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



Though the obstinacy of the doctors of the law and principal men among the Jews, created continual obstacles to the success of Jesus, he did not lose courage; he again had recourse to prodigies, the certain means of captivating the populace, on whom he perceived it was necessary to found his hopes. This people were subject to diseases of the skin, such as leprosy and similar cutaneous disorders. No doubt can be entertained on this point when we consider the precaution which the law of Moses ordains against these infirmities. To establish his reputation, Jesus resolved to undertake the cure of this disgusting disease with which his countrymen were so much infected.[Pg 114]

According to Luke, a leper prostrated himself at the feet of Jesus, and adored him, saying, that he had heard him spoken of as a very able man, and that, if he was inclined, he could cure him. On this, Jesus merely stretched forth his hand, and the leprosy disappeared. Hitherto, the messiah had only recommended it to those he cured to present themselves to the priests and to offer them the gift prescribed in such cases; but on this occasion he thought that he would reconcile them by strictly enjoining this mark of deference. He, therefore, exacted of the cured leper, that he would satisfy the ordinance of the law; but at the same time recommended secrecy as to the physician's name—a secret which was no better preserved by him than by others. Jesus forgot that it was not sufficient to impose silence on the persons he cured, but that it was likewise necessary to lay a restraint on all the tongues of the spectators; unless indeed it is supposed that these miracles were performed with shut doors, and witnessed by the Saviour's disciples only; or, rather, that they were not performed at all.

Meanwhile, the leper's indiscretion was the cause why Jesus, according to Mark, no longer ventured to appear in the city. The priests seem to have taken in ill mood the cure he had performed: He therefore withdrew into the desart, where the more he was followed the more he buried himself in concealment. It was in vain that the people desired to hear him; it was in vain that the sick, who ran after him, requested their cure. He no longer suffered that marvellous virtue, calculated to cure every disorder, to exhale from him.

After having wandered for some time in the desart, ruminating on his affairs, he re-appeared at Capernaum. The domestic of a Roman centurion, much beloved by his master, was at the point of death from an attack of the palsy. This Pagan believed that Jesus could easily cure his slave; but, instead of presenting him to the physician as he ought to have done, he deputed some Jewish senators to wait on him. However disagreeable this commission might be to persons[Pg 115] whom the centurion had no right to command, and who by that step seemed to acknowledge the mission of Jesus, these senators performed it. Flattered with seeing an idolator apply to him, our miracle-worker set out immediately; but the centurion sent some of his people to inform Jesus that he was not worthy of the honour thus intended him by entering his house; and that to cure his servant it was sufficient to speak only one word. Jesus was delighted with this; he declared, that he had not found so much faith in Israel; and with one word, if the gospel may be believed, he performed the cure. He afterwards told the Jews, that if they persisted in their hardness of heart, (the only disease which the Son of God could never cure, though he had come for that purpose,) the idolatrous nations would be substituted in their stead, and that God, notwithstanding his promises, would forever abandon his ancient friends. The gospel, however, does not tell us, whether this centurion, so full of faith, was himself converted.

The day after this cure, Jesus having left Capernaum, arrived at Nain, a small town in Galilee, about twenty leagues distant, which proves that the messiah was a great walker. Fortunately he got there in time to perform a splendid miracle. A poor widow had lost her son; they were already carrying him to be burried, and the disconsolate mother, accompanied by a great multitude, followed the funeral procession. Jesus, moved with compassion, approached the bier and laid his hand on it. Immediately those who carried it stopped. Young man! said he, addressing the deceased, I say to thee, arise. Forthwith, he who was dead sat up. This miracle terrified all the attendants, but converted nobody. The transaction is related by Luke alone; but even were it better verified, we might justly suspect that the disconsolate mother held secret intelligence with the performer.

Some historians have made John Baptist live to this period; others made him die much earlier. Here Matthew and[Pg 116] Luke introduce the disciples or the precursor, on purpose to question Jesus on the part of their master. "Art thou he that was to come, or look we for another?" The messiah in reply worked miracles in their presence, cured the sick, cast out devils, and gave sight to the blind; after which he said to John's deputies, "Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen." It was on this occasion that Jesus pronounced the eulogy of John. He had, as we have seen in chapter fourth of this history, his reasons for so doing. "Amongst all those," said he, "that are born of women, verily I say unto you there is not a greater than John Baptist." Our panegyrist profited afterwards by this circumstance to abuse the pharisees and doctors, who rejected both his baptism and John's. He compared these unbelievers to "Children sitting in the market place, and calling to one another: We have piped to you, and you have not danced; we have chaunted funeral airs, and ye have not weeped." But we are not informed that this jargon converted the doctors.

After this our speech-maker compared his own conduct with that of the precursor. "John," said he, "came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say he hath a devil. I eat, drink, and love good cheer, yet you reject me also, under pretence that I keep company with men and women of bad reputation." He gave the populace, however, to understand, that their suffrage was sufficient for him; as if he had told them, "I am certain of you—you are too poor in spirit to perceive the irregularity of my conduct—my wonders pass with you; you should not reflect; you are the true children Of wisdom, which will be justified by you."

After this harangue, a Pharisee, who to judge of him by his conduct had been noways moved by Jesus, invited the orator to dinner; but he used him in the most unpolite manner. He did not cause his feet to be bathed, nor did he present perfumes according to the established custom of the Jews. Though Jesus might be offended at this omission,[Pg 117] he did not decline sitting down at table; but while he was eating, a woman of bad fame bathed his feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, and thereafter anointed them with a precious ointment. The pharisee did not comprehend the mystery. Stupid and incredulous, he conjectured that Jesus did not know the profession of the female; but he was mistaken: the courtezan in question and all her family were intimately connected with the messiah. John informs us, that she was called Mary Magdalane, and that she was the sister of Martha and Lazarus, people well known to Jesus, and who held a regular correspondence with him. In particular it appears, that Magdalane entertained the most tender sentiments for Jesus.

This action of the courtezan did not disconcert the Saviour; he explained her love, the attention paid him, and the kisses with which she loaded him, in a mystical and spiritual sense; and assuming the tone of one inspired, he assured her that her sins were forgiven on account of the love she had displayed. Luke informs us in the following chapter, that Jesus had delivered this lady of seven devils—a service which well merited her gratitude. Be that as it may, Jesus employed this indirect way of shewing the pharisee the incivility of his behaviour to a man of his consequence.

The relations of Jesus, informed of the noise he made, and suspecting that he could not lead a very pure life among the gentry with whom he associated; or fearing that his conduct in the end would draw him into scrapes, went from Nazareth to Capernaum to seize him, and cause him to be confined. They were afraid of being involved in his disgrace, and chose rather to charge themselves with his correction, than to see him delivered up to justice; an event which they perceived was likely soon to happen. They therefore circulated a rumor, that he was a fool, whose brain was disordered. Jesus, informed of the motive of their journey, kept close, and had a prodigy in reserve the moment they should appear. The people, who had a hint of this, or were told of it by the[Pg 118] emissaries of the messiah, repaired thither. As soon as the relations appeared, a blind and dumb man possessed with a devil was brought forth. Jesus exorcised him, the possessed was delivered, and the people were in extacies.

The doctors beheld with pain the credulity of the rabble, and foresaw the consequences of it. The kinsmen of Jesus, little affected by this miracle, promised to the doctors to use all their efforts to deliver him up to them. He is a sorcerer, said some; he is a prophet, said others; he must prove it, said a third; and, notwithstanding the great miracle he had performed, others added, Let us ask of him a sign in the air. "Good God!" said the Nazarenes, "he is neither sorcerer nor prophet; he is a poor lad whose brain is disordered."

These speeches being related to Jesus, he answered them by parables and invectives, and defended himself from the charge of being a wizard, by maintaining that it was absurd to suppose he cast out devils by the power of the devil. As to the imputation of folly, he repelled it with affirming that whoever should question his intellect, could not expect the remission of his sins either in this or in the other world. This undoubtedly is what must be understood by the Sin against the Holy Ghost.

Nevertheless the midway course of demanding a sign was followed; for this purpose a deputation was sent to Jesus; but instead of a sign in the air, he gave them one in the water. He referred our inquisitive folks to Jonas, and told them they should have no other sign; for, added he, "As Jonas was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." These Jews who were neither wizards nor prophets, could not comprehend this language. Jesus, to whom miracles cost nothing when every thing was arranged for performing them, did not risk himself by working them impromptu, or in the presence of those he judged acute enough to examine them. On this occasion he put off these poor Jews, whom he calculated on converting to himself for ever, with an unintelligible answer.[Pg 119]

Having refused to perform a prodigy in the air, he began to rail at them. He got into a passion, and launched out in prophetical invectives against the Jews. He compared the conduct of the queen of Sheba with theirs; boasted of his being greater and wiser than Solomon; and threatened to deprive them of the light which he shed in their country. We are of opinion, however, that, if he had deigned to give the sign demanded, he would have spread this light much further. But the messiah felt that a sign in the air was much more difficult than those he had given on the earth, where he was better able to arrange matters than aloft in the atmosphere, a region in which there was nobody to concert with.

Meanwhile Jesus' mother had joined her other children and relations in order to induce them to desist from their pursuit, but she could not prevail on them. They persisted in the design of apprehending our adventurer. As however, they could not penetrate through the multitude and get close up to him, they sent notice they were there. "Behold," said some one to Jesus, "thy mother and thy brethren who seek thee."—Jesus knowing the object of their visit which he was no ways eager to receive, abjured such froward relations; "Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?" said he; after which, stretching forth his hand towards the people, "Behold," added he, "my mother and brethren; I know no other kinsmen than those who hearken to my word, and put it in practice." The people, flattered with the preference, took Jesus under their protection, and the attempt of his family was thus turned to their confusion.

Escaped from this perilous adventure, afraid of being ensnared or mistrusting the constancy of the populace, who, notwithstanding the pleasure they found in seeing him perform his juggles, might desert him at last, Jesus thought proper to provide for his safety by leaving the town. He accordingly departed with his twelve apostles, the ladies of his train, Mary his mother, Jane and Magdalane, who assisted[Pg 120] the company with their property. No doubt the last, who before she was with the messiah had made gain of her charms, was rich in jewels and ready money. This rendered her conversion of great importance to the sect, and especially to Jesus, who could not, without cruelty, refuse to repay so much love with a little return.

The persecution which Jesus experienced excited an interest in his behalf, and it would seem procured him greater countenance. A multitude of people impelled by curiosity, as soon as they knew the road he had taken, went out of the towns and hamlets in the environs to see him. To avoid being incommoded by the crowd, he again resolved to go on board a vessel, from which he preached to those on shore; but recollecting the trouble, which his former sermons had brought him into, he did not think it prudent to explain himself so clearly. He, therefore, preferred speaking in parables, which are always susceptible of a double meaning.

One day chagrined at his little success, he distinctly avowed that he had changed his resolution as to the jews, and meant to abandon their conversion. The reason for doing, so he expressed to them in parables; "that seeing, they may not perceive, and hearing they may not understand, lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them."

It must be owned that it is very difficult to reconcile this conduct of God. Were we not afraid of committing sacrilege by hazarding objections on the mission of Jesus, might it not be presumed that at first he had the design of giving laws to the Jews; but perceiving afterwards his little success, he resolved to seek his fortune elsewhere, and gain other subjects? What he communicated to his disciples in this secret view, appears to have been for the purpose of preparing them for this change; but his punishment prevented all his designs, which were not executed till a long time after by his apostles, who no doubt carefully treasured up this conference.

We shall not enter into a detail of all the parables which[Pg 121] Jesus employed in communicating his marvellous doctrine to the Jews, or preaching without being understood. Such a discussion would become very tiresome; we therefore advise those who may have a taste for such kind of apologues rather to read those of Esop or La Fontaine, which they will find more amusing and more instructive than the fables of Jesus. Those, however, who wish to consult the parables of the gospel, will find them in the following places:—The parable of the sower, Luke, viii. 5—of the concealed lamp, ib. viii. 16—of the tares, Matt. xiii. 24—of the seed, Mark iv. 26—of the grain of mustard, Matt. xiii. 31—of the leaven, ib. xiii. 33—of the hidden treasure, ib. xiii. 44—of the pearl, ib. xiii. 45—of the net cast into the sea, ib. 47—and of the father of the family, ib. 52.

Jesus informed that his brothers and cousins were from home, went to Nazareth accompanied with his apostles. He perhaps wanted to convince his countrymen that he was not such a fool as was reported. Probably he hoped to confer with his family, and gain them over to his party. He arrived on the Sabbath, and repaired to the synagogue: immediately the priest very politely presented him with a book; he opened it, and stumbled precisely on this passage of Isaiah: "The spirit of the Lord has rested upon me, and therefore I am anointed to preach." Having shut the book, he delivered it to the priest and sat down; but he did not neglect to apply to himself this passage of the prophet, where also mention is made of miracles and prodigies. There were present, either by chance or design, several Gallileans, who having been witnesses of the marvels Jesus had previously performed, did not hesitate to bear testimony in his favour. But the Nazarenes, who knew what to think of him, were shocked at his magisterial tone. "Is not this," said they to one another, "the carpenter, the son of Joseph the carpenter? Is not his mother called Mary? Are not his brethren and sisters with us? Whence then has he so much skill? How, and by what means does he work miracles?"[Pg 122]

Jesus, hearing these remarks, saw plainly that this was not the proper place for performing prodigies. But he wished that his inaction might be attributed to the evil dispositions of his countrymen, who were surprised to hear the sagacity and power of a man extolled whose conduct appeared to them very equivocal. "I perceive," said Jesus to them, "that you apply to me the proverb, Physician cure thyself; and that, to prove the truth of what you have heard of me, you wish me to perform some of those miracles which I have elsewhere exhibited; but I know I shall labour in vain in this city: I am too well convinced of the truth of the proverb, No man is a prophet in his own country." To justify himself he quoted examples which would seem to throw a suspicion on the miracles of the prophets of the Old Testament, whom this proverb, even by itself, was calculated to make pass for knaves. Whatever opinion we may form of this, he cited the example of Elias, who, among all the widows of Israel, did not find one more deserving of a miracle than her of Sarepta, a woman of the country of the Sidonians. In the days of Elias, Judea was overrun with lepers; and yet the prophet cured Naaman, who was a Syrian and an idolater, in preference to his countrymen.

This harangue, which insinuated the reprobation and perversity of the audience, excited their rage so much that they dragged the orator out of the synagogue, and led him to the top of a mountain with an intention to throw him down headlong; but he had the good fortune to escape, and thus avoid the fate which was intended him in the place of his nativity. Matthew, speaking of this journey to Nazareth, says that his master did not perform many miracles there on account of the unbelief of the inhabitants. But Mark says positively, that he could not do any, which is still more probable.

Our luminous interpreters and commentators believe, that Jesus escaped only by a miracle out of the hands of the Nazarenes. But would it have cost him more to perform a miracle in order to convert them, and thereby prevent their[Pg 123] mischievous designs? This was all that was required of him, in order to save himself and place his person in security. Jesus never performed miracles but with certain loss; he always dispensed with working any when they would have been decisive, and beneficial.

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