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Lecture 4: The Primitive Christian Community, and the Beginning of the Faith of the Church

THE death of Jesus was the crowning of his life-work. It was this, not merely as a last authentication and sealing of his faithful obedience to his divine life-task, but also in so far as it first brought to completion what the didactic instruction of Jesus to the disciples had not yet attained—since it tore them away from their Jewish carnal hopes of a Messiah, and it raised them to a higher world of faith and hope. At first, indeed, the completely unexpected catastrophe appears to have surprised them, and to have dissipated all their composure and all their courage. We may infer this not merely from the fact that, according to the Synoptic Gospels, none of the disciples were near the Lord in His last hours, but we have also direct evidence for it in the words which, according to Mark (xiv. 27 f.), were spoken by Jesus to His disciples as a prophecy on the way to Gethsemane. “All ye shall be offended because of Me this night: for it is written, I will smite the Shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered. But after that I am risen, I will go before you into Galilee.” It matters little whether we hold these words to be an actual prophecy of Jesus or a prophecy after the event (vaticinium post eventum) which the evangelist, or properly speaking the tradition of the community, had already put into His mouth. For in any case the community would not have handed it down, nor would the evangelist have narrated it, if the facts had not corresponded to it. In these Words we have an indubitably certain intimation as to how we have to think of the historical course of events immediately after the death of Jesus. We may draw from them two important inferences: first, that the disciples of Jesus, under the agitating impression of a tragic issue which took them completely by surprise, lost their composure and courage, and, scattered like a flock without a shepherd, they fled to their Galilean home; and secondly, that there they experienced the miracle by which they persuaded themselves that the crucified Jesus was living, and had risen again. The latter inference is also confirmed by the narrative of Mark and Matthew concerning the angels at the grave of Jesus, who gave the women direction that they would see Jesus in Galilee, where He had gone before them. Whatever view we may be inclined to take regarding this legend of the angels at the sepulchre, so much at all events is certain, that the words put by the oldest tradition into their mouth would remain inconceivable under the assumption of Luke's form of the Easter history, according to which the appearances of Christ are represented as having already taken place on the Sunday in and near Jerusalem. Thus the words of the angels in the older Gospel only obtain a meaning when we perceive in them a trace of the older recollection that the appearances of Christ took place first in Galilee, and consequently not till some time after the death of Jesus. From this the further inference is to be drawn, that the whole group of the Easter histories enacted in Jerusalem belongs to a later form of the legend, and cannot be authoritative for our judgment of the actual facts; and further, that the mysterious visions which the disciples experienced in Galilee could not stand in any relation to the grave of Jesus situated at Jerusalem, nor consequently to the body of the crucified one which lay in it. This inference is, moreover, confirmed by the further consideration that Paul (in 1 Cor. xv.) puts the appearances of Christ which had occurred to the first disciples on the same level with that which had happened at last to himself. And as he thought of the latter, at all events (as we shall afterwards see), as an appearance of the heavenly spirit, and not of the earthly body, of Jesus Christ, it follows that he (certainly in harmony with the oldest tradition of the community) also thought of the first appearances of Christ in the same way, and consequently as revelations of the exalted spirit of Christ without any relation to the earthly grave and dead body. Thus the two oldest witnesses that we have on the subject—namely, Paul and Mark—lead us, in harmony with each other, to a view of the experiences of the disciples after the death of Jesus which lies far from the more richly woven later legends, but is so much the more favourable to a psychological explanation of the belief in the resurrection, based on the historical conditions of the primitive community.

Let us in this regard first recall to our minds what part the belief in a resurrection played generally in the Judaism of that time. The boundaries between the present world and the next had become so fluent, that no difficulty was found in beholding in an extraordinary person like Jesus a prophet of the olden days who had risen again—an Elijah, or Jeremiah, or even a John the Baptist who had just been beheaded. Such popular judgments, of some of which the Gospels give us an account, show distinctly how natural the thought of the resurrection of a pious one was to the Jews of that time. It is just from this point of view that the legends of the raisings of the dead to life, which Jesus and the apostles are represented as having performed, are likewise explained; as is also the legend handed down by Matthew (xxvii. 52) of the many bodies of the saints coming out of their graves after the resurrection of Jesus. In a time and environment in which such a spiritual tendency prevails, in which men stand on such intimate footing with the other world and are constantly in strained expectation as to whether its gates might not open, or an announcement or a messenger now come from it, is it to be wondered at if what all hold to be possible and probable, and many longingly expect, should have actually once become a psychological experience of individuals? The particular grounds, however, which actualised this possibility, lay in the psychological state of the disciples of Jesus after the death of the Lord. Utterly surprised by the catastrophe, they had indeed in the first moments lost composure and deliberation, and had fled back to Galilee. Here, however, in the places where they had tarried in intimate intercourse with Jesus till but a short time before, and where they had received the deepest impressions, their senses soon returned to them again; they felt themselves once more under the magic power of His personality, which stood as lovingly as ever before their souls; they felt themselves again supported by the courageous faith and hope which He had been able to inspire so often in them. In particular, they would naturally recall individual utterances and quotations from Scripture by which Jesus had strengthened His confidence in God, when looking forward to the impending dire conflicts and fate that awaited Him; they must have thought of such words in the Psalms as are found in Psalms xvi. 10, lxxxvi. 13, and similar passages, in which the poet hoped for a deliverance from threatening death as coming from God, but which now could be interpreted as redemption from the bonds of death by resuscitation from the dead. And still more was such an interpretation suggested by the form of the figurative expression of the prophet Hosea (vi. 2), “After two days will He revive us; in the third day He will raise us up, and we shall live in His sight.” In like manner they would think of the words of Isaiah concerning the Servant of God, who, after he had given his soul as an offering for sin, was to prolong his days and divide the spoil with the strong. If the despondent spirit of the disciples gathered support again from such memories and words of Scripture, if their heart burned in the hot conflict between doubt and hope (Luke xxiv. 32), if their yearning love flung itself back into recollections of the Lord as He went with them upon the way and opened to them the Scriptures, then were all the psychological conditions present under which a visionary experience of a similar kind, as occurred later in the case of St Paul, becomes quite explainable. According to the testimony of Paul (1 Cor. xv. 5), which is confirmed by allusions in Mark (xvi. 7) and Luke (xxiv. 34), it was Peter, the man of vivid feeling and of quickly excitable soul, who was the first who came by such a vision to the conviction that the crucified one was living and was exalted to be the heavenly Messiah. His conviction and the believing courage of his enthusiasm worked upon the others, kindling them too; and soon the rest of the disciples also experienced similar moments of enthusiastic vision, which served as a confirming testimony to the words of Peter.

That these appearances occurred in the case of several and to many together, proves so little against the possibility of their psychological explanation that it rather serves to give them support. For it is a well-known fact of experience that states of the extraordinarily excited life of the soul, and in particular religious enthusiasm and ecstasy, have a sort of infectious character, and master whole assemblies with elemental power. The history of religion of all times furnishes a multitude of instances in proof of this. Nor does the appearance of Christ to more than five hundred brethren which Paul mentions (1 Cor. xv. 6), present in this respect any difficulties; and so much the less if the conjecture is correct—and in fact it has much probability—that what is referred to here is the same event which lies at the basis of the narrative in the Acts of the Apostles of the effusion of the Spirit on the first Pentecost. If in this narrative the coming of the Spirit upon the assembly of the believers is accompanied with a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind and with cloven tongues like as of fire, it is not difficult to recognise again there the same visionary beholding of heavenly light, and hearing of heavenly voices, as seems to have occurred as a rule in the case of the appearances of Christ (cf. Acts ix. 3). And if all the inspired, those who were “filled with the Holy Ghost,” then began to speak in foreign tongues, so that it appeared to many hearers as if they were filled with new wine, while Peter found in this the fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel about all seeing visions and prophesying (Acts ii. 13-21),—at the basis of this lies quite distinctly the recollection that the inspiration experienced in the primitive Christian assemblies was wont to express itself pre-eminently in ecstatic voices, in speaking in tongues and prophesying. This “speaking in tongues” was, according to the authentic description of Paul (1 Cor. xiv.), nothing but a stammering effusion of exuberant religious feeling that could not be clothed in intelligible words, which to those who stood at a distance might well give the impression of mental derangement, and which even for the assembly of the believers always needed special interpretation in order to have a universal edifying effect. This “speaking in tongues,” as Paul describes it, has nothing in common with speaking in foreign languages,—just as little as the ecstatic stammering, groaning, and shouting which still frequently occurs at the present day in religious revival meetings is a speaking in foreign languages. The author of the Acts of the Apostles, who seems no longer to have known the original manifestations as an eyewitness, was the first to give a miraculous interpretation to the “speaking with tongues” of that Pentecost assembly, as if the disciples had spoken in foreign languages which had been recognised by the hearers as the various languages of their countries. Nevertheless, under this legendary transformation the original correct recollection is still clearly enough betrayed in the statement that many hearers expressed the suspicion that the speakers in tongues were intoxicated (Acts ii. 13 f.; 1 Cor. xiv. 23); and besides, Peter in his Pentecost discourse makes not the slightest mention of the strange miracle of discoursing in foreign languages, but speaks only of enraptured visions and prophesying, and therefore just of such utterances of intense inspiration as those we know of from the description of Paul, and as we find them again not seldom in a similar way in other experiences of the kind, in which we have no supernatural miracle to seek for at all. Accordingly, we shall thus be able to find the historical kernel of the event of Pentecost in this, that the inspired visions and speaking hitherto confined only to individuals or the narrowest circle of disciples, in which there was perceived a revelation of the living Christ or of the spirit of Christ (which both mean the same thing), spread on the first occasion over the whole of the large assembly and carried it irresistibly away, so that several hundreds were all at once converted to Jesus as the Christ. The Pentecost history is therefore not at all so very different from the Easter histories as appears according to the later legendary representations of them by Luke. Carried back to their original kernel, they stand upon one and the same level, and serve mutually to explain each other, as certainly as do the different appearances of Christ particularised in succession by Paul (1 Cor. xv. 3 ff.) At the basis of all these cases there lie states of high religious enthusiasm, which became heightened to ecstatic visionary perceptions (hallucinations) and utterances of feeling. In such cases what filled the consciousness might well assume different forms in individuals; but it was always felt as the operation of the heavenly Spirit, in which the life of the exalted Messiah Jesus announced itself to His believers, and in which therefore the dawning of the time of salvation promised by the prophets had become a fact. But with all the extraordinariness of these experiences of the oldest community of disciples, in whom the new Christian spirit was embodied with creative originality, they have nevertheless many analogies in those states of religious inspiration or enthusiasm in which any devout community feels itself quickened and seized by the Spirit of God. And who would care to deny that something wondrous does happen in all such moments, when human souls feel themselves raised in common devotion to a higher world of divine life and filled with the powers of world-overcoming faith and love? Who would question the fact that the divine spirit, of whom it is said that it is as the wind which “bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth,” in this its working in our hearts, is a mystery never wholly to be fathomed? So far the pious belief in the miracles of the first Christian Easter and Pentecost remains right in itself, even if in the sense of the historical way of thinking of the present day the absolutely supernatural miracle is discarded by interpreting and explaining the experiences of the primitive community of those days according to analogy of the later pious experiences of Christendom generally, as such experiences have recurred again at all times. And granting that the revelations of the spirit of Christ in the first community might express themselves differently in form, and were more powerful, more abrupt, more enthusiastic, more visionary, than in our community at the present day, yet it is always one and the same spirit of Christ, the divine Son of Man, whose working in His brethren is indeed marvellous, but was never an absolutely supernatural miracle any more than it is to-day.

With the belief of the disciples that their Lord and Master had been resuscitated from the dead and made Lord and Christ, the King of the Messianic kingdom (Acts ii. 36), there was also immediately connected the expectation that in a short space of time He would come again upon the clouds from heaven, where He is now sitting at the right hand of God, as Daniel had so prophesied of the Son of Man, and that He should then reveal Himself to all the world as the Messiah and set up His kingdom on the earth (Acts i. 6). All the hoping and waiting of the community, since the first visions of Christ, were directed towards this His early return or Second Coming; nay, these visions, and the certainty of the crucified one being alive which was produced by them, had so great fundamental importance for the first disciples only because they saw in them the guarantee of His immediately impending return and visible dominion. That the Lord was at hand and with Him the great day of judgment and of deliverance, the time of the renovation of the world, of the founding of a new order of things, or the kingdom of God in place of the Satanic kingdom of the world,— this was the constantly recurring watchword in which the whole confession of the first Christians was still comprised. Their faith was still essentially the hope of a future salvation; nor should we think of the object of their hope too spiritualistically. It was not a heavenly blessedness in the other world which they expected from the Messiah Jesus, but earthly redemption from their present earthly misery; nor did they hope for this redemption for all men, but only for the people of Israel, and more particularly for those pious Jews who waited for the consolation of Israel, and beheld in Jesus the God-elected bringer of this consolation. The inmost sense of the primitive community is certainly expressed in the Acts of the Apostles when the disciples are represented as addressing the question to their departing Lord, “Wilt Thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel” (Acts i. 6); or when Mary, with her gaze turned towards the dawning Messianic salvation, blesses God that “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He hath sent empty away. He hath holpen His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy; as He spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever” (Luke i. 52 ff.) We are accustomed to take such words figuratively and to interpret them spiritually, in which we are quite right as regards their use for the purpose of edification; but we ought always to remember, when we are studying history, that we transform the simple original meaning of the words by our spiritual interpretation. The primitive Christian community hoped for the coming kingdom of the Messiah in no other sense than all the other Jews did. It was distinguished only in that it expected the restoration of this kingdom by the Jesus of Nazareth whom the leaders of the people had rejected, but whom God had chosen and exalted to His right hand.

Insignificant as at first sight this point of difference may appear, yet it is undeniable that it involved important consequences for the religious frame of mind of the Christian community. As their Messianic hope did not, like that of the other Jews, cleave to a warlike Son of David, that Ideal of the national political dream of the Messiah, but was attached to the historical person of Jesus whom they had learned to know as the merciful friend of the people and saviour of the wretched, as the humble teacher and meek sufferer,—they thus recognised in these very characteristics the typical example which believing Christians have to imitate in order to become participators in the kingdom of the Messiah. Thus the belief in Jesus as the Lord and Christ of His disciple-community became not merely the motive of their confident eschatological hopes, but at the same time also the motive of a disposition which, in their imitation of the humble and meek, merciful and selfless character of Jesus, already actually possessed the power of overcoming the world, and with it the true, spiritual essence of the coming kingdom of God,—although in their consciousness of that kingdom there was still a future good to be expected from the return of Christ. Be it that their ideas of God, the world, and of the future kingdom of God in Israel, were still quite Jewish, and albeit in their external mode of life they might still remain wholly bound to the law of their people—since, according to the representation of the Acts of the Apostles, they were distinguished by strict legal piety—yet, in spite of all this, they already bore in their hearts the germ of a new and higher piety and morality. For it was the image of Jesus which they carried in their hearts and impressed in affectionate memory so intimately on themselves that now, much more than in His lifetime, they grew into His mind, and so outgrew the Jewish mind. Although outwardly still Jews, they were nevertheless a brotherhood animated by the spirit of Jesus in which the germ of the new community of Sonship to God was already alive, although at first still hidden beneath the Jewish husk which it was not yet possible for them to strip off, nor would it have been wholesome at the outset for them to have done so. The new religious principle of life which had entered into the world with Jesus must first ripen and strengthen in the stillness of a small circle of quiet piety, hardly as yet distinguishable externally from its surroundings, before it could burst its bonds and create for itself its new external form.

The primitive community was the guardian of the most precious treasure of Christendom—the memory of the facts of the earthly life of Jesus, of His discourses, doings, and sufferings. If it had not so faithfully preserved this treasure we would have received no Gospels, nor any tradition of the several features of the life of Jesus. And what would Christianity have been without the Gospels? These plain narrations of the oldest tradition, which we owe to the primitive community, are for all time the most valuable and indispensable counterpoise to the high-flying speculation about Christ which has occupied Christian thinking from the time of Paul. Yet the tradition of the primitive community even was already far from being able to give a photographically faithful portrait of the historical reality. In its own way it was already creatively fashioning the historical according to the idea, and introducing ideas into history. Since Jesus had been seen in the glory of the heavenly Messiah, it was inevitable that this heavenly glory should cast its reflection back upon His earthly life; and under such illumination that life obtained more and more supernatural colour and content. Already in the visions of Christ seen by the apostles, there lay so far the germ of the supernatural dogmas about Christ of the later Church. The higher world of the Messianic glory into which Jesus had entered by the resurrection, and whose wondrous powers were already possessed by the existing community in the gifts of the Messianic spirit, in speaking with tongues, and in prophesying and healing the sick, was already to be found in the typical and wondrous signs of the earthly life of Jesus as the pledges of its full future revelation. These are the motives which explain all the ideal or supernaturalistic elements of the evangelistic tradition, and in particular the narratives of the Transfiguration, the Baptism, and the miraculous Birth of Jesus, in which we can still quite distinctly trace a gradually advancing process of dating back the Messianic equipment and appointment of Jesus.

The history of the Transfiguration, according to the original intention of the narrator, still easily recognisable in Mark, is a symbolical anticipation of the glorification of Christ through His resurrection and exaltation, as the Lord of the new community. As Moses once upon Mount Sinai beheld God's glory and his countenance became shining from its reflection, and as Paul in the vanishing of this splendour of Moses, when compared with the abiding splendour of Christ, recognised the higher dignity and abiding duration of the new covenant in contrast to the merely temporary significance of the old covenant (2 Cor. iii. ff),—so Mark (ix. 2 ff.) tells that Jesus was “transfigured” into a form of light like that in which it was believed that they had seen the risen One, the heavenly Son of Man. Thereupon appeared Moses and Elijah as representatives of the law and prophecy, in order to be witnesses of the exaltation of Jesus and to pay homage to Him as the Lord of the new covenant. Now while Peter would make three tabernacles for all of them (that is, would permanently maintain the law and the prophets, the authorities of the old covenant, along with Christ), a heavenly voice came saying, “This is my beloved Son, hear Him.” Immediately Moses and Elias disappear, and Christ alone remains with the astonished disciples. Christ alone is therefore appointed by God Himself to be the Lord and Mediator of the revelation of the new covenant, before whose authority that of the old men of God disappears. Thereupon Jesus forbids His disciples to make known what they had just beheld until the Son of Man was risen from the dead, whereupon they astonished ask each other what this rising from the dead can mean. By this it is clearly enough indicated that what is here narrated was not an actual event in the earthly life of Jesus, of which already something had been known before His death, but that it was a symbolical presentation of that exaltation of Christ to be the Lord of the new community which only became comprehensible and really known after His death, and through reflection upon the significance of His death and His resurrection. The narrative of the transfiguration of Jesus therefore expresses the thought that by His being raised up to the heavenly world of light, to be the “Son”—that is, to be the Messiah—He was appointed or instituted the Lord of the community of the new covenant—a thought which doubtless contains the oldest form of the belief in Christ of the community. Thus even Peter in the Pentecost sermon says: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ”—that is to say, through the resurrection; and in like manner afterwards in the sermon in the house of Cornelius: “And He commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is He which was ordained of God to be the judge of quick and dead” (Acts ii. 36, x. 42). Paul likewise, notwithstanding his advanced speculation about Christ, still shared the same primitive Christian view — namely, that Jesus had first been declared through His resurrection to be the “Son of God with power,” appointed to be “Lord both of the dead and living,” and ordained “to judge the world in righteousness” (cf. Romans i. 4, xiv. 9; Acts xvii. 31).

But the belief of the community in Christ could not stop at this first stage. It would no longer see the Son of God and the Messiah merely in the Christ of the other world, of heaven, and of the second coming, but would fain have a guarantee given in the earthly life of Jesus that He had already become such through a divine proclamation and equipment with Messianic power. Jesus of Nazareth, who had been accredited by God “by miracles and wonders and signs” (Acts ii. 22), who went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed of the devil, for God was with Him (Acts x. 38), must even from the beginning of His work as the Saviour have been anointed by God “with the Holy Ghost and with power.” But when could that have taken place? What moment of His known life was more fitted to be fixed on for that divine equipment of Jesus with Messianic spirit and power than the moment of His baptism? Accordingly the divine Messiah-proclamation about Jesus was now pushed further back from the end of His Galilean ministry (the transfiguration) to before the beginning of it, and brought into connection with the baptism of John. And the appointment of Jesus to the dignity of the Messiah is put solemnly upon the stage in the same way as in the other case: as on that occasion heavenly light and heavenly spirits appear, so here, too, do the heavens open and the Holy Ghost descends in the symbolic form of a dove upon Jesus. In an uncanonical but very old version of the legend, the narrative also tells of the appearance of fire which flashed up at the moment of the baptism of Jesus in Jordan, so that Jesus was surrounded by its splendour—exactly as in the case of the transfiguration. In addition to this, the heavenly voice was heard at the baptism speaking almost the same words as then: “This is” (or “Thou art”) “My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” That the voice according to Mark and Luke was addressed to Jesus, but according to Matthew was expressed in the third person and therefore was also destined for the bystanders, may rest upon an accidental difference in the tradition, yet it may also have been an intentional alteration of Matthew in order thereby to turn the miracle from being a mere subjective vision of Jesus into an objective reality. The words of the voice are a combination of expressions in Psalm ii. and Isaiah x1ii. Besides, it is to be noted that, according to an old good manuscript reading which is confirmed by Patristic citations, Luke originally reported the heavenly voice only in the unabridged words of the passage in the 2d Psalm: “Thou art My Son; this day have I begotten Thee.” It is, extremely, probable that this was the oldest version of the voice at the baptism; the alteration of it in our Gospels may have rested on later dogmatic motives, and thereby the significance of the legend of the miracle at the baptism becomes so much the clearer. It is the solemn divine installation of Jesus to be the Son of God and Messianic King, combined with the communication of the Holy Spirit which capacitates Him for His Messianic calling. Whereas originally, therefore, the resurrection of Jesus, that moment of His exaltation into the heavenly spiritual world, was regarded as His installation as the Son of God, this act is now attached to the baptism as the moment when the heavenly spirit descended upon the earthly man Jesus. That this remained a long time a prevailing conception is proved by the practice which arose in Gnostic circles, and which was accepted by the Church and retained till the fourth century, of celebrating the baptism of Christ as the “Epiphany” of the divine spirit of Christ and as the festival of the birth of Christianity. It was not till the fifth century that this meaning of the festival of the Epiphany was obliterated by that of the festival of Christmas, in which a step in the advance of the belief in Christ, which had undoubtedly been taken at a much earlier time, found ritual expression.

To think of the baptism of Jesus as the beginning of His Messianic divine Sonship could not permanently satisfy the Christian consciousness. For in that view the divine Sonship still appeared as a mere accident of His natural personality, whereby its all - surpassing significance being not yet sufficiently secured, the difference between Him and the old prophets was not yet definitely enough marked. Satisfaction was first given to this need of the faith by making the divine Sonship of Christ, from being a Messianic position of dignity assigned to Him in the course of His life (which it hitherto signified), into a determination of the essence of His personality. Paul made the beginning of this view by apprehending Christ as the heavenly man who not merely has become the Lord in heaven by the resurrection, but who already had come as Lord from heaven, and who therefore had been a heavenly being in Himself already before His earthly appearance. This Pauline view — accepted probably in Gentile Christian communities chiefly — then obtained the more sensuous and conceivable form that the earthly life of Jesus sprang from a miraculous generation by the spirit. Motives of various kinds co-operatted in forming and developing the History of the Birth of Jesus as narrated by Luke in epic fulness. In the first place, we may think of the analogy of heathen sons of God. How very natural it was for the heathen consciousness to refer human greatness to supernatural origin and divine Fatherhood, is evidenced not only by the old legends of heroes who had a God for their Father, but also by the popular legends which were formed around actual historical persons partly even during their lifetime. I remind you of Gautama Buddha and Plato, Alexander the Great and Cæsar. But even the Old Testament legends furnished at least indirect examples of the kind in the histories of the births of Isaac, of Samuel, and of Samson, who in virtue of divine miraculous power had been born to their aged parents after an unfruitful marriage. In addition to this, there are also certain figurative modes of speech in Hebrew poetry which could be the more easily understood in the literal sense by the Christian communities the more unaccustomed they were to the figurative Semitic idiom, as was naturally the case on Gentile Christian soil. When God in Psalm ii. spake to the earthly king of Israel, “Thou art My son, this day have I begotten thee,” the Gentile Christians no longer understood the original sense of this expression, which only meant the installation of the king into his theocratic dignity, and they applied it to the supernatural divine Sonship of Christ. Even the reference to the endowment of Christ with the spirit in baptism appeared not yet fully to satisfy the term “begotten”; its verbal fulfilment appeared to be found only in the miraculous begetting of the life of Jesus in the bosom of the virgin. When the prophet Isaiah (vii. 14) said of the expected child of a young mother that they would give him the name “Immanuel” as a symbol of the near help of God, he thought neither of a miraculous birth nor of the future Messiah; but as the name “Immanuel” fitted excellently to the Messiah, it was natural and easy to understand this passage Messianically, and then a Christian who was not familiar with the Hebrew language might easily understand the word signifying a young woman in the sense of a virgin, and thus read the miraculous birth of Jesus out of this passage. Such bold interpretations were possible only to those who were already attached on other grounds to such a view of the person and origin of Jesus. The main motive for the rise of the legend of the supernatural generation of Jesus lay without doubt in dogmatic ideals, and especially in the Pauline doctrine that Christ was God's Son, “with power according to the spirit of holiness” (Romans i. 4), which, however, was not thought of by Paul as the efficient cause of the bodily existence of Jesus, but as the heavenly substance of His nature. To the understanding of the Gentile Christians this speculation became coarsened into the poetic myth, which came more naturally to their imagination. Even the individual traits of this myth are illustrations of dogmatic ideas of Paul. The lowliness of the heavenly child which, while springing from the heavenly world, lies in the stable at Bethlehem, and is greeted by heavenly hosts, illustrates the passages: “Who, being in the form of God, . . . humbled Himself,” and “Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor” (Phil. ii. 6 f.; 2 Cor. viii. 9). The tidings of the angels to the shepherds illustrates the passages: “The poor have the Gospel preached to them,” “And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen” (Matt. xi. 5; 1 Cor. i. 28). Matthew has, instead of the visiting shepherds, the Magi from the East, who are brought under the guidance of the miraculous star, and present their homage, corresponding to the images of the old prophets, according to which kings should walk in the light which was rising over Israel, and present their gifts of gold and incense as tribute (Isaiah lx. 3 ff.), while a star was to come out of Jacob, a sceptre to rise out of Israel (Numbers xxiv. 17). In the sense of the old seers such images signified the future splendour of the people of Israel; but the Christian reader applied them to the Messiah Jesus, and because their fulfilment could nowhere be shown in the known public life of Jesus, they sought to find a place for it in the obscurity of His prehistoric childhood.

Hence the two histories of the childhood in the younger Gospels, as well as the older histories of the miracles of the baptism and transfiguration, which are common to the Synoptic Gospels, are to be regarded as symbolical legends which sprang up under the co-operation of religious (dogmatic) ideas and Old Testament images in the unconsciously poetising fantasy of the oldest period of Christianity, and—like all unconscious legendary poesy—were believed as true history. In these images of a pious imagination the mass of the Christian communities possessed their epic representation of Christ, which could not but be more easily apprehensible by their understandings and more sympathetically related to their souls than the dogmatic speculation about Christ which was now commencing. And how much has the Christian art of all times owed to these thoughtful legends, in which the sublimest ideas of Christianity have embodied themselves in corporeal images, whose spiritual sense every child can divinely feel, yet no understanding of the wise can exhaustively think out! Are these legends to be regarded as less valuable to us of to-day because we have come to know their genesis historically, and thereby have learned to distinguish better than earlier generations between the meaning and the image, the religious thought and the mystical investment? Whoever should assert this, logically could never feel any joy in Homer, in the ‘Divina Commedia,’ in ‘Faust,’ or in Milton's ‘Paradise Lost,’ in short in any genuine poetic invention, because it is poetic invention, which yet contains truth though not mere reality as perceived by the senses. In contrast to such dry rationalism we take as our confession the words of the poet which assign eternal reality only to that which does not happen in time:—

“What never and nowhere as fact did hold,

Is that alone which never shall grow old.”

Although in the early times of the community the doctrinal impulse of the Christian faith expressed itself more in the prophetic production of pregnant images than in dogmatic reflection, yet there was not an entire want of rudimentary beginnings of such reflection. It was especially the suffering of the Messiah Jesus—that stumbling-block to a Jewish conscience—which called forth the apologetic reflection. At first the endeavour was made, by the Messianic interpretation of such passages in the Psalms and Prophets as treat of the suffering of the just one, to prove that the fate of Jesus had been already foretold by the Holy Scriptures, and therefore had been grounded in the Divine decree. The matter at issue here did not yet turn so much around the dogmatic question why Christ must suffer, as rather how to show that the suffering of Christ was a necessity ordained by God, and therefore had not been a traversing of His decree, nor a contradiction of the destination of Jesus to be the Messiah. For this purpose many passages of the Old Testament could be turned to account, but above all the classical passage in the 53d chapter of Isaiah of the Servant of God, the Man of Sorrows, who bore our griefs and was wounded for our transgressions that we might have peace and be healed by His stripes. The Jewish theology had explained this passage partly by not referring it at all to the Messiah, and where it did so refer it, by seeking to get rid of the thought of a suffering Messiah by allegorical transformation and softening down of the features of suffering. In connection with this passage the Christians found it easy to take their stand; for it was manifestly the most natural thing and the most intelligible view to the popular mind to understand the picture of the pious sufferer, so concretely sketched, to hold of a definite person; and how natural then was the application of it to the suffering and death of Jesus! The reference of the Christians to this prophetic passage may therefore have made the same impression upon many as it did upon the eunuch of the queen of Ethiopia, to whom Philip, according to Acts (viii. 33 ff.), explained it. This very passage, however, at the same time already contained the answer to the further question, which could not be easily evaded—namely, For what end did God give up unto death Him whom He had sent? That the innocent sufferings of the just man is an expiatory means for compensating for the sins of his people, is a thought which the Jewish theology had already drawn from Isaiah liii., and applied to the suffering of the pious, especially to the witnesses for the faith in the time of the Maccabees. It is therefore quite conceivable that the primitive community already considered the death of Christ from the same point of view, as an expiation for the forgiveness of sins, as Paul expressly testifies (1 Cor. xv. 3) when, referring to the little which he received through tradition, he adduces this very point, that Christ “died for our sins, according to the Scriptures.” But if the death of Christ was an atonement for the forgiveness of sins, it follows naturally from this that the forgiveness of sins as the immediate gift of Christ is communicated to those who believe in Him, and enter into the community of His disciples, as is often expressed in the sermons of the apostles as we find them narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. Only we shall have to take care that we do not over-estimate the range of this thought in the mind of the primitive community, or identify it with the Pauline doctrine. According to Paul, the death of Christ as an expiation of the curse of the law was at the same time the abrogation of the law for the Christians, whereby the new way of salvation by faith took the place of the works of the law. From this conclusion the primitive community was still far removed. According to their view, the death of Christ was undoubtedly a saving means for the forgiveness of sins, yet it did not stand in place of the personal legal performances of the pious man, but was only available for the completion of their imperfectness, and therefore under the established assumption of the continuing obligation to fulfil the law even on the part of the Jews who believed in Christ.

It never entered the minds of the primitive community before Paul that by faith in Jesus as the Christ the validity of the Jewish law was abrogated, and a new religious community was founded upon an extra-Judaic basis. As its members viewed the dawning kingdom of the Messiah and its blessings as the fulfilment of the prophecies given to the Fathers of Israel, it was also simply regarded as self-evident that the community of the Messiah was to be built upon the firm ground of the law which was given to the Fathers by God. They had indeed learned from Jesus that mercy is of more worth than sacrifice and the celebration of the Sabbath, and that purity of heart is worth more than the washing of hands and the straining out of gnats; but there was still a long way from this knowledge of the higher worth of the moral when compared with the ceremonial, to the insight into the religious meaninglessness and non-obligatoriness of the latter and to the practical emancipation from the Jewish ceremonial law. Nor had the first disciples been led or had occasion to tread along this path even by Jesus Himself. For with all the freedom and ideal elevation of His judgment in these things, He had nevertheless not put Himself in His actual mode of acting above the legal order of the life of His people. The primitive community, in which we cannot assume the same degree of purity and freedom of moral judgment to exist as in Jesus, could therefore much less think that emancipation from the Jewish law belonged to them. Although it may be partly to be laid to the account of the apologetic purpose of the Acts of the Apostles that we have the community of the disciples described as distinguished above the other Jews by a most conscientious fulfilment of all legal ordinances and usages, and as having attained the reputation of special zeal for the law, yet this description may be regarded as having reproduced in essentials the actual circumstances of the case. This is best proved by the later attitude of the Jerusalem community when the question of the law became a practical one through the Pauline mission to the Gentiles. At the Apostolic Convention when they conceded to Paul the dispensation of his Gentile Christians from certain legal demands, on the side of the Jewish Christians they were still far from thinking that the previous obligation to fulfil the whole law was to cease for them. And when circumstances in the mixed community at Antioch led to a temporary overstepping of the limits of Jewish concession intended in the Apostolic compact, this had only as its consequence that from that time the Jewish communities held fast the more rigidly to their legalism, and thereafter even carried on a propaganda for the legal principle in the Pauline communities. All the violent conflicts which Paul had afterwards to engage in with the Jewish Christians on account of the question of the law would be unintelligible on the assumption that the primitive community had been from the beginning of the same view as Paul regarding the freedom of the Christians from the law. They form, therefore, an irrefutable proof of the fact that the primitive community regarded itself as still bound to the Jewish law.

From this it follows of itself that the first Christians could not yet have thought of organising themselves as a new and special religious community different from Judaism. They wished to be nothing but the Christ - believing core of the people of the promises, and they expected the fulfilment of these promises in the near establishment of the kingdom of the Messiah by the Lord Jesus coming again. How could they, then, have thought of creating for themselves ecclesiastical institutions and practices for this short interval? Nor at the outset were baptism and the Lord's Supper yet in the same sense as afterwards, ceremonial acts and signs of the distinction of the Christian from the Jewish religious community. The historical Jesus did not institute baptism, as even the Gospels themselves indicate by the fact that they put the baptismal command only into the mouth of the risen Christ, and therefore derive it from the spirit of Christ invisibly ruling the community. The Christians in this followed the example of John, whose baptism was an imitation of the Jewish baptism of proselytes. Like it, the Christian baptism was therefore also a symbolical act of consecration and repentance, to which confession of Jesus as the Christ came to be added; and it had as its consequences the forgiveness of sins and the communication of the Spirit. Yet they thought of the latter as not rigidly bound to the external act of baptism; it might even precede it, as in the baptism of Cornelius (Acts x.), or might only follow it by means of the laying on of hands, as in the case of the Samaritans (Acts viii. 16 f.) If there may even be found in this already an approach towards the mystic sacramental significance of baptism, yet that significance was first dogmatically fixed by Paul and grounded by the reference of baptism to the death of Christ. In the primitive community baptism was therefore undoubtedly already a distinct mark of the associate of the Messianic kingdom, but it was not yet a regeneration that severed the connection with Judaism and incorporated the individual in a new religious community. The Lord's Supper likewise first received its ceremonial sacramental character through the Pauline theology and in the Pauline communities. We cannot properly speak of an institution of this rite by Jesus: it has its origin in the last supper of Jesus only in so far as the love-feasts of the Christian brotherhood were consecrated by the remembrance of the last supper which they had together with Jesus, and at which Jesus seems to have given to the bread and the cup a symbolical reference to His death. In connection with this very narrative the evangelical tradition is indeed so wavering, and has been so strongly influenced by Paul, that we can get no certain knowledge regarding the meaning of what was spoken by Jesus, or of the very words He used. At all events this much is certain, according to the oldest Gospel, that Jesus celebrated the Jewish passover with His disciples, and that He said nothing of such a nature as would point to the replacement of this Jewish rite by a new Christian rite. Even the words, “This do in remembrance of Me,” are only found in Paul, from whom Luke received them, and they are contrary to the oldest tradition. Among the oldest Christians, therefore, the supper still consisted simply of common meals, in which the obligation of love to the brethren in the new covenant came to practical expression. Such religious meals had been already in use among the Essenes and Pharisees as the expression of a narrower religious bond of connection, not extending beyond, but confined within, the common popular religion. But what undoubtedly gave the Christian love-feasts their higher religious significance was not so much a positive ritual form as rather the spirit animating the fellowship of the community, the participants being bound to one another through the cardinal point, common to them all, of their thoughts in Jesus the Christ. When amid prayer and meditation on Scripture they lost themselves in the remembrance of the life and death of their Lord, and comforted themselves by His promises, they felt themselves filled by the spirit of Jesus—the spirit of world-overcoming faith and of ministering brotherly love.

The practical exemplification of this love was the regular care of the poor out of common means. It was not, indeed, as the author of the Acts of the Apostles seems to represent it, a complete and formal “community of goods.” For in such a community there would have been no poor left for the regular care of whom deacons would have to be appointed; nor when some one sold his possessions for the good of the common purse, would this have been emphasised as a laudable act on the part of individuals; nor would any one then have been able to have opened his private house hospitably to the community for their assemblies, as this is reported of Mary the mother of Mark. But even when we remove the exaggeration of the legend, and reduce the primitive Christian community of goods to its historical kernel—that is to say, to a standing provision for the care of all the poor of the community out of common means, and especially by the common brother-meal—yet this still remains a fact of great importance. The fantastic hopes of the time were here transmuted into practical deeds; the dream of the Apocalyptic kingdom of the Messiah had here become the reality of a fraternal association of the children of God. The way was here being prepared for the grandest, boldest, and at the same time purest social regeneration of the world; and that, too, in the narrow circle of simple and quiet men, not in the spirit of selfishness and violence, but of ministering and enduring love which saw its pattern in Jesus, the friend of the poor and needy, and found in Him the surety of its victory. Not in dogmas which did not arise till later, but in these miracles of love, lie the impelling forces by which Christianity has overcome the world, and first and chiefly the world of the poor and despised, of the unwise and weak, the oppressed and ill-used, the hungering and weeping, the abandoned and lost. To them all the brotherhood of Jesus opened a refuge, where in the comforting and helping sympathy of the brethren they felt a foretaste of the future kingdom of God, in which God should wipe away all tears from their eyes.