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

CHAPTER III.

ADORATION OF THE MAGI AND SHEPHERDS—MASSACRE OF THE INNOCENTS;—AND OTHER CIRCUMSTANCES, WHICH FOLLOWED THE BIRTH OF JESUS.

Of the four historians of Jesus adopted by the church, two are wholly silent on the facts we are to relate in this chapter; and Matthew and Luke, who have recorded them, are not at all unanimous in particulars. So discordant are their relations, that the ablest commentators do not know how to reconcile them. These differences, it is true, are less perceptible when the evangelists are read the one after the other, or without reflection; but they become particularly striking when we take the trouble of comparing them. This is, undoubtedly, the reason why we have hitherto had no concordance of the gospels which received the general approbation of the church. Even those which have been printed have not been universally adopted, though it must be acknowledged that they contain nothing contrary to faith. It is, perhaps, from judicious policy that the heads of the church have not approved of any system on this point. They have, probably, felt the impossibility of reconciling narratives so discordant as those of the four Evangelists; for the Holy Spirit, doubtless with a view to exercise the faith of the saints, has inspired them very differently. Besides, an able concordance of the gospels would prove a dangerous work:—it would bring together facts related by authors, who, far from supporting, would reciprocally weaken each other—a circumstance which could not fail to stagger at least the faith of the compiler.

Matthew, who, according to common opinion, (though a very erroneous one,) wrote the first history of Jesus, asserts,[Pg 40] that as soon as he was born, and still in the stable at Bethlehem, Magi came from the East to Jerusalem, and inquired where the king of the Jews was, whose star they had observed in their own country. Herod, who then reigned in Judea, being informed of the motive of their journey, consulted the people of the law; and having learned that the Christ was to be born at Bethlehem, he permitted the Magi to go there, recommending to them to inform themselves of this child, that he himself might do him homage. (Matt. ii. 1.)

It appears, from the narrative of Matthew, that as soon as the Magi left Herod, they took the road to Bethlehem, a place not far from Jerusalem. It is surprising that this prince, alarmed at the arrival of the Magi, who had thus announced the birth of a king of the Jews, did not use more precaution to allay his own uneasiness, and that of the capital, which the gospel represents as in a state of consternation at this grand event. It would have been very easy for him to have satisfied himself of the fact without being under the necessity of relying on strangers, who did not execute his commission. The Magi did not return; Joseph had time to save himself and his little family by flight; and Herod remained tranquil in spite of his suspicions and fears. It was not till after a considerable interval that he got into a passion on finding himself deceived; and then, to preserve his crown in safety, he ordered a general massacre of the children of Bethlehem and the neighboring villages! But why suppose such conduct in this sovereign? He had assembled the doctors of the law and principal men of the nation; their advice had confirmed the rumor spread by the wise men; they said it was at Bethlehem that Christ was to be born, and yet Herod did nothing for his own tranquility! Either Herod had faith in the prophecies of the Jews, or he had not. In the first case, and instead of relying on strangers, he ought himself to have gone with all his court to Bethlehem, and paid homage to the Saviour of the nation. In the second case, it is absurd to make Herod order a gene[Pg 41]ral massacre of infants, on account of a suspicion founded on a prophecy which he did not believe.

This prince's indignation is said not to have been roused till after the lapse of several days, and after he perceived that the Magi derided him, and took another road. Why did he not learn by the same means the flight of Jesus, of Joseph, and of his mother? Their retreat must certainly have been observed in a place so small as Bethlehem. It will perhaps be said, that God on this occasion, permitted Herod to be blinded; but God should not have permitted the inhabitants of Bethlehem and its environs to be so obstinate in preserving a secret that was to cost the lives of all their children. Possessed of the power of working miracles, could not God have saved his son by more gentle means than the useless massacre of a great number of innocents?—On the other hand, Herod was not absolute master in Judea. The Romans would not have permitted him to exercise such cruelties; and the Jewish nation, persuaded of the birth of the Christ, would not have been accessary to them. A king of England, more absolute than a petty sovereign of Judea, dependent on the Romans, would not be obeyed, were he to order his guards to go and cut the throats of all the children in a neighboring village, because three strangers, in passing through London, had said to him, that among the infants born in that village there was one, who, according to the rules of astrology, was destined to be one day king of Great Britain. At the time when astrology was in vogue, they would have contented themselves with causing search to be made for the suspected infant; they would have kept it in solitary confinement, or perhaps put it to death; but without comprehending other innocent children in its proscription.

We might oppose to the relation of Matthew the silence of the other evangelists, and especially that of the historian Josephus, who, having reasons to hate Herod, would not have failed to relate a fact so likely to render him odious as the massacre of the innocents. Philo is likewise silent[Pg 42] on the subject; and no reason can be assigned why these two celebrated historians should have agreed in concealing a circumstance so horrible. We cannot suppose it has proceeded from hatred to the Christian religion; for that detached fact would prove neither for or against it. We are, therefore, warranted to conclude that this massacre is a fable; and that Matthew seems to have invented it merely to have the opportunity of applying as ancient prophecy, which was his predominant taste. But in this instance he has deceived himself. The prophecy which he applied to the massacre of the innocents, is taken from Jeremiah, (xxxi. v. 15 and 16.) All the Jews understood it as relating to the Babylonish captivity. It is as follows: "Thus saith the Lord; a voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping: Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted because they were not." The following verse is so plain, that it is inconceivable why Matthew ventured to apply it to the pretended massacre at Bethlehem: "Thus saith the Lord, refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears; for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord, and thy children shall come again from the land of the enemy." Their return from the captivity is here clearly pointed out, when the Israelites should again plant vines after obtaining possession of their own country.

It is also to accomplish a prophecy, that Matthew makes Jesus travel into Egypt. This journey, or rather Jesus' return, had, according to him, been predicted by Hosea in in these words: "Out of Egypt have I called my son." But it is evident, that this passage is to be considered only as relating to the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage, through the ministry of Moses. Besides, the journey and abode of Jesus in Egypt, do not agree with some circumstances which happened in his infancy, as related by Luke, who informs us, that at the end of eight days Jesus was circumcised. The time of Mary's purification being accomplished according to the law of Moses, Joseph and his[Pg 43] mother carried Jesus to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord agreeably to the law, which ordained the consecrating the first born (first fruits), and offering a sacrifice for them. On this occasion, Luke tells us that Simeon took the infant in his arms, and declared in the presence of those assisting at the ceremony, that the child was the Saviour of Israel. An old prophetess, called Anna, bore the same testimony, and spoke of him to all who looked for the redemption of the Jews. But why were speeches, thus publicly made in the temple of Jerusalem, in which city Herod resided, unknown to a prince so suspicious? They were much better calculated to excite his uneasiness, and awaken his jealousy than the arrival of astrologers from the East.

Did Joseph and Mary, who came to Jerusalem for the presentation of Jesus, and purification of his mother, return to Bethlehem? and went they thence into Egypt in place of going to Nazareth? Luke says, that when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. But in what time did the parents of Jesus accomplish all that the law ordained? Was it before going into Egypt, or after their return from that country, where, according to Matthew, they had taken refuge to shelter themselves from the cruelty of Herod? Did the purification of the virgin, and the presentation of her son in the temple, take place before or after the death of that wicked prince? According to Leviticus, the purification of a mother who had brought a son into the world, was to be made at the end of thirty days. Hence we see how very difficult it is to reconcile the flight into Egypt, and the massacre of the innocents, which Matthew relates, with the narrative of Luke, who says, that, "after having performed the ordinances of the law, Joseph and Mary returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth;" and then adds, "they went to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the passover." If we could adopt the relation of the two evangelists, at what time are we to place the coming of the Magi from the East in order to adore[Pg 44] Jesus; the anger of Herod; the flight into Egypt; and the massacre of the innocents? Either the relation of Luke is defective, or Matthew wished to deceive his readers with improbable tales. In whatever way we consider the matter, the Holy Spirit, who inspired these apostles, will be found to have committed a mistake.

There is another fact on which our two evangelists do not better agree. Matthew, as we have seen, makes the Magi come, guided by a star, to Bethlehem, from the extremity of the East, to adore the child Jesus, and offer him presents. Luke, less taken with the marvellous, makes this child adored by simple shepherds, who watched their flocks during night, and to whom an angel announced the great event of the birth of the Saviour of Israel. The latter evangelist speaks neither of the appearance of the star, of the coming of the Magi, nor of the cruelty of Herod—circumstances, however, which ought to have been recorded by Luke, who informs us that he was so exactly informed of every thing concerning Jesus.

The parents of Jesus, either after their return from Egypt, or after his presentation in the temple, went to reside at Nazareth. Matthew, as usual, perceives in this the accomplishment of the prediction, he shall be called a Nazarene; but unfortunately for his purpose, this prophecy is not to be found in the Bible, nor can it be imagined by whom it was uttered. It is however certain, that Nazarene among the Jews signified a vagabond, a person excluded from the rest of the world; that Nazareth was a pitiful town, inhabited by beings so wretched that their poverty had become proverbial; and that beggars, vagrants, and people whom nobody would own, were called Nazarenes.

The first Christians were so styled. We find them also called Ebionites, derived from a Hebrew word which signifies a mendicant, a wretch, and a pauper. St. Francis and St. Dominic, who, in the 13th century, proposed to revive primitive Christianity, founded orders of mendicant monks,[Pg 45] destined to live solely on alms, to be true Nazarenes, and to levy contributions on the community, which these vagabonds have never ceased to oppress. Salmeron, in order to encourage these mendicant monks, has maintained that Jesus himself was a beggar. The name Nazarene was given to the apostles and Jews, who were first converted. The other Jews regarded them as heretics and excommunicated persons; and, according to Jerome, anathematised them in all their synagogues under the name of Nazarenes. The Jews even at present give the name of Nazarenes (Nozerim) to the Christians whom the Arabs and Persians call Nazari. The first converts of Jesus and his apostles, were only some reformed Jews: they preserved circumcision and other usages appointed by the law of Moses. In this they followed the example of Jesus, who being circumcised, and a Jew during his whole life, had often taught, that it was necessary to respect and observe the law. It is, therefore, surprising to see them afterwards treated as heretics. But we shall (in chap. 17) see the true cause of this change. It was owing to Paul, whose party prevailed over Peter's, the other apostles', and the Nazarenes or Judaising Christians. Paul corrected and reformed the system of Jesus, who had preached only a Judaism reformed. The apostle of the Gentiles succeeded in making his master, and his old comrades, be rewarded as heretics, or bad Christians. Thus it is that theologists take the liberty of rectifying the religion of the Saviour they adore!

We have seen, in the course of this chapter, how little harmony exists between the two evangelists respecting the circumstances attending the birth of Jesus. Let us now examine what could have been the views of these two writers in relating these facts so differently. It is impossible that Jesus, as Luke relates, could constantly reside at Nazareth till he was twelve years of age if it be true that he was carried soon after his birth into Egypt, where Matthew makes him remain until the death of Herod. Even in the time that[Pg 46] Jesus lived, he was upbraided with his stay in Egypt. His enemies asserted that he there learned magic, to which they attributed the wonders, or cunning tricks, they saw him perform. Luke is silent as to the journey to Egypt, which made his hero suspected. He fixes him, therefore, at Nazareth, and makes him go every year with his parents to Jerusalem. But the precaution of that evangelist seems to have been useless. Matthew, who wrote before him, had established the journey and abode of Jesus in Egypt. Origen, in his dispute with Celsus, does not deny it. Hence we see, that the Christian doctors did not doubt that Jesus had been in that country, notwithstanding the silence of Luke. Let us endeavor then to develope the motives of these two writers.

The Jews were agreed in the expectation of a messiah; but as the different orders of the state had their prophets, they also possessed different signs by which they were to know the deliverer. The great, the rich, and well informed persons, did not surely expect that the deliverer of Israel would be born in a stable, and spring from the dregs of the people. They, undoubtedly, anticipated their deliverance by a prince, a warrior, a man of power, able to make himself respected by the nations inimical to Judea, and to break in pieces their chains. The poor, on the contrary, who, as well as the great and the rich, have their portion of self-love, thought they might flatter themselves that the messiah would be born in their class. Their nation and their neighbors presented many examples of great men sprung from the bosom of poverty; and the oracles with which this nation was fed, were of such a nature that every family believed itself entitled to aspire to the honor of giving birth to a messiah; though the most general opinion was, that he was to come of the race of David. Shepherds, and people of the lowest order might readily believe that a woman, delivered in a stable at Bethlehem, had brought Jesus into the world. It may likewise be presumed that Mary, with a view to render herself interesting, said to[Pg 47] those who visited her that she was descended from the blood of kings; a pretension well adapted to excite the commiseration and wonderment of the people. This secret, and the confused remembrance of some prophecies about Bethlehem, the native country of David, were sufficient to operate on the imaginations of these silly people, little scrupulous about proofs of what was told them.

Matthew, who reckoned on the credulity of his readers, had his head full of prophecies and popular notions. To fill up a blank of thirty years in his history of Jesus, he contrived to make him travel into Egypt, without foreseeing the objections that might he made on account of the neglect of the holy family to fulfil the ordinances of the law; such as the circumcision of the child, his presentation in the temple, the purification of his mother, and the celebration of the passover; ceremonies which only could be performed at Jerusalem. Perhaps it is to justify the journey to Egypt, and those negligences, that Matthew introduces the prophecy of Hosea relative to the return from that place. It seems also to countenance the duration of Jesus's abode there that he relates the wrath of Herod, and the fable of the massacre of the innocents, which he makes that prince order, though his crimes had, in other respects, rendered him sufficiently odious to the Jews as well as to strangers. Mankind in general are disposed to believe every thing of a man who has become famous by his wickedness.

Luke, to elude the reproaches which might be thrown on Jesus on account of his residence and journey in Egypt, has not mentioned it at all; but his silence does not destroy its reality. It was necessary to free Jesus from the suspicion of magic, but he has not cleared him of accusations brought against his birth, which are quite as weighty.

Celsus, a celebrated physician, who lived in the second century of Christianity, and who had carefully collected all which had been published against Jesus, asserts that he was[Pg 48] the fruit of an illicit intercourse. Origen, in his works against Celsus, has preserved this accusation, but he has not transmitted the proofs on which it was founded. The incredulous, however, have endeavoured to supply them, and found the opinion of Celsus on what follows:

First. From the testimony of Matthew himself, it is most certain that Joseph was very much dissatisfied with the pregnancy of his wife, in which he had no part. He formed the design of quitting her secretly; a resolution from which he was diverted by an angel, or dream, or perhaps reflection, which always passes among Jews for the effect of an inspiration from on high. It appears, however, that this design of Joseph had transpired, and was afterwards turned into a matter of reproach against Jesus. But Luke, more prudent than Matthew, has not ventured to mention either the ill humor of Joseph, or the good-natured conduct he followed. Neither do we find, though he formed this resolution as to Mary, that this easy man again appeared on the stage from the time Jesus entered on it. We are no where informed of his death, and it is obvious that he never afterwards beheld his putative son with an eye of kindness.—When, at thirty years of age, Jesus and his mother went to the wedding at Cana, there is no mention of Joseph. If we admit with Luke, the history of Jesus's dispute with the doctors in the temple of Jerusalem, we shall find a new proof of the indifference which subsisted between the pretended father and supposed son: they met at the end of three days, and deigned not to interchange a word. Epiphanius (lib. i. 10.) assures us that Joseph was very old at the time of his marriage with the virgin, and adds that he was a widower and father of six children by his first wife.—According to the proto-gospel, the good man had much difficulty in prevailing on himself to espouse Mary, whose age intimidated him; but the high-priest, finding that Joseph was the man most conformable to his own views, succeeded in removing his scruples.[Pg 49]

Secondly. If to these presumptions are joined testimonies more positive, and a high antiquity, which confirm the suspicions entertained concerning the birth of Jesus, we shall obtain proofs that must convince every unprejudiced person. The Emperor Julian, as well as Celsus, who both had carefully examined all the writings existing in their time for and against the Christian religion and its author, represent the mother of Jesus in a very unfavorable light.

In the works of the Jews, he is treated as an illegitimate child; and, almost in our days, Helvidius, a learned Protestant critic, as well as several others, have maintained, not only that Jesus was the fruit of a criminal intercourse, but also that Mary, repudiated by Joseph, had other children by different husbands. Besides, this supposed virgin did not want a reason for forsaking Joseph, and flying into Egypt with her son. A prevailing tradition among the Jews states, that she made this journey to shelter herself from the pursuits of her spouse, who, in spite of the nocturnal visions which had been employed to pacify him, might have delivered her up to the rigor of the laws. We know that the Hebrews did not understand jesting on this subject.

We also find in the Talmud, the name of Panther, surnamed Bar-Panther, whom they reckon in the number of the husbands of the Virgin. From this it would appear, that Mary, repudiated by Joseph, or after her flight, espoused Panther, an Egyptian soldier, her favorite lover, and the real father of Jesus. John Damascene thought to repair the injury which this anecdote might do to Mary's reputation, by saying that the name of Bar-Panther was hereditary in the family of Mary, and consequently in that of Joseph. But, 1st, either Mary was not the kinswoman of Joseph, or she was not the cousin of Elizabeth, who was married to a priest, and therefore of the tribe of Levi.—2dly, we no where find in the Bible the name of Panther among the descendants of David. If this had been an hereditary surname in that family, it would be found somewhere, unless we suppose that[Pg 50] John Damascene learned it by a particular revelation. 3dly, The name of Panther is by no means Hebrew.

It will perhaps be said, that these rumours, so injurious to Jesus and his mother, are calumnies invented by the enemies of the Christian religion. But why decide if the pleas of both parties are not investigated? The imputations are very ancient; they have been advanced against Christianity ever since its origin, and they have never been satisfactorily refuted. In the time of Jesus, we find that his cotemporaries regarded his wonders as the effects of magic, the delusions of the devil, the consequences of the power of Belzebub.—The relations of Jesus were also of that opinion, and regarded him as an imposter—a circumstance stated in the gospel itself, where we shall afterwards find that they wanted to arrest him. On the other hand, Jesus never speaks of his infancy, nor of the time that had preceded his preaching:—he did not wish to recur to circumstances dishonorable to his mother, towards whom, indeed, we shall very soon find him failing in filial respect.

The evangelists, in like manner, pass very slightly over the first years of their hero's life. Matthew makes him return from Egypt on the death of Herod, without mentioning in what year that happened. He thus leaves his commentators in doubt whether Jesus was then two or ten years old. We find that the term of ten years is, through complaisance, invented on account of the dispute between him and the doctors of Jerusalem, which Luke places in his twelfth year. This excepted, Jesus disappeared from the scene not to shew himself again till thirty years of age.

It is difficult to discover what he did until that age. If we credit Luke, he remained at Nazareth. Yet it is clear that he was somewhere else, for the purpose of learning the part which he was afterwards to play. It has been supposed, not without reason, that Jesus passed a considerable part of his life among the contemplative Essenians, or Therapeutes, who were a kind of enthusiastic Jewish monks, living[Pg 51] in the vicinity of Alexandria, in Egypt, where it appears he drew up his severe and monastic doctrine. If he had always resided at Nazareth, the inhabitants of that small town would have known him perfectly. Very far from this;—they were surprised at seeing him when thirty years of age. They only conjectured that they knew him; and asked each other, "Is not this the son of Joseph?"—a question very ridiculous in the mouths of persons who must have been in the constant habit of seeing Jesus in the narrow compass of their town. This does not prevent Justin from telling us, that he became a carpenter in the workshop of his pretended father, and that he wrought at buildings or instruments of husbandry. But such a profession could not long agree with a man in whom we find an ambitious and restless mind. The Gospel of the Infancy informs us, that Jesus, when young, amused himself with forming small birds of clay, which he afterwards animated, and then they flew into the air. The same book says, that he knew more than his schoolmaster, whom he killed for having struck him, because Jesus refused to read the letters of the alphabet. We find also, that Jesus assisted Joseph in his labors, and by a miracle lengthened the pieces of wood, when cut too short or too narrow. All these extravagancies are not more difficult to believe than many other wonders related in the acknowledged gospels.

We shall here quit Luke in order to follow Matthew, who places the baptism of John after the return from Egypt, and makes Jesus forthwith commence his mission. It is at this epoch, perhaps, that we ought to begin the life of Jesus.—Yet, to let nothing be lost to the reader of the evangelical memoirs, we thought it our duty not to pass over in silence the circumstances which have been noticed, as these preliminaries are calculated to throw much light on the person and actions of Jesus. Besides, the interval between his birth and preaching has not been the part of his history least exposed to the darts of criticism. Matthew, as we have seen, to account for his master's absence during the thirty[Pg 52] years, makes him go into Egypt, and return in an unlimited time. Luke, who digested his memoirs after Matthew, perceiving that the abode in Egypt cast a suspicion of magic on the miracles of Jesus, makes him remain in Galilee, going and coming every year to Jerusalem; and making him appear, at the age of twelve, in the capital, in the midst of the doctors, and debating with them. But Mark and John, profiting by the criticism which these different arrangements had experienced, make the messiah drop as it were from the clouds, and put him instantly to labor at the great work of man's salvation.

It is thus that, on combining and comparing the several relations, we are enabled to discover the true system of the Gospels, in which, without adopting any alterations, we shall find materials for composing the life of Jesus by merely reducing the marvellous to its proper value.


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