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WE now come to the study of the historical Jesus.
The Gospels narrate to us how, about the year 28 of our era, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, there appeared in Palestine a new prophet who was named John the Baptist. He preached a baptism of repentance and announced the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. Amongst the multitudes that flocked to hear him was one Jesus of Nazareth, who was baptized and became his disciple, preached as he preached, and himself also collected disciples round him. Owing to the anger of Herodias, whose adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herod Antipas he had rebuked, John was cast into prison; his preaching came to an end and his followers were dispersed. Jesus retires to his own country Galilee. He is found at Capernaum on the Lake of Galilee or Tiberias. He preaches, announcing the Kingdom of Heaven, he collects disciples around him – his independent ministry begins. This was about the year 30.
The ministry in Galilee lasted two years. Its centre was round the sea of Galilee, but twice at least there were considerable missionary journeys through the country. It was distinguished by great and growing success, it aroused popular enthusiasm. It aroused, too, opposition. Both the representatives of the official religion, the Scribes and Pharisees, and the government of Herod Antipas began to be concerned about it. But the movement continued. Jesus appointed twelve Apostles and sent them on a mission through Galilee to announce the Kingdom of Heaven – a mission which perhaps attracted the unfavourable notice of the authorities. The enthusiasm culminated in the gathering of a great multitude on the eastern side of the Lake – the feeding of the Five Thousand. Here an attempt was made to make Jesus king, and the movement must have presented the appearance of an attempted revolt. The danger grew so great that Jesus was compelled to retire into the country to the north of Palestine – the region of Tyre and Zidon, where he would be outside Jewish territory and safe from the suspicions of Herod Antipas. We next hear of him near Caesarea Philippi, in the territory of the tetrarch Philip, the brother of Antipas, a mild and just ruler. Here his disciples acknowledge him as the Messiah and he prepares for his journey to Jerusalem, where he will declare himself to be the Messiah and inaugurate the Messianic kingdom.
After passing secretly through Galilee, probably in the autumn of A.D. 32, he enters the Roman province of Judaea, where he is safe from Antipas, and begins a preaching tour throughout Samaria, Judaea, and Peraea, probably in Jerusalem; first sending before him seventy disciples to announce his coming. Shortly before the Passover, his followers begin to collect from all parts. He enters Jerusalem in triumph, seizes and dominates the Temple, and begins to teach the people. He is preparing for a peaceful revolution, for establishing the kingdom of heaven by winning men to it, not as others had attempted by force of arms. But he had aroused the enmity of the guardians of the official religion. His position was too strong to make it possible to seize him openly without creating a disturbance. So he is taken by night by treachery. He is condemned by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy and for claiming falsely to be the Messiah. He is brought before the Roman Governor on a charge of treason, condemned, and crucified. He died as a common malefactor but from his death sprang the Christian Church.
It is the significance and meaning of this life and the personality of Jesus that we have now to investigate.
Jesus is presented to us as one who was really a man, who lived a human life, and died a human death.
He grew and developed as a man does. 'Jesus advanced in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.' As I shall maintain later it is not possible for us to know what his consciousness was, but we must recognize this much that there was a real growth in the conception of his work and mission. There is no reason for thinking that from his earliest years he was conscious of his Messianic office, that the knowledge of it was always present with him or came to him in a complete form. There was development both in body and in
He suffered as a man and had all the ordinary human emotions. He was weary, he was hungry and thirsty. He felt pity, sorrow, anger. He had affection for those associated with him. He is represented as living a life of prayer with God. We may consider this a necessary part of his divine nature, but also quite certainly it was a human characteristic. It is perhaps hardly possible to draw a hard and fast distinction between what is human and divine in his nature. He was subject to temptation. This is told us in a story which may be symbolical but undoubtedly represented the temptations to which he was subjected during his life.
He shared all the ideas, popular, scientific, critical, psychological of his own time. This is a point on which much difficulty has been felt. It has often been customary to discuss it from an a priori point of view. Theologians have tried to decide the question by considering what ought to have been our Lord's knowledge, surely a task for which we are quite incompetent. The right way to approach it is inductively, that is to examine the words of Jesus and consider what they imply; and I think that there is no doubt that they represent him, whatever may have been his own knowledge or consciousness, as a man of the times in which he lived. He thought or at any rate spoke about scientific things as other people in Galilee did. His words implied that the sun rose and set. The conception of the universe in accordance with which he taught would be something like that set forth in the Book of Enoch. His psychology was the psychology of his time. He speaks of the heart for example in exactly the same way as any one else would have done. It is a method of expression which to us is metaphorical, which was then looked on as literally true. The heart is the seat of the intelligence, the thoughts and the emotions of man. His language implies that he shares the current ideas about evil spirits.
Now if we reflect a moment it will be clear to us that this was the only language which in all these subjects was possible. It would have been from a human point of view absurd if the language of our Lord as regards any of these subjects had been that of any time but his own. He uses the ideas of his time, just as he uses the grammar, language, and so on. The revelation through Jesus Christ was a revelation given to mankind at the time when he came, and adapted to the circumstances of that time. This is true also of his religious conceptions. They were all expressed in the terms and language of his own time. Nothing else would have been possible or intelligible. If he is speaking of social, political, or religious ideas, he uses the expression 'the Kingdom of Heaven'. No other language would have been understood. All teaching, religious or otherwise, must be relative to the thought and ideas of a man's own time.
His religious language, conceptions, and ideas are derived throughout from the Old Testament. If you study the quotations in his own words, you will find that his teaching was to a large extent built up on four books, Deuteronomy, the most spiritual exposition of the Law, Isaiah, the most spiritual of the prophets, the Psalms, the most spiritual presentation of the religious life, and Daniel, the most spiritual of the Apocalyptists. From these books came the main inspiration of his teaching. He not only quotes explicitly, but makes use of their language and phraseology, as a man does of books on which his mind is fashioned. He had, moreover, just the same opinion about these books as his contemporaries had. All the Pentateuch is quoted as Moses, all Isaiah as Isaiah, all the Psalms as David.
But there comes a point when we shall find a great distinction between our Lord's use of Scripture and that of his contemporaries. His mind was formed on the same Scripture as theirs, his opinions about the origin of the books were the same as theirs, but when it came to giving them a meaning, there was a profound difference. We know fairly well what were the schools of interpretation of Scripture at the time. There was the Rabbinical which looked upon the Bible as a great Law book, and built out of it the subtleties which have been preserved for us in the Talmud. Of that there is nothing. There was the popular homiletic method, called the Midrashic. It is represented to us by the Book of Jubilees, by a recently discovered work The Antiquities of the Jews, ascribed to Philo, and by many later works. In this you find a fantastic collection of folk-lore, of myth and legend. Of this there is no trace. Then there was the Apocalyptic interpretation – this perhaps was not without its influence, but read a few pages of the Book of Enoch and you will soon find how great is the difference between that and anything that we have in the Gospels.
In contrast to all these you will find that our Lord's use of Scripture is extremely simple. He brings out the significance quite literally, but he gives a spiritual meaning which is felt to be absolutely true. His teaching is built up on the Old Testament, interpreted in a simple, direct manner, but with a profound spiritual significance.
Then finally we must recognize that there was a limitation to our Lord's knowledge.That we are quite definitely told. 'But of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.' The Son on earth had limitations of knowledge, so he assures us, and we need not distrust or explain away his testimony. At the same time let us notice that that very passage which emphasizes for us that there were certain limitations in our Lord's knowledge implies that he had knowledge very different in character from that of man. That passage which implies a limitation of knowledge seems to imply also possession of more than ordinary knowledge.
Jesus then was a man, tempted as a man, living under the conditions of human life of his time, with the sufferings and emotions of a man, with a knowledge expressed in the language of his own day, with certain limitations of his knowledge. Even a careful study of his human characteristics suggests that this is not a complete account, and difficult problems will begin to suggest themselves. But this must be our starting-point. The Christian Church has always been firm in its conviction that our Lord Jesus Christ was truly man, and this is in accordance with the record of Scripture.
Such is one side of the earthly life of Jesus, but if we study the record as we have it this does not exhaust the characteristics of his personality. He is presented to us as a prophet and a teacher. But this is not all. In his words and works alike there is much that appears to transcend the ordinary possibilities of human nature. We are told for example that he spake with authority, that he spake as never man spake, and when we come to examine his teaching we find that it makes claims which are certainly very remarkable. He claims to forgive sins. He speaks often as if there were an intimate and personal relationship of himself to God. He has great spiritual power, and by that power exercises a remarkable influence over men. He is able in particular to cure those who in the language of the day were possessed of evil spirits. He is represented to us as healing the sick, as exercising power over the winds and waves, and in other ways also working what are called miracles.
'He spake with authority.' That no doubt represents the manner of his teaching, but clearly also it means much more. For example he claimed to supersede the old law and to deliver a new law. A contrast is often made between the dogmatic or metaphysical statements about our Lord, and his ethical teaching. The former we are told represent the imaginings of the Christian Church, the latter represent Christianity. For example Dr. Hatch in his Hibbert Lectures contrasted the Sermon on the Mount and the Nicene Creed. That was not a very intelligent proceeding, for it meant taking two things which are not concerned with the same subject-matter and contrasting them with one another. There was much ethical teaching at the time when the Nicene Creed was formulated, and there is much dogmatic teaching in the Gospel. The development such as it was in the Nicene Creed was a development of elements which are just as early as the moral teaching. What we have now to notice is the tremendous assumption which underlies much of the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Take the Beatitudes. Our Lord there claims without any hesitation to lay down the conditions on which men are to inherit the kingdom of heaven, are to see God, are to be called the Sons of God. The words are simple, but what an assumption lies behind them. Or take the attitude towards the Law. The Law was looked upon by the Jews as something which had come direct from God, eternal, unchangeable. Our Lord, while claiming to fulfil the Law and the Prophets, claims also to supersede them, and to give something which is higher and better. The righteousness of old times is inferior and inadequate. And this was said of a Law so sacred, that according to the Rabbis the world was created that the Law might be kept. There is just the same claim in the attitude of our Lord towards the Sabbath. And so throughout the Gospels. There is underlying all the simplest teaching an assumption of authority which appears to be more than human.
Jesus claimed to forgive sins, and quite naturally was in consequence accused of blasphemy. He summons disciples to himself and represents himself as one in whom men will find life, and rest, and comfort. 'Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.'In these words there is indeed nothing obviously supernatural, but how great the assumption that Jesus is able to give rest to those who are in distress! How much more than the sort of claim which the prophet puts forward! Or again when he says, 'Whosoever shall receive one of such little children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever receiveth me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me', does he not identify himself and his mission with the Father, and claim in a unique manner to be representative of God? It was in fact a characteristic of our Lord's ministry that he put himself forward as one to whom men should come.
He does not preach only the Father; he preaches himself as him through whom men should come to the Father. And this harmonizes with the claim that he makes to have a special relationship with the Father: 'All things have been delivered unto me of my Father, and no one knoweth the Son, save the Father; neither doth any know the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal him.'
And then there was a wonderful spiritual power. It was shown by his personal influence on men, by his more than human insight – 'He knew what was in man';
First as to the evidence. The evidence for miracles is contained in all our Gospels and in all the sources into which they can be analysed. It is of a complex character. We find not only general statements but also a number of special narratives which appear to have been selected as typical. The narrative as a whole assumes the miraculous power. Jesus claimed the power of working miracles. The Apostles based their faith upon miracles. It was by miracles that the crowd was attracted and much of the teaching of Jesus would lose its meaning if he had not had such power as this implied. Nor is it possible on critical grounds to eliminate this evidence. Attempts have been made to get back to a non-miraculous nucleus, but to the best of my belief these attempts have not been successful. There do not seem to be valid objective grounds for rejecting the miraculous. The criticism which would eliminate them has been inspired more or less unconsciously by the assumption that miracles cannot happen. The documents have been doubted because they contain miracles, not on critical grounds. I do not think that you can say that the evidence for miracles is demonstrative. There is no demonstrative evidence in historical problems. What I think there can be little doubt about is that from the beginning and in the lifetime of Jesus himself he was believed to have worked miracles, and that it is not possible to construct a life of him in a scientific way which leaves out miracles.
So much for the evidence. But we cannot leave the matter there. We are investigating the personality of Jesus the Christ and his relationship to the universe, and this matter of miracles leads us straight to some of our problems.
It is commonly said of miracles that they are contrary to the laws of nature, and that therefore they cannot happen. But unless there were a uniform order of nature there could not be a miracle. The very idea of a miracle is that it is something contrary, not indeed to nature or a law of nature, but to nature as we know it; therefore to say that a miracle is contrary to nature or the law of nature and therefore is impossible is really to say that a miracle is something inconceivable in itself, and that clearly it is not. The reason for this attitude towards miracles is the great influence which one aspect of the universe, namely the scientific, has had on men's minds for the last two hundred years. Nature has been studied scientifically as never before and what are called natural laws are by many looked upon as the whole of reality. A naturalistic theory of the universe has been constructed and then a purely mechanical explanation of phenomena has been considered sufficient. How inadequate such an explanation is has already been shown,but the authority and influence of naturalism is far stronger than the arguments in its favour would justify. I remember talking once to a distinguished man of science on this subject who said to me: 'I quite agree that there is nothing in natural science which conflicts with Christianity as it is commonly understood, but the scientific habit of mind makes it very difficult for us to believe.' That is I think quite true. An exclusive attention to one side of truth creates a habit of mind, and it is this habit of mind which is behind the disbelief in miracles. But if the mechanistic view of the universe were really true, it would mean that human morality, and the human will, and human freedom were all destitute of any reality, and few are prepared really to accept such inferences.
But what is a law of nature? The idea of a law of nature is to most people a law which governs or controls the universe, and thus accounts for and explains what the universe is: but this is reading into the word law a meaning derived from human affairs for which from a scientific point of view there is no justification. Laws of nature are in the first place abstractions. They do not describe anything that really happens, but certain aspects or elements of natural action which are mentally or experimentally separated from other aspects.and made the subject of observation. Nature therefore is far more complex than any of these laws. Then secondly what are called laws of nature are not in any way laws but generalizations, a summary statement of our knowledge. They merely represent the knowledge of nature which we possess at a particular moment, and are continually changing as our knowledge increases. Nor thirdly do these laws tell us anything about the cause of anything that happens. They only tell us the way in which things happen. It is of course convenient to talk about laws of nature, and there is no reason for not doing so, provided we remember the limitations of the phrase; but to say that miracles are impossible because they are contrary to a law of nature is really a meaningless statement.
The objection to miracles would be stated more correctly if it were said that they were contrary not to the laws of nature, but to the uniformity of nature as we know it. Now what does the uniformity of nature mean? It does not mean that things always have happened or always will happen in the same way. It merely means that the same antecedents are always followed by the same consequents. Here is a good illustration. A few years ago a scientific man had brought some photographic plates. He had kept them quite properly protected in his laboratory. After a time he wished to use them, but found that they were clouded. He naturally thought that the maker had sent him bad plates. But he had been carrying on experiments in high tension electricity, and ultimately he discovered that quite unconsciously he had been producing X-rays before X-rays were known. A completely new antecedent had come in and had necessarily produced a different result. Now whenever human agency intervenes it produces new antecedents which seriously affect the result. If the human antecedent were unknown the result would appear to be a miracle. What is
maintained as regards a miracle is that a new antecedent has intervened, spiritual power, the spiritual power which God exercises always and continually in the universe and which is the ultimate cause of all natural action. That is a quite adequate cause, and if such a cause has intervened there is nothing in the miracle which violates any conception that we have formed of the uniformity of nature.
But it is said, God does not do unnatural things. He does not violate his own laws. I think that probably this is the difficulty most felt by thoughtful people at the present day. We recognize that normally this is true – God works through the ordinary course of nature. When we discussed the relation of God to the world we argued that God's providential government of the world was not shown by any interference with the order of nature, but through his presence in the whole order of nature. If that be so it is argued that miracles, namely abnormal events, do not happen. Now I do not think that if you look at the history of the world as we know it you can say that that is true. Quite clearly there was once a time when no life existed in the world. The introduction of life (however it happened) was obviously something abnormal compared with the whole character of the world before it came. The change may have been brought about slowly; it may have come by what seemed an autonomous evolution; it may have come by special creation; in any case something appeared quite new, quite abnormal. Exactly the same thing may be said with regard to the development of self-conscious mind, causing the extraordinary changes which it has produced and is producing in the whole conditions of life on the earth.
Now what we as Christians believe is that the Incarnation of our Lord was a new departure in the history of the world, exactly the same as the others that have been mentioned, that is to say that it was something abnormal, something contrary to the course of nature as ordinarily known. Of course that is only the human point of view. From the point of view of men it seems abnormal because it is a break in the whole order of the universe. From the point of view of God, if we may so speak, it is not abnormal, for it is another stage in the fulfilment of a purpose. If we believe in the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ who is God and became man, clearly a most abnormal event happened, and we have a new start in the history of mankind. If that be so there is no reason to think that it may not have been accompanied by a manifestation of spiritual power harmonizing with such an event. If we accept the reality of the Incarnation there can be no impossibility in miracles because they are abnormal, for the Incarnation itself is from any point of view a miracle, and they would fulfil a natural function as signs of so wonderful a manifestation of spiritual power.
I cannot but think that this argument is strengthened by opinions expressed later by Mr. Thompson, whose work on miracles created some stir when it was first published.He had maintained that miracles were contrary to the laws of nature and that we could not therefore believe in them. The evidence for them also was faulty. But when he then wrote he held the position which many people adhere to quite sincerely, that although he doubted miracles he accepted the Incarnation. In a later work he tells us that exactly the same argument which made him doubt miracles convinced him that he could not accept the sinlessness of Jesus, for that would be inconsistent with the natural order of the world. That is to say, there is just the same a priori difficulty in believing in the sinlessness of Jesus as there is in believing in his miraculous powers. The question then for us is, are we able to believe that in Christ Jesus God became incarnate in man? If we can believe that, then I think we shall feel that the miraculous accompaniments of his life on earth were not unnatural or abnormal or impossible, and that therefore they may rightly be looked upon as signs of the conditions which made them possible and thus possess a definite evidential value.
Another objection has been raised. There are many miracles recorded in history and we do not believe them, how then can we believe the Gospel miracles? This argument has perhaps been strengthened in recent times by the changed attitude towards the miracles of the Old Testament. The same doubts are by many felt about these, as about the miracles of ecclesiastical history. Is there not then the same difficulty about the Gospel miracles? Do not they also arise from the credulity and desire for thaumaturgic display which is so characteristic of human nature?
The circumstances are I think different in two directions. First there is a profound difference in the character of the evidence. Take for example the miracles which accompanied the Exodus. To the best of our knowledge the written account of them which we possess is many hundred years later than the events described; that is to say there is no historical evidence for them of any value at all. So much is this the case that an equal doubt is felt about the non-miraculous events recorded as occurring at that time. The narratives of the New Testament are obviously on quite a different footing. The evidence for our Lord's miracles is closely and intimately bound up with the whole record of his life, and comes from those who had seen and known him. The evidence for Apostolic miracles seems even stronger, for St. Paul in his own writings definitely claims to have worked them, and in the Acts of the Apostles we have the evidence of an eyewitness.
Then secondly we have an entirely different set of circumstances. The claims and character of our Lord are different from those of any one else who ever lived, and therefore it is not unnatural that the circumstances which surrounded his life should harmonize with those claims.
I venture to think that any one who has followed our argument so far will realize that the Gospel narratives are on a different footing from all other miracles, but it is still maintained that at any rate they have no evidential value. I think that that is putting the case rather too strongly. As regards the effect on the contemporaries of Jesus, I do not think that it is correct to say that the miracles could not have value or that they were not necessary. It is sometimes said that it would have been easier to believe in Jesus if we had known him on earth. For some it might have been, but remember that Christianity comes to us with a record of nearly nineteen centuries of progress and power. It is a great fact in the history of the world. It comes to us through the work which it has accomplished with enormous presuppositions in its favour. To the original followers of our Lord it came with no such record; it came in fact with everything against it. Jesus came as the Messiah but repudiating almost every characteristic which the expectations of the day associated with his office. No doubt he spoke with authority. No doubt his personality and his character attracted. No doubt his words stirred men's consciences and went straight to their hearts. But would it have been possible for men to accept him as they did, unless there had been some direct evidence of his superhuman claims, in harmony with the thought of the time, which helped and strengthened their faith? I very much doubt it.
And then as regards the evidential value of miracles at the present day. It is quite true that we cannot adopt the over-mechanical argument presented to us most typically in Paley's Evidences of Christianity. He argues, it will be remembered, first that we have demonstrative evidence for the miracles of the Bible, and then that miracles prove that what the Bible teaches is true. I doubt if any one ever comes to believe in that way. The reasons that make us feel the truth of the life of our Lord are complex. They are largely spiritual – a combination of experience and history and evidence, the appeal which Christianity makes to our highest instincts, and the record of what it has accomplished. Now this combined argument puts before us the conception of our Lord as divine, and as part of the evidence for this conception the fact that he is recorded to have possessed these spiritual powers does not seem to me to be without weight. The record appears to be consistent with the claims. The claim is to be the Son of God. It is a claim supported by the witness of history, by the witness of Christian experience, by these signs of spiritual power. For what is a miracle? It means the predominance of the spiritual over the material. We know the power of the spirit in human life. That may sometimes be almost miraculous. The spirit of man may overpower his physical weakness. One man may exercise spiritual power over another in a very wonderful way. Now what the New Testament tells us about our Lord is this, that he possessed in a degree far greater than anything that we have experienced that power of the spirit of which we have some indications even in ordinary human life. We recognize that the ultimate basis of the universe is spiritual, that life and force are but manifestations of the spiritual, that the Incarnation meant the manifestation of the spiritual in the world. Jesus Christ came in the power of the spiritual. His strength was the strength of the spiritual. Is it then unnatural, abnormal, improbable that that power should be exhibited in the manner that is recorded ? Are not these miracles of his which were entirely or almost entirely worked with a moral purpose just the natural manifestations that we might expect of the coming of the Son of God into the world with the aim and purpose of seeking and saving that which was lost? Whether you consider the miracles which our Lord accomplished, or the miracles which he abstained from – for the record tells how he avoided anything which might be merely a thaumaturgic display – in either case you will feel that the narrative is consistent and harmonious. Has not this consistency a strong evidential value?
One further word of caution. Because we accept miracles it does not mean necessarily that every single miracle recorded in the Gospel happened as it is recorded. That is not the character of our historical evidence. There is no inerrancy or infallibility in the Gospel record any more than in other parts of the Bible. Events are described in a different way in different Gospels and in different sources. It is quite possible that there may be a mistake in this or that narrative, as in this or that record of the teaching. We recognize that we must avoid constructing our formulations of the teaching of our Lord on isolated sayings, if there be such, which do not harmonize with the normal record. But although we cannot for this reason feel confident that every miracle happened as it is recorded, yet it is not incorrect to say that the evidence for miracles is as good as for the rest of the record of our Lord's life.
This investigation has necessarily been somewhat prolonged, as it has been concerned with matter the subject of much controversy. Our argument might be summed up as follows. Although the Gospel narratives present our Lord as a real and perfect man, it is clear that much which is recorded of him does not come under that category. His personality appeared to those who surrounded him as something more than human. He made claims both explicitly and implicitly which far exceeded those of the prophetic office, and revealed a relationship to the Father different from that of ordinary men. He had a spiritual power which revealed itself in his influence over men, his insight, his authority over evil spirits, in the healing of the sick, and a control of the forces of nature which is unexampled. We have now to consider what explanation of this he gives, what is his own teaching regarding his person and office.
Jesus came as the Messiah and thought of himself as the Messiah. Unless that is recognized it is not possible to understand his ministry. It is true that there have always been those who have maintained the thesis that he did not claim to be the Messiah, or that the conviction that he was the Messiah only came to him gradually at the end of his ministry, or that a deterioration of his ministry and character began when he allowed himself to be considered the Messiah. I do not think that any such theories are really tenable.
Why was he crucified ? Had Jesus been merely a good man and a prophet the whole story would lose its meaning and coherence. It was because he claimed to be the Messiah and was looked upon as the Messiah that he was considered guilty of blasphemy and condemned to death.
'Again the high priest asked him and saith unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven. And the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What further need have we of witnesses? Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be worthy of death.'
This for the end of his life. For the beginning let us take the story of the Temptation. A short study of this is important in order to show us what is implied by the life of Jesus. It is not of course necessary for us to think of the Temptation as a literal description of events as they actually happened. As Origen first pointed out, it is a symbolical account of the type of temptation which must have come to our Lord, if he was what he claimed to be. It is the temptation which must have come to a man conscious of divine office and powers. Supposing that any ordinary man, any good man with a desire of benefiting the human race, were to feel that he had power such as Jesus was conscious that he possessed, what would be his desire? His first impulse would be to satisfy his own needs and to relieve the wants of mankind, by providing all men with the means of life. To do so would have been to act exactly in accordance with one of the current conceptions of the kingdom of heaven, that it was to be a time of material plenty. It would be in accordance too with the aims of modern philanthropy. Social reform aims at satisfying the material wants of mankind. But 'man does not live by bread alone', and if the whole world lived in comfort and ease it would not be any nearer God, or have fulfilled his purpose more completely.
Again, there was an old legend that the Messiah when he came would stand on a pinnacle of the Temple and would appear floating down amid the worshippers, recognized by an undoubted sign as the Messiah. But what moral weakness it would have been on the part of Christ to tempt God by using miraculous powers for the sake of thaumaturgic display! And how little spiritual gain to his followers, if they were merely attached to him as a successful magician! But what more natural than to desire to perform some wonderful feat which would make the whole world recognize that the Messiah had come!
Or again if any one of us had had the power which our Lord must have been conscious that he possessed, what more natural than to attempt by force to build up the Messianic kingdom, to substitute the rule of righteousness for the Roman Empire, to fulfil all the hopes and expectations of the people, to restore the kingdom of David. But the appeal to force would have meant to worship the devil. It would have been the failure of his mission. It would not have done anything to change man's nature, or to establish righteousness in men's hearts, or to bring them nearer to God.
These are three ways in which any one eager to save and benefit mankind would find it natural to do so. They would correspond to the dreams which many of us would have of how to make the world better, by increasing its material wealth, or by ruling it through the brilliancy of our powers, or by creating a mighty and beneficent empire. They all corresponded to Jewish expectations and represented the traditional, but from a religious point of view, the imperfect conceptions of the Messianic office. They represented the temptations natural to our Lord, conscious as he was of his Messiahship, the temptations to which any able man would have been exposed under such conditions; but to have adopted such methods would have destroyed the whole meaning and purpose of his life. Now these temptations would not have come to him, the whole story would be meaningless, if Jesus had not thought of himself as the Messiah, and been conscious that he possessed the powers which belonged to that office.
Jesus then thought of himself as the Messiah, and that was the controlling influence of his ministry. It explains and justifies his teaching. It explains the purpose and method of his ministry. We have two things to remember, the one that he came as the Messiah, the other that he had to correct the inadequate conceptions of the Messianic office that men held.
And this will enable us to understand the reserve that there is in his teaching. It has been pointed out that he does not call himself the Messiah and that he forbids others to do so. He certainly puts his Messianic claims in the background. He preaches the Kingdom and not his own office. Now that is as our texts tell us a true statement. But was it not the only possible method of action? Had he come and announced himself as Messiah, where would have been the credentials by which he would win acceptance? Those who would have been ready to accept him would have been the wild and turbulent spirits who were always seeking a leader for their nationalist aspirations. His method is wiser – he does not put himself forward. He preaches the coming of the Kingdom; at the same time he so acts and teaches as to make his disciples realize what are his claims. It is noticed that he speaks with authority and not as the scribes, that he forgives sins, that he has extraordinary spiritual power. He surprises men by his personality and his goodness. His teaching was wonderful, no man ever spoke as he did. The result of this is that his disciples gradually learned to recognize him as the Messiah and through Peter to confess him. From that time onwards he is accepted by them, and he is able to correct the inadequate conceptions that they had formed of his office. He sets his face to go to Jerusalem, to inaugurate the Kingdom and to die.
The name in the Gospels by which Jesus most commonly speaks of himself is the Son of Man. As to the significance of this name there have been many explanations given which demand some investigation. I shall begin by putting aside three such suggestions. It has been maintained that the expression Son of Man was used simply as a paraphrase for man. This is a meaning which it has in accordance with Semitic idiom in certain passages of the Old Testament. For example, 'What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the Son of Man that thou visitest him.'Such a meaning of the expression is possible, but any one who reads the Gospels will see that it does not explain our Lord's usage. The Son of Man is a name or title. Then secondly it has been maintained that Jesus used the words not in reference to himself but as foretelling a future Messiah. That is a possible interpretation of some passages, but it will not suit the greater number. 'Foxes have holes and the birds of the heaven have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head.' Clearly these words must have been used by our Lord of himself and cannot refer to any one else. Then thirdly it has been maintained that Jesus never used the title. It was used of him by the early Church. This seems to me one of the greatest of paradoxes. It is a striking example of manipulating facts so as to make them prove what is desired. For what are the facts? The title Son of Man occurs in the New Testament only twice outside the Gospels, and in the Gospels it is always used by our Lord of himself. In the face of these facts seriously to maintain that it was not used by our Lord of himself, but was used of him by the early Church, seems to me an untenable proposition contradicting all the evidence. It is an admirable instance of the habit of mind which is always aiming at correcting history in accordance with modern speculation.
I think that we may feel satisfied that the expression Son of Man was a title used by our Lord of himself and we have now to investigate its meaning and significance.
The origin of the title goes back, I have little doubt, to the Book of Daniel:
'I saw in the night visions, and, behold, there came with the clouds of heaven one like unto a son of man, and he came even to the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.'
The expression here is not 'the Son of Man' but 'one like unto a Son of Man', and no doubt it meant one in human form. It is generally held that the passage refers to the personified Israel;but the imagery of the vision created the conception of a definite figure called the Son of Man and so the expression is used in the Book of Enoch, in passages already quoted. The Son of Man, who is also called the Messiah, is particularly associated with the vision of judgement. Clearly the title was used before the time of our Lord of the Apocalyptic Messiah.
Our Lord himself derived it no doubt from Daniel, for we find this passage quoted among his own words. Whether or no he was acquainted with the Book of Enoch is more doubtful ; how far the expression Son of Man was commonly used and recognized as a title of the Messiah may also be doubtful; how far again when he spoke of himself as the Son of Man it was definitely recognized that he claimed to be the Messiah may be doubtful; but that he used the title Son of Man as derived from Daniel and as claiming to be the Messiah who will judge the world, seems to me quite clear.
Such appears to be the origin of the term, but its use by our Lord is even more significant, for it is the title regularly employed when speaking of his sufferings and of the humiliation of his earthly life. For instance immediately after the confession of St. Peter we are told that, 'He began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.'
It is I think most significant of the character and style of the teaching of Jesus, that he should select just the title which expressed the functions of his office as Messiah and judge who should come in glory at the last day, as the one to use when he spoke of his sufferings and humiliation. It was just the way in which he might best impress upon his disciples the transformation of the Messianic idea, and helps to convince us that the transformation of the idea came from him and not from the Christian Church.
The next title that we have to discuss is 'the Son of God'. It is used in the Old Testament of the Messiah or ideal King, most notably in the second Psalm.But it seems implied or suggested in an earlier passage in the Book of Samuel, 'I will be his father, and he shall be my son', where it expresses the attitude of filial obedience of the anointed king. But its usage by the high priest seems to prove that it was recognized as a title of the Messiah.
The title 'Son of God' is used occasionally but not often in the Gospels of our Lord, but never by himself. It is particularly used by the insane, which means that it was a popular name for the Messiah, and that was no doubt the reason why Jesus avoided it. He would not use any expression which might be taken as a direct and assertive claim to be the Messiah. But while he does not call himself Son of God, he does speak of himself in a most significant way as 'The Son'.Further than that he speaks of God as 'my Father', in a way which implies a close and intimate association with God in heaven. 'He that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.' 'Him will I also confess before my Father which is in heaven.' 'For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother.' It is sometimes held that Jesus spoke of 'my Father' exactly in the same way in which he spoke of God as the Father of mankind. I think that if you study his words you will see that this is not the case. When he speaks of God as the Father of mankind, he always uses the words 'Our Father', and the meaning, the Father of mankind, is clear, but when he speaks of 'my Father', he implies an intimate association, fellowship, and co-operation, an ethical and personal solidarity, such as is represented more conspicuously but hardly more strongly in St. John's Gospel. It may be noticed also how significant is the religious implication of the passages quoted.
This intimate relationship goes back to the beginning of the ministry. It is clearly taught in the Baptism. 'Thou art my beloved Son'.
For Jesus thought of himself as the Servant of Jehovah described in the Book of Isaiah. This too goes back to the beginning. The words spoken at the Baptism, 'Thou art my Son, my Beloved; in thee I am well pleased'combine the Son of God of the Psalms and the beloved Servant of Isaiah. There are references to this function of our Lord in two very striking passages, the one is an incident which St. Luke places probably incorrectly at the beginning of the ministry. The scene is the synagogue at Nazareth:
'And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Isaiah. And he opened the book, and found the place where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor:
He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovering of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty them that are bruised,
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down: and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, To-day hath this Scripture been fulfilled in your ears.'
The second passage is the message from John the Baptist when in prison.
'Now when John heard in the prison the works of the Christ, he sent by his disciples, and said unto him, Art thou he that cometh or look we for another? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Go your way and tell John the things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good tidings preached to them. And blessed is he whosoever shall find none occasion of stumbling in me.'
In this passage Jesus describes his ministry by paraphrasing language used in Isaiah of the Servant of Jehovah. Besides these passages you will find in the Gospels other quotations from the second part of Isaiah. This appears to show that it was one of the books from which especially Jesus drew his teaching, I think that we may say inspiration. Most noticeable is a quotation from the fifty-third chapter. Tor I say unto you, that this which is written must be fulfilled in me, And he was reckoned with transgressors.'
Then lastly there is the title Lord. It is probable but not certain that he applied it to himself. He quotes about his own office the words of the 110th Psalm:
'And Jesus answered and said, as he taught in the temple,
How say the scribes that the Christ is the Son of David? David himself said in the Holy Spirit,
The Lord said unto my Lord,
Sit thou on my right hand,
Till I make thine enemies the footstool of thy feet.
David himself calleth him, Lord; and whence is he his son?'
The full implications of this passage do not concern us at the moment, what is significant is that we have the term Lord applied to the Messiah. Whether Lord was here used in the full meaning of the Septuagint as a synonym for Jehovah, the one God, may perhaps be doubted, but it certainly came to be used in this sense of Christ. We remember, however, that 'the Lord Messiah' had already been used in the Psalms of Solomon, and that shows the meaning of it here.
If we review the meaning of these titles given to Jesus in his earthly life or assumed and adopted by himself – Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, Servant of God, Lord – we shall see that they imply that he claimed to fulfil all the hopes and expectations of the Jews. He was the spiritual realization of the history of Israel. He knew that he was this because he was in reality the Son of God and the Servant of God. He knew that he was united with God in an intimate association and fellowship and he knew that his life was to fulfil his Father's will. Because of this he was able to claim that as Son of Man he would come to judge the world, yet even as Son of Man he suffered humiliation and death.
Such, in outline, is the representation of Christ as it is put before us in the Gospels. The meaning that Christian faith and thought has given to it will be the main purpose of our investigation, but some reference must now be made to the criticisms upon it. There have been many theories of the structure of the Gospels put forward with the purpose of eliminating from them the supernatural elements, and of constructing a picture of Christ merely human, or perhaps, as people are never really quite consistent, half-human. It would be impossible to review all these theories; I would confine myself to some which have within recent years attracted attention.
The first is that of Professor Harnack of Berlin, formulated in the book translated under the title What is Christianity? The theory that he maintains is that Jesus came not to reveal himself, but his Father. Now it is interesting to notice that this conception of our Lord as revealing the Father comes to us from St. John's Gospel. Professor Harnack in fact puts St. John's teaching first and that of the Synoptics second, although on critical grounds he would certainly not have accepted either the priority or the historical character of the Fourth Gospel. But if you turn to St. John's Gospel you will see the exact relation of the different elements in Christ's teaching. It is quite true that Jesus came to reveal the Father. The best description of the Gospel is that it is the revelation of God through Christ. The whole purpose of the Gospel is to teach men about God, but as St. John particularly emphasizes, our Lord could do that because he was the Son. 'The only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.' It is quite true that Jesus came to reveal the Father; it is equally true that he came to reveal himself as the Son, and it was only because he was Son of God that he could make God known to mankind. The whole meaning of the Incarnation is the revelation of God to man in human form, that we may in and through the Son learn as much as it is possible for man to know of the Father.
The second theory that I would discuss is that of the Apocalyptic Christ, put forward most prominently by Dr. Schweitzer in a remarkable book Von Reimarus zu Wrede, translated into English under the title of The Quest of the Historical Christ. It reviews the history of German research into the life of Christ during the last 150 years – a remarkable achievement of industry and erudition. The Apocalyptic theory is a reaction from the rationalistic theory of the person of Christ, the theory which adapted the life and teaching of Jesus to the prejudice of the academic liberal of the nineteenth century. The tendency of this school of criticism had been to eliminate from the Gospels all but the ethical element. Harnack, for example, wishing to commend the Gospel to the times and temper of the students of Berlin University ignores large sections of the teaching.
The Apocalyptic view on the other hand lays stress on just those sections of the Gospel which the liberal school ignores. Jesus is not an ethical philosopher, but an apocalyptic dreamer. He expected the end of the world to come soon, even in his own lifetime. His aim was not to found a kingdom of righteousness on earth, but to prepare the way for the kingdom of the Messiah in heaven. He had no purpose of founding a church, and his moral teaching is described as an interim ethic.
How then did Christianity arise? It arose through the failure of the Parousia.
'The whole history of "Christianity" down to the present day', writes Dr. Schweitzer, 'is based on the delay of the Parousia, the non-occurrence of the Parousia, the abandonment of eschatology, the progress and completing of the "de-eschatologising" of religion which has been connected therewith. It should be noted that the non-fulfilment of Matthew x. 23 is the first postponement of the Parousia. We have therefore here the first significant date in the "history of Christianity", it gives to the work of Jesus a new direction otherwise inexplicable.'
What are we to say about this eschatological expectation? We must recognize that it has a certain justification. There is eschatological teaching in the Gospels; there is considerable evidence that the disciples and some evidence that Jesus expected the Parousia as near at hand. This does give an aspect to our Lord's life and teaching very different from that presented by the rationalistic and liberal interpretation, and the latter savours too much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to be very convincing. What are we to say then about this expectation of the Parousia?
I would suggest to you the following considerations. This eschatological language had become the conventional form of religious expression. It had its starting-point in the prophets. It was developed in great fullness by the Apocalyptic writers from Daniel onwards. It is found not infrequently in the New Testament, not only in Revelation but in most other writings. It speaks for the most part of things beyond experience in symbolical language. It is important to notice that the language was symbolical and recognized as such. For example Daniel in the vision of the four beasts which expressed the great empires of the world gives us the beginnings of a philosophy of history. The whole vision is symbolical and recognized as such. Then comes the vision of the Ancient of Days and of the Judgement. Are we to think that suddenly we have passed from what is recognized as symbolical to what we are to take quite literally ? Surely that was not the purpose of the author. In the former part of the prophecy the course of human history was presented in symbolical language. Surely in the latter part things which transcend human experience are expressed in the same way.
Or again take the succession of parables in the twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew. The first is that of the ten wise and foolish virgins. It is eschatological; it looks forward to the Parousia; but throughout it is a parable, it is symbolical. So too is the parable of the talents. The third is the vision of judgement.
'When the Son of Man shall come in his glory, and all the angels with him, then shall he sit on the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all the nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.'
When the good and bad are described as sheep and goats clearly it is symbolism. Is it then necessary to suppose that our Lord intended us to think of the picture of the Son of Man sitting on his throne as one to be taken literally? Surely here also things beyond experience are described in symbolical language.
Or again, turn to the great passage at the close of the Epistle to the Ephesians about the Christian armour. It is eschatological. It is demonological. It speaks of standing in 'the evil day', that is, according to the language of the times, in the troubles and sorrows which should precede the coming of the Messiah. We are to stand against principalities and powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly place. Now no one thinks of the Christian armour as anything but symbolical, and surely that shows us what is the right interpretation of the whole passage. It speaks of the spiritual help which Christianity gives us in the continuous battle which we are to carry on against sin and wickedness, against evil in ourselves and evil without us. No doubt many have taken the symbolism as literally true, but there is no reason for thinking that we should make any difference between different parts of the symbolism or that we were intended to learn any other lesson. That is the way we naturally interpret the passage and it is the right way.
I venture then to suggest to you that there is no reason for thinking that we were intended to take the symbolical language about the coming of the Son of Man literally, in the way which some would have us do. We still use in popular theology this language teaching the divine judgement, because there is no other way than symbolism to describe what transcends human experience. We speak of such things in imagery, in figure, in pictures. I would suggest to you then that Jesus used the current language of religious phraseology to teach us of all those things which must transcend experience, of judgement, of eternal life, of punishment, of heaven and hell. How and in what way that language has been or will be fulfilled we cannot say, but divine judgement is the fundamental thought which lies behind all such teaching, and is the essential postulate of religion.
Then as regards the immediate expectation of the Parousia. No doubt there was such an expectation, but it was hardly held consistently. Both the teaching and life of St. Paul seem to imply a very different purpose. Our Lord himself tells us that on such a point his knowledge was limited. He elsewhere tells us that it is not for us to know the times and the seasons. It may be doubted indeed whether we should apply the category of time at all to such conceptions, for it means measuring God's actions by human standards. The vision of a last day and of the coming of the Son of Man to judge the world has been the symbolical manner in which mankind has been taught the reality of judgement. If the world be governed on moral principles, if there be any reality in values, then there must be some correction of the injustice of the present life. The only theodice, the only rational explanation of things that is possible, depends upon the idea of judgement, and judgement has been taught us in and through the eschatological passages of the Gospel.
There is one further point. If you attempt to interpret the Gospels in a purely eschatological way, it becomes necessary to eliminate much of the teaching of Jesus, just as the rationalist does. Let us hear Dr. Schweitzer:
'It is quite mistaken however to speak, as modern theology does, of the service here required as belonging to the "new ethic of the kingdom of God". There is for Jesus no ethic of the kingdom of God, for in the kingdom of God all natural relationships, even, for example, the distinctions of sex are abolished. Temptation and sin no longer exist. All is "reign", a reign which has gradations. Jesus speaks of the "least in the kingdom of God" – -according as it has been determined in each individual case from all eternity, and according as each by his self-humiliation and refusal to rule in the present age has proved his fitness for bearing rule in the future kingdom.'
All moral teaching is, we are to understand, subordinated to a predestinarian eschatological point of view, and I think that it must be recognized that this does not adequately interpret the Gospels. It is hardly necessary to study the teaching of Jesus from this point of view. But if you take away the moral teaching, you take away its most distinctive characteristic. The Sermon on the Mount is clearly a statement of moral principles, of rules of life, of a reformed worship. It is quite intelligible if Jesus wished to build up a reformed Judaism or a Christian Church, but has little purpose if all that men had to do was to wait for the Parousia. And if you eliminate the Sermon on the Mount, you must eliminate all similar teaching throughout the Gospels, and your reconstruction of the life of Jesus will seem to most people a paradox. Moreover surely the picture of the kingdom of heaven as reign does not rightly interpret the Gospel. The kingdom of heaven is not reign but love, and the fundamental basis of the ethics of Jesus is the substitution of love for all partial and inferior principles of action here, and therefore the bringing to the kingdom of heaven on earth of the guiding principles of the kingdom of heaven in its consummation.
I have said nothing of the fact that a considerable number of critics believe that the great eschatological discourse at Jerusalem did not come from our Lord, but was a 'little Apocalypse' written shortly before the fall of Jerusalem and incorporated by the Evangelist. That is a sort of criticism which seems to me thoroughly bad. There are other eschatological passages in the Gospels, and as a matter of fact we have evidence from all old sources that Jesus spoke like this. We must not eliminate any historical element in our Lord's words; his teaching was far too many-sided to be shut up within the limits of any formula; the mistake is to imagine that any one particular element in it should be made the dominating feature of the whole.
There is one more modern standpoint which must be noted – that which maintains that the Christ of the Gospels is the creation of the Christian Church. Now the opinion that any one forms on that point must obviously depend to a considerable extent on the opinion he has formed as to the historical character of the Gospel narrative. That is a question which it would be outside our purpose to discuss here. It is only necessary to say that the whole trend of criticism is to vindicate more and more the credibility and the historical character of the Gospel narratives as a record of teaching. That does not of course necessarily mean that we can rely on the authenticity of every saying recorded of our Lord. We know from the discrepancies between different records that there must be a certain amount of minor inaccuracy. Nor does it mean that the different narratives may not be occasionally coloured by the medium through which they are recorded. But of the authority of the record as a whole and in consequence of the truth of the picture of our Lord presented in it we may feel more and more confident. And let us remember that that picture is a consistent one. The claims of Christ are exhibited, not merely in miracles, not in this or that striking passage, but in the record as a whole, in the personality, in the teaching, in the life. I do not think that it is possible in any way to maintain that we owe the Gospel story to the constructive imagination of the early Church.
And if we thought that that was the case, there would be a further problem that would confront us. If the Church created Christ, what created the Church? The Christian religion is the most remarkable phenomenon that has yet appeared in the history of the world, the Christian revelation the most powerful spiritual force, the Christian Church a unique society. These must require an adequate and efficient cause, and that we have in the figure and teaching of Christ as it is presented to us in the Gospels.
The above are only typical specimens of modern attempts to explain or explain away the Gospel narrative. There are many others which may be studied in the record of Schweitzer. All alike seem to attract attention for a time and then pass away. None of them offer a satisfactory solution of the problem on rationalistic grounds. The picture presented in the Gospels as we have described it is clear and consistent. It will remain for us to study the interpretation of it, and then ask how we correlate it with other facts of experience.
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