The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Jesus Christ

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JESUS CHRIST, the founder of the Christian religion. Four documents dating from the second half of the 1st century, the “Gospels,” give some account of the life of Jesus, chiefly confined to his brief public work and death. Beyond what they give little is known as to his history. Some of the most important facts are referred to in other writings of the New Testament, especially in the letters of Paul; secular history contains mere references to him; a number of later writings, the so-called “Apocryphal Gospels,” purport to give additional information, but they are fictitious and worthless; and beyond a very few sayings which were probably rightly attributed to Jesus, called “Agrapha,” tradition has preserved nothing of value which was not embodied in the Gospels. These narratives vary, but are rarely inconsistent: usually they may best be regarded as complementary, and the picture of the life and work of Jesus which may be drawn from them has been accepted as trustworthy throughout Christendom in all centuries, and while on many points confirmation from other sources cannot be expected, the investigations of impartial scholars have rather confirmed its accuracy than invalidated it.

Birth and Parentage. — According to the Gospels, Jesus was born in the family of a carpenter, named Joseph, living in Nazareth (q.v.), a small town in southern Galilee. Descent from the line of kings of Judah which began with David is positively claimed for Joseph, and, as some understand the genealogical tables, for Mary, his wife, as well, but during the centuries of national disaster the descendants of David seem to have sunk into poverty and inconspicuousness. While Nazareth was the family home, the birthplace of Jesus was Bethlehem (q.v.), the village of Judea in which David himself was born, a fact which is explained by mention of a census said to have been made under Roman authority while Quirinius was Roman representative in Judea, and to have required that all citizens should be enrolled at the original home of the family. Though no other record of this enrollment has yet been discovered, late discoveries make the fact seem more plausible than it was formerly regarded by some scholars.

The Gospels represent Jesus as born of a virgin, conception having been due to special divine power. The date of his birth cannot be given with certainty as to day, month or even year. Since it must have somewhat preceded the death of Herod (April 4 B.C.), it probably occurred sometime in the year 5 B.C. (possibly 6). It is reported that Mary, in a village strange to her, and at the time overcrowded with visitors, could find no place to lay her new born babe but in a manger. But at the presentation in the Temple for the offering of the sacrifices which Jewish ritual prescribed after child-birth, the infant was joyously hailed by Simeon and Anna, aged saints profoundly possessed by the common Messianic expectation of the nation at that time, and, as shepherds from not far away had come in the night of his birth in obedience to a vision of angels, so, later, the Magi (q.v.) from afar guided by a star sought the child to offer him obeisance and rich gifts. This visit of the Magi, however, made Herod aware of the birth of a child who might grow up to be a dangerous rival of the dynasty which he hoped to found, and it is handed down to us that unable to trace it he ordered the slaughter of all the infants of the village up to the age of two years. But his parents, divinely warned, had taken the child to a safe refuge in Egypt, where they remained till the death of Herod, presumably only a short time. If they returned in the expectation of bringing him up in the ancient home of his line, they were deterred by fear of Archelaus who had succeeded his father as ruler in Judea, and consequently they turned aside to Nazareth where they were secure under the milder rule of Antipas.

Early Manhood. — Of the life of Jesus up to manhood nothing is known, except the mere mention of his visit to Jerusalem when 12 years old. It can be supposed only that He was subjected to the natural influences of a religious Jewish family of the time, of synagogue and of school, of a village at once quiet and yet close to the thronging traffic on one of the great thoroughfares of that age, and finally of the work of a carpenter, for such he is said to have been, till 30 years of age. It was about this time, possibly in the year 26 (or 27) that John the Baptist (q.v.) began his public career, and at once aroused great religious and patriotic fervor in the nation.

The careers of neither John nor Jesus are intelligible without an understanding of the expectant attitude of the Jewish people in the first century. The ancient prophets of the nation had centuries earlier foretold a renaissance of the Hebrew kingdom under a descendant of David, through the generations this hope smouldered in the hearts of the people, only fanned to a brighter flame by blasts of persecution and national disaster, and the whole influence of the sect of the Pharisees (q.v.), popular and powerful out of proportion to their numbers, increased its intensity under Herod and his successors. The people were ready to be fired by the proclamation so strikingly made by the gaunt desert-dweller that the fulfilment of the national hopes and dreams was near: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The preaching of John was, however, no less moral and religious than patriotic. His message was “Repent”; let the nation prepare by penitence to meet the king coming in his kingdom. This prophetic voice set the country in a blaze. Throngs gathered to listen to the new preaching and by a striking symbol, a plunge in the rushing Jordan, to pledge themselves to the new movement. After a time Jesus joined the crowds which attended the ministry of John. It is impossible to say what connection may have existed between John and Jesus. Not only were their families related, but there may have been constant intimacy. John, however, based his later testimony as to Jesus, not at all on his own knowledge of him, but entirely on the divine revelation which was his commission. Jesus offered himself for baptism, insisting that the reluctant preacher should perform the rite, and thus pledged himself to the Coming Kingdom. While it is not claimed that the wonders which attended the baptism were known to others than John and Jesus himself, the story of the Gospels is that a heavenly voice asserted the Messiahship of Jesus, and that with the appearance of a dove the Divine Spirit came to him. The conviction of his mission to his nation and the world was no new thought to the carpenter of Nazareth, and it was with this thought in mind that he recognised the significance of the Baptist's public appearance, joined his auditors, and submitted to the ordinance which he administered. Yet it is not surprising, on the other hand, that he felt constrained, when his own conviction was confirmed, to seek the desert of Judea that alone he might adjust himself to the new responsibilities and burdens of the mission which he must undertake. Amid the solitude of the barren rocks and gloomy caves of that desolate region he meditated and struggled. Of this period we know only the striking story, necessarily autobiographic in origin, in which he depicts the struggles which he underwent as due to Satan's influence. Temptations thus forced in upon him to selfish use of his power, to sensational fanaticism and to compromise with evil in order to advance his ends, were successively resisted, and at the end of 40 days he came forth the victor in all these spiritual conflicts, ready to enter actively on his ministry.

The Ministry. — Jesus returned to the Jordan where John was still at work, and aided by his testimony associated with himself a little group who instinctively recognized in him a future leader of the nation. He went from there first to his home district, where he and his companions were guests at a wedding at Cana, a little town which has been hallowed in all the Christian centuries by John's report of the changing of the water into the wine needed for the entertainment of the company in the prolonged merrymaking incident to such an occasion. Then, as it was near the Passover time, Jesus, accompanied by his mother and brothers as well as his few followers, after staying a short time at Capernaum, went on to Jerusalem. How long he remained in or near the capital city must continue a matter of inference from a few doubtful phrases, but it seems most probable that he remained in Judea for some months, perhaps from April to December. The chief events ascribed to this period are the first cleansing of the Temple and the night interview with the influential rabbi, Nicodemus, and while the effect on city or nation was not great, it was presumably at this time that Jesus formed the strong friendships in Judea, to which incidental reference is often made afterward. The closing of this portion of his ministry seems to have been due on the one side to the hostile jealousy of the dominant Pharisees which would hinder success in Judea, and, on the other, to the imprisonment of John the Baptist which made it possible for Jesus to work in Galilee without what might have seemed competition, and, indeed, made it advisable for him to take up the work which John had been obliged to drop.

On his return to Galilee Jesus soon recalled his disciples, who, if they had accompanied him throughout his work in Judea, had scattered for a time to their homes, and associated himself with them in a companionship which was thereafter unbroken till his death. He made Capernaum the central point of his ministry, returning thither from each of his repeated tours throughout the many scores of cities and villages which then existed in Galilee. Wherever he went the keynote of his preaching was the same as John's had been. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; but as time passed his instructions, exhortations and warnings swept throughout the whole scale of human experience and touched every note of religious and moral truth. The keynote of his teaching about God was his love, infinite, untiring, eternal. On the ground of this love he proclaimed pardon to every penitent, even though a harlot or an outlaw. But this certainty and freeness of forgiveness was not allowed to diminish the loftiness and imperativeness of the standard of duty which he held up. Indeed, the high moral tone of his teaching, accompanied as it was by a constant and insistent demand for absolute sincerity, and his disregard for all mere forms, without the spirit in particular, his teachings and practice in reference to fasting, ceremonial purifications and Sabbath keeping, combined to set against him the Pharisees and through their influence the leaders and officials of the nation.

Popularity. — For a long time his popularity was great and throngs gathered to see and hear him, attracted in part by the reports of his miracles. Far and wide the stories were told that diseases yielded to his command, that the fevered, the palsied, the blind, the deaf and dumb, the lepers, the demonized, were restored to soundness, and, later that on repeated occasions he brought the dead to life. But these great works were distinctly secondary. He was first and foremost the Prophet of Nazareth, the Preacher. As such he spoke with peculiar attractiveness and power. His style was simple and direct, and his discourse was frequently adorned with unequaled parables, illustrations drawn from nature or common life, which, though sometimes veiling the truth from the thoughtless, sometimes added immensely to its clearness and effectiveness. His activity as a preacher at first won him steadily increasing popularity among the people at large, until, about two years after his work began, 5,000 men, whose hunger had been satisfied by his power on the lakeside, determined to make him king. But in this purpose they lacked all real sympathy with the character and aims which Jesus exemplified. The kingdom which centuries before the prophets of the nation had foretold was a kingdom to be sure, but a kingdom which should be based on a right relation of its subjects to God and existing only to serve the divine ends. The Jews as they read these prophecies had seen in them, only something political worldly and selfish. Now when Jesus in fulfilment of prophecy had come to offer himself to the nation as its promised king, he would be king only as his kingdom might be the expression and instrument of a religious people, deeply, purely, unselfishly religious. So at the very climax of popular favor his clear vision instantly recognized now widely their ideals and purposes differed from his.

The Twelve Apostles. — For some time this condition of affairs had been anticipated, and Jesus had laid his plans and shaped his work accordingly. Since the Jewish people would have no such kingdom as he was about to establish, he had several months previously organized under the name of apostles a group of 12 of his disciples, to whom he would impart himself, and on whom he would so far as possible stamp himself, that they in turn might repeat his activity in their relations to others. Although he retained the name kingdom, what he looked forward to establishing was not a political but a spiritual community or body.

After the choice of the apostles the discourses of Jesus had been largely shaped for their special benefit; after his rejection of the offer of kingship from the unappreciative multitude, who in turn instantly deserted him when they saw that he would refuse to gratify their selfish hopes, his work was mainly for the benefit of the twelve, although be neglected no opportunity which came within his reach of trying to touch the soul of the nation or of individuals. Much of the last year of his life Jesus spent in seclusion. He made a journey, doubtless traveling in leisurely fashion, northwest from Capernaum to Sidon, returning as it appears by a roundabout route through the Decapolis, and another journey northeast to Cæsarea Philippi; some time was spent in Perea to the east of the Jordan; and though he seems more than once to have shown himself conspicuously in Jerusalem or its immediate neighborhood, yet during most of the time which he spent in Judea he secluded himself in an obscure village named Ephriam.

So far as the work of Jesus was concerned, the most significant event of the last year, if not of all the three years of his ministry, was the conversation with the apostles near Cæsarea Philippi as to the opinion of him which generally prevailed and as to their own convictions. While Jesus is reported at least once to have claimed to be the expected Messiah, and while this claim was necessarily implied in much that he had said of himself, and while some of the twelve had very early expressed the opinion that they had found the one of whom Moses and the prophets had spoken, yet this view had never found expression as their matured conviction. Such expression Jesus at last sought. His first question was as to the common sentiment concerning him, and the frank answer was that while he was generally recognized as one far beyond the ordinary, he was not at all recognized as the Promised One. In face of this answer Jesus pressed the further question, “What am I to you?” and the answer of Peter, one speaking for all, was that he was the Christ. This answer assured the ultimate success of his mission, for these followers would win more. But he could not fail at the same time to foresee the irrepressible conflict between himself and the leaders of the nation, and so, relying on their faith in him as the Christ, he immediately began to familiarize them with the fact of his death, though this only confused and offended them, and at the same time to add promises of resurrection which they do not seem to have grasped at all.

The apparent failure of the mission of Jesus which he thus foretold, culminating as it did in his rejection and death, was due alike to what he was, what he taught and what he demanded. He himself was devoted with absolute singlemindedness to his work, sincere, unselfish, loving, beneficient, and pure with such perfect and manifest purity that only a few voices of detraction have ever been out of harmony with the almost unanimous recognition and assertion of the sinlessness of his whole life. His teaching, while not in all respects original in matter or form, was in spirit and effectiveness such an advance on the Old Testament which he confirmed or the rabbis with whom he largely agreed that it seemed “a new teaching.” He demanded of others the same perfection of sincerity, altruistic self-forgetfulness and supreme devotion to the will of God which he himself practised, and he as sternly denounced hypocrites as he tenderly welcomed penitents. All his teaching came with a unique tone of authority and this was made more significant by the claims which he advanced for himself. He occasionally asserted and constantly implied that he was a special messenger from God and unique representative of Him, and from time to time he distinctly claimed divine attributes and powers. Thus he spoke; to confirm this he pointed to his miracles; as such he held himself up as the proper object of supreme and absolutely limitless devotion; the recognition of this supremacy he demanded of all and gladly accepted from his disciples, a self-assertion which in view of his sincerity and simplicity of soul is as significant as in view of his transparent honesty coupled with unsurpassed sensitiveness to evils is the absence of ever confessing a fault. Between such a one with such a message and such demands and the rulers of the nation at the time there was necessarily an irreconcilable antagonism which conld end in no way but in his death.

The Messiah. — In the spring of the year 29 (possibly 30), after Jesus had been before the public for three years, the task of implanting the spiritual kingdom in the hearts of the select 12 was so far completed that it would be permanent, and at the same time the conflict with the authorities could not wisely be longer postponed. Accordingly Jesus went up to Jerusalem to the Passover with the throngs which assembled at that time from every part of the country. While he gave repeated proofs that in spirit he was walking in the shadow of the cross which he foresaw at the end of the road, yet this journey, unlike those which had preceded it, was intentionally made, by the sending of 70 messengers before him to proclaim his coming, a significant progress through the country. Reaching the neighborhood of Jerusalem, he stopped for the Sabbath at the neighboring village of Bethany, to which he returned each night till the end, and then on the following day he made a somewhat formal entry into the capital city. It needed only that he should mount a riding ass that those who accompanied him should be reminded of an ancient prophecy, and they, with another throng which came out from Jerusalem to meet him, acclaimed him as the promised and coming king, carpeting the road before him with green branches from the trees at the roadside and with their own clothes thrown before him in the zeal of their loyalty. Thus they led him to the Temple, where the procession dispersed. While informal and at first thought only a failure in its lack of definite result, this “triumphal entry” had deep significance as a public claim to his right to rule the nation as God's appointed representative, and he stopped short of assuming this office only because he desired and demanded first the acceptance of him by the nation. During the days that followed he repeated this claim in various ways; again he drove out of the Temple the huckstering crowds so out of harmony with its proper use, and in prolonged controversy with the representatives of all the parties of the time he bore himself as their Master and proved himself such. All this goaded his enemies at last to action, and through the treachery of Judas Iscariot, one of the inner circle of 12 disciples, almost at once an unlooked-for opportunity presented itself to them.

The Last Supper. — On Thursday evening of Passover week, after special precautions to keep secret the place of their assembling, Jesus sat down at a last supper with his apostles to what he knew would be his last interview with them before his death. While the traitor has gone out to secure his arrest, he pours out his soul to the others in words too tender and profound for their comprehension; he warns them that they will speedily desert him to go alone to his fate; he tells them something of the unique significance of his death in language which contains in germ the later doctrines of the Church, on this point; presenting them bread and wine, he instituted the second of the two rites of the universal church and finally commends them and all future believers in him to God in a prayer of incomparable elevation and pathos. He then went out to a resort familiar to him and his friends, an olive grove named Gethsemane in a valley close to the walls of the city. There the horror of the coming hours, not craven fear of death, but distress at the very thought of the tremendous experience which he must undergo in soul, drew from him a thrice repeated prayer of such intensity that the very blood was forced through the pores of the skin, but on the prayer followed serenity of resignation and purpose which continued unruffled to the end. Then he awakened his disciples who to his disappointment had repeatedly been overcome by sleep and so had left him to his spiritual distress without even the sympathy of his friends, and went to meet the force of Roman soldiers and Temple guards which in needless precaution the officials guided by the traitor brought to seize him. He quietly submitted to arrest, and his followers struck but a single blow in his defense and then scattered in the darkness, two of them, however, John and Peter, followed at a distance, the latter only to deny later all discipleship and even acquaintance.

Trial for Blasphemy. — While some details of the four accounts of the trials of Jesus are obscure, if not inconsistent, yet their general course may easily be made out. At the house of the high priest Caiaphas, or of the still more influential Annas, his father-in-law, and an ex-high priest, there was before daylight an informal session of all the Sanhedrin who could be gathered. Unable to find even perjured testimony which was sufficiently consistent to warrant his condemnation, the high priest as president of the great court of the nation put Jesus under oath and asked him if he claimed to be the Christ. Firmly and positively Jesus answered that he was, whereupon his enemies without even pretense of investigation declared this claim to be blasphemy for which according to Jewish law he must die. But this verdict would be legal only if rendered in the daytime, and so, having been left during the interval to be the object of mockery by the guards, as soon as the day broke, he was formally arraigned and condemned. As, however, the right to inflict the death penalty had been reserved to himself by the Roman procurator, in order to accomplish their purpose they must secure his condemnation of Jesus in addition to their own, and accordingly the Sanhedrin conduct him to Pilate and demand his execution. But Pilate refused to order his execution without investigation, and when they charged him with instigating sedition against the Roman government, the judge instantly recognized their malicious insincerity and the innocence of the prisoner. In his consequent desire to release him Pilate in turn pronounced him innocent; sent him to Antipas, who only made sport of him and returned him; vainly tried to stir up the populace to demand his release according to the custom that a prisoner should be released at Passover time; ordered him scoured in hope that that cruelty would satisfy his enemies; displayed him bloody from the torturing lash and crowned by the soldiers with thorns in cruel jest, fancying that this sight would surely evoke pity; but finally, terrified at the mutterings of the crowd and fearing lest should he persevere charges might be made to the emperor against himself, Pilate ordered the crucifixion of Jesus.

The Crucifixion. — The execution look place at once, scarcely later than the middle of the forenoon. Although so far weakened by the sufferings of the night and morning that the sufferer fainted under the cross which, as was customary, was laid on him to bear to the place of execution, he bore himself throughout with majestic patience and dignity. Under the jeers of his triumphant enemies, in sight of his mother and friends, in the unexplained and portentious darkness which beginning at noon lasted for hours, amid the indescribable physical tortures of the cross, he spoke but to pray forgivingly for those who were the agents of his suffering, and to commend his mother to John, her nephew and his most intimate and beloved disciple. At mid-afternoon he uttered a cry to God, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” which can be understood only as expressive of intensest soul agony. As if this agony culminated and ended with the cry, he then spoke calmly of his thirst and took the drink which a sympathetic bystander pressed to his lips, then commended his spirit to God, and with a loud shout expired, it would seem with a literally broken or ruptured heart. Although death seldom came so soon to the crucified, yet the fact is undeniable in the case of Jesus, for when somewhat later the criminals, who had been crucified with him received a blow intended to hasten their death, the soldiers recognized that he was already dead, and yet one of them thrust a spear deep into his side, apparently touching the heart, and on Pilate's inquiry the officer in charge certified to his death. By leave of the governor two members of the Sanhedrin, who were secretly disciples, took down the body and hurriedly but reverently buried it at the close of day not far from Calvary, where he had been crucified, in a rockhewn tomb, which later was officially sealed.

Of the facts relating to Jesus during the next few weeks, no less than five (if the last verses of Mark are by another hand, then six) separate accounts are preserved, no two precisely agreeing, but, on the other hand no two being mutually contradictory, and one of these accounts, that of Paul, was written within 25 years of the events narrated. It is told that first women going at the dawn of Sunday entered the open tomb but found not the body of Jesus; that later Peter and John also found it empty; that Peter, then 10 of the apostles together, and also two other men miles from Jerusalem, as well as Mary Magdalene, saw Jesus that same day in recognizable human form and talked with him; that these appearances and conversations were repeated at different places and in varying circumstances for about six weeks; that on one occasion he was seen by as many as 500 at the same time, some of whom were at first doubtful as to the facts; and that then these manifestations entirely ceased, except for the experience of Paul. It is certain that the disciples in these few weeks had come to be convinced that Jesus had actually been with them and that consequently they passed out of a state of gloom and despair into joyous and unflinching boldness; that the belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus was an essential part of the creed and preaching of the primitive Church; and that the first day of the week became the Christian day of worship. No plausible explanation of these facts, of the empty tomb; of the reports and convictions of the disciples; who claimed to have seen and talked with Jesus in human form, especially of the case of Paul; of the revulsion of feeling on their part; of the consequent foundation of the Christian Church and of the consecration of the first day of the week, has ever been given except that after his death Jesus, in this as in so much else unlike all other men, entered by resurrection and later ascension upon a new course of life and a new course of activity. Without the resurrection as well as the life and death of Jesus historical Christianity could never have come into existence; by it he became the founder of the Church and the dominating personality of the ages.

Bibliography. — Andrews, ‘The Life of Our Lord’; Anthony, ‘Introduction to the Life of Jesus’; Boardman, ‘The Problem of Jesus’; Burton and Mathews, ‘Constructive Studies in the Life of Christ’; Ewald, ‘Life and Times of Christ’; Farrar, ‘Life of Christ’; Geikie, ‘Life and Words of Christ’; Gilbert, ‘The Student's Life of Christ’; Holtzmann, ‘Life of Jesus’; Keim, ‘History of Jesus of Nazara’; Pick, ‘The Extra-Canonical Life of Christ’; Renan, ‘Life of Jesus’; Rhees, ‘Life of Jesus of Nazareth’; Seeley, ‘Ecce Homo’; Smith, ‘The Founder of Christendom’; Stalker, ‘Life of Jesus Christ’; Strauss, ‘Life of Jesus Christ Critically Examined’; Weiss, ‘Life of Christ.’ Consult also later works by Hall, G. S., ‘Jesus: The Christ in the Light of Psychology’ (1916); Hurlbut, J. L., ‘Story of Jesus for Young and Old’ (1916); Husband, R. W., ‘Prosecution of Jesus: Its Date, History and Legality’ (1916); Rauscherbusch, W., ‘The Social Principles of Jesus’ (1916).

Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Hamilton Theological Seminary, Colgate University.