How little the evangelists were capable of inventing such a character as the Jesus of the four gospels is made very plain by comparing Jesus and his doctrines with them and their notions.
It must be assumed here that you have, to some extent at least, considered what the character of Jesus is and what his teachings mean. As to your conception of him and his teachings, this I am sure of: if you continue to study him and his words your best ideas now will, by and by, seem to you to be very unworthy.
Measure the evangelists and their thoughts by Jesus and his thoughts. How small, narrow, meager, and lean of soul they are! When they speak, when they act in these histories, they give us the gauge and the level of very common men. They misapprehend him till he is rent with grief at their dullness and hardness of heart. They misinterpret his simplest words. They show in many words what even to us seems to be amazing spiritual stupidity and spiritual incapacity.
This is a fair specimen of them and their thinking powers: Jesus said to them one day, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees." "And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have taken no bread," supposing that he meant they must not eat bread with these people.
This also gives us the drift and gauge of their thoughts: Jesus was constantly and in many ways speaking to them of the "kingdom of heaven," and they kept dreaming and talking of a "kingdom of Israel," the restoration of David's throne. This was the common thought and talk of their circle. One of the best of the women who followed Jesus and loved him, braving danger and contempt for his sake, Salome, preferred ambitious requests for her two sons, James and John, who were in their mother's secret and sympathy, seeking high places for them in what they so longed forthe common dispensation of national deliverance and dominion.
So far below his thoughts are their thoughts, so unlike him are they, that no Christian child, who has but partially learned of Jesus what he means by the "kingdom of God," can read what Salome and her sons say to Jesus without recoiling from them.
Were the evangelists good enoughdid they have the moral elevation necessary to the conception of such truths as Jesus taught? Of such a life as Jesus lived? Of Jesus himself?
If you know what is in these gospels it is too plain to you to need argument that these men were very far below the sphere of Jesus as to morals, rights and wrongs, and whatever relates to spiritual life. While he was proclaiming self-renunciation as the condition precedent to entering into life at all in common with his life, these men, while claiming to be his disciples and best friends, were wont to "dispute" with one another about seats of honor at dinings, as well as places of honor in the earthly kingdom they were looking for.
Some of them showed that they could fight upon occasiontheir Galilean blood was equal to that; but they greatly lacked moral courage. They were afraid not only of men's anger, but of their criticism. But it is impossible to think of Jesus as hesitating, for one instant, from any sort of fear of men, fear of death or criticism, in uttering one truth or doing one right thing. We cannot think of Jesus as feeling the pulse of public sentiment in order to determine what he should say. We cannot think of Jesus as, for one instant, looking about him to read in the faces of his hearers, whether they were Galilean peasants or the chief estates of Jerusalem, the probable reception of his words. We cannot think of him as veering the thickness of a line from the perfect truth as he saw it in order to win favor or avoid resentment. It is certain to us that such thoughts were never in his mindthat such feelings were never in his heart. His "eye was single," his "whole body full of light."
Do these men whose names go with the four gospels show right feeling, sentiment, for inventing such a character, granting, what we know they did not have, all other qualifications? Seeing what they were, what they show themselves to have been, is it possible to believe that, in their inmost souls, they were in sympathy with the character they have given us in the gospels? To invent a truly great, all-around character, there must be not only adequate gifts of intellect and force of conscience; there must be also right sensibility. There must not only be a large mind and a true conscience; there must be a good heart. The evangelists were not bad men, but they were unspiritual. If one cannot, as an original conception of the intellect, "draw a taller man than himself," much less can he draw a better man than himself.
Test their capacity for such a work as inventing the Jesus of the gospels in any direction. Compare these men with Jesus as to his doctrine and practice as to toleration and human brotherhood. They shrink into nothingness.
Jesus goes to the house of the publican, Zaccheus, whom all Jericho hated. Jesus dines with the man who was unpopular, who was despised; he preaches the full Gospel to him; he is kind to him; he loves him. The disciples were in sympathy not with Jesus, but the crowd that "murmured." They were mortified, displeased, afraid, scandalized; Jesus had done so imprudent a thing as to dine with a man who had no friends, but many foes.
You know of Jesus from his words, above all from his life, that he was incapable of prejudice; that no wretched or mean man of any class or race could appeal to him in vain. You know that Jesus was as free from all intolerance, from all caste feeling and race prejudice, as the virgin snow is free from stain. But his disciples, these men who have told us of him, were saturated and poisoned with these feelings; they lived on the low plane of their race and time, and not above it. In the "Acts of the Apostles" we see what that plane was; the Jew hated Gentiles. Consider the history of Peter's visit to Cornelius, and you will see how deep and inveterate is the feeling that opened a gulf between the Jews and other races. Consider what is meant by the sudden outburst of rage at the word "Gentile" that day Paul spoke to the mob in the temple court, as he stood on the castle stairs. All history illustrates this intense race prejudice. In this country, in the spring of 1888, a Jew celebrated the funeral of his daughter because she had married a Gentile.
Read the story of the Syrophenician woman, the parable of the good Samaritan, his heavenly doctrines about loving our enemies, and then think of these writers inventing Jesus and his doctrines.
See the false shame on their faces when they find Jesus talking with the woman of Sychar by Jacob's well, and ask whether men like these lived in the same world with him!
Consider the attitude of Jesus toward fallen women. See how he bore himself with the woman who washed his feet with her tears in Simon's house; see his tender respect for Magdalene; see him, his cheeks aflame with shame and confusion, his eyes dewy with pity, as he made marks on the ground with his finger that day they brought a sinful girl to him and demanded judgment upon her.
These men who wrote of Jesus were as incapable of such sentiments and conduct as they were incapable of building worlds. God pity us! as incapable as we, his disciples of today, are, who, after all that he has taught us and done for us, in our meanness and cowardice abide still in heathenism, and scorn those whom Jesus did not scorn. We may judge these evangelists by ourselves; they were as we are. They were ashamed of him when he spoke respectfully and kindly to fallen women; we would be ashamed of him now if he were again among us in the flesh, bearing himself toward our outcasts as he did when he was in Galilee.
If possible, these evangelists were as incapable as we are of inventing the character of Jesus.
In what has been said of the ability of these men to conceive such a character as Jesus remember we are not speaking of copyists, but creators; not of those who merely put together a story from materials furnished by history, or from some like that has been lived, but of those who invent, think out a character. The copyists, the historians, the biographers, the novelists, easily enough write and talk of greater and better men than themselves. This sort of literary work, this sort of thinking, is done every day; it is common as the "making of books." If the materials are furnished us we may well enough write of those who are beyond and above us. We will naturally and often necessarily do this in describing one who actually lived. Great and good men and women have often had biographers immeasurably inferior to them. A clever literary man may draw a fair picture of Julius Caesar. Froude did it. A man of hard and narrow spirit may so write of heroes as to make us feel their superiority. Carlyle did this for not a few. A small man may tell us of his master. Even Boswell could do this.
But in considering whether these four writers could have invented the character of Jesus we are not speaking of the sort of work historians and biographers do, but of pure creative work; the thinking out of a character never described by another and that never lived. For the theory we are now considering is that Jesus never lived; that he is only the product of the dramatic genius of these four writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Now, you will conclude when you have considered it, that very little, if any, of this sort of work is ever done. Perhaps we should hesitate to affirm that such creative work is impossible, but it may well be doubted whether any character in any fiction or drama of any sort, by any writer in any age, is a pure invention. Is there not for every character in fiction as well as in history a man somewhere, in some form? some facts in actual life that furnish the materials for the conception and delineation of that form of life that the writing presents to us? Is there in any writing any character that has not intellectual descent from some life actually lived, or in some way other than by creative processes brought into the writer's thoughts?
Consider Shakespeare's plays. Life furnished the materials; his heroes and heroines have real men and women back of them. Take Milton's Satan. He is very like Milton in force and sublimity; but the poet did not create the character. His Satan is a composite work from Bible hints and heathen mythology. This Satan had lived in the thoughts of men before that Milton took him in hand.
Only think how difficult, if not impossible, it must be to think out a perfectly new type of character, a type that has nothing in life to stand for it. It would be like trying to conceive a sixth sense. Back of legends the noblest and the ignoblest there is some form of life or some form of fact. It may be that all ideas even not revealed have their type or origin somewhere in nature or in life. Whether with hand or brain man works upon materials furnished him; man creates nothing; man is created.
But there was in no nation whateverand these four men knew the Jewish nation only with any fullness of knowledgeany character, any life, any facts, that could have so much as suggested Jesus. They were shut up to Hebrew history, and that could furnish no materials to the evangelists for the construction of such a character. It was not suggested by the Hebrew prophets; for it is evident that the disciples did not understand these prophecies as pointing to Jesus till after he had lived his life, till his mission was ended. Nay, with all the backward-shining light of his life no four men in the world today could, without the actual story, construct the character and life of Jesus out of what the prophets say.
There has been a good deal of fanciful writing concerning certain characters in the Old Testament history, considered as types of the Messiah. Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Davideven magnificent and profligate Solomon and the coarse, dull Samson have been set forth as types of the true Son of man. Adam himself has been discussed and portrayed in this connection. Some of these men were among the greatest and best of the human race. But whatever they were as types of the Teacher, Prince, and Saviour foretold by the prophets, there was nothing in these men that could have suggested the invention of the Christ of the evangelists.
So far as the predictions in Hebrew prophecy may be urged as accounting for the conception of Jesus by the evangelists, they not only did not understand them so as to make such use of them, they misunderstood them, and, in common with their people, supposed that they foretold another and altogether different character than that of the Jesus of the gospels. Jesus had to live and die before they could understand the prophets as referring to him; it was he who unlocked their meaning. The whole Christ is not in the prophetscould not be; words could not manifest him; he had to live to be known.
Non-Christian Hebrews are to this day looking for a different character to appear and fulfill the prophets. The "Jews' Wailing Place" in Jerusalem tells travelers of our time how they cling to an interpretation of the prophets that excludes the lowly Nazarene, of whom the evangelists have told us.
Click Here to Return to Introduction and Table of Contents
Go to Top