Who and what was Jesus of Nazareth? In this question and its answer is involved the whole of what we mean by Christianity.
If it could be demonstrably proved that there never existed such a person as Jesus, Christianity, as a living force, would cease from the earth. There would indeed be a history, a literature that would interest people according to their tastes; but there would be no heart-changing, world-up-lifting system of vital and vitalizing truths and corresponding duties, binding upon the conscience of every human being and inspiring hope in every breast.
In the discussions we are about to enter nothing will be assumed except what is too obvious to question. It will not be assumed that the little books called "gospels" were inspired at all. You will not be asked to consider any miracle, said to have been performed by Jesus, as making proof of his divinity. Nor will I quote proof-texts to show that he is divine.
The first question to ask is this: Did such a person as Jesus is described to have been ever really exist? Did Jesus really live in Nazareth and work in Joseph's shop? Did he, for some three years and six months, go to and fro among men teaching them? Was there, in the days of Herod and Pilate, a Jesus as surely as there was a Caesar?
This much is certain: we have in these four little bookscompared with what is every day written about common men how small they are!attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, a most distinct character, known to us and known to history as Jesus. Whether the men whose names the little books bear, or some other men whose names are lost to us wrote them, matters not in the least. What books contain is more important than the question of authorship. No matter who wrote them, the character we know as Jesus is in the books; there can be no dispute about this; here it is, before our eyes. And this character is as surely in history, in literature, in men's thoughts, in all that we mean by Christian civilization, as it is in the writings of the four men we call evangelists.
Not only do we have the character, but we see clearly that it is a character absolutely unique. It is unique in many respects, but pre-eminently in thisit is the one perfect character that has appeared in the world that ever had a place in the history or the thought of men. It is said that the volatile Voltaire once compared Jesus to Fletcher of Madeley, thinking him as good a man as the Nazarene. But the light Frenchman understood neither the one nor the other. As one said of an unfit biographer of Fletcher's great friend, John Wesley: "He had nothing to draw with, and the well was deep."
Is there one solitary defect, the very least, in this character that we find in the evangelists? Is there one weak spot, or suggestion of fault, or intimation of infirmity, or suspicion of failure, the slightest, to do and to be what was right for him to do and to be?
Look at him as he is set before us in these brief writings; look, reverently if you will, but with open and fearless eyes, to see all that may be seen of him. What least flaw can be found in him? Is there the least possible shadow of reason for reversing, or so much as questioning, Pilate's verdict, "I find no fault in him?" Is there in all history one other character of which you can say or believe as much? Is there any other you are willing to name second to him?
If you are making an estimate of any other characterwhether of a real person, as a sage, a statesman, or a philanthropist, or of some imaginary person, as the hero of a storyhow would you judge him most severely? You would compare him with Jesus. We must remember that it is to Jesus we owe those higher standards by which we judge men in our times. Christ-likeness expresses the highest ideal of character we are capable of conceiving.
Some writers, as you know, have denied that Jesus, the Jesus of the four gospels, did at any time really live, a man among men. Of far more importance than any mere denials in books is the failure of many thousands to realize in their inmost consciousness that the story of the evangelists is the record of a life actually lived.
We will demand of those who deny or doubt that Jesus really lived to account to us for the existence of the character. This they must do, for the existence of the character they cannot deny; it is here before men's eyes, as it is in men's thoughts and lives. This character is not in these little books only; it is in a hundred thousand books. It was not only in the minds of four writers long ago; it is in the minds of millions of men, women, and children today. If any deny or doubt the historic Jesus, let them explain to us how this character, flawless and perfect, ever got itself into the thoughts of men and now in history, literature, art, law, custom, in human life itself.
Some have tried to explain the existence of the character, while denying that Jesus really lived among men, by telling us the evangelists invented the Jesus of these stories. They tell us Jesus is the product of the dramatic genius of the four men whose names go with the brief account we have of him, his words, and his deeds. It would not alter the case to deny that these four wrote the books, and to say some other writers whose names we do not know invented the character.
Let us look carefully and fairly at this view of the subject. If it be reasonable it may be true; if it be true we need not fear to accept it. Nothing in Jesus calls on men to profess to believe what to them is not the truth; nothing can be more like him than to use words without convictions. We cannot do otherwise than "hold fast that which is true" to us; indeed we cannot hold fast to anything else, though it be called truth by never so many voices of men.
The theory that Jesus is an invention is another way of saying that he is the hero of a romance, a creation of constructive imagination. It involves this: four Jews at about the same time, among a people not given to making books of any kindleast of all books of the imaginationwere seized with desire to write books, and thus it came about that they have given to the world, as the product of dramatic genius, this character of Jesus. As, for illustration, it may be said, in a sense, that Bulwer invented the "Margrave" of A Strange Story.
Let us inquire into the antecedent probabilities that these men would naturally attempt to construct and put into form such a work of the imagination; nay, more: whether they were likely to attempt any dramatic work at all.
We are not left to guesses in considering such questions. It is historically certain that the Hebrew mind in ancient days was not given to this sort of literary work. The Greek mind gave dramas to the world, matchless of their kind; the Hebrew mind gave none. There is nothing in Hebrew literature of the period assigned to Jesus, of the period succeeding him, or from the time of Moses, to indicate so much as a tendency to such creations of the imagination.
We have much to judge by, and there can be no mistake. We have the Old Testament Scriptures, the apocryphal books, the comments of the scribescalled Targumsupon their sacred writing, the little book called "Acts of the Apostles," the other New Testament writings, and the works of Josephus as specimens, showing the trend and method of Hebrew literature.
The Hebrew mind in ancient days was not given to art, but to morals. The Jew did not develop art impulses till he had become cosmopolitan and Christianity had changed the world. In ancient Hebrew literature, whether in plain prosein history, statute laws, or proverbs; whether in psalms or other poetry; whether in the magnificent imagery of the prophets, we find that morals, not art, inspire the thought and form the expression. There are neither paintings, nor statues, nor dramas. Their architecture was borrowed from the Phenicians; they were original in their ideas of morals and in their laws and customs relating to rights and wrongs. Their literature is dominated by religion, and not by art, in any of its manifold developments.
Read it allall ancient Hebrew literature; we have history, laws, proverbs, poetry, prophecies, but we have no dramas.
You may cite me to the book of Job. This is more like a drama than any other. If this be allowed, it is the one exception. But it belongs to a period very remote from that of the evangelists, and if it be a drama it is, as may be shown, such a work as a Hebrew might have written. But the story of Jesus is not such a drama as a Hebrew of his period might have written, allowing, what is not true, that at some other period it might have been imagined by a Hebrew, or any other writer of books. As to the book of Job, it is in harmony with Hebrew characteristics and with the time and country in which its scenes are laid. The books of the evangelists are not in harmony with them; they contradict them all and utterly.
Consider well the four little books of the evangelists that we call gospels; study them just as you would any other ancient writings. See what is in them, that you may know what manner of men they were who wrote them. Reject them all, if there be reason, but look carefully to this one thingwhether these writers were given to dramatic creations, or, indeed, had faculty for such work. There is evidence enough in their writings that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not of the literary and book-making classes. They were of the common people; unlearned and unskilled in literature, laboring and business men, trained as laymen. Their lives were very far removed from the occupations and influences that dominated the very feeble literary instinct that belonged to that period of Hebrew literature.
I conclude that it was antecedently as improbable that the evangelists would have attempted the production of any drama whatever, as I will show that it was impossible, had they made the attempt, for them to have invented such a story as they tell us of "The Man of Galilee."
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