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Chapter 2: The Historical Person and his Physical Transcendence

THE art with which the Evangelists interweave into a congruous whole the person and the acts of Jesus is so perfect as to deserve detailed examination; and it is the more remarkable as it seems unconscious art, accomplished by men who know not what they do. They conceive Him to be supernatural, and they attribute to Him miraculous acts, yet with an undesigned discrimination more sure than the most highly educated sense they observe distinctions and limits which leave Him the most natural of beings, and cause His most extraordinary actions to appear normal. It has been customary to discuss the miracles of Jesus as questions now in philosophy, whether they are possible; now in historical criticism, whether they are credible; and now in literary interpretation, whether they can be resolved into myths or allegories, the records of misunderstood events or of marvellous coincidences, or must be construed as authentic narratives. But the problems they raise are religious and ethical as well as philosophical and historical, and, we may add, the former are profounder and more determinative than the latter. Here we shall be concerned with the acts as an undesigned exegesis of the person, the two being so related as to be complementary and mutually explanatory; in other words, the acts when construed through the person become intelligible, while the person interpreted through the acts grows more articulate and coherent, conformed in being to His place in history.

§ I. A Sane Supernaturalism

1. What we have to study, then, is the representation of a supernatural person in an historical framework; i.e. we have to study, in a literary medium which is amenable to the fixed canons of criticism, a Being who transcends nature even while He lives under the forms and subject to the conditions of the nature He transcends. Now, the first thing we have here to note is this:—The miraculous acts which are ascribed to Jesus have qualities which curiously correspond to His character, or, in other words, they so duplicate and reflect it that the moral attributes which are most distinctive of Him reappear in His acts. Where they seem most supernatural they most completely externalize His nature. The common quality which distinguishes them all may be described as sanity or sobriety. Those acts which we term miraculous are yet not marvellous; they do not move in the region of the weird or the uncanny, nor do they, like the feats of the witch, strike with fear, or, like the tricks of the wizard or magician, smite with surprise. There is nothing so alien to the feeling of the Gospels as the love of wonders for wonders' sake. This is the more remarkable as the religious imagination, when allowed to work freely in the region of the supernatural, does not work sanely. The mythical miracle, as a rule, reflects a morbid temper, for it is commonly the creation of a fancy grown fantastic and even childish. As genius is closely allied to madness, so there are types of piety near akin to disease. The temper is permanent, but the forms it loves vary from age to age, though they all have a common character. The morbid temper, in our age and country, has no temptation to dream of miracles, but it may dream of things quite as mythical and unreal. In Liddon's Life of the late Dr. Pusey, a book marked by rare truth and candour, there is a very painful yet illuminative chapter dealing with his personal attitude to “penitence and confession.”1 It introduces us to the innermost, and in some aspects the most secret, chamber of his soul, where understanding is difficult and misjudgment easy. There is nothing that so reveals the moral quality of a man as his sense of sin, and nothing that even his bosom friend can so little comprehend and share. It is a sense so commanding that it will not be reasoned with, and must be appeased before the man can know peace. But it is a thing infinitely varied in form, and it is the form it assumes which shows the intrinsic character of the man. Now the sense of sin in Pusey was more sensuous than spiritual, more a matter for himself to bear than for grace to remove. It harassed him more than the sense of God comforted him, and so he felt as one who must express his conscious desert of ill in pains and penances. Hence it was as “an unnamed penitent” that he built a church at Leeds. His suspension in 1843, his wife's death and his daughter's, his public anxieties and private sorrows, he regarded as “punishments for his sins.” He implored Keble to act as his father confessor, and he confessed himself “scarred all over and seamed with sin,” “a monster” to himself; he loathed himself; he felt as if he were “covered with leprosy from head to foot.” He begged for “a rule of penitential discipline”; he wore “haircloth” next his skin; he scourged himself; he resolved to “use a hard seat by day and a hard bed by night”; “not to wear gloves or protect his hands”; “never to notice anything unpleasant in what was set on the table, but to take it by preference and in a penitential spirit”; “to drink cold water at dinner, as only fit to be where there is not a drop to cool this flame”; “never to look at beauty of nature without inward confession of unworthiness.” Now to lay on these sayings, heavy as they are with the passion of unspeakable grief, a cold and analytic hand would be both cruel and profane; but what they illustrate is the morbid as distinguished from the moral in the sense of sin, i.e. the feeling that it is something that can be satisfied by physical penance, and not solely by the infinite grace of God. But where this morbid sense is, a sane imagination is sure to be afar off; the view of self supplies the colour under which we see the universe, and to an imagination so possessed strange dreams and unwholesome fancies easily become substantial things. In a credulous age it creates miraculous marvels, as easily as it creates in a rational and sceptical age forms of penance.

This morbid consciousness, then, is the real mythical faculty, and the miracles it generates are even as it is. In certain men and times it becomes the veritable master of the mind. The more ethical the religious imagination is, it is the more sane; but in the very degree that it is sensuous it is fantastic, and is certain to people history with creations which mirror and echo its own hopes and fears. We have only to turn to ecclesiastical history to find examples innumerable of the miracles the mythical faculty invents, unconsciously, of course, though all the more in obedience to its own laws. Thus, if we compare with the Gospels Jerome's Life of Hilarion or the Four Dialogues of Gregory the Great, the difference between sobriety and extravagance in narratives concerning the miraculous will soon become evident. The one is the most learned of all the Fathers, the other is the most sagacious of the early Popes; and so far as the culture that comes of letters and affairs, or knowledge and experience, are concerned, they are both incomparably superior to the Evangelists. Well, then, Jerome gravely narrates such things as these: how Hilarion by his prayers made a barren woman to bear; how a certain Italicus, whose horses raced in the circus, prayed the saint to give him, since he was a Christian, a victory over his heathen rival, and how, by water out of the cup from which he used to drink, the horses of Italicus were made to flee to the goal, while those of his competitor stuck fast to the spot; how the saint casts out a lascivious devil; from a maid who had been bewitched by certain magic figures and formulas buried beneath the threshold of her house; how he dispossessed of another devil a gigantic camel, which thirty men with strong ropes could hardly hold; how he commanded a mighty serpent, which had been devouring oxen, to ascend a pyre and be burned to ashes before all the people; how, months after his death, his body was conveyed from Cyprus to Palestine as perfect as if alive, and fragrant with sweet odours; and how at the places alike where he had been and where he was buried great miracles were daily performed, in the one case as it were by his body, in the other by his spirit. Gregory's miracles are even more marvellous than those described by Jerome, for he tells how certain of his Italian fathers or monks could treat the water as if it had been solid land; how pieces of gold, fresh as from the mint, fell upon them from heaven; how floods which rose even to the roofs of churches did not enter in at the doors, though they stood open; how the arm of an executioner, uplifted to strike off a monk's head, remained erect and fixed, sword and all, in the air, but power over it was restored on the promise being made never again to use it against a Christian. And as here, so always; for the creations of the mythical faculty are everywhere curiously akin. The mediæval friar would tell his hearers how a robber, who had been always devout and regular in his prayers to the Virgin, was at length taken and sentenced to be hanged; but when the cord was round his neck he prayed to his heavenly patroness, and she, with her own white hands, held him up two whole days, and so saved him from death: or how a paper of Scriptural proofs which the good St. Dominic had written to confound his opponents, leaped out of the fire into which it had been cast, while their documents remained and were utterly consumed. The Buddhist monk, illustrating the benevolence of the Master, would tell how in an earlier mode of existence he had met a famished tiger, and, pitying the hungry beast, had kindly offered himself as a meal; or how, regretting that his people had no fit image of himself, he appeared as a poor workman, carved the image, and vanished from the sight of those who would have rewarded him. The mythical faculty speaks in all the languages of man, but the thing itself we can never mistake for reality: its very features show whence it has come.

2. If now we compare the miracles of the Gospels with these, we shall understand what is meant by their sanity or sobriety. They have a sort of natural character, and are neither violent nor abnormal; like Jesus Himself, they are, though supernatural, not contra-natural. For what are the miraculous acts ascribed to Him? He heals the blind, the halt, the lame, the sick of the palsy; He brings comfort to the widow who has lost a son, to the Gentile nobleman who mourns a child; He creates joy in the heart of the woman who had sought counsel of many physicians and only grew the worse for all their attempts at healing. He goes through life like a kind of embodied beneficence, creating health and happiness. He incorporates the energies that work against physical evil and for social good. In a sense, His miracles are but the transcripts of His character, the symbol of His mind and mission. Were we to imagine an incorporated grace or mercy, should we not conceive her path marked by similar deeds? These miracles are, in a word, the physical counterparts of Christ's moral character and ethical teachings. Without them our picture of His personality would be incomplete. They show Him as the enemy of disease, of bodily imperfection and suffering, as a factor of the outer conditions that make for happiness. Without them our image of Him would be incomplete, while their singular freedom from the qualities everywhere characteristic of the mythical miracle place them in a category by themselves. One thing is certain: they could not have owed their freedom from these customary mythical adornments to the Evangelists themselves. For they were men who stood alike as regards age culture, and country, exactly at the stage when we expect the mythical consciousness to be creative; their material may have come to them in forms and under conditions favourable to its exercise, but yet the miracles they describe have this altogether exceptional character of moral sanity and rational sobriety. It were indeed the simple truth to say that the Evangelists are the most modern writers of Christian antiquity; and we may add, without fear of contradiction, that with the most absolute and august idea of the supernatural to be found in the whole literature of religion, they have given it an expression so objective and realistic as to be without any parallel. If we compare them with Fathers like Tertullian writing on the “Spectacles,” or describing the nature and ways of wicked spirits; or with works like those of Athanasius on Antony; or Gregory of Nyssa on his namesake of Neo-Cæsarea; or with Augustine telling miracles he himself had witnessed; or Sulpicius naïvely narrating those worked by Martin of Tours, we shall come to the conclusion that our Gospels are remarkable, above all other ancient Christian histories, for critical caution and intellectual sanity. Is it too bold an inference to argue that the very magnitude of their subject had susperseded in the Evangelists the creative activity of the morbid and mythical imagination?

§ II. The Physical Transcendence is Moral Obedience

1. But a still more distinctive quality of the supernatural action ascribed to Jesus is its altruistic character. His miracles do not regard Himself. This quality is all the more significant that the Evangelists themselves seem hardly conscious of its existence. It is implicit in their narratives rather than explicit in their thought; but, while unexplicated, it is a most integral element of their history. Thus it comes out quite distinctly in the Temptation, which, we may assume, represents a series of events whose importance lies in their being the symbols of a subjective process. It stands at the threshold of the ministry, i.e. just when the consciousness of His mission had become clear and imperative to Jesus; and it describes the crisis as more moral than intellectual, or as due to His struggle with conflicting ideals. The greater the mission the more certain it is to present alternative policies expressing incommensurable principles; and what is temptation but the struggle of the conscience in favour of the more ethical and against the more expedient policy?

If we assume, then, that what is so named represents a real experience, a transaction within the soul of Jesus, what would be its natural sources or factors?

(α) There would be the question of His place in nature, His power over it, its power over Him, especially as affecting His relation to men and the work He had to do on their behalf. This is the point which is emphasized in the first temptation: “make these stones bread.”2 If this be read in the light of His later history, what does it mean? Simply this: ‘Do for yourself what you know that you have power to do for others; the energies with which you are entrusted will be best disciplined for the service of all by being first exercised in your own. What it is right to do for those who need redemption, it cannot be wrong to do for their Redeemer. You are to feed the hungry; begin by feeding yourself. Your own physical fitness for the work you are intended to do ought surely to be a primary care.’

Now why should this suggestion have appeared as a temptation? Does it not rather seem like the recognition of a fact; to wit, the pre-eminence which endowed Jesus with special means for the preservation of life, particularly His own? We may assume, in accordance with all human experience, that the potentialities in Him and the possibilities latent in His career would make their appeal to His imagination first in a purely personal form. But here the appeal is shown to have been made only to be dismissed as if it were a suggestion of the devil. “Man,” Jesus says, “does not live by bread alone.” That is, He recoils from the temptation to affirm the pre-eminence of His person by supernatural, energy expended on Himself; for if He had performed such an act on His own behalf, it would have signified that He took Himself out of the category of manhood; that He surrendered the act of sacrifice; and it would have declared that His function was not to practise obedience, but to exercise personal power. In other words, He would have removed Himself from the ranks of the created who live under nature, and through it depend upon the Creator; and He would have relegated Himself to a special dignity where physical law ceased to reign, i.e. He would have translated His work into the assertion rather than the sacrifice of Him self. He would also have separated Himself from man, have ceased to be like unto His brethren, have refused to share the common lot, and instead have preferred the solitary state of a being beyond and above it. But it would have affected His relation to God even more than His relation to man; for He would, by ceasing to be dependent upon Him, have become, in a sense, God to Himself, and so the precise contrary of man in his dependence upon God. The very root: out of which religion grows would thus have been eradicated in Him; and He would have fallen from His high estate as the normal type of the soul's relation to God, and of God's to the soul.

(β) If, then, “man liveth not by bread alone, but by the word which proceedeth out of the mouth of God,” it follows that not otherwise than by this word did it become the Son of man to live. The first temptation thus represents the conflict of the ideal of dependence with the ideal of preeminence, or the law of an ordinary with the privileges of an extraordinary manhood. The second stands for an exactly opposite conflict—that of a reasonable against a blind dependence. “Cast Thyself down,” it says, “from this pinnacle of the temple; for it is written, ‘He shall give His angels charge concerning Thee: and on their hands shall they bear Thee up, lest haply Thou dash Thy foot against a stone.’”3 This may be said to express the sense of dependence turned into sheer presumption, challenging God to exercise sole care for His Son, and to make immediate intervention in His interest. It is as if the tempter had said: “If You will renounce all power for personal ends, and refuse to act as Your own Providence; if You have resolved to live as one who knows Himself to be always and everywhere in the hands of the Almighty,—then prove Your august eminency and the sufficiency of Your faith by throwing Yourself from this height into the court below, so forcing God to intervene directly on Your behalf. By so doing You will dispose men to expect great things of You, and to repose great trust in you. And I will add, that only such absolute trust is worthy of the Son of God; and only by such absolute Providence would the Father be fitly declared.”

The ideal is thus a confidence in God so absolute as to have become contempt of nature. But what is the answer of Jesus to this second suggestion? “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” And what did this answer mean? Simply this—that if He had dealt with Himself as if He were an exceptional and pre-eminent object of divine care, two things would have followed: first, His complete isolation from man, who holds his being under physical as well as moral law, and is bound at every moment and in all things to deal with the physical as if it were the moral; and, secondly, He would have substituted for a life environed by nature, guarded, guided, fed by it, participant in its forces because subject to its laws, a life divorced from nature, hostile to it, finding in it no presence of God, realizing through it no fellowship with man, inheriting nothing from its past, bequeathing nothing to its future. The temptation thus, under the disguise of honour to God, aimed at alienation alike from Him and from the fellowship of man.

(γ) The third temptation is a subtle combination of elements derived from the other two.4 It means that He may by the use of physical and unethical forces obtain the mastery over the kingdoms of the world. In other words, it signifies that a person who has pre-eminent power ought to exercise the power he has without regard to God, or to the rights and the souls of men. And if God be regarded, it ought to be only so far as He may be a factor, more or less efficient, for some personal end; or, if man be helped, it will not matter though his soul be soiled, his conscience perverted, and his will enfeebled and depraved in the process. The ideal that stands opposed to this affirms that God is the only being man ought to worship; and that He can be worshipped only in a spirit and way that at once glorifies Him and exalts man.

If, then, the experience so picturesquely presented in the temptation has been correctly read, we may express its meaning thus:—The supernatural potencies which move within Jesus leave Him neither an extra- nor a contra- nor a præter-natural person, but a person to Himself and for Himself strictly and surely natural, with powers which are to be understood and used as means to ethical and altruistic ends, to increase the duty of obedience, to limit rather than enlarge the sphere of man's independence of God.

2. But the Temptation is so significant because it is the pictorial embodiment of ideas which rise spontaneously in the mind whenever man thinks of one possessed of supernatural power. They are ideas which Jesus Himself must have conceived, if not entertained; and as a matter of fact, they are the very ideas which prompted questions He was required to answer, criticisms He had to bear, and even the mockery and bitter taunts which insulted Him on the cross. Thus “Let Him save Himself, if this is the Christ of God, His chosen,”5 is just a variation of the tempter's words, “If Thou art the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” Again, “He trusteth in God, let Him deliver Him now if He desireth Him,”6 simply repeats “If Thou art the Son of God, cast Thyself down.” “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross that we may see and believe,”7 is only a changed reading of the temptation that promised Him the world's dominion if He would use the world's power. This priestly and popular scorn, then, may express the selfishness of a nature which has forsaken and forgotten God, but it does not at all represent Christ's mind or will. It was man explaining Jesus by himself, showing by a process of unconscious imputation what he himself would be and do were it only granted to him to be the Christ

In His whole life, then, and in all His actions Jesus exercised His power always and only for man. The mystery of the life which so appealed to the heart and imagination of His people lies here—with the power to save He yet wills to lose Himself. The vision of God which He creates brings to man beatitude; the vision of sin which He suffers brings to Himself sorrow. The strength of His will is seen not in any immunity from calamity which He commands, but in the sacrifice He makes. And this touches a specific and distinctive quality of the supernatural element in the Gospels. There is nothing like it in the mythology of the miraculous. The mythical miracle is primarily personal; for what could be the use of a supernatural power which did not serve its possessor in his own hour of need? Among the founders of great religions no life is freer from mythical wonders than Mohammed's; but when they appear, it is in his interest Thus we are told that the Prophet, when fleeing from Mecca, was hotly pursued by his foes. He took refuse in a cave, but as soon as he had entered it God sent a spider, which wove its web over the cave's mouth. His pursuers, who were close behind, stopped, intending to enter; but when they saw the spider's web, they said, “He cannot have entered here, for this great web could not have been so quickly woven”; and so they rode on, leaving the Prophet to escape out of their hands. The tale has in the myths of all religions many fellows; for it is Nature herself which bids men think that he who has been endowed with extraordinary power will exercise it first on his own behalf, and only as a secondary purpose on behalf of man. But Jesus from first to last, in all His acts and in all His doings, is supernatural on man's behalf and not on His own. He was a moral wonder rather than a physical marvel.

§ III. Supernatural Power as a Moral Burden

But there is a third aspect under which the supernatural power which the Evangelists ascribed to Jesus must be viewed, viz., in its bearing on His own moral character and on His moral relations with men.

1. If we consider it under the first aspect, we shall see that there could be no more tremendous gift; for it would be, under the ordinary laws that govern human nature, a power working for immorality. Under the most favourable conditions it would tax self-control to a degree that no moral will known to us could bear. To measure its strength, we may compare it with forces that lie within our own experience or that have acted upon the stage of history.

The power which men may not challenge and cannot resist tends always to deprave and even brutalize its possessor. Without the criticism of men, man would have to suffer from the unqualified action of mischievous moral influences. The man who feels above the law for himself, while he is the source of the law which distributes life and death to other men, has in his own passions and ambitions tempters which beguile him into forgetfulness of all the fair humanities. Flatterers surround him, and where man never has the truth spoken to him by men he easily comes to act like a devil, for he feels so like a god. To be able to command and to compel obedience to his commandments while under no compulsion to obey them himself, is an attitude ruinous to a nature which was designed to be made perfect through obedience, and to learn it through feeling dependent. Neighbourliness, fellowship, is needful to humanity; and if by undue elevation or depression we are denied it, we are certain to suffer moral disaster. And so social extremes meet; the worst crimes are to be found among those who are either at the very top or at the very bottom of society. It is a grave and a terrible fact that in the long catalogue of Roman emperors we have only one Marcus Antoninus, and even he, though a saint, was not tolerant of saintliness; but we have a multitude who do more disgrace than honour to mankind—men like Tiberius and Caligula, like Nero or Domitian. Roman order might be a great thing for the Roman population; but it too often involved the moral sacrifice of the men who were its nominal guardians. The imperial family which stands in Europe for the purest form of autocratic power, shows also the most dismal examples of moral madness. The house of Romanoff has, above all other sovereign houses, been stained by the uncleanliest vices,—crimes explicable only through the insanity which seizes those who may command others, but who go uncommanded themselves. The most pitiful victim of despotism is the despot; for while his power may, like a glacier, grind and pulverize the rock in which he makes his bed and through which he forces his way, yet he himself is like the deadly ice which can never know the presence of kindly and beautiful life.

But now let us apply the principle which we have thus derived from experience and history to a person who is believed to possess supernatural power, and who believes himself to possess it. Such power would be a more dangerous possession, a heavier burden for self-restraint to bear, a vaster force for wisdom to direct, than would the most absolute political autocracy. The character of the man who had it would be more severely tried than were he penetrated by transmitted passions or enervated by acquired lusts. For were he a being of fine nature, would he not, when confronted by the infinite meanness of men, their duplicity, their insensibility to the higher ideals, their avarice, their selfish greed, be ever, under the provocation of a noble rage, tempted to execute upon them the swiftest vengeance? If he saw oppression victorious and freedom lying wounded and broken under its hoof, or if he heard lust vaunting the chastity it had violated and falsehood triumphing over the truth it had betrayed, how could he resist the impulse which bade him become the sword of God? But what is the justice that proceeds from impulse save a form of self-indulgence? And does not a moral indignation which is ever indulged, easily become a vengeance that will not be satiated? Such a power would therefore inevitably tend to disturb the balance or sobriety of the moral nature; and unless he who possessed it had a will so absolutely under moral control as to be proof against the tides and tempests of moral passion, he would soon become the victim of the thousand immoral forces that act upon spirit through sense. We may say, then, that only a being absolutely God-like in his goodness could be equal to the control of so awful and so tremendous a power.

Were, then, any being less than infinite in wisdom, righteousness, and grace to be invested with omnipotence, his might would soon overmaster his morality and turn him into the most unspeakable of devils. For what would ungoverned power in command of the universe be but Satan upon the throne of the Almighty? And were he, though only for a moment, to sit there, the devil transformed into an omnipotent god, would he not undo the work of eternity and reduce the universe to a chaos which would be a universe no more? Omnipotence without divine goodness would become a force working simply for destruction. The opportunity to use a might none can question needs for its control a goodness none can doubt. And what have we in the Gospels? The picture of a will uncorrupted by power, untempted by opportunity, beneficent in the exercise of the mysterious energy with which it was charged. Jesus lives His open and frank and natural life as simply as the child who takes no thought for to-morrow because he is in the hands of one who thinks for him. And so He dwells in our imagination as obedient, humble, gentle, and easily entreated, never as the Master of the mysterious forces which rule nature.

2. But now the second aspect of the matter—its effect upon His moral relations with men—must also be considered. How would men be affected by seeing a man possessed of what they thought supernatural power? We know how terrible a thing witchcraft seemed in the days when people believed in its existence. The witch was a person to whom men showed no mercy; their fear became a frenzy which nothing less than death by fire or water could appease. And we need not wonder at their conduct, for if we believed as our forefathers believed, we should act as they did, possibly with even blinder fury. For to feel that a given person has over nature a power we wot not of, and can bid it torment or insidiously kill an enemy, undermine the health of the strong or work vindictively against the innocent, is to feel in the presence of one whom common justice cannot deal with, for common laws do not control; and, therefore, of one who must be driven forth from life, if life is to be lived in peace Wherever there has been belief in the ability to exercise supernatural power, this has been the universal feeling; and if it has been tempered at all, it has been by the hope of bribing the mysterious person to use his power for the briber's ends rather than his own.

The only complete exception to this law of human nature is the one which appears in the Gospels. The recognition of Christ's miraculous will is universal. All the men who surround Him believe that He possesses it; they see Him exercise it; they crave, though they never attempt to bribe Him, that He exercise it on their behalf. But here there is an unconscious contrast between the Master and the disciples, who, as the incident of Simon the magian shows, could be regarded as men that might be bribed.8 Yet the miracle is a more integral part of the evangelical than of the apostolical history. The messengers from John are bidden by Jesus to “tell the things which they do see and hear: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”9 The centurion asks that his servant may be healed,10 the sick of the palsy are brought to Him as He sits surrounded by His very enemies.”11 These enemies question His right to forgive sins, but not His power to heal diseases. They have indeed a theory as to the sources of His power—He does it by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils.12 But is not this the most remarkable tribute they could pay to His self-control? Would they have ventured to attribute to the devil in Him the power which they acknowledged that He possessed, if they had thought that His will was really devilish? Would they not have spoken softly, and called Him by the gentlest names they knew, if they had believed that He incarnated malevolence rather than benevolence? And this quality is illustrated no less by those who believe in the beneficence of His supernatural will. They do not feel that it divides Him from them; they never distrust Him or suspect His motives, or feel that the extraordinary power which He possesses will be used for any other than a gracious purpose.

It is thus remarkable that the terror which ordinarily follows belief in demoniac power is, even when He is maliciously credited with it, here entirely absent. Men think Him so possessed by a moral will that they do not feel fear in a presence they believe to be supernatural. He is even to His enemies, more marvellous for the grace He impersonates than for the miracles He accomplishes. And this is simply saying that He was higher as a moral miracle than as a physical power. While the power may be great, the grace is greater, and men peacefully trust where under other circumstances they would have profoundly feared. This is a feature in the evangelical narratives that marks them with distinction. The character which they portray is so morally perfect that supernatural power can neither deprave it nor alienate men from Him who possesses it.

§ IV. The History of the Supernatural Person as a Problem in Literature

1. But there is a literary question which deserves to be looked at: the Gospels are histories which aim at performing a most daring feat; they bind together a person conceived to be supernatural and the actual world, and they describe the life He lived within it. This involved literary difficulties of two kinds: (a) theological—How were the extraordinary nature and relations attributed to Jesus to affect their theistic idea? and (b) historical—In what sort of history was this nature and these relations to be unfolded?

(a) The Evangelists cannot be charged with possessing a mean theistic idea. They inherited an august conception of Deity, the least anthropomorphic, the most untouched by human passion, weakness, or mutability, known to antiquity; and to represent this God as the Father of Jesus without degrading or undeifying Him, was a literary task of the rarest delicacy and difficulty. In the mythical age of Greece it had been easy to imagine men as the sons of Zeus, and Zeus as the father of gods and men; but the more the mythical age receded the more its crude images and grotesque dogmas grew distasteful to the Greek intelligence, which refined Deity by making Him too abstract to stand in real or concrete relations with men. And what philosophy had done for Greece the monotheistic passion did for Israel; with the result that the more Jehovah was exalted the greater became His distance from man, and the less could the sons of God be conceived as mixing with the daughters of men. The sublimest things are the most easily made ridiculous, the most sacred can be most utterly profaned. And if any one had been asked beforehand to describe the probable action of the idea of Jesus as Son of the Most High on the idea of God, would he not have drawn a dismal picture of Majesty lowered into the dust, spirituality coarsened and materialized, and reason humbled by being carried back into that twilight of intelligence when as yet gods were indistinguishable from men? But the result is exactly the opposite. The supernatural birth is touched with a most delicate hand, and has no essential feature in common with the mythical theogonies which earlier ages had known. The marvellous thing is not that we have two birth stories, but that we have only two; and that they occupy so small, so incidental, so almost negligible a place in the New Testament as a whole. What is still more extraordinary is the mode in which the Sonship of Jesus affects the conception of God, how it touches its majesty with grace, softens its rigour, turns its solitude into society, and changes it from a dead abstract into a living concrete. The Fatherhood, which is its correlate, made the God of the Jews into the God of the whole earth. The Evangelists so present Jesus that He appears as a Son so intensely individual as to impart a personality as concrete as His own to the God He addresses as Father; and yet as so truly typical in His humanity as to communicate to the Father a universality cognate to the manhood He embodies. To be able to say this of the simple history which stands written in our Gospels, and to say it not as a thing probably or approximately true, but as true absolutely and without any qualification, is to confess that their authors have performed a task of incomparable difficulty. To give a human portrait so gracious as to exalt and ennoble our very idea of Deity, is a feat which no other piece of historical literature has achieved or even approached.

(b) But the other literary difficulty may be described as even more insuperable. Jesus, as conceived by both the Synoptists and John, was no ordinary person; He was rather such a personality as had never appeared in history before, yet He had to be presented in a history. Let us attempt to understand their difficulty by putting it as a problem we have ourselves to solve. Suppose, then, we had to describe the character and career of a person possessed of the miraculous powers attributed to Jesus; suppose we had to make the history at once express the power and become the character, and yet be entirely real and credible to men with the common experience and critical intelligence of their race—how should we proceed? what sort of terms should we employ? what kind of incidents select? We are told that our hero is to be a person who has power to heal the sick, unstop the ears of the deaf, open the eyes of the blind, and even raise the dead; or, to make the case even more real, suppose we had these two texts given us as a thesis which has to be elucidated and illustrated by means of an appropriate history: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”;13 “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”14 Our initial difficulties would no doubt concern the relation of the natural and the supernatural in Him; the outer form must be made worthy of the divinity that dwells within, yet how can it be worthily housed in flesh? and if it be so housed, how could men bear His glory, forget, ignore, or misunderstand the sight, or live in His presence their commonplace, sensuous, mean, indifferent lives? We should thus have to surround Him with a fit and awed society, and ought not this society to be like a nimbus or translucent cloud penetrated by His indwelling glory? And the more we were driven in this direction the more violent and fantastic would the history become, in form more akin to mythology or fairy legend than to history. For we should not dare to make Him as regards Himself subject to those very laws of nature which He was able, on man's behalf, to transcend. That would be too flagrant a contradiction of the probabilities in the situation. Hence He must be represented as remote from commonplace humanity, and especially without liability to disease, weakness, suffering, death. And what sort of speech should we attribute to Him? How conceive the mind which the speech was to reveal? Ignorance, of course, would be entirely unbecoming in a per son so endowed. The future must be open to Him; from Him the secrets of God could not be hid; the past would be as clear as the future, and every reference to nature and history, to man and events, would express a knowledge that could not err. It would thus be impossible for Him to accommodate Himself to the conventions of His time, use its language, accept its theories, and move amid its people as one of them selves. To do this would be to be false to the supernatural in His nature; yet, unless He did this, how could He appear in any historical narrative? We should be tempted, when we thought of the marvellous person, to represent all He did as gigantesque, and all He said under the form of the mysterious and the oracular. But the more stupendous the representation grew, the more abnormal, contra-natural, incredible, would the whole conception become, and we should be forced to abandon the task, confessing that a work more impossible to literacy art had never been proposed to man.

And how do the Gospels deal with this problem? In the most surprising way. The highest speculation is embodied in the simplest history. He who is conceived as “the Word become flesh” is represented as the most natural character in all literature. In Him there is nothing obscure, dark, or mysterious; He seems to lie all open to the day. His words are simple and plain; His thought is always clear and never complex. He is the last person who could be described as a man of mystery. He does not study or practise any art of concealment. He calls His disciples, and they live with Him, and He lives with them as a man among men. He does not claim to know the secrets of nature or the forgotten things of history, or the day and hour of destiny, which the Father alone knoweth.15 He does not stand on His dignity, or require men to observe the order of their coming and going. A Jew who comes by night is not refused an audience, for he has come in deference to his conscience, even though he comes by night in deference to the Jews; but Jesus speaks to him as if all men stood before Him in that one man, and as a simple matter of fact they did so stand. While He rests, tired and thirsty, by Jacob's Well, He speaks with the woman of Samaria and asks from her water to drink, and then Headdresses to her words the world was waiting to hear. We see Him loved of man and woman, loving as well as loved, living the homely, natural, beautiful life of our kind. His is the common, every-day, familiar humanity, which suffers and rejoices, knows sorrow and death. But this humanity is all the more divine that it is so natural; it is man become the child of God, embosomed in the eternal, a nature transfigured by the indwelling supernatural. The simple history may be said to clothe the Infinite, and it makes by its very simplicity the Infinite all the more manifest. Truth enters at the lowliest door, for only so can it come to all men. There is nothing so universal as nature, and the truth which would reach all must assume a form intelligible to all; and this means that man, who is the image of God, is the fittest vehicle for the revelation of the God whose image he is.

2. We may say then that were the Gospels inventions, whether mythical or conscious, spontaneous or purposed, they would be the most marvellous creations of literary art which we possess. The underlying idea is majestic, sublime, complex, but the history which embodies it is simple, sober, sane, while the person in and by whom it is realized is the most natural and human character in all literature. Present the idea to the mythical faculty, and it would weave out of it a gay and variegated web, as it were a tapestry crowded with the adventures of the faeriest wonderland; present it to the disciplined imagination, and it would feel that the theme was vaster than it had strength of pinion to carry. But the Evangelists are saved by their very simplicity; they tell their tale, they report the words of their Master, and then they leave their history and their logia to sink into the reason and wake the wonder of men. And what is the result? Stated in the soberest way, we may put it thus: The Gospels have done for Jesus—and through Him for man, and all that man signifies—what the imagination under the long discipline of science has attempted to do for the earth—viz., so placed our time in relation to eternity, our space in relation to immensity, as through the greater to explain the less, though only by the less can we know and understand the greater. Here we swim in the bosom of two infinities, and only through these infinities can the process, by which our finite has come to be, be conceived. To our fathers earth had no mystery. It was but a narrow plain, bordered and washed by the inviolate sea. It could hardly be termed venerable; its whole history lay within the brief period of six thousand years. On a given day in a given month of a given year, God had spoken, and through His speech the earth had in six successive days become what we know it to be. But now inquiry has crept slowly back through the centuries behind us, pushing time before it as it crept, and the few thousands of years have lengthened into millions; and as man has in imagination ascended this vast avenue of ages, he has seen the successive generations of being slowly descend in the scale until organic being has disappeared; and he has stood in thought on an untenanted earth, a slowly cooling mass, with fire within, with vapour around, like a monster sleeping in its own thick breath; while the vapour, slowly condensing, forms the seas, and the mass, cooling, hardens into the rocks. And even here the imagination has not remained; it has travelled back, and has looked out into the void which is the womb of time, and seen the raw forces of things mustering for their creative career, the atoms falling through space, striking against each other, aggregating, combining, here solidifying so as to form a sun, there throwing off smaller masses which formed themselves into planets, though rigorous law so bound the severed masses together as to make them constitute one system. And then the imagination, unexhausted by its backward exploration through time, has crept out into space, pushing before it the walls that limit our immensity, and by the help now of the telescope, and now of the photographic plate, it has added realm upon realm of being to our known and observed universe, till we feel as if earth were but a mote floating in the midst of a measureless expanse, which yet is no wilderness, but rather a fair and fruitful land, peopled with innumerable worlds. But infinitesimal as seems the earth in this infinitude, it yet for us holds the secret which explains it. It is one of the mighty host amid which it swims and floats. It shares their being, it partakes in their life, it marches in their order, it belongs to their system. We, though but a part, are yet in and through and because of the whole; and so in us the problem of the whole is concentrated. Our existence, little as it seems, is big with the meaning of the universe, holds the only solution we can ever find of the overmastering mystery of being.

Now just as our earth becomes at once more majestic and intelligible through these infinities that bound its finitude, and as it yet is the key to all their secrets, so Jesus is conceived by the Evangelists as a mystery that must be read through the eternal God, and yet as a reason that makes all His mysteries intelligible, credible, lucid, and articulate. The secrets which were in the bosom of the Father are so manifested in Him as to be perceptible by our grosser sense. Hence, within the limits of the sensuous lives a spiritual, expressive of things the eye hath not seen, nor the ear heard, nor the hands handled. And the humanity which so reveals Deity could not be other than universal, embodied indeed in a person, but a person who is as essentially related on the one side of His being to man in all his phases and in all his ages, as on the other side to God. And so to the Evangelists He is at once the Son of Adam and the only Begotten of the Father.

  • 1.

    Vol. iii. chap. iv. pp. 94–111.

  • 2.

    Matt iv. 3; Luke iv. 3. The order in which the temptations are taken is Matthew's, not Luke's.

  • 3.

    Matt iv. 5–7; Luke iv. 9–12.

  • 4.

    Matt. iv. 8–10; Luke iv. 5–8.

  • 5.

    Luke xxiii. 35.

  • 6.

    Matt, xxvii. 43.

  • 7.

    Mark xv. 32; Matt, xxvii. 42.

  • 8.

    Acts viii. 18, 19.

  • 9.

    Matt. xi. 4, 5.

  • 10.

    Luke vii. 1–10; cf. John iv. 46–54; Mark v. 22–24, 35–43.

  • 11.

    Mark ii. 6–12.

  • 12.

    Mark iii. 22–30.

  • 13.

    John i. 1.

  • 14.

    John i. 14.

  • 15.

    Mark xiii. 32.