenant. Each disciple connected with it his most cherished remembrances, and numerous touching traits of the Master which each one preserved were associated with this repast, which became the corner-stone of Christian piety and the starting-point of the most fruitful institutions.

Doubtless the tender love which filled the heart of Jesus for the little Church which surrounded him overflowed at this moment, and his strong and serene soul became buoyant, even under the weight of the gloomy preoccupations that beset him. He had a word for each of his friends; two among them especially, John and Peter, were the objects of tender marks of attachment. John (at least, according to his own account) was reclining on the divan, by the side of Jesus, his head resting upon the breast of the Master. Towards the end of the repast the secret which weighed upon the heart of Jesus almost escaped him: he said, "Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me." To these simple men this was a moment of anguish; they looked at each other, and each questioned himself. Judas was present; perhaps Jesus, who had for some time had reasons to suspect him, sought by this expression to draw from his looks or from his embarrassed manner the confession of his fault. But the unfaithful disciple did not lose countenance; he even dared, it is said, to ask with the others: "Master, is it I?"

Meanwhile, the good and upright soul of Peter was in torture. He made a sign to John to endeavor to ascertain of whom the Master spoke. John, who could converse with Jesus without being heard, asked him the meaning of this enigma. Jesus, having only suspicions, did not wish to pronounce any name; he only told John to observe to whom he was going to offer a sop. At the same time, he soaked the bread and offered it to Judas. John and Peter alone had cognisance of the fact. Jesus addressed to Judas words which contained a bitter reproach, but which were not understood by those present; and he left the company. They thought that Jesus was simply giving him orders for the morrow's feast.

At the time this repast struck no one; and apart from the apprehensions which the Master confided to his disciples, who only half understood them, nothing extraordinary took place. But after the death of Jesus they attached to this evening a singularly solemn meaning, and the imagination of believers spread a coloring of sweet mysticism over it. The last hours of a cherished friend are those we best remember. By an inevitable illusion, we attribute to the conversations we have then had with him a meaning which death alone gives to them; we concentrate into a few hours the memories of many years. The greater part of the disciples saw their Master no more after the supper of which we have just spoken. It was the farewell banquet. In this repast, as in many others, Jesus practiced his mysterious rite of the breaking of bread. As it was early believed that the repast in question took place on the day of the Passover, and was the Paschal feast, the idea naturally arose that the Eucharistic institution was established at this supreme moment. Starting from the hypothesis that Jesus knew beforehand the precise moment of his death, the disciples were led to suppose that he reserved a number of important acts for his last hours. As, moreover, one of the fundamental ideas of the first Christians was that the death of Jesus had been a sacrifice, replacing all those of the ancient Law, the "Last Supper," which was supposed to have taken place, once for all, on the eve of the Passion, became the supreme sacrifice -- the act which constituted the new alliance -- the sign of the blood shed for the salvation of all. The bread and wine, placed in connection with death itself, were thus the image of the new testament that Jesus had sealed with his sufferings -- the commemoration of the sacrifice of Christ until his advent.

Very early this mystery was embodied in a small sacramental narrative, which we possess under four forms, very similar to one another. John, preoccupied with the Eucharistic ideas, and who relates the Last Supper with so much prolixity, connecting with it so many circumstances and discourses, and who was the only one of the evangelists whose testimony on this point has the value of an eyewitness, does not mention this narrative. This is a proof that he did not regard the Eucharist as a peculiarity of the Lord's Supper. For him the special rite of the Last Supper was the washing of feet. It is probable that in certain primitive Christian families this latter rite obtained an importance which it has since lost. No doubt Jesus on some occasions had practiced it to give his disciples an example of brotherly humility. It was connected with the eve of his death, in consequence of the tendency to group around the Last Supper all the great moral and ritual recommendations of Jesus.

A high sentiment of love, of concord, of charity, and of mutual deference, animated, moreover, the remembrances which were cherished of the last hours of Jesus. It is always the unity of his Church, constituted by him or by his Spirit, which is the soul of the symbols and of the discourses which Christian tradition referred to this sacred moment: "A new commandment I give unto you," said he, "that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. These things I command you, that ye love one another." At this last moment there were again evoked rivalries and struggles for precedence. Jesus remarked that if he, the Master, had been in the midst of his disciples as their servant, how much more ought they to submit themselves to one another. According to some, in drinking the wine, he said, "I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." According to others, he promised them soon a celestial feast, where they would be seated on thrones at his side.

It seems that towards the end of the evening the presentiments of Jesus took hold of the disciples. All felt that a very serious danger threatened the Master, and that they were approaching a crisis. At one time Jesus thought of precautions and spoke of swords. There were two in the company. "It is enough," said he. He did not, however, follow out this idea; he saw clearly that timid provincials would not stand before the armed force of all the great powers of Jerusalem. Peter, full of zeal, and feeling sure of himself, swore that he would go with him to prison and to death. Jesus, with his usual acuteness, expressed doubts about him. According to a tradition, which probably came from Peter himself, Jesus declared that Peter would deny him before the crowing of the cock. All, like Peter, swore that they would remain faithful to him.

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