The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter V

The first sayings of Jesus
The ideas of a divine father and of a purer religion
First disciples
Joseph died before his son had taken any public part. Mary remained, in a manner, the head of the family, and this explains why her son, when it was wished to distinguish him from others of the same name, was most frequently called the "son of Mary." It seems that having, by the death of her husband, been left friendless at Nazareth, she withdrew to Cana, from which she may have come originally. Cana was a little town at from two to two and a half hours' journey from Nazareth, at the foot of the mountains which bound the plain of Asochis on the north. The prospect, less grand than at Nazareth, extends over all the plain, and is bounded in the most picturesque manner by the mountains of Nazareth and the hills of Sepphoris. Jesus appears to have resided some time in this place. Here he probably passed a part of his youth, and here his greatness first revealed itself.

He followed the trade of his father, which was that of a carpenter. This was not in any degree humiliating or grievous. The Jewish customs required that a man devoted to intellectual work should learn a trade. The most celebrated doctors did so; thus St. Paul, whose education had been so carefully tended, was a tent- maker. Jesus never married, All his power of love centered upon that which he regarded as his celestial vocation. The extremely delicate feeling towards women which we remark in him was not separated from the exclusive devotion which he had for his mission. Like Francis d'Assisi and Francis de Sales, he treated as sisters the women who were loved of the same work as himself; he had his St. Clare, his Frances de Chantal. It is, however, probable that these loved him more than the work; he was, no doubt, more beloved than loving. Thus, as often happens in very elevated natures, tenderness of the heart was transformed in him into an infinite sweetness, a vague poetry, and a universal charm. His relations, free and intimate but of an entirely moral kind, with women of doubtful character, are also explained by the passion which attached him to the glory of his Father, and which made him jealously anxious for all beautiful creatures who could contribute to it.

What was the progress of the ideas of Jesus during this obscure period of his life? Through what meditations did he enter upon the prophetic career? We have no information on these points, his history having come to us in scattered narratives, without exact chronology. But the development of character is everywhere the same; and there is no doubt that the growth of so powerful an individuality as that of Jesus obeyed very rigorous laws. A high conception of the Divinity -- which he did not owe to Judaism, and which seems to have been in all its parts the creation of his great mind -- was in a manner the source of all his power. It is essential here that we put aside the ideas familiar to us, and the discussions in which little minds exhaust themselves. In order properly to understand the precise character of the piety of Jesus, we must forget all that is placed between the Gospel and ourselves. Deism and Pantheism have become the two poles of theology. The paltry discussions of scholasticism, the dryness of spirit of Descartes, the deep-rooted irreligion of the eighteenth century by lessening God, and by limiting him, in a manner, by the exclusion of everything which is not his very, self, have stifled in the breast of modern rationalism all fertile ideas of the Divinity. If God, in fact, is a personal being outside of us, he who believes himself to have peculiar relations with God is a "visionary," and, as the physical and physiological sciences have shown us that all supernatural visions are illusions, the logical Deist finds it impossible to understand the great beliefs of the past. Pantheism, on the other hand, in suppressing the Divine personality, is as far as it can be from the living God of the ancient religions. Were the men who have best comprehended God -- Cakya-Mouni, Plato, St. Paul, St. Francis d'Assisi, and St. Augustine (at some periods of his fluctuating life) -- Deists or Pantheists? Such a question has no meaning. The physical and metaphysical proofs of the existence of God were quite indifferent to them. They felt the Divine within themselves. We must place Jesus in the first rank of this great family of the true sons of God. Jesus had no visions; God did not speak to him as to one outside of himself; God was in him; he felt himself with God, and he drew from his heart all he said of his Father. He lived in the bosom of God by constant communication with him; he saw him not, but he understood him, without need of the thunder and the burning bush of Moses, of the revealing tempest of Job, of the oracle of the old Greek sages, of the familiar genius of Socrates, or of the angel Gabriel of Mohammed. The imagination and the hallucination of a St. Theresa, for example, are useless here. The intoxication of the Soufi proclaiming himself identical with God is also quite another thing. Jesus never once gave utterance to the sacrilegious idea that he was God. He believed himself to be in direct communion with God; he believed himself to be the Son of God. The highest consciousness of God which has existed in the bosom of humanity was that of Jesus.

We understand, on the other hand, how Jesus, starting with such a disposition of spirit, could never be a speculative philosopher like Cakya-Mouni. Nothing is further from scholastic theology than the Gospel. The speculations of the Greek fathers on the Divine essence proceed from an entirely different spirit. God, conceived simply as Father, was all the theology of Jesus. And this was not with him a theoretical principle, a doctrine more or less proved, which he sought to inculcate in others. He did not argue with his disciples; he demanded from them no effort of attention, He did not preach his opinions; he preached himself. Very great and very disinterested minds often present, associated with much elevation, that character of perpetual attention to themselves, and extreme personal susceptibility, which, in general, is peculiar to women. Their conviction that God is in them, and occupies himself perpetually with them, is so strong that they have no fear of obtruding themselves upon others: our reserve, and our respect for the opinion of others, which is a part of our weakness, could not belong to them. This exaltation of self is not egotism; for such men, possessed by their idea, give their lives freely, in order to seal their work: it is the identification of self with the object it has embraced, carried to its utmost limit. It is regarded as vain glory by those who see in the new teaching only the personal phantasy of the founder; but it is the finger of God to those who see the result. The fool stands side by side here with the inspired man; only the fool never succeeds. It has not yet been given to insanity to influence seriously the progress of humanity.

Doubtless, Jesus did not attain at first this high affirmation of himself. But it is probable that, from the first, he regarded his relationship with God as that of a son with his father. This was his great act of originality; in this he had nothing in common with his race. Neither the Jew nor the Mussulman has understood this delightful theology of love. The God of Jesus is not that tyrannical master who kills us, damns us, or saves us, according to his pleasure. The God of Jesus is our Father. We hear him in listening to the gentle inspiration which cries within us, "Abba, Father." The God of Jesus is not the partial despot who has chosen Israel for his people and specially protects them. He is the God of humanity. Jesus was not a patriot, like the Maccabees; or a theocrat, like Judas the Gaulonite. Boldly raising himself above the prejudices of his nation, he established the universal fatherhood of God. The Gaulonite maintained that we should die rather than give to another than God the name of "Master"; Jesus left this name to anyone who liked to take it, and reserved for God a dearer name. While he accorded to the powerful of the earth, who were to him representatives of force, a respect full of irony, he proclaimed the supreme consolation -- the recourse to the Father which each one has in heaven -- and the true kingdom of God, which each one bears in his heart.

This name of "kingdom of God," or "kingdom of heaven," was the favorite term of Jesus to express the revolution which he brought into the world. Like almost all the Messianic terms, it came from the book of Daniel. According to the author of this extraordinary book, the four profane empires, destined to fall, were to be succeeded by a fifth empire, that of the saints, which should last for ever. This reign of God upon earth naturally led to the most diverse interpretations. To Jewish theology the "kingdom of God" is most frequently only Judaism itself -- the true religion, the monotheistic worship, piety. In the later periods of his life Jesus believed that this reign would be realized in a material form by a sudden renovation of the world. But doubtless this was not his first idea. The admirable moral which he draws from the idea of God as Father is not that of enthusiasts who believe the world is near its end, and who prepare themselves by asceticism for a chimerical catastrophe; it is that of men who have lived and still would live. "The kingdom of God is within you," said he to those who sought with subtilty for external signs. The realistic conception of the Divine advent was but a cloud, a transient error, which his death has made us forget. The Jesus who founded the true kingdom of God, the kingdom of the meek and the humble, was the Jesus of early life -- of those chaste and pure days when the voice of his Father re- echoed within him in clearer tones. It was then for some months, perhaps a year, that God truly dwelt upon the earth. The voice of the young carpenter suddenly acquired an extraordinary sweetness. An infinite charm was exhaled from his person, and those who had seen him up to that time no longer recognized him. He had not yet any disciples, and the group which gathered around him was neither a sect nor a school; but a common spirit, a sweet and penetrating influence was felt. His amiable character, accompanied doubtless by one of those lovely faces which sometimes appear in the Jewish race, threw around him a fascination from which no one in the midst of these kindly and simple populations could escape.

Paradise would, in fact, have been brought to earth if the ideas of the young Master had not far transcended the level of ordinary goodness beyond which it has not been found possible to raise the human race. The brotherhood of men, as sons of God, and the moral consequences which result therefrom, were deduced with exquisite feeling. Like all the rabbis of the time, Jesus was little inclined towards consecutive reasonings, and clothed his doctrine in concise aphorisms, and in an expressive form, at times enigmatical and strange. Some of these maxims come from the books of the Old Testament. Others were the thoughts of more modern sages, especially those of Antigonus of Soco, Jesus, son of Sirach, and Hillel, which had reached him, not from learned study, but as oft-repeated proverbs. The synagogue was rich in very happily expressed sentences, which formed a kind of current proverbial literature. Jesus adopted almost all this oral teaching, but imbued it with a superior spirit. Exceeding the duties laid down by the Law and the elders, he demanded perfection. All the virtues of humility -- forgiveness, charity, abnegation, and self-denial -- virtues which with good reason have been called Christian, if we mean by that that they have been truly preached by Christ -- were in this first teaching, though undeveloped. As to justice, he was content with repeating the well-known axiom -- "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." But this old though somewhat selfish wisdom did not satisfy him. He went to excess and said -- "Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also." "If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee." "Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, pray for them that persecute you." "Judge not, that ye be not judged." "Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven." "Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful." "It is more blessed to give than to receive." "Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted."

Upon alms, pity, good works, kindness, peacefulness, and complete disinterestedness of heart, he had little to add to the doctrine of the synagogue. But he placed upon them an emphasis full of unction, which made the old maxims appear new. Morality is not composed of more or less well-expressed principles. The poetry which makes the precept loved is more than the precept itself, taken as an abstract truth. Now, it cannot be denied that these maxims borrowed by Jesus from his predecessors produce quite a different effect in the Gospel to that in the ancient Law, in the Pirke Aboth, or in the Talmud. It is neither the ancient Law nor the Talmud which has conquered and changed the world. Little original in itself -- if we mean by that that one might recompose it almost entirely by the aid of older maxims -- the morality of the Gospels remains, nevertheless, the highest creation of human conscience -- the most beautiful code of perfect life that any moralist has traced.

Jesus did not speak against the Mosaic law, but it is clear that he saw its insufficiency, and allowed it to be seen that he did so. He repeated unceasingly that more must be done than the ancient sages had commanded. He forbade the least harsh word; he prohibited divorce and all swearing; he censured revenge; he condemned usury; he considered voluptuous desire as criminal as adultery; he insisted upon a universal forgiveness of injuries. The motive on which he rested these maxims of exalted charity was always the same…. "That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."

A pure worship, a religion without priests and external observances, resting entirely on the feelings of the heart, on the imitation of God, on the direct relation of the conscience with the heavenly Father, was the result of these principles. Jesus never shrank from this bold conclusion, which made him a thorough revolutionist in the very center of Judaism. Why should there be mediators between man and his Father? As God only sees the heart, of what good are these purifications, these observances relating only to the body? Even tradition, a thing so sacred to the Jews, is nothing compared to sincerity. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who, in praying, turned their heads to see if they were observed, who gave their alms with ostentation, and put marks upon their garments, that they might be recognized as pious persons -- all these grimaces of false devotion disgusted him. "They have their recompense, said he; "but thou, when thou doest thine alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth, that thy alms may be in secret, and thy Father, which seeth in secret, himself shall reward thee openly." "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues, and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet; and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him."

He did not affect any external signs of asceticism, contenting himself with praying, or rather meditating, upon the mountains. and in the solitary places, where man has always sought God. This high idea of the relations of man with God, of which so few minds, even after him, have been capable, is summed up in a prayer which he taught to his disciples: --

"Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation; deliver us from the evil one." He insisted particularly upon the idea that the heavenly Father knows better than we what we need, and that we almost sin against him in asking him for this or that particular thing.

Jesus in this only carried out the consequences of the great principles which Judaism had established, but which the official classes of the nation tended more and more to despise. The Greek and Roman prayers were almost always mere egotistical verbiage. Never had Pagan priest said to the faithful, "If thou bring thy offering to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled with thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." Alone in antiquity, the Jewish prophets, especially Isaiah, had, in their antipathy to the priesthood, caught a glimpse of the true nature of the worship man owes to God. "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me: I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he- goats…. Incense is an abomination unto me; for your hands are full of blood: cease to do evil, learn to do well, seek judgment, and then come." In later times, certain doctors, Simeon the just, Jesus, son of Sirach, Hillel, almost reached this point, and declared that the sum of the Law was righteousness. Philo, in the Judaeo-Egyptian world, attained at the same time as Jesus ideas of a high moral sanctity, the consequences of which was the disregard of the observances of the Law. Shemaia and Abtalion also more than once proved themselves to be very liberal casuists. Rabbi Johanan ere long placed works of mercy above even the study of the Law! Jesus alone, however, proclaimed these principles in an effective manner, Never has any one been less a priest than Jesus, never a greater enemy of forms, which stifle religion under the pretext of protecting it. By this we are all his disciples and his successors; by this he has laid the eternal foundation-stone of true religion; and if religion is essential to humanity, he has by this deserved the Divine rank the world has accorded to him. An absolutely new idea, the idea of a worship founded on purity of heart, and on human brotherhood, through him entered into the world -- an idea so elevated that the Christian Church ought to make it its distinguishing feature, but an idea which, in our days, only few minds are capable of embodying.

An exquisite sympathy with nature furnished him each moment with expressive images. Sometimes a remarkable ingenuity, which we call wit, adorned his aphorisms; at other times their liveliness consisted in the happy use of popular proverbs. "How wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye, and then thou shalt see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."

These lessons, long hidden in the heart of the young Master, soon gathered around him a few disciples. The spirit of the time favored small churches; it was the period of the Essenes or Therapeutae. Rabbis, each having his distinctive teaching, Shomaia, Abtalion, Hillel, Shammai, Judas the Gaulonite, Gamaliel, and many others whose maxims form the Talmud, appeared on all sides. They wrote very little; the Jewish doctors of this time did not write books; everything was done by conversations, and in Public lessons, to which it was sought to give a form easily remembered. The proclamation by the young Carpenter of Nazareth of these maxims, for the most part already generally known, but which, thanks to him, were to regenerate the world, was therefore no striking event. It was only one Rabbi more (it is true, the most charming of all), and around him some young men, eager to hear him, and thirsting for knowledge. It requires time to command the attention of men. As yet there were no Christians; though true Christianity was founded, and, doubtless, it was never more perfect than at this first period. Jesus added to it nothing durable afterwards. Indeed, in one sense, he compromised it; for every movement, in order to triumph, must make sacrifices; we never come from the contest of life unscathed.

To conceive the good, in fact, is not sufficient; it must be made to succeed among men. To accomplish this less pure paths must be followed. Certainly, if the Gospel was confined to some chapters of Matthew and Luke, it would be more perfect, and would not now be open to so many objections; but would Jesus have converted the world without miracles? If he had died at the period of his career we have now reached, there would not have been in his life a single page to wound us; but, greater in the eyes of God, he, would have remained unknown to men; he would have been lost in the crowd of great unknown spirits, himself the greatest of all; the truth would not have been promulgated, and the world would not have profited from the great moral superiority with which his Father had endowed him. Jesus, son of Sirach, and Hillel had uttered aphorisms almost as exalted as those of Jesus. Hillel, however, will never be accounted the true founder of Christianity. In morals, as in art, precept is nothing; practice is everything. The idea which is hidden in a picture of Raphael is of little moment; it is the picture itself which is prized. So, too, in morals, truth is but little prized when it is a mere sentiment, and only attains its full value when realized in the world as fact. Men of indifferent morality have written very good maxims. Very virtuous men, on the other hand, have done nothing to perpetuate in the world the tradition of virtue. The palm is his who has been mighty both in words and in works, who has discerned the good, and at the price of his blood has caused its triumph. Jesus, from this double point of view, is without equal; his glory remains entire, and will ever be renewed.

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