In order to have any true or adequate understanding of what the real revelation and teachings of Jesus were, two things must be borne in mind. It is necessary in the first place, not only to have a knowledge of, but always to bear in mind the method, the medium through which the account of his life has come down to us. Again, before the real content and significance of Jesus' revelation and teachings can be intelligently understood, it is necessary that we have a knowledge of the conditions of the time in which he lived and of the people to whom he spoke, to whom his revelation was made.
To anyone who has even a rudimentary knowledge of the former, it becomes apparent at once that no single saying or statement of Jesus can be taken to indicate either his revelation or his purpose. These must be made to depend upon not any single statement or saying of his own, much less anything reported about him by another; but it must be made to depend rather upon the whole tenor of his teachings.
Jesus put nothing in writing. There was no one immediately at hand to make a record of any of his teachings or any of his acts. It is now well known that no one of the gospels was written by an immediate hearer, by an eye-witness.
The Gospel of Mark, the oldest gospel, or in other words the one written nearest to Jesus' time, was written some forty years after he had finished his work. Matthew and Luke, taken to a great extent from the Gospel of Mark, supplemented by one or two additional sources, were written many years after. The Gospel of John was not written until after the beginning of the second century after Christ. These four sets of chronicles, called the Gospels, written independently one of another, were then collected many years after their authors were dead, and still a great deal later were brought together into a single book.
The following concise statement by Professor Henry Drummond throws much light upon the way the New Testament portions of our Bible took form: "The Bible is not a book; it is a library. It consists of sixty-six books. It is a great convenience, but in some respects a great misfortune, that these books have always been bound up together and given out as one book to the world, when they are not; because that has led to endless mistakes in theology and practical life. These books, which make up this library, written at intervals of hundreds of years, were collected after the last of the writers was dead—long after—by human hands. Where were the books? Take the New Testament. There were four lives of Christ. One was in Rome; one was in Southern Italy; one was in Palestine; one in Asia Minor. There were twenty-one letters. Five were in Greece and Macedonia; five in Asia; one in Rome. The rest were in the pockets of private individuals. Theophilus had Acts. They were collected undesignedly. In the third century the New Testament consisted of the following books: The four Gospels, Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, I John, I Peter; and, in addition, the Epistles of Barnabas and Hermas. This was not called the New Testament, but the Christian Library. Then these last books were discarded. They ceased to be regarded as upon the same level as the others. In the fourth century the canon was closed—that is to say, a list was made up of the books which were to be regarded as canonical. And then long after that they were stitched together and made up into one book—hundreds of years after that. Who made up the complete list? It was never formally made up. The bishops of the different churches would draw up a list each of the books that they thought ought to be put into this Testament. The churches also would give their opinions. Sometimes councils would meet and talk it over—discuss it. Scholars like Jerome would investigate the authenticity of the different documents, and there came to be a general consensus of the churches on the matter."
Jesus spoke in his own native language, the Aramaic. His sayings were then rendered into Greek, and, as is well known by all well-versed Biblical scholars, it was not an especially high order of Greek. The New Testament scriptures including the four gospels, were then many hundreds of years afterwards translated from the Greek into our modern languages—English, German, French, Swedish, or whatever the language of the particular translation may be. Those who know anything of the matter of translation know how difficult it is to render the exact meanings of any statements or writing into another language. The rendering of a single word may sometimes mean, or rather may make a great difference in the thought of the one giving the utterance. How much greater is this liability when the thing thus rendered is twice removed from its original source and form!
The original manuscripts had no punctuation and no verse divisions; these were all arbitrarily supplied by the translators later on. It is also a well-established fact on the part of leading Biblical scholars that through the centuries there have been various interpolations in the New Testament scriptures, both by way of omissions and additions.
Reference is made to these various facts in connection with the sayings and the teachings of Jesus and the methods and the media through which they have come down to us, to show how impossible it would be to base Jesus' revelation or purpose upon any single utterance made or purported to be made by him—to indicate, in other words, that to get at his real message, his real teachings, and his real purpose, we must find the binding thread if possible, the reiterated statement, the repeated purpose that makes them throb with the living element.
Again, no intelligent understanding of Jesus' revelation or ministry can be had without a knowledge of the conditions of the time, and of the people to whom his revelation was made, among whom he lived and worked; for his ministry had in connection with it both a time element and an eternal element. There are two things that must be noted, the moral and religious condition of the people; and, again, their economic and political status.
The Jewish people had been preeminently a religious people. But a great change had taken place. Religion was at its lowest ebb. Its spirit was well-nigh dead, and in its place there had gradually come into being a Pharisaic legalism—a religion of form, ceremony. An extensive system of ecclesiastical tradition, ecclesiastical law and observances, which had gradually robbed the people of all their former spirit of religion, had been gradually built up by those in ecclesiastical authority.
The voice of that illustrious line of Hebrew prophets had ceased to speak. It was close to two hundred years since the voice of a living prophet had been heard. Tradition had taken its place. It took the form: Moses hath said; It has been said of old; The prophet hath said. The scribe was the keeper of the ecclesiastical law. The lawyer was its interpreter.
The Pharisees had gradually elevated themselves into an ecclesiastical hierarchy who were the custodians of the law and religion. They had come to regard themselves as especially favored, a privileged class—not only the custodians but the dispensers of all religious knowledge—and therefore of religion. The people, in their estimation, were of a lower intellectual and religious order, possessing no capabilities in connection with religion or morals, dependent therefore upon their superiors in these matters.
This state of affairs that had gradually come about was productive of two noticeable results: a religious starvation and stagnation on the part of the great mass of the people on the one hand, and the creation of a haughty, self-righteous and domineering ecclesiastical hierarchy on the other. In order for a clear understanding of some of Jesus' sayings and teachings, some of which constitute a very vital part of his ministry, it is necessary to understand clearly what this condition was.
Another important fact that sheds much light upon the nature of the ministry of Jesus is to be found, as has already been intimated, in the political and the economic condition of the people of the time. The Jewish nation had been subjugated and were under the domination of Rome. Rome in connection with Israel, as in connection with all conquered peoples, was a hard master. Taxes and tribute, tribute and taxes, could almost be said to be descriptive of her administration of affairs.
She was already in her degenerate stage. Never perhaps in the history of the world had men been so ruled by selfishness, greed, military power and domination, and the pomp and display of material wealth. Luxury, indulgence, over-indulgence, vice. The inevitable concomitant followed—a continually increasing moral and physical degeneration. An increasing luxury and indulgence called for an increasing means to satisfy them. Messengers were sent and additional tribute was levied. Pontius Pilate was the Roman administrative head or governor in Judea at the time. Tiberius Caesar was the Roman Emperor.
Rome at this time consisted of a few thousand nobles and people of station—freemen—and hundreds of thousands of slaves. Even her campaigns in time became virtual raids for plunder. She conquered—and she plundered those whom she conquered. Great numbers from among the conquered peoples were regularly taken to Rome and sold into slavery. Judea had not escaped this. Thousands of her best people had been transported to Rome and sold into slavery. It was never known where the blow would fall next; what homes would be desolated and both sons and daughters sent away into slavery. No section, no family could feel any sense of security. A feeling of fear, a sense of desolation pervaded everywhere.
There was a tradition, which had grown into a well-defined belief, that a Deliverer would be sent them, that they would be delivered out of the hands of their enemies and that their oppressors would in turn be brought to grief. There was also in the section round about Judaea a belief, which had grown until it had become well-nigh universal, that the end of the world, or the end of the age, was speedily coming, that then there would be an end of all earthly government and that the reign of Jehovah—the kingdom of God—would be established. These two beliefs went hand in hand. They were kept continually before the people, and now and then received a fresh impetus by the appearance of a new prophet or a new teacher, whom the people went gladly out to hear. Of this kind was John, the son of a priest, later called John the Baptist.
After his period of preparation, he came out of the wilderness of Judaea, and in the region about the Jordan with great power and persuasiveness, according to the accounts, he gave utterance to the message: Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Forsake all earthly things; they will be of avail but a very short time now, turn ye from them and prepare yourselves for the coming of the Kingdom of God. The old things will speedily pass away; all things will become new. Many went out to hear him and were powerfully appealed to by the earnest, rugged utterances of this new preacher of righteousness and repentance.
His name and his message spread through all the land of Judea and the country around the Jordan. Many were baptized by him there, he making use of this symbolic service which had been long in use by certain branches of the Jewish people, especially the order of the Essenes.
Among those who went out to hear John and who accepted baptism at his hands was Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary, whose home was at Nazareth. It marks also the beginning of his own public ministry, for which he evidently had been in preparation for a considerable time.
It seems strange that we know so little of the early life of one destined to exert such a powerful influence upon the thought and the life of the world. In the gospel of Mark, probably the most reliable, because the nearest to his time, there is no mention whatever of his early life. The first account is where he appears at John's meetings. Almost immediately thereafter begins his own public ministry.
In the gospel of Luke we have a very meagre account of him. It is at the age of twelve. The brief account gives us a glimpse into the lives of his father and his mother, Joseph and Mary; showing that at that time they were not looked upon as in any way different from all of the inhabitants of their little community, Nazareth, the little town in Galilee—having a family of several sons and daughters, and that Jesus, the eldest of the family, grew in stature and in knowledge, as all the neighboring children grew; but that he, even at an early age, showed that he had a wonderful aptitude for the things of the spirit. I reproduce Luke's brief account here:
"Now, his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem, after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem: and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day's journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. And it came to pass that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
"And when they saw him they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my father's business? And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man."
Nothing could be more interesting than to know the early life of Jesus. There are various theories as to how this was spent, that is, as to what his preparation was—the facts of his life, in addition to his working with his father at his trade, that of a carpenter; but we know nothing that has the stamp of historical accuracy upon it. Of his entire life, indeed, including the period of his active ministry, from thirty to nearly thirty-three, it is but fair to presume that we have at best but a fragmentary account in the Gospel narratives. It is probable that many things connected with his ministry, and many of his sayings and teachings, we have no record of at all.
It is probable that in connection with his preparation he spent a great deal of time alone, in the quiet, in communion with his Divine Source, or as the term came so naturally to him, with God, his Father—God, our Father, for that was his teaching—my God and your God. The many times that we are told in the narratives that he went to the mountain alone, would seem to justify us in this conclusion. Anyway, it would be absolutely impossible for anyone to have such a vivid realization of his essential oneness with the Divine, without much time spent in such a manner that the real life could evolve into its Divine likeness, and then mold the outer life according to this ideal or pattern.