The dread of being arrested having constrained Jesus to abandon the cities, where he had many enemies, the country became his ordinary residence. The people, or at least some male and female devotees whom he had converted, furnished provisions to the divine man and his followers. Obliged to wander about, bury themselves in mountains and in deserts, and sleep in the open air, our apostles became dis[Pg 101]contented with their lot. In spite of the spiritual graces, which they received in the society of the messiah, these carnal men expected something more substantial on devoting themselves to his service. They were doubtless promised important posts, riches, and power in the kingdom he was about to establish. Jesus on this account frequently experienced as much difficulty in retaining them, as in convincing the rebellious Jews by his miracles and conclusive arguments. The measure of their appetite, and well being, was at this time, the only rule of their faith. To prevent their murmurs, and familiarize them with a frugal life, which our missionary saw he would be obliged, perhaps for a long time, to make them lead, he pronounced an oration on true happiness: it is the one known by the name of the Sermon on the Mount, and related by Matthew, chap v.
According to our orator, true happiness consists in poverty of Spirit; that is, in ignorance, and contempt of knowledge, which bids us exercise our reason, and strips man of the blind submission that is necessary to induce him to submit to a guide. Jesus preached a pious docility, which implicitly credits every thing without examination; and to tell them, that the kingdom of heaven would be the reward of this happy disposition. Such is the sense which the church has given to the words of Jesus, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Among the apostles, there were some whose passionate dispositions might have been prejudicial to the progress of the sect. It may in general be presumed, that rough men, devoid of education, have repulsive manners. Jesus demonstrated the necessity of meekness, civility, and patience, in order to gain proselytes; he recommended moderation and toleration, as the certain means of insinuating themselves into the minds of men, of thriving in the world, and as the surest way of making conquests. This is the true sense of these words, "Happy are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."[Pg 102]
Wishing to inspire them with courage, and console them for their miserable situation, he told them, that to live in tears is felicity, and an infallible method of expiating iniquity. He promised that their vexations should not endure forever; that their tears should be dried up; that their misery should terminate; and that their hunger should be appeased. These consolations and promises, were indispensably necessary to fortify the apostles against every accident which, in the course of their enterprises, might befal them in the retinue of a chief destitute of riches and power, and incapable of procuring to himself or others the comforts of existence.
Jesus, with a view, no doubt, of sweetening the lot of his apostles, recommended compassion to the listening multitude, of which he, as well as his party, stood in the greatest need. It is readily perceived, that the messiah felt the most imperious necessity to preach charity to his auditors; for he lived on alms, and his success depended on the generosity of the public, and the benefactions of the good souls who hearkened to his lessons.
The preacher recommended peace and concord; dispositions necessary to a new born, weak, and persecuted sect; but this necessity ceased when this sect had attained strength enough to dictate the law.
He afterwards fortified his disciples against the persecutions which they were to experience; he addressed their self love—spurring them on by motives of honor: "Ye are (says he) the salt of the earth, the light of the world." He gave them to understand that they were the "successors of the prophets," men so much respected by the Jews: and, to share in whose glory, they ought to expect the same crosses which their illustrious predecessors experienced. He told them to regard hatred, persecution, contempt, and the deprivation of every thing that constitutes the well being and happiness of man, as true felicity, and most worthy of heavenly rewards.
After haranguing his disciples, he addressed himself to[Pg 103] the people. He presented to them a new morality, which, far from being repugnant to that of the Jews, could easily be reconciled with it. Things were not as yet sufficiently matured for abrogating the law of Moses: too great changes alarm mankind. A feeble missionary must at first confine himself to reforming abuses, without seeking to probe to the bottom. Jesus wisely contented himself with showing, that the law was faulty in some particulars, and that he proposed to perfect it. Such is the language, of all reformers.
Jesus expressly declared, that he was not come to destroy, but to fulfil the law: and he affirmed that, in heaven, ranks would be fixed according to the rigorous observance of all its articles. He insinuated, however, to his audience, that neither they, nor their doctors, understood any part of that law which, they believed, they faithfully practised. He undertook, therefore, to explain it; and as all reformers pretend to puritanical austerity, and to a supernatural and more than human perfection, he went beyond the law. The following is the substance of his marvellous instructions:
You have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be punished with death; but I say unto you, that it is necessary to extend this prohibition and punishment even to wrath, seeing it is wrath which urges one on to put his fellow creature to death. You would punish adultery only when it is committed; but I tell you, that desire alone renders one as culpable as fact. You, perhaps, will answer, that man is not the master of his passions and desires, and that he can hardly resist them: I agree with you in this; you have not any power, even on the hairs of your head. The penances, sacrifices, and expiations which your priests impose, are not capable of procuring the remission of your sins; behold, then, the only means of preventing them, or making reparation: has your eye, or any of your members solicited you to commit iniquity? Cut off that member, or pull out that eye, and cast it from you; for it is more expedient that one of your members should pe[Pg 104]rish, than that the whole body be thrown into hell fire. If Moses, inspired by the divinity, had known this hell, destined for your suffering eternal punishment, he would not have failed to menace you with it; but he was ignorant of the dogma of another life; he spoke only of the present, to which he has limited your misfortunes, or your felicity. Had it not been for this, he would not have neglected to acquaint you with a fact so well calculated to inspire you with fear, and render life insupportable.
We are quite surprised at finding, that Moses and the ancient Hebrew writers have no where mentioned the dogma of a future life, which now-a-days forms one of the most important articles of the Christian religion. Solomon speaks of the death of men by comparing it with that of brutes. Some of the prophets, it is true, have spoken of a place called Cheol, which has been translated Hell (Enfer); yet it is evident, that this word implies merely sepulchre or tomb. They have also translated the Hebrew word Topheth into Hell: but on examining the word, we find that it designates a place of punishment near Jerusalem, where malefactors were punished, and their carcases burned. It was after the Babylonish captivity that the Jews knew the dogma of another life, and the resurrection, which they learned of the Persian disciples of Zoroaster. In the time of Jesus, that dogma was not even generally received. The Pharisees admitted it, and the Sadducees rejected it.
You use too freely (proceeded our missionary) the permission of divorce; the least disgust makes you repudiate your wives; but I tell you, that you ought to repudiate them only when you have surprised them in adultery. It is cruel to stone one for this fault; we ought to have respect for the weakness of the sex. Jesus, whose birth was very equivocal, had particular reasons for wishing that adultery should be treated with indulgence. Independently of Mary his mother, from whom Joseph was probably separated, our preacher had in his train dames, whose conduct had not been irre[Pg 105]proachable anterior to their conversion. Besides Mary Magdalene, who was a noted courtesan, Jesus had in his suite Joanna, wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, who, according to the tradition, robbed and forsook her husband to follow the messiah, and assist him with her property. Moreover, the indulgence which he preached must have gained him the hearts of all the ladies in his auditory.
The messiah continued nearly in these terms:—God has of old promised you blessings, prosperity, and glory; but he has changed his intention, and revoked these promises. As you were almost always, and still are the most unhappy, the most foolish, and most despised people on earth, you ought to suspect that these pompous promises were mere allegories. You ought, therefore, to have an abject and mortifying morality, conformable to your genius, your situation, and your misery. If it does not procure you welfare in this world, you should hope that it will render you more happy in the next. Your humiliations are the certain means of attaining one day that glory, which hitherto neither you nor your fathers have ever been able to acquire. When therefore a person shall give you a blow on one cheek, offer him the other. Do not go to law—lawyers will ruin you; and, besides, the poor are always in the wrong when opposed to the rich. Give to whoever asks of you, and refuse nothing you possess; it is by relying on the punctual practice of this important precept, that I send my disciples into the world without money or provisions.
I do not give you any description of paradise—it is sufficient to know that you will he perfectly happy there. But to get there, it is necessary to be more than men—it is necessary to love your enemies; to render good for evil; to preserve no remembrance of cruel outrages; to bless the hand that strikes you; and not to speak one silly word; for one only will precipitate you into hell. Have a pleasant aspect when you fast; but especially live without foresight. Accumulate nothing, lest you excite the wrath of my father.[Pg 106] Think not of to-morrow—live at random, like the birds that never think of sowing, gathering, or accumulating provisions. Detach yourselves from all things below—seek the kingdom of God, which I and my disciples will give you for your charities. This conduct cannot fail to plunge you into misery; but then you shall beg in your turn. God will provide for your wants—ask and it shall be given you. Do not beggars find, agreeably to our divine precepts, wherewith to live at the expense of the simpletons who labor? My disciples and I, are a proof that without toil, one may avoid difficulties, and not perish by hunger? If our manner of living appears not to agree with my language, I charge you not judge my actions, nor condemn your masters and doctors. Do not intermeddle with state affairs;—that care is reserved for me, and those in whom I confide. The master is superior to the disciple—it is to me in particular you ought to listen. If you call me master, it is necessary to do what I desire you. The practice of my morality is difficult, and even impossible to many persons; but the broad and easy way conducts to perdition; and to enter heaven, it is necessary to be as perfect as my heavenly father. I must caution you against my enemies, or those who shall preach a contrary doctrine. Treat them as wolves; they are false prophets—show them no indulgence: for it is not to them that you ought to be humane, tolerant, and pacific.
In the course of his sermon Jesus taught them a short form of prayer, known by the name of the Lord's prayer. Though the Son of God may have shewn himself on this occasion the enemy of long prayers, the Christian church is full of pious sluggards, who, in spite of his decision, believe they cannot perform any thing more agreeable to God, than spending their whole time in mumbling prayers in a very low tone, singing them in a high one, and frequently in a language they do not understand. It appears, that in this, as in many other things, the church has rectified the practice of its divine founder.[Pg 107]
Matthew informs us, that the discourse, of which we have given the substance, transported the people with admiration, for Jesus instructed them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.—The latter, perhaps, spoke in a more simple manner, and consequently less admired by the vulgar, whose wonder is excited in proportion to their inability to comprehend, or practise the precepts given them. Thus the sermon of Jesus had not, at that time, any contradictors. It has however, furnished ample scope for dispute to our casuists and theologians. They have subtlely distinguished between things which were merely of counsel, and those of precept which ought rigorously to be observed. It was soon felt, that the sublime morality of the Son of God did not suit mankind, and its literal observance was destructive to society. It was, therefore, requisite to moderate it, and recur to that marvellous distinction, in order to shelter the honour of the divine legislator, and reconcile his fanatical morality with the wants of the human race.
Moreover, this discourse presents difficulties, which will always appear embarrassing to persons accustomed to reflect on what they read. They find, that it is ridiculous and false to say, a law is accomplished, when it is proposed and permitted to violate it, and add or retrench the most essential points. Since the time of Jesus, why has the Jewish law been completely abrogated by Paul and his adherents, who, as we have seen, ceceded from the Christian partizans of Judaism? Why do Christians entertain at present so much horror at that same Judaism, except indeed when the privileges and pretensions of the clergy are in question—articles on which our Christian priests are very judaical, and which they have prudently borrowed from Leviticus; all to supply the neglect of Jesus, who was not sufficiently attentive either to their temporal interests, divine rights, or sacred hierarchy? By what law do the inquisitors (if Christians) in Portugal and Spain burn those who are accused, or convicted, of hav[Pg 108]ing observed the usages of a law, which Jesus has declared he did not wish to abolish, but to fulfil? By what law have Christians, dispensed with circumcision, and permit them selves to eat pork, bacon, pudding, hare, &c? Why has sunday, or the day of the sun among Pagans been substituted for Sabbath or Saturday?
2dly, It is held unjust to punish in the same manner a man in a passion and a murderer. One may be in a passion and restrain himself, or afterwards repair the injury; but he cannot restore life to a man whom he has deprived of it.
3dly, The restriction of divorce to the single case of adultery is a law very hard, and very prejudicial to the happiness of married persons. This precept compels a man to live with a woman who in other respects may be odious to him. Besides, it is generally difficult to convict a female of adultery; she usually takes precaution to avoid this. Is it not very grievous, and even dangerous to live with a person who occasions continual suspicions?
4thly, It is absurd to make a crime of desire, especially without supposing the liberty of man; but Jesus is not explicit on that important article. On the contrary, from the train of his discourse he appears to recognize the necessity of man, who has no authority over a single hair of his head. Paul, his apostle, declares in many places against the liberty of man, whom he compares with a vessel in the hands of a potter. But if there be no proportion between the workman and his work; if the latter has no right to say to the former, why have you fashioned me thus? if there be no analogy between them, how can they bear any relation to each other? If God is incorporeal, how does he act upon bodies? or how can these bodies disturb his repose, or excite in him emotions of anger? If man is relatively to God as an earthen vase, this vase owes neither thanks nor adoration to the potter who gave him so insignificant a form. If this power is displeased with his own vessel because he formed it badly, or because it is not fit for the uses he intended, the potter, if he is not an[Pg 109] irrational being, can only blame himself for the defects which appear. He no doubt can break it in pieces, and the vase cannot prevent him; but if instead of forming it anew, and giving it a figure more suitable to his designs, he punishes the vase for the bad qualities he has conferred upon it, he would show himself to be completely deprived of reason. This, in fact, is the view which Christianity gives of its God. It represents mankind as having no more relation with the divinity than stones. But if God owes nothing to man; if he is not bound to show him either justice or goodness, man on his part can owe nothing to God. We have no idea of any relation between beings which are not reciprocal. The duties of men amongst themselves are founded on their mutual wants. If God has no occasion for these services, they cannot owe him any thing; neither can they possibly offend him by their actions.
5thly, It is a strange remedy to cut off or pluck out a member every time it is the occasion of sin; it contradicts the precept not to make an attempt on one's life. Origen is blamed by the Christians for having performed an operation, which he no doubt judged necessary for preserving his chastity. It is not through the members, but the inclination, that a person sins: it is therefore absurd to say that one shall escape damnation of the body by depriving himself of a member. What would become of so many ecclesiastical libertines, if to appease the lusts of the flesh, and make reparation for scandal, they should take it into their heads to follow the counsel of Jesus?
6thly, The suppression of a just defence of one's person and rights against an aggressor or unjust litigant, is to overturn the laws of society. It is to open a door to iniquities and crimes, and render useless the exercise of justice. By such maxims a people could not exist ten years. To love our enemies is impossible. We may abstain from retaliating on the person by whom we are injured; but love is an affection which can only be excited in the heart by a friendly object.[Pg 110]
7thly, The counsel or precept, to possess nothing, amass nothing, and think not of the morrow, would be very prejudicial to families:—a father ought to provide a subsistence for his children. These maxims can suit sluggards only, such as priests and monks, who hold labor in horror, and calculate on living at the expense of the public.
8thly, It is now easy to perceive, that the promises made the Jews by the mouth of Moses, inspired by the divinity, have not been verified literally, and are only allegorical. But it was not from the Son of God that the Jews should have learned this fatal truth. Once imposed on, they ought to have dreaded being again deceived by another envoy. Like Jesus, Moses had made promises; like Jesus, Moses had confirmed his promises and mission by miracles; yet these promises have been found deceptive, and merely allegorical. This idea ought to have created presumptions against the promises of Jesus.
9thly, To say, that it is necessary to be poor in spirit, and to say afterwards that to attain heaven it is necessary to be perfect as the heavenly father is perfect, is to make God a stupid being; to afford to atheists a solution for all the evil they perceive in nature; and to assert that to enter paradise one must be a fool. But has man the power of being spiritual or poor in spirit, reasonable or foolish, believing or unbelieving? Is not the holy stupidity of faith a gift which God grants only to whom he will? Is it not unjust to damn people of understanding?
Lastly, In this sermon Jesus recommends to beware of false prophets, and says, that it is by their works we shall know them. Yet, the priests tell us, "we ought to do as they say, without imitating what they do," when we find their conduct opposed to the maxims they preach. Another sign, therefore, than works ought to have been given whereby to recognize false prophets; otherwise the faithful will be redu[Pg 111]ced to believe that the clergy are provided only with lying prophets.
In this manner unbelievers argue; that is all those who have not received from heaven poorness of spirit, so necessary for not perceiving the want of inference, false principles, and numberless inconsistencies, which result from the morality of Jesus. This morality appears a divine chef d'oeuvre to docile Christians illuminated by faith; and it was much admired by those who heard it. We know not, however, if the auditors were so affected by it as to follow it literally. To admire a doctrine, and believe it true and divine, is a thing much more easy than to practice it. Many persons set a higher value on evangelical virtues, which are sublime in theory, than on moral virtues, which reason commands us to practice. It is not then surprising that the supernatural and marvellous morality of Jesus was applauded by those who heard it. It was addressed to paupers, the dregs of the people, and the miserable. An austere stoical morality must please the wretched; it transforms their situation into virtue; it flatters their vanity; makes them proud of their misery; hardens them against the strokes of fortune; and persuades them that they are more valuable than the rich, who maltreat them; and that Deity, which delights in seeing men suffer, prefers the wretched to those who enjoy felicity.
On the other hand, the vulgar imagine that those who can restrain their passions, and deprive themselves of what excites the desires of others, are extraordinary beings, agreeable to God, and endowed with preternatural grace, without which they would be incapable of these exertions. Thus a harsh morality, which seems to proceed from insensibility, pleases the rabble, imposes on the ignorant, and is sufficient to excite the admiration of the simple. It is not even displeasing to persons placed in happier situations, who admire the doctrine, well assured of finding the secret to elude the practice of it by the assistance of their indulgent guides. There is only a small number of fanatics who follow it literally.[Pg 112]
Such were the dispositions which must have induced so many people to receive the instructions of Jesus. His maxims produced a multitude of obstinate martyrs, who, in the hope of opening a road to heaven, set torments and afflictions at defiance. The same maxims produced penitents of every kind, solitaries, anchorites, cenobites, and monks, who, in emulation of each other, rendered themselves illustrious in the eyes of nations by their austerities, voluntary poverty, a total renunciation of the comforts of nature, and a continual struggle against the gentlest and most lawful inclinations. The counsels and precepts of the gospel inundated nations with a vast number of madmen, enemies of themselves, and perfectly useless to others. These wonderful men were admired, respected, and revered as saints by their fellow-citizens, who, themselves deficient in grace or enthusiasm necessary for imitating them, or following faithfully the counsels of the Son of God, had recourse to their intercession, in order to obtain pardon for their sins, and indulgence from the Almighty, whom they supposed irritated at the impossibility in which they found themselves of following literally the precepts of Jesus. In fine, it is easy to perceive that these precepts, rigorously observed, would drag society into total ruin; for society is supported only because that most Christians, admiring the doctrine of the Son of God as divine, dispense with practicing it, and follow the propensity of nature, even at the risk of being damned.
In the gospel, Jesus threatens with eternal punishment those who shall not fulfil his precepts. This frightful doctrine was not contradicted in the assembly; the superstitious love to tremble; those who frighten them most, are the most eagerly listened to. This was undoubtedly the time for establishing firmly the dogma of the spirituality and immortality of the soul. The Son of God ought to have explained to those Jews, but little acquainted with this matter, how a part of man could suffer in hell, whilst another part was rotting in the earth. But our preacher was not acquainted with[Pg 113] any of the dogmas which this church has since taught. He had not clear ideas of spirituality; he spoke of it only in a very obscure manner: "Fear, (said he, in one place,) him who can throw both body and soul into hell"—words which must have appeared unintelligible in a language in which the soul was taken for the blood or animating principle. It was not till a long time after Jesus, and when some Platonists had been initiated in Christianity, that the spirituality and immortality of the soul were converted into dogmas. Before their time, the Jews and Christians had only vague notions on that important subject. We find doctors in the first ages speaking to us of God and the soul as material substances, more subtile indeed than ordinary bodies. It was reserved for latter metaphysicians to give such sublime ideas of mind, that our understandings are bewildered when employed on them.