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



It is probable that our hero changed his intention of showing himself publicly at Jerusalem on learning the diversity of opinions which divided the capital on his account. He ima[Pg 145]gined that his presence and discourses would remedy the inconstancy of the people, and remove the perplexity of disputants; but he deceived himself. He who so often recommended the cunning of serpents, failed on this occasion. But how revoke an immutable decree? The world had been created solely on purpose that man might sin, and man had sinned in order that Jesus by his death might have the glory of making atonement for sinners.

If they spoke much evil of Jesus in Jerusalem, they spoke also much good. Praise is a snare, wherein the Son of God himself was caught. Flattering himself with being able to reconcile the suffrages, he went to the temple and preached. But what must have been his surprise when on beginning to speak he heard the cries of rage, and the multitude accusing him of being possessed with a devil. In spite of the noise that prevailed among the audience, Jesus continued to harangue. Perhaps he might have succeeded in conquering the bad disposition of the assembly, if a company of soldiers had not arrived, and interrupted him precisely in the most pathetic part of his sermon. He was speaking of his heavenly Father; and this occurrence has undoubtedly made us lose a sublime treatise on the nature of the divinity. The soldiers, however, had no design to seize him; they wished only to impose silence on him; it was, therefore, easy for him to steal away.

Jesus, whose temper appears to have been vindictive and restless, was piqued at the insult, and continued his invectives against the priests, doctors, and principal men among the Jews, who taking counsel on the subject, agreed to issue a decree against him and try him for contumacy; but Nicodemus, whom we mentioned before, undertook his defence, and proposed to his brethren to go and hear him before condemning him. They, however, insisted that no good ever came out of Nazareth, i.e. that his protegee could be no other than a vagabond.

In his retreat on the mount of Olives, Jesus learned that[Pg 146] they had postponed proceedings against him. He therefore appeared next day in the temple by day break. The doctors and senators came a little later, and brought him a female accused of adultery—a crime for which, according to the law, she ought to suffer death. The doctors, perhaps acquainted with her conduct, and informed of Jesus' having women of wicked lives in his train, wanted to ensnare him. He might have got off by merely saying, that it was not for him to judge; but he wished to argue. He wrote on the ground; and concluded, very prudently, that for one to judge it is necessary to be himself exempted from all sin. Then addressing himself to the doctors, "let him among you who is without sin, cast the first stone at her." At these words they departed, shrugging their shoulders. Jesus remained alone with the adulteress, whom the Jews would not have treated so tenderly if she had been really culpable. On this he said to her, "Since no man hath accused thee, neither will I condemn thee: Go then, and sin no more."

Having happily escaped from this danger, Jesus thought himself in safety; but, induced by his natural petulence, he again hazarded a sermon in the temple: he spoke only of himself; and what follows was nearly his strongest argument: "You ask," said he, "a full proof by two witnesses. Now I bear witness of my Father, and my Father bears witness of me; you therefore ought to believe in me;" which amounts to this; my Father proves me, and I prove my Father. The doctors, but little surprised with this circuitous and erroneous reasoning, and with a view to come directly to the point, asked him, "Who art thou?" "I am," replied Jesus, "from the beginning, and I have many things to say to you; but I speak to the world those things only which I have heard of my Father." The audience were no doubt impatient at these ambiguous answers: Jesus, who wished to increase their embarrassment, then added that they would know him much better after they had put him to death.

The messiah did not omit to display great views in this[Pg 147] conference: he informed his hearers in dark language, that it would not perhaps be impossible to shake off the Roman yoke. But either through fear, or that they did not believe such a man in a condition to effect so great a revolution, they affected not to comprehend him. Piqued at finding the doctors and pharisees so dull and opiniative, he called them children of the devil; he affirmed that he was older than Abraham. In short, he broke out in a manner so unreasonable that the people, declaring against him, were about to stone him. Jesus, perceiving his folly when too late, concealed himself until an opportunity offered to escape.

From this time his miracles became more rare, and the zeal of the people subsided. It was therefore necessary to rekindle it: Jesus accordingly performed a miracle by curing a man born blind with a little earth moistened with spittle. This man was a well known mendicant, whom they could not suspect of any artifice. Yet they would no longer tolerate him after he had received his sight; an incident which no doubt diminished the alms he was in use to receive. But, perhaps, he was made a disciple. Some legends, indeed, assert, that after the death of Jesus he came into Gaul, where he became a bishop or inspector; which at least presupposes good organs of vision.

This prodigy coming to the knowledge of the Pharisees, the beggar underwent an examination; he openly confessed that one called Jesus had cured him with a clay of his composition and some bathings in Siloam. On this occasion, the bad humor of the pharisees went a little too far. They made it a crime for the physician to have composed his ointment on the Sabbath, and formed the project of excommunicating whoever should countenance him.

This resolution made Jesus tremble. He knew the power of excommunication among the Jews; he found himself crossed in all his designs; and dared not venture to preach in Jerusalem, or show himself in any other place. Every thing, even his miracles, turned against him, and it was not without[Pg 148] some difficulty that he had escaped from the capital. At a little distance he knew of an asylum in Bethany, where his friend Lazarus possessed a house. He accordingly took the resolution of retiring thither; but though it was a large house, the party that accompanied him might have incommoded their host. This determined Jesus to send seventy of his disciples on a mission to Judea, to whom it appears he now gave very able powers; for on their return we find them applauding themselves, and overjoyed at the facility with which they expelled the devils.

Scarcely had Jesus arrived at Bethany, when in order to receive him in a becoming manner, they prepared a banquet. But the voluptuous Magdalane, content to devour with her eyes her dear Saviour, left Martha her sister to superintend the arrangements in the kitchen while she herself continued at his feet. Peevishness, and perhaps jealousy, got the better of Martha; she came and scolded Magdalane; but the tender messiah undertook the defence of his penitent, and asserted that she had chosen the better part. Brother Lazarus, who came in unexpectedly, terminated the squabble by ordering them to their work.

This little altercation was the cause why Jesus did not tarry long at Bethany. When about leaving it, a pharisee through pure curiosity invited him to dinner. The messiah accepted his invitation; but our unpolished Jew had not the civility to give his guest water to wash with. This occasioned him a fine lecture on charity and filled with marvellous comparisons, which, however, we shall omit, as our orator so frequently conned over the same lesson, and as this dinner appears to be a repetition of one we have already mentioned.

From this period till the feast of the dedication of the temple, our hero wandered in the environs of Jerusalem with his disciples, whom he incessantly entertained with the grandeur of his aerial kingdom, and what it was necessary to do in order to enter it. It was, according to Luke, on this[Pg 149] occasion, and according to Matthew in the sermon on the mount, that he taught the apostles, who could not read, a short prayer called since that time the Lord's prayer, which (injurious as it is to the Divinity, whom it seems to accuse of leading us into temptation,) Christians still continue to repeat.

Meanwhile time passed away without any advantage. The cessation of prodigies and preaching occasioned that of alms. Jesus again hazarded a sermon in a village; but although it attracted the admiration of the people, it produced no effect. Towards the end of our hero's mission we see the crowd no longer running after him. If he wished to perform a miracle, he was under the necessity of calling those he wished to cure. For eighteen years an old woman of this village had been quite bent. It was, according to the language of the country, the devil who had kept her in this inconvenient posture. Jesus called her and exclaimed; "Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity." The old woman made efforts to become straight; she approached the feet of the messiah with the pace of a tortoise; he laid his hands on her and immediately she walked upright like a girl of fifteen. At this time the devil spoke not a word; on which it has been remarked, that Satan always followed the opinion of the spectators of the Saviour's miracles, and marvellously coincided with them in acknowledging or rejecting him. This analogous conduct of the spectators and Satan was perhaps the result of the excommunication fulminated against all who regarded Jesus as the messiah.

The reputation of John Baptist still subsisted on the banks of the Jordan. To excite the primitive zeal, or, perhaps, with an intention to induce the disciples of John, who had borne him such flattering testimony, to follow him, Jesus turned towards that quarter. But the attempt was fruitless: he succeeded no better in curing a dropsical person that chanced to be in the house of a pharisee who gave the Saviour a dinner. His cures were admired, but he spoiled all[Pg 150] by his extravagant arguments, so offensive were they to the greatest part of his hearers. As a last resource, he endeavored to attach publicans, officers, and such like disreputable persons to his party; but these were only feeble props, and their familiarity made him lose the little esteem which others still entertained for him.

The sight of punishment has often occasioned the loss of courage even to the most determined hero. Ours, agitated by a crowd of untoward events, imagined that nothing being dearer to men than life, and nothing more difficult than to come back after leaving it, the people of Jerusalem, notwithstanding the clamors of the priests, would declare in his favor if he could succeed in making them believe that he had the power of raising the dead. Lazarus the intimate friend of Jesus appeared to him the fittest person for presenting to the public the spectacle of a dead man brought to life. When every thing was properly concerted, Jesus set out for Bethany. Learning this, Martha and Magdalane went to meet him, and publicly informed him that their brother was very sick. Jesus made them no answer, but speaking loud so as to be heard, "This sickness," said he, "is not unto death, but for the glory of God." This was already telling too much.

Instead of going to Bethany, Jesus remained two days in the village without doing any thing; thereafter he told his apostles that it was necessary to return into Judea. He was there at the time he spoke, but he meant, no doubt, the capital. They represented that it would be a very imprudent journey as the populace had recently wanted to stone him. We see that Jesus said this on purpose to give room to his friends to invite him not to neglect brother Lazarus in his sickness. Besides, the following words evince that he had no intention of going to Jerusalem. "Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go that I may awake him out of sleep." On hearing this, the apostles thought Lazarus had recovered. Jesus declared that he was dead, and that he was highly[Pg 151] pleased with not having been present at his decease, as it would afford means to confirm them in the faith.

The two days which Jesus passed in the village, joined to the time he took in going about half a league, were immediately converted into four days from the period he pretended Lazarus was dead. At last he arrived at the abode of the defunct, whom they had deposited in a vault adjoining to his house, and not, according to the custom of those days, in a sepulchre out of the city. After some questions put to Martha on her belief, he assured her that her brother would rise again. "Yes," said she, "but it will be at the last day." Here our Thaumaturge affected to be very sensibly touched; he trembled, he wept, invoked the aid of heaven, advanced to the vault, made it be opened, called on Lazarus with a loud voice, and commanded him to come forth. The dead man, though wrapped up in his grave clothes, arose and was unloosed before witnesses at the entrance of the vault.

This prodigy was conducted with very little dexterity. John, the only Evangelist who relates this striking miracle, in vain supports his relation with the presence of the Jews: he destroys his own work by not making them come till after the death of Lazarus to console his sisters. It was necessary that the Jews should have seen him die, dead, and embalmed; that they should have felt the smell of his corruption; and that they should have conversed with him after his coming out of the tomb. Unbelievers have exhausted all the darts of criticism on this miracle. To investigate it would be only repeating what they have said. The Jews found in it such strong marks of knavery, that far from being converted, they took more serious measures against Jesus, who having intimation of this, withdrew towards the desert to a city called Ephrem, where he abode with his disciples. In the mean time the cities and villages were ordered to refuse him an asylum, and the inhabitants to deliver him up to the magistrates. In fact this miracle occasioned a general proscription of the messiah. On presenting himself at the[Pg 152] gates of a town in Samaria, they at first refused to let him pass; he was not permitted to stop at Jericho, though he gave sight to a blind man, whom Matthew magnifies into two. Jesus returned to Bethany, where he was received, not by Lazarus, who had, perhaps, been obliged to save himself on account of his being concerned in such an imposture; but, as Matthew affirms, by Simon the leper. Lazarus after his resurrection appeared no longer on the stage.

A legend, according to Baronius, affirms that Lazarus went afterwards to preach the faith to the Provenšals, and was the first bishop of Marseilles. As for Magdalane, she went to bewail her sins and the death of her lover in a desart of Province, called la Sainte Baume (the Holy Balm.) Martha, as every body knows, lies interred at Tarascon.

This rejection and desertion of Jesus threw the apostles into consternation. To reanimate their confidence, Jesus caused a fig-tree to die in twenty-four hours to punish it for not producing figs at a season when it was physically impossible for it to bear any; that is about the month of March. As all the actions of the messiah, even when they appear foolish to ordinary men, have an important signification in the eyes of devotees illuminated by faith, we ought to perceive in the miracle of this fig-tree one of the fundamental dogmas of the Christian religion symbolically represented. The fig-tree cursed is the mass of mankind, whom, according to our theologists, the God of mercy curses, and condemns to eternal flames, for having neither faith nor grace, which they could not possibly acquire of themselves, and which God does not seem to have been willing to give them. Thus we find that the ridiculous passage of the fig-tree in the gospel, is intended to typify one of the most profound dogmas of the Christian religion.

Whilst Jesus in this manner instructed his apostles by figures and ingenious parables, his enemies were laboring hard against him at Jerusalem. It appears that the Sanhedrim was divided on his account. They perhaps wished to[Pg 153] punish him, but not to put him to death. All were of opinion that he should be arrested without noise, and that they should afterwards consider on the punishment to be inflicted. The most fiery of the priests wished that he should be seized in the capital, and assassinated during the hurry of the festival. This shows they did not consider themselves certain that the people would not interest themselves in his behalf. Perhaps they had some reason: what a part of the populace did in his favor when he approached Jerusalem, evinced that it would have been very dangerous to act openly. In pursuance of this plan, they secretly promised a reward to whoever should deliver up Jesus; and we shall soon find one of his apostles betraying his master for a very trifling sum.

Before entering Jerusalem, Jesus evidently caused his approach to be announced by his friends in that city. His adherents labored to render his entry into the capital somewhat brilliant. Affecting to display modesty in the midst of his triumph, or unable to do better, Jesus chose for his steed a young ass that had never been rode on, which his disciples, by his order, had seized with its mother. In place of a saddle, some of the disciples laid their clothes on the back of the ass. The company advanced in good order. The people, ever fond of a spectacle, ran to see this; and we may believe that if some at this time paid sincere homage to the triumpher, the greatest number laughed at him and shouted at the ridiculous farce. The chief magistrate fearing an uproar, endeavored to quiet the populace, to whom the disciples had set the example. He accordingly addressed Jesus himself, who answered that "the stones would speak, rather than his friends would be silent." This seemed to insinuate an insurrection in case they should attempt force; and the magistrate understood very well that this was not the moment to provoke Jesus.

As soon as the Messiah had entered Jerusalem, he betook himself to weeping and predicting its ruin. The announcing calamities was, and will ever be, a sure method to[Pg 154] excite the attention of the vulgar. Some persons of consequence who knew not the cause of the riotous assemblies of the people around Jesus, on enquiry were answered, it is Jesus of Nazareth—it is a prophet of Galilee. Mark assures us, that in this transaction, decisive in behalf of the Son of God, Jesus once more gave to the people the pillage of the merchandise exposed to sale in the court before the porch of the temple. This is very credible: it was indeed more necessary at present than at the former period.

Profitting by the tumult, Jesus cured a great many blind and lame people. Whilst these wonders were performing on one side, they exclaimed Hosannah on the other. Some besought the author of these exclamations and tumult to stop them; but the messiah had no longer measures to observe, he perceived it was necessary to engage the popular enthusiasm, and that it would be silly to appease it. Besides, the uncertainty of success had thrown him into distress, which hindered him from seeing or understanding any thing. A child, frightened, or too much pressed in the crowd, began to cry while Jesus was speaking, "Father, save me from this hour." They took the child's voice for a voice from heaven. John, moreover, informs us, that the disciples had palmed on the people the famous miracle of Lazarus' resurrection, which, attested by eye-witnesses, must have made a great impression on the astonished vulgar. They did not entertain a doubt that the voice from heaven which they had heard, was that of an angel who bore testimony to Jesus; and the latter, profitting dexterously of the occasion, said to them, "This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes." He afterwards harangued the people, and announced himself as "the Christ;" but he spoiled his sermon by timid expressions, and not knowing how to draw from the circumstance all the advantage it seemed to promise, he left the city and retired to Bethany, where he passed the night with his disciples.

In general our hero was subject to low spirits:—we con[Pg 155]stantly find in him a mixture of audacity and pusillanimity. Accustomed to operate in the country, and among rude and ignorant people, he did not know how to conduct himself in a city, or to succeed among vigilant and intelligent enemies. Thus he lost the fruit of his memorable journey, which had been so long before projected. We do not indeed find that after this he returned to Jerusalem, except to be tried. Melancholy and fear had deprived him of all presence of mind, and his disciples were under the necessity of reminding him that it was time to take the passover. They asked him where he wished them to go and prepare the entertainment: He bade them take the first house they met with, which they did. A chamber was provided for them where they assembled with their master, who, ever occupied with his sorrowful thoughts, gave them to understand that this passover would likely be the last which he should celebrate. His language was mournful; he bathed their feet in order to teach them that humility was essentially necessary when they were weakest. Having afterwards set down to table, he told them that he was afraid of being betrayed by one of themselves. His suspicions fell on Judas, whose frequent visits to the houses of the priests might be known to his master. As Judas was treasurer to the party, and charged with paying for the entertainment, Jesus wished it to be understood that they were then regaled at the expense of his life and his blood. "Take," said he to them in a figurative style, "for this is my body." Thereafter he gave them the cup, saying that it was "his blood which was to be shed for them." Judas readily comprehending the meaning of his enigma, arose from table, and immediately withdrew: but the other apostles did not understand it.—It is, however, on this emblem that some doctors have since built the famous dogma of transubstantiation: they enjoin rational beings to believe, that at the word of a priest bread is changed into the real body, and wine into the real blood of Jesus! They have taken the figurative words of our[Pg 156] missionary literally, and have employed them in forming a mystery, or rather the most curious juggle that ever has been devised by priests in order to deceive mankind.

After supper our guests retired with their master to the mount of Olives, where they thought themselves in safety; but our hero did not entertain the same opinion. Scarcely had the Man-God entered the garden of Olives when a mortal terror seized him; he wept like a child and anticipated the pangs of death. His apostles, more tranquil, yielded to sleep, and Jesus, who was afraid of being surprised, mildly reproached them. "Could you not," said he, "watch with me one hour?" Judas, whom we have seen depart suddenly and who had not rejoined the party, gave extreme uneasiness to Jesus and every moment redoubled his terror. It is affirmed that an angel came to strengthen him in his situation: Yet he was afterwards seized with a bloody sweat, which can only denote a very great weakness.

The agitated condition of the Saviour appears very surprising to persons in whose minds faith has not removed every difficulty the gospel presents. They are much astonished to find such weakness in a God who knew from all eternity that he was destined to die for the redemption of the human race. They aver, that God his father, without exposing his son to such cruel torments, might by one word have pardoned guilty men, and conformed them to his views. They think that the conduct of God would have been more generous in appeasing his wrath at less expense on account of an apple eat four thousand years ago. But the ways of God are not as those of men. The Deity ought never to act in a natural way, or be easily understood. It is the essence of religion that men should not comprehend any part of the divine conduct. This furnishes to their spiritual guides the pleasure of explaining it to them for their money.

On the near approach of death the Man-God showed a weakness which many ordinary men would blush to display in a similar situation. The traitor Judas, at the head of a com[Pg 157]pany of archers or soldiers, proceeded towards Jesus whose retreats he know. A kiss was the signal by which the guards were to recognise the person whom they had orders to seize. Already Jesus beheld the lanthorns advancing which lighted the march of these sbirri; and perceiving the impossibility of escaping, he made a virtue of necessity. Like a coward become desperate, he resolutely presented himself to the party: "whom seek ye?" said he, with a firm tone:—"Jesus," answered they. "I am he." Here Judas confirmed with a kiss this heroical confession. The apostles, awakened by the noise, came to the succour of their master. Peter, the most zealous among them, cut off with a stroke of his sabre the ear of Malchus, servant of the High Priest. Jesus, convinced of the folly of resistance, commanded him to put up his sword, set in order the ear of Malchus, (who escaped at the expense of being frightened,) and then surrendered himself.

It is said that the party who came to apprehend Jesus, were forced at first to give way. The fact is very probable: it was dark, and the archers perceiving the apostles but very indistinctly, might believe that their enemies were more numerous than they were; but plucking up courage they fulfilled their commission. Whilst they bound the Son of God with cords, he besought the chief of the detachment not to molest his apostles, and as they wanted him only, he easily obtained his request. John believes that Jesus made this entreaty in order to fulfil a prophecy; but it appears our hero thought it was neither useful nor just to involve men in his ruin, whose assistance might still be necessary, or who, being at large, would have a better opportunity to act in his favor.[Pg 158]

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