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



The noise of the miracle at Cana having reached Jerusalem, by means of those who repaired to that city from Galilee, Jesus went there, accompanied by some of his disciples; but of the number of the latter we are ignorant. It[Pg 61] was, as has been mentioned, the time of the passover, and consequently, a moment when almost the whole nation were assembled in the capital. Such an occasion was favorable for working miracles. John accordingly affirms that Jesus performed a great number, without, however, detailing any of them. Several of the witnesses of Jesus' power believed in him, according to our historian; but he did not place much confidence in them. The reason given for this by John, is, "Because he knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man; for he knew what was in man." In short, he knew every thing except the means of giving to those who saw his miracles the dispositions he desired.

But, how reconcile faith in these new converts, in the wonders performed by Jesus, with the bad dispositions they were known to possess? If he knew the state of mind of these witnesses of his miracles, why perform them with certain loss? In this there is a want of just inference in the writer, which must not, however, be imputed to Jesus. It is perhaps better not to refer to John in this matter, than to believe that his sagacious master would perform miracles without design, or for the sole pleasure of working them.

In the same journey to Jerusalem, Jesus performed an exploit which is as great as a miracle, and evinces a powerful arm. According to an ancient usage, merchants had established themselves, especially during the solemn festivals, under the porticos which environed the temple. They furnished victims and offerings to the devout, which they were to present to the Lord, in order to accomplish the ordinances of the law; and, for the accommodation of the Jews who repaired thither from different countries, and for their own interest, the priests had permitted the money changers to fix their stalls in this place. Jesus, who on every occasion shewed himself but little favorable to the clergy, was shocked at this usage, which, far from being criminal, tended to facilitate the accomplishment of the Mosaical law. He made a scourge of ropes, and, displaying a[Pg 62] vigorous arm on those merchants, drove them into the streets, frightened their cattle, and overturned the counters, without their being able to oppose his enterprise. It may be conjectured, that the people had no reason to be displeased with the disturbance, but profited by the money and effects which Jesus overturned in the paroxysm of his zeal. No doubt his disciples did not forget themselves: their master could by this exploit make provision for them, especially if they had been in the secret, and enable them to defray all expenses during their residence in the capital. Besides, they saw in this event the accomplishment of a prophecy of the Psalmist, who foretold, that the Messiah would be "eaten up with the zeal of the house of the Lord"—a prophecy that was clearly verified by the uproar which Jesus had occasioned. It would appear that the brokers had not comprehended the mystic sense of this prediction; at least they did not expect to see it verified at their expense. In their first surprise, they neglected to oppose the unexpected attacks of a man who must have appeared to them a maniac; but, on recovering from their astonishment, they complained to the magistrates of the loss they had sustained. The magistrates, afraid, perhaps, of weakening their authority by punishing a man of whom the people had become the accomplice, or a fanatic whose zeal might be approved by the devotees, did not wish to use rigor for this time; they contented themselves with sending to Jesus to know from himself by what authority he acted—"What sign (said they) shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?" On which Jesus answered, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." But the Jews were not tempted to make the trial;—they took him for a fool, and returned, shrugging their shoulders. If they had taken Jesus at his word, they would have experienced great embarrassment; for the gospel informs us, that it was not of the temple of Jerusalem he spoke, but of his own body. He meant his resurrection, says John, which was to happen three days after his death.[Pg 63] The Jews had not discernment to divine this enigma, and the disciples did not penetrate its true meaning till a long time after, when they pretended their master had risen from the dead. We cannot forbear admiring that Providence, which, wishing to instruct, enlighten, and convert the Jewish people by the mouth of Jesus, employed only figures, allegories, and enigmatical symbols, totally inexplicable by persons the most ingenious and most experienced.

Though Jesus had the power of raising himself from the dead, he did not wish to employ it when in the hands of the Jews, who were ready to arrest and punish him as a disturber of the public repose. He thought it more prudent to decamp without noise, and shelter himself from the pursuit of those whom his brilliant exhibitions might have displeased. He intended to withdraw from Jerusalem during night, when a devout Pharisee, wishing to be instructed, came to see him. He was called Nicodemus, and held the place of senator—a rank which does not always exempt from credulity. "Rabbi, (said he to Jesus,) we know that thou art a teacher sent from God; for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him."

This opportunity was favorable for Jesus to declare himself: by a single word he could have decided on his divinity, and acknowledged, before this senator so kindly disposed, that he was God. Yet he evaded a direct answer; contenting himself with saying to Nicodemus, that nobody can share in the kingdom of God unless he be born again. The astonished proselyte exclaimed, that it was impossible for a man already old to be born again, or enter anew into his mother's womb. On which Jesus replied: "I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." It appears, that Nicodemus was no better satisfied than before. Jesus, to make himself more perspicuous, added, "that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit. Marvel not, that I said unto thee, ye must be born again—The wind blow[Pg 64]eth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, nor whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the spirit."

Notwithstanding the precision and plainness of these instructions, (resembling the reasoning of our theologians,) Nicodemus, whose understanding was doubtless shut up, did not comprehend any part of them. "How (asks he) can these things be?" Here Jesus, pushed to extremity, grew warm:—"Art thou (says he) a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, we speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen, and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven but he that came down from heaven, even the son of man which is in heaven." (John iii. 1-13.)

We thought it our duty to relate this curious dialogue, as a specimen of the logic of Jesus; the more so as it seems to have served as a model for the fashion of reasoning observed by Christian doctors, who are in the use of explaining obscure things by things still more obscure and unintelligible. They terminate all disputes by referring the decision to their own testimony; that is, to the authority or the church or clergy, entrusted by God himself with regulating what the faithful ought to believe.

The rest of the conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus is equally perspicuous, and in the same style:—The former alone speaks, and appears by the dint of his reasons to have silenced the docile senator, who, it seems, retired fully convinced. Thus it is, that faith disposes the elect to yield to the lessons, dogmas, and mysteries of religion even when it is impossible to attach any meaning to the words they hear pronounced.

There is no further mention of Nicodemus—We know not whether he resigned his office of Senator to enrol himself among the disciples of Jesus. Perhaps he was contented[Pg 65] with secretly furnishing necessaries to his adherents, in gratitude for the luminous instructions he had received. He evidently knew how to profit by them, for John makes him return after the death of Jesus, bringing a hundred pounds of aloes and myrrh, for the purpose of embalming his body, and then interring it, with the assistance of Joseph of Arimathea. This proves that he had come from his conversation with Jesus a more able theologist than he had begun it. On this occasion, Jesus must have granted him saving grace, without which it would have been impossible to comprehend any of his sublime dogmas.

According to theology, men have occasion for supernatural grace to do good. This doctrine is injurious to sound morality. Men always wait for the call from above to do good, and those who direct them, never employ the calls from below; that is the natural motives to excite them to virtue. But the clergy cannot give a correct definition of virtue. They say it is an effect of grace that disposes men to do that which is agreeable to the Divinity. But what is grace? How does it act on man? What is it that is agreeable to God? Wherefore doth not God give to all men the grace to do that which is agreeable in his eyes? We are unceasingly told to do good, because God requires it; but no one has been able to teach us what that good is which is acceptable to the Almighty, and by the performance of which we shall obtain his approbation.

It must be acknowledged, that the impossibility of comprehending the doctrine of Jesus furnishes a good reason for denying that it can be divine. It cannot be conceived why a God, sent to instruct men, should never distinctly explain himself. No Pagan oracle employed terms more ambiguous, than the divine missionary chosen by Providence to enlighten nations. In this the Deity appears to have made it his study to create obstacles to his projects, and to have laid a snare not only for the Jews, but for all those who must read the gospel to obtain salvation; a conduct equally unworthy[Pg 66] of a good and just God, endowed with prescience and wisdom; yet by faith we may succeed in reconciling every thing, and readily comprehend why God should speak without wishing to be understood.

As soon as Jesus had quitted Nicodemus, he left Jerusalem, his abode in which had become very dangerous, and wandered through the country of Judea, where he enjoyed greater safety. The uproar he had occasioned in the capital, where so great a multitude were assembled, had not failed to make him known to many; but it was at a distance that he gained the greatest number of partisans. John informs us, in chapter third, that during this period he baptized; thereafter he tells us, in chapter fourth, that he did not baptize, but that his disciples baptized for him.

One thing is certain, that, after this, he quitted Judea to go into Galilee. It was, perhaps, to be more private, or to prevent the schism, which, according to the gospel, was ready to take place between the Jews baptized by John, and those whom Jesus and his disciples had baptized. Jesus conceived that prudence required him to remain at a distance, and to leave the field open to a man who was useful to him, and who contented himself with playing the second part under him. It very soon appeared that Jesus made a greater number of proselytes than his cousin; a circumstance which, in the end, might have created a misunderstanding between them. Jesus therefore directed his march towards Samaria, whither we are to follow him, and thence he passed into Galilee.

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