Charles F. (Charles Fletcher) Dole.

What we know about Jesus online

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of man," — at least the usual characteristics of
humanity ?



I am constrained to believe that we have,
first in the narrative, and then next in the
teachings ascribed to Jesus, not one perfected
person, but dissimilar aspects or sides of a per-
son himself in the process of natural develop-
ment; not one consistent and perfect scheme
of doctrine, as if revealed from heaven, but
diverse forms of thought.

Let us gather the bits of the story, such as
make the basis for the idea of the perfect and
sinless Christ. You will be surprised how few
these passages are and how far short they fall
of making such a picture. I mean the kind
of passages that give you a lifelike touch of
the man. For example, the picture of Jesus
sitting weary at the well, with his free and
democratic willingness to talk with the woman
of Samaria, 1 is the kind of material that we
should like to feel certain about. So is the
little story about the woman taken in adultery,
inserted as an addition to the Fourth Gospel. 2
We hope that this is a valid piece of tradition.
It gives us the great and lovable Jesus. The

1 John iv. 6, etc.

2 John viii. I, etc.


story of the home in Bethany and Jesus'
friends there suggests a glimpse of reality.
The verse "Jesus wept" in the story of Lazarus
might be adduced, if it were not hopelessly
complicated with the difficulties of a wonder
story. Why should Jesus weep if he knew
that he carried the victorious power to release
his friend from death? Why on the other
hand should he have purposely stayed away, as
no friendly physician does, needless hours
after he was summoned to his friend's house? 3
One might also like to add from the same
Gospel the relation of Jesus to the beloved
disciple who lay on his breast at the supper.
This may present an actual scene. If so, it
is what we are looking for. Shall we add the
story of Jesus washing the disciples' feet ? 4
I confess this seems to me artificial and, if true,
symbolic. We rather shrink from acts done
for the sake of example. In real life there is
no need of doing such acts. This story in-
deed falls in with the mystical theory of the
unknown author. Again, we should like to be

3 John xi.

4 John xiii. 4.


sure of the incident where Jesus on the cross
commends his mother to his favorite disciple, 5
all the more that we cannot from any point
of view enjoy the manner of Jesus to his
mother, as related in a familiar passage in the
synoptists. 6 Aside from these few and scat-
tered passages, we can hardly find any bio-
graphical material in the Fourth Gospel, even
granting its historicity, which acquaints us
with the great, noble, lovable Jesus.

On the other hand, the general portraiture
of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel hardly impresses
us as winning or lovable. We are constantly
disturbed by the language of egotism and self-
assertion continuously put into Jesus' mouth
in accordance with the author's evident con-
ception of a mystical and Messianic personage,
not a veritable man. The constant use of the
word "I" almost spoils the Gospel for profit-
able Scripture reading to a modern congrega-
tion. Moreover, John's Jesus repeatedly as-
sails, provokes and castigates the leaders of

5 John xxv. 28-31.

6 Matt, xii, 47; Mark iii, 31; Luke viii, 19; see also John
ii. 4.


his people. 7 All this portraiture, judged by
our highest standards of conduct, is unworthy
of the best type of man, not to say a good
God. We willingly put the Fourth Gospel
aside, content to believe that its writer never
knew Jesus and accordingly misrepresents
him. It should be added that our ethical diffi-
culty would be still greater if it could be
demonstrated that Jesus' disciple John was
the actual author. For we should then be
obliged to take seriously all the harsh and even
inhumane elements in the Gospel. 8

Turn now to the Synoptic Gospels and mass

7 See for example the passage John viii. 33-59.

8 The Fourth Gospel gives over 200 verses of narrative
concerning Jesus, besides 150 verses which relate a few se-
lected miracles. How little of this material goes to exhibit a
living man has been shown already. Even the miracles are
performed for the purpose of demonstration (see John xi.
4, 15). Of the considerable amount of teachings, about, 300
verses or six long chapters in all, we may gather perhaps
fifty verses as containing precious or universal value. The
best of this is exceedingly similar to the best material, namely,
the doctrine of love, in the First Epistle of John. Of the
remaining sayings, fifty verses or more, are, from an ethical
point of view, unsuitable for general use, or even repug-
nant to the moral sense. Thus, "Have not I chosen you
twelve and one of you is a devil" is full of difficulty to the
modern mind (John vi. 70, see also ix. 39) ; and in xvii. 9,
the words : "I pray not for the world." Why not, from one
who loved all men?


together what we may find. We note first
Jesus' sturdy democracy. He eats and drinks
at publicans' houses. What radical freedom
of convention this was! It was as if we had
a story of Channing or Theodore Parker, as
seen arm in arm with a liquor dealer. Jesus'
associates for the most part are humble per-
sons of the social class from which he himself
sprang. We read of his constant compassion
and spirit of mercy, especially as shown to the
poor in works of healing.

These wonders of healing make up so large
a portion of the whole narrative, as to tend to
obscure the portrait of the real Jesus. To the
student of psychology they fall into line with
similar wonder-stories which appear through
human history from the tales about Elijah and
Elisha to the miracles at Lourdes, or the ex-
periences related in a Christian Science Tem-
ple. You will hardly be able to doubt that in
Jesus' case these numerous stories must have
grown out of a reputed power, analogous to
what we believe exists in certain men and
women to-day, to soothe or quiet, or again to
rouse nervous and sick people and to help them


to stand upon their feet. However we may
handle the wonder-stories, they seem to repre-
sent one striking characteristic in Jesus,
namely, his humanity and his sympathy.
Here is a warm heart towards those who suf-
fer. I hardly know, however, why we need
to be surprised in finding this character in
Jesus. We all know people in whom likewise
benevolence is a passion. There are phy-
sicians who are daily giving their lives, without
thought of praise, for the healing of people.
They love, as Jesus did, to "go about doing
good." This is a quite natural form of human

The story about Jesus and the little chil-
dren 9 is one of the conspicuous bits of per-
sonal narrative. All the world loves that pic-
ture. We love it because we all love children,
just as Jesus did. It is a natural story. We
like also the little human touch in Mark x. 21,
where Jesus falls in love with the rich young
man who comes to him with questions.

Furthermore, we get bare glimpses of Jesus
in the scene with the woman who brings oint-

9 Mark x. 13.


ment at Simon's house; 10 in his visits to Mary
and Martha; 11 in the story of Zacchseus; 12
of the widow's mite, 13 and of his lamentation
over Jerusalem. 14 Such passages give an idea
of a quite independent and original character,
direct and outspoken in his judgments, in-
tense in his feelings, thoroughly human, who
readily commanded attention and regard.

We observe in passing that at the time when
the Gospels received their present form, the
dogmatic conception of Jesus as a supernat-
ural personage has evidently made its impress
on the story. It is already the story, not so
much of a real man as of a wonder-worker and
a Messiah. This trend of thought dominates
the Gospels and makes it very difficult to find
the real man whom we are seeking to discover.

I have purposely put aside the story of the
temptation. For it reads like a series of
dreams; it belongs to an unreal world; it cer-
tainly suggests no such actual temptation as

10 Luke vii. 44.

11 Luke x. 38.

12 Luke xix.

13 Luke xxi. 1, etc.

14 Matthew xxiii. 37, etc.


come to flesh and blood men outside of mon-
asteries. It is also complicated with the doc-
trine of devils. So far as it presents the fact
of resistance to real and human temptation,
there is nothing specially striking about it.
The wonder is that any of the three items
related could have constituted temptation to a
sane intelligence. 15

There remain the longer stories of Jesus'
trial and death. There is an atmosphere of
traditional mystery about this series of events.
The famous saying is that "Socrates died
like a philosopher but Jesus like a God."
There is here no such valid distinction. If
Jesus had some mystic consciousness of the
outcome of his death, he might well have
been buoyed up as if angels were about him.
If the shadows, however, gathered over him
as over others in the last hour, then we can
only say, what we also say of countless deaths
of heroes and martyrs, that he met his death

ir> Grant, however, that by the orthodox theory Jesus was
a man completely possessed at all times with the Logos, or
the "Eternal Christ," he was thereby lifted above the level of
temptation, and equally (it would seem) above the possibility
of growth. But this assumption produces an unreal man.


sturdily as they did too. The glory of our
common humanity indeed is that it is nothing
uncommon for men to be willing to die for
truth, or duty, or love. There are always men
who would leap at the chance of any mode of
death that would lift the whole world to a new
level of welfare. This is no depreciation of
Jesus, but rather the just recognition of in-
finite values in human life to which a whole
host of noble people have risen.

There are different versions of Jesus' last
words upon the cross. Matthew and Mark,
following apparently the earlier tradition,
dwell upon the sad cry: "My God, my God,
why hast thou forsaken me?" This would
seem to stand for the last abandonment of hope
in Jesus' mind that the arm of God would
come to his rescue. Luke, on the contrary,
following a later tradition, omits this cry of
despair and gives instead the beautiful words :
"Father, forgive them for they know not what
they do ;" and, "Father, into thy hands I com-
mend my spirit." We are left in doubt as to
which mood of mind, the despairing or hope-
ful, Jesus at last took. We should be glad to


believe the latter, for the like of which we
could cite other brave instances.

Let us turn now from the too meager mate-
rial, which serves to furnish our imagination
for the portrait of the great and lovable Jesus,
to consider another and somewhat perplexing
variety of material.

As with other human lives, so with Jesus'
life, there is, even in the scanty glimpses of
him given in the Gospels, more or less matter
of difficulty, misunderstanding or outright in-
consistency. We have to mention first Jesus'
habitual attitude toward the class known as
Pharisees. He never seems to show them any
sympathy. He upbraids and denounces them
and calls them by harsh names, as hypocrites,
as a generation of vipers, 16 and, if one could
believe the Fourth Gospel, as "children of the
wicked one:" "Ye are of your father the
devil." 17 Few realize how many such pas-
sages there are. It is easy to go with these
denunciations against people whom we do not
like. But Jesus' doctrine of forgiveness "until

16 Matthew xii. 34.

17 John viii. 44, cf. Matt, xxiii. 15.


seventy times seven," as well as the general
law of love, would seem to raise a great moral
interrogation mark against the considerable
mass of such passages which characterize his
public utterances. Why should not all kinds
of spiritual disease, and not only the vices of
the poor require patience and sympathy ? Cer-
tain it is that the world has gone on for hun-
dreds of years citing Jesus' example for all
kinds of denunciation of the poor against the
rich and of the virtuous against the profligate,
especially against the sins of those who are not
in our own social group.

This consideration is brought out all the
more strongly in the tremendous incident of
Jesus driving the money changers out of the
temple. 18 Note that the last Gospel sets this
story at the beginning of Jesus' public life.
This story matches indeed with the theory of
a supernatural and terrible Messiah. But as
the story of an actual man, it is nothing less
than an act of anarchy, like lynch law. How-
ever noble Jesus' purpose (supposing the story
a true one), he did as in the case of John

18 Matt. xxi. 12; Mark xi. 15; Luke xix. 45; John ii. 15.


Brown at Harper's Ferry, what he had no right
to do. Why did he not condemn the conven-
tional bloody sacrifices that went on in the
temple? For, if the sacrifices were necessary,
the worshipers must somehow be provided
with the necessary animals to offer at the
altars. Why was this not as legitimate a busi-
ness as that of the priests? At any rate, as a
man, Jesus had no warrant to lift the whip
over men and to destroy their property.

The stories of the Gadarenes' swine and the
cursing of the fig tree are both incredible and
unworthy of the Jesus whom we love to ad-
mire. 19 We will throw them aside. What
shall we say of his treatment of the poor Syro-
Phenician woman ? 20 Do you say that Jesus'
harsh words to her, likening her to a dog,
were only used to bring her faith into relief?
But this answer does not commend Jesus'
method to our sense of delicate fitness. More-
over, the words fall into line with the instruc-
tions to the apostles, not to go into the way of
the Gentiles or into any city of the Samari-

19 Mark v. 12 and xi. 12.

20 Mark vii. 26.


tans, but only to the lost sheep of the house of
Israel. 21 This type of narrowness certainly
makes discord with the keynote of the Parable
of the Good Samaritan. Grant that we are free
to discard these sayings, as an alien growth
upon the pure words of Jesus. Yet it is hard
to see how they can have been put into Jesus'
mouth in the face of a clear and consistent
doctrine to the contrary. Is it not easier to
believe that Jesus was like many another good
but quite human teacher in the utterance of
varying moods and strata of thought? We
shall have occasion to return to this same
problem later, when we take up the two aspects
of Jesus' teachings.

If we care now to turn once more to the
Fourth Gospel, there is a well-known passage,
mistranslated in the common version, where
Jesus tells the people that he is not going up
to the Feast in Jerusalem, whereas the context
makes it quite plain that he really is on his
way there. 22 I do not attribute this apparent
prevarication to Jesus. I only mention it to

21 Matt. x. 6.

22 John vii. 8.


illustrate the fact that neither the author of the
Gospel, nor probably any one else at that time,
would have thought it wrong to prevaricate.

Neither do I attribute to Jesus the harsh
word to his mother at the wedding at Cana:
"Woman, what have I to do with thee?" But
that it could have been related so naively shows
how far from nice the ideal standard of the
time was in Jesus' age.

We have still to meet the harsh, though
somewhat mystical, conduct of Jesus toward
his mother and brethren as told in Matthew
xii. 46 etc. We should prefer to drop this
passage from the narrative.

Emphasizing again how few passages there
are in all the Gospels which throw any light
on Jesus' real personality, I hasten on now
to the comparatively full description of his trial
and death. I cannot here avoid a perplexity
that grows upon me the more I consider it.
From the older and orthodox point of view it
was necessary that Jesus should be put to
death for the salvation of mankind. It was so
necessary that it may have seemed justifiable
to provoke men's anger against their innocent


victim so as to secure the fated doom. ~ z All
this theological prearrangement seems to us
modern men artificial and incredible. It will
not fit into a reasonable philosophy. The as-
sumed character does not fit our ethical ideal.
The question then recurs, why Jesus should
have incurred death? The story, shorn of its
supernatural features, does not hold together.
It fails at least to give us a clear understanding
of the animus of Jesus' enemies, or of Jesus'

We have yet to consider the problem of his
alleged claim to some kind of Messiahship. It
it enough to say now that if, as Prof. N.
Schmidt 24 and others think, he never claimed
to be a Messiah at all, the reason for putting
him to death grows even more obscure. Did
he court death, as afterwards the martyrs did
in his name? We should hope not. Why
then did he not make some simple and dignified
answer, in the palace of the High Priest to re-
lieve him, as well as his enemies, of the mis-
taken ideas of his message and purpose ? Why

23 Matt. xvi. 21 ; Luke xix. 31, etc.

24 The Prophet of Nazareth.


did he not put up a word to save their souls
from the oncoming crime of murder ? For his
silence in such a situation must have been al-
most a fresh provocation to anger. Is it even
possible that he uttered the stinging words in
Mark xiv. 62 about the coming day of judg-
ment when his enemies should see him riding
in the clouds?

If you say, as we probably must, that we
have no accurate account of the trial, the ques-
tion still presses: — Why did the man of good-
will, the man of the beatitudes and the Golden
Rule, make such bitter and stubborn enemies
as to suffer a judicial murder at their hands?
Was their hatred related to the story of his
conduct toward the money-changers in the tem-
ple, and to an habitual denunciation of the lead-
ers and teachers of his people? We cannot
help being troubled by this question. We do
not ask a high-minded man to be eager to save
his own life. We do ask consideration not to
let men blindly commit a cruel crime. Some-
thing known as "the spirit of Jesus" has taught
us a certain sympathy with the stupid, mis-
guided, excited humanity, which by some fatal


misapprehension had been stirred to enmity
against a friendly man.

The point that I want to bring ont is that
the story is told in all the Gospels upon the dis-
tinct messianic presupposition, that it was nec-
essary, and that Jesus knew it was necessary,
to meet a violent death. His will apparently
was to die. This leaves us with a grave prob-
lem of conduct, or else in a state of bewilder-
ment as to the accuracy of our knowledge of
the facts of his end.

It is evident by this time that no one can
make anything but a vague and merely conjec-
tural narrative of the life of Jesus. The
points of our information are not near enough
together to light up a continuous pathway.
Asking simply what the facts are, we may
summarize what we know with fair probability
as follows : Jesus was born a little before the
assumed date of i A. D. in the little town of
Nazareth in Galilee. His father was Joseph,
a carpenter, and his mother was Mary. He
was the eldest of a family of several children
and he was brought up to his father's trade.
He seems to have had some teaching in the


Jewish Scriptures such as may have been pro-
vided in the synagogue. He knew at least
something of the Psalms and the prophecy of
Isaiah. The period was one of unusual sus-
ceptibility to religious interest throughout the
Roman Empire. In Judea a notable man of
the prophetic type, John the Baptist, proclaimed
a popular revival of simple and ethical reli-
gion. Jesus' mind was stirred by this move-
ment. How he prepared himself for his char-
acteristic work, whether he spent a period in
the life of the desert, whether he had been
touched at all by the ideas of the puritan and
ascetic sect of the Essenes, whether he had per-
sonal acquaintance with John, we may not say.
He had certainly got at the heart of the reli-
gion of his remarkable race. It was his habit
to retire to the wilderness for rest and refresh-
ment and mystical communion.

He was a grown man of thirty years old, it
is said, when he began his public life. He
appeared first as a teacher in his own region of
Galilee, with the town of Capernaum upon the
Lake as the center of his journeyings. He
made friends and disciples among the fisher-


men and others of similar social position. He
taught wherever he found people, sometimes
using the democratic freedom of the syna-
gogue, sometimes gathering hearers by the
shore of the Lake or in the open country. We
follow him in one journey as far as the coast
of the Mediterranean in the region of Tyre.
How often he had been to Jerusalem before
the last fatal visit we do not know, nor how
far he had ever made friends in the capital.
Wherever he went disciples seem to have at-
tended him. He taught with authority; that
is, with the sense of the reality of his message.
Jesus was not merely a prophet of the righteous
life or a teacher of a simple religion. He was
reported to be a wonderful healer. People
followed him with their sick. It was believed
that by laying his hands upon them, or even by
a word, he could effect a cure. He began his
mission, however, with a singular unwilling-
ness to be known publicly, least of all as a
worker of miracles. 25 As the short period of

25 The impression from the Synoptic Gospels is in marked
contrast to the account in the Fourth Gospel in which Jesus
works miracles, not so much out of compassion as in order
to command men's belief in him.


his public life drew to a close, he put aside the
earlier habit of diffidence and assumed the posi-
tion of a leader.

Jesus' unconventional habits of life, his free
intercourse with the poor and despised classes,
and his open sympathy with them, his frank
moral judgments, and in all probability a cer-
tain aggressiveness of tone, a growing use of
the weapons of denunciation and a claim to a
certain official superiority as a unique messen-
ger of God, antagonized men and specially the
ruling class, who resented his treatment of
them and their manner of life. He appears to
have expected a collision with the authorities.
Something of popular demonstration in his
favor in his last visit to Jerusalem, together
with a disturbance in the temple area when
Jesus assailed the business of the venders
there, seems to have brought the opposition
against him to a head. In some sense, easily
misunderstood, he was believed to have claimed
to be the expected deliverer or Messiah of his
people. The charge finally written over the
cross, "The king of the Jews," represents this
idea. With jealousy on the part of the priests


and others whom he had angered, and no great
reluctance on the part of the Roman Governor
to get rid of a possible exciter of the people, he
was speedily condemned to the death of a mal-
efactor. His friends all deserted him.

In the whole narrative about Jesus, there is
nothing, aside from the implication of the won-
der-stories (which are no more wonderful than
those related in Exodus and the Books of the
Kings) that would lift him into a lonely
uniqueness above the class of other illustrious
prophets or teachers of religion. The claim
for any absolute perfectness of character, other
than the ever admirable greatness of a high
and single purpose, is a quite gratuitous as-
sumption. It does not proceed from the record,
but from dogmatic prepossessions that grew
up afterwards. The fact remains that we can
know extremely little of the details of Jesus'



The chief mode of approach to the person-
ality of Jesus has always been, and must re-
main through his teachings. Would that we
certainly knew which, and which only, are his
own ! We begin at once with certain immortal
passages, all of which together, like so much
precious gold, may be comprised within a very
brief compass. 1 We have, thus, the beatitudes,
the most impressive and far-reaching of all

2 4 5 6

Online LibraryCharles F. (Charles Fletcher) DoleWhat we know about Jesus → online text (page 2 of 6)