The Great Galilæan: I. The Man of History and the God of Legend




No man knows sufficient of the earthly life of Jesus to write a biography of him. For that matter, no one knows enough about him for the normal Times obituary notice of a great man. If regard were had to what we should call, in current speech, definitely historical facts, scarcely three lines could be filled.

Moreover, if newspapers had been in existence, and if that obituary notice had had to be written in the year of his death, no editor could have found in the literature of his day so much as his name. Yet few periods of the ancient world were so well documented as the period of Augustus and Tiberius. But no contemporary writer knew of his existence. Even a generation later, a spurious passage in Josephus, a questionable reference in Suetonius, and the mention of a name that may be his by Tacitus — that is all. His first mention, in any surviving document, secular or religious, is twenty years after.

We do not know, with anything approaching historical certainty, of whom he was born, or when, or where; how long he lived, or how long he labored; and the sayings which are indubitably his are a mere handful. The stories of his reputed resurrection are so contradictory and confused that it is impossible to make more than a guess at their true import. Yet Lives of Christ are poured forth on the world in everincreasing volume. The most cursory examination of publishers’ announcements in Europe and America shows that something calling itself a Life of him is published nearly every month. Hidebound conservatism, blind devotion, and greed combine to produce these. They combine into what thus becomes almost a conspiracy to keep hidden the real truth that there does not exist enough historical evidence to produce a biographical sketch of Christ, let alone a Life.

To our forefathers such statements would have seemed wholly ridiculous, but then our forefathers happily believed that the records of four eyewitnesses existed — eyewitnesses, moreover, who had sat down independently to write four Lives of Christ while the actual facts were fresh in their minds. They believed that the prophet Ezekiel foretold such witnesses, and that the four Living Creatures of that prophecy were the four Evangelists. The prophetical language was held to be typical of the Gospel contents, and thus mediæval crucifixes had often, in their four corners, the symbols of an ox, a man, a lion, and an eagle. These were regarded as the four independent witnesses who upheld the Story of the Cross. Though forty separate days out of a ministry of at least four hundred are all that the Gospels have stories for, by the greatest stretch of the imagination, and although all Christ’s recorded sayings in them might, if read with due gravity and emphasis, take six hours, still these at least constituted a mine of unquestioned value.

Copyright 1928, by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

But an insidious and vital attack has been made upon the old orthodoxy, an attack made with little waving of banners or beating of drums, which, despite calumny and prejudice, must be admitted to be victorious. The average man, for reasons upon which we shall enter later, is still largely unaware of the grounds for this attack. Setting aside the profoundly religious man who normally approaches the New Testament with the spectacles of tradition and rigidity upon his nose, the average man does not read his Gospels with anything like close attention. He therefore even misses the most obvious fact which gave the early critics their first cause for doubt. He misses the fact that if Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not bound up together in one volume, and if we did not read that volume with the story they have to tell already arranged in our minds, it would appear that there were literally two stories rather than one. John’s Life of Jesus Christ, considered as a biography, is simply a different account from the story of the other three. It is not true to say that it does not set out to be a Life of him, comfortable as that assumption would be, for it begins with his birth, works through his ministry, and ends with his death and resurrection as do the others; but only theological twisting of this wholesale nature can make it the same story.

John has none at all of the other stories connected with the birth; in their place he says: ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ and ‘the Word was made flesh.’ Jesus in this biography steps upon the historical stage at his baptism, and moves forward to a ministry which involves personalities and incidents which are not even mentioned by the others. It is scarcely too strong to say, as one turns the pages, that the Jesus of John is moving upon a stage so wholly different from the stage of the others that, without preconceived ideas, we should not think it the same. We should imagine that this account must be written of some other Jesus and some other generation. Thus, Jesus chooses Philip and Nathanael; he makes water wine at Cana of Galilee; he discourses with Nicodemus; he meets the woman of Samaria; he heals the nobleman’s son; he cures the infirm man at the Pool of Bethesda; he makes long sermons on himself as the Bread of Life, the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, and the Predecessor of Abraham; he pardons the woman taken in adultery; and finally he raises Lazarus from the dead — the most important keystone incident, as a result of which the drama draws to its climax, for from that moment the Jews resolve to kill him. All these persons and incidents appear only in connection with John’s Jesus. He talks at length in the upper room before his arrest, but does not institute the Holy Communion, and his death occurs on a different day from that of the other Jesus. His main resurrection appearance is in a curiously theological story by the Sea of Galilee, and the conclusion of this Gospel tells us nothing of the ascension, but has a defiant and apologetic air, as if its author knew it might be called in question.

For all these persons and incidents of the commonly accepted biography of Jesus there is but one authority and not four, and, to put it mildly, if this one authority has read the story correctly, then the others have read it incorrectly. The ingenuous theory that John wrote later what he meant to be a supplementary Gospel, born of the wisdom of old age, will not cover the facts. The main difficulty is a much bigger one. Not only does the whole story, considered as a story, turn on the pivot of the raising of Lazarus, which the others do not relate, — as if one historian of the Great War should make it originate with the incident of Sarajevo and the others should entirely omit that murder, — but the figure of Jesus as seen through the eyes of John is, to an unprejudiced reader, simply not the figure of the other three.

Orthodox theologians have obscured the importance of this issue for the average man. They have fought to conceal it or minimize it. They have said that it was only after a period that the full nature of Jesus was evident to Christian people, and that John wrote in the light of the later vision and not of the earlier. This is too specious to carry much conviction to the modern reader. The fact obviously remains that if Jesus, for example, turned water into wine at Cana of Galilee, there is only one witness in the world who says so, and he a witness who belongs to an age which did not regard the manufacture of such incidents as dishonest, and who had the best of subtle theological reasons for discovering this one.

The biographer of Christ who would thus approach his subject in a perfectly impartial and completely disinterested historical manner must set upon one side the witness of John. Compare a historian who is trying to write the Life of Alfred the Great. He might relate the story of the burning of the cakes, but he would not put it in the same category as the actual fact of the crowning of Alfred as king. He would say, ‘This is a pretty story which has passed into popular legend and may, perhaps, serve to illustrate the character of the man, but it would be unjust to relate it as sober history.’ That is the attitude which a sober biographer must take toward the Gospel of John.


But if one support to the Story of the Cross is thus withdrawn, what of the three that would appear to remain? It was early observed that practically the whole of Mark was included in Matthew and Luke, so that very shortly the situation had to be faced that Matthew and Luke, or the authors we call by these Gospel names, had undoubtedly sat down to write with this book before them and chose rather to use it than their own recollections of the story. Two of the three witnesses thus become, at least in the main, plagiarists and elaborators of the third, rather than independent witnesses. And the difficulty does not stop there. It is now almost beyond question that the Mark which we have is only a much later edition of the Mark which they copied, and an edition, at that, which has been edited by biased men who were out to prove a case by such editing. It would be enormously valuable if the original Mark could come into our hands, but as the years go by the possibility of this becomes more remote. For example, that the original Mark did not contain the greater part of the last chapter of our present book is vastly more than a guess, and what it did contain must probably remain forever an insoluble mystery.

The second great difficulty for the searcher after purely historical facts is that Matthew and Luke plainly did not sit down with only an original Mark before them, but that they had also another document, equally hopelessly lost to us, which scholars for convenience have agreed to call ‘Q,’ from the word Quelle, the Spring or Origin. It is all but generally accepted by experts that when Matthew and Luke agree, sometimes even verbally in the very face of Mark, they are quoting from this lost document which may well be the primary source of the world’s knowledge of the life of Christ. And although the document is lost, its tentative reconstruction, which is possible from the others, provides us with a picture of fascinating interest.

This document would show that there was not in the original any account whatever of the birth of Christ. It begins with the coming of the Baptist, with the baptism of Jesus, and with the temptation. Its main bulk is made up of what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, and a collection of proverbs and sayings of the fowls of the air, of the lilies of the field, of the city set upon a hill, and of the easy yoke. It contains but two or three miraculous stories, and those of healings which are the most easy for us moderns to understand. Such difficult stories as of the miraculous finding of the exact tribute money in the fish’s mouth and of the raising to life of the definitely dead do not appear to have belonged to it. And it concluded curiously summarily with the sayings of the coming of the Kingdom like lightning from the East unto the West, and the enigmatical utterance: ‘Behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last.’

The question of these Gospel witnesses has thus become a peculiarly difficult, one already. Instead of the picture of some original Matthew who sat down independently of everybody else to write a biography of which he was brimful of information, we have the picture of some theologicallyminded Jew who labored before the dawn of what we understand as historical science, sitting down at a littered study table to compile from all available sources a Life which should fit in with his own preconceived prejudices and beliefs. There are a thousand straws floating on the wind to confirm such an impression as this. The original Mark wrote of Jesus on the cross that the Roman soldiers followed the usual custom of Roman execution and gave him to drink, in his agony, of wine mingled with stupefying myrrh. But the Psalmist had foretold of a suffering Messiah that he should be mocked with bitter gall, and Matthew, writing up the story, deliberately crosses out Mark’s myrrh and substitutes the prophetic gall. Trifles such as these show the absence of a strict historical sense and must make us more than dubious of much longer stories.

For example, where was Jesus born? There are obvious indications that the crowd of his own day thought that he originated in Nazareth of Galilee, but the Old Testament prophet had said that out of Bethlehem in the Land of Judah should come the Governor who should be Shepherd of his people Israel. To what extent was Matthew influenced by this when he quoted the Old Testament and commented upon it: ‘Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa’?

One has, of course, to add to all this a circumstance which perhaps weighs more with the layman than with the expert, but the layman has a right to remember that the cleanly printed and neatly bound little book which he buys for a few pence at the bookseller’s does not by any means give a fair impression of the condition of its original sources.

The oldest copies are represented by less than half a dozen manuscripts scattered throughout the world, hardly one of them complete and all of them dating from, roughly, some four hundred years after the time of Christ. They can be read only with extreme difficulty, and from their tattered pages the orderly story which we know can only with extreme patience be deduced. More than this, they are admittedly not in the original language. Even in the state in which we have them, they have not only passed through the hands of innumerable copyists, of whose accuracy, in a modern sense, there is no evidence, but also through the hands of translators, of whose perfect understanding of the finer shades of the language they were translating there is no evidence.

This last is a point of really great interest. Jesus is generally accepted as our instructor in imprecatory prayer, for did he not, in the Lord’s Prayer, teach us to say: ‘Give us this day our daily bread’? But he probably spoke in Aramaic, and the Aramaic would admit of a version of the Lord’s Prayer which contains no definite request to God at all. It might have run: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed is thy name. Thy kingdom is coming. Thy will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Thou givest us day by day our daily bread. Thou forgivest us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. Thou dost not lead us into temptation, but deliverest us from the Evil One. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.’

Of all these things the average man has no knowledge whatever, and he is the victim, in point of fact, of a well-intentioned but nevertheless perfectly definite conspiracy. The original discoverers of these difficulties in Gospel translation had no desire whatever to make their knowledge popular. They had, indeed, very strong reasons for the contrary. The more they kept their knowledge confined to the study, the less virulently would the hostility of the orthodox break upon them. They too, in point of fact, were afraid of how the multitude would act if once it came to doubt the story of Jesus.

Thus there is to-day an enormous vested interest concerned with keeping doubts of the historicity of Jesus from the knowledge of men in the street. It ramifies from bishops and archbishops to popular journalists and cinema operators. We have had lately a flood of Lives of Christ, all of which see in him some new and momentarily arresting portrait. Some of them are almost bizarre in their portrayal. Thus one of the most recent finds in Jesus the prototype of the modern American business man, and maintains that an advertising convention might well accept him as the originator of the methods of modern advertisement! Moreover, the curious thing is that the case as set out is not so easily denied. One can read the book soberly and say at the end, ' Well, there is something in that!’

But the only reason why there appears to be something in it is because, as a matter of fact, there is nothing in it. The historical outline is so incredibly vague and sketchy that anything can be made of it. The more sober biographer simply cannot reconcile all the conflicting stories. He is bound to pick and choose. The result is a thousand Lives of Jesus which depict a thousand Christs of a thousand individual preferences.


The truth of the shadowy nature of the story of Jesus, considered as a history, has also largely been obscured from us by the fact that there has been born into the world a traditional Jesus who has come almost wholly to obscure, and very largely to displace, the shadowy historical Jesus. In point of fact, the traditional portrait of Jesus was preëxistent to the historical and literary portrait of him by many years. The Gospels were not written, as many so often suppose, to convey the details of the life of Jesus to the world, but they were written to provide confirmation of and support to a more or less diffused and vague knowledge of him which Christians already possessed. This point is very well illustrated by the Epistles of Saint Paul. These Epistles were written many years before the Gospels, so that the great Apostle, writing to his converts of the early Gentile churches, was not writing to men who possessed a written and alleged historical biography of Christ. They had no book to which to refer, but nevertheless Paul thinks it quite unnecessary to relate even one of all the miracles Jesus performed and the parables he spoke, and mentions but one of all his disconnected utterances, as recorded in Acts, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’ which never got into our written Gospels at all. From the Epistles alone we could gather no more of the life of Jesus than the bald statement that he was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, rose from the dead, and ascended into Heaven — insufficient enough incidents for a biographer! But the biographer was considered unnecessary. Not only did Paul apparently consider that what Jesus was was more important than what Jesus did or said, but also he apparently presumed that a sufficient biographical knowledge was already possessed by his converts.

It was when the world did not, as the early Christians imagined that it would, come to a speedy and cataclysmic end that the Gospels came to be written. They were written to prevent men from forgetting, rather than to teach them. They were not written by cool historians anxious to preserve facts so much as by ardent theologians anxious to support theories. That in a sense they were inadequately and sketchily written, from an historical point of view, is due to the fact that the theories were so widely accepted. Pauline Christianity, in other words, held the field. The traditional Christ already dominated the Christian world.

It was this traditional Christ that held undisputed sway in the minds of men before the invention of printing and the Protestant Reformation. To us who are inheritors of the tradition of that Reformation, it is difficult to realize to what extent this was so. But a mediæval Christian was just as confident that Anna was the grandmother of Jesus as he was that Mary was his mother, although Anna belongs to the traditional and not to the literary portrait of Jesus at all. He was just as confident that Veronica wiped the face of Christ on the way to the cross as he was that Pontius Pilate sent him there, but Veronica belongs to the traditional and not to the literary portrait of Jesus. And whereas these and many other illustrations may seem trivial, the main details of the life of Christ were also traditional and Pauline rather than historical and literary.

Here, indeed, we enter upon a slightly more controversial field, for fragments of the narrative can be construed into the support of this traditional picture. This is natural, because the delineators of the later literary portrait had the traditional already forming in their minds. But thus the mediæval Christian thought that the main work of Christ on earth was the formation of an organized visible Church, of which the Apostles and their successors, the bishops, were established as rulers, over whom he had ordained Peter and his successors in Rome, and to which he had personally committed seven sacraments by which the soul of a Christian man could be redeemed from the power of the Devil and conveyed in safety to Paradise. To mediæeval men Christ was primarily the Divine Champion in an age-long conflict with Satan, and was chiefly concerned with theological questions of sin and damnation and of grace and salvation.

This traditional Christ was accepted by the Church as, practically, of more authority than the literary, and, when challenged, as of equal authority with him. Thus the Council of Trent — and the Roman Catholic Church ever since — deliberately states that the traditions are of equal authority with the writings of the Church, and thereby establishes an interesting and well-nigh impregnable position. It is, of course, even possible that the Church as a corporate society does remember a great deal that it was neither possible nor convenient to write down, but at any rate this hypothesis shifts the whole field of conflict. For the Catholic believes in the Church on grounds which are outside those of literary and historical study altogether. Thus, when his Church asserts that Jesus was born without human fatherhood, of an immaculate ever-virgin Mary, who had no other children and gave birth to her one child without the usual pains of motherhood, he does not believe it because of fragmentary and disputable texts which may or may not assert it in so many words. He believes it because the Church says it.


Now, while all this is common knowledge to Protestants, we remain extraordinarily blind to its results. Protestantism has increasingly thrown over much of this traditional cargo, but the fact remains that the story of Jesus which the ordinary Protestant man in the street accepts as historical is not historical at all, but traditional. It is a traditional Jesus who has overshadowed the world. It is the traditional Jesus who is carven in our churches and cathedrals, depicted in our masterpieces of painting, sung in our popular hymns, and even shown on our cinema films. It is from his dominion that the modern mind has to some extent revolted, and the fact of paramount and vital importance is this, that the modern mind, as seen in most men in the street, is unaware that in revolting from the traditional Jesus it has not of necessity revolted from the historical Jesus at all.

The portrait of this traditional Jesus is worthy of our best attention. With the reconstructed document, ‘Q,’ and the original Mark before us, we have seen how extraordinarily little remains of the historical Christ. Speaking historically and authoritatively, we have no more before us than this: that somewhere and at some time and in some manner unknown, but in Palestine before the beginning of our era, there was born a man, Jesus, who was thought to be of distant royal Jewish blood and whose mother was an unknown Mary. This Jesus first steps upon the stage of history as a full-grown man, apparently aroused by the preaching of an historical John the Baptist. A certain number of his sayings have come down to us, although practically none of his doings, and these sayings apparently aroused such hostility that he was crucified. Exactly what led up to this event or why they aroused such hostility we can only conjecture, but there would have been an end of the matter if it had not been that certain of his zealous followers believed that he rose from the dead and by so doing showed himself to have been by no manner of means merely a man, but the divine, ever-existing Son of God himself. And the Christian world ever since has been rent into factions and schisms attempting to square these theories with reason and logic, and working out corollaries based upon them.

This is the historical Jesus, but how different is the traditional! It is a fuller, richer, detailed picture, which does indeed afford material for innumerable Lives. It is of interest to sketch the traditional portrait in those details which have no historical support whatever.

According to this, there was a blameless Jewish virgin who from her earliest days exhibited an amazing holiness. The names of her father and mother are given, the place of her birth and upbringing. and, in full detail, the story of her unwilling betrothal to an old man called Joseph. Joseph, however, instructed thereto by God, had at no time carnal relationship with her. Eventually, heralded by all kinds of supernatural portents, a child was born to her, who early exhibited an astounding wisdom and beauty of character. This child, after thirty years of a carpenter’s life, during which a sense of his divine origin continually grew upon him, entered upon a ministry which was attended by every kind of supernatural power, and which not unnaturally set Palestine in an uproar. Amid this turmoil, the divine man remained indifferent even to the clamor of the populace to make him king. With incredible foresight he wrote no books, and indeed took no steps to ensure a continuation of the knowledge of himself or of his teachings, except that he devoted all his energies to the calling out and instruction of a certain small band of men who were to be the means of a divine miracle as wonderful as that of himself. These men were to compose a body with functions and a spiritual unity comparable to those of his own body, and possessed of a divine spirit giving it the power of supernatural remembrance, inerrable wisdom, and unquenchable life. Membership in it was to be salvation, the salvation he had come on earth to bring through a death, resurrection, and ascension which he explicitly foretold. With ever-increasing detail these latter events are portrayed. We are shown the traditional Christ in his very words and acts, going up to Jerusalem, himself instituting the last Paschal Feast, and inaugurating a new sacrifice of a new spotless lamb, which was indeed himself. He traverses the way to the cross, falling therein, meeting his mother, being nailed at the place of sacrifice, and dying there at a mystical hour with mystical words. We are told even the name of the centurion who crucified him. We are carried ourselves through the gate of death and are shown the triumphant Christ harrowing Hell and leading a train of exultant Old Testament saints to the Throne of God. Arrived there, we are asked to contemplate the triumphant Son, eternally removing the wrath of a Father angry with sin by the exhibition of his wounds. We are asked to observe a discomfited and chagrined Devil falling back before this spectacle and fleeing in terror before the Church on earth, utilizing his little remaining time in every artifice, to win, if it might be, a few more souls to eternal damnation. We are even exhorted to look into the future and see this triumphant Christ descending with angels to his expectant Church and establishing his reign on earth for a thousand years.

Incredible and amazing as it may seem, this is the traditional picture, and it has no support whatever — as indeed, of course, in some matters it cannot have — from either history or the Gospels which we possess.

Now the tragic thing is that in many quarters this traditional Jesus is regarded as an imposture, and a substitution for the historic Jesus that involves great loss to us. Protestant Christians have inherited some part of this point of view from the early reformers, and, aided by the ever-increasing resources of modern knowledge, they have gone ever farther and farther in its pursuit. In our day the sense of imposture has left the study and gone to some extent into the street. There it has been popularized, not to say vulgarized. While an attenuated traditional Jesus affords good copy to the cinema producer and the Protestant publisher, — an attenuated Jesus who is neither wholly literary, historical, nor traditional, — a vast number of men have simply set him aside altogether. The law no longer enforces his worship, and we have an increasing population to whom the name of Jesus is no more than an oath, and who have set all religion outside their lives as a thing of no importance. Conscious of this growing population, the Protestant churches are in large measure seized with panic. Their own portrait of him a supreme muddle, their theology and their deductions grow naturally worse and worse. Their logical end, too, will be to give him up altogether.

But the traditional portrait is neither an imposture nor a substitution. In the first place, it is the original portrait, in the sense that it is the portrait which, in embryo, the Christian Church originally accepted. The Christian Church, considered historically, derives from its acceptance of that portrait. There was even a sense in which it was the only portrait it possessed. This traditional Jesus is the Jesus whom men thought, a generation after his death, they had seen upon earth and touched and handled.

For nineteen centuries the European mind has been elaborating, not to say constructing, the most wonderful and beautiful figure that the world has ever seen. The European mind has made many achievements, achievements in art and science which are stupendous in their magnitude and which well prompted Swinburne to sing: ‘Glory to Man in the highest, Man is the Master of things!’ And its possible future achievements rightly dazzle us.

But none of its past achievements can vie with this, and confidently we assert that none of its future achievements will surpass it. The Western human mind has given substance to this figure of the traditional Jesus. In so doing, it has, if you like, made a God; but the miracle is that that God, which must in a sense have been made in its own image, should be so surpassingly beautiful. No one of us has done it; a million minds have brought to it every treasure that they possess. The admirable tenderness of a John, the civic sense of an Augustine, the logic of an Athanasius, the humility of a Saint Francis of Assisi, the wide vision of a Loyola, all have gone to the fashioning of that figure. To make it the Jew has given of his mysticism, the Greek of his subtlety, the Roman of his justice, the AngloSaxon of his practicality, and the Frank of his sense of beauty. A thousand unknown men and women have added touches here and there, not only of set thought, by their creative ability, but unconsciously, by the beauty and nobility of their lives. Rightly, too, do all these artificers speak of Jesus as their Founder, for he it was who began this thing, however shadowy he may appear when we look back to him, by the unique beauty of his life and sayings.

Christendom has made for itself a God; we call his name Jesus; and truly it was Jesus who began the work. But this God of ours, this traditional Jesus, is not the historic Jesus and is not the literary Jesus of the Gospels.


But with that negation we are not now concerned. We are concerned with the much more valuable and definite positive of the existence in the world to-day of this traditional Christian God. The point at issue is that in all the centuries we have needed him, and that we never needed him more than today. Our civilization cannot do without him. Without him our civilization will wreck itself in some unimaginably bloody war, or in some hideously materialistic phase of machinery and vulgarity in which life will not be worth living. In him and around him there has been concentrated for so long all that is beautiful and worth while, all that is noble and generous, all that goes to make up the best in man, to such a degree that in losing him we lose it.

It is, however, a very practical problem for us how we can retain him in all his beauty and yet remain free from the many implications and entanglements to progress which have been only too disastrously linked up with his name. We do not mean to relinquish the beautiful fables which are told in the Gospel about him; we are still going to tell our children the lovely stories of his blessing little children, of his feeding the five thousand with five loaves, of his tenderness to the mother of the little maid whom he raised from the dead, and of his inspiring courage and nobility in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Hill of Calvary. But we cannot abide the hideous implications that there is a God who demanded the price of blood, or who can remain unmoved while a Devil drags his deluded victims to Hell.

Is there any way in which this can be done? There is, undoubtedly, but it is not the way of modern Protestant thought. You cannot pare the traditional Jesus theologically to suit your convenience. You cannot identify him with an historical Jesus. The two figures are eternally separate and in a sense irreconcilable. And it is well that it is so. The main power and charm of the traditional Jesus lie in the fact that he is not historical, that he is not mummified in any Gospel, and that he can be seen from many angles. He does not belong to the study and he is not the creation of understanding. His ancestry is a far more beautiful one than that.

We can still have faith in the traditional Jesus, but we have gotten into a dreadful muddle in our use of this word ‘faith.’ Faith is not intellectual proof. I do not require faith in knowing that two and two make four. Once a child has burned his fingers in the fire, he does not require faith in his mother to prevent him from putting his fingers between the bars of the grate. Faith is essentially the mind’s acceptance, in a certain degree and in a certain way, of things that are not proved and even of things that are not provable. It does its finest work when it is based upon things of this nature. It often, in point of fact, loses, beyond rhyme or reason, all its potency when its undemonstrable basis is made demonstrable and logical. This is in itself unreasonable, but it happens to belong to the nature and being of that queer animal, man.

This, then, is the real nature of religious faith. It is the spirit in which originally men triumphantly shouted the Apostles’ Creed, but it is not the spirit in which well-meaning citizens remain outwardly devout but inaudible in our churches to-day because they feel that they do not believe Jesus Christ descended into Hell or will visibly come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead. They are confusing faith with an intellectual judgment. We have indeed so far gotten into that habit since the passing of the ages of faith that it is amazingly difficult to get out of it. We must, in fact, invent a new nomenclature if we are ever to see religious faith again strong among us.

In this sense, and in this sense only, we do not ask men to believe in a traditional Jesus. Or, if you like, we will put it another way. We ask men to believe in a traditional Jesus, but we do not mean by ‘believe’ that we ask them to accept as history his traditional story, or to accept as science his theological sin-bearing. It would be easier, probably, if we asked them instead to glory in the traditional Jesus, or to revere the beauty of the traditional Jesus, or to promise to tell their children with tenderness and love the traditional saga of Jesus. But all these things are to have ‘faith’ in Jesus. They are to believe that this traditional story, which has been evolved through two thousand years from so small a beginning, is a noble and uplifting ideal; is, among the turmoil and din of life, a white plume of Navarre. It is to ask them to set aside for a time the dreadful logic which rules them in most of their waking hours, and to give free rein to that finer spiritual thing within them which needs for its growth the contemplation of the beautiful, the worship of the unattainable, and the acceptance of the imaginary. In some such way as this we too can enjoy the heritage of the traditional Christ. He will make us finer, nobler men and women, and there is none other who can do so as can he.

The traditional Christ must be the subject of our worship. So he will remain the source of our inspiration. He is not and cannot be, thank God, a subject for the exercise of our historical curiosity or of our scientific vivisection. It is the shadowy historic Jesus, who is so dimly outlined for us in such lost documents as ‘Q’ and the original Mark, who may be and is a most interesting subject of historical study and scientific investigation. It is not, perhaps, a very wide field, or one in which we are ever likely to arrive at very authoritative results. From the nature of the case, no two men are ever likely to agree upon him. But there is no doubt as to its enormous interest, and no doubt, within limits, as to its profit. If one had to choose, it would probably be better to have the faith of Pasteur’s charcoal burner than the wide learning of a Hegel. But there is no need so to choose. It is possible to glory in the traditional Christ and to worship him as the ideal and inspirer of all nobility, while at the same time devoting our best intelligence to a scholarly study of the scant remains of the historic Christ.

One last anticipatory paragraph. The minister of religion has to remember that it is with the worship of the traditional Christ rather than with the study of the historic Christ that he is mainly concerned. We did not set him in the ministry that he should be a professor or a kind of policeman. We set him there that he might be a minister or a servant of men. He can serve us best in our need by holding up before us the traditional Jesus, in all his beauty and nobility, whom we tend to forget.

(A second paper will be entitledThe Mind of the Master’)