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



Landed again in the country of the Gerasenes, Jesus took a route by which no person had for some time passed. Two demoniacs, inhabiting the tombs in the neighborhood, rendered this passage dangerous. Scarcely had Jesus shown himself, when these madmen ran to meet him. As he was a connoisseur in matters of possession, he no sooner perceived them than he began to exorcise, to make the unclean spirits come out of them. Notwithstanding his divine skill, he acquitted himself very imperfectly on this occasion. It was not with one devil, but with a legion of devils he had to deal. One of them, amused at the mistake of the son of God who asked him his name, answered, I am called Legion. On this Jesus changed his batteries, and was proceeding to dislodge them, when the devils, obstinate in continuing in the country, or very little desirous of returning to hell, proposed a capitulation. One of the articles stipulated, that on leaving the body of the possessed, they should enter into a herd of swine, which fed close by on the declivity of a hill. Jesus readily agreed, for once, to grant something on the prayer of the devils, and not to use his authority rigorously. Neither he nor his disciples, as good Jews, ate pork: he supposed, therefore, that swine, prohibited by the law, might well serve for a retreat to devils. He consented to the treaty; the demons came out of their former residence to enter into the swine, who, feeling Satan within them, were thrown into commotion, or, perhaps, were terrified—a very natural thing; and having precipitated themselves into the sea, were drowned to the number of about two thousand. If[Pg 79] a legion of devils is composed of the same number as a Roman legion, we must believe that there were six thousand devils. This evidently makes three devils for each hog, a sufficient number to induce them to commit suicide.

Some grave authors assure us, that Jesus never laughed, nor even smiled; yet it is very difficult to believe, that the "son of God" could preserve his gravity after performing such a trick. But it did not appear so humorous to the herdsmen, who found this fine miracle so little pleasant that they complained of it to their employers, and ran to the city; where the affair was no sooner known than the proprietors of the swine, far from being converted, bewailed a prodigy so ruinous to them, and maintained that it was a matter of public concern. The Gerasenes went in a body to oppose the entry of Jesus into their city, and, from inability to punish, besought him to leave their territory as soon as possible. Such was the effect which the miracle of sending devils into the swine produced.

This memorable transaction must be true, for it is attested by three evangelists, who, however, vary in some circumstances. Matthew informs us, that the possessed were two in number; Mark and Luke maintain that there was only one; but so furious, according to Mark, that they could not bind him even with fetters. Luke is certain that the devil frequently carried him into the deserts; Mark affirms that he spent his days and nights in the tombs, and on the neighboring mountains. On this occasion Jesus was also proclaimed Christ by the devil. As he was among his friends, or disciples, he did not enjoin silence to Satan. The acknowledgement was useful when given in private, and could not hurt him; but there were occasions on which it might do harm if made in public. It was necessary, therefore, our puissant miracle-worker should be circumspect, especially when he did not perceive himself sufficiently supported.

Unbelievers discover important errors, and evident marks of falsehood in the narrative, which also appears ridiculous,[Pg 80] 1st, They are surprised to see devils, who, according to Christians, are condemned to eternal torments in hell, leaving it to take possession of the inhabitants of this earth. 2dly, They are astonished at seeing the devils address prayers to the son of God. It is an article of Christian faith, that to pray, grace is requisite; that the damned cannot pray; and much more, that this grace must be denied to the chief of the damned. 3dly, The incredulous are offended at a miracle by which Jesus benefitted two persons possessed with devils, at the expense of the proprietors of two thousand swine, to whom this miracle cost at least eighteen thousand dollars;—a transaction not quite agreeable to the rules of equity. 4thly, It cannot be conceived how Jews, whom their law inspired with horror towards swine, could have herds of these animals among them, and which they could not even touch without being defiled; and, 5thly, It is indecorous to make the "son of God" enter into a compromise with devils; ridiculous to make them enter into swine; and unjust to make them enter into and destroy other people's property.

We are not informed what became of these devils after being precipitated into the sea. It is not unreasonable to believe, that, in coming out of the swine, they entered into the Jews, to procure the saviour the pleasure of casting them out again; for the curing of people possessed was, of all miracles, that in which he was most expert.

The possessed person cured by Jesus, penetrated with gratitude to his physician, with whom he was perhaps previously acquainted, wanted to follow Jesus, according to Mark; but it was foreseen that his testimony might become suspicious if he put himself in the train of the messiah, who, therefore, chose rather that he should repair to his family, and announce the mercies he had received from the Lord. He was a native of Decapolis, a country, as we have seen, very much disposed to credulity. Accordingly, as soon as the man had there recounted this adventure, every body was[Pg 81] transported with admiration. We are, however, astonished at the difference between these folks, so remarkable for a docile faith, and the Gerasenes:—the inhabitants of Decapolis believe all without seeing any thing, whilst the Gerasenes, eye witnesses of the prodigy, are not moved by it, and uncivilly refuse Jesus admittance into their city. We commonly find in the gospel, that to witness a miracle is a very strong reason for not believing it.

The hardness of heart and unbelief of the Gerasenes, and particularly the request they made to the messiah not to come among them, obliged him to re-embark with his disciples and return to Galilee, where he was very kindly received. It is not, however, related whether he preached and performed miracles; even the time he continued there is not accurately known.—The friends of Jesus, and the relations of his disciples and mother, received, it appears, from time to time, intelligence of his wonders, which they took care to circulate; and, on learning that they wanted him, he returned to Capernaum. Scarcely was his arrival known, when the people, always fond of sermons and miracles, resorted to him in crowds. Neither his house nor the space before the door could contain the multitude; he required the voice of a Stentor to make himself heard at the extremities of the crowd; but the idlers, content with following him without knowing why, were very little troubled about understanding his orations.

The Pharisees, to whom Jesus' success began to give umbrage, resolved to satisfy themselves, if there was any reality in what was reported of him. Some doctors of Gallilee, who were not of the number of our missionary's admirers, repaired to him. They heard him preach, and came from his sermons more possessed against him: even his miracles could not convert them, though, according to Luke, the power of the Lord was displayed in their presence in the cure of the sick. But, as has been remarked, the miracles of the messiah were calculated to convince those only who did not[Pg 82] see them. Thus it is, that these miracles are believed at present by people who would not credit those performed in their presence.

Four men who carried a paralytic on his bed, unable to penetrate through the crowd, were advised to ascend with the burden to the roof of the house, and, making an opening there, to let down the sick man in his bed, and lay him at the physician's feet. The idea appeared ingenious and new to the latter, and indicated first rate faith; accordingly, addressing the sick man, he said, "My son, be of good courage, thy sins are forgiven thee." This absolution or remission, was pronounced so as to be heard by the emissary doctors, who were highly offended at it. Jesus, divining their dispositions, addressed his discourse to them—"Why do you suffer wicked thoughts to enter into your hearts? which is easier to say to this paralytic, thy sins are forgiven thee; or to say to him, Arise, take up thy bed and walk." This question, boldly proposed in the midst of a fanatical people, the sport of prejudice, embarrassed the doctors, who did not think proper to reply. Jesus, profiting by their embarrassment, said to the paralytic, Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thine house. This prodigy impressed their minds with terror: it especially made our doctors, the spies, tremble, while the people exclaimed, "Never have we seen before anything so wonderful." But if the doctors were afraid, they were not converted; and notwithstanding the cure of the paralytic, they had no faith in the absolution granted by Jesus. It may, therefore, be supposed, that this miracle was attended with circumstances which rendered it suspicious: perhaps the gospel will enable us to discover them.

When the same fact is differently related by different historians equal in authority, we are constrained to doubt it; or, at least, are entitled to deny that it happened in the manner supposed. This principle of criticism must apply to the narratives of the gospel writers, as well as to those of others. Now, Matthew merely tells us, that a paralytic was present[Pg 83]ed to Jesus, who cured him, without relating the wonderful circumstance of the roof being perforated, and the other ornaments with which Mark and Luke embellished their narratives. Thus, either we are in the right in suspending our belief as to this fact, or we may believe that it has not occurred in the manner related by the two last evangelists. Again, Mark and Luke, who say that the sick man was elevated on his bed to the top of the house, having previously informed us the crowd was so great that the bearers of the diseased were unable to force their way, suppose, without expressing it in words, another very great miracle. They make the carriers penetrate through the crowd. Arrived, we know not how, at the foot of the wall, they could not singly, and far less loaded with the sick man, climb up to the roof of the house. Luke says they made an opening through it. In that case the people must have perceived them, particularly, those in the inside of the house. During the silent attention they gave to the discourse of Jesus, they must have heard the noise made by the men in raising up a bed to the roof, and afterwards uncovering, or making a hole in it, through which to convey the sick man. This operation became more difficult if the roof, instead of being covered with tiles, was flat. Now, all the houses of the Jews and orientals were, and still are, constructed in this manner. These difficulties furnish sufficient motives for doubting this grand miracle. But it will become more probable, if we suppose that the sick man was already in the house with Jesus; or that things being previously arranged, they let down by a trap-door made on purpose, a paralytic most certain of being cured on command of the messiah. This transaction might appear marvellous to a populace disposed to see prodigies every where; but it made less impression on the doctors, who had come purposely to scrutinize the conduct of our adventurer. They conjectured, that it was dangerous to contradict weak fanatics, though they did not credit the miracle they had witnessed.[Pg 84]

Some days thereafter Jesus preached along the sea coast, and passing near the custom-house, perceived Matthew, one of the officers, who sat there. His mien pleased the messiah, on whose invitation the subaltern financier quitted his post, and followed him, after having given a great entertainment to Jesus and his party. Matthew introduced his new master to publicans, and toll collectors, his brethren in trade, and others of similar repute. The Pharisees and doctors, who watched our missionary, came to Matthew's house to be assured of the fact. Jesus, occupied with gratifying his appetite, did not at first observe that he was watched. Some words, however, spoken rather loudly, attracted his attention: it was the doctors who reproached the disciples with eating and drinking with persons of doubtful reputation. "How," probably said they to them, "how dares your master, who constantly preaches up virtue, sobriety, and repentance, show himself publicly in such bad company? How can he associate with knaves, monopolizers, and men whom their extortions render odious to the nation? Why does he have in his train women of bad lives, such as Susan and Jane, who accompany him continually?" The disciples, attacked in this manner, knew not how to reply; but Jesus, without being disconcerted, answered with a proverb:—"It is not the whole," said he, "but the sick who have need of a physician." After this he cited a passage of scripture, which cannot now be found—"Learn," said he, "the truth of this saying, I love mercy better than sacrifice." It appears the doctors did not consider themselves defeated, and Jesus was so transported with zeal as to say, that he "came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." In that case, why did he reject the Pharisees and doctors, whom he called whitened sepulchres? If the adversaries of Jesus were not righteous, they were sinners, whom he was come to call to repentance; consequently he ought not to have renounced them.

Whatever reason Jesus might have to palliate or justify[Pg 85] his conduct, it was very soon published abroad. John Baptist's disciples who heard it, and whom, perhaps, jealously excited, came in search of him, and asked the reason of the difference in the life he and his disciples led, and that which they themselves followed. We fast, (said they) continually, whilst you and your followers enjoy good cheer. We practise austerities, and live in retirement, whilst you run about and frequently keep company with persons of evil repute, &c. The reproach was embarrassing, but Jesus contrived to evade it. "The friends of the bridegroom, (replied he,) ought neither to fast, nor live in sorrow whilst they have the bridegroom with them; a time will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them; and then they shall fast. No man putteth a piece of new cloth on an old garment—neither do men put new wine into old bottles: and no person asks for new wine when he can get old, for he finds the old better." John's disciples had no reply to reasons so sublime and convincing. The enigmatical symbol, or pompous bombast, by which Jesus got out of this affair, is closely imitated by our modern preachers, who find it very proper argument to shut the mouths of those who are not inclined to dispute eternally about what they do not understand.

This incident demonstrates, that the Pharisees and doctors were not the only persons who were offended with Jesus, and the company he kept. In the epistles, ascribed to Barnabas, that apostle says expressly, that the "apostles, whom the Lord chose, were very wicked men, and above all sinners iniquitous." The fact is also confirmed in Matthew ix., Mark ii. and Luke v. This evidently decides the cause in favour of the partizans of lax morality, and furnishes them with victorious arms against the modern puritans. We may also remark, that the actions and expressions of Jesus on this occasion, authorise the conduct and language of our holy guides, our lords the bishops, who when reproached[Pg 86] with their iniquitous behaviour, shut our mouths by averring, that we ought to do as they tell us, and not what they do!

It cannot be denied, that the discrepancy which existed between the conduct of Jesus and the principles of the Jews, or even in his own doctrine, required extraordinary miracles to prove his mission. He was not ignorant of this; prodigies, therefore, were commonly the strongest of his arguments; these were well calculated to gain the vulgar, who never value themselves on reasoning, but are ready to applaud the man who exhibits wonders, and acquires the secret of pleasing their fancy.

After Jesus had silenced John's disciples, the chief of a synagogue waited on him, and besought him to come and lay hands on his daughter, twelve years old, who was dead, according to Matthew, but who was only very sick, according to Mark and Luke; a difference which seems to merit some attention. Jesus complied with the invitation; and whilst proceeding to the house overheated himself so much that a virtue went out of him sufficient to cure all who were in its atmosphere. We shall not form conjectures on the nature of this virtue or divine transpiration. We shall only remark, that it was so potent as instantaneously to cure a woman afflicted for twelve years with an issue of blood; a disease which, probably, the spectators had not better verified than its cure. On this occasion, Jesus perceiving that there had gone out of him a considerable portion of virtue, turned towards the afflicted female, whom his disciples had rudely pushed back, and seeing her prostrate at his feet, "Daughter, (said he) be of good cheer, thy faith hath made thee whole." The poor woman, whom the disciples had intimidated, charmed with being relieved from her fright in so easy a manner, confessed openly she was cured.

When our miracle performer was arrived at the house of Jairus, the chief of the synagogue, it was announced to the latter that his daughter had expired, and that the house was full of minstrels, who were performing a dirge or mournful [Pg 87]concert according to the custom of the country. Jesus, who on the way had got the father of the girl to prattle, was not disconcerted at the news. He began with making every body retire, and then by virtue of some words raised her from the dead.

In historical matters we must prefer two writers who agree, to a third who contradicts them. Luke and Mark affirm that the damsel was dead; but here unfortunately it is the hero himself who weakens his victory. On their saying that she was dead, he affirmed that she was only asleep. There are girls who at twelve years of age are subject to such swoons. On the other hand, the father of the damsel appears to have acquainted the physician with the condition of his child; and he, more in the secret than others, did not believe the intelligence of her death. He entered alone into her chamber, well assured of her recovery if she was only in a swoon: if he had found her dead, there is every reason to believe, he would have returned, and told the father that he had been called too late, and regreted the accident.

Jesus did not wish that this miracle should be published; he forbade the father and mother of the damsel to tell what had happened. Our charlatan was not solicitous to divulge an affair which might increase the indignation of the Jews of Jerusalem, whither he was soon to repair to celebrate the passover. The account of this miracle seems to evince that the Son of God had acquired some smattering of medicine in Egypt. It appears that he was versant in the spasmodic diseases of women; and no more was wanting to induce the vulgar to regard him as a sorcerer, or performer of miracles.

Once in the way of performing wonders, Jesus did not rest satisfied with one merely. According to Matthew, (who alone relates the facts we are now to notice,) two blind men who followed him began to exclaim, Son of David, have mercy on us. Though Jesus, in his quality of God, knew the most secret thoughts of men, he chose to be viva voce assured of the disposition of the sick with whom he had in[Pg 88]tercourse. He asked, if they had much faith, or if they sincerely believed that he was able to do what they requested of him. Our blind folks answered in the affirmative; then touching their eyes, "Be it unto you," said he, "according to your faith," and instantly they received their sight.

We know not how to reconcile such lively faith in two blind men, with their disobedience. Their physician, who might have good reasons for not being known, expressly forbade them to speak of their cure; they, however, spread it instantly through the country. The silence of those who were witnesses of this great miracle, is not more astonishing than the indiscretion of the blind men who were the objects of it. A fact still more miraculous is the obduracy of the Jews, who were so stubborn, that the many wonders performed one after another and on the same day, were not able to convince them. Jesus, far from being discouraged, determined still to exhibit specimens of his power. A dumb man, possessed with a devil, being presented to him, he expelled the demon and the dumb began to speak. At sight of this miracle, the people, as usual, were in extasy, whilst the pharisees and doctors, who had also exorcists among them, saw nothing surprising in it: they pretended that their exorcists performed their conjurations in the name of God, whilst Jesus operated in the name of the devil. Thus they accused Jesus of casting out the devil by the devil, which was indeed a contradiction. But this did not prove the divinity of Jesus; it proved only that the Pharisees were capable of talking nonsense and contradicting themselves, like all superstitious and credulous people. When theologists dispute, we soon discover that the wranglers on both sides speak nonsense; and, by contradicting themselves, impugn their own authority.[Pg 89]

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