Page images

This very poverty of information on the part of so many as four writers does, however, seem to authorize the conjecture that there was nothing remarkable to be told. Jesus probably attracted but little attention from his fellow-citizens previously to his public preaching. The contemplation of objects above the common pursuits of life frequently produces an indifference towards and inaptitude for them, which in the eyes of most observers, and in many cases justly, place the recluse below rather than above the level of his fellow-men. The active but petty engagements which would confer weight in a provincial town, were probably little sought after by one who was meditating on the prophets; and the respectable Nazarenes who filled the important offices of priest, ruler of the synagogue, or tax-gatherer, might have smiled with contempt if told that their names would be eclipsed by that of the low-born, obscure, and apparently useless citizen, who, disregarding civil eminence, was engaged in the contemplation of the kingdom of God.

The few allusions which are found to the earlier life of Jesus do not indicate that he had been considered as a person of influence or weight in his own town. His townsmen distinguish him merely by his profession and the name of his family. Mark vi. 1,4: "He came to his own country, and his disciples follow him : And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue; and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things; and what wisdom is this

a young man, in company with Rabbi Joshua ben Perachiah, with whom having disagreed, he gave himself up to magical practices.Bab. Sanhed. fol. 107, 2.

The continual resort of the Jews to Alexandria, and the opening part of Matthew's Gospel, seem to entitle this story to some credit, as far as relates to the journey of Jesus into Egypt at some period of his life.

which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands ? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses, and of Juda and Simon ? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” See also Luke iv. 24; John vi. 42; Matt. xiii. 54,

His own family seem at first not only to have disbelieved the reality of his miracles, but to have looked upon his proceedings as rash and senseless. Mark ïï. 21, 22: “And when his friends heard of it (the assemblage of the multitude), they went out to lay hold on him, for they said, He is beside himself. And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils." John also relates a conversation in which the brethren of Jesus speak of his undertaking in a depreciating manner. vii. 3, 5.

Thus it would seem that there had been nothing in the conduct of Jesus to prepare common observers for his notoriety, and that those who were most intimate with him regarded his undertaking with surprise and impatience. How, then, did he acquire the command of that deep reverence and that implicit obedience which seem to have been yielded to him by his disciples ?—By the dazzling nature of his pretensions, the force of character with which he supported them, and his attractive social qualities.

The claim of a divine mission, and the pretension to miraculous powers, generally call forth either contempt or admiration. The idea of command over invisible influences is so calculated both to delight and to overawe, that, if the claimant be able to maintain his hazardous pretensions with any apparent success, or merely to bring the minds of beholders into secret doubt, his influence becomes of the most despotic kind. The enthusiasm of Jesus was not of that blind sort which precludes all regard to common probabilities. His belief in miracles was not the chimera of a disordered imagination, but was founded on ideas common to his age and country; it permitted, therefore, the exercise of intellectual vigour and acuteness in the situations into which such a belief led him. He possessed in a remarkable degree both the boldness and the tact which are necessary to every leader of a multitude, and especially to one who sustains the character of a miracle-worker. His answers to the applicants are generally such as would not compromise his reputation, whatever were the result :"According to thy faith be it unto thee;" “Go thy way, thy faith hath saved thee," &c. When the disciples whom he had authorized to cast out demons, asked him why they could not cure a certain lunatic, his ready answer was, “Because of your unbelief,” and “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting." When pressed by his opponents to produce a sign from heaven, he referred to “the sign of the times," and, by a prompt and sharp reproof, made his questioners appear the baffled party. When his disciples begged permission to call down fire from heaven to destroy the uncourteous village, he answered, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of; for the Son of Man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.” On another occasion, when called


for a miracle, he promised at once to build the Temple in three days, requiring first that it should be destroyed. His retort concerning the authority of John, and his reply concerning the tribute money, shew the same mixture of intrepidity and tact, which could always silence, although it might be dangerous or impossible to answer, an opponent.

The degree of management or shrewdness here supposed does not imply that Jesus was a wilful deceiver, or insincere in his main purpose and pretensions. From his apparent success in the cases of demons and others, he might believe that he really possessed a miraculous power; but he was obliged to perceive that it was not invariable or universal. In his own mind he might conclude that miracles of different magnitudes required different modes of preparation, or a different degree of faith; or he might be unable to explain the matter at all to his own satisfaction. But in the meantime, he would naturally wish to avoid a display of failure before his followers and the multitude, and, in the midst of incidental embarrassing conjunctures, would avail himself of his promptness of thought to find suitable evasions.*

But the assertion of a divine commission, and the skilful maintenance of miraculous pretensions, did not constitute the only hold of Jesus upon the allegiance of his followers. This was secured by the interest which he was able to excite as a man and a friend. Besides the capacity for forming friendships, he possessed in a high degree that facility or accessibleness which inspires confidence, whilst it does not diminish respect. The disciples as well as the Pharisees invited him without fear to their feasts. The copiousness and weight of his conversation, and the interest which his presence alone must inspire by raising the minds of his associates to the contemplation of the elevated objects with which his name was connected, may explain the feeling of those who said, “Lord, we will follow thee whithersoever thou goest."

* I cannot find, in any of the miracles, reason to suspect that Jesus was concerned in a fraudulent scheme or contrivance. This low kind of art would render his character inexplicable; and the supposition of it is unnecessary, since it has been shewn that those miracles which cannot be resolved into natural events probably owe their miraculous part to the exaggeration or invention of the narrators.

The promptness of his rebukes even probably strengthened rather than weakened the attachment of his hearers, since they were delivered with that frankness of speech which allows men to feel less hurt by the severity of the reproof, than interested by the point with which it is delivered, and conciliated by the evident absence of malignant intention.

Upon the whole, we see in Jesus the singular example of a wise and good man influenced by a kind of notions, which, when acting upon more ordinary minds, produce mere visionaries or fanatics. The belief in divine missions, and the expectation of approaching miraculous revolutions, are not uncommon; but in most states of society they are found in conjunction with ignorance and a low degree of moral and intellectual power. A peculiar creed, literature, and national position, permitted these notions to be seized upon by a highly endowed mind; and that which, in connexion with coarseness and violence, would have produced a savage and warlike fanatic, falling in with intellect, benevolence, and natural refinement, produced a benign and philosophic enthusiast.

The scantiness and mixed nature of the four Gospels only permit us, after all, to gain a view far from perfect of the real character of Jesus. They relate chiefly to the short period of his public appearance; the discourses introduced are made the vehicles for conveying the writers' thoughts on the controversies and events of their own times; and the narratives are loaded with those miraculous additions which, in the opinion of the authors, were calculated to do honour to the founder of their church. Few readers will be disposed to the labour of making the deductions and allowances required on these several accounts as they proceed in the perusal of the Gospels. All but the few whose taste lies in an obscure and usually uninteresting kind of investigation, will prefer one or other of the more decided courses,-of taking the books

« PreviousContinue »