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



The expression of John, who tells us, that Jesus knowing the guests he had entertained would come and take him by force on purpose to make him their king, demonstrates that these guests had withdrawn at the end of the entertainment. This observation enabled us to fix pretty correctly the route of Jesus, and affords a reason for his conduct.

It was already late when the disciples said to their master, that it was time to send away the people. The preparations for the repast must have consumed time: the distribution of the victuals required also some hours; so that daylight could not have been far off when the meal was finished, and when Jesus dismissed his guests. It was about the evening he learned the design they had of carrying him off to make him king; and it was not until after having received this intelligence, that he resolved to conceal himself in a mountain, after having dispatched his disciples to Capernaum. To reach the place, the latter were obliged to make several tacks; when Jesus, observing this, changed his resolution, and set out for Gennesaret, on the north side of the lake. Seeing him approach at the moment they thought him far off in the recesses of the mountain, his disciples were terrified; they took him for a spirit, for spirits were very common in Judea. They were confirmed in their opinion when they perceived his shadow near the vessel. Simon Peter observing him advance, did not doubt but he was walking on the waters. In attempting to go and meet his master, he felt himself sinking; but Jesus took him by the hand, and saved him from the danger. After reprimanding him for his cowardice, he went with him on board the ship. The apostles, who had[Pg 134] not been much struck with the miracle of the five loaves, were astonished at this. They had been in great fear, and fear disposes to believe; in their distress they confessed unanimously, that he was the Son of God.

Jesus reached Gennesaret at noon. There several of his guests recognized him, and announced his arrival to others. They presented him the diseased, and he performed a great number of cures. We cannot too much admire the faith of the Gallileans, who exposed at all seasons their sick in the streets, and the complaisance of Jesus, who indefatigably cured them.

The guests at the miraculous supper, whom their affairs called home, had returned; but the greatest number, that is, all the laboring people, having seen Jesus' ship steer for Capernaum, had set out by land for that city. Some vessels from Tiberias arrived there at the same time, but none carried Jesus, and nobody had seen him; for he had made his passage during night. The crowd, however, remained, in hopes of being again entertained gratis, when they learned at Capernaum that Jesus was on the opposite shore. Immediately, all our idle folks set out, either by land or by water, to visit him. But these parasites, instead of finding a repast served out on the grass, were entertained with a sermon. Jesus, who had not always wherewith to defray the expenses of so numerous a court, held forth to them this language: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye seek me, not because you saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled." "Labour," added he, "for life everlasting.——" His hearers, whose ideas extended not beyond the present life, did not comprehend what Jesus meant; they therefore asked him what it was requisite they should do; on which he told them that it was necessary they should become his disciples, as he was the messiah. Here we are surprised to find them asking of Jesus, What sign showest thou then that we may believe? What extraordinary thing do you perform for that purpose? You will perhaps instance[Pg 135] the supper you gave us; but did not our fathers eat manna in the desert for forty years? And after all, what is your supper in comparison with that wonder?

From this we may perceive that Jesus labored in vain to draw over these Gallileans to his party. The continuation of the miraculous repast was alone capable of moving them. It was to no purpose Jesus maintained, that the bread with which Moses had fed their fathers, was not the bread of heaven, which alone could properly nourish. An empty belly has no ears; so they suffered him to preach on. After he had spoken a great deal—Well, said they, give us this bread which alone nourishes, for it signifies little to us what kind of bread we eat; but some we must have. Promise to furnish us with it at all times, and at this price we shall be at your devotion.

If Jesus at this moment had possessed the same resources as formerly, he would have been able, at little expense, to form a small army, which the assurance of having food without toil would have soon increased; but all failed. These people offered themselves providing he would always furnish them with bread. The proposition was urgent, and Jesus got off with so bad a grace, that his disciples themselves were shocked at it. He said to them, that he himself was bread, that his flesh was meat, and his blood wine; and that those only who eat it would be raised up, and conducted to everlasting banquets. Our dull folks comprehended none of this mysterious jargon, contrived on purpose to puzzle them. Perceiving that they were not moved by it, he informed them that in order to follow him, a particular call was necessary, and that as they were not disposed to do this, they were, therefore, not called.

The adherents Jesus obtained on this occasion were but few. The Jews were indignant that he should pretend to have descended from heaven. We know, said they, his father and mother, and we know where he was born. These rumors, spreading as far as Jerusalem, so irritated the priests[Pg 136] that they resolved on his death; but the son of God, by skilful marches and countermarches, disconcerted their vigilance. It was especially in the capital that they wished to ensnare him; but Jesus had not been lately there. His distance from the metropolis did not, however, prevent them from knowing his most secret proceedings; and from this he concluded there were some false brethren among his disciples. He was not deceived; but the fear of being betrayed in a country where his resources began to fail, induced him to dissemble till he should arrive in a place of safety. He set out, therefore, for Capernaum. At this place he recited nearly the same sermon he had in vain preached to the Gallileans. But no one would consent to receive as food his flesh and blood. Those who enjoyed his confidence knew that he gave better cheer; but his other disciples asserted that they could not subsist on this mysterious mess, and took their leave of him. Unable to do better, Jesus was obliged to let them depart.

Observing the defection of a part of his followers, our adventurer was vexed at it; and, in sorrow for the injuries it would occasion, he asked the twelve, "And will you also leave me?" On which Simon Peter answered, "Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe, and are sure, that thou art the Christ, the son of the living God." Thus Jesus was assured, in the best way he could, of the fidelity of his apostles; yet we see, in spite of his infinite knowledge, that he always kept the traitor Judas in his company, though he must have foreseen that he would deliver him up to his enemies.

Meanwhile, Jesus set out for Gallilee, whither his apostles followed him, though his last preaching, and particularly the refusal of victuals, had dissatisfied the Gallileans. They did not, indeed, give him a welcome reception. The arrival of some pharisees and doctors from Jerusalem completely marred everything. They were deputed by the chiefs in the capital to watch the conduct of Jesus, and to put the people on[Pg 137] their guard. Every one knows how strictly the Jews adhere to the ceremonies of their law; and, in spite of his protestations of attachment to it, Jesus, like his trusty friends, observed none of its ordinances. It was particularly offensive that they ate without washing their hands. But he defended himself with saying, that it was better to violate traditions and neglect ceremonies, than to infringe the commandments of God, as the doctors did. He advanced, contrary to express law, that nothing which enters the body defiles it, and that it is what comes out of it that renders it impure. This seems to establish, that Jesus and his party were not scrupulous as to their victuals. Thereafter he launched out in invectives against the doctors, whom he called hypocrites, ignorant and blind, who directed others that were also blind. In his anger he did not perceive that the compliment was not less offensive to the people than to their guides. On this account the latter entertained a deep resentment, but the populace did not regard it. Besides, Jesus did not allow them time for reflection: he engaged their attention by a fine discourse, to prove that lawyers and priests were the worst of men and the least charitable, and, that none could be happy, either in this world or in the other, without becoming his disciples.

He was now informed that there was no safety for him in this place. He therefore left it in great haste, intending to go towards the frontiers of Tyre and Sidon. His design was to live concealed in the country; but with such great renown as that of our hero it was difficult to continue long unknown. The secret of his retreat was divulged; and, as misfortune sometimes turns to good, this trifling duplicity gave him an opportunity of performing a miracle among the Gentiles. A woman of Canaan besought him to deliver her daughter from a devil that tormented her. Jesus at first made her no answer. She insisted; the apostles interceded, and pressed their master to grant her request, merely to silence her; for she was clamorous, and might have disclosed that he was the messiah. He defended himself on[Pg 138] the plea of being sent to the Jews only, and not to the Heathen. They again besought him, and answered his comparison by another. He at length yielded; and the girl was delivered from her devil, or her vapors.

The success of Jesus in this country terminated with this miracle. He passed into Decapolis, and there acquired some consequence from the cure of a dumb and deaf man on pronouncing the word Epheta, and then putting his finger into his ears and spittle on his tongue. Our missionary on this occasion made a sufficiently abundant harvest of alms. He moreover wrought a number of miracles on the sick, the cripple, and the maimed. But it was his custom to steal away when his miraculous power began to make a noise; he accordingly withdrew to a mountain at the distance of three days journey from the place where he had performed so many miracles. The people followed him in his retreat, and it appears that they did so without eating. Loaded with provisions or money procured by his miracles, Jesus again saw himself in a situation to lay the table cloth. As if he knew nothing of this, he asked one of his apostles how many loaves they had: seven was the answer. He then ordered the multitude to sit down on the ground; and taking the loaves, blessed them, together with some small fishes. These were distributed to four thousand men, besides women and children, who were all satisfied; and with the remains of the repast, they afterwards filled seven baskets.

This prodigy appears to be a mere repetition of what we have related before; yet St. Chrysostom maintains, that the difference of the number of baskets proves irrefragably they must not be confounded. Admitting this, it would appear that Jesus once more sacrificed the money and provisions his prodigies had enabled him to amass. It was necessary to gain the people, and he at that time felt he had very great need of them; he was generous when he had the means to be so, and he had not forgotten that they had promised to follow him, provided he would give them food.[Pg 139]

The evangelists, however, overheated with the idea of this miracle, forgot another equally deserving their notice. It was indeed a prodigy to see four thousand men, without reckoning, women and little children, following Jesus during three days without eating or drinking; or else we must believe, that, prepared to travel, these people had provided themselves with provisions, which suddenly failed. But, in a desert, whence came the baskets they made use of in gathering up the remains of the entertainment? It is to be presumed, that they dropt down from heaven. But why not make loaves and fishes drop down also? It was undoubtedly requisite to feed this multitude during the three days march necessary for their return. But would it not have been a short way to have made the people feel neither hunger nor thirst? Would it not have been easier, by an effort of mercy, to have converted at once all the inhabitants of Judea, and spared Jesus the trouble of so many entertainments, flights, marches, and countermarches, which at last terminated in a manner so tragical to this hero of the romance?

The pharisees and sadducees did not lose sight of Jesus: on learning that he had returned to the interior of the kingdom, they went in search of him. The evangelists, it is suspected, made them much worse than they were in reality, by representing them as eager to ruin them. Was it then so difficult to arrest thirteen men? Be that as it may, the Pharisees at this time accosted Jesus very politely, and demanded of him a miracle. "You perform them," said they, "by dozens, in presence of a thousand people, who by your own confession, do not believe in you; give us then a specimen of your skill, and we shall be less opiniative than those of whom you complain. Do then show us this condescension." Jesus was inexorable, and perpetually referred them to Jonas. This refusal offended them: he, in turn, inveighed against them; and as the presence of these inconvenient spectators rendered his power useless, he quitted them in order to go to Bethsaida.[Pg 140]

On the way, his apostles asked him the reason of his refusal to work a miracle in presence of persons who entreated him in so handsome a manner; on which Jesus, by a figure, gave them to understand, that he could not operate before people so clear-sighted; "Beware," said he, "of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod." Our silly folks, who had not time to provide bread, thought their master meant to reprove them for their negligence. Any other but Jesus would have laughed at the mistake, but the state of his affairs chagrined him, and he treated them very harshly.

On entering Bethsaida, they brought him a blind man whom he cured by applying spittle to his eyes. This remedy at first produced a pleasant effect: the man saw other men, like trees, walking; Jesus then laid his hands on him, and immediately he saw quite otherwise.

But this miracle gained no conquest to the messiah. He, therefore, went to try his fortune in the villages in the environs of Caesarea-Philippi. It is in this journey that asking his apostles what they thought of him, some said, that he passed for Elias, others for Jeremiah, &c.; but Peter openly confessed that he acknowledged him for the Christ: a confession which has since gained him the honor of supremacy in the sacred college, and of being declared the head of the church.

Though sovereign in heaven, Jesus possessed nothing on earth, and of course could confer no temporal gifts. Instead of these, he gave his disciples the spiritual privilege of damning and saving the rest of mankind at their pleasure. He promised to Peter the place of door-keeper of Paradise, since become so lucrative an office to his successors and assigns. Meanwhile Jesus recommended silence to the party on this promotion; but perhaps the traitor Judas, not satisfied with the office of treasurer, did not preserve the secret.

Notwithstanding the suffrage of Peter, the consequences which might result from the choler of the priests were alway[Pg 141]s present to the mind of Jesus. Cried down and rejected, he presumed, with good sense, that, being once excluded from all the provinces, and the Gentiles not much inclined to receive for legislator a Jew, expelled his own country, he would be constrained sooner or later, to return to Jerusalem, where he must expect to meet with perilous adventures. On the other hand, the Romans, masters of the forces over whom the Jews could arrogate no authority, would very quickly have put an end to the mission of a man whom they must have regarded either as a fool or as a disturber of the public peace, if he should have dared to declare against them. It is evident, indeed, that the mission of Jesus existed in Judea merely because the Romans were not much displeased that a restless and turbulent people should amuse themselves with following a man of his character—a pretended messiah, to whose appearance the prepossessions of the nation gave rise. Always certain of being able to crush those who dared to undertake the boldest enterprises, they troubled themselves little about what might be done in the country by a party no way formidable to an authority seconded by disciplined legions.

The situation of the Son of God must have alarmed his companions, however dull we may suppose them to have been. It was, therefore, necessary to devise means to encourage those at least who were the honest dupes of his vain promises. He did not dissemble the bad state of his affairs, the fate he had to dread, and the death with which he was menaced. He anticipated them on this subject, and declared that even if he should suffer death, they must not be discouraged, for at the end of three days he would rise triumphant from the tomb. We shall afterwards see the use the apostles made of this prediction, which must at the time have appeared to them as foolish as incredible.

To retain them as his followers, and revive their zeal, Jesus entertained them incessantly with the beauty of his Father's kingdom; but he told them that to arrive there, they[Pg 142] must have courage, love him sincerely, and consent to suffer with him. These melancholy sermons demonstrated the situation of the orator, and tended rather to depress than incite the courage of his auditory. He, therefore, thought it seasonable to present to his disciples a specimen of the glory which he had so often vaunted. For this purpose he exhibited the brilliant spectacle of the transfiguration. All the apostles were not witnesses of it: he granted this favor to three only, Peter, James, and John, his most intimate confidents, to whom he recommended silence. This scene took place, it is said, on mount Thabor. There Jesus appeared irradiated with glory, accompanied with two others, whom the apostles took for Moses and Elias, and whom, as far as we can discover, they had never seen before. A cloud unexpectedly enveloped the three luminous bodies; and when they no longer beheld any person, a voice was heard pronouncing these words, This is my beloved Son. The disciples were asleep while the spectacle was displayed—a circumstance which has occasioned a suspicion, that the whole was only a dream.

The apostles, who remained at the foot of the mountain, and had been deprived of this spectacle, wished to try their spiritual powers on a lunatic, or one possessed; but the devil disregarded their exorcisms. The father of the disordered person, perceiving their master descending from the mountain, immediately presented his son to him, whom Jesus cured; he then gave a strong reprimand to those fumblers; told them that their want of success was owing to want of faith, a grain of which was sufficient to remove mountains; and recommended to them fasting and prayer, as the surest means of expelling certain demons more rebellious than others.

The people, however, withstood all these wonders: the devils, with whom they were possessed, could not be expelled by any thing which Jesus had not contrived. Expecting, therefore, to draw over some of the strangers whom the so[Pg 143]lemnities always brought in great numbers to the capital, he resolved, as the feast of the tabernacles was approaching, secretly to repair thither. But, agitated by the most troublesome misgivings, he traversed Gallilee; he explained himself on his fears in an enigmatical manner to his apostles, who could not comprehend what he said; but who, on observing their master grieved, conformed themselves to his humor.

On arriving at Capernaum, the place of his usual residence, the officers charged with collecting the customs taking him for a stranger, and not even recognising Matthew, their old companion exacted tribute from them. Jesus being a Jew, was offended at their demand; but whether they did not hearken to his reasons, or that he did not wish to be known, he dispatched Peter in search of a piece of thirty-pence in the mouth of a fish; or rather desired him go and catch a fish, which being sold for that sum, served to pay the custom.

The apostles having understood from the Saviour's discourses, that his kingdom was still very distant, occupied themselves with disputing on the pre-eminence and ranks they should enjoy in the empire which had been obscurely announced to them. In this they have been since faithfully imitated by their successors. In the mean time Jesus took occasion from this dispute to deliver a sermon on humility. He called for a child, placed it in the midst of them, and declared that this child was the greatest among them. This sermon, by which our clergy have profitted so well, contains fine parables, and points out excellent means whereby to attain heaven, but not to thrive on earth. As all these, however, are only repetitions of what is taught in the sermon on the mount, we refer the reader to it.

Jesus wrought no miracles during his abode at Capernaum, where he had an interest not to be too much spoken of. His brethren or his parents, who were of the same mind as the priests, proceeded to that place on purpose to persuade[Pg 144] him to leave his asylum and go into Judea, where he might exhibit his skill. They reminded him that the feast should draw him to Jerusalem, where he could not fail to find an opportunity of signalising himself.

This ironical tone enabled Jesus to foresee that they were plotting against him. Here eternal truth extricated itself from these importunities by means of falsehood. The Son of God told his brethren to go to the feast, but assured them that for himself he would not go. (John vii. 8.) This, however, did not hinder him from taking the road to Jerusalem, but with the greatest secresy. In his way he cured ten lepers, among whom one only, who was a Samaritan, shewed any gratitude to his physician; and from courtesy to his faith his sins were remitted. Notwithstanding this miracle and absolution, the incredulous do not admit that Jesus can be acquitted of having prevaricated. It seems very strange, that the Son of God, to whom his omnipotence furnished so many honorable means of acting openly, had recourse to subtlety and deception in order to elude the snares of his enemies. This conduct can be explained only by supposing that what seems falsehood to carnal eyes is truth in the gospel.

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