The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter IX

The disciples of Jesus
IN this terrestrial paradise, which the great revolutions of history had till then scarcely touched, there lived a population in perfect harmony with the country itself, active, honest, joyous, and tender-hearted. The Lake of Tiberias is one of the best supplied with fish of any in the world. Very productive fisheries were established, especially at Bethsaida and at Capernaum, and had produced a certain degree of wealth. These families of fishermen formed a gentle and peaceable society, extending by numerous ties of relationship through the whole district of the lake which we have described. Their comparatively easy life left entire freedom to their imagination. The ideas about the kingdom of God found in these small companies of worthy people more credence than anywhere else. Nothing of that which we call civilization, in the Greek and worldly sense, had reached them. Neither was there any of our Germanic and Celtic earnestness; but, although goodness among them was often superficial and without depth, their habits were quiet, and they were in some degree intelligent and shrewd. We may imagine them as somewhat analogous to the better populations of the Lebanon, but with the gift -- not possessed by the latter -- of producing great men. Jesus met here his true family. He installed himself as one of them; Capernaum became "his own city"; in the center of the little circle which adored him he forgot his skeptical brothers, ungrateful Nazareth and its mocking incredulity.

One house especially at Capernaum offered him an agreeable refuge and devoted disciples. It was that of two brothers, both sons of a certain Jonas, who probably was dead at the period when Jesus came to stay on the borders of the lake. These two brothers were Simon, surnamed Cephas or Peter, and Andrew. Born at Bethsaida, they were established at Capernaum when Jesus commenced his public life. Peter was married and had children; his mother-in- law lived with him. Jesus loved this house, and dwelt there habitually. Andrew appears to have been a disciple of John the Baptist, and Jesus had perhaps known him on the banks of the Jordan. The two brothers continued always, even at the period in which it seems they must have been most occupied with their master, to follow their business as fishermen. Jesus, who loved to play upon words, said at times that he would make them fishers of men. In fact, among all his disciples he had none more faithfully attached.

Another family, that of Zabdia or Zebedee, a well-to-do fisherman and owner of several boats, gave Jesus a welcome reception. Zebedee had two sons: James, who was the elder, and a younger son, John, who later was called to play so prominent a part in the history of infant Christianity. Both were zealous disciples. Salome, wife of Zebedee, was also much attached to Jesus, and accompanied him until his death.

Women, in fact, received him with eagerness. He manifested towards them those reserved manners which render a very sweet union of ideas possible between the two sexes. The separation of men from women, which has prevented all refined development among the Semitic peoples, was no doubt then, as in our days, much less rigorous in the rural districts and villages than in the large towns. Three or four devoted Galilean women always accompanied the young Master, and disputed the pleasure of listening to and of tending him in turn. They infused into the new sect an element of enthusiasm and of the marvelous, the importance of which had already begun to be understood. One of them Mary of Magdala, who has rendered the name of this poor town so celebrated in the world, appears to have been of a very enthusiastic temperament. According to the language of the time she had been possessed by seven demons. That is, she hah been affected with nervous and apparently inexplicable maladies. Jesus, by his pure and sweet beauty, calmed this troubled nature. The Magdalene was faithful to him, even unto Golgotha, and on the day but one after his death played a prominent part; for, as we shall see later, she was the principal means by which faith in the resurrection was established. Joanna, wife of Chuza, one of the stewards of Antipas, Susanne, and others who have remained unknown, followed him constantly and ministered unto him. Some were rich, and by their fortune enabled the young prophet to live without following the trade which he had until then practiced.

Many others followed him habitually, and recognized him as their Master: a certain Philip of Bethsaida; Nathanael, son of Tolmai or Ptolemy, of Cana, perhaps a disciple of the first period; and Matthew, probably the one who was the Xenophon of the infant Christianity. The latter had been a publican, and, as such, doubtless handled the Kalam more easily than the others. Perhaps it was this that suggested to him the idea of writing the Logia, which are the basis of what we know of the teachings of Jesus. Among the disciples are also mentioned Thomas, or Didymus, who doubted sometimes, but who appears to have been a man of warm heart and of generous sympathies; one Lebbaeus or Thaddeus; Simon Zelotes, perhaps a disciple of Juclas the Gaulonite, belonging to the party of the Kenaim, which was formed about that time, and which was soon to play so great a part in the movements of the Jewish people. Lastly Judas, son of Simon, of the town of Kerioth, who was an exception in the faithful flock, and drew upon himself such a terrible notoriety. He was the only one who was not a Galilean. Kerioth was a town at the extreme south of the tribe of Judah, a day's journey beyond Hebron.

We have seen that in general the family of Jesus were little inclined towards him. James and Jude, however, his cousins by Mary Cleophas, henceforth became his disciples, and Mary Cleophas herself was one, of the women who followed him to Calvary. At this period we do not see his mother beside him. It was only after the death of Jesus that Mary acquired great importance, and that the disciples sought to attach her to themselves. It was then also that the members of the family of the founder, under the title of "brothers of the Lord," formed an influential group, which was a long time at the head of the Church of Jerusalem, and which, after the sack of the city, took refuge in Batanea. The simple fact of having been familiar with him became a decisive advantage, in the same manner as after the death of Mahomet the wives and daughters of the prophet, who had no importance in his life, became great authorities,

In this friendly group Jesus had evidently his favorites, and, so to speak, an inner circle. The two sons of Zebedee, James and John, appear to have been in the first rank. They were full of fire and passion. Jesus had aptly surnamed them "sons of thunder," on account of their excessive zeal, which, if it could have controlled the thunder, would often have made use of it. John especially appears to have been on very familiar terms with Jesus. Perhaps the warm affection which the Master felt for this disciple has been exaggerated in his Gospel, in which the personal interests of the writer are not sufficiently concealed. The most significant fact is that, in the Synoptical Gospels, Simon Barjona, or Peter, James, son of Zebedee, and John, his brother, form a sort of intimate council, which Jesus calls at certain times when he suspects the faith and intelligence of the others. It seems, moreover, that they were all three associated in their fishing. The affection of Jesus for Peter was strong. The character of the latter -- upright, sincere, impulsive -- pleased Jesus, who at times permitted himself to smile at his resolute manners. Peter, little of a mystic, communicated to the Master his simple doubts, his repugnances, and his entirely human weaknesses with an honest frankness which recalls that of Joinville towards St. Louis. Jesus chided him, in a friendly manner, full of confidence and esteem. As to John, his youth, his exquisite tenderness of heart, and his lively imagination, must have had a great charm. The personality of this extraordinary man, who has exerted so peculiar an influence on infant Christianity, did not develop itself till afterwards. When old he wrote that strange Gospel, which contains such precious teachings, but in which, in our opinion, the character of Jesus is falsified upon many points. The nature of John was too powerful and too profound for him to bend himself to the impersonal tone of the first evangelists. He was the biographer of Jesus, as Plato was of Socrates. Accustomed to ponder over his recollections with the feverish restlessness of an excited mind, he transformed his Master in wishing to describe him, and sometimes he leaves it to be suspected (unless other hands have altered his work) that perfect good faith was not invariably his rule and law in the composition of this singular writing.

No hierarchy, properly speaking, existed in the new sect. They were to call each other "brothers," and Jesus absolutely proscribed titles of superiority, such as rabbi, "master," father -- he alone being Master, and God alone being Father. The greatest was to become the servant of the others. Simon Barjona, however, was distinguished among his fellows by a peculiar degree of importance. Jesus lived with him, and taught in his boat; his house was the center of the Gospel preaching. In public he was regarded as the chief of the flock; and it is to him that the overseers of the tolls address themselves to collect the taxes which were due from the community. He was the first who had recognized Jesus as the Messiah. In a moment of unpopularity, Jesus, asking of his disciples "Will ye also go away?" Simon answered, "Lord, to whom should we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life." Jesus, at various times, gave him a certain priority in his church; and gave him the Syrian sumame of Kepha (stone), by which he wished to signify by that that he made him the corner-stone of the edifice. At one time he seems even to promise him "the keys of the kingdom of heaven," and to grant him the right of pronouncing upon earth decisions which should always be ratified in eternity.

No doubt this priority of Peter excited a little jealousy. Jealousy was kindled especially in view of the future -- and of this kingdom of God, in which all the disciples would be seated upon thrones, on the right and on the left of the Master, to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. They asked who would then be nearest to the Son of man, and act in a manner as his prime minister and assessor. The two sons of Zebedee aspired to this rank. Preoccupied with such a thought, they prompted their mother Salome, who one day took Jesus aside, and asked him for the two places of honor for her sons. Jesus evaded the request by his habitual maxim that he who exalted himself should be humbled, and that the kingdom of heaven will be possessed by the lowly. This created some disturbance in the community; there was great discontent against James and John. The same rivalry appears to show itself in the Gospel of John, where the narrator unceasingly declares himself to be "the disciple whom Jesus loved," to whom the Master in dying confided his mother, and seeks systematically to place himself near Simon Peter, and at times to put himself before him in important circumstances where the older evangelists had omitted mentioning him.

Among the preceding personages, all those of whom we know anything had begun by being fishermen. At all events, none of them belonged to a socially elevated class. Only Matthew or Levi, son of Alpheus, had been a publican. But those to whom they gave this name in Judea were not the farmers-general of taxes, men of elevated rank (always Roman patricians), who were called at Rome publicani. They were the agents of these contractors, employees of low rank, simply officers of the customs. The great route from Acre to Damascus, one of the most ancient routes of the world, which crossed Galilee, skirting the lake, made this class of employees very numerous there. Capernaum, which was perhaps on the road, possessed a numerous staff of them. This profession is never popular, but with the Jews it was considered quite criminal. Taxation, new to them, was the sign of their subjection; one school, that of Judas the Gaulonite, maintained that to pay it was an act of paganism. The customs officers, also, were abhorred by the zealots of the law. They were only named in company with assassins, highway robbers, and men of infamous life. The Jews who accepted such offices were excommunicated, and became incapable of making a will; their money was accursed, and the casuists forbade the changing of money with them. These poor men, placed under the ban of society, visited among themselves. Jesus accepted a dinner offered him by Levi, at which there were, according to the language of the time, "many publicans and sinners." This gave great offence. In these ill-reputed houses there was a risk of meeting bad society. We shall often see him thus, caring little to shock the prejudices of well-disposed persons, seeking to elevate the classes humiliated by the orthodox, and thus exposing himself to the liveliest reproaches of the zealots.

Jesus owed these numerous conquests to the infinite charm of his person and his speech. A penetrating word, a look falling upon a simple conscience, which only wanted awakening, gave him an ardent disciple. Sometimes Jesus employed an innocent artifice, which Joan of Arc also used: he affected to know something intimate respecting him whom he wished to gain, or he would perhaps recall to him some circumstance dear to his heart. It was thus that he attracted Nathanael, Peter, and the Samaritan woman. Concealing the true source of his strength -- his superiority over all that surrounded him -- he permitted people to believe (in order to satisfy the ideas of the time -- ideas which, moreover, fully coincided with his own) that a revelation from on high revealed to him all secrets and laid bare all hearts. Every one thought that Jesus lived in a sphere superior to that of humanity. They said that he conversed on the mountains with Moses and Elias; they believed that in his moments of solitude the angels came to render him homage, and established a supernatural intercourse between him and heaven.

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