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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

The Historical Jesus

The Historical Jesus.

In the spring of the third or fourth year before the commencement of the Christian era an event occurred which was to influence the history of the world,—I refer to the birth of Jesus, generally called the Christ, or Messiah, sometimes Jesus of Nazareth, and sometimes Jesus of Galilee.

His parents seem to have been poor, but industrious and virtuous people, of whom very little is known. His father was a carpenter, which, however, is no indication of his position in society, since all the Jews, even the chief Rabbis, worked at some trade. His mother is said to have belonged to the house of David; that, however, is a mere conjecture at the most, as all the genealogies were destroyed at the time of the Babylonish captivity; nor would it signify anything if true, for the royalty of the house of David had for centuries been only a name.

Until he was seven years old the boy was consigned entirely to the care of his mother, who, no doubt, with the usual solicitude of mothers, performed her duties towards him. The elementary portion of his education devolved upon her; but it consisted, for the most part, in telling him the traditional history of his nation, teaching him to repeat its sacred poetry, and inculcating those lessons of virtue and of moral etiquette which the Jews regarded with such punctiliousness. One pictures them wandering over that beautiful little valley in which their village home was, and ascending the hills which surrounded it, now for the sake of the prospect that stretched out beyond, and now for the cool shelter to be found in the ravines and gorges of the limestone rocks, in loving and serious converse; he listening with rapt interest whilst she told him of "Enoch, who walked with God, and was not, because God took him;" of "Abraham, God's friend;" of "Jacob, the crafty supplanter;" of "Esau, who sold his birthright;" of Joseph, the martyr of virtue and the interpreter of dreams; of "Elijah, who went up to heaven in a chariot of fire and, above all, of Moses, the Exodus, and the wanderings in the desert. One laments that more is not known of that mother. She is said to have been a thoughtful, meditative woman—a thing likely enough; for the mothers of great men generally are such. But that is all we dare venture even to guess, so besmothered are the facts by fables.

At twelve years of age, according to the Jewish custom, he accompanied his parents in their annual journey to Jerusalem, to be presented in the temple, and have his name enrolled in the national registers. An incident is related concerning him at this time which may or may not be true. He is page 303 said to have been missed by his parents, and afterwards found in one of the courts of the temple, set apart for the use of the schools, in the midst of an assembly, asking questions and replying to questions asked of him. This was the usual form of giving instruction. The Rabbis did not deliver lectures or discourses in a set manner; but each pupil asked what question he chose, to which a reply was given, and oftentimes a question was asked in return, which the pupils had to solve. What is related of Jesus, therefore, was nothing extraordinary, and the most one can make out of it is that, by deserting the company of his parents and companions for the sake of being present in the school, he showed more than a common thirst for knowledge. One would like to know, however, whether that reply put into his month when his mother expressed the anxiety she and his father had felt when they missed him, was actually uttered by him, "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" For if it were, it would indicate an imaginative, enthusiastic nature, already wrought upon considerably by religious ideas, and would render it more easy to give credence to the assertions that he afterwards claimed to work miracles, and to be the Messiah, than otherwise we find it. However, the design of the writer who relates the incident is evidently to throw a mist of wonder over the child's early life, and is, there-fore, not to be trusted. All men who become notorious share, in that respect, the same fate. When they are dead and gone, the world finds out that they were prodigies even in their cradle, and invents, or exaggerates, all sorts of wonderful tales about their early sayings and doings. Whereas, really great men are seldom prodigies in their youth. Great talents are of slow growth and development; and the masters of the world often sit in the dunce's place at school.

After this journey, he returned home, and we hear no more of him for several years. We have, therefore, to fill up the interval by our fancy. He would still pursue the study of the law, which, indeed, a Jew never thought completed; he learned the trade of his father, and would doubtlessly some-times share in the recreations of the boys of Nazareth. But he was probably always given more to solitary rambles amongst the wilds of the hills than to youthful sports; and as years increased, he became more contemplative and retiring. And his home, as I have said, was well calculated to nurse such musings as an incipient religious reformer would be sure to indulge in. The hill at the base of which the village was built was but 400 feet high. From its summit one commanded a view of the whole plain of Esdraelon, the Jezreel of the Old Testament, and the Armageddon of the Apocalypse. This plain was associated with some of the most stirring scones of the ancient traditions, and could not fail to move deeply every Hebrew heart with emotional thoughts of the past. The gloom of the deep ravines, which were numerous in all these hills about Nazareth, would also foster the grave and serious thoughts which rose in his mind; whilst the luxuriance of the enclosed valley and its abounding wild flowers of the most gorgeous kinds, would nurture his mind with a sense of the beauties of nature and the goodness of God.

At the age of 30 a great event occurred in his history which henceforth changed the whole aspect of his life. About this time there was a great deal of religious and politico-religious excitement throughout Palestine, and many leaders arose who for a time obtained considerable popularity. First and foremost amongst these was one named John, called also, for distinction, the Baptist, or, as the word seems to have meant, the Purifier. This John assumed the habits and the garb of some of the old prophets; lived a wild, austere life; fed on the spontaneous fruits of the earth; and was altogether one of those abnormal natures which when excited by a religion, fill the multitude with deep reverence and awe. Some have said, he belonged to the sect of the Essens; but however much he may have been indebted to them, that hardly seems to be correct, as some of his tenets differ essentially from theirs.

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Whether he had any early relations to Jesus is a matter of doubt; but there can be but little question that Jesus became one of his disciples, and, according to a common usage in those days, was publicly recognised as such by baptism. John's teaching was purely of an ethical character. He denounced the vices and hypocrisies of the times, and called upon men to reform their lives if they would escape the certain judgment of God. His manner seems to have partaken of all the sternness of his nature; and intense was the excitement he produced throughout the land. Crowds flocked to hear him—most of those who heard trembled, confessed their sins, and were baptised.

With the matter of the Baptist's exhortation Jesus would heartily sympathise; from the manner he would feel averse. He was of a gentle and loving nature, and was more disposed to weep over men's follies than to threaten them with the vengeance of God. How long he continued a disciple of John does not appear. It may have been until John got imprisoned for reproving Herod. But from the first, there were elements leading him to diverge. The difference in character already referred to lead to difference in moral conceptions. Jesus was for enjoying the blessings God's bounty gives; the Baptist was for denying the flesh, and leading an austere life. John sought the wilderness and an escape from the abodes of men; Jesus, fond as he was of retirement, found his work in the towns and in the congregations of the people. Besides, discipleship did not then mean all that we have put into the word since. A disciple might question, discuss, and dispute with his master, and ultimately set up a school of his own.

One important influence, however, John seems to have had upon the mind of Jesus. he so deepened his religious convictions, that Jesus determined to devote himself to the work of reforming his countrymen with greater boldness than he had ever yet displayed. From that time he began openly to express his thoughts, and to insist upon a preparation for the coming kingdom of God. There is a tradition, that after his connection with John, he retired for a time from all intercourse with men, and gave himself up to meditation in the wilderness. Such practices were not uncommon with the religious of those days. It was something like the custom of the Roman Catholics going into "retreat," as they call it. Yet I receive the tradition with hesitation, because it has come down to us in a form in which it is rendered absurd.

His more early efforts at teaching and reformation were doubtlessly put forth in the synagogue at Nazareth. He would begin, in the usual way, by asking questions; the questions would lead to discussion, discussion to the exposition of his own thoughts and feelings. Such a course once begun, could not stop. It was found that the young man, Jesus, had a power to touch the conscience and the heart. All Nazareth got moved by what he said, and by his way of saying it. By-and-by the people who lived beyond the hills heard of it. Some came to hear him for themselves. They invited him to return with them, amd arouse the hearts of the people of their own synagogues. He listened to their invitation, and went. Emmnaus, Sepphoris, Tiberias, Bethsaida, Chorazin, Capernaum, and all the region round about, became the scenes of his labours. There was nothing very uncommon in such a procedure; its parallel might be found in some sects still. The power of speaking to the heart always makes a man sought after, all the world over; it is seldom those who possess it refuse its exercise.

At first his exhortations were based upon the recognised truths, and were only earnest appeals to live consistently with the principles they professed. If the elder teachers and Rabbis felt any secret pangs of jealousy at thee risinge popularity of the young Nazarene, they could not but openly join in the universal commendation. As, however, he grew more earnest, and his work pressed heavily on his soul, these teachers and Rabbis themselves became the objects of his strictures. They were the leaders of the people; the shepherds of the poor, unfed, perishing sheep, the guides of these blind and ignorant page 305 men and women, he longed to raise and redeem from their low and selfish lives. Yet what sort of lives were these guides, these shepherds living? What conformity was there between their own professions and their doings? What were the teachings they gave the people from week to week? Alas! they were "blind leaders of the blind;" they were "dumb dogs, which could not bark;" they were "but hireling shepherds, and the sheep knew not their voice, and would not follow them." Must he not, therefore, speak out plainly concerning them as concerning the rest? Must he not tell the watchmen of their sloth and the blood upon their souls? Was he not raised up of God for the very purpose—the "servant anointed with inward grace to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord to all captive souls?" In his inmost being he felt that he was, and that, therefore, he must speak. Speak accordingly he did; and so seems to have begun his hostility with the scribes, rulers, and teachers of the synagogues.

His popularity, however, amongst the common people increased, whilst his controversies with the priests and rulers, or heads of the synagogues, grew hotter and hotter. It is certainly difficult to discern what could have been the ground of the violence of that controversy, excepting upon an admission one feels reluctant to make. There was nothing in his teaching to call forth their opposition. It was purely ethical and practical, and the doctrines, precepts, and admonitions were perfectly in accordance with the doctrines, precepts, and admonitions of the Pharisees, Essens, and the Talmud. There was nothing new either in the substance or the manner of his discourses, so far as we can discern. Even those passages given in the synoptics in which the relation of man universally to God is the most distinctly affirmed, can be matched by corresponding passages in the Talmud, and contain nothing which an enlightened Pharisee of those days would not have owned. It is true that men in authority, and especially ecclesiastics in authority, are apt to grow very bitter when their doings, character, and doctrines, or teachings, are attacked by some one much beneath them, and that they are not always very scrupulous in the means by which they put down the officious criticiser. But that hardly seems sufficient to account for the death to which in this case the opposition led.

I am, therefore, as I said, reluctantly led to the supposition that eventually Jesus was induced to accept for himself the Messiahship his admiring and loving disciples were eager to thrust upon him. He had touched the deepest chords of their heart; he had probed their conscience as it had. never been probed before; he had aroused them to a new and purer life; he had awakened them to a sense of their nearness to God, and his intimate relations with their soul. Was not this the true kingdom of God? Must he not be the true Messiah that could do all this? "Come, see a man who told me all things which ever I did. Is not this the Messiah?" are the words the fictitious Gospel of John puts into the mouth of a woman thus affected; and the words indicate truly the working of the people's mind under such influences. As the Messiah they therefore hailed him, honoured him, ran after him from town to town, from village to village. The excitement grew uncontrollably; all the people seemed to believe; how could Jesus himself at last escape the belief? He did not escape. He at last learned to claim what all the common people amongst the Galileans were glad to own.

Ah! these founders of new religions—these reformers of people's morals and faiths—these agitators and renovators of the conscience and feelings, how great they are and how little! how heroic and how easily led! how wonderful in their generous, noble, truthful, loving natures, and how amazing in their fanaticisms! how they surpass us in their grand ideals, in their lofty aspirations, in their grasp of spiritual truths, and how they make us ashamed for them by their vain fancies! One thinks of Luther throwing his inkstand at the devil; of Edward Irving, that grandest prophetic spirit of these modern days, led blindfold and with the meekness of a saint, by the fanatics that ruined his life and his cause; and of nearly all who have belonged to page 306 the same class. We may regret that Jesus of Nazareth had to pay the same penalty for the power of his reforming, spiritualising spirit; but no one who understands human nature will be surprised.

Those pretensions the people of Galilee were by no means disposed to oppose. Always turbulent, always ready to get up a revolt against the established government, and yet, touched to the depths of their rude nature by the purity and spiritual grandeur of Jesus, they gladly rallied around his person, and were equally prepared to pull down the synagogues of the sneering scribes, and to march upon Jerusalem and proclaim war against Rome. In such a district his pretensions could not but increase the number of his followers.

At length his popularity had arrived at its utmost pitch, and seemed to justify a trial of his powers in the capital itself. A journey thither, at the next feast of the passover, was resolved upon and performed. A large number of his followers accompanied him, or went in separate bands and met him on his entry. His journey thither was one continued triumph. Samaria sent forth the populations of its towns and villages to meet him. The inhabitants of Judah were moved, and admired. The whole city of Jerusalem was stirred at his coming. But there the veil of history falls, and through its thick folds all that we can see is, angry scribes and rulers moving hither and thither,—Jesus upbraiding them for the hypocrisies and immoralities of the times,—the turbulent Galileans getting exasperated at his reception, and raising a tumult in the temple by driving out the exchangers of money and the dealers in cattle,—then, a band of soldiers seizing the leader,—a trial, the sentence of wliich is extorted by a Jerusalem mob,—a bloody cross,—a body buried where criminals always were temporarily buried,—disciples returning with flowing tears and disappointed hopes to their mountain-homes in Galilee. That is all we see, and even a great part of that, perhaps, is due to our dreams, so dense is the covering tradition has thrown over the facts.

To give an estimate of his character with such imperfect materials to form it from is only to present an image of which conjecture must constitute the principal part. We know he must have been no common man, from the way in which he lived in the memory of his disciples. His power seems to have been chiefly founded on his goodness conjoined with a persuasiveness of utterance which led his foes to say, or to be reported as saying, "Never man spake like this man." He seems to have been as gentle and as tender as a woman; and yet capable of a sternness and a severity of invective which exasperated his opponents to the utmost degree. Of the purity of his character his foes raised many doubts; but the doubts must have been known as malicious slanders by his friends, or his hold over the public mind could never have attained the strength it did. Of his opinions we know but little. The teaching handed down by tradition does not differ, as I have already said, so far as its doctrines and ethics are concerned, from that common to the higher class of the Pharisees or of the Essens. Whether he asserted in broader terms than they would have used the universal Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man, does not appear. Certainly, the gospels would lead us to conclude the reverse. That he was deeply moved by the condition of the people, and devoted his life to their moral and spiritual renovation, there can be no doubt. And wherever a large-minded, generous, noble, loving, tender soul, with eloquent demeanour and persuasive lips, devotes himself to such a work, he will make an impression which will win thousands to his cause and perpetuate his memory in the hearts of his disciples long after his death. But for all that history tells of him, had not other causes been at work, and had no other great men risen to take his place, Christianity would have died out amidst the hills of Galilee with the generation in which it was born; or have been now remembered as only one of the numerous Jewish sects which lived and perished in a day.—Rev. James Cranbrook.