Excerpts from The Life of Christ

(Two Volumes, 1874)




ALL, who heard them—even the supercilious Sadducees—must have been solemnised by these high answers. The listening multitude were both astonished and delighted; even some of the Scribes, pleased by the spiritual refutation of a scepticism which their reasonings had been unable to remove, could not refrain from the grateful acknowledgment, "Master, thou hast well said." The more than human wisdom and insight of these replies created, even among His enemies, a momentary diversion in His favour. But once more the insatiable spirit of casuistry and dissension awoke, and this time a Scribe, a student of the Torah, thought that he too would try to fathom the extent of Christ's learning and wisdom. He asked a question which instantly betrayed a false and unspiritual point of view, "Master, which is the great commandment in the Law?"

        The Rabbinical schools, in their meddling, carnal, superficial spirit of word-weaving and letter-worship, had spun large accumulations of worthless subtlety all over the Mosaic law. Among other things they had wasted their idleness in fantastic attempts to count, and classify, and weigh, and measure all the separate commandments of the ceremonial and moral law. They had come to the sapient conclusion that there were 248 affirmative precepts, being as many as the members in the human body, and 365 negative precepts, being as many as the arteries and veins, or the days of the year: the total being 613, which was also the number of letters in the Decalogue. They arrived at the same result from the fact that the Jews were commanded (Numb. xv. 38) to wear fringes (tsîtsith) on the corners of their tallîth, bound with a thread of blue; and as each fringe had eight threads and five knots, and the letters of the word tsîtsith make 600, the total number of commandments was, as before, 613. Now surely, out of such a large number of precepts and prohibitions, all could not be of quite the same value; some were "light" (kal), and some were "heavy" (kobhed). But which? and what was the greatest commandment of all? According to some Rabbis, the most important of all is that about the tephillîn and the tsîtsith, the fringes and phylacteries; and "he who diligently observes it is regarded in the same light as if he had kept the whole Law."

        Some thought the omission of ablutions as bad as homicide; some that the precepts of the Mishna were all "heavy;" those of the Law were some heavy and some light. Others considered the third to be the greatest commandment. None of them had realised the great principle, that the wilful violation of one commandment is the transgression of all (James ii. 10), because the object of the entire Law is the spirit of obedience to God. On the question proposed by the lawyer the Shammaites and Hillelites were in disaccord, and, as usual, both schools were wrong: the Shammaites, in thinking that mere trivial external observances were valuable, apart from the spirit in which they were performed, and the principle which they exemplified; the Hillelites, in thinking that any positive command could in itself be unimportant, and in not seeing that great principles are essential to the due performance of even the slightest duties.

        Still the best and most enlightened of the Rabbis had already rightly seen that the greatest of all commands, because it was the source of all the others, was that which enjoined the love of the One True God. Jesus had already had occasion to express His approval of this judgment, and He now repeats it. Pointing to the Scribes' tephillîn, in which one of the four divisions contained the "Shema" (Deut. vi. 4)—recited twice a day by every pious Israelite—He told them that that was the greatest of all commandments, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord;" and that the second was like to it, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." Love to God issuing in love to man—love to man, our brother, resulting from love to our Father, God—on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

        The question, in the sense in which the Scribe had put it, was one of the mere máchai nomikaì, one of those "strivings about the Law," which, as they were handled by the schools, were "unprofitable and vain." But he could not fail to see that Jesus had not treated it in the idle disputatious spirit of jangling logomachy to which he was accustomed, and had not in his answer sanctioned any of the common errors and heresies of exalting the ceremonial above the moral, or the Tradition over the Torah, or the decisions of Sopherîm above the utterances of Prophets. Still less had he fallen into the fatal error of the Rabbis, by making obedience in one particular atone for transgression in another. The commandments which He had mentioned as the greatest were not special but general—not selected out of many, but inclusive of all. The Scribe had the sense to observe, and the candour to acknowledge that the answer of Jesus was wise and noble. "Well, Master," he exclaimed, "thou hast said the truth;" and then he showed that he had read the Scriptures to some advantage by summarising some of those grand free utterances of the Prophets which prove that love to God and love to man is better than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices. Jesus approved of his sincerity, and said to him in words which involved both gracious encouragement and serious warning, "Thou art not far from the kingdom of heaven." It was, therefore, at once easier for him to enter, and more perilous to turn aside. When he had entered he would see that the very spirit of his question was an erroneous and faulty one, and that "whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all."

        No other attempt was ever made to catch or entangle Jesus by the words of His lips. The Sanhedrin had now experienced, by the defeat of their cunning stratagems, and the humiliation of their vaunted wisdom, that one ray of light from the sunlit hills on which His spirit sat, was enough to dissipate, and to pierce through and through, the fogs of wordy contention and empty repetition in which they lived and moved and had their being. But it was well for them to be convinced how easily, had He desired it, He could have employed against them with overwhelming force the very engines which, with results so futile and so disastrous, they had put in play against Him. He therefore put to them one simple question, based on their own principles of interpretation, and drawn from a Psalm (the 110th), which they regarded as distinctly Messianic. In that Psalm occurs the expression, "The Lord (Jehovah) said unto my Lord (Adonai), Sit thou on my right hand." How then could the Messiah be David's son? Could Abraham have called Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, or any of his own descendants near or remote, his Lord? If not, how came David to do so? There could be but one answer—because that Son would be divine, not human—David's son by human birth, but David's Lord by divine subsistence. But they could not find this simple explanation, nor, indeed, any other; they could not find it, because Jesus was their Messiah, and they had rejected Him. They chose to ignore the fact that He was, in the flesh, the son of David; and when, as their Messiah, He had called Himself the Son of God, they had raised their hands in pious horror, and had taken up stones to stone Him. So here again—since they had rejected the clue of faith which would have led them to the true explanation—their wisdom was utterly at fault, and though they claimed so haughtily to be leaders of the people, yet, even on a topic so ordinary and so important as their Messianic hopes, they were convicted, for the second time on a single day, of being "blind leaders of the blind."

        And they loved their blindness; they would not acknowledge their ignorance; they did not repent them of their faults; the bitter venom of their hatred to Him was not driven forth by His forbearance; the dense midnight of their perversity was not dispelled by His wisdom. Their purpose to destroy Him was fixed, obstinate, irreversible; and if one plot failed, they were but driven with more stubborn sullenness into another. And, therefore, since Love had played her part in vain, "Justice leaped upon the stage;" since the Light of the World shone for them with no illumination, the lightning flash should at last warn them of their danger. There could now be no hope of their becoming reconciled to Him; they were but being stereotyped in unrepentant malice against Him. Turning, therefore, to His disciples, but in the audience of all the people, He rolled over their guilty heads, with crash on crash of moral anger, the thunder of his utter condemnation. So far as they represented a legitimate external authority He bade His hearers to respect them, but He warned them not to imitate their falsity, their oppression, their ostentation, their love of prominence, their fondness for titles, their insinuating avarice, their self-exalting pride. He bade them beware of the broadened phylacteries and exaggerated tassels—of the long robes that covered the murderous hearts, and the long prayers that diverted attention from the covetous designs. And then, solemnly and terribly, He uttered His eightfold "Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites," scathing them in utterance after utterance with a flame which at once revealed and scorched. Woe unto them, for the ignorant erudition which closed the gates of heaven, and the injurious jealousy which would suffer no others to enter in! Woe unto them for their oppressive hypocrisy and greedy cant! Woe for the proselyting fanaticism which did but produce a more perilous corruption! Woe for the blind hair-splitting folly which so confused the sanctity of oaths as to tempt their followers into gross profanity! Woe for the petty paltry sham-scrupulosity which paid tithes of potherbs, and thought nothing of justice, mercy, and faith—which strained out animalculae from the goblet, and swallowed camels into the heart! Woe for the external cleanliness of cup and platter contrasted with the gluttony and drunkenness to which they ministered! Woe to the tombs that simulated the sanctity of temples—to the glistening outward plaster of hypocrisy which did but render more ghastly by contrast the reeking pollutions of the sepulchre within! Woe for the mock repentance which condemned their fathers for the murder of the prophets, and yet reflected the murderous spirit of those fathers—nay, filled up and exceeded the measure of their guilt by a yet deadlier and more dreadful sacrifice! Aye, on that generation would come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zacharias, whom they slew between the porch and the altar. The purple cloud of retribution had long been gathering its elements of fury: upon their heads should it burst in flame.

      And at that point the voice which had rung with just and noble indignation broke with the tenderest pity—"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate! For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth till ye shall say, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord."

        "Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites." Some have ventured to accuse these words of injustice, of bitterness—to attribute them to a burst of undignified disappointment and unreasonable wrath. Yet is sin never to be rebuked? is hypocrisy never to be unmasked? is moral indignation no necessary part of the noble soul? And does not Jewish literature itself most amply support the charge brought against the Pharisees by Jesus? "Fear not true Pharisees, but greatly fear painted Pharisees," said Alexander Jannæus to his wife on his death-bed. "The supreme tribunal," says R. Nachaman, will duly punish hypocrites who wrap their tallîths around them to appear, which they are not, true Pharisees." Nay, the Talmud itself, with unwonted keenness and severity of sarcasm, has pictured to us the seven classes of Pharisees, out of which six are characterised by a mixture of haughtiness and imposture. There is the "Shechemite" Pharisee, who obeys the law from self-interest (cf. Gen. xxxiv. 19) the Tumbling Pharisee (nikfi), who is so humble that he is always stumbling because he will not lift his feet from the ground; the Bleeding Pharisee (kinai), who is always hurting himself against walls, because he is so modest as to be unable to walk about with his eyes open lest he should see a woman; the Mortar Pharisee (medorkia), who covers his eyes as with a mortar, for the same reason; the Tell-me-another-duty-and-I-will-do-it Pharisee—several of whom occur in our Lord's ministry; and the Timid Pharisee, who is actuated by motives of fear alone. The seventh class only is the class of "Pharisees from love," who obey God because they love Him from the heart.

        "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate!" And has not that denunciation been fearfully fulfilled? Who does not catch an echo of it in the language of Tacitus—"Expassac repente delubri fores, et audita major humana vox excedere Deos." Speaking of the murder of the younger Hanan, and other eminent nobles and hierarchs, Josephus says, "I cannot but think that it was because God had doomed this city to destruction as a polluted city, and was resolved to purge His sanctuary by fire, that He cut off these their great defenders and well-wishers; while those that a little before had worn the sacred garments and presided over the public worship, and had been esteemed venerable by those that dwelt in the whole habitable earth, were cast out naked, and seen to be the food of dogs and wild beasts." Never was a narrative more full of horrors, frenzies, unspeakable degradations, and overwhelming miseries than is the history of the siege of Jerusalem. Never was any prophecy more closely, more terribly, more overwhelmingly fulfilled than this of Christ. The men going about in the disguise of women with swords concealed under their gay robes; the rival outrages and infamies of John and Simon; the priests struck by darts from the upper court of the Temple, and falling slain by their own sacrifices; "the blood of all sorts of dead carcasses—priests, strangers, profane—standing in lakes in the holy courts;" the corpses themselves lying in piles and mounds on the very altar slopes; the fires feeding luxuriously on cedar-work overlaid with gold; friend and foe trampled to death on the gleaming mosaics in promiscuous carnage; priests, swollen with hunger, leaping madly into the devouring flames, till at last those flames had done their work, and what had been the Temple of Jerusalem, the beautiful and holy House of God, was a heap of ghastly ruin, where the burning embers were half-slaked in pools of gore.

        And did not all the righteous blood shed upon the earth since the days of Abel come upon that generation? Did not many of that generation survive to witness and feel the unutterable horrors which Josephus tells?—to see their fellows crucified in jest, "some one way, and some another," till "room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses for the carcasses?"—to experience the "deep silence" and the kind of deadly night which seized upon the city in the intervals of rage?—to see 600,000 dead bodies carried out of the gates?—to see friends fighting madly for grass and nettles, and the refuse of the drains?—to see the bloody zealots "gaping for want, and stumbling and staggering along like mad dogs?"—to hear the horrid tale of the miserable mother who, in the pangs of famine, had devoured her own child?—to be sold for slaves in such multitudes that at last none would buy them?—to see the streets running with blood, and the "fire of burning houses quenched in the blood of their defenders?"—to have their young sons sold in hundreds, or exposed in the amphitheatre to the sword of the gladiator or the fury of the lion, until at last, "since the people were now slain, the Holy House burnt down, and the city in flames, there was nothing farther left for the enemy to do?" In that awful siege it is believed that there perished 1,100,000 men, beside the 97,000 who were carried captive, and most of whom perished subsequently in the arena or the mine; and it was an awful thing to feel, as some of the survivors and eye-witnesses—and they not Christians—did feel, that "the city had deserved its overthrow by producing a generation of men who were the causes of its misfortunes;" and that "neither did any other city ever suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this was, since the beginning of the world."

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