From the time the Romans subdued Judea, the superstitious inhabitants of that country, impatient to see the arrival of the messiah so often promised to their fathers, seemed inclined to quicken the slowness of the Eternal by the ardor of their desires. This disposition of mind gave birth to impostures, revolts, and disturbances; the authors of which the Roman power punished in such a manner as to discourage their adherents, or quickly to disperse them. Down to the era we are about to speak of, (which the gospel of Luke fixes[Pg 53] at the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius,) none of those who had attempted to pass for the messiah had been able to succeed. To have acted that part well required forces more considerable than those which all Judea could oppose to the conquerors of the world. It was, therefore, necessary to have recourse to craft, and to employ delusions and trick instead of force. For this purpose, it was of importance to be fully acquainted with the disposition of the Jewish nation; to affect a great respect for its laws and usages, for which it entertained the most profound veneration; to profit ingeniously by the predictions with which the were imbued; to move the passions, and warm the imaginations of that fanatical and credulous people. But all this behoved to be silently effected; it was necessary for him who attempted it, to avoid rendering himself suspected by the Romans; it was necessary to be on his guard against the priests, doctors, and persons of education, capable of penetrating and thwarting his designs. It was essential to commence with gaining adherents and co-operators, and thereafter a party among the people, to support him against the grandees of the nation. Policy required that he should shew himself rarely in the capital, to preach in the country, and render odious to the populace, priests who devoured the nation, nobles who oppressed it, and rich people of whom it ought to be naturally jealous. Not to alarm too much, prudence demanded that he should speak in ambiguous language and in parables. Neither could he dispense with working miracles, which, much more than all the harangues in the world, were calculated to seduce ignorant devotees, disposed to see the finger of God in every act the true cause of which they were unable to comprehend.
Such was the conduct of the personage whose life we examine. Whether we suppose that he had been in Egypt for the purpose of acquiring the talents necessary to his views, or that he had always resided at Nazareth, Jesus was not ignorant of the dispositions of his countrymen. As he knew[Pg 54] how much predictions were requisite to work on the minds of the Jews, he made choice of a prophet and a forerunner in the person of his cousin John Baptist. The latter, evidently in concert with Jesus, preached repentance, baptized on the banks of Jordan, and announced the coming of a personage greater than himself. He said to those who gave ear to him, "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire." Jesus accordingly repaired to John on purpose to arrange matters with him, and to receive baptism from his hands. According to the report of Matthew, John, at first, evinced some difficulty; affirming, that, so far from being worthy to baptize Jesus, it was from him that he himself ought to receive baptism. At last, however, he yielded to the orders of Jesus, and administered to him the sacrament of which the innocent son of God could not stand in need.
In this interview, the two kinsmen evidently settled their plans, and took the necessary measures for insuring success. They both had ambition, and shared the mission between them. John yielded the first character to Jesus, whom he judged better qualified to play it with success, and contented himself with being his precursor, preaching in the desert, beating up for followers, and preparing the ways for him—all in consequence of a prophecy of Isaiah, who had said, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God"—an obscure and vague prediction, in which, however, Christians believe they see clearly designated the messiah and his holy precursor.
The arrangements being once settled by our two missionaries, John took care to tell those who came to hear him, that, to pacify Heaven, it was time to repent; that the arrival of the messiah was not far off; and that he had seen him. The sermons of John having made considerable noise, the priests of Jerusalem, vigilant as to what might interest religion, and[Pg 55] wishing to be informed of his views, dispatched emissaries after him. These men asked if he was the Christ, or Elias, or a prophet. John answered, that he was neither of these. But when he was questioned by what authority he baptized and preached, he declared, that he was the forerunner of the messiah. This proceeding of the priests only tended to give greater weight to John's assertions, and naturally excited the curiosity of the people assembled to hear him. The next day they went in a crowd to the place where the preacher baptized, when, profiting skilfully by the circumstance, and perceiving Jesus approaching, he exclaimed, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, after me cometh a man who is preferred before me."
The author of the gospel ascribed to John, perceiving that it was important to remove the suspicion of collusion between Jesus and his forerunner, makes the Baptist declare twice, that he knew him not before baptizing him: but that it had been revealed to him by the Deity, that the person on whom he should see the Holy Spirit descending during his baptism, was the son of God. Whence we see that, according to this evangelist, John did not know Jesus, who was, however, his kinsman, according to Luke.
John was much esteemed by the people, whom an austere and extraordinary life is always certain of seducing.—They did not suspect that a missionary so detached from the things of this world, could ever deceive them. They believed on his word, that the Holy Spirit, under the form of a dove, had descended on Jesus, and that he was the Christ or messiah promised by the prophets. On another occasion we shall also find John affecting not to know his cousin Jesus: he deputed some of his disciples to learn who he was? Jesus replied, that they had only to relate to John the miracles he performed, and by that sign their mas[Pg 56]ter would recognize him. We shall afterwards speak of this embassy.
Jesus had associated with him a confident, then called Simon, and afterwards Cephas or Peter, who had been the disciple of John. Scarcely had Simon taken his arrangements with the messiah, when he drew over his brother Andrew to the new sect. These two brothers were fishermen. We readily presume that Jesus would not choose his followers among the grandees of the country.
The progress of John Baptist, and the attachment of the people to him, alarmed the priests; they complained loudly, and John was arrested by order of the tetrarch Herod, who, according to Matthew, caused him to be beheaded to please Herodias his sister-in-law. Yet we do not find the historians of this prince reproaching him with the punishment of the forerunner. After John's death, his disciples attached themselves to Jesus, whose coming John had announced, and who, in his turn, had rendered in behalf of John the most public testimonies in presence of the people: for Jesus had openly declared, that John was "greater than a prophet, and greater than an angel, and that he was not born of woman who was greater than him." Nevertheless, the messiah, dreading to be involved in the affair of his forerunner, left his two disciples at Jerusalem, and withdrew into the desert, where he continued forty days. It has been remarked, that during the imprisonment of John, Jesus did not think of delivering him; he performed no miracle in his behalf; after his death he spoke but little of him, and forebore pronouncing his eulogy. He was no longer in need of him, and, perhaps, he wished by this conduct to teach those who serve the views of the ambitious in a subordinate capacity, that they ought not to reckon too much on gratitude.
It would have been a bad exordium to assign fear as the motive of the messiah's retreat. We are told that he was carried up by the Spirit, which transported him to the desert. It was necessary that Jesus should surpass his forerunner.[Pg 57] The latter had led a very austere life, his only nourishment being locust and wild honey; but the gospel affirms, that Jesus ate nothing at all during his retreat, and that on the last day, having felt himself hungry, angels came and ministered to him. The fasting of Jesus for forty days, is considered by his followers as a proof of his divinity. But this abstinence falls far short of that practised by a Talapoin at Siam, who, according to La Loubere, "lived satisfactorily without food for one hundred and seven days!"
To evince the importance of his mission, the prejudice which it was to occasion to the empire of the devil, and the infinite advantages which were to result from it to his followers, Jesus, on his return from the desert, pretended that Satan had tempted him; made the most flattering offers to engage him to desist from his enterprise; and proffered him the monarchy of the universe, if he would renounce his project of redeeming the human race. The refusal he gave to these propositions, evinced a supernatural desire to labor for the salvation of the world. Such as heard these details must have been filled with astonishment, penetrated with gratitude, and burning with zeal for the preacher. Of consequence, the number of his adherents increased.
John the Evangelist, or the person who has written, under his name, whose object appears to have been to establish the divinity of Jesus, has not mentioned his carrying away, abode in the desert, and temptation. These transactions must have been considered by him prejudicial to the doctrine he wished to introduce. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, relate the carrying away, and the temptations in a different manner, but calculated to show the power of Satan over the messiah. He transported him, no doubt in spite of himself, to the pinnacle of the temple; and by a miracle, made Jesus contemplate, from the summit of a mountain, all the kingdoms of the universe, without even excepting those whose inhabitants were antipodes of Judea. According to the gospels, the devil worked marvels, which far surpassed those of Jesus.[Pg 58]
The absence of Jesus made him lose for a time, his two disciples Peter and Andrew. The necessity of providing for their subsistence, constrained them to resume their former trade. As their master durst not then reside in Jerusalem, he retired towards the banks of the sea of Galilee, where they joined him. "Follow me, (said he to them,) leave your nets; of catchers of fish I will make you fishers of men." He, probably, made them understand, that the arrangements he had made during his retirement, furnished him with the means of subsisting, without toil, by the credulity of the vulgar. The two brothers immediately followed him.
Whether Jesus had been expelled from Nazareth by his fellow citizens, or quitted it of his own accord, he fixed his residence at Capernaum, a maritime city, on the confines of the tribes of Zabulon and Naphtali. His mother, a widow, or separated from her husband, followed him: she could be useful to Jesus and the little troop of adherents who lived with him.
It was at this time that our hero, seconded by his disciples, opened his mission. His sermon, like that of the Baptist, consisted in saying, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. John, we have seen, commenced preaching in the fifteenth year of Tiberius. It was in the same year that his interview with Jesus took place, when he was baptized by John. Towards the end of this year John disappeared: after which Jesus was in the desert, whence he returned to reside with his mother in the city of Capernaum. There he remained a short time only on account of the approach of the festival of the passover, to celebrate which he repaired to Jerusalem. We may, therefore, fix the commencement of his preaching in the sixteenth year of Tiberius. He celebrated the passover three times before his death; and the common opinion is, that his preaching lasted three years, or until the nineteenth year of Tiberius.
The rumours excited by the baptism and preaching of[Pg 59] John, and the testimonies he bore in behalf of Jesus, having died away on the imprisonment and death of the forerunner, and flight of the messiah, the latter resumed courage, and thought that, with the assistance of his disciples, he ought to make a new attempt. Too well known at Nazareth, and slighted by his relations, who, on all occasions, seemed to think but little of him, he quitted that ungrateful city to establish himself, as we have remarked, at Capernaum, in the sixteenth year of Tiberius. It was there that he commenced preaching his new system to some poor fishermen, and other low people. He soon found, however, that his mission was too circumscribed in that place: but to acquire some eclat, he judged it necessary to perform a miracle; that is, in the language of the Jews, some trick capable of exciting the wonder of the vulgar. An opportunity occurred for this: some inhabitants of Cana, a small village Of Galilee Superior, at the distance of about fifteen leagues from Capernaum, invited Jesus and his mother to a wedding. The married persons were poor, though John, who alone relates this story, gives them a steward; yet he tells us that their wine failed at the moment the guests were half intoxicated, or gay. On this Mary, who knew the power or the dexterity of her son, said to him: They have no wine. Jesus answered her very roughly, and in a manner which evidently denoted a man warmed with wine: Woman, what have I to do with thee? It may, however, be supposed, that Jesus had not totally lost the use of his reason, as he still possessed presence of mind to transmute water into wine, so that the miraculous wine was found better than the natural wine they had drank at the beginning.
This first miracle of Jesus was performed in presence of a great number of persons, already half intoxicated; but the text does not inform us, whether they were equally astonished the day following, when the fumes of the wine were dissipated. Perhaps this miracle was witnessed by the steward only, with whom Jesus had secret intelligence. The incredu[Pg 60]lous, less easily persuaded than the poor inebriated villagers, do not observe in this transmutation of water into wine, a motive for being convinced of the divine power of Jesus. They remark, that in the operation, he employed water in order to make his wine; a circumstance which may give room to suspect, that he made only a composition, of which be, like many others, might have the secret. There was in fact, no more power necessary to create wine, and fill the pitchers without putting water into them, than to make an actual transmutation or water into wine. At least, by acting in this manner, he would have removed the suspicion of having made only a mixture.
In whatever manner the miracle was performed, it appears to have made some impression on those who saw it, or who heard it related. It is certain Jesus profited by it to extend his mission even to the capital of Judea; only giving time for his miracle to spread, in order to produce its effect. In expectation of this, he withdrew with his mother, brothers, and disciples, to Capernaum, where he remained till the festival of the passover (the time of which was near) should collect at Jerusalem a multitude of people, before whom he flattered himself with being able to operate a great number of marvels.