Freethought Archives > Baron D'Holbach > Ecce Homo (1769)

CHAPTER II.

THE BIRTH OF JESUS.

All the prophecies contained in the sacred books of the Jews, coincide in making them hope for the return of the favor of the Almighty. God had promised them a deliverer, a messenger, a messiah, who should restore the power of Israel. That deliverer was to be of the seed of David, the prince according to God's own heart; so submissive to the priests, and so zealous for religion. It was to recompense the devotion and docility of this holy usurper, that the prophets and the priests, loaded with kindness, promised him in the name of heaven, that his family should reign forever. If that famous prediction was belied during the Babylonish captivity, and at subsequent periods, the Jews, at this time no less credulous than their ancestors, persuaded themselves that it was impossible for their prophets and diviners to deceive them. They imagined that their oracles sooner or later would be accomplished, and that they should see a descendant of David restore the honor of their nation.

It was in conformity to these predictions and popular notions, that the writers of the Gospels gave Jesus a genealogy; by which they pretended to prove that he was descended in a direct line from David, and consequently, had a right to arrogate the character of messiah. Nevertheless, criticism has exhausted itself on this genealogy. Such as are not possessed of faith, have been surprised to find, that the Holy Spirit has dictated it differently to the two evangelists who have detailed it: for, as has been frequently remarked, the genealogy given by Matthew is not the same with that of[Pg 31] Luke: a disparity which has thrown Christian interpreters into embarrassments, from which all their subtilty has hitherto been unable to rescue them. They tell us, that one of these genealogies is that of Joseph; but, supposing Joseph to be of the race of David, a Christian cannot believe that he was the real father of Jesus, because his religion enjoins him to believe steadfastly, that he is the Son of God. Supposing the two genealogies to be Mary's, in that case the Holy Spirit has blundered in one of them. Even Matthew's account is contradictory of itself. He says (c. i. v. 17) "To all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations." On enumerating the names given in the last division of time, we find only twelve generations, even including Joseph. In whatever way we consider them, one of the genealogies will always appear faulty and incomplete, and the extraction of Jesus very weakly established.

Let us now examine the occurrences which preceded and accompanied the birth of Jesus. Only one evangelist has particularly narrated them; all the others have superficially passed over circumstances as marvellous as they are important. Matthew, content with his genealogy, speaks but in few words of the preternatural manner wherein Jesus was formed in the womb of his mother. The speech of an angel, seen in a dream, suffices to convince Joseph of the virtue of his wife, and he adopts her child without hesitation. Mark makes no mention of this memorable incident. John, who, by the assistance of his mystic and Platonic theology, could embellish the story, or rather confound it, has not said one word on the subject. We are, therefore, constrained to satisfy ourselves with the materials Luke has transmitted us.

According to this evangelist, Elizabeth, kinswoman of Mary, and wife of a priest named Zachariah, was in the sixth month of her pregnancy, "when the angel Gabriel was sent[Pg 32] from God unto a city called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary; for thou hast found favor with God. And behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. Then said Mary to the angel, How shall this be, for I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore, also that holy thing which shall be born of thee, shall be called the Son of God. And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. Thereafter (adds the text) the angel departed from her."

Now what is there in all this that is any way marvellous? Nothing indeed is more simple than this narrative. If the least reflection is employed on it, the wonderful will vanish; and we shall find the greatest care has been taken to spare the modesty of the young persons who might read the story. An angel entered the house of Mary, whose husband was absent. He salutes her; that is, pays her a compliment, which may be translated as follows:—"Good day, my dear Mary! you are indeed adorable—What attractions! what graces! of all women, you are the most lovely in my eyes. Your charms are pledges to you of my sincerity. Crown then my passion. Fear not the consequences of your complaisance; your husband is a simpleton; by visions and dreams we can make him believe whatever we desire. The good man will regard your pregnancy as the effect of a miracle of the Most High; he will adopt your child with joy, and all will go on in the best manner possible." Mary, charmed with these words, and little accustomed to receive[Pg 33] the like compliments from her husband, replied, "Well!—I yield—I rely on your word and address; do with me as you please."

Nothing is more easy than to separate the relation of Luke from the marvellous. The event of Mary's pregnancy follows in the order of nature; and if we substitute a young man in the place of the angel, the passage of the evangelist will have nothing incredible in it. In fact, many have thought that the angel Gabriel was no other than a gallant, who, profiting by the absence of Joseph, found the secret to declare and gratify his passion.

We shall not stop to form conjectures on the true name and station of Mary's lover. The Jews, whose testimony on this subject may appear suspicious, assert, as we shall afterwards relate, that this favorite lover was a soldier:—the military have always claims on the hearts of the ladies. They add, that from his commerce with the wife of Joseph, the messiah of the Christians sprung; that the discontented husband left his faithless wife, in order to retire to Babylon, and that Jesus with his mother went to Egypt, where he learned the trade of a conjurer, and afterwards returned to practise in Judea.

The proto-gospel, ascribed to James, relates some curious and ridiculous circumstances, altogether omitted in the four canonical evangelists; yet they have nothing revolting to persons who possess faith. This gospel informs us of the ill humor of Joseph on seeing his wife pregnant, and the reproaches he loaded her with on account of her lewdness, unworthy of a virgin reared under the eyes of priests. Mary excuses herself with tears; she protests her innocence, and "swears in the name of the living God, that she is ignorant whence the child has come to her." It appears, that in her distress she had forgot the adventure of Gabriel:—that angel came the night following to encourage poor Joseph, then on the point of having an affair with the priests, who accused him of having begot this child to the prejudice of Mary's[Pg 34] vow of virginity. On this the priests made the two spouses drink of the waters of jealousy; that is, of a potion, which, by a miracle, did them no injury; the high priest, therefore, declared them innocent. It is related in the same gospel, that after Mary had been delivered, Salome, refusing to credit the midwife who assured her that the delivered was still a virgin, laid her hand on Mary in order to satisfy herself of the fact. Immediately this rash hand felt itself on fire; but she was cured on taking the little Jesus in her arms.

Whether these histories, or Rabbinical narratives be true or false, it is certain that the narrative of Luke, if not divested of the marvellous, will always present difficulties to the minds of the incredulous. They will ask, how God, being a pure spirit, could overshadow a woman, and excite in her the movements necessary to the production of a child? They will ask, how the divine nature could unite with the nature of a woman? They will maintain, that the narrative is unworthy of the power and majesty of the Supreme Being, who did not stand in need of employing ridiculous and indecent instruments to operate the salvation of mankind. It will be thought, that the Almighty should have employed other means for conveying Jesus into the womb of his mother; he might have made him appear on the earth without being incarnate in the belly of a woman; but there must be wonders in romances, especially if they are religious. It was in all ages supposed that great men were born in an extraordinary manner. Among the Heathen, Minerva sprung out of the brain of Jupiter; Bacchus was preserved in the thigh of the same god. Among the Chinese, the god Fo was generated by a virgin rendered prolific by a ray of the sun. With Christians, Jesus is born of a virgin, impregnated by the operation of the Holy Spirit, and she remains a virgin after that operation! Incapable of elevating themselves to God, men have made him descend to their own nature. Such is the origin of all incarnations, the belief of which is spread throughout the world.[Pg 35]

Theologists have agitated the question, whether in the conception of Jesus, the Virgin Mary emiserit semen? According to Tillemont, the Gnostics, who lived in the time of the apostles, denied that the Word was incarnate in the womb of the woman, and averred that it had taken a body only in appearance—a circumstance which must destroy the miracle of the resurrection. Basilides also maintains that Jesus was not incarnate. Lactantius, in order to establish that the spirit of God could impregnate a virgin, cites the example of the Thracian Mares, and other females, rendered prolific by the wind. Nothing is more indecent and ridiculous than the theological questions to which the birth of Jesus has given rise. Some doctors, to preserve Mary's virginity, have maintained, that Jesus did not come into the world, like other men, aperta vulva, but rather per vulvam clausam. The celebrated John Scotus regarded that opinion as very dangerous, as it would follow, that "Jesus could not be born of the virgin, but merely had come out of her." A monk of Citeaux, called Ptolemy de Luques, affirmed that Jesus was engendered near the virgin's heart, from three drops of her blood. The great St. Thomas Aquinas has examined, whether Jesus could not have been an hermaphrodite? and whether he could not have been of the feminine gender? Others have agitated the question, "Whether Jesus could have been incarnate in a cow?" We may therefore see, how one absurdity may engender others, in the prolific minds of theologists.

All the wonders which precede the birth of Jesus, are terminated by a very natural occurrence. At the end of nine months his mother is delivered like other women; and after so many incredible and supernatural events, the Son of God comes into the world like all others people's children. This conformity in birth, will ever occasion the surmise of a conformity in the physical causes which produced the son of Mary. Indeed, the supernatural only can produce the supernatural; from material agents result physical effects; and[Pg 36] they maintain in the schools, that there must always be a parity of nature between cause and effect.

Though, according to Christians, Jesus was at the same time man and god, some will say, it was necessary that the divine germ brought from heaven to be deposited in the womb of Mary, should contain at the same time divinity and humanity to become Son of God. To use the language of theologists, the hypostatic union of the two natures must have taken place before his birth, and immixed in the womb of his mother. In that case, we cannot conceive how it could happen, that the divine nature should continue torpid during the whole of Mary's pregnancy, in so much that she herself was ignorant of the time of her in-lying. The proof of this we find in Luke, chap. ii.—"In those days (says he) there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And as all went to be taxed, every one out of his own city, Joseph also went out of Nazareth and came to Bethlehem, to be taxed with Mary, who was great with child. And so it was, that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered, and she brought forth her first born son, and wrapt him in swadling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."

This narrative proves that Mary was taken unprovided, and that the Holy Spirit, who had done so many things for her, had neglected to warn her of an event so likely to interest him, and so important to all mankind. The humanity of Jesus, being subject to every casuality in our nature, might have perished in this journey, undertaken at a time very critical to his mother. Nor do we understand how the mother could remain in complete ignorance of the proximity of her time, or how the Eternal could so abandon the precious child he had deposited in her womb.

Some other circumstances of the relation of Luke presents new difficulties. He speaks of a taxing (enumeration) by order of Caesar Augustus:—a fact of which no mention[Pg 37] is made by any historian, Jewish or profane. We are also astonished to find the son of God born in poverty, having no other asylum than a stable, and no other cradle than a manger; and at the tenderest age, in a rigorous season, exposed to miseries without number.

It is true, our theologists have found a way to answer all these difficulties. They maintain, that a just God wishing to appease himself, destined his innocent son to afflictions, in order to have a motive for pardoning the guilty human race, which had become hateful to him through Adam's transgression, in which, however, his decendants had no share. By an act of justice, whereof the mind of man can form no idea, a God whose essence renders him incapable of committing sin, is loaded with the iniquities of man, and must expiate them in order to disarm the indignation of a father he has not offended! Such are the inconceivable principles which serve for the basis of the Christian theology.

Our doctors add—It was the will of God that the birth of his son should be accompanied with the same accidents as that of other men, to console the latter for the misfortunes attendent on their existence. Man, say they, is guilty before he is born, because all children are bound to pay the debts of their fathers: thus man suffers justly as a sinner himself, and as charged with the sin of his first father.—Granting this, what more consolatory than seeing a God, innocence and holiness itself, suffering in a stable all the evils attached to indigence! That consolation would have been wanting, if God had ordained that his son should be born in splendor, and with an abundance of the comforts of life. If the innocent Jesus had not suffered, mankind, incapable of extinguishing a debt contracted by Adam, would have been forever excluded from paradise. The painful journey Mary was obliged to undertake in such critical circumstances, had been foreseen by Eternal wisdom, which had resolved that Jesus should be born at Bethlehem[Pg 38] and not at Nazareth. It was necessary—having been foretold, it behoved to be accomplished.

However solid these answers may appear to the faithful, they are not capable of convincing the incredulous, who exclaim against the injustice of making an innocent God suffer, and loading him with the iniquities of the earth. Neither can they conceive by what principle of equity the Supreme Being could make the human race responsible for a fault committed by their first parents, without their knowledge and participation. Finally, they contend that it would have been wiser to have prevented man from committing sin, than to permit him to sin, and make his own son die to expiate man's iniquity.

With respect to the journey to Bethlehem, we cannot discover the necessity of it. The place where the saviour of the world was to be born, seems a circumstance perfectly indifferent to the salvation of mankind.

As for the prophecy announcing the glory of Bethlehem, in having given existence to the "Leader of Israel"—it does not appear to agree with Jesus, who was born in a stable, and who was rejected by the people whose leader he was to be. It is only a pious straining that can make this prediction apply to Jesus. We are assured, that it had been foretold Jesus was to be born in poverty; while, on the other hand the messiah of the Jews is generally announced by the prophets as a prince, a hero, and a conqueror.—It is necessary to know then which of these prophecies we ought to adopt. Our doctors tell us "the predictions announcing that Jesus would be born and live in indigence and meanness, ought to be taken literally, and those which announce his power and glory ought to be taken allegorically." But this solution will not satisfy the incredulous; they will affirm, that by this manner of explanation, we may always find in the sacred writings whatever we may think we stand in need of. They will conclude that the scripture is to Christians, what the clouds are to the man who imagines he perceives in them whatever figures he pleases.[Pg 39]


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