Life of Jesus/Chapter 8

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Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan
Chapter 8

Chapter 8: Jesus at Capernaum.

BESET by an idea, gradually becoming more and more imperious and exclusive, Jesus proceeds henceforth with a kind of fatal impassibility in the path marked out by his astonishing genius and the extraordinary circumstances in which he lived. Hitherto he had only communicated his thoughts to a few persons secretly attracted to him; henceforward his teaching was sought after by the public. He was about thirty years of age. The little group of hearers who had accompanied him to John the Baptist had doubtless, increased, and perhaps some disciples of John had attached themselves to him. It was with this first nucleus of a Church that he boldly announced, on his return into Galilee, the "good tidings of the kingdom of God." This kingdom was approaching, and it was he, Jesus, who was that "Son of Man" whom Daniel had beheld in his vision as the divine herald of the last and supreme revelation.

We must remember that, in the Jewish ideas, which were averse to art and mythology, the simple form of man had a superiority over that of Cherubs, and of the fantastic animals which the imagination of the people, since it had been subjected to the influence of Assyria, had ranged around the Divine Majesty. Already, in Ezekiel, the Being seated on the supreme throne, far above the monsters of the mysterious chariot, the great revealer of prophetic visions, had the figure of a man. In the book of Daniel, in the midst of the vision of the empires, represented by animals, at the moment when the great judgment commences, and when the books are opened, a Being "like unto a Son of Man" advances towards the Ancient of days, who confers on him the power to judge the world, and to govern it for eternity. Son of Man, in the Semitic languages, especially in the Aramean dialects, is a simple synonym of man. But this chief passage of Daniel struck the mind; the words, Son of Man, became, at least, in certain schools, one of the titles of the Messiah, regarded as judge of the world, and as king of the new era about to be inaugurated. The application which Jesus made of it to himself was therefore the proclamation of his Messiahship, and the affirmation of the coming catastrophe in which he was to figure as judge, clothed with the full powers which had been delegated to him by the Ancient of days.

The success of the teaching of the new prophet was this time decisive. A group of men and women, all characterized by the same spirit of juvenile frankness and simple innocence, adhered to him, and said, "Thou art the Messiah." As the Messiah was to be the son of David, they naturally conceded him this title, which was synonymous with the former. Jesus allowed it with pleasure to be given to him, although it might cause him some embarrassment, his birth being well known. The name which he preferred himself was that of "Son of Man," an apparently humble title, but one which connected itself directly with the Messianic hopes. This was the title by which he designated himself, and he used "The Sun of Man" as synonymous with the pronoun "I," which he avoided. But he was never thus addressed, doubtless because the name in question would be fully applicable to him only on the day of his future appearance.

His center of action, at this epoch of his life, was the little town of Capernaum, situated on the shore of the lake of Gennesareth. The name of Capernaum, containing the word caphar, "village," seems to designate a small town of the ancient character, in opposition to the great towns built according to the Roman method, like Tiberias. That name was so little known that Josephus, in one passage of his writings, takes it for the name of a fountain, the fountain having more celebrity than the village situated near it. Like Nazareth, Capemaum had no history, and had in no way participated in the profane movement fevered by the Herods. Jesus was much attached to this town, and made it a second home. Soon after his return he attempted to commence his work at Nazareth, but without success. He could not perform any miracle there, according to the simple remark of one of his biographers. The knowledge which existed there about his family, not an important one, injured his authority too much. People could not regard as the son of David one whose brother, sister, and brother- in-law they saw every day, and it is remarkable, besides, that his family were strongly opposed to him, and plainly refused to believe in his mission. The Nazarenes, much more violent, wished, it is said, to kill him by throwing him from a steep rock. Jesus aptly remarked that this treatment was the fate of all great men, and applied to himself the proverb, "No one is a prophet in his own country."

This check far from discouraged him, He returned to Capernaum, where he met with a much more favorable reception, and from thence he organized a series of missions among the small surrounding towns. The people of this beautiful and fertile country were scarcely ever assembled except on Saturday. This was the day which he chose for his teaching. At that time each town had its synagogue, or place of meeting. This was a rectangular room, rather small, with a portico, decorated in the Greek style. The Jews, not having any architecture of their own, never cared to give these edifices an original style. The remains of many ancient synagogues still exist in Galilee. They are all constructed of large and good materials; but their style is somewhat paltry, in consequence of the profusion of floral omaments, foliage, and twisted work, which characterize the Jewish buildings. In the interior there were seats, a chair for public reading, and a closet to contain the sacred rolls. These edifices, which had nothing of the character of a temple, were the center of the whole Jewish life. There the people assembled on the Sabbath for prayer and reading of the law and the prophets. As Judaism, except in Jerusalem, had, properly speaking, no clergy, the first comer stood up, gave the lessons of the day (parasha and haphtaya), and added thereto a midrask, or entirely personal commentary, in which he expressed his own ideas. This was the origin of the "homily," the finished model of which we find in the small treatises of Philo. The audience had the right of making objections and putting questions to the reader; so that the meeting soon degenerated into a kind of free assembly. It had a president, "elders," a hazzan -- i.e., a recognized reader, or apparitor -- deputies, who were secretaries or messengers, and conducted the correspondence between one synagogue and another, a shammash, or sacristan. The synagogues were thus really little independent republics, having an extensive jurisdiction. Like all municipal corporation, up to an advanced period of the Roman empire, they issued honorary decrees, voted resolutions, which had the force of law for the community, and ordained corporal punishments, of which the hazzan was the ordinary executor.

With the extreme activity of mind which has always characterized the Jews, such an institution, notwithstanding the arbitrary rigors it tolerated, could not fail to give rise to very animated discussions. Thanks to the synagogues, Judaism has been able to sustain intact eighteen centuries of persecution. They were like so many little separate worlds, in which the national spirit was preserved, and which offered a ready field for intestine struggles. A large amount of passion was expended there. The quarrels for precedence were of constant occurrence. To have a seat of honor in the first rank was the reward of great piety, or the most envied privilege of wealth. On the other hand, the liberty, accorded to everyone, of instituting himself reader and commentator of the sacred text afforded marvelous facilities for the propagation of new ideas. This was one of the great instruments of power wielded by Jesus, and the most habitual means he employed to propound his doctrinal instruction. He entered the synagogue and stood up to read; the hazzan offered him the book, he unrolled it, and, reading the parasha or the haphtara of the day, he drew from his reading a lesson in conformity with his own ideas. As there were few Pharisees in Galilee, the discussion did not assume that degree of vivacity and that tone of acrimony against him which at Jerusalem would have arrested him at the outset. These good Galileans had never heard discourses so adapted to their cheerful imaginations. They admired him, they encouraged him, they found that he spoke well, and that his reasons were convincing. He answered the most difficult objections with confidence; the charm of his speech and his person captivated the people, whose simple minds had not yet been cramped by the pedantry of the doctors.

The authority of the young master thus continued increasing every day, and, naturally, the more people believed in him, the more he believed in himself. His sphere of action was very limited. It was confined to the valley in which the Lake of Tiberias is situated, and even in this valley there was one region which he preferred. The lake is five or six leagues long and three or four broad; although it presents the appearance of an almost perfect oval, it forms, commencing from Tiberias up to the entrance of the Jordan, a sort of gulf, the curve of which measures about three leagues. Such is the field in which the seed sown by Jesus found at last a well-prepared soil. Let us run over it step by step, and endeavor to raise the mantle of aridity and mourning with which it has been covered by the demon of Islamism.

On leaving Tiberias we find at first steep rocks, like a mountain which seems to roll into the sea. Then the mountains gradually recede; a plain (El Ghoueir) opens almost at the level of the lake. It is a delightful copse of rich verdure, furrowed by abundant streams, which proceed partly from a great round basin of ancient construction (Ain-Medawara). At the entrance of this plain, which is, properly speaking, the country of Gennesareth, there is the miserable village of Medjdel. At the other extremity of the plain (always following the sea) we come to the site of a town (Khan-Minyeh), with very beautiful streams (Ain-et-Tin), a pretty road, narrow and deep, cut out of the rock, which Jesus often traversed, and which serves as a passage between the plain of Gennesareth and the northern slopes of the lake. A quarter of an hour's journey from this place we cross a stream of salt water (Ein-Tabiga), issuing from the earth by several large springs at a little distance from the lake, and entering it in the midst of a dense mass of verdure. At last, after a journey of forty minutes further upon the arid declivity which extends from Ain-Tabiga to the mouth of the Jordan, we find a few huts and a collection of monumental ruins, called Tell-Houm.

Five small towns, the names of which mankind will remember as long as those of Rome and Athens, were, in the time of Jesus, scattered in the space which extends from the village of Medjdel to Tell-Houm. Of these five towns, Magdala, Dalmanutlia, Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin, the first alone can be found at the present time with any certainty. The repulsive village of Medjdel has no doubt preserved the name and the place of the little town which gave to Jesus his most faithful female friend. Dalmanutha was probably near there. It is possible that Chorazin was a little more inland, on the northern side. As to Bethsaida and Capernaum, it is in truth almost at hazard that they have been placed at Tell-Houm, Ain-et-Tin, Khan-Minyeh, and Ain-Medawara. We might say that in topography, as well as in history, a profound design has wished to conceal the traces of the great founder. It is doubtful whether we shall ever be able, upon this extensively devastated soil, to ascertain the places where mankind would gladly come to kiss the imprint of his feet.

The lake, the horizon, the shrubs, the flowers, are all that remain of the little canton, three or four leagues in extent, where Jesus founded his Divine work, The trees have totally disappeared. In this country, in which the vegetation was formerly so brilliant that Josephus saw in it a kind of miracle -- Nature, according to him, being pleased to bring hither, side by side the plants of cold countries, the productions of the torrid zone, and the trees of temperate climates, laden all the year with flowers and fruits -- in this country travellers are obliged now to calculate a day beforehand the place where they will the next day find a shady resting-place. The lake has become deserted. A single boat in the most miserable condition now ploughs the waves once so rich in life and joy. But the waters are always clear and transparent. The shore, composed of rocks and pebbles, is that of a little sea, not that of a pond, like the shores of Lake Huleh. It is clean, neat, free from mud, and always beaten in the same place by the light movement of the waves. Small promontories, covered with rose laurels, tamarisks, and thorny caper bushes, are seen there; at two places, especially at the mouth of the Jordan, near Tarichea, and at the boundary of the plain of Gennesareth, there are enchanting parterres, where the waves ebb and flow over masses of turf and flowers. The rivulet of Ain-Tabiga makes a little estuary, of full of pretty shells. Clouds of aquatic birds hover over the lake. The horizon is dazzling with light. The waters, of an empyrean blue, deeply imbedded amid burning rocks, seem, when viewed from the height of the mountains of Safed, to lie at the bottom of a cup of gold. On the north, the snowy ravines of Hermon are traced in white lines upon the sky; on the west, the high undulating plateaux of Gaulonitis and Perea, absolutely arid, and clothed by the sun with a sort of velvety atmosphere, form one compact mountain, or rather a long and very elevated terrace, which from Coosarea Philippi runs indefinitely towards the south.

The heat on the shore is now very oppressive. The lake lies in a hollow six hundred and fifty feet below the level of the Mediterranean, and thus participates in the torrid conditions of the Dead Sea. An abundant vegetation formerly tempered these excessive heats; it would be difficult to understand that a furnace, such as the whole basin of the lake now is, commencing from the month of May, had ever been the scene of great activity. Josephus, moreover, considered the country very temperate. No doubt there has been here, as in the campagna of Rome, a change of climate introduced by historical causes. It is Islamism, and especially the Mussulman reaction against the Crusades, which has withered as with a blast of death the district Preferred by Jesus. The beautiful country of Gennesareth never suspected that beneath the brow of this peaceful wayfarer its highest destinies lay hidden.

Dangerous countryman! Jesus has been fatal to the country which had the formidable honor of bearing him. Having become a universal object of love or of hate, coveted by two rival fanaticisms, Galilee, as the price of its glory, has been changed to a desert. But who would say that Jesus would have been happier if he had lived obscure in his village to the full age of man? And who would think of these ungrateful Nazarenes, if one of them had not, at the risk of compromising the future of their town, recognized his Father, and proclaimed himself the Son of God?

Four or five large villages, situated at half an hour's journey from one another, formed the little world of Jesus at the time of which we speak. He appears never to have visited Tiberias, a city inhabited for most part by Pagans, and the habitual residence of Antipas. Sometimes, however, he wandered from his favorite region. He went by boat to the eastern shore, to Gergesa, for instance. Towards the north we see him at Paneas or Cossarea Philippi, at the foot of Mount Hermon. Lastly, he journeyed once in the direction of Tyre and Sidon, a country which must have been marvelously flourishing at that time. In all these countries he was in the midst of Paganism. At Coesarea he saw the celebrated grotto of Panium, thought to be the source of the Jordan, and with which the popular belief had associated strange legends; he could admire the marble temple which Herod had erected near there in honor of Augustus; he probably stopped before the numerous votive statues to Pan, to the Nymphs, to the Echo of the Grotto, which piety had already begun to accumulate in this beautiful place.

A rationalistic Jew, accustomed to take strange gods for deified men or for demons, would consider all these figurative representations as idols. The seductions of the naturalistic worships, which intoxicated the more sensitive nations, never affected him. He was doubtless ignorant of what the ancient sanctuary of Melkarth, at Tyre, might still contain of a primitive worship more or less analogous to that of the Jews. The Paganism which, in Phoenicia, had raised a temple and a sacred grove on every hill, all this aspect of great industry and profane riches, interested him but little. Monotheism takes away all aptitude for comprehending the Pagan religions; the Mussulman, thrown into polytheistic countries, seems to have no eyes. Jesus assuredly learnt nothing in these journeys. He returned always to his well- beloved shore of Gennesareth. There was the center of his thoughts; there he found faith and love.