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

CHAPTER XII.

MISSION OF THE APOSTLES.—THE INSTRUCTIONS JESUS GAVE THEM.—MIRACLES WROUGHT UNTIL THE END OF THE SECOND YEAR OF HIS OWN MISSION.

Dissatisfied with his expedition to Nazareth, Jesus went to Upper Gallilee, which had already been the theatre of his wonders. He found the disposition of the inhabitants of that country better adapted to his purpose. He perceived, however, that the necessity they were under of suspending their labor to come and hear him, kept a great number at home. This consideration obliged him to disperse his apostles by two and two in the province. It is probable he resolved on this dispersion because he found his own sermons and prodigies did not gain many proselytes. The continual enterprizes of his enemies made him feel the necessity of increasing his party.

It appears that Jesus had already sent several of his disciples on missions, retaining near himself his twelve apostles only. It may, however, be presumed, that these preachers were as yet mere novices, as their labors were unsuccessful, the devils obstinately resisting their exorcisms. Yet this want of success was owing solely to the weakness of their faith, and would seem to throw a shade on the foresight and penetration of their divine master. Why did he send missionaries whose dispositions were not sufficiently known to him? Besides, it belonged to him alone to bestow on them a necessary stock of faith for their journey.[Pg 124]

Whatever opinion way be formed of this, those of the apostles, who never quitted their master, who saw him continually operating, who enjoyed his confidence, and had faith from the first hand—were better qualified than the others to labor to the satisfaction of the public. Fully resolved to make a desperate effort, Jesus renewed all their powers, and gave them his instructions, of which the following is the substance: "Every thing being well considered, do not go among the Gentiles, for our Jews will charge it as a crime against you, and as a reproach against me. It is true, I have already threatened to renounce them, but it is still necessary to make one attempt more; you will therefore preach to the Jews only. Repentance supposes sobriety and few wants; hence the inutility of riches. I have no money to give you, but strive to pick up for yourselves what you can. Providence will provide for you; if he takes care of the sparrows, he will take care of you. Moreover expect to be ill received, reviled, and persecuted; but be of good courage; all is for the best. Silence is no longer requisite; preach openly and on the house tops what I have spoken to you in secret. Inform the world that I am the messiah, the son of David and the Son of God. We have no longer to observe discretion; we must either conquer or die; away then with pusillanimity.

"Though I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves, explain to the good people that you are under the safeguard of the Most High, who will take a terrible revenge for the outrages offered you, and liberally reward those who welcome you. You do not require to concert measures for supplying your wants; it belongs to those whose souls you are going to save to provide you in necessaries for the body. Carry not therefore either gold, or silver, or provision, or two suits of raiment; take a good cudgel, and depart in the name of the Lord.

"Take care in your way always to preach that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Speak of the end of the world:[Pg 125] this will intimidate women and poltroons. On entering cities and villages, inform yourself of such credulous people as are very charitable and prepossessed in our favor. You will salute them civilly; saying Peace be to this house. But the peace you bring must be allegorical; for my doctrine is calculated to create trouble, discord, and division every where. Whoever would follow me, must abandon father, mother, kinsmen, and family; we want only fanatics and enthusiasts, who attaching themselves wholly to us, trample every human consideration under foot. I came not to send peace, but a sword. As a like conduct might embroil you with your hosts, you will change your abode from time to time. Do not rely on the power I have of raising the dead the safest way for you is not to risk your being killed; shun therefore places where you may be menaced with persecution. Abandon disobedient cities and houses, shaking the dust from off your feet. Tell them, that they have incurred the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah. Declare, in my name, that the divine vengeance is ready to make them sensible of their guilt, and that the inhabitants of these cities will be less rigorously punished than those who shall have the audacity to resist your lessons. The great and last day is at hand. I assure you that you will not have finished your tour through all the cities of Israel before the son of man shall arrive."

Such is the sense and spirit of the instructions which Jesus gave to his apostles. In charging them to divulge his secret, he gave them a commission, which, notwithstanding his omnipotence, he himself dared not execute. But it was a grand policy to have instruments to act without exposing himself to personal injury.

These trifles, however, scarcely merit notice:—We are more surprised to find the Son of God proclaiming peace and charity, and at the same time asserting that he brings war and hatred. It is without doubt a God only who can reconcile these contradictions. It is besides unquestionable, that[Pg 126] the apostles, and especially their successors in the sacred ministry have, in preaching their gospel, brought on the world troubles and divisions unknown in all other preceding religions. The incredulous, who by the way refer to the history of the church, find, that the glad tidings which a God came on purpose to announce, have plunged the human race into tears and blood.

It is obvious from this language, that Jesus charged people of property with the maintenance of his apostles. Their successors have taken sufficient advantage of this, and through it assumed an authority to exercise the most cruel extortions on impoverished nations. Would not the Almighty have rendered his apostles more respectable by rendering them incapable of suffering, and exempting them from the wants of nature? This would have given more weight to their sublime sermons and those of their infallible successors.

Critics maintain also, that it was false to say eighteen hundred years ago that the end of the world was near, and still more false to affirm that the great Judge would arrive before the apostles could make the tour of the cities of Israel. It is true, theologists understand that the end of the world shall happen when all the Jewish cities, that is, when all the Jews shall be converted. Time will demonstrate whether it be in that sense we ought to understand the words of Jesus: meanwhile the world still remains, and does not appear to threaten speedy ruin.

It is probable that, besides these public instructions, Jesus gave more particular ones to his apostles. They departed in the hope of charities which they were to receive from Jews, of whom the greatest number were already in a state of reprobation. Jesus altered his orders in part; he reserved for himself the cities, and left the villages to his apostles. Accordingly they went here and there, calling out, Hearken to the glad tidings; the world is near its end. Repent therefore, pray, fast, and give us money and provisions, for having [Pg 127]acquainted you with this interesting secret. We are assured that they cured several diseases by the application of a certain oil. They had doubtless done more excellent things, but the paraclete (the comforter) was not yet come: maugre the instructions of the Son of God, the understandings of the apostles were not yet sufficiently brightened; for we do not find that the missionaries, with their balsam and fine speeches, made any converts. The incredulous are still much surprised to find in the instructions of Jesus to his apostles, an explicit order to labor only for the conversion of the Jews, and an express prohibition against preaching to the Gentiles. They maintain, that a righteous God could make no distinction of persons; that the common father of mankind must show an equal love to all his children: that it cost no more to the Almighty to convert and save all nations; that a God, who is friendly to one country only, is a God purely local, and cannot be the God of the universe; and that a God partial, exclusive, and unjust, who follows caprice alone in his choice, can neither be perfect nor the model of perfection. In short, those who have not the happiness of being sacredly blinded by faith, cannot comprehend how the equitable and wise Lord of all the nations of the earth could cherish exclusively the Jewish people; his infinite prescience ought to have shown him that his love and favors would be completely lost on this untractable people.

Unbelievers remark, that it does not become the Son of God to exclaim, "Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes." Would it not have been wiser to have gone and preached to cities so docile, where Jesus was certain of success, than to persist in preaching to the Jews, of whom he was not certain of making converts?

Jesus went about preaching through many cities of Gallilee; but deprived of the assistance of his confidents, he did not work any wonders. We have seen the magistrates and[Pg 128] the great paying little attention to his conduct. They despised one whom they regarded a vagrant, or a fool little to be feared. 'Tis true, that some of Herod's officers are said to have been on the watch, with the pharisees, to destroy him; but this combination had no success. After all, he gave umbrage only to the priests and the doctors of the law, against whom he declaimed with the greatest indecorum. By this conduct he rendered himself agreeable to the people, weary of the extortions of these bloodsuckers, who, without pity, drained the nation, treated the poor with disdain, and, as the parable of the priest and the Samaritan evinces, were destitute of charity. The priests and doctors were very numerous in Jerusalem; on which account the people in the capital were less disposed than elsewhere to listen to our preacher, and the influence of the priests was the cause of the hatred and contempt entertained against him in this great city.

By a singular contrariety, the most obscure interval in our hero's life was that wherein he acquired the greatest renown. Jesus was wholly unknown at the court of Herod; while at the head of his troop, and surrounded by multitudes, he chased away devils, gave sight to the blind and speech to the mute, expelled the sellers from the temple, and raised the dead. But while he led a private life in Gallilee; when, during the mission of his apostles, he found himself alone and without followers, and content with preaching repentance, it was then that his fame, penetrating even to the throne, excited in the monarch a desire to see him. According to Luke, a ray of light struck the heart of Herod; doubt filled his mind; "John," said he, "I have caused to be beheaded, but he must have risen from the dead, and, therefore, it is that so many miracles are performed by him; but who should this be of whom I hear such great things?" Herod wished to see Jesus to explain these matters, and for this purpose he sent for him.

If nature had given Jesus a right to the throne of Judea,[Pg 129] we might judge his motives for not putting himself in the power of a prince, the usurper of his crown. But Jesus could not dissemble that his pretensions were not well established; he knew that for a long time the family of David had lost the sovereign power. We must, therefore, search for another motive for his refusing to see Herod, as the interview with the Son of God would not only have contributed to the conversion of this prince and his court, but of all Judea, and perhaps of the whole Roman empire. A single miracle of consequence, performed before a court, and acknowledged and attested by persons of high authority, would have been more effectual than the suspected testimony of all the peasantry and vagabonds in Gallilee. Far from complying with the request of Herod, and conferring so eminent a benefit, Jesus withdrew into a desert as soon as he learned the prince's intention. He, who often uttered the most terrible curses against such as rejected him, scorned the invitation of a sovereign, and fled into a desert, instead of laboring for his conversion. The messiah, who made no difficulty in entering the house of a centurion to heal his slave, refused to visit a monarch in order to cure his blindness, and bring back to himself all his subjects, for whom, he affirmed, that he was specially sent!

Our theologians explain these contradictions by referring to the inexplicable decrees of Providence. But the incredulous maintain, that Jesus, who well knew how to work wonders in the eyes of a simple populace, dared not to expose himself before an enlightened court; and it must be owned, that the manner in which he comported himself before his judges, strengthens this opinion.

Meanwhile, the mission of the apostles expired. In a short time they had traversed Gallilee; and it appears from the repast which Jesus soon after gave to a crowd of people, that the preaching of his missionaries had procured an abundant harvest. Loaded with the alms of the Gallileans, the apostles returned to their master, who again found himself incommoded by the multitude which flocked to see him. To[Pg 130] enjoy more liberty, the party embarked on board a small vessel, which conveyed them across the sea of Gallilee. There, in a retired spot, the apostles gave an account of the success of their mission; they made arrangements for the future, and especially secured their provisions in a place of safety.

Those who had seen Jesus embark, thought, perhaps, they were forever to be deprived of the pleasure of seeing him perform wonders. They made the tour of the lake, and though on foot, reached the other side before Jesus arrived there in his vessel. He preached, wrought miracles, and cured the diseased; and these labors lasted until the evening. His disciples then advised him to send the people in search of lodging and victuals in the neighboring villages. He made no reply on the article of lodging;—there were doubtless few persons in this multitude who were accustomed to sleep on down.—Besides, the nights were likely not cold in that season and climate. But, wishing to amuse himself with the embarrassment of those who made the proposal, and who might not know the resources which the collections of his apostles had procured, "it is not necessary," said he, "that they should go into the villages; give them yourselves wherewith to eat." "Think you so?" replied they,—"shall we go and buy two hundred penny-worth of bread, and give them to eat?"—Philip, who perhaps was not in the secret, represented the impossibility of finding bread to feed this multitude. On which Jesus said to Peter, "See how many loaves you have." He found none—a circumstance the more surprising, as, according to Mark, they had withdrawn to this place "on purpose to eat." Peter, without answering the question, said to his master, "There is a young lad here, who has five barley loaves and two small fishes." Jesus ordered them to be brought, and made the multitude range themselves in companies of hundreds and of fifties. From this arrangement it appeared that there were five thousand men, besides women and children. When every one had taken his place on the grass, Jesus, accord[Pg 131]ing to the usage of the Jews, blessed the loaves and fishes, broke, and distributing them among the apostles, who gave thereof to the people as much as they desired. They likewise filled twelve baskets with the fragments of this celebrated entertainment. The guests, penetrated with admiration, exclaimed, "This is of a truth a prophet, and that prophet who should come into the world;" which, translated into ordinary language, means, the true Amphitrion is he who gives us our dinner. The apostles spoke not a word.

Some critics, perceiving the impossibilities this miracle presents, have ventured to doubt the truth of it, as if the impossibility of things could prejudice the reality of a miracle, the essence of which is to produce things impossible. Yet if attention is given to the account of the evangelists, who are not, however, very unanimous on particulars, we shall find, that this miracle presents nothing impossible if we are inclined to give any credit to the prudence of the Son of God; who, on this occasion, found that he could not make a better use of the provisions amassed by his apostles, than to distribute them to a hungry multitude. By this act, he saw himself certain of gaining their favor. It may be the crowd was not quite so numerous as is related. Besides, our apostles, in passing to the opposite shore, might have thrown their nets with sufficient success to furnish fish for the whole company. This meal must have appeared miraculous to persons who knew that Jesus had no fortune, and lived on alms. We accordingly find, that the people wanted to proclaim king the person who had so sumptuously regaled them. The entertainment no doubt recalled to their mind the idea of a messiah, under whose government abundance was to reign. No more was requisite to induce a handful of miserables to believe, that the preacher, who by a miracle fed them so liberally, must be the extraordinary man the nation expected.

This great miracle then will become very probable, by supposing that the apostles in their collection had received a[Pg 132] large quantity of bread. They amused themselves, as has been observed, with fishing while they crossed the lake; Jesus gave them the hint:—when evening was come, things were disposed without the observation of the people, who were thus fed with provisions amassed by very natural means.

Though the Gallileans wished to proclaim Jesus king, he did not think proper to accept an honor which he found himself for the present incapable of supporting. His exhausted provisions did not suffer him to undertake the frequent entertaining of so many guests at his own expense; and though this conduct, much more than all his other miracles, would have gained him the affections of the beggars, idlers, and vagabonds of the country, the necessity of his affairs prevented him from recurring to it.

Thus Jesus crowned the second year of his mission with an action well adapted to conciliate the love of the people, and at the same time give uneasiness to the magistrates. This stroke of eclat must doubtless have alarmed those in power, who perceived that the affair might become very serious, especially considering the intention of the Gallileans to proclaim our adventurer king. The priests probably profitted by these dispositions in order to destroy Jesus, who at all times appeared anxious to gain the populace, in order to aid him in subduing the great. This project might have succeeded if Judea, as in times past, had been governed by kings of its own nation, who, as the Bible shows, depended continually on the caprice of priests, of prophets, or of the first comer, who by predictions, declamations, and wonders, could, at will, stir up the Hebrew nation, and dispose of the crown: whereas in the time of Jesus the Roman government had nothing to fear from the efforts of superstition.[Pg 133]


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