Charles F. (Charles Fletcher) Dole.

What we know about Jesus online

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I search after truth, by which man never yet was harmed."

Marcus Aurelius. VI, 21



Kegan Paul, Trench, Trxjbner & Co., Ltd.



670009 A A


_ 1933

Copyright I908









I am aware that, while some readers will
approve what I say in this book, others even
among those who will agree in its conclusions,
may deprecate my treatment of the life of
Jesus. All sorts of familiar traditions tend
subtly to prevent men who have been reared
in the Christian faith from saying frankly what
they think about its founder, and often forbid
them to ask seriously what they do think. Many
good people fear that the plain truth, if faced
or uttered, may hurt the cause of religion, if
not for themselves at least for others.

My intent in this little book is altogether posi-
tive, ethical and constructive. I have a firm
faith that the search for the truth, if only mod-
est and reverent, is always a wholesome and
necessary means of moral and spiritual develop-
ment. I have the same faith in the fearless
utterance of the truth. The very effort to tell
the truth and report exactly what we find is



good for us. Let each lover of the truth do this
and we open our minds to the light. There can
be no subject too sacred to throw all the light
possible upon it. Who can imagine the actual
Jesus as wishing anyone to evade the question :
What think ye of Christ ?

A wonderful process of the re-examination of
all the evidences of religion has been going on
for more than a century. A mass of cumber-
some and cruel dogmas has been swept away.
The churches that still profess to hold them no
longer flake them seriously. The Bible has
been reclaimed from a book of mystery to its
natural place in the literature of the world. It
is the story of the growth of man's moral and
religious life. Its noble teachings were never
so clear as now when we see the whole work in
its real perspective. The lasting foundations
of religion, as laid in the nature of man, and
built upon by the noble lives and deeds of each
new generation, were never so conspicuous as
now. With every fresh utterance of the men
who give us their innermost thought about re-
ligion, there has come in spite of the fears of
the timid, a new pressure to rest back upon the


enduring foundations out of which the good
life forever springs into being. Call this, if
you like, an age of question and doubt. It is
also an age of faith; — faith in truth, faith in
progress, faith in God and a good universe,
growing faith in the humanity of every race
and color.

The new judgment of the Bible inevitably
touches the person of Jesus. We cannot con-
tinue lightly to take for granted certain easy
assumptions about him. Whereas the world
has worshiped him as a God for many centu-
ries, the whole modern tendency is to think of
him as a man. This idea was in the ancient
creeds, but it lay dormant in them. The deity
of Jesus, not his humanity, took pretty nearly
the whole emphasis. Now that all allow that
Jesus was a real man, it is high time to try to
find out what it is to be a man. To be a man
is to suffer limitations ; it is not to know every-
thing, but often to be misinformed; it is to
share in the ideas of one's own time and peo-
ple; it is to be subject to weariness and to be
liable to passions; it is to vary in one's moods,
not to see one's ideals at all times with equal


clearness, not to love even one's own friends
always with equal ardor; it is to err at least in
judgment if not in purpose; it is indeed to fall
short of that constancy and activity of good-
ness which we ascribe only to the infinite Good
Will. The fact is, the psychology of human
nature makes it hardly possible to conceive a
real man who, however much he partakes of
the divine nature, may maintain at all times
and towards all persons the perfectness of God.
There is every reason therefore why we should
take Jesus in earnest when he makes the fa-
mous reply to the man who called him "Good
Master:" — "There is none good but one, that
is, God."

Few ever ask the question upon what
grounds we continue to call Jesus the sinless
or absolute man. I wish to make a study of
the evidence for this idea. What if it appears
to be an item of dogma, and not a truth of
biography ?

A word here is necessary, as to what we
mean by sinlessness. If we deny the title of
sinlessness to any man, we mean simply, that
he is a man, a growing creature, climbing still


towards an infinite ideal which he has not
reached. We do not, however, like the me-
dieval theologians, call a man a "sinner," be-
cause he is not perfect like God. We do not
call Jesus a sinner, when we cease to call him
sinless. We all know people with whom we
find no fault, "without guile," true-hearted,
high-minded. There may be no one who pos-
sesses absolute health, but there are those who
are generally well and never ill. So there are
always men and women of natural integrity,
like the splendid character of Job in the story.
There is no question but that Jesus belonged to
this class.

We shall find that our study requires us to
separate two words which have grown to-
gether, namely, Jesus and Christ. They repre-
sent different ideas. The one, beginning with
a local and national meaning, namely, the Jew-
ish Messiah, Prince, or Savior, has developed,
till it has really come to be for millions of people
another and more intimate name for God. It is
the name of the God of Humanity. If this word
"Christ" were once freed of all supernatural or
dogmatic suggestion, it is conceivable that the


people of all religions might come to use it to
express their highest and fullest conception of
the Infinite Goodness. It is evident, however,
that when the word Christ has developed so as
to hold the total content that is associated with
the older word "God," w r e mean by it some-
thing different from the prophet of Galilee.
This Christ, or God, was doubtless in Jesus, as
he is in all true men. This God is present in
human life and history, but the man Jesus is
not also present, in any other sense than Paul
or Isaiah is. So much for the development of
the word "Christ."

Meanwhile the first movement of thought
about the man Jesus was to lift him also into
the rank of infinite beings. The words "Jesus
and Christ" came to be used interchangeably
and to be molded together, till at last Jesus
was called the absolute God, who should "come
to judge the world !" The modern thought of
the world has already almost rescued Jesus' hu-
manity. We are assured that he was a real
man, in spite of the natural flutter of timid
souls. Nothing but good has come of this
process of the rehabilitation of the actual Jesus.


The thought of the world, however, cannot
stand still midway in a process. The process
must go on. The development is inevitable.
We cannot honestly believe Jesus to be a man,
and still hold him between heaven and earth,
where no other man ever was. He was raised
to be more than man for a dogmatic purpose;
namely, so as to die for men's sins. When that
purpose fails, no speculative reason remains to
hold Jesus above the ranks of the great and
illustrious who have led the march of mankind.
At any rate, there is nothing to make us fear
to be free to ask just what kind of human life
the real man Jesus lived. There is nothing to
give more than a temporary shock to anyone's
sentiment in case we find that Jesus' humanity
was precisely like our own. Do we not love
our friends even when on occasion we depre-
cate their words or actions ? What man, how-
ever high his intent, is so infallible as never
to err?

The movement of thought about Jesus is just
like the similar process touching the Bible.
They used to tell us of the divineness and in-
errancy of every word of the Scriptures : then


we discovered that there were mistakes in the
Bible, and we were presently assured that these
mistakes never affected the teaching of reli-
gion. Then we passed on to be told, that while
the Old Testament was more or less doubtful
in its teachings, the New Testament remained,
or at the last resort, the very words of Jesus
were final authority. Now at last we are tak-
ing our full liberty with the whole Bible. We
treat it as the library of a notable people. We
recognize the vast differences of level in it ; we
read along with it other inspired books and
poems, enjoy all of them, and give each the
weight that belongs to it. We are thus not
poorer but richer in our spiritual assets.

So we may expect to find with the life of
Jesus. He is not a God, -but a man. What
then if he appear to be truly a man? What if
we use our minds and our consciences, touching
his words and conduct, as we do with all other
men ? What if we differ from him in thought
and judgment, as we differ from others?
What if we find differences of level in his
teachings, as we have already found in the
Bible generally, and as we find in other great


teachers? What if we are free, while taking
him as a great helper towards the good life, to
discover other noble friends to whom we give
our hearts also. Is love or admiration any the
less because it goes out like the light in every



Preface v

I. The Problem i

II. The Real Man in Two Aspects 12

III. Two Kinds of Teaching 34

IV. The Question of Messiahship 52

V. Jesus as the Founder of Christianity ... 70

VI. Certain Positive Conclusions 77



There is one person who doubtless occupies
the most commanding position in human his-
tory. From the supposed date of his birth the
most progressive and civilized nations measure
time. Hundreds of millions of people bow at
his name. Vast systems of religion trace back
to him as their founder. Grand temples in
every quarter of the earth hold him in memory
and keep festivals for his sake. Libraries of
books have been poured out and are still poured
out from the scholarly and literary workshops
of the world, making this one man's words the
central point of their discussion. Along with
men's traffic in wheat or in wine, the Bibles go
also, telling to new readers the story of Jesus.
All this is very wonderful.


What sort of man was Jesus? We mean
the actual, historic person. Leave aside, at
least for the time, the answer of the creeds to
the question, "Who Jesus was." The creeds
all confess that he made an impression as a
man. We wish to get some idea what this
human impression was. Is it possible, for ex-
ample, to compose a biography of Jesus, or at
least a^sketch of his life?

From any point of view our problem must be
extremely difficult. It is no slight task indeed
to obtain a really clear and lifelike, not to say
accurate, description of a man of our own stock
and language, and as near our own time as
Channing and Washington, only a hundred
years ago or less. But in Jesus' case we have
to make our way back nearly twenty centuries.
We peer dimly through hundreds of years
where books, or rather manuscripts, were ex-
tremely rare, and careful scholarship as we
know the term was rarer still ; we reach back to
an age of superstition and credulity; we come
at last upon a few bits of writing which con-
stitute almost the sole authority of our knowl-
edge for the beginnings of Christianity: I


mean the New Testament books, the Gospels,
the Acts, and the Epistles. Outside of these
writings we know nothing authentic about
Jesus. Moreover most of the New Testament
does not profess to give us any information
about him. Paul obviously had only the slight-
est acquaintance with his teachings, which he
hardly more than quotes once, or of his historic
life which he seems to slight in favor 'of a some-
what mystical theory of his personality. We
are shut up to the four Gospels, three of them
in large part merely parallel with one another,
and the fourth, a psychological problem at the
best to every one who studies it carefully.

As to the Fourth Gospel, candor compels the
admission that all its material, whether of story
or teaching, has passed through the alembic of
a mind so subtle, so mystic, so individualistic,
that you can never distinguish the substance of
his own contribution of thought and sentiment
from the original matter with which he deals.
His literary style, his somewhat philosophical
interests, his allusions, as for example, to the
Jews, as though they were a foreign people, his
extraordinary discrepancies from the synoptic


Gospels, make it wellnigh incredible that the
work comes from an actual disciple of Jesus,
least of all, a Galilean fisherman. The best
that any one can claim is, what Matthew Ar-
nold suggested, that the author had some rela-
tion to John, or had certain traditions from
him. At the best, we are not shown in this
Gospel a real and tangible man. It is not veri-
table flesh and blood; it is an ideal character,
about no single incident of whose career, and
no distinct paragraph of whose doctrine can
you be certain that you rest upon the bed-rock
of fact. It is precisely like certain early paint-
ings of Jesus in which the artist had obviously
put his own ideal on the canvas. The picture
is interesting, but it is not the actual Jesus
whom we seek. At any rate no one can ever
be in the least confident that the treatise makes
us better acquainted with the actual Jesus,
while all the presumption is against such con-

Setting the Fourth Gospel aside, as we must
if we ask for reality, we confessedly have no
narrative from the pen of an eye witness or
acquaintance of Jesus. All the four Gospels


indeed are anonymous. The most conserva-
tive student cannot throw one of them, in its
present shape, back to within a generation of
the time of Jesus' death. There is nothing to
show that, growing slowly out of traditions
and reminiscences more or less accurate, and
possible early bits of memories of Jesus' say-
ings, the Gospels were not a hundred years in
shaping themselves as we now have them. It
is most unlikely that they took the form of the
Greek language in Palestine, but rather that
they developed far away from where Jesus
lived, in order to meet the demands of foreign
communities. This was an age when the most
extraordinary happenings were looked for and
eagerly believed. Moreover, the earliest
Christian books had their growth beyond the
range of any hostile criticism. We have only
to mention the name of Christian Science, not
to say Persian Babism, to remind ourselves
how all sorts of wonderful stories, once easily
started and springing out of the soil, tend to
move on and get accretions in an atmosphere
that craves material on which to nourish its


Bearing these considerations in mind, what
matter of solid knowledge about Jesus do we
find in our Synoptic Gospels ? A few pages at
the most — the amount of a little pamphlet —
out of which all the ponderous biographies
have been elaborated, without the addition of
practically a single incident or important new
teaching. 1 A considerable part of the mate-

1 There are 2,899 verses in the three Gospels. Prac-
tically the whole substance of Mark with its 678 verses is
incorporated bodily in one or both of the other evangelists.
Except for the birth stories and the expansion of the resur-
rection story there is little new material touching- Jesus'
life in Matthew or Luke that is not already contained in
Mark. We gain in the two larger Gospels, however, a con-
siderable expansion of his teachings, especially in the matter
of "the Sermon on the Mount," and the parables. More than
a fourth of Mark, or about 180 verses, consists of the miracles
or wonder-stories. More than another fourth, or about 200
verses, consists of Jesus' teachings. Only about 160 verses,
or less than a fourth, give us the story of Jesus, aside from
the teachings and wonder-stories. Of this portion one-half
is the story of his trial and death. A certain remainder of
the Gospel, such as the narrative of John the Baptist, refers
to other subjects besides the story or teachings of Jesus.
The amount of strictly biographical material in the other
Gospels is not much greater than in Mark, — perhaps 200
verses in Matthew, more than half of which is the story of
the trial and death, and 180 verses in Luke with 80 verses
about the last days. Outside of the last days of Jesus' life,
we cannot claim to have altogether in all the evangelists the
amount of more than about two chapters of fifty verses each
of strictly biographical material, besides perhaps seven chap-
ters of wonder-stories, and eight or nine chapters of teach-


rial consist in wonder-stories or miracles.
The story of the final days of Jesus' life, con-
cluding with his trial and death, makes a gen-
erous percentage of the whole narrative. The
connection of events is slight: we can never
know how long Jesus spent in public life, —
barely more than a year, if we only consult the
Synoptic Gospels. Except for the bit of story
from Luke about his visit to Jerusalem at the
age of twelve, we know nothing except his
parentage from Joseph and Mary, till he sud-
denly appears, a mature man, from a possible
period of sojourn in the desert, waiting among
the crowd who come to the baptism of John at
the Jordan. Only a very few personal incidents,
here and there a glimpse as of one passing
us in the street, serve to reveal the real man.
How we strain our eyes to see what he looks
like, to catch the tone of his voice, to get for
one long moment the clear impress of his per-
sonality. Who can honestly say that he ever
feels acquainted with Jesus? What modern
admirer of his would really leave his business
and accompany Jesus in his wanderings ?
Moreover, thanks to an army of scholars


and critics, dissecting every verse in the New
Testament, we have arrived at such a point of
uncertainty as to the relative value of differ-
ent elements in the Synoptic Gospels, that
every one practically may take what he likes,
both of the narrative and teaching, and reject
as unauthentic or improbable whatever seems
to him incongruous or unworthy. Does a
modern man shy at the birth stories in Mat-
thew and Luke? There is every reason to be-
lieve that they never formed a part of the
earlier tradition about Jesus; in fact they con-
fuse and defeat one another. Does any one
doubt the story of the resurrection of Jesus'
body? All the best scholars are with him in
the doubt; the different stories discredit each
other. Does one like to believe that Jesus
cursed the figtree, or sent a horde of demons
to destroy the Gadarene peasants' swine? 2
No one needs to believe anything that he may
deem an accretion upon the Gospels. Does
any one question whether Jesus prophesied the
speedy end of the world in the famous and
numerous verses concerning the Second Com-

2 Mark v. i, etc.


ing of the Son of Man ? 3 Then, this whole
group of teachings may be modified to any ex-
tent or quite swept away ! Does any one, on the
other hand, find the beatitudes scattered about
in the Old Testament, and the Golden Rule
already enunciated there? Very well! There
are two quite different versions of the beati-
tudes in any case, with much unlikelihood that
Jesus himself performed the feat of genius in
grouping them together, as we now find them,
in Matthew. 4

How many clearly authentic utterances have
we from Jesus? What can we rest upon?
What exactly did he do ? What did he say of
himself and his mission? What command-
ments did he lay down, or what ordinances did
he establish? What new ideas if any did he
contribute ? The answers to all these questions
must be found if at all, in the study of a few
pages of the Synoptic Gospels. No one is
sure, or can possibly be sure, of these answers.
The light is too dim in that remote corner of
the Roman Empire of the First Century where

3 E. g. Matt. xxiv.

4 Compare Matt, v.-viii. with Luke vi.


we are at work deciphering, as it were, a series
of palimpsests.

It might be said, changing our figure, that
we find a very remarkable torso or at least the
fragments of a statue. Amiel has said some-
thing of this sort about the remains from which
we have to construct the life of Jesus. This
is surely all that any one can say. But a torso
is definite and complete as far as it goes ; frag-
ments and pieces are firm in your hands; you
can match them together ; you can reconstruct
the torso. The fragments in our case crum-
ble; they are mixed with other fragments; if
they combine, they never form one and the
same combination. You have not one Jesus,
but two or more, each with different elements,
more or less, and no one into which it is possi-
ble to harmonize all the material even of our
bit of a pamphlet made up from the three short
Synoptic Gospels.

I am merely stating facts to illustrate the
enormous difficulty of the proposition, so often
glibly quoted, — "Back to Jesus." There is no
evidence that those who repeat this phrase ever
have tried to find the actual Jesus. What they


say of him, their descriptions and paintings
and panegyrics, almost never appear like the
genuine work of even tolerable copyists.
There are second-hand artists who have at
least seen original work. But the conven-
tional descriptions of Jesus not only vary ; they
never seem to have been near an original.
The more complete and entertaining they are,
the nearer they come to being pure creations
of the author's mind. They are German, or
Italian, or English, or American pictures, and
generally somewhat modern. They are not
Hebrew, whereas Jesus was a Jew of twenty
centuries ago.

We are bound to say these things frankly,
if we say anything. It is not my part, even
if I were able, to add another fancy picture to
the gallery of the Lives of Jesus. I can only
report what I find. I find and present a prob-
lem. I do not think it can ever be solved.
But it suggests certain important and practical



The fault with the conventional method of
approach to the study of Jesus consists in the
effort, by a sheer tour de force, to make the
portrait of a harmonious, consistent and ideal
character, and to establish a well-rounded and
absolute system of doctrine. This is what
men have expected, and insisted upon discover-
ing. The bondage of the old-world thought
of Jesus, as a supernatural being, has prevailed
even over the minds of most modern scholars.
If here and there a student has ventured to
tell the straight story of what he really found
in the Gospels, people have lifted up their
hands in protest. But granting to Jesus real
humanity, and not a mere docetic appearance
of a man, why should we not expect to find in
him, — a true child of his age, a veritable "son

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Online LibraryCharles F. (Charles Fletcher) DoleWhat we know about Jesus → online text (page 1 of 6)