The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter IV

The order of thought which surrounded the development of Jesus
As the cooled earth no longer permits us to understand the phenomena of primitive creation, because the fire which penetrated it is extinct, so deliberate explanations have always appeared somewhat insufficient when applying our timid methods of induction to the revolutions of the creative epochs which have decided the fate of humanity. Jesus lived at one of those times when the game of public life is freely played, and when the stake of human activity is increased a hundredfold. Every great part, then, entails death; for such movements suppose liberty and an absence of preventive measures which could not exist without a terrible alternative. In these days man risks little and gains little. In heroic periods of human activity man risked all and gained all, The good and the wicked, or at least those who believed themselves and are believed to be such, form opposite armies. The apotheosis is reached by the scaffold; characters have distinctive features, which engrave them as eternal types in the memory of men. Except in the French Revolution, no historical center was as suitable as that in which Jesus was formed to develop those hidden forces which humanity holds as in reserve, and which are not seen except in days of excitement and peril.

If the government of the world were a speculative problem, and the greatest philosopher were the man best fitted to tell his fellows what they ought to believe, it would be from calmness and reflection that those great moral and dogmatic truths called religion would proceed. But it is not so. If we except Cakya-Mouni, the great religious founders have not been metaphysicians. Buddhism itself, whose origin is in pure thought, has conquered one-half of Asia by motives wholly political and moral. As to the Semitic religions, they are as little philosophical as possible. Moses and Mohammed were not men of speculation: they were men of action. It was in proposing action to their fellow-countrymen and to their contemporaries that they governed humanity. Jesus, in like manner, was not a theologian, or a philosopher, having a more or less well- composed system. In order to be a disciple of Jesus, it was not necessary to sign any formulary, or to pronounce any confession of faith; one thing only was necessary -- to be attached to him, to love him. He never disputed about God, for he felt him directly in himself. The rock of metaphysical subtleties, against which Christianity broke from the third century, was in no wise created by the founder. Jesus had neither dogma nor system, but a fixed personal resolution, which, exceeding in intensity every other created will, directs to this hour the destinies of humanity.

The Jewish people had the advantage, from the captivity of Babylon up to the Middle Ages, of being in a state of the greatest tension. This is why the interpreters of the spirit of the nation, during this long period, seemed to write under the action of an intense fever, which placed them constantly either above or below reason, rarely in its middle path. Never did man seize the problem of the future and of his destiny with a more desperate courage, more determined to go to extremes. Not separating the lot of humanity from that of their little race, the Jewish thinkers were the first who sought for a general theory of the progress of our species. Greece, always confined within itself, and solely attentive to petty quarrels, has had admirable historians; but before the Roman epoch it would be in vain to seek in her a general system of the philosophy of history embracing all humanity. The Jew, on the contrary, thanks to a kind of prophetic sense which renders the Semite at times marvelously apt to see the great lines of the future, has made history enter into religion. Perhaps he owes a little of this spirit to Persia. Persia, from an ancient period, conceived the history of the world as a series of evolutions, over each of which a prophet presided. Each prophet had his hazar, or reign of a thousand years (chiliasm), and from these successive ages, analogous to the Avatar of India, is composed the course of events which prepared the reign of Ormuzd. At the end of the time when the cycle of chiliasms shall be exhausted, the complete paradise will come. Men then will live happy; the earth will be as one plain; there will be only one language, one law, and one government for all. But this advent will be preceded by terrible calamities. Dahak (the Satan of Persia) will break his chains and fall upon the world. Two prophets will come to console mankind, and to prepare the great advent. These ideas ran through the world, and penetrated even to Rome, where they inspired a cycle of prophetic poems, of which the fundamental ideas were the division of the history of humanity into periods, the succession of the gods corresponding to these periods -- a complete renovation of the world, and the final advent of a golden age. The book of Daniel, the book of Enoch, and certain parts of the Sibylline books are the Jewish expression of the same theory. These thoughts were certainly far from being shared by all; they were only embraced at first by a few persons of lively imagination, who were inclined towards strange doctrines. The dry and narrow author of the book of Esther never thought of the rest of the world except to despise it, and to wish it evil. The disabused epicurean who wrote Ecclesiastes thought so little of the future that he considered it even useless to labor for his children; in the eyes of this egotistical celibate the highest stroke of wisdom was to use his fortune for his own enjoyment. But the great achievements of a people are generally wrought by the minority. Notwithstanding all their enormous defects -- hard, egotistical, scoffing, cruel, narrow, subtle, and sophistical -- the Jewish people are the authors of the finest movement of disinterested enthusiasm which history records. Opposition always makes the glory of a country. The greatest men of a nation are those whom it puts to death. Socrates was the glory of the Athenians, who would not suffer him to live among them. Spinoza was the greatest Jew of modern times, and the synagogue expelled him with ignominy. Jesus was the glory of the people of Israel, who crucified him.

A gigantic dream haunted for centuries the Jewish people, constantly renewing its youth in its decrepitude. A stranger to the theory of individual recompense, which Greece diffused under the name of the immortality of the soul, Judea concentrated all its power of love and desire upon the national future. She thought she possessed divine promises of a boundless future; and as a bitter reality, from the ninth century before our era, gave more and more the dominion of the world to physical force, and brutally crushed these aspirations, she took refuge in the union of the most impossible ideas, and attempted the strangest gyrations. Before the captivity, when all the earthly hopes of the nation had become weakened by the separation of the northern tribes, they dreamt of the restoration of the house of David, the reconciliation of the two divisions of the people, and the triumph of theocracy and the worship of Jehovah over idolatry. At the epoch of the captivity a poet, full of harmony, saw the splendor of a future Jerusalem, of which the peoples and the distant isles should be tributaries, under colors so charming that one might say a glimpse of the visions of Jesus had reached him at a distance of six centuries.

The victory of Cyrus seemed at one time to realize all that had been hoped. The grave disciples of the Avesta and the adorers of Jehovah believed themselves brothers. Persia had begun by banishing the multiple devas, and by transforming them into demons (divs), to draw from the old Arian imaginations (essentially naturalistic) a species of Monotheism. The prophetic tone of many of the teachings of Iran had much analogy with certain compositions of Hosea and Isaiah. Israel reposed under the Achemenidae, and under Xerxes (Ahasuerus) made itself feared by the Iranians themselves. But the triumphal and often cruel entry of Greek and Roman civilization into Asia threw it back upon its dreams. More than ever it invoked the Messiah as judge and avenger of the people. A complete renovation, a revolution which should shake the world to its very foundation, was necessary in order to satisfy the enormous thirst of vengeance excited in it by the sense of its superiority, and by the sight of its humiliation.

If Israel had possessed the spiritualistic doctrine which divides man in two parts -- the body and the soul -- and finds it quite natural that while the body decays the soul should survive, this paroxysm of rage and of energetic protestation would have had no existence. But such a doctrine, proceeding from the Grecian philosophy, was not in the traditions of the Jewish mind. The ancient Hebrew writings contain no trace of future rewards or punishments. While the idea of the solidarity of the tribe existed, it was natural that a strict retribution according to individual merits should not be thought of. So much the worse for the pious man who happened to live in an epoch of impiety; he suffered like the rest the public misfortunes consequent on the general irreligion. This doctrine, bequeathed by the sages of the patriarchal era, constantly produced unsustainable contradictions. Already at the time of Job it was much shaken; the old men of Teman who professed it were considered behind the age, and the young Elihu, who intervened in order to combat them, dared to utter as his first word this essentially revolutionary sentiment, "Great men are not always wise; neither do the aged understand judgment." With the complications which had taken place in the world since the time of Alexander, the old Temanite and Mosaic principle became still more intolerable. Never had Israel been more faithful to the Law, and yet it was subjected to the atrocious persecution of Antiochus. Only a declaimer, accustomed to repeat old phrases denuded of meaning, would dare to assert that these evils proceeded from the unfaithfulness of the people. What! these victims who died for their faith, these heroic Maccabees, this mother with her seven sons -- will Jehovah forget them eternally? Will he abandon them to the corruption of the grave? Worldly and incredulous Sadduceeism might possibly not recoil before such a consequence, and a consummate sage, like Antigonus of Soco, might indeed maintain that we must not practice virtue like a slave in expectation of a recompense, that we must be virtuous without hope. But the mass of the people could not be contented with that. Some, attaching themselves to the principle of philosophical immortality, imagined the righteous living in the memory of God, glorious for ever in the remembrance of men, and judging the wicked who had persecuted them. "They live in the sight of God; … they are known of God." That was their reward. Others, especially the Pharisees, had recourse to the doctrine of the resurrection. The righteous will live again in order to participate in the Messianic reign. They will live again in the flesh, and for a world of which they will be the kings and the judges; they will be present at the triumph of their ideas and at the humiliation of their enemies.

We find among the ancient people of Israel only very indecisive traces of this fundamental dogma. The Sadducee, who did not believe it, was in reality faithful to the old Jewish doctrine; it was the Pharisee, the believer in the resurrection, who was the innovator. But in religion it is always the zealous sect which innovates, which progresses, and which has influence. Besides this, the resurrection, an idea totally different from that of the immortality of the soul, proceeded very naturally from the anterior doctrines and from the position of the people. Perhaps Persia also furnished some of its elements. In any case, combining with the belief in the Messiah, and with the doctrine of a speedy renewal of all things, it formed those apocalyptic theories which, without being articles of faith (the orthodox Sanhedrim of Jerusalem does not seem to have adopted them), pervaded all imaginations, and produced an extreme fermentation from one end of the Jewish world to the other. The total absence of dogmatic rigor caused very contradictory notions to be admitted at one time, even upon so primary a point. Sometimes the righteous were to await the resurrection; sometimes they were to be received at the moment of death into Abraham's bosom; sometimes the resurrection was to be general; sometimes it was to be reserved only for the faithful; sometimes it supposed a renewed earth and a new Jerusalem: sometimes it applied a previous annihilation of the universe.

Jesus, as soon as he began to think, entered into the burning atmosphere which was created in Palestine by the ideas we have just stated. These ideas were taught in no school; but they were in the very air, and his soul was early penetrated by them. Our hesitations and our doubts never reached him. On this summit of the mountain of Nazareth, where no man can sit to-day without an uneasy, though it may be a frivolous, feeling about his destiny, Jesus sat often untroubled by a doubt. Free from selfishness -- that source of our troubles which makes us seek with eagerness a reward for virtue beyond the tomb -- he thought only of his work, of his race, and of humanity. Those mountains, that sea, that azure sky, those high plains in the horizon, were for him not the melancholy vision of a soul which interrogates Nature upon her fate, but the certain symbol, the transparent shadow, of an invisible world and of a new heaven.

He never attached much importance to the political events of his time, and he probably knew little about them. The court of the Herods farmed a world so different to his that he doubtless knew it only by name. Herod the Great died about the year in which Jesus was born, leaving imperishable remembrances -- monuments which must compel the most malevolent posterity to associate his name with that of Solomon; nevertheless, his work was incomplete, and could not be continued. Profanely ambitious, and lost in a maze of religious controversies, this astute Idumean had the advantage which coolness and judgment, stripped of morality, give over passionate fanatics. But his idea of a secular kingdom of Israel, even if it had not been an anachronism in the state of the world in which it was conceived, would inevitably have miscarried, like the similar project which Solomon formed, owing to the difficulties proceeding from the character of the nation. His three sons were only lieutenants of the Romans, analogous to the rajahs of India under the English dominion. Antipater, or Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and of Peraea, of whom Jesus was a subject all his life, was an idle and useless prince, a favorite and flatterer of Tiberius, and too often misled by the bad influence of his second wife, Herodias. Philip, tetrarch of Gaulonitis and Batanea, into whose dominions Jesus made frequent journeys, was a much better sovereign, As to Archelaus, ethnarch of Jerusalem, Jesus could not know him, for he was about ten years old when this man, who was weak and without character, though sometimes violent, was deposed by Augustus. The last trace of self-government was thus lost to Jerusalem. United to Samaria and Tdumea, Judea formed a kind of dependency of the province of Syria, in which the senator Publius Sulpicius Quirinus, well known as consul, was the imperial legate. A series of Roman procurators, subordinate in important matters to the imperial legate of Syria -- Coponius, Marcus Ambivius, Annius Rufus, Valerius Gratus, and, lastly (in the twenty-sixth year of our era), Pontius Pilate -- followed each other, and were constantly occupied in extinguishing the volcano which was seething beneath their feet.

Continual seditions, excited by the zealots of Mosaism, did not cease, in fact, to agitate Jerusalem during all this time. The death of the seditious was certain; but death, when the integrity of the Law was in question, was sought with avidity. To overturn the Roman eagle, to destroy the works of art raised by the Herods, in which the Mosaic regulations were not always respected -- to rise up against the votive escutcheons put up by the procurators, the inscriptions of which appeared tainted with idolatry -- were perpetual temptations to fanatics, who had reached that degree of exaltation which removes all care for life. Judas, son of Sariphea, Matthias, son of Margaloth, two very celebrated doctors of the law, formed against the established order a boldly aggressive party, which continued after their execution. The Samaritans were agitated by movements of a similar nature. The Law had never counted a greater number of impassioned disciples than at this time, when he already lived who, by the full authority of his genius and of his great soul, was about to abrogate it. The "Zelotes" (Kenaim), or "Sicarii," pious assassins, who imposed on themselves the task of killing whoever in their estimation broke the Law, began to appear. Representatives of a totally different spirit, the Thaumaturges, considered as in some sort divine, obtained credence in consequence of the imperious want which the age experienced for the supernatural and the divine.

A movement which had much more influence upon Jesus was that of Judas the Gaulonite, or Galilean. Of all the exactions to which the country newly conquered by Rome was subjected, the census was the most unpopular. This measure, which always astonishes people unaccustomed to the requirements of great central administrations, was particularly odious to the Jews. We see that already, under David, a numbering of the people provoked violent recriminations and the menaces of the prophets. The census, in fact, was the basis of taxation; now taxation, to a pure theocracy, was almost an impiety. God being the sole Master whom man ought to recognize, to pay tithe to a secular sovereign was, in a manner, to put him in the place of God. Completely ignorant of the idea of the Etate, the Jewish theocracy only acted up to its logical induction -- the negation of civil society and of all government. The money of the public treasury was accounted stolen money. The census ordered by Quirinus (in the year 6 of the Christian era) powerfully reawakened these ideas, and caused a great fermentation. An insurrection broke out in the northern provinces. One Judas, of the town of Gamala, upon the eastern shore of the Lake of Tiberias, and a Pharisee named Sadoc, by denying the lawfulness of the tax, created a numerous party, which soon broke out in open revolt. The fundamental maxims of this party were -- that they ought to call no man "master," this title belonging to God alone; and that liberty was better than life. Judas had, doubtless, many other principles, which Josephus, always careful not to compromise his co-religionists, designedly suppresses; for it is impossible to understand how, for so simple an idea, the Jewish historian should give him a place among the philosophers of his nation, and should regard him as the founder of a fourth school, equal to those of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes, Judas was evidently the chief of a Galilean sect, deeply imbued with the Messianic idea, and which became a political movement. The procurator, Coponius, crushed the sedition of the Gaulonite; but the school remained and preserved its chiefs, Under the leadership of Menahem, son of the founder, and of a certain Eleazar, his relative, we find them again very active in the last contests of the Jews against the Romans. Perhaps Jesus saw this Judas, whose idea of the Jewish revolution was so different from his own; at all events, he knew his school, and it was probably to avoid his error that he pronounced the axiom upon the penny of Caesar. Jesus, more wise, and far removed from all sedition, profited by the fault of his predecessor, and dreamed of another kingdom and another deliverance.

Galilee was thus an immense furnace wherein the most diverse elements were seething. An extraordinary contempt of life, or, more properly speaking, a kind of longing for death, was the consequence of these agitations. Experience counts for nothing in these great fanatical movements. Algeria, at the commencement of the French occupation, saw arise, each spring, inspired men, who declared themselves invulnerable, and sent by God to drive away the infidels; the following year their death was forgotten, and their successors found no less credence. The Roman power, very stern on the one hand, yet little disposed to meddle, permitted a good deal of liberty. Those great brutal despotisms, terrible in repression, were not so suspicious as powers which have a faith to defend. They allowed everything up to the point when they thought it necessary to be severe. It is not recorded that Jesus was even once interfered with by the civil power in his wandering career. Such freedom, and, above all, the happiness which Galilee enjoyed in being much less confined in the bonds of Pharisaic pedantry, gave to this district a real superiority over Jerusalem. The revolution, or, in other words, the belief in the Messiah, caused here a general fermentation. men deemed themselves on the eve of the great renovation; the Scriptures, tortured into divers meanings, fostered the most colossal hopes. In each line of the simple writings of the Old Testament they saw the assurance, and in a manner the program, of the future reign, which was to bring peace to the righteous, and to seal for ever the work of God.

From all time this division into two parties, opposed in interest and spirit, had been for the Hebrew nation a principle which contributed to their moral growth. Every nation called to high destinies ought to be a little world in itself, including opposite poles. Greece presented, at a few leagues' distance from each other, Sparta and Athens -- to a superficial observer, the two antipodes; but in reality, rival sisters, necessary to one another. It was the same with Judea. Less brilliant in one sense than the development of Jerusalem, that of the North was on the whole much more fertile; the greatest achievements of the Jewish people have always proceeded thence. A complete absence of the love of nature, bordering upon something dry, narrow, and ferocious, has stamped all the works purely Hierosolymite with a degree of grandeur, though sad, arid, and repulsive. With its solemn doctors, its insipid canonists, its hypocritical and atrabilious devotees, Jerusalem has not conquered humanity. The North has given to the world the simple Shunammite, the humble Canaanite, the impassioned Magdalene, the good foster-father Joseph, and the Virgin Mary. The North alone has made Christianity; Jerusalem, on the contrary, is the true home of that obstinate Judaism, which, founded by the Pharisees, and fixed by the Talmud, has traversed the Middle Ages, and come down to us.

A beautiful external nature tended to produce a much less austere spirit -- a spirit less sharply monotheistic, if I may use the expression -- which imprinted a charming and idyllic character on all the dreams of Galilee. The saddest country in the world is perhaps the region round about Jerusalem. Galilee, on the contrary, was a very green, shady, smiling district, the true home of the Song of Songs, and the songs of the well-beloved. During the two months of March and April the country forms a carpet of flowers of an incomparable variety of colors. The animals are small and extremely gentle -- delicate and lively turtle-doves, blue-birds so light that they rest on a blade of grass without bending it, crested larks which venture almost under the feet of the traveller, little river tortoises with mild and lively eyes, storks with grave and modest mien, which, laying aside all timidity, allow man to come quite near them, and seem almost to invite his approach. In no country in the world do the mountains spread themselves out with more harmony or inspire higher thoughts. Jesus seems to have had a peculiar love for them. The most important acts of his divine career took place upon the mountains. It was there that he was the most inspired; it was there that he held secret communion with the ancient prophets; and it was there that his disciples witnessed his transfiguration.

This beautiful country has now become sad and gloomy through the ever-impoverishing influence of Islamism. But still everything which man cannot destroy breathes an air of freedom, mildness, and tenderness, and at the time of Jesus it overflowed with happiness and prosperity. The Galileans were considered energetic, brave and laborious. If we except Tiberias, built by Antipas in honor of Tiberius (about the year 15), in the Roman style, Galilee had no large towns. The country was, nevertheless, well peopled, covered with small towns and large villages, and cultivated in all parts with skill. From the ruins which remain of its ancient splendor we can trace an agricultural people, no way gifted in art, caring little for luxury, indifferent to the beauties of form, and exclusively idealistic. The country abounded in fresh streams and in fruits; the large farms were shaded with vines and fig-trees; the gardens were filled with trees bearing apples, walnuts, and pomegranates. The wine was excellent, if we may judge by that which the Jews still obtain at Safed, and they drank much of it. This contented and easily satisfied life was not like the gross materialism of our peasantry, the coarse pleasures of agricultural Normandy, or the heavy mirth of the Flemish. It spiritualized itself in ethereal dreams -- in a kind of poetic mysticism, blending heaven and earth. Leave the austere Baptist in his desert of Judea to preach penitence, to inveigh without ceasing, and to live on locusts in the company of jackals. Why should the companions of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? Joy will be a part of the kingdom of God. Is she not the daughter of the humble in heart, of the men of goodwill?

The whole history of infant Christianity has become in this manner a delightful pastoral. A Messiah at the marriage festival -- the courtesan and the good Zacclicus called to his feasts -- the founders of the kingdom of heaven like a bridal procession -- that is what Galilee has boldly offered, and what the world has accepted. Greece has drawn pictures of human life by sculpture and by charming poetry, but always without backgrounds or distant receding perspectives. In Galilee were wanting the marble, the practiced workmen, the exquisite and refined language. But Galilee has created the most sublime ideal for the popular imagination; for behind its idyl moves the fate of humanity, and the light which illumines its picture is the sun of the kingdom of God.

Jesus lived and grew amid these enchanting scenes. From his infancy he went almost annually to the feast at Jerusalem. The pilgrimage was a sweet solemnity for the provincial Jews. Entire series of psalms were consecrated to celebrate the happiness of thus journeying in family companionship during several days in the spring across the hills and valleys, each one having in prospect the splendours of Jerusalem, the solemnities of the sacred courts, and the joy of brethren dwelling together in unity. The route which Jesus ordinarily took in these journeys was that which is followed to this day through Ginaea and Shechem. From Shechem to Jerusalem the journey is very toilsome. But the neighborhood of the old sanctuaries of Shiloh and Bethel, near which the travellers pass, keep their interest alive. Ain-el-Haramie, the last halting-place, is a charming and melancholy spot, and few impressions equal that experienced on encamping there for the night. The valley is narrow and somber, and a dark stream issues from the rocks, full of tombs, which form its banks. It is, I think, the "valley of tears," or of dropping waters, which is described as one of the stations on the way in the delightful eighty-fourth Psalm, and which became the emblem of life for the sad and sweet mysticism of the Middle Ages. Early the next day they would be at Jerusalem; such an expectation even now sustains the caravan, rendering the night short and slumber light.

These journeys, in which the assembled nation exchanged its ideas, and which were almost always centers of great agitation, placed Jesus in contact with the mind of his countrymen, and no doubt inspired him while still young with a lively antipathy for the defects of the official representatives of Judaism. It is supposed that very early the desert had great influence on his development, and that he made long stays there. But the God he found in the desert was not his God. It was rather the God of Job, severe and terrible, accountable to no one. Sometimes Satan came to tempt him. He returned, then, into his beloved Galilee, and found again his heavenly Father in the midst of the green hills and the clear fountains -- and among the crowds of women and children, who, with joyous soul and the song of angels in their hearts, awaited the salvation of Israel.

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