Whom do men say that I, the Son of Man, am? New Testament
It may be accounted as a misfortune that the world possesses no authentic portrait of Jesus of Nazareth. There is, indeed, one in existence, which is said to have been the product of a miracle. The story is that, on the way to Calvary while bending under the weight of his cross, which he was compelled to carry, a tender hearted woman gave him her veil with which to wipe the perspiration from his face. When it was returned to her, his features were stamped upon it and remained as a permanent portrait. The veil was preserved as a relic and, being handed down from one generation to another, it finally became the cherished possession of Saint Peter’s at Rome. Unfortunately for the authenticity of the story, a veil, much resembling it, is preserved at Milan. It is also significant that the reported name of the compassionate woman is Veronica. Composed of a Latin adjective and a Greek noun, Veronica signifies “true image.” Thus additional suspicion is cast upon the whole case. It is more than probable that the out-lines of the face, having been imagined, and then made by ordinary means it was called the true picture of Jesus, and the story, including the name of the woman, was invented to account for it.
In your reading you may have encountered this description of him, attributed to one Publius Lentulus:
“There has appeared in this, our day, a man of great virtue named Jesus Christ, who is yet living amongst us and with the Gentiles is accepted as a prophet of truth. * * * He is tall and comely and with a very reverend countenance. His hair is the color of a ripe filbert, plain down to his ears, but from his ears downward, somewhat curled and more orient of color, waving about his shoulders. His forehead is very smooth ; his nose and mouth are so formed that no fault can be found with them. His eyes are grey, clear and quick. In reproving he is terrible ; in admonishing courteous and fair-spoken ; pleasant in speech in the midst of gravity. It can-not be remembered that any have seen him laugh, but many have seen him weep. In proportion of body, well-shaped and straight ; his hands and arms beauteous to behold ; in speaking, very temperate, modest and wise; a man of singular virtue surpassing the children of men.”
This is attractive, but scholars think that the letter containing it is a forgery.
It was not until the fourth century that art tried to delineate the Son of Man except by symbols and suggestions. Sometimes he was represented as a shepherd, watching over a flock. Sometimes he appears as Orpheus, subduing all things by music. Again, he is seen as a beautiful youth with a gar-land about his brow, signifying immortality. In other instances he is represented as a mature man teaching philosophy to his disciples. Thus his personal appearance is left entirely to imagination.
Uncertainty as to his external appearance is al-most equaled by uncertainty concerning his inner life. There is no absolutely reliable portrait of his soul. Concerning him there was variety of opinion among his contemporaries and even among those friends who were nearest him. John the Baptist is reported to have sent messengers to ask him whether he was the expected Messiah. His answer was non-committal and left uncertainty in the minds of those who heard it. After the messengers had gone, he told the multitude that no greater man had ever come to the world than John the Baptist himself. Once his immediate followers were asked what people in general thought of him. They replied that some thought he was Elijah, some that he was Jeremiah, and some that he was one of the other Old Testament prophets returned to earth. When the question, “Whom do you say I am?” was put directly to the Disciples, themselves, the most impulsive one of them boldly replied : “Thou art the anointed of God !” To the priests who plotted for his death, he was a blasphemer. To the Roman officers, he was a disturber of the peace. One of the soldiers who helped crucify him said he was the Son of God.
In the few references made to him in literature, outside of the New Testament, there is a similar diversity of opinion. Tacitus says his religion is a “pernicious superstition.” Pliny says that his followers lived pure and holy lives and they met at day-break and sang hymns in his praise as if he were a God. Josephus only makes a passing allusion to him; and nearly all scholars think that a part of the passage containing it is a forgery. Philo, the most learned Jew of that century, does not mention him. Suetonius, who wrote biographies of eminent teachers, con-fused him with another person still living, and regarded Nero as a public benefactor for persecuting his followers. In some of the Jewish writings he is called “The Nazarene ;” “That Man;” “The Fool;” “The One Who Was Hung.” Thus historians are as far from agreement concerning his true character as were his personal friends and personal enemies. They vary all the way from regarding him as an impostor, to be despised, to regarding him as a Deity, to be adored.
With so much variation and contradiction in the sources of information, we cannot be perfectly sure that the Christ in whom we believe is, in all respects, the Christ of actual history. He probably is not. Nevertheless, it is impossible to avoid a reconstruction of his character. The exaggerations of praise and contempt are alike distasteful. The rational sense is unable to regard him as absolute Deity. The historic sense is just as unable to deny his existence. The moral sense is also unable to deny the value of his life and philosophy. What we should most like would be a portrait of him which the mind could fully approve and the heart deeply love.
In forming an estimate of him the remoteness of our age from his is not necessarily a hindrance. There is such a thing as being too near an object to form a correct conception of it. When the immense canvasses of Verestschagin were on exhibition, visitors were instructed to view them from a distance of thirty feet. Obeying this instruction, their strength and awful realism were apparent. The best histories of the Civil War were not written while it was in progress nor immediately following its close. They were written much later. Thus, instead of obstructing our view of Christ, the intervening centuries may assist us. A poet says :
“A score of piney miles can smoothe Monadnoc’s roughness to a gem.”
So a score of centuries may take away from Jesus the exaggerations of friends and foes and leave a great moral and spiritual worth. Those who, in far off times, called him an impostor and those who called him Deity having finished their noisy battles are now slumbering quietly in the ground. Looking across the still valley lying between this and the first century perhaps our age may see him neither as a deceiver nor as a God, but as a great pure hearted man.
Historic criticism has been both blamed and praised. By those who wished to keep all legends intact and make fables as sacred and binding as truth, because they were pledged to defend the institution in part founded upon them, it has been opposed. By those who, prefer truth for authority to authority for truth, and would rather build their spiritual house on the solid foundation of fact than upon the shifting sand of opinion, historical criticism has been welcomed. If, in dealing with the origins of our religion in the first century, some things once accepted, have been swept away, the damage has been well paid for by disclosing those things which are indestructible. The cargo may be thrown over-board, if, thereby, the ship can be saved.
One of the things established is the fact that Jesus belongs to history. There is a rumor that Napoleon asked Herder the question : “Did Jesus ever live at all ?” This shows the height to which skepticism had reached. Now, no informed person would raise such an inquiry. It would be quite as easy and quite as unreasonable to write the history of France, and leave .out the name of Napoleon, as to write a history of Humanity and omit the name of Jesus. If the one temporarily changed the map of Europe, the other permanently reconstructed the map of the spiritual world. His career marks a notable epoch in human history.
Astronomers had long noticed that Uranus did not follow the course which, from forces known to them, antecedently, they would have prescribed to it. Some unseen power seemed to be drawing the planet out of its orbit. Finally the disturbing cause was found. Out on the rim of the solar system, the immense star called Neptune was discovered.
Marking the course of events, something similar has occurred. Some attraction drew the nations of Europe away from their beaten path. What was the cause of this change of direction? The cause must equal the effect. No satellite could have changed the course of mighty Uranus. It takes a world to balance a world. Thus only some power, stronger than the prevailing genius of each and stronger than the attraction of each for the other, could have turned the course of the nations. Standing on the heights of this century and sweeping the arc of those former skies, what does the reader of history see? He beholds one who, in the moral and spiritual heavens, is a star of the first magnitude. There is the force which so powerfully influenced those early and later centuries. Jean Paul’s saying seems fully within the bounds of truth :
“Jesus Christ lifted the gates of empires off their hinges, turned the stream of time out of its channel, and still governs the ages.”
Thinking of him, not as related to theology and ecclesiasticism, but as related to life and its highest and most enduring welfare, only words of eulogy can be truly spoken. Many of those whose names are authority in philosophy and literature have de-lighted to speak in his praise. Kant speaks of him as “a spiritual ideal.” Hegel saw in him “a wonderful meeting of the human and divine.” Voltaire said: “His example is holy. In all our greatest sorrows it is a strong support. If his teachings are founded on error, it is a good fortune to be deceived by such a soul.” Rousseau says : “If the life and death of Socrates are those of a sage, the life and death of Jesus are those of a God.” Spinoza called him, “the truest symbol of heavenly wisdom.” Strauss says : “He is the highest object we can possibly imagine with respect to religion, the Being without whose presence in the mind perfect piety is impossible.” Renan says : “The Christ of the Gospels is the most beautiful incarnation of the Divine, in the most beautiful form.” John Stuart Mill says : “He was man charged with a special, express, and unique commission from God to lead mankind to truth and virtue. Carlyle says : “Our highest Orpheus walked in Judea eighteen hundred years ago; by his sphere melody drawing all hearts to himself.” Emerson speaks of him as, “our best and dearest saint who affirms the Divinity in him and us.” Of these eulogists Spinoza was a pantheist; Voltaire an enemy of the church; Mill a Positivist; Strauss a Rationalist; Carlyle and Emerson idealists who had broken with traditional theologies. None of them spoke by compulsion, nor from self-interest, nor in behalf of an institution or an established religion. Each spoke from within and in a purely voluntary way. Hence their praise is not mere con-cession to popular opinion nor mere rhetoric to adorn a page, but expression of deep, earnest conviction harmonizing with the facts of history and human experience.
In the famous picture at Antwerp, soldiers, disciples, women, children, and travelers are all looking toward the form on the cross. It is illustration of fact. The painting did not make history ; history made the painting. For centuries millions of hearts had turned to him, for sympathy in sorrowful, for strength in feeble, and inspiration in sluggish hours. He is example of one who did well what multitudes have tried and partly failed to do. Setting goodness as his goal and pressing toward it, he met death, untimely, in his course. Passing to the grave, out of his dust have risen fadeless flowers to solace and delight a hundred generations of mankind.
His formal learning was, perhaps, not very great. But wisdom does not all come through books and schools. At rare intervals a mortal comes to earth who seems to bring his education with him. By insight he seems to divine what the multitude must learn by tuition and slow routine. Some instinct guides him unerringly to the Castalian Fountain.
One of the standing arguments in favor of another authorship of the plays, commonly attributed to him, is that Shakespeare was uneducated. He was not a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge. But we must re-member that thousands have had all the advantages those famous universities can give, no one of whom nor all of whom could have written such poetry. There is something corresponding to the term “genius,” and those endowed with it can produce results surpassing those turned out by ordinary methods. Edison did not take a four years’ course in electrical engineering. Neither did Watt or Stephenson graduate from schools of technology. Could a university education have taught Burns how to write poetry? Did some college tell Lincoln what to say at Gettysburg? Some are by birth poets and prophets. The world is their school-house; experience is their teacher. From the winds they learn and the rain ; from grass and flowers and running brooks ; from the course of things ; from events, many formed and many colored, falling upon them thick as autumn leaves or winter snow-flakes. Clear and swift darting as a ray of light, their glance penetrates the heart of things and finds their secret meaning.
“He needs a guide no longer who hath found
The way already, leading to the Friend.
Who stands already on heaven’s topmost dome
Need not search for ladders. He that lies
Folded in favor, on the Sultan’s breast
Needs not the letter or the messenger.”
Such was Jesus of Nazareth. In the realm of the spirit he was a genius. Not an organizer like Moses; nor a philosopher like Aristotle ; nor a law maker like Justinian; nor a scholar like Philo of Alexandria; but as bearer of high messages, as seer of eternal verities, as inspiration and guide to all who, amid perishing forms, seek imperishable truth, he stands unsurpassed in the history of human kind.
Scholars are agreed that he originated nothing. The principles lying at the foundation of his philosophy of life were in the world before he carne. The idea of the Fatherhood of God is contained in the Hebrew poetry. The Brotherhood of Man had often been suggested as a desirable basis for human con-duct. The Golden Rule had done duty as an ethical maxim hundreds of years before he uttered it on the mountain side. Socrates and Plato had both set forth the doctrine of immortality.
This need not be spoken to his discredit, for perhaps no one person ever independently originates anything. All that any one can do is to amplify and intensify what he receives. He may give concrete form and local habitation to that which hitherto had been floating vaguely in the air.
That is what the Son of Man did. The exclusiveness which had formerly characterized his native land no longer existed. Lying like an island in a turbulent sea of conquest, waves rolled against it from every side. They carried with them something of Roman imperialism and law; something of Greek philosophy; something of Oriental mysticism. As a race birthright he inherited the religious temperament and an ardent expectation of a divine kingdom. His work, therefore, was not to originate, but to give definite form to ideas already existing. Sensitive and meditative, sentiments passing into his soul were transformed into spiritual facts which were to command life. Summer clouds that had dreamily floated in the upper air were suddenly condensed and fell to earth in refreshing and fruitful rain. The Father-hood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the sovereignty of the soul were doctrines to be actually realized. Others had admired, but he lived them. There is carbon everywhere. At rare intervals and in isolated places, passing into the laboratory of nature, it is refined and compressed and becomes a diamond. So sentiments, universally diffused, passing into his mental alembic came back to the world as a spiritual religion.
He stands out in history as illustration of the principle that the soul is not dependent upon wealth on fame or any external thing for its greatest usefulness and most lasting happiness. He did not need a large income. The hills, the fields, sunrise and sunset, the homes, the people, and friendship were fortune enough and wisdom was inexpensive. He could think out his beatitudes and whisper his prayers without any outlay of gold. Lilies made no charge for their beauty and fragrance ; birds made no charge for their plumage and song; noonday made no charge for its refulgence ; midnight no charge for its mystery. Others talk of the simple life; his was the simple life. Happiness did not consist in having, but in being. The soul is the only imperishable riches ; the one exhaustless mine ; the sole bank unaffected by any panic. In these days of wishings and strivings for wealth, and happiness goes up or down with fluctuating values of material things, it would be well for us all to recall the form of One who placed being above having and could extract blessedness from life itself.
He was a true, sincere man ; a genuine friend of the race without regard to its quality of birth or social standing. Generous youth, innocent childhood, pure women and sinful women, rich men, poor men, guests at a marriage, mourners at a funeral all loved to have him near them. No ascetic hiding in the desert and bewailing his sins, but cheerfully mingling with the fallible people and carrying his virtue and helpfulness into the homes of every-day life. Dignified, but without haughtiness. Enthusiastic, but not fanatical. Sympathetic in presence of love bereft and grief-stricken, but in presence of duty unyielding as a mountain. Now he is working at his trade in honest, manly fashion ; again, he is walking among the hills seeing their summits flushed with sudden splendor by slanting sunbeams. Now he is with sower or reaper in the fields; or the pruner in the vineyard; or the shepherd in the valley ; or the fishermen by the sea. Again he is in the market place watching the buying and selling; or in the synagogue on the Sabbath hearing the reading of the law ; or on the mountain slope speaking to the multitude. With thoughts which cannot be spoken in plain, didactic prose, but finding outlet in parable and poetry. His purpose intensifying and becoming more authoritative, as he became more and more conscious of his special mission and the far reach of his principles.
Seen across the centuries, how noble, and yet how pathetic and unspeakably solemn some parts of his career seem to us children of these later times ! The emotions excited by the scene resemble those awakened by sight of a fallen temple with broken columns and architraves, mute and motionless, bathed in moon-light. There must have come to him forebodings of peril which he was powerless to escape. He could not retreat; he could not diverge from his appointed path ; shut in on every side, except in front, he must needs go forward whatever he might meet in the way. What a scene is that in Gethsemane, when he knew his fateful hour had struck; with life’s instincts of self-preservation clamoring, and human love pulling at his heart-strings! Then there was the arrest; treason of one, denial of another who called themselves friends; the trial, in which his calm demeanor made the fury of the Jewish high priest seem ridiculous and his steadfastness to a principle made the indifference of a Roman governor seem contemptible ; the awful work on Calvary, his body borne to the tomb, but his soul passing to its place among the immortals ! Who can dwell upon such a scene without being touched and exalted?
That he was an. exceptional man, no one can doubt. Nevertheless, he does not stand entirely alone. The history of his brief career allies him with the race of mankind. He lived within the boundaries of actual or possible human experience. He called himself the Son of Man. He was hungry and thirsty; he was tempted; he wept and rejoiced; he suffered from loneliness and weakness and weariness, as all mortals do. When he prayed, he prayed, not to himself, but to One greater than he. He told his Disciples that as he was so they might be, and the things he had suffered and done they must suffer and do.
Then wherein consists his value to the world? Chiefly in this: He is guide and inspiration to all who seek for spiritual truth. He is perpetual illustration of the divinest side of humanity. By word and example he taught that duty can be done without bargaining for private reward ; that the real must be placed above the seeming; that universal righteousness and not personal success is the true aim of life; that the verdict of the centuries and not that of the moments is the true test of worth; that the progress of Humanity can only come by means of Calvaries, and every one who leads the advance must for a time wear a crown of thorns.
In a German story a youth is pictured standing at the edge of a forest, perplexed over the way he should go, when he seemed to hear a voice saying : “Follow the Beautiful One ! Follow the Beautiful One !”
Standing upon the border of life, where are multitudinous creeds and opinions and where many commingled motives strive for mastery, it would be well could our young generation hear a voice saying : “Follow this Noble One ! Follow this Noble One !” True Captain of Salvation, whither he leads all may go without fear or faltering, because whatever of darkness or danger may befall them they may be well assured that they are on the road to a truer and more exalted manhood; and, as their few years become many, they will behold their horizon widening and widening until at last it is lost in infinite Life.