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

CHAPTER XVI.

RESURRECTION OF JESUS—HIS CONDUCT UNTIL HIS ASCENSION—EXAMINATION OF THE PROOFS OF THE RESURRECTION.

The history of the life of an ordinary man terminates commonly, with his death; but it is different with a Man-God who has the power of raising himself from the dead, or whom his adherents have the faculty of making rise at will. This happened to Jesus: thanks to his apostles or evangelists, we see him still playing a considerable part even after his decease. The moment he was arrested, the disciples of Jesus, as we have seen, dispersed themselves into Jerusalem and the[Pg 169] neighborhood, with the exception or Simon Peter, who did not lose sight of him during his examination at the house of the high priest. This apostle was anxious, for his own sake, to know the result of it. Encouraging themselves on finding that Jesus had not criminated them in his examinations, the disciples reassembled, concerted measures, and determined, as their master was dead, or reputed so, to take advantage of the notions which he had diffused during his mission. Accustomed for so long a period to lead a wandering life under his command, and subsist at the expence of the public by preaching, exorcisms, and miracles, they resolved to continue a profession more easily exercised, and incomparably more lucrative than their original occupations. They had enjoyed an opportunity of observing that it was better to catch men than fish. But how could the disciples of a man who was punished as an impostor, make themselves be listened to? It was necessary to give out that their master during his life having raised others from the dead, had, after his own death, raised himself in virtue of his omnipotence. Jesus had predicted it; it was therefore necessary to accomplish the prediction. The honor of the master and his disciples thereby acquired a new lustre; and the sect, far from seeing itself annihilated or disgraced, was enabled to acquire new partizans in this credulous nation.

In consequence of this reasoning, the apostles had only to make the body of their master, dead or alive, to disappear; whereas if it had remained in the tomb, it would have borne evidence against them. They did not even wait till the three days and three nights in the pretended prophecy were expired. The dead body disappeared on the second day; and thus the second day after his decease, our hero, triumphing over hell and the grave, found himself revivified.

If Jesus did not die of his punishment, his resurrection had nothing surprising in it. If he was actually dead, the cave where his body was deposited, might have secret passages, through which they could enter and return without being ob[Pg 170]served, or stopt by the enormous stone with which they had affected to block up its entrance, and near which the guards had been placed. Thus the dead body might have been carried off either by force or by stratagem; and, perhaps, it had never been deposited in the tomb at all. In whatever manner the affair was transacted, a report was circulated that Jesus was risen and his body not to be found.

Nothing is of more importance to a Christian, than to ascertain satisfactorily the resurrection of Jesus. Paul tells us, that "if Jesus be not risen, our hope is vain." Indeed without this miracle of Omnipotence, intended to manifest the superiority of Jesus over other men, and the interest Deity took in his success, he must appear only as an adventurer, or weak fanatic, punished for having given umbrage to the priests of his country. It is therefore requisite to examine seriously a fact on which alone the belief of every Christian is founded. In doing this it is necessary to satisfy ourselves of the quality of the witnesses who attest the fact; whether they were acute, disinterested, intelligent persons; and if they agree in their narratives. These precautions are the more necessary, when it is intended to examine supernatural facts, which, to be believed, require much stronger proofs than ordinary facts. On the unanimous testimony of some historians, we readily believe that Casar made himself master of Gaul. The circumstances of his conquest would be less established were we to find them related by himself only, or his adherents; but they would appear incredible, if we found in them prodigies or facts contrary to the order of nature. We should then have reason to believe that it was intended to impose on us; or, if we judged more favorably of the authors, we would regard them as enthusiasts and fools.

Agreeably to these principles of sound criticism, let us consider who are the witnesses that attest the marvellous, and, consequently, the least probable fact which history can produce. They are apostles—But who are these apostles? they are adherents of Jesus. Were these apostles enlightened [Pg 171]men? Every thing proves that they were ignorant and rude, and that an indefatigable credulity was the most prominent trait in their character. Did they behold Jesus rising from the dead?—No:—no one beheld this great miracle. The apostles themselves did not see their master coming out of the grave; they merely found that his tomb was empty; which by no means proves that he had risen. It will, however, be said, that the apostles saw him afterwards and conversed with him, and that he showed himself to some women who knew him very well. But these apostles and these women, did they see distinctly? Did not their prepossessed imaginations make them see what did not exist? Is it absolutely certain that their master was dead before they laid him in the tomb?

In the second place, were these witnesses disinterested? The apostles and disciples of Jesus were, doubtless interested in the glory of their master. Their interests were closely connected with those of a man who enabled them to subsist without toil. Several among them expected to be recompensed for their attachment, by the favors which he promised to bestow on them in the kingdom he was about to establish. Finding these hopes destroyed by the death, real or supposed, of their chief, most of the apostles, persuaded that all was over, lost courage; but, others, less daunted, conceived that it was not necessary to give up all hope, but that they might still profit by the impressions which the preaching and wonders of Jesus had made on the people. They believed that their master might again return, or, if they supposed him dead, they could assert that he had foretold he would rise again. They therefore agreed to circulate the report of his resurrection, and to say that they had seen him after he had triumphantly come out of the tomb. This would appear very credible in the case of a personage who had proved himself capable of raising others from the dead. Knowing the imbecility of those they had to deal with, they presumed that the people were prepared long beforehand to believe[Pg 172] the marvellous wonder which they intended to announce. They conceived that it was necessary in order to subsist, to continue preaching doctrines which would not attract an audience if it had not been taken for granted that their author was risen again. They felt that it was necessary to preach the resurrection of Jesus, or perish with hunger. They foresaw, moreover, that it was requisite to brave chastisement and even death, rather than renounce an opinion on which their daily subsistence and welfare absolutely depended. Hence unbelievers conclude, that the witnesses of the resurrection were any thing but disinterested, and were spurred on by the principle, that he who risks nothing, gains nothing.

In the third place, are the witnesses of the resurrection unanimous in their evidence? Much more, are they consistent with themselves in their narratives? We find neither the one nor the other. Though Jesus, according to some of the evangelists, had foretold in the most positive manner, that he would rise again, John makes no mention of this prediction, but expressly declares, that the disciples of Jesus knew not that he must rise again from the dead. This denotes in them a total ignorance of that great event, said, however, to have been announced by their master; and creates a suspicion that these predictions were piously invented afterwards. Yet nothing can be more positive than the manner in which Matthew speaks of the prediction: he supposes it so well known to the public, that he affirms the priests and pharisees went to Pilate and told him, "We remember this deceiver said while he was yet alive, that after three days he would rise again." We do not, however, find in any of the evangelists a passage where this resurrection is foretold in so public and decided a manner. Matthew himself relates only the answer of Jesus to those who demanded a sign; it consisted, as we have elsewhere remarked, in referring them to "Jonas, who was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale; so," said he, "shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of[Pg 173] the earth. Now Jesus, having died on Friday, at the ninth hour, or three o'clock in the afternoon, and risen again the second day early in the morning, was not "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." Besides, the obscure manner in which Jesus expressed himself in this pretended prediction, could not enable the priests and pharisees to conclude that he must die and rise again, or excite their alarm; unless it is pretended, that on this occasion these enemies of Jesus received the interpretation of the mysterious prediction by a particular revelation.

John tells us, that when Jesus was taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus brought a mixture of aloes and myrrh, weighing about a hundred pounds, to embalm him, and that he afterwards took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, applied the spices according to the practice of the Jews in their funeral ceremonies, and laid it in the tomb. Thus was Jesus embalmed, carried away, and buried. On the other hand, Matthew and Luke tell us that this sepulchre and embalming were performed in presence of Mary Magdalane and Mary the mother of Jesus, who consequently must have known what Nicodemus had done; yet Mark, forgetting all this, tells us that these same women brought sweet spices (aromatics) in order to embalm his body, and came for that purpose early in the morning of the day subsequent to the Sabbath. Luke has no better memory: he informs us that these ladies came also to embalm a dead body, which, according to John, had already received a hundred pounds weight of aromatics, and was inclosed in a sepulchre, the entrance of which was blocked up by a massy stone that embarrassed the women as much at finding it as the incredulous are with these contradictions of our evangelists.

The ladies, however, who felt interrupted by the stone, had no dread of the guard which Matthew placed at the entrance of the tomb. But if these women knew that Jesus was to rise again at the end of three days, why were they so careful[Pg 174] in embalming his body?—unless indeed we suppose that Jesus made a secret to his mother and the tender Magdalane, of an event, which, it is asserted, was publicly predicted, and perfectly well known not only to his disciples, but to the priests and pharisees. According to Matthew, the precautions used were founded on the fear the priests entertained that the disciples should come and carry away the body, and afterwards say unto the people, that Jesus had risen from the dead; an error, which, in their opinion, would be more dangerous than the first. Nevertheless, we find several women and disciples continually roaming about the tomb, going and coming freely, and offering to embalm the same dead body twice. It must be acknowledged, that all this surpasses human understanding.

It is not more easy to conceive the conduct of the guards placed near the tomb at the solicitation of the priests, or that of the priests themselves. According to Matthew, these guards, terrified at the resurrection of Jesus, ran to Jerusalem to tell the priests, "that the angel of the Lord had descended from heaven, and taken away the stone which blocked up the tomb; and that at the sight of him they had nearly expired through fear." On this the priests, not at all doubting the truth of the relation of the guards, enjoined them to say publicly that the disciples of Jesus had carried away his body during the night, and while they were asleep. They also gave the soldiers money to speak in this manner, and promised to pacify the governor if he intended to punish them for their negligence.

The guards, it will be observed, did not say they had seen Jesus rise; they pretended merely to have seen "the angel of the Lord descending from heaven, and rolling away the stone which was at the entrance of the tomb." Thus this history announces an apparition only, and not a resurrection. We might explain it in a manner natural enough by supposing that during the night, while the guards were asleep, the adherents of Jesus came by the light of flambeaus, with an[Pg 175] armed force to open the tomb and intimidate the soldiers, who, in the alarm imagined they had seen their prey taken out of their hands by a supernatural power; and that they afterwards affirmed all this in order to justify themselves.

The most singular circumstance is the conduct of the priests, who believed the story of the guards, and consequently gave credit to a miracle strong enough to convince them of the power of Jesus. But far from being convinced by the prodigy which they thus believed, they gave money to the soldiers to engage them to tell, not the incident as it occurred, but that the disciples of Jesus came by night to take away the body of their master. On the other hand, the guards, who must have been more dead than alive through terror at the spectacle they had witnessed, accepted money for publishing a falsehood; a conduct for which the angel of the Lord might very properly have punished them. Far, however, from dreading punishment, these soldiers for a sum of money consented to betray their consciences. But could the Jewish priests, however base we may suppose them, be silly enough to imagine that these men, after having witnessed so striking a miracle, would be very faithful in preserving the secret? It must have been an insignificant miracle indeed which could make no impression either on the soldiers who had seen it, or on the priests who believed it on the relation of these soldiers. If the priests were convinced of the reality of the miracle, was it not natural that they should recognize Jesus for the messiah, and that they should unite with him in laboring to deliver their country from the yoke of idolaters?

On this occasion, indeed, the angel of the Lord seems to have bungled the affair, by so terrifying the soldiers that they fled without having time to see Jesus rising from the dead; whose resurrection, however, was the object of all this pompous preparation. Very far from allowing it to be seen by any one, this awkward angel chased away the guards who ought to have been the witnesses of the mighty wonder. It[Pg 176] appears, in fact, that the transaction or Jesus' resurrection was seen by nobody. His disciples did not see it; the soldiers, who guarded his tomb, did not see it; and the priests and Jews did not hold this fact to be so memorable as some persons who beheld no part of it. It was only after his resurrection that Jesus showed himself. But to whom did he show himself? To disciples, interested in saying that he was risen again; to women, who to the same interest joined also weak minds and ardent imaginations, disposed to form phantoms and chimeras.

These remarks will enable us to judge of all the pretended appearances of Jesus after his resurrection. Besides, the evangelists are not unanimous as to these appearances. Matthew relates, that Jesus showed himself to Mary Magdalane and the other Mary; John makes mention of Mary Magdalane singly. Matthew tells us, that Jesus showed himself to the two Marys on the road whilst returning from the sepulchre on purpose to apprize the disciples of what they had seen. John informs us, that Mary Magdalane, after visiting the sepulchre, carried the news to the disciples, and thereafter returned to this same sepulchre, where she beheld Jesus in the company of angels. Matthew affirms, that the two Marys embraced the feet of Jesus. John says, Jesus forbade Mary Magdalane to touch him. Matthew informs us, that Jesus bade the two Marys tell his disciples that he was going into Galilee. John says, Jesus ordered Mary to acquaint his disciples, that he was going to his Father; that is, to heaven. But it is more singular still, that, according to Mark, the disciples themselves were not inclined to credit the apparition of Jesus to Magdalane. Agreeably to Luke, they treated all that she told them of angels, as reveries. According to John, Magdalane herself did not at first believe that she had seen her adorable lover, whom she took for the gardener.

There is no greater certainty in the apparition of Jesus to Peter and John. These two apostles went to the sepulchre,[Pg 177] but they did not find their dear master. According to John, he himself saw neither Jesus nor his angels. From Luke it appears, that these apostles arrived after the angels were gone; and from John, before the angels had arrived. The witnesses are, indeed, very little unanimous as to these angels, who seem to have been seen only by the good ladies, whom they charged to announce to the disciples the resurrection of Jesus. Matthew makes mention of one angel only, whom Mark calls a young man.

John affirms that there were two.

It is said that Jesus showed himself again to two disciples of Emaus, called Simon and Cleophas; but they did not recognize him, though they had lived familiarly with him. They proceeded a long while in his company without suspecting who he was—a circumstance which, undoubtedly, evinced a very strange failure of memory. It is true, Luke tells us that their eyes were as if shut. Is it not very singular that Jesus should show himself in order not to be known again? They, however, recognized him afterwards; but immediately dreading, as it would seem, to be seen too nearly, the phantom disappeared. The two disciples went immediately and announced the news to their brethren assembled at Jerusalem, where Jesus arrived fully as soon as they.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke, agree in telling us, that when the disciples were informed of the resurrection of Jesus, they saw him for the first and last time. But the author of the Acts of the Apostles, John and Paul contradict this assertion, for they speak of several other appearances which afterwards occurred. Matthew and Mark inform us, that the disciples received orders to go and join Jesus in Galilee; but Luke and the author of the Acts (i.e. the same Luke) says, that the disciples were ordered not to go out of Jerusalem. As to this last apparition, Matthew places it on a mountain in Galilee, where Jesus had fixed the rendezvous for the evening of the day of his resurrection; whilst Luke informs us that it was at Jerusalem, and tells us that immediately thereafter[Pg 178] Jesus ascended into heaven, and disappeared forever. Yet the author of the Acts of the Apostles is not of this opinion: he maintains, against himself, that Jesus tarried still forty days with his disciples in order to instruct them.

There still remain to be considered two appearances of Jesus to his apostles, the one at which Thomas was not present, and refused to believe those who assured him of their having seen their master, and the other when Thomas recognized his master, who shewed him his wounds. To render one of these apparitions more marvellous, they assure us that Jesus was seen in the midst of his disciples whilst the doors were shut. But this will not appear surprizing to those who know that Jesus after his resurrection, had an immaterial or incorporeal body, which could make itself a passage through the smallest orifices. His disciples took him for a spirit: yet this spirit had wounds, was palpable, and took food. But, perhaps, all this was only chimerical, and those apparitions mere illusions. Indeed, how could the apostles be assured of the reality of what they saw? A being who has the power of changing the course of nature, can destroy all the rules by which we judge of certainty: how then could they ever be certain of having seen Jesus after his resurrection?

John speaks of several appearances of Jesus to his disciples, of which no mention is made by the other evangelists: hence we see that his testimony destroys theirs, or that theirs destroy his. As to the apparitions of Jesus which Paul mentions, he was not a witness of them, and knew them only by hearsay; we find him accordingly speaking of them in a manner not very exact. He says that Jesus showed himself "to the twelve," while it is evident that, by the death of Judas, the apostolic college was reduced to eleven. We are surprized to see these inaccuracies in an inspired author; they may render suspicious what he likewise says of the apparition of Jesus to five hundred of the brethren at once. As to himself we know, that he never saw his master but in a vi[Pg 179]sion; and considering the testimonies on which the resurrection of Jesus is founded, perhaps we may say as much of the other apostles and disciples. They were Jews, enthusiasts, and prophets; and consequently subject to dreaming even while awake. The incredulous consider this to be the most favorable opinion they can form of witnesses who attest the resurrection of the Saviour, on which however the Christian religion is solely established.

It appears, indeed, most certain from the nature of the testimonies we have examined, that providence has in a singular manner neglected to give to an event so memorable and of such great importance, the authenticity it seemed to require. Laying aside faith, which never experiences any difficulty about proofs, no man can believe facts, even the most natural, from vouchers so faulty, proofs so weak, relations so contradictory, and testimonies so suspicious as those which the evangelists furnish us on the most incredible and marvellous occurrence that was ever related. Independent of the visible interest these historians had in establishing the belief of the resurrection of their master, and which ought to put us on our guard against them, they seem to have written merely to contradict one another, and reciprocally weaken their evidence. To adopt relations in which we have only a tissue of contradictions, improbable facts, and absurdities, calculated to destroy all confidence in history, requires indeed grace from above. Yet Christians do not for a moment doubt the resurrection; and their belief in this respect is founded on a rock; that is on prejudices they have never examined, and to which from early infancy their spiritual guides have prudently attached the greatest importance. They teach them to immolate reason, judgment, and good sense, on the altar of faith. After this sacrifice, it is no longer difficult to make them acknowledge, without enquiry, the most palpable absurdities for truths, on which it is not permitted even to be sceptical.

It is in vain that people of sense demonstrate the falsity of[Pg 180] these pretended truths; it is in vain that an intelligent critic stands up against interested testimonies, visibly suggested by enthusiasm and imposture; it is in vain, that humanity exclaims against wars, massacres, and horrors without number, which absurd disputes on absurd dogmas have occasioned. They silence the credulous by saying, that "it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nought the understanding of the prudent.—Where is the wise? Where are the scribes? (the doctors of the law). Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world by causing the foolishness of the gospel to be preached?" It is by such declamations against reason and wisdom that fanatics and impostors have almost banished good sense from the earth, and formed slaves who make a merit of rejecting reason, of extinguishing a sacred torch which would conduct them with certainty, on purpose to lead them astray in the darkness which these interested guides know how to infuse into minds.

The dogma of the resurrection of Jesus is only attested by men whose subsistence depended on that absurd romance; and as roguery continually belies itself, these witnesses could not agree among themselves in their evidence. They tell us, that Jesus had publicly predicted his own resurrection. He ought therefore to have risen publicly; he ought to have shewn himself, not in secret to his disciples, but openly to priests, pharisees, doctors, and men of understanding, especially after having intimated, that it was the only sign which would be given them. Was it not acknowledging the falsehood of his mission, to refuse the sign by which he had solemnly promised to prove the truth of that mission? Was it reasonable to require the Jews to believe, on the word of his disciples, a fact which he could have demonstrated before their own eyes? How is it possible for rational persons of the present age to believe, after the lapse of eighteen hundred years, on the discordant testimonies of four interested evangelists, fanatics, or fabulists, a story which they could not make be believed in their own time; except by a small[Pg 181] number of imbecile people, incapable of reasoning, fond of the marvellous, and of too limited understandings to escape the snares laid for their simplicity. A Roman governor, a tetrarch, a Jewish high priest, converted by the apparition of Jesus, would have made a greater impression on a man of sense than a hundred secret apparitions to his chosen disciples. The conversion of the Sanhedrim at Jerusalem to the faith, would have been of greater weight than all the obscure rabble which the apostles prevailed on to believe their improbable marvels, and persuaded that they had seen Jesus alive after his death.

If the apparitions of Jesus to his apostles were not obviously fables invented by roguery, or adopted through enthusiasm and ignorance, the motive of these clandestine visits cannot be divined. Become incapable of suffering, and re-established in his divine omnipotence, was he still afraid of the Jews? Could he dread being put to death a second time? By again showing himself, had he not better reason to calculate on converting them than he derived from all his sermons and miracles?

But it is said that the Jews by their opposition deserved to be rejected; that the views of providence were changed; and that God no longer wished his chosen people should be converted. These answers are so many insults to the Divinity. How is it possible for men to withstand God? Is it not to deny the Divine Omnipotence to pretend that man can oppose its will? Man, it is asserted, is free; but must not a God who knew every thing, have foreseen that the Jews would abuse their liberty by resisting his will? In that case why send them his Son? Why make him suffer to no purpose an infamous and cruel death? Why not send him at once to creatures disposed to hear him, and render him homage? To pretend that the views of providence were changed, is it not to attack the divine immutability? Unless indeed it be said, that Deity had from all eternity resolved on this change; which, however, will not shelter that immutability.[Pg 182]

Thus, in whatever point of view we contemplate the matter, it will remain a decided fact, that the resurrection of Jesus, far from being founded on solid proofs, unexceptionable testimony, and respectable authority, is obviously established on falsehood and knavery, which pervade every page of the discordant relations of those who have pretended to vouch it.

After having made their hero revive and show himself, we know not how often, to his trusty disciples, it was necessary in the end to make him disappear altogether—to send him back to heaven, in order to conclude the romance. But our story-tellers are not more in union on his disappearance than on other things. They agree neither as to the time nor the place of Jesus' ascension. Mark and Luke inform us, that Jesus after having shown himself to the eleven apostles while they were at table, and spoken to them, ascended into heaven. Luke adds, that he conducted them as far as Bethany; lifted up his hands and blessed them, and was afterwards carried up to heaven. Mark contradicts Luke, and makes Jesus ascend to heaven from Galilee: and as if he had seen what passed on high, places him on the right hand of God, who on this occasion yielded to him the place of honor. Matthew and John do not speak of this ascension. If we leave it to them, we must say, that Jesus is still on earth according to the first of these evangelists, his last words to his disciples gave them to understand, that he would "remain with them until the end of the world." To fix our ideas on this subject, Luke tells us, as we have seen, that Jesus ascended into heaven the very evening of the day of the resurrection. But he afterwards informs us, that Jesus tarried forty days after his resurrection with his disciples. Faith only can extricate us from this embarrassment. John advances nothing in the matter; but leaves us in uncertainty as to the time which Jesus passed on earth after his resurrection. Some unbelievers on observing the romantic style of the gospel of this apostle, have concluded from the manner in which he finishes his history, that he meant to give free course to the fables which[Pg 183] might afterwards be published about Jesus. He terminates his narrative with these words; "Jesus did also many other things, and if they should be written every one, I suppose, that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written:" and with this hyperbole, the well-beloved apostle finishes the Platonic romance which he made about his master.


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