History of the Christian Church: Vol. 1, Ch. 02, § 017

Online Resource Library

Commentary Index | Return to PrayerRequest.com

History of the Christian Church: Vol. 1, Ch. 02, § 017

Subjects in this Topic:

17. The Land and the People

I. The geographical and descriptive works on the Holy Land by Reland (1714), Robinson (1838 and 1856), Ritter (1850-1855), Raumer (4th ed. 1860), Tobler (several monographs from 1849 to 1869), W. M. Thomson (revised ed. 1880), Stanley (1853, 6th ed. 1866), Tristram (1864), Schaff (1878; enlarged ed. 1889), Gu'e9rin (1869, 1875, 1880).

See Tobler’s Bibliographia geographica Palaestinae (Leipz. 1867) and the supplementary lists of more recent works by Ph. Wolff in the “Jahrb'fccher f'fcr deutsche Theologie,” 1868 and 1872, and by Socin in the “Zeitschrift des deutschen Palaestina-Vereins,” 1878, p. 40, etc.

II. The “Histories of New Testament Times” (Neutestamentliche Zeitgeschichte, a special department of historical theology recently introduced), by Schneckenburger (1862), Hausrath (1868 sqq.), and Sch'fcrer (1874).

See Lit. in 'a7 8.

Map, Palestine in the Time of Christ.

There is a wonderful harmony between the life of our Lord as described by the Evangelists, and his geographical and historical environment as known to us from contemporary writers, and illustrated and confirmed by modern discovery and research. This harmony contributes not a little to the credibility of the gospel history. The more we come to understand the age and country in which Jesus lived, the more we feel, in reading the Gospels, that we are treading on the solid ground of real history illuminated by the highest revelation from heaven. The poetry of the canonical Gospels, if we may so call their prose, which in spiritual beauty excels all poetry, is not (like that of the Apocryphal Gospels) the poetry of human fiction - “no fable old, no mythic lore, nor dream of bards and seers;” it is the poetry of revealed truth, the poetry of the sublimest facts the poetry of the infinite wisdom and love of God which, ever before had entered the imagination of man, but which assumed human flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth and solved through his life and work the deepest problem of our existence.

The stationary character of Oriental countries and peoples enables us to infer from their present aspect and condition what they were two thousand years ago. And in this we are aided by the multiplying discoveries which make even stones and mummies eloquent witnesses of the past. Monumental evidence appeals to the senses and overrules the critical conjectures and combinations of unbelieving skepticism, however ingenious and acute they may be. Who will doubt the history of the Pharaohs when it can be read in the pyramids and sphinxes, in the ruins of temples and rock-tombs, in hieroglyphic inscriptions and papyrus rolls which antedate the founding of Rome and the exodus of Moses and the Israelites? Who will deny the biblical records of Babylon and Nineveh after these cities have risen from the grave of centuries to tell their own story through cuneiform inscriptions, eagle-winged lions and human-headed bulls, ruins of temples and palaces disentombed from beneath the earth? We might as well erase Palestine from the map and remove it to fairy-land, as to blot out the Old and New Testament from history and resolve them into airy myths and legends.

The Land

Jesus spent his life in Palestine. It is a country of about the size of Maryland, smaller than Switzerland, and not half as large as Scotland, but favored with a healthy climate, beautiful scenery, and great variety and fertility of soil, capable of producing fruits of all lands from the snowy north to the tropical south; isolated from other countries by desert, mountain and sea, yet lying in the center of the three continents of the eastern hemisphere and bordering on the Mediterranean highway of the historic nations of antiquity, and therefore providentially adapted to develop not only the particularism of Judaism, but also the universalism of Christianity. From little Phoenicia the world has derived the alphabet, from little Greece philosophy and art, from little Palestine the best of all - the true religion and the cosmopolitan Bible. Jesus could not have been born at any other time than in the reign of Caesar Augustus, after the Jewish religion, the Greek civilization, and the Roman government had reached their maturity; nor in any other land than Palestine, the classical soil of revelation, nor among any other people than the Jews, who were predestinated and educated for centuries to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah and the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. In his infancy, a fugitive from the wrath of Herod, He passed through the Desert (probably by the short route along the Mediterranean coast) to Egypt and back again; and often may his mother have spoken to him of their brief sojourn in “the land of bondage,” out of which Jehovah had led his people, by the mighty arm of Moses, across the Red Sea and through “the great and terrible wilderness” into the land of promise. During his forty days of fasting “in the wilderness” he was, perhaps, on Mount Sinai communing with the spirits of Moses and Elijah, and preparing himself in the awfully eloquent silence of that region for the personal conflict with the Tempter of the human race, and for the new legislation of liberty from the Mount of Beatitudes. Thus the three lands of the Bible, Egypt, the cradle of Israel, the Desert, its school and playground, and Canaan, its final home, were touched and consecrated by “those blessed feet which, eighteen centuries ago, were nailed for our advantage on the bitter cross.”

He travelled on his mission of love through Judaea, Samaria, Galilee, and Peraea; he came as far north as mount Hermon, and once he crossed beyond the land of Israel to the Phoenician border and healed the demonized daughter of that heathen mother to whom he said, “O woman, great is thy faith: be it done unto thee even as thou wilt.”

We can easily follow him from place to place, on foot or on horseback, twenty or thirty miles a day, over green fields and barren rocks over hill and dale among flowers and thistles, under olive and fig-trees, pitching our tent for the night’s rest, ignoring the comforts of modern civilization, but delighting in the unfading beauties of God’s nature, reminded at every step of his wonderful dealings with his people, and singing the psalms of his servants of old.

We may kneel at his manger in Bethlehem, the town of Judaea where Jacob buried his beloved Rachel, and a pillar, now a white mosque, marks her grave; where Ruth was rewarded for her filial devotion, and children may still be seen gleaning after the reapers in the grainfields, as she did in the field of Boaz; where his ancestor, the poet-king, was born and called from his father’s flocks to the throne of Israel; where shepherds are still watching the sheep as in that solemn night when the angelic host thrilled their hearts with the heavenly anthem of glory to God, and peace on earth to men of his good pleasure; where the sages from the far East offered their sacrifices in the name of future generations of heathen converts; where Christian gratitude has erected the oldest church in Christendom, the “Church of the Nativity,” and inscribed on the solid rock in the “Holy Crypt,” in letters of silver, the simple but pregnant inscription: “Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est.” When all the surroundings correspond with the Scripture narrative, it is of small account whether the traditional grotto of the Nativity is the identical spot - though pointed out as such it would seem already in the middle of the second century.

We accompany him in a three days’ journey from Bethlehem to Nazareth, his proper home, where he spent thirty silent years of his life in quiet preparation for his public work, unknown in his divine character to his neighbors and even the members of his own household (Joh_7:5), except his saintly parents. Nazareth is still there, a secluded, but charmingly located mountain village, with narrow, crooked and dirty streets, with primitive stone houses where men, donkeys and camels are huddled together, surrounded by cactus hedges and fruitful gardens of vines, olive, fig, and pomegranates, and favorably distinguished from the wretched villages of modern Palestine by comparative industry, thrift, and female beauty; the never failing “Virgin’s Fountain,” whither Jesus must often have accompanied his mother for the daily supply of water, is still there near the Greek Church of the Annunciation, and is the evening rendezvous of the women and maidens, with their water-jars gracefully poised on the head or shoulder, and a row of silver coins adorning their forehead; and behind the village still rises the hill, fragrant with heather and thyme, from which he may often have cast his eye eastward to Gilboa, where Jonathan fell, and to the graceful, cone-like Tabor - the Righi of Palestine - northward to the lofty Mount Hermon - the Mont Blanc of Palestine - southward to the fertile plain of Esdra'eblon - the classic battle-ground of Israel - and westward to the ridge of Carmel, the coast of Tyre and Sidon and the blue waters of the Mediterranean sea - the future highway of his gospel of peace to mankind. There he could feast upon the rich memories of David and Jonathan, Elijah and Elisha, and gather images of beauty for his lessons of wisdom. We can afford to smile at the silly superstition which points out the kitchen of the Virgin Mary beneath the Latin Church of the Annunciation, the suspended column where she received the angel’s message, the carpenter shop of Joseph and Jesus, the synagogue in which he preached on the acceptable year of the Lord, the stone table at which he ate with his disciples, the Mount of Precipitation two miles off, and the stupendous monstrosity of the removal of the dwelling-house of Mary by angels in the air across the sea to Loretto in Italy! These are childish fables, in striking contrast with the modest silence of the Gospels, and neutralized by the rival traditions of Greek and Latin monks; but nature in its beauty is still the same as Jesus saw and interpreted it in his incomparable parables, which point from nature to nature’s God and from visible symbols to eternal truths.

Jesus was inaugurated into his public ministry by his baptism in the fast-flowing river Jordan, which connects the Old and New Covenant. The traditional spot, a few miles from Jericho, is still visited by thousands of Christian pilgrims from all parts of the world at the Easter season, who repeat the spectacle of the multitudinous baptisms of John, when the people came “from Jerusalem and all Judaea and all the region round about the Jordan” to confess their sins and to receive his water-baptism of repentance.

The ruins of Jacob’s well still mark the spot where Jesus sat down weary of travel, but not of his work of mercy and opened to the poor woman of Samaria the well of the water of life and instructed her in the true spiritual worship of God; and the surrounding landscape, Mount Gerizim, and Mount Ebal, the town of Shechem, the grain-fields whitening to the harvest, all illustrate and confirm the narrative in the fourth chapter of John; while the fossil remnant of the Samaritans at Nablous (the modern Shechem) still perpetuates the memory of the paschal sacrifice according to the Mosaic prescription, and their traditional hatred of the Jews.

We proceed northward to Galilee where Jesus spent the most popular part of his public ministry and spoke so many of his undying words of wisdom and love to the astonished multitudes. That province was once thickly covered with forests, cultivated fields, plants and trees of different climes, prosperous villages and an industrious population. The rejection of the Messiah and the Moslem invasion have long since turned that paradise of nature into a desolate wilderness, yet could not efface the holy memories and the illustrations of the gospel history. There is the lake with its clear blue waters, once whitened with ships sailing from shore to shore, and the scene of a naval battle between the Romans and the Jews, now utterly forsaken, but still abounding in fish, and subject to sudden violent storms, such as the one which Jesus commanded to cease; there are the hills from which he proclaimed the Sermon on the Mount, the Magna Charta of his kingdom, and to which he often retired for prayer; there on the western shore is the plain of Gennesaret, which still exhibits its natural fertility by the luxuriant growth of briers and thistles and the bright red magnolias overtopping them; there is the dirty city of Tiberias, built by Herod Antipas, where Jewish rabbis still scrupulously search the letter of the Scriptures without finding Christ in them; a few wretched Moslem huts called Mejdel still indicate the birth-place of Mary Magdalene, whose penitential tears and resurrection joys are a precious legacy of Christendom. And although the cities of Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazim, “where most of his mighty works were done” have utterly disappeared from the face of the earth, and their very sites are disputed among scholars, thus verifying to the letter the fearful prophecy of the Son of Man, (Mat_11:20-24; Luk_10:13-15) yet the ruins of Tell Hum and Kerazeh bear their eloquent testimony to the judgment of God for neglected privileges, and the broken columns and friezes with a pot of manna at Tell Hum are probably the remains of the very synagogue which the good Roman centurion built for the people of Capernaum, and in which Christ delivered his wonderful discourse on the bread of life from heaven.

Caesarea Philippi, formerly and now called Banias (or Paneas, Paneion, from the heathen sanctuary of Pan), at the foot of Hermon, marks the northern termination of the Holy Land and of the travels of the Lord, and the boundary-line between the Jews and the Gentiles; and that Swiss-like, picturesque landscape, the most beautiful in Palestine, in full view of the fresh, gushing source of the Jordan, and at the foot of the snow-crowned monarch of Syrian mountains seated on a throne of rock, seems to give additional force to Peter’s fundamental confession and Christ’s prophecy of his Church universal built upon the immovable rock of his eternal divinity.

The closing scenes of the earthly life of our Lord and the beginning of his heavenly life took place in Jerusalem and the immediate neighborhood, where every spot calls to mind the most important events that ever occurred or can occur in this world. Jerusalem, often besieged and destroyed, and as often rebuilt “on her own heap,” is indeed no more the Jerusalem of Herod, which lies buried many feet beneath the rubbish and filth of centuries; even the site of Calvary is disputed, and superstition has sadly disfigured and obscured the historic associations. “Christ is not there, He is risen.” (Mat_28:6) There is no more melancholy sight in the world than the present Jerusalem as contrasted with its former glory, and with the teeming life of Western cities; and yet so many are the sacred memories clustering around it and perfuming the very air, that even Rome must yield the palm of interest to the city which witnessed the crucifixion and the resurrection. The Herodian temple on Mount Moriah, once the gathering place of pious Jews from all the earth, and enriched with treasures of gold and silver which excited the avarice of the conquerors, has wholly disappeared, and “not one stone is left upon another,” in literal fulfilment of Christ’s prophecy; (Mat_24:2; Mar_13:2; Luk_19:44) but the massive foundations of Solomon’s structure around the temple area still bear the marks of the Phoenician workmen; the “wall of wailing” is moistened with the tears of the Jews who assemble there every Friday to mourn over the sins and misfortunes of their forefathers; and if we look down from Mount Olivet upon Mount Moriah and the Moslem Dome of the Rock, the city even now presents one of the most imposing, as well as most profoundly affecting sights on earth. The brook Kedron, which Jesus crossed in that solemn night after the last Passover, and Gethsemane with its venerable olive-trees and reminiscences of the agony, and Mount Olivet from which he rose to heaven, are still there, and behind it the remnant of Bethany, that home of peace and holy friendship which sheltered him the last nights before the crucifixion. Standing on that mountain with its magnificent view, or at the turning point of the road from Jericho and Bethany, and looking over Mount Moriah and the holy city, we fully understand why the Saviour wept and exclaimed, “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!

Thus the Land and the Book illustrate and confirm each other. The Book is still full of life and omnipresent in the civilized world; the Land is groaning under the irreformable despotism of the “unspeakable” Turk, which acts like a blast of the Sirocco from the desert. Palestine lies under the curse of God. It is at best a venerable ruin “in all the imploring beauty of decay,” yet not without hope of some future resurrection in God’s own good time. But in its very desolation it furnishes evidence for the truth of the Bible. It is “a fifth Gospel,” engraven upon rocks.

The People

Is there a better argument for Christianity than the Jews? Is there a more patent and a more stubborn fact in history than that intense and unchangeable Semitic nationality with its equally intense religiosity? Is it not truly symbolized by the bush in the desert ever burning and never consumed? Nebuchadnezzar, Antiochus Epiphanes, Titus, Hadrian exerted their despotic power for the extermination of the Jews; Hadrian’s edict forbade circumcision and all the rites of their religion; the intolerance of Christian rulers treated them for ages with a sort of revengeful cruelty, as if every Jew were personally responsible for the crime of the crucifixion. And, behold, the race still lives as tenaciously as ever, unchanged and unchangeable in its national traits, an omnipresent power in Christendom. It still produces, in its old age, remarkable men of commanding influence for good or evil in the commercial, political, and literary world; we need only recall such names as Spinoza, Rothschild, Disraeli, Mendelssohn, Heine, Neander. If we read the accounts of the historians and satirists of imperial Rome about the Jews in their filthy quarter across the Tiber, we are struck by the identity of that people with their descendants in the ghettos of modern Rome, Frankfurt, and New York. Then they excited as much as they do now the mingled contempt and wonder of the world; they were as remarkable then for contrasts of intellectual beauty and striking ugliness, wretched poverty and princely wealth; they liked onions and garlic, and dealt in old clothes, broken glass, and sulphur matches, but knew how to push themselves from poverty and filth into wealth and influence; they were rigid monotheists and scrupulous legalists who would strain out a gnat and swallow a camel; then as now they were temperate, sober, industrious, well regulated and affectionate in their domestic relations and careful for the religious education of their children. The majority were then, as they are now, carnal descendants of Jacob, the Supplanter, a small minority spiritual children of Abraham, the friend of God and father of the faithful. Out of this gifted race have come, at the time of Jesus and often since, the bitterest foes and the warmest friends of Christianity.

Among that peculiar people Jesus spent his earthly life, a Jew of the Jews, yet in the highest sense the Son of Man, the second Adam, the representative Head and Regenerator of the whole race. For thirty years of reserve and preparation he hid his divine glory and restrained his own desire to do good, quietly waiting till the voice of prophecy after centuries of silence announced, in the wilderness of Judaea and on the banks of the Jordan, the coming of the kingdom of God, and startled the conscience of the people with the call to repent. Then for three years he mingled freely with his countrymen. Occasionally he met and healed Gentiles also, who were numerous in Galilee; he praised their faith the like of which he had not found in Israel, and prophesied that many shall come from the east and the west and shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness. (Mat_8:5-13; Mat_15:21-28; Luk_7:1-9) He conversed with a woman of Samaria, to the surprise of his disciples, on the sublimest theme, and rebuked the national prejudice of the Jews by holding up a good Samaritan as a model for imitation. (Joh_4:5-42; Luk_10:30-37) It was on the occasion of a visit from some “Greeks,” shortly before the crucifixion, that he uttered the remarkable prophecy of the universal attraction of his cross. (Joh_12:20-32) But these were exceptions. His mission, before the resurrection, was to the lost sheep of Israel. (Mat_10:5, Mat_10:6; Mat_15:14)

He associated with all ranks of Jewish society, attracting the good and repelling the bad, rebuking vice and relieving misery, but most of his time he spent among the middle classes who constituted the bone and sinew of the nation, the farmers and workingmen of Galilee, who are described to us as an industrious, brave and courageous race, taking the lead in seditious political movements, and holding out to the last moment in the defence of Jerusalem. At the same time they were looked upon by the stricter Jews of Judaea as semi-heathens and semi-barbarians; hence the question, “Can any good come out of Nazareth, and “Out of Galilee ariseth no prophet.” He selected his apostles from plain, honest, unsophisticated fishermen who became fishers of men and teachers of future ages. In Judaea he came in contact with the religious leaders, and it was proper that he should close his ministry and establish his church in the capital of the nation.

He moved among the people as a Rabbi (my Lord) or a Teacher, and under this name he is usually addressed. The Rabbis were the intellectual and moral leaders of the nation, theologians, lawyers, and preachers, the expounders of the law, the keepers of the conscience, the regulators of the daily life and conduct; they were classed with Moses and the prophets, and claimed equal reverence. They stood higher than the priests who owed their position to the accident of birth, and not to personal merit. They coveted the chief seats in the synagogues and at feasts; they loved to be greeted in the markets and to be called of men, “Rabbi, Rabbi.” Hence our Lord’s warning: “Be not ye called ‘Rabbi:’ for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.” (Mat_23:8; comp. Mar_12:38, Mar_12:39; Luk_11:43; Luk_20:46) They taught in the temple, in the synagogue, and in the schoolhouse (Bethhamidrash), and introduced their pupils, sitting on the floor at their feet, by asking, and answering questions, into the intricacies of Jewish casuistry. They accumulated those oral traditions which were afterwards embodied in the Talmud, that huge repository of Jewish wisdom and folly. They performed official acts gratuitously. They derived their support from an honorable trade or free gifts of their pupils, or they married into rich families. Rabbi Hillel warned against making gain of the crown (of the law), but also against excess of labor, saying, “Who is too much given to trade, will not become wise.” In the book of Jesus Son of Sirach (which was written about 200 b.c.) a trade is represented as incompatible with the vocation of a student and teacher, but the prevailing sentiment at the time of Christ favored a combination of intellectual and physical labor as beneficial to health and character. One-third of the day should be given to study one-third to prayer, one third to work. “Love manual labor,” was the motto of Shemaja, a teacher of Hillel. “He who does not teach his son a trade,” said Rabbi Jehuda, “is much the same as if he taught him to be a robber.” “There is no trade,” says the Talmud, “which can be dispensed with; but happy is he who has in his parents the example of a trade of the more excellent sort.”

Jesus himself was not only the son of a carpenter, but during his youth he worked at that trade himself. When he entered upon his public ministry the zeal for God’s house claimed all his time and strength, and his modest wants were more than supplied by a few grateful disciples from Galilee, so that something was left for the benefit of the poor. St. Paul learned the trade of tentmaking, which was congenial to his native Cilicia, and derived from it his support even as an apostle, that he might relieve his congregations and maintain a noble independence. (Act_18:3; Act_20:33-35; 1Th_2:9; 2Th_3:8; 2Co_11:7-9)

Jesus availed himself of the usual places of public instruction in the synagogue and the temple, but preached also out of doors, on the mountain, at the sea-side, and wherever the people assembled to hear him. “I have spoken openly to the world; I ever taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; and in secret spake I nothing. (Joh_18:20. Comp. Mat_4:23; Mat_9:35; Mat_21:23; Mat_26:55; Mar_1:21, Mar_1:39; Mar_14:49; Luk_2:46; Luk_4:14-16, Luk_4:31, Luk_4:44; Luk_13:10; Luk_21:37) Paul likewise taught in the synagogue wherever he had an opportunity on his missionary journeys. (Act_13:14-16; Act_16:13; Act_17:2, Act_17:3) The familiar mode of teaching was by disputation, by asking and answering questions on knotty points, of the law, by parables and sententious sayings, which easily lodged in the memory; the Rabbi sat on a chair, the pupils stood or sat on the floor at his feet. Knowledge of the Law of God was general among the Jews and considered the most important possession. They remembered the commandments better than their own name. Instruction began in early childhood in the family and was carried on in the school and the synagogue. Timothy learned the sacred Scriptures on the knees of his mother and grandmother. (2Ti_1:5; 2Ti_3:15; comp. Eph_6:4) Josephus boasts, at the expense of his superiors, that when only fourteen years of age he had such an exact knowledge of the law that he was consulted by the high priest and the first men of Jerusalem. Schoolmasters were appointed in every town, and children were taught to read in their sixth or seventh year, but writing was probably a rare accomplishment.

The synagogue was the local, the temple the national center of religious and social life; the former on the weekly Sabbath (and also on Monday and Thursday), the latter on the Passover and the other annual festivals. Every town had a synagogue, large cities had many, especially Alexandria and Jerusalem. The worship was very simple: it consisted of prayers, singing, the reading of sections from the Law and the Prophets in Hebrew, followed by a commentary and homily in the vernacular Aramaic. There was a certain democratic liberty of prophesying, especially outside of Jerusalem. Any Jew of age could read the Scripture lessons and make comments on invitation of the ruler of the synagogue. This custom suggested to Jesus the most natural way of opening his public ministry. When he returned from his baptism to Nazareth, “he entered, as his custom was, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And there was delivered unto him the roll of the prophet Isaiah. And he opened the roll and found the place where it was written (Isa_61:1, Isa_61:2) ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor; he hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’ And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down: and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, ‘To-day hath this scripture been fulfilled in your ears.’ And all bare witness unto him, and wondered at the words of grace which proceeded out of his mouth: and they said, Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Luk_4:16-22)

On the great festivals he visited from his twelfth year the capital of the nation where the Jewish religion unfolded all its splendor and attraction. Large caravans with trains of camels and asses loaded with provisions and rich offerings to the temple, were set in motion from the North and the South, the East and the West for the holy city, “the joy of the whole earth;” and these yearly pilgrimages, singing the beautiful Pilgrim Psalms (Psa_120:1-7 to Psa_134:1-3), contributed immensely to the preservation and promotion of the common faith, as the Moslem pilgrimages to Mecca keep up the life of Islam. We may greatly reduce the enormous figures of Josephus, who on one single Passover reckoned the number of strangers and residents in Jerusalem at 2,700,000 and the number of slaughtered lambs at 256,500, but there still remains the fact of the vast extent and solemnity of the occasion. Even now in her decay, Jerusalem (like other Oriental cities) presents a striking picturesque appearance at Easter, when Christian pilgrims from the far West mingle with the many-colored Arabs, Turks, Greeks, Latins, Spanish and Polish Jews, and crowd to suffocation the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. How much more grand and dazzling must this cosmopolitan spectacle have been when the priests (whose number Josephus estimates at 20,000) with the broidered tunic, the fine linen girdle, the showy turban, the high priests with the ephod of blue and purple and scarlet, the breastplate and the mitre, the Levites with their pointed caps, the Pharisees with their broad phylacteries and fringes, the Essenes in white dresses and with prophetic mien, Roman soldiers with proud bearing, Herodian courtiers in oriental pomposity, contrasted with beggars and cripples in rags, when pilgrims innumerable, Jews and proselytes from all parts of the empire, “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, in Judaea and Cappadocia, in Pontus and Asia, in Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt and parts of Libya about Cyrene, and sojourners from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans, and Arabians,” (Act_2:8-12) all wearing their national costume and speaking a Babel of tongues, surged through the streets, and pressed up to Mount Moriah where “the glorious temple rear’d her pile, far off appearing like a mount of alabaster, topp’d with golden spires” and where on the fourteenth day of the first month columns of sacrificial smoke arose from tens of thousands of paschal lambs, in historical commemoration of the great deliverance from the land of bondage, and in typical prefiguration of the still greater redemption from the slavery of sin and death.

To the outside observer the Jews at that time were the most religious people on earth, and in some sense this is true. Never was a nation so ruled by the written law of God; never did a nation so carefully and scrupulously study its sacred books, and pay greater reverence to its priests and teachers. The leaders of the nation looked with horror and contempt upon the unclean, uncircumcised Gentiles, and confirmed the people in their spiritual pride and conceit. No wonder that the Romans charged the Jews with the odium generis humani.

Yet, after all, this intense religiosity was but a shadow of true religion. It was a praying corpse rather than a living body. Alas! the Christian Church in some ages and sections presents a similar sad spectacle of the deceptive form of godliness without its power. The rabbinical learning and piety bore the same relation to the living oracles of God as sophistic scholasticism to Scriptural theology, and Jesuitical casuistry to Christian ethics. The Rabbis spent all their energies in “fencing” the law so as to make it inaccessible. They analyzed it to death. They surrounded it with so many hair-splitting distinctions and refinements that the people could not see the forest for the trees or the roof for the tiles, and mistook the shell for the kernel. Thus they made void the Word of God by the traditions of men. A slavish formalism and mechanical ritualism was substituted for spiritual piety, an ostentatious sanctimoniousness for holiness of character, scrupulous casuistry for genuine morality, the killing letter for the life-giving spirit, and the temple of God was turned into a house of merchandise.

The profanation and perversion of the spiritual into the carnal, and of the inward into the outward, invaded even the holy of holies of the religion of Israel, the Messianic promises and hopes which run like a golden thread from the protevangelium in paradise lost to the voice of John the Baptist pointing to the Lamb of God. The idea of a spiritual Messiah who should crush the serpent’s head and redeem Israel from the bondage of sin, was changed into the conception of a political deliverer who should re-establish the throne of David in Jerusalem, and from that center rule over the Gentiles to the ends of the earth. The Jews of that time could not separate David’s Son, as they called the Messiah, from David’s sword, sceptre and crown. Even the apostles were affected by this false notion, and hoped to secure the chief places of honor in that great revolution; hence they could not understand the Master when he spoke to them of his, approaching passion and death. (Mat_16:21-23; Mar_8:31-33; Luk_9:22, Luk_9:44, Luk_9:45; Luk_18:34; Luk_24:21; Joh_12:34)

The state of public opinion concerning the Messianic expectations as set forth in the Gospels is fully confirmed by the preceding and contemporary Jewish literature, as the Sibylline Books (about b.c. 140), the remarkable Book of Enoch (of uncertain date, probably from b.c. 130-30), the Psalter of Solomon (b.c. 63-48), the Assumption of Moses, Philo and Josephus, the Apocalypse of Baruch, and the Fourth Book of Esdras. In all of them the Messianic kingdom, or the kingdom of God, is represented as an earthly paradise of the Jews, as a kingdom of this world, with Jerusalem for its capital. It was this popular idol of a pseudo-Messiah with which Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, when he showed him all the kingdoms of the world; well knowing that if he could convert him to this carnal creed, and induce him to abuse his miraculous power for selfish gratification, vain ostentation, and secular ambition, he would most effectually defeat the scheme of redemption. The same political aspiration was a powerful lever of the rebellion against the Roman yoke which terminated in the destruction of Jerusalem, and it revived again in the rebellion of Bar-Cocheba only to end in a similar disaster.

Such was the Jewish religion at the time of Christ. He was the only teacher in Israel who saw through the hypocritical mask to the rotten heart. None of the great Rabbis, no Hillel, no Shammai, no Gamaliel attempted or even conceived of a reformation; on the contrary, they heaped tradition upon tradition and accumulated the talmudic rubbish of twelve large folios and 2947 leaves, which represents the anti-Christian petrifaction of Judaism; while the four Gospels have regenerated humanity and are the life and the light of the civilized world to this day.

Jesus, while moving within the outward forms of the Jewish religion of his age, was far above it and revealed a new world of ideas. He, too, honored the law of God, but by unfolding its deepest spiritual meaning and fulfilling it in precept and example. Himself a Rabbi, he taught as one having direct authority from God, and not as the scribes. How he arraigned those hypocrites seated on Moses’ seat, those blind leaders of the blind, who lay heavy burdens on men’s shoulders without touching them with their finger; who shut the kingdom of heaven against men, and will not enter themselves; who tithe the mint and the anise and the cumin, and leave undone the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel; who are like unto whited sepulchres which outwardly appear beautiful indeed, but inwardly are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. But while he thus stung the pride of the leaders, he cheered and elevated the humble and lowly. He blessed little children, he encouraged the poor, he invited the weary, he fed the hungry he healed the sick, he converted publicans and sinners, and laid the foundation strong and deep, in God’s eternal love, for a new society and a new humanity. It was one of the sublimest as well as loveliest moments in the life of Jesus when the disciples asked him, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? and when he called a little child, set him in the midst of them and said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.” (Mat_18:1-6; comp. Mar_10:13-16; Luk_18:15-17) And that other moment when he thanked his heavenly Father for revealing unto babes the things of the kingdom which were hid from the wise, and invited all that labor and are heavy laden to come to him for rest.

He knew from the beginning that he was the Messiah of God and the King of Israel. This consciousness reached its maturity at his baptism when he received the Holy Spirit without measure. (Joh_1:32-34; comp. Joh_3:34) To this conviction he clung unwaveringly, even in those dark hours of the apparent failure of his cause, after Judas had betrayed him, after Peter, the confessor and rock-apostle, had denied him, and everybody had forsaken him. He solemnly affirmed his Messiahship before the tribunal of the Jewish highpriest; he assured the heathen representative of the Roman empire that he was a king, though not of this world, and when hanging on the cross he assigned to the dying robber a place in his kingdom. (Mat_26:64; Joh_18:37; Luk_23:43) But before that time and in the days of his greatest popularity he carefully avoided every publication and demonstration which might have encouraged the prevailing idea of a political Messiah and an uprising of the people. He chose for himself the humblest of the Messianic titles which represents his condescension to our common lot, while at the same time it implies his unique position as the representative head of the human family, as the ideal, the perfect, the universal, the archetypal Man. He calls himself habitually “the Son of Man” who “hath not where to lay his head,” who “came not to be ministered unto but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many,” who “hath power to forgive sins,” who “came to seek and to save that which was lost.” When Peter made the great confession at Caesarea Philippi, Christ accepted it, but immediately warned him of his approaching passion and death, from which the disciple shrunk in dismay. (Mat_16:20-23; Mar_8:30-33; Luk_9:21-27) And with the certain expectation of his crucifixion, but also of his triumphant resurrection on the third day, he entered in calm and sublime fortitude on his last journey to Jerusalem which “killeth the prophets,” and nailed him to the cross as a false Messiah and blasphemer. But in the infinite wisdom and mercy of God the greatest crime in history was turned into the greatest blessing to mankind.

We must conclude then that the life and work of Christ, while admirably adapted to the condition and wants of his age and people, and receiving illustration and confirmation from his environment, cannot be explained from any contemporary or preceding intellectual or moral resources. He learned nothing from human teachers. His wisdom was not of this world. He needed no visions and revelations like the prophets and apostles. He came directly from his great Father in heaven, and when he spoke of heaven he spoke of his familiar home. He spoke from the fullness of God dwelling in him. And his words were verified by deeds. Example is stronger than precept. The wisest sayings remain powerless until they are incarnate in a living person. It is the life which is the light of men. In purity of doctrine and holiness of character combined in perfect harmony, Jesus stands alone, unapproached and unapproachable. He breathed a fresh life from heaven into his and all subsequent ages. He is the author of a new moral creation.

Jesus and Hillel. - The infinite elevation of Christ above the men of his time and nation, and his deadly conflict with the Pharisees and scribes are so evident that it seems preposterous and absurd to draw a parallel between him and Hillel or any other Rabbi. And yet this has been done by some modern Jewish Rabbis, as Geiger, Gr'e4tz, Friedl'e4nder, who boldly affirm, without a shadow of historical proof, that Jesus was a Pharisee, a pupil of Hillel, and indebted to him for his highest moral principles. By this left-handed compliment they mean to depreciate his originality. Abraham Geiger (d. 1874) says, in his Das Judenthum und seine Geschichte (Breslau, 2d ed. 1865, vol. I. p. 117): “Jesus war ein Jude, ein pharis'e4ischer Jude mit galil'e4ischer F'e4rbung, ein Mann der die Hofnungen der Zeit theilte und diese Hoffnungen in sich erf'fcllt glaubte. Einen neuen Gedanken sprach er keineswegs aus [!], auch brach er nicht etwa die Schranken der Nationalit'e4t .... Er hob nicht im Entferntesten etwas vom Judenthum auf; er war ein Pharis'e4er, der auch in den Wegen Hillels ging.” This view is repeated by Rabbi Dr. M. H. Friedl'e4nder, in his Geschichtsbilder aus der Zeit der Tanaiten und Amor'e4er. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Talmuds (Br'fcnn, 1879, p. 32): “Jesus, oder Jeschu, war der Sohn eines Zimmermeisters, Namens Josef, aus Nazareth. Seine Mutter hiess Mirjam oder Maria. Selbst der als conservativer Katholik [sic!] wie als bedeutender Gelehrter bekannte Ewald nennt ihn ‘Jesus den Sohn Josef’, .... Wenn auch Jesus’ Gelehrsamkeit nicht riesig war, da die Galil'e4er auf keiner hohen Stufe der Cultur standen, so zeichnete er sich doch durch Seelenadel, Gem'fcthlichkeit und Herzensg'fcte vortheilhaft aus. Hillel I. scheint sein Vorbild und Musterbild gewesen zu sein; denn der hillelianische Grundsatz: ‘Was dir nicht recht ist, f'fcge, deinen Nebenmenschen nicht zu,’ war das Grundprincip seiner Lehren.” Renan makes a similar assertion in his Vie de J'e9sus (Chap. III. p. 35), but with considerable qualifications: “Par sa pauvret'e9 humblement support'e9e, par la douceur de son caract'e8re, par l’opposition qu’il faisait aux hypocrites et aux pr'eatres, Hillel fut le vrai ma'eetre de J'e9sus, s’il est permis de parler de ma'eetre, quand il s’agit d’une si haute originalit'e9.” This comparison has been effectually disposed of by such able scholars as Dr. Delitzsch, in his valuable pamphlet Jesus und Hillel (Erlangen, 3d revised ed. 1879, 40 pp.); Ewald, V. 12-48 (Die Schule Hillel’s und deren Gegner); Keim I. 268-272; Sch'fcrer, p. 456; and Farrar, Life of Christ, II. 453-460. All these writers come to the same conclusion of the perfect independence and originality of Jesus. Nevertheless it is interesting to examine the facts in the case.

Hillel and Shammai are the most distinguished among the Jewish Rabbis. They were contemporary founders of two rival schools of rabbinical theology (as Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus of two schools of scholastic theology). It is strange that Josephus does not mention them, unless he refers to them under the Hellenized names of Sameas and Pollion; but these names agree better with Shemaja and Abtalion, two celebrated Pharisees and teachers of Hillel and Shammai; moreover he designates Sameas as a disciple of Pollion. (See Ewald, p. 22-26; Sch'fcrer, p. 455). The Talmudic tradition has obscured their history and embellished it with many fables.

Hillel I. or the Great was a descendant of the royal family of David, and born at Babylon. He removed to Jerusalem in great poverty, and died about a.d. 10. He is said to have lived 120 years, like Moses, 40 years without learning, 40 years as a student, 40 years as a teacher. He was the grandfather of the wise Gamaliel in whose family the presidency of the Sanhedrin was hereditary for several generations. By his burning zeal for knowledge, and his pure, gentle and amiable character, he attained the highest renown. He is said to have understood all languages, even the unknown tongues of mountains, hills, valleys, trees, wild and tame beasts, and demons. He was called “the gentle, the holy, the scholar of Ezra.” There was a proverb: “Man should be always as meek as Hillel, and not quick-tempered as Shammai.” He differed from Rabbi Shammai by a milder interpretation of the law, but on some points, as the mighty question whether it was right or wrong to eat an egg laid on a Sabbath day, he took the more rigid view. A talmudic tract is called Beza, The Egg, after this famous dispute. What a distance from him who said: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath: so then the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Many wise sayings, though partly obscure and of doubtful interpretation, are attributed to Hillel in the tract Pirke Aboth (which is embodied in the Mishna and enumerates, in ch. 1, the pillars of the legal traditions from Moses down to the destruction of Jerusalem). The following are the best:

“Be a disciple of Aaron, peace-loving and peace-making; love men, and draw them to the law.”

“Whoever abuses a good name (or, is ambitious of aggrandizing his name) destroys it.”

“Whoever does not increase his knowledge diminishes it.”

“Separate not thyself from the congregation, and have no confidence in thyself till the day of thy death.”

“If I do not care for my soul, who will do it for me? If I care only for my own soul, what am I? If not now, when then?”

“Judge not thy neighbor till thou art in his situation.”

“Say not, I will repent when I have leisure, lest that leisure should never be thine.”

“The passionate man will never be a teacher.”

“In the place where there is not a man, be thou a man.”

Yet his haughty Pharisaism is clearly seen in this utterance: “No uneducated man easily avoids sin; no common person is pious.” The enemies of Christ in the Sanhedrin said the same (Joh_7:49): “This multitude that knoweth not the law are accursed.” Some of his teachings are of doubtful morality, e.g. his decision that, in view of a vague expression in Deu_24:1, a man might put away his wife “even if she cooked his dinner badly.” This is, however, softened down by modern Rabbis so as to mean: “if she brings discredit on his home.”

Once a heathen came to Rabbi Shammai and promised to become a proselyte if he could teach him the whole law while he stood on one leg. Shammai got angry and drove him away with a stick. The heathen went with the same request to Rabbi Hillel, who never lost his temper, received him courteously and gave him, while standing on one leg, the following effective answer:

Do not to thy neighbor what is disagreeable to thee. This is the whole Law; all the rest is commentary: go and do that.” (See Delitzsch, p. 17; Ewald, V. 31, Comp. IV. 270).

This is the wisest word of Hillel and the chief ground of a comparison with Jesus. But

1. It is only the negative expression of the positive precept of the gospel, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” and of the golden rule, “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, even so do ye also to them” (Mat_7:12; Luk_6:31). There is a great difference between not doing any harm, and doing good. The former is consistent with selfishness and every sin which does not injure our neighbor. The Saviour, by presenting God’s benevolence (Mat_7:11) as the guide of duty, directs us to do to our neighbor all the good we can, and he himself set the highest example of self-denying love by sacrificing his life for sinners.

2. It is disconnected from the greater law of supreme love to God, without which true love to our neighbor is impossible. “On these two commandments,” combined and inseparable, hang all the law and the prophets” (Mat_22:37-40).

3. Similar sayings are found long before Hillel, not only in the Pentateuch and the Book of Tobith Deu_4:15: ('ef̔̀ 'ec'e9'f3'e5'e9͂'f2 'ec'e7'e4'e5'ed'e9̀ 'f0'ef'e9'e7́'f3'e7ͅ'f2, “Do that to no man which thou hatest”), but substantially even among the heathen (Confucius, Buddha, Herodotus, Isocrates, Seneca, Quintilian), but always either in the negative form, or with reference to a particular case or class; e.g. Isocrates, Ad Demonic. c. 4: “Be such towards your parents as thou shalt pray thy children shall be towards thyself;” and the same In Aeginet. c. 23: “That you would be such judges to me as you would desire to obtain for yourselves.” See Wetstein on Mat_7:12 (Nov. Test. I. 341 sq.). Parallels to this and other biblical maxims have been gathered in considerable number from the Talmud and the classics by Lightfoot, Grotius, Wetstein, Deutsch, Spiess, Ramage; but what are they all compared with the Sermon on the Mount? Moreover, si duo idem dicunt, non est idem. As to the rabbinical parallels, we must remember that they were not committed to writing before the second century, and that, Delitzsch says (Ein Tag in Capernaum, p. 137), “not a few sayings of Christ, circulated by Jewish Christians, reappeared anonymously or under false names in the Talmuds and Midrashim.”

4. No amount of detached words of wisdom constitute an organic system of ethics any, more than a heap of marble blocks constitute a palace or temple; and the best system of ethics is unable to produce a holy life, and is worthless without it.

We may admit without hesitation that Hillel was “the greatest and best of all Pharisees” (Ewald), but he was far inferior to John the Baptist; and to compare him with Christ is sheer blindness or folly. Ewald calls such comparison “utterly perverse” (grundverkehrt, v. 48). Farrar remarks that the distance between Hillel and Jesus is “a distance absolutely immeasurable, and the resemblance of his teaching to that of Jesus is the resemblance of a glow-worm to the sun” (II. 455). “The fundamental tendencies of both,” says Delitzsch (p. 23), “are as widely apart as he and earth. That of Hillel is legalistic, casuistic, and nationally contracted; that of Jesus is universally religious, moral and human. Hillel lives and moves in the externals, Jesus in the spirit of the law.” He was not even a reformer, as Geiger and Friedl'e4nder would make him, for what they adduce as proofs are mere trifles of interpretation, and involve no new principle or idea.

Viewed as a mere human teacher, the absolute originality of Jesus consists in this, “that his words have touched the hearts of all men in all ages, and have regenerated the moral life of the world” (Farrar, II. 454). But Jesus is far more than a Rabbi, more than a sage and saint more than a reformer, more than a benefactor; he is the author of the true religion, the prophet, priest and king, the renovator, the Saviour of men, the founder of a spiritual kingdom as vast as the race and as long as eternity.