The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter III

Education of Jesus
THIS aspect of nature, at once smiling and grand, was the whole education of Jesus. He learned to read and to write, doubtless, according to the Eastern method, which consisted in putting in the hands of the child a book, which he repeated in cadence with his little comrades, until he knew it by heart. It is doubtful, however, if he under stood the Hebrew writings in their original tongue. His biographers make him quote them according to the translations in the Aramean tongue; his principles of exegesis, as far as we can judge of them by those of his disciples, much resembled those which were then in vogue, and which form the spirit of the Targums and the Midrashim.

The schoolmaster in the small Jewish towns was the hazzan, or reader in the synagogues. Jesus frequented little the higher schools of the scribes or sopherim (Nazareth had perhaps none of them), and he had none of those titles which confer, in the eyes of the vulgar, the privileges of knowledge. It would, nevertheless, be a great error to imagine that Jesus was what we call ignorant. Scholastic education among us draws a profound distinction, in respect of personal worth, between those who have received and those who have been deprived of it. It was not so in the East, nor, in general, in the good old times. The state of ignorance in which, among us, owing to our isolated and entirely individual life, those remain who have not passed through the schools, was unknown in those societies where moral culture, and especially the general spirit of the age, was transmitted by the perpetual intercourse of man with man. The Arab, who has never had a teacher, is often, nevertheless, a very superior man; for the tent is a kind of school always open, where, from the contact of well-educated men, there is produced a great intellectual and even literary movement. The refinement of manners and the acuteness of the intellect have, in the East, nothing in common with what we call education. It is the men from the schools, on the contrary, who are considered badly trained and pedantic. In this social state ignorance, which among us, condemns a man to an inferior rank, is the condition of great things and of great originality.

It is not probable that Jesus knew Greek. This language was very little spread in Judea beyond the classes who participated in the Government and the towns inhabited by pagans, like Caesarea. The real mother tongue of Jesus was the Syrian dialect mixed with Hebrew, which was then spoken in Palestine. Still less probably had he any knowledge of Greek culture. This culture was proscribed by the doctors of Palestine, who included in the same malediction "he who rears swine and he who teaches his son Greek science." At all events, it had not penetrated into little towns like Nazareth. Notwithstanding the anathema of the doctors, some Jews, it is true, had already embraced the Hellenic culture. Without speaking of the Jewish school of Egypt, in which the attempts to amalgamate Hellenism and Judaism had been in operation nearly two hundred years, a Jew, Nicholas of Damascus, had become, even at this time, one of the most distinguished men, one of the best informed, and one of the most respected of his age. Josephus was destined soon to furnish another example of a Jew completely Grecianised. But Nicholas was only a Jew in blood. Josephus declares that he himself was an exception among his contemporaries; and the whole schismatic school of Egypt was detached to such a degree from Jerusalem that we do not find the least allusion to it either in the Talmud or in Jewish tradition. Certain it is that Greek was very little studied at Jerusalem, that Greek studies were considered as dangerous, and even servile, that they were regarded, at the best, as a mere womanly accomplishment. The study of the Law was the only one accounted liberal and worthy of a thoughtful man. Questioned as to the time when it would be proper to teach children "Greek wisdom," a learned Rabbi had answered At the time when it is neither day nor night; since it is written of the Law, Thou shalt study it day and night."

Neither directly nor indirectly. then did any element of Greek culture reach Jesus. He knew nothing beyond Judaism; his mind preserved that free innocence which an extended and varied culture always weakens. In the very bosom of Judaism, he remained a stranger to many efforts often parallel to his own. On the one hand, the asceticism of the Essenes or the Therapeutoe; on the other, the fine efforts of religious philosophy put forth by the Jewish school of Alexandria, and of which Philo, his contemporary, was the ingenious interpreter, were unknown to him. The frequent resemblances which we find between him and Philo, those excellent maxims about the love of God, charity, rest in God, which are like an echo between the Gospel and the writings of the illustrious Alexandrian thinker, proceed from the common tendencies which the wants of the time inspired in all elevated minds.

Happily for him, he was also ignorant of the strange scholasticism which was taught at Jerusalem, and which was soon to constitute the Talmud. If some Pharisees had already brought it into Galilee, he did not associate with them, and when, later, he encountered this silly casuistry, in it only inspired him with disgust. We may suppose, however, that the principles of Hillel were not unknown to him. Hillel, fifty years before him, had given utterance to aphorisms very analogous to his own. By his poverty, so meekly endured, by the sweetness of his character, by his opposition to priests and hypocrites, Hillel was the true master of Jesus, if, indeed, it may be permitted to speak of a master in connection with so high an originality as his.

The perusal Of the books of the Old Testament made much impression upon him. The canon of the holy books was compose of two principal parts: the Law -- that is to say, the Pentateuch -- and the Prophets, such as we now possess them. An extensive allegorical exegesis was applied to all these books; and it was sought to draw from them something that was not in them, but which responded to the aspirations of the age. The Law, which represented not the ancient laws of the country, but Utopias, the factitious laws and pious frauds of the time of the pietistic kings, had become, since the nation had ceased to govern itself, an inexhaustible theme of subtle interpretations. As to the Prophets and the Psalms, the popular persuasion was that almost all the somewhat mysterious traits that were in these books had reference to the Messiah, and it was sought to find there the type of him who should realize the hopes of the nation. Jesus participated in the taste which everyone had for these allegorical interpretations. But the true poetry of the Bible, which escaped the puerile exegetists of Jerusalem, was fully revealed to his grand genius. The Law does not appear to have had much charm for him; he thought that he could do something better. But the religious lyrics of the Psalms were in marvelous accordance with his poetic soul; they were, all his life, his food and sustenance. The prophets -- Isaiah in particular, and his successor in the record of the time of the captivity -- with their brilliant dreams of the future, their impetuous eloquence, and their invectives mingled with enchanting pictures, were his true teachers. He read also. no doubt, many apocryphal works -- i.e. writings somewhat modern -- the authors of which, for the sake of an authority only granted to very ancient writings, had clothed themselves with the names of prophets and patriarchs, One of these books especially struck him -- namely, the book of Daniel. This book, composed by an enthusiastic Jew of the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, under the name of an ancient sage, was the resume of the spirit of those later times. Its author, a true creator of the philosophy of history, had for the first time dared to see in the march of the world and the succession of empires only a purpose subordinate to the destinies of the Jewish people. Jesus was early penetrated by these high hopes. Perhaps, also, he had read the books of Enoch, then revered equally with the holy books, and the other writings of the same class, which kept up so much excitement in the popular imagination. The advent of the Messiah, with his glories and his terrors -- the nations falling down one after another, the cataclysm of heaven and earth -- were the familiar food of his imagination; and, as these revolutions were reputed near, and a great number of persons sought to calculate the time when they should happen, the supernatural state of things into which such visions transport us appeared to him from the first perfectly natural and simple.

That he had no knowledge of the general state of the world is apparent from each feature of his most authentic discourses. The earth appeared to him still divided into kingdoms warring with one another; he seemed to ignore the "Roman peace," and the new state of society which its age inaugurated. He had no precise idea of the Roman power; the name of "Caesar" alone reached him. He saw building, in Galilee or its environs, Tiberias, Julias, Diocaesarea, Caesarea, gorgeous works of the Herods, who sought, by these magnificent structures, to prove their admiration for Roman civilization, and their devotion towards the members of the family of Augustus -- structures whose names, by a caprice of fate, now serve, though strangely altered, to designate miserable hamlets of Bedouins. He also probably saw Sebaste, a work of Herod the Great, a showy city, whose ruins would lead to the belief that it had been carried there ready made, like a machine which had only to be put up in its place. This ostentatious piece of architecture arrived in Judea by cargoes; these hundreds of columns, all of the same diameter, the ornament of some insipid Rue de Rivoli -- these were what he called "the kingdoms of the world and all their glory." But this luxury of power, this administrative and official art, displeased him. What he loved were his Galilean villages, confused mixtures of huts, of nests and holes cut in the rocks, of wells, of tombs, of fig-trees, and of olives. He always clung close to nature. The courts of kings appeared to him as places where men wear fine clothe. The charming impossibilities with which his parables abound, when he brings kings and the mighty ones on the stage, prove that he never conceived of aristocratic society but as a young villager who sees the world through the prism of his simplicity.

Still less was he acquainted with the new idea, created by Grecian science, which was the basis of all philosophy, and which modern science has greatly confirmed -- to wit, the exclusion of capricious gods, to whom the simple belief of ancient ages attributed the government of the universe, Almost a century before him Lucretius had expressed, in an admirable manner, the unchangeableness of the general system of nature. The negation of miracle -- the idea that everything in the world happens by laws in which the personal intervention of superior beings has no share -- was universally admitted in the great schools of all the countries which had accepted Grecian science. Perhaps even Babylon and Persia were not strangers to it. Jesus knew nothing of this progress. Although born at a time when the principle of positive science was already proclaimed, he lived entirely in the supernatural. Never, perhaps, had the Jews been more possessed with the thirst for the marvelous. Philo, who lived in a great intellectual center, and who had received a very complete education, possessed only a chimerical and inferior knowledge of science.

Jesus on this point differed in no respect from his companions. He believed in the devil, whom he regarded as a kind of evil genius, and he imagined, like all the world, that nervous maladies were produced by demons who possessed the patient and agitated him. The marvelous was not the exceptional for him; it was his normal state. The notion of the supernatural, with its impossibilities, is coincident with the birth of experimental science. The man who is strange to all ideas of physical laws, who believes that by praying he can change the path of the clouds, arrest disease, and even death, finds nothing extraordinary in miracle, inasmuch as the entire course of things is to him the result of the free will of the Divinity. This intellectual state was constantly that of Jesus. But in his great soul such a belief produced effects quite opposed to those produced on the vulgar. Among the latter the belief in the special action of God led to a foolish credulity, and the deceptions of charlatans. With him it led to a profound idea of the familiar relations of man with God, and an exaggerated belief in the power of man -- beautiful errors, which were the secret of his power; for if they were the means of one day showing his deficiencies in the eyes of the physicist and the chemist, they gave him a power over his own age of which no individual had been possessed before his time, or has been since.

His distinctive character very early revealed itself. Legend delights to show him even from his infancy in revolt against paternal authority, and departing from the common way to fulfil his vocation. It is certain, at least, that he cared little for the relations of kinship. His family do not seem to have loved him, and at times he seems to have been hard towards them. Jesus, like all men exclusively preoccupied by an idea, came to think little of the ties of blood. The bond of thought is the only one that natures of this kind recognize. "Behold my mother and my brethren," said he, in extending his hand towards his disciples; "he who does the will of my Father, he is my brother and my sister." The simple people did not understand the matter thus, and one day a woman passing near him cried out, "Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which gave thee suck!" But he said, "Yea, rather blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it." Soon, in his bold revolt against nature, he went still further, and we shall see him trampling under foot everything that is human -- blood, love, and country -- and only keeping soul and heart for the idea which presented itself to him as the absolute form of goodness and truth.

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