The Person, Character, and Teaching, of Jesus.
A lay Sermon read to the Sunday Free Discussion Society. Turn Verein Hall, Melbourne, October 6, 1872.
John vii, 24. Judge!—not according to the appearance,—but judge-righteous judgment!
My main object in this paper, is to review the teaching of Jesus, and to form a more accurate estimate than I have lately heard expressed of its worth in the past and present; but I have thought it right to include his person and character in my theme to protect myself from that misconception which is otherwise almost certain to arise. For in all questions connected with religion, the sympathies of men are so powerfully engaged, that the criticism of a doctrine is frequently regarded as a personal attack upon the character of him who promulgated it, if not upon that of anyone who may undertake its defence. I think also that erroneous impressions prevail as to the means we possess for judging the person and character of Jesus; and therefore that a few minutes may be profitably devoted to the consideration of those two points.
Now of the Person of Jesus, we of course know nothing directly; and our indirect information about him is as doubtful as it is scanty. The inevitable tendency of modern criticism is to throw doubt upon the personality of all those typical characters which tradition has handed down to us as the founders of human improvement. It was like the uprooting of an old affection to learn that Homer and Æsop were imaginary characters; and if the personality of Jesus has no greater title to historic reality, the arrival at that conviction must certainly cost a pang, for which nothing could compensate but the accompanying certainty of an approximation to reasonable probability, if not to demonstrable truth.
The evidence preponderates in my opinion against the reality of the existence of Jesus. It is most remarkable that a person of his asserted pretensions and views should himself have written page 2 —nothing! Not a word—to preclude the otherwise certain misconception and distortion of his precepts; to say nothing of his objects and personal character. This would certainly be quite intelligible on one supposition which has strong support in the Gospels; namely, that his regards were limited exclusively to his own generation, in which he plainly said that he expected that the heavens and the earth would pass away. But this—is to impute to him an ignorance wholly inconsistent with his asserted character, if not altogether fatal to it. Not only did Jesus himself write nothing, but nothing was written about him for such a long time after the date assigned to him, as to preclude direct disproof of any statement respecting him—however absurd; for inherent improbability or incongruity with contemporary history cannot amount to more than moral disproof. Of improbabilities—nay impossibilities—the story is full, but to those who are as full of faith, even such mountains are easily moveable. But when in addition—the utter silence is remembered of contemporary historians who made it their business to report every analogous circumstance; it should be evident that the constant adjurations throughout the Gospels to exercise faith,—not only met a perceived want in even that credulous age, but also indicated a consciousness even then, that the evidence was not in itself probable or credible to those, who could not possibly then discern that faith is an intellectual vice, instead of a virtue.
But it may be said Socrates also wrote nothing, yet his existence is not doubtful. True, but first, he made no such pretensions as did Jesus; secondly, we have otherwise the best authority of that age for believing in his real existence; and thirdly there is nothing improbable in his story. History had made its appearance in the world, and if any history of that age is credible at all, those of Greece and Rome are the most so. There can be no comparison between the testimony of the cultivated Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle, and that of the obscure and in fact—unknown writers of the Gospels; although the death of Socrates took place 400 years before Christ, when Xenophon was about 54 years of age, Plato 30; Aristotle being born 15 years later.
* See Gibbon, vol. ii, p. 90 (Bohn's edition), and Taylor's Diegesis, p.p. 363-4 & 385-9, for evidence of the forgery of the passage in which Jesus is named.
† See Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History and Middleton's Free Enquiry.
‡ "The story in Josephus, of Jesus the son of Ananus, (see Wars vi, v, 3) is evidently the basis of much of that of Jesus of Nazareth. The similarity of their vaticinations (compare Mat. xxiii is very striking. The 35th verse of the xxiii ch. of Mat. affords overwhelming proof that it was written long (say at least 20 rears) after the destruction of Jerusalem, Zacharias, the son of Barachias, being killed in the temple 34 years after the reputed date of the crucifixion (Josephus, Wars iv, v. 4); and sufficient time must be allowed for the confusion of dates to arise The cunning reference in the popular editions of Josephus to 2 Chron. xxiv, 21, will not satisfy the demands of the citation. For "from righteous Abel to Zacharias "is evidently meant to include the complete series from the first to the last notorious case of murder—and the passage in Chron. refers to a time 900 years before Jesus. The prophet Zeehariah, who has also been suggested as the person referred to, and the manner of whose death has not been recorded, and was therefore not notorious, lived about 600 years before. The Zacharias of Chronicles also was the son of Jehoiada not Barachias; the prophet Zechariah was the son of Berechiah. (Zech i, l)."
Paul's curious visit to Arabia, as mentioned by himself, is as incongruous with the rest of his story, as the fact,—that many of the leading incidents in the history of Jesus, are mere plagiarisms from the far older history of the Indian Christna—is fatal to the originality and historic truth of the Gospels. That Paul's epoch is also ante dated, and that his otherwise unintelligible visit to Arabia—much more probably ensued upon the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, concurs much better than the received chronology—with Lucian's supposed account of Paul, as, "a bald longnosed Galilean, who had been taken up to the third heaven and had there heard unspeakable words," and whom he had actually-seen; for Lucian was born in the second century, writing and dying near the end of it. And even without these materials for a re-adjustment of dates, there would remain to be accounted for, the long period of time between all these asserted events, and the date of the first authentic Christian writing, and respecting which no explanation whatever can be given on the orthodox hypothesis.
These conclusions must of course more or less affect our estimate of the character of Jesus. The son of Ananus was evidently no better than a lunatic, whose vaticinations related to nothing beyond the evidently impending destruction of the city and nationality of the Jews. But the character of the Jesus of the page 5 Gospels—imaginary or not—is another matter. As portrayed, impartial criticism must recognise in him a mild enthusiast, whose ideas of virtue and of philosophy were equally a caricature. But we judge of character mainly by actions, and those attributed to Jesus leave his open to considerable queston. The most remarkable thing reported of him is, that he went about ostensibly practising thaumaturgy and curing diseases; for the expressed purpose, less of labouring for the good of others, than to prove the truth of his doctrines! (John x, 37 8) Than which nothing could be more absurd. If Dr. Tracy were to appeal to his clever cures, as proof of the accuracy of his theological opinions, we should simply laugh at him; because, there is no congruity or relation between the two things; the one can no more be proved by the other, than any theology will enable a man without medical knowledge to cure diseases; and the pretension to cure anything so, proves something very different,—the folly or the roguery of the pretender. Yet such was the sole object of the miracles of Jesus! Also much suspicion is thrown upon those miracles, by the plain statement that their success depended, not so much upon his ability, as on the credulity of the spectators. (Mat. xiii, 58. Mark vi, 5-6.) "And he did not many mighty works there, because of Their Unbelief!"—The very reason why he pretended to do them, and should have done them if he could ! "And he Could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief." He,—who "knew what was in man,"—the manufacturer of man, marvelled! For what purpose did he profess to work miracles but to cure unbelief? yet when the occasion served, and demanded it, he could not do so! Jesus's statement (Mark ix, 22) that "all things are possible to them that believe," is obviously untrue, for a mistake would then be impossible.
Further than this there is really little or nothing by which we can judge of his moral character. He admittedly lived the life of a vagrant, apparently helping himself—or directing his disciples to help him—to other people's corn (Mat. xii, 1. Mark ii, 23) and donkeys, (Mat. xxi, 2. John xii, 14,) and giving evasive answers to plain questions. He never was in a position of trust and responsibility, and we have not very encouraging means of judging how he would have acted if he had been in one. His asserted meekness was certainly not proved when he scourged the people out of the temple, an incident in itself devoid of all semblance of probability. (Mat. xxi, 12. Mark xi, 15.) His judgment appears to have been worse than indifferent in more than one instance; not so much perhaps in the fact that page 6 he expected very different results in that generation—for the wisest of men are often deceived,—as in that he selected the greatest rogue for his treasurer in the person of Judas. It may also be thought that he might well have taken care that the records of his life and teaching might come to us in such an authentic manner and reasonable form, that they would not have been open to such very grave suspicion; to say no more. The grotesquely ascetic character of his doctrines is in perfect keeping with the fact that it is recorded of him that he wept and groaned, while it is not hinted that he ever laughed or even smiled.
On the other side, what can be said? His devotion to his visionary purpose is, I fear, the best. He was sacrificed at last (accepting the story as credible) not with that confidence, enthusiasm and endurance which alone can give the halo of glory to the martyr, but in misery and despair! He begged that the cup might, if possible, pass from him! Not with the conscious joy of rectitude, but sweating drops of blood! He implied that he believed—whether he did or not—that his God had forsaken him in his last agony. Could this have been without a conviction that his life was an error, and his devotion a mistake? A pitiable case indeed! Let us thank common sense and straightforward criticism, that it is probably altogether fictitious. Pray observe that I regret as much as any one, that most of his good must be interred with his bones, and that the evil that men cause comes after them. I insinuate nothing against him but what the Gospels have said; and for that, I do not blame him. I devoutly thank my philosophy that while pitying him as a deluded fanatic, and deploring the enormous evils which the teaching attributed to him has brought upon humanity, I can honor him for his good attempted, pity him for his misfortunes, and entirely exonerate him from all evil intentions. From the essential stand point of all religion—freewill—so much charity would be a simple impossibility. If man had a power of initiating action or motion as freewill implies;—if under the same conditions it were possible for him to act otherwise than as he does, there would then be room for blame to Jesus. With me, I rejoice to say, there is none. But religion can see no error without calling it sin. It assumes that faults are voluntary, intentional, and of choice, and calls the ignorant victim of inherited passion, vicious education, and stringent circumstance, wicked, perverse, and damnable! Blind to the inevitable fact, that, according to its own principles, if sin can be, it must originate with the originator! That if man is bad, God—if there page 7 be one—made him so! It has no right to deny this, and then assert that God is the author and giver of virtue, of which it thus robs man. It cannot be charitable any more than consistent. Its pretensions to consistency would be absurd, if they were not repudiated; but its claims to be charitable are impudently false.
But in any case the necessitarian sees that all such visionaries are the victims of exalted imagination, as well as of external circumstance, and that the intentions of all are equally blameless. Rather, perhaps, that intention enters but nominally, or faintly if at all, into the causation of action. For man's intentions are—like his acts—necessary products of his constitution and circumstances, over which he has no control, and which he cannot select. Thus, and thus only, is charity possible. And therefore, "let us not condemn one another any more; but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother's way." (Rom. xiv, 13).
Poor Jesus! deluded visionary! Thanks be to common sense and growing knowledge, your story is happily altogether incredible!
But the teaching—whosesoever it is—is here! and I wish to examine it impartially and truly. For it is a stumbling block in the way of many. I shall lay little stress on particular texts, which may be shewn to be contradicted, or as piety would say explained, by others. I shall not touch now upon the implied communism, nor on the toleration of the adulteress. Nor on the doctrine of faith, which deserves a separate paper. But I shall deal with leading admitted doctrines only; and shall quote, if at all, merely for general purposes of illustration.
The first thing to be done, is to distinguish what was peculiar in Jesus's teaching, from what he merely repeated; from what was taught hundreds of years before, by Confucius, Zoroaster, &c. Thus the doctrine of immortality was older than Moses, and was notoriously held by the Pharisees is Jesus's time. The common statement then that Jesus brought immortality to light, can only be made in wild contempt for veracity and fact. And for the golden rule,—"Do not to others what ye would not that others should do to you,"—Jesus deserves no more credit than any other man that quotes it with approval; but it must not be overlooked that in repeating it he spoilt it by putting it in the positive form—"Do to others as ye would that others should do to you." And the good of this maxim is very much exaggerated; for it is not of universal social application, and strict conformity to it would produce serious evil. If judges, page 8 constables and jailers were to do to our criminals as they would be done by, crime would have no check, and society would collapse.
This brings me to the next thing, which is to point out, that what Jesus repeated, he invariably exaggerated and caricatured. He could not inculcate that aggression and retaliation are evil, (because provoking strife, and therefore opposed to self interest as much as to morality,) without a caricature, and saying, that if struck on one cheek you should offer the other to be treated likewise. And, "whoever shall take your cloak, give to him your coat also. If any one compel you to go with him a mile, go with him twain." Such teaching is absurd; and in practice would be destructive of true morality, and of society also. So is "resist not evil;" and "love your enemies," which is not only impracticable but wrong. Act towards your enemies so as to convert them into friends if you can, and no one will admire the wisdom and propriety of such conduct more than I. But to love them, is not more difficult than immoral.
And here I shall venture to lay down a canon, which I think is a decided advance upon any teaching of Jesus. I am satisfied that one great cause of the prevalence not only of immorality but of the vague and unfruitful ideas on the subject of ethics generally,—is the want of such a canon. But it is in diametrical opposition to the general teaching of Jesus. I hold that nothing would so much conduce to the improvement of morals generally both public and private as the fulfilment of such a rule as the following. I say that man individually and collectively should never let slip any opportunity of pronouncing in the most emphatic manner possible, the broad distinction between good and evil, virtue and vice; so far as he has attained to it. Love your enemies ? Not at all. Hate them not, however evil they may be. For if they are evil, they did not make themselves. But mark your dis-approval of evil conduct wherever you may find it. I say not, "judge not, lest ye be judged," but, Judge, inviting judgment; as we do here. Resist Evil; ay! and to the death!
But according to Jesus, you should make no distinction whatever between your friends and your enemies, the just and the unjust. You are not to judge, but to love and bless, your enemies; do good to, and pray for, them! (Mat. v, 44-5) And what else in the name of common sense are you to do to your friends ? You are thus told by Jesus, to ignore the distinction between, and suppress your own judgment of, good and evil, virtue and vice; Why ? "That ye may be the children of your father which is in Heaven, for He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good; page 9 and sendeth rain on the just, and on the unjust," without any distinction whatever !!! Is not this either rank blasphemy; or else, a complete refutation of the idea of God? And this is not the only place where God is said to be no respecter of persons.
But though it is hard to find any doctrine originally taught by Jesus, there is one, which he has particularly appropriated; namely, the Forgiveness of Sins; and this I propose to shew, is both false and pernicious. And it is directly obnoxious to the rule I have laid down. For it places the good and bad upon a level, and is therefore execrably immoral. If we look round on nature or on human society, we find that evil, or error,—ay ! unconscious error too,—is Never Forgiven. The evil consequences of evil acts are as inevitable as recurring day and night; and must be so until the acts themselves can be undone. And mark! it is solely because this is so—because we find that fire Always burns, that we keep our fingers out of it. And it is only because such ignorant notions, produced by such false teaching, prevail on the subject of morality, that we are less certain of the effects of vice, than of those of fire. The obvious result has been that men believe (as they have been taught) that they may touch pitch and not be defiled ! They have been led to think that they may safely err, because repentance and forgiveness avert the natural consequences of error. The vile sale of indulgences was but the natural and proper fruit of such confusion of the principles of virtue and vice; and men for 1800 years have literally—upon this false promise of the Forgiveness of Sins,—Sold Themselves to work iniquity before the Lord!!!
If men were similarly taught that fire does not burn, they would soon learn the truth by experience of the directly obvious effects. But though more complex and therefore obscure, the effects of vice and crime are not less certain; and therefore, though they have been taught this falsehood for 18 centuries, most men have been acute enough to see their interest in being really moral, and dispensing with that forgiveness of sins, which puts others, bound hand and foot, into the power of the priest. But even yet many cannot discern it. They think a man may lie or steal with impunity, if only not found out. Not so. Nature's retribution is always of the most appropriate kind. Those who so mis-use their judgment Destroy It. Falsehood invariably causes the destruction more or less of the capacity to distinguish between good and evil, wise and foolish; and we frequently see this remarkably proved by the silly manner in which, after a career of deception, men of good original abilities, at ast commit themselves and come to grief. But if they do not do page 10 this evidently to their fellows, the personal deterioration and degradation is all the greater, and all the more inevitable, because it is unconscious in operation and in effect, and demands intellectual foresight to avoid. I suspect that a much more direct connection than could possibly be perceived at once, will yet be traced between lunacy and falsehood.* That natural retribution in complex cases, though absolutely certain, is difficult to discern at first, is no disproof. That is quite in accordance with the method of nature in the development of intellect. To apprehend this truth demands the complete exercise of the logical faculty, involving a bold deduction, and extended verification by inductions of great complexity. But the establishment of this as a fundamental moral truth, is worthy of the perfection of intellectual effort. Discoveries of greatest value have always been most difficult of achievement. But though as yet intellectually so hard to discern, this is instinctively, and generally admitted and affirmed in all such popular axioms as, "Honesty is the best policy!" Honesty Is the best policy. This is truer than all the Gospels. If it were not, morality would be a wild chimera, instead of a growing fact.
* Sec corroborative remarks in Maudsley's Physiology and Pathology of the Mind. pp. 210-1.
But love God First, says Jesus. Is God the better for your love ? No! Is man ? Yes, largely. Then, I say, love man, that is, the worthy man, first. Cannot God take care of himself ? If not, how can he take care of you ? Morality is—the manners of men towards each other. To love any other being (except woman) more, must therefore be immoral and evil. It is this putting God first, that is the evil essence of religion. Hark to the man after God's own heart—David, (see Psalm cxxxix, 21, 2) "Do not I Hate them, O Lord, that hate thee ? And am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee ? Yea, I hate them with Perfect Hatred. I count them Mine enemies." What a diabolical utterance! Thus it is that the love of God, is, and always has been, the Perfect Hatred of humanity! When a man's imaginative egotism is once projected and exalted into the idea of a God and leads him to fancy that he can possibly owe a higher duty, than to his neighbour and himself, there is no length to which his pious enthusiasm will not carry him, to effect any purpose which he may be so unfortunate as to be persuaded is the will of his God! Let history tell how he has endeavored to emulate his fictitious divine fiend, in inventing horrid tortures for his unfortunate neighbour, whom he has deliberately sacrificed with holy joy, for a sweet smelling savour in the nostrils of the demon Jehovah! Could anything be more immoral ? Yet Jesus taught all this in effect, when he said love God first. Yet we can freely forgive him, for he knew not what he did !page 12
To conclude, what did Jesus teach that had not been taught before ? Nothing ! The golden rule, which he spoilt, was better taught by Confucius and Zoroaster, and probably by thousands before them. So was the forgiveness of injuries as well as of sins. Even the precepts—to resist not evil, and to love enemies, did not originate with him, though he may have given more prominence to them, or exaggerated them more, than his predecessors. Why then, if he taught nothing new that was good, or good that was new, is he preferred to them, and falsely invested with particular credit, for repeating what others had said ? Simply because his painful though impossible story, his unmerited wrongs, and miserable fate, have invested his memory with a melting pathos, which appeals directly and powerfully to human sympathy; which while it captivates the affections, deceives the judgment. Men are moved, aye, and to tears, far more readily by reading fiction than by witnessing fact. This is why men are utterly blinded to the otherwise obvious and vital defects of Jesus's teaching, and actually adore him, for what they would contemn another. And until men and women better appreciate and utilise their precious faculty of reason, and recognise their duty and interest in exercising it unreservedly upon every subject that comes before them, to distinguish and emphasize the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, their very virtues will always be liable to run them headlong into vice, and their Good will be Evil. And again I say unto you,—Judge !—not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment!
H. Thomas. Printer. 75 Little Collins Street West, Melbourne.