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The Story Of Religious Controversy
by Joseph McCabe
The Sources of Christian Morality
- Is There a Christian Morality?
- The Stolen Parables
- The Sermon on the Mount
- Golden Rules
- Futility of the Christian Ethic
Is There A Christian Morality?
IN two places in my travels I have encountered a primitive marriage custom. In a certain district of rural Mexico the nervous bride must produce her bed-sheets, for the inspection of neighbors, on the morning after her wedding. If they show not palpable proof that she had been a virgin until the previous evening, the village frowns upon her. Friends take back their wedding gifts. The husband fumes and sulks. And far away, at the other side of the globe, in rural Bulgaria. I found much the same custom; except that there was no punishment, and the bride produced her stained sheet in a general atmosphere of robust hilarity.
Mexico and Bulgaria: two regions as free from the taint of the modern spirit as from the smut of our factories and the deadly rush of our automobiles. There the cheap figure or picture of Christ and his mother rules the home as it has done in the one case for centuries and in the other for more than a millennium. It is not known there that there are Atheists in the world. All the problems of life are reduced to one: how to wrest a few more cents per week out of the beautiful soil with the implements of a Polynesian farmer. … And so, while Boston or Philadelphia has grown so sensitive that the mention of bed at a wedding breakfast would be deemed an unpardonable outrage, and its preachers blush to recall — as they love to do — the licentious hymenatia of a pagan wedding, really Christian parts of the world still salute marriage with a candor that belongs to the infancy of the race.
You may think I have selected two rare instances. No, they are casual experiences of travel, but I will give two others, from equally uncontaminated districts of southern Europe. In the one, a metropolis, unnatural vice is so prevalent that maids are generally virtuous. In the other, a large and beautiful region, both natural and unnatural vice are as lightly held as they have ever been in any history.
This is the moral paradox of our age. In these regions of southern Europe and America the world lives as it has lived for the last fifteen centuries. The faith is as primitive as the plow; and blushes are as rare as doubts. I have seen the Bulgar at Mass on a feast-day, his dull bovine eyes for once lit with awe; and I have seen him intoxicated and entirely unrestrained a few hours later. That was the universal world of our ancestors during the long centuries of the Christian dominion; and now we are asked to believe that Christian morality is the only influence that can preserve in the world a becoming delicacy of sentiment and expression in regard to sex.
In one of the rooms of the Vatican Palace I saw an exquisite fresco of Alexander VI kneeling, in rapt adoration, before the Lord, and not far away was a beautiful painting of the Virgin, to whom he was profoundly devoted. They were painted by Pinturecchio: the wicked, cynical little Pinturecchio. And the model who sat to him for the Virgin was the golden-haired young girl, Giulia Farnese, the pope’s darling. And I wondered, as I looked, if it was in this very room that, as old John Buchara, the Master of Ceremonies, tells us in his private Diary, Alexander sat one night with Giulia and his daughter, while Cesare Borgia provided one of his exotic entertainments: and fifty of the loveliest prostitutes of the Holy City danced naked before them, stooping in every posture to pick up chestnuts from the floor as their lithe forms shone in the light of the candles.
Oh, Rome, you say: the Scarlet Woman. But Rupert Hughes has shown, in a series of well-documented articles in the “Haldeman- Julius Monthly” (1925), that sex was almost as rampant in the supposedly most puritanical of the Puritan periods of America; and the historian Buckle has shown Calvinistic Scotland had nameless vices: and ….
Well, you say, the law is there. These were not Christian morals, but the most flagrant violation of Christian teaching. Yes, but let us consider the matter plainly. In those ages of faith, in those parts of the world where faith still lingers at its purest, there was, and is, no delicacy about sex; yet men believe without the thinnest shade of doubt in the moral authority of Christ. He is God, the stern judge of the living and the dead; just as surely to Pope Alexander VI and the Puritan wantons as he is to the men and maids I saw in Mexico and Italy, Greece and Bulgaria.
Now he is a fading ghost of history. Scholars — theological scholars — have taken from him one by one those terrible insignia of power and authority which gave to his words a note of stern command. Historians have dissolved away his human personality until there remains only an elusive suggestion of a reformer who was put to death on a cross, as very many were, in Judea some nineteen centuries ago. Your Christ of divine authority, of shuddering penalties for sin, failed to rule the hearts of men. Now, you think, in an age of fearless questioning, of loud assertion of the right to live, of impatience of rule, your pale ghost of a Jesus is likely to check the strongest impulses of the race.
But sex-morality, you say, is only a small part of the Christian code. There are justice, temperance, truthfulness, love of one’s neighbor, honesty. Quite true. I had merely thought that you considered Christianity peculiarly effective in checking the sex-impulses of men and women, and so I ventured to recall how frankly and unrestrainedly sexual people were and are, where they believed, or believe, most confidently in the authoritative character and dire penalties of the Christian ethic. Our generation is at least not more sexual than any other, but it has one distinguishing feature: it has very seriously raised the question whether moral law in regard to sex does not contain spurious elements. If your ethic was ineffective when none dared raise such a question, how will it work now?
But let us take the code of Christian morality in its entirety; and let us agree that an ethic is a vital need of the world. Moral law is social law, and social law becomes the more imperative in proportion as society becomes more complex and better organized. The word “virtue” is the Roman word for “manliness.” The Greek word meant “excellence”; but the Greeks conceived it in an intellectual sense, and it really meant “wisdom.” To us the word is coming to mean, more and more, “common sense.” It will one day be automatic.
Society today is, from the moral point of view, in the disorganized condition in which western America was, let us say, half a century ago. Men have gone out from the shadow of the old law and its penalties. They laugh at hell and they patronize God. For untrained minds the result would be disastrous if the human meaning of morality were not so frequently and dramatically expressed. “If there is no God, why can’t I do what I like?” is a question I have had to answer for thirty years. But the answer is easy. Next morning, perhaps, the maid reads of one like herself who has been lured to a sea-side bungalow, where fragments of her burned body are later discovered, or another who has gone for a glorious week-end and left her fair young frame in some deserted wood. There is law because there are penalties: not penalties because there is a law.
This is the world which you would bring back to Christian morality. Now let us dismiss the question of sanctions and regard the code in itself. You are going to offer our world the ethic of Christ without the fire that is never quenched and the worm which dieth not. You lay the emphasis on Christian morality: the sublimest code that was ever given to men, the pattern of life set by the noblest character — and so on.
Candidly, how much do you know about Epictetus or Apollonius? How much, in the way of precise detail, do you know about Kong-fu- tse, Lao-tse, Buddha, Socrates, Plato, Zeno, Epicurus, Dion Chrysostom, Seneca, or Spinoza? The list might fill a good half- page. You are positive that Christ was far nobler than all these; and you will probably admit that you have never heard of some of them and have not read more than a few disparaging Christian remarks about any of them. How does the very little which we can even pretend to know about Jesus make him superior to these?
The ideal, at all events, is magnificent, you say. I suggest that you are again repeating an oft-repeated phrase; and I ask you to try this simple experiment. Take the Gospel of Luke, in which the figure of Christ is said to appear in its most alluring charm and most shining nobility, and run over it.
Let us ignore Christ’s words for a moment, and see how he acted. Nothing in the first three chapters. In Chapter iv he preaches, and he works two miracles. Nothing out of the ordinary for a preacher (except miracles). Nothing at all either sublime or winsome in Chapters v, vi, and vii except that he allows a prostitute to kiss his feet (which no respectable preacher would dare to do). In the next chapter other loose women minister to him; and he snubs his mother. In Chapter ix he declines to ask God to burn — as his chosen disciples want — a village and all its inhabitants because they refuse him free hospitality: which sounds rather elementary. In the next chapter he undoes even this by saying that cities which do not receive his disciples shall be treated worse than Sodom; and in the next three chapters he does nothing of any note except abuse the Pharisees (four-fifths of the nation) in fine style. That is more than half the “most beautiful” of the Gospels.
In short, any man who will reflect on what he has been saying all his life, and will trouble to take an hour or two to verify it, will find that in Luke, which is supposed to depict Jesus at his best, there is no figure of Jesus at all corresponding to the pulpit-rhetoric about him. If he was divine, we do not count the miracles and the casting out of devils. Our age would ask him what the devils were doing there at all. The glorification of Christ is really based upon his words, his moral teaching. If you omit the “sayings of Jesus” from Luke, there remains only the rather unsympathetic figure of a zealot who calls his opponents “fools” and “hypocrites” and “wipers,” who predicts horrible calamities for cities which do not accept his teaching, who is gentle with sinners and harsh with his mother, who says that he has expressly come to split up families, and so on.
We turn, then, away from this “luminous model,” which does not exist (and would not be a model if it did, for Jesus is supposed to have had supernatural gifts), and consider the sayings. Now if, as I said, the religious reader will rid himself for an hour of the hypnotic influence of the pulpit, he will begin to wonder how it is that the most casual remarks of Jesus could be given verbatim by Luke at least forty years later.
The record is really remarkable. Mary (Chapter i) seems to have composed, impromptu, a very creditable piece of poetry and at once written it down to give to posterity. The short remarks of devils, invalids, apostles, soldiers, etc., are all at hand for reproduction fifty years later. The longest speeches of Jesus are available. All this in an age when, although the enlightened Romans had a system of shorthand, the Jews certainly hadn’t. We may take it as certain that Mary, Peter, Matthew, etc., could not read or write. The believer now treasures every word in the Gospels. How, on reflection, does he suppose that they were kept for posterity?
But, you say, how could any man forget them?
They are so sublime, so original, so unique, so superhuman. And just there I join issue. They are neither sublime, nor unique, nor original, nor superhuman; for every one of them had been said already, and it was possible for any educated Jew or Greek to make a collection or compilation of them.
The Stolen Parables
The first original feature which will be claimed for the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels is the use of parables. Here, it will be said, he differed essentially from the Scribes and Pharisees. They spent their time splitting hairs. They argued endlessly with each other about points of law and doctrine. They paid no heed to the “great multitudes” which hungered for the word of life; and it was to these that Jesus spoke, in simple moral stories which all could understand.
This idea is, as I have already said, based upon a misconception of the Pharisees: an idea of them as a comparatively small and isolated sect, which shows that the Gospel-writer had never lived in Judea. Historians tell us that the bulk of the Jews — variously estimated at three-fourths to four-fifths of the nation, were Pharisees. Paul, a working man, was a Pharisee. A Pharisee, was, in the time of Jesus, simply a good Jew who was zealous for the law. It was mainly the Pharisees who addressed the people in the synagogues; and they sometimes permitted Jesus to address them.
It is still stranger, and shows more plainly than ever that the men who wrote the Gospels were far removed, both in space and time, from the Judea of 30 A.D., that the parable was a very ordinary and esteemed method of teaching in the land. The parable is a very natural outcome of the mind of primitive races, in whom imagination is not yet overshadowed by intellect. It is the art of the Oriental just as sculpture and architecture are the arts of other nations in an early phase of development. In point of fact, the parables which are ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were stolen by the writers from the Rabbis whom they attacked.
There is a great deal of quibbling, of partial statement or partisan misstatement of the truth, in these matters, and I want the readers to take a broad-minded view. As I shall show in a moment, most of the parables of the Gospel are actually in the Talmud, the semi-sacred book of the Jews. Any person can verify that; although, curiously enough, for it is a point of the greatest interest, the fact was mentioned only in a few obscure Jewish works until I drew general attention to it in my “Sources of the Morality of the Gospels.
Now, it is entirely certain that a dozen identical parables, with the same moral and almost exactly the same language, were not invented separately in the same age and country, by Jesus and the Rabbis. That is elementary common sense; and, even if some desperate person maintained that they could be thus thought out independently, it would still follow that Jesus merely did what the Rabbis did. The only point for a serious student is: Which borrowed from the other?
At the time that the Gospels, as we have them, were written — the end of the first and beginning of the second century — there was, as is well known, a very bitter feud between Jews and Christians. It is that conflict which tinges the reference to the Pharisees in the New Testament. Were the Rabbis, in such circumstances, likely to steal the sayings of Jesus? One can imagine the derision with which the Christians would treat such an audacious theft. No early Christian writer accuses the Jews of it.
But, you may say, this cuts both ways. Would the Christians be likely to steal from the Jews? Does any writer of the time accuse them of stealing the parables?
It sounds plausible until you learn that there were no Rabbinical writers of the time. You see the force of it. There were Christian writers (of Gospels, Epistles, apologetic treatises, and so on), and they could say what they liked of the Rabbis and, as by that time there was a sharp cleavage and few Christians knew what the Rabbis had said, they could safely borrow Rabbinical sayings. When you study these matters, you must get entirely away from the atmosphere of the twentieth century. I am not suggesting that, say, the writer of Luke sat down one day, with a fountain pen, to compile a collection of nice things to ascribe to Jesus. It must not be supposed that he had before him, as I have at the moment, a lot of books from which he could select his material. He had no books at all (unless he had copies of the Greek moralists), for the sayings and parables of the Rabbis were not in writing. All the material of the Gospels was oral. Stories and sayings went from mouth to mouth for half a century. The origin of them may have been quite unknown to the Greek writer of Luke.
Here an orthodox reader may fancy that he can see a serious flaw in the argument. If the sayings and parables of the Rabbis were not committed to parchment by the beginning of the second century, how is any person going to prove that they existed at all?
We must glance at the origin of the Talmud. Rodkinson reminds us in his “History of the Talmud” how, since the canon of the Jewish sacred books was closed in the fifth century B.C., teachers confined themselves to commentaries on “the Law and the Prophets”; and they were so zealous in preserving the canon that they wrote nothing. There were very important schools, in Babylonia and Egypt as well as Judea, and from about the time of Christ the ordained teachers were known as Rabbis. There were two very famous Rabbis in the time of Christ: a rigorist named Shamai and a liberal and humanitarian named Hillel, who was far more like the Jesus of the Gospels (without the occasional harshness) than like the Pharisees of the Gospels. But all teaching and tradition were oral. Except that some of the Rabbis used notes, it was strictly forbidden to commit the teaching to parchment.
But consider carefully the difference between the Jewish oral tradition and the Christian. The Jewish tradition was handed down in schools, with a strict educational discipline. The pupils, who came from all parts of the world, and went from school to school to compare notes, learned by heart, as a pupil now learns poetry, the words of the more famous Rabbis. Exactness was just as important as in any other school. It was precisely the opposite with the Christian tradition. The atmosphere of the religious circle was as far removed as possible from that of the school, and there was only the loosest communication between one center and another.
After the dispersion of the Jews, however, it was felt that a systematic record was required, and the famous Rabbi Akiba began the work in the time of Hadrian: almost at the time when the Gospels, as we have them, were completed. This body of teaching was, for the Palestinian Jews, committed to writing in the fourth century; but scholars can easily distinguish between the older part, closed in the second century (called the Mishna), and the later additions, or Gemara. In the Mishna, the oldest part of the Talmud, we have the sayings of Rabbis from the time of Christ onward.
A learned theologian, Dr. Julicher, has suggested that it was the example of Christ which set the Rabbis using parables. Apart from the fact that, as St. Jerome, who lived in Palestine, tells us, “it was a common thing for the Syrians to add parables to their words,” Dr. Julicher really evades the point. It is that the parables ascribed to the Rabbis in the Mishna are largely the same parables as those ascribed to Christ. I do not know of any writer who suggests that the Rabbis actually borrowed their parables from the despised and obscure little sect of the Christians in the first century! In any case, Rabbi Ziegler has shown that, as any Bible reader may remember, the parable begins in the Old Testament (“Die Konigs-Gleichnisse des Midrasch”). Where “three thousand proverbs” are attributed to Solomon (I Kings iv, 32), the word in the Hebrew text is really “parables.” The “parable of the vineyard,” for instance (Mark xii, 1-9), is obviously based upon Isaiah v, 1-6.
A comparison of the Gospel and the Talmudic parables, with a learned commentary, was published in 1912 by P. Fiebig (“Die Gleichnisreden Jesu”), and I need only translate a few illustrations from this or from Rodkinson’s “History of the Talmud.”
First let us take a parable of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, who was teaching in Jerusalem before the year 70 A.D. Warning his pupils to be ever ready for death, he says:
Like unto a king who invited his servants to a banquet but appointed no time unto them. The wise among them put on their festive garments, and betook themselves to the door of the king’s house, saying: In a king’s house nothing is wanting [that is to say, the banquet may be ready today]. But the foolish among them went about their work, saying: Can a banquet be prepared without trouble? And of a sudden the king summoned his servants. The wiser went in unto him, as they were, in their festive garments; and the foolish went in unto him, as they were, in their soiled garments. Then the king was pleased with the wise, but angry with the foolish. He said: They who have dressed themselves for the banquet may sit, and eat, and drink; but they who have not put on festive garments shall stand by and watch.
With this compare the parable in Matthew xxii, 2.
The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, and sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding; and they would not come. Again, he sent forth other servants, saying: Tell them which are bidden. Behold I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready; come unto the marriage. But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise; and the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth; and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then saith he to his servants: The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good; and the wedding was furnished with guests. And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding-garment; and he saith unto him: Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to his servants: Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Frankly, this is silly. Never in history did men refuse a royal invitation and slay the messengers. And then there is the feast waiting (cattle killed, etc.) while armies go and burn down the cities which are mysteriously possessed by the guests, and so on. Sillier still, and far from moral, is the idea that because a man who has been brought in off the highway does not happen to be wearing his finest clothes he must be fearfully punished. It is a phantasmagoria of folly; and I am only astonished that those who believe in the divinity of Christ did not long ago denounce it as a Jewish interpolation. The sober part of it is obviously borrowed from Johanan. “The kingdom of heaven” is, in Christ’s language, the day of death and judgment, so the main idea is the same. But the parable went round and round among ignorant people until in the end it reads like a nightmare. We have no reason to believe that it appeared in Matthew until the last decade of the century.
The “parable of the ten virgins” looks as if it might have been inspired by the same Jewish parable; and it is equally far from being an improvement on the original. The bridegroom who turns up at midnight, the maids who placidly sleep while the bridegroom is missing, the refusal of bridesmaids on such an occasion to give a little oil, the brutal conduct of the groom — it is another phantasmagoria of nonsense (Matthew xxv, 1-13). These things are taught to the children in British schools as examples of the superlative wisdom and tenderness of Jesus. There are several parables in the older part of the Talmud which play round the same idea, but, absurd as much of the Talmud is, they are more sober than these two Gospel parables.
Let us take “the parable of the talents.” It is told in Matthew (xxv, 14-28) and Luke (xix, 12-27); and it is told with such material variations that it is clear there was no written record of the supposed words of Jesus. In Luke it has the usual childish details; a “nobleman” goes into a far country to take over a “kingdom,” and so on. It is much the way in which little girls tell each other stories. In both, however, the main idea is that God has entrusted man with money to invest, and the original parable may be one spoken by the Rabbi Elazar ben Arach. His master, the Rabbi Johanan, had lost a son, and Elazar said to him, by way of consolation:
I will tell thee a parable. To whom shall I liken the matter? To a man with whom the king hath entrusted a deposit. Every day he wept, and cried, and said: Woe is me, when shall I be free from this burden and in peace? So thou, rabbi, hadst a son … and he left the world sinless. Thou mayst therefore be comforted; for thou hast restored thy trust uninjured.
Rabbi Elazar belongs to the end of the first and beginning of the second century. In my “Sources of the Morality of the Gospels” I wrongly supposed that he was too late to influence the Gospels. The fact is that Rabbi Johanan died about 90 A.D., and his loss of a son must have been some years before that date.
The closely related “parable of the debtors” (Matthew xviii, 23-34) seems equally to come from a Jewish source, and is far inferior to the original. The Evangelist makes a servant owe a king “ten thousand talents”; which is, in modern money, about ten million dollars, or enough to buy up all Jerusalem! Moreover, the man promises to pay all the debt, and the king, who at first condemns him and his wife and children to slavery, suddenly wipes out the whole enormous debt. The original seems to be a sober story which is used thus by the Rabbi Jose:
I will make thee a parable. To what shall I liken the matter? To a man who lendeth his neighbor a mina [about $20], and appointeth unto him a day of reckoning in the presence of the king. And he swore to him on the life of the king. The time came, but he paid not; and he came to make his peace with the king. And the king said unto him: Thy offense against me is forgiven: go thou and make peace with thy neighbor.
Even here there are little eccentricities, such as taking a man before the king to pay twenty dollars, but the Rabbi’s use of the story (which was probably common) is much preferable to Matthew’s.
The belief in the wisdom of Jesus is so rooted that divines themselves are quite blind to the absurdities of the parables. In Spence and Exell’s “Pulpit Commentary,” which is much used by British preachers, not only is there no note of exclamation or interrogation at the sum of ten million dollars, but the commentator solemnly goes on (or advises the preacher to go on): “The reckoning had only just begun: there may have been other even greater debts to come!”
Fiebig is too ready to say that the Rabbinical parable is too late to have been copied into the Gospels. Both generally drew from a common stock, he thinks, But no evidence could be given that the parables were in any gospel before the year 100 A.D. at least, and those I have given are not later than that. The Talmud, however, continues to give parables substantially identical with those of the Gospels under the names of Rabbis of the second and third centuries, and, since it is quite impossible to suppose that Rabbis would venture to give in the schools as their own parables those which any pupil might read in the hated Christian book, it is most likely that the idea of the parable was an old one, often used, and the Talmud has preserved it in the form given to it by a particular late Rabbi.
There is, for instance, “the parable of the unjust steward” (Luke xvi, 1-10). It is, like most of the others, full of absurdities. The “lofty moralist” is represented as “commending the unjust steward” and urging us to “make friends of the mammon of unrighteousness.” The comments of commentators on these things are amusing. More sober, again is the Talmud version, attributed to Rabbi Simon ben Elazar (of about 200 A.D.):
Like to a king who had two supervisors: one set over the treasures of silver and gold, and one set over the stores of straw. The one who had charge of the straw store was suspected, and he murmured because they would not set him over the store of silver and gold. Then said they to him: Fool, if thou incurrest suspicion in regard to the straw store, how canst thou be found fit to take charge of the treasures of silver and gold?
Fiebig here observes that the Talmud parable has little in common with the version in Luke. The truth is that it has a point in common with it so material that we must conclude that both drew from the same source. The conclusion of Luke’s amazing moral story is:
He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much [great]; and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.
This moral has not only no connection whatever with Luke’s version of the parable, but it is precisely the lesson of the parable as given by the Rabbi, who concludes:
If the children of Noah were not faithful to the commandments given them, how much less would they have observed all the commandments of the law?
The “parable of the workers in the vineyard,” one of the most popular, has a perfect parallel in the Talmud: and the Talmud version again avoids the perversities of the Christian version. In Matthew (xx, 1-16) the employer arbitrarily chooses to pay the same sum to those who had worked only one hour and to those who had “borne the burden and heat of the day”; and, when the latter complained, the employer harshly answers: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” I do not find that the preachers who have now discovered that the ethic of Jesus has a wonderful application to social questions ever use that text. In the Talmud it runs more reasonably:
Rabbi Zeira said: To whom shall I liken the Rabbi Bon, son of Chija? To a king that hath hired many workers, and among them was one who did more worh than was needful. What did the king do? He took him, and walked about with him. When evening was come, the laborers came to receive their hire, and he gave unto this one the same wage as unto the others. And the laborers murmured and said: We have worked the whole day, and this man hath worked but two hours, yet he hath given him the same wage together with us. Then the king said to them: This man hath done more in two hours than ye have done during the whole day. So Rabbi Bon did more in the Law in twenty- eight years than a clever pupil could learn in a hundred years.
Rabbi Zeira lived about the year 300 A.D., but in the Talmud the parable is in Hebrew (the later part of the Talmud being in Aramaic), which means that it is ancient. Apparently the Rabbi applied to his young colleague, who had recently died, an old parable of the schools, and Luke used the same. Quite certainly those two stories come from a common source; and it is just as certain that no distinguished Rabbi would borrow stories from the New Testament.
I have given in my “Sources of the Morality of the Gospels” a number of further parallels. There are clear parallels to the parable of Dives and Lazarus, of the lost coin, of the lost sheep, of the prodigal son, and others. The parable was the favorite expression of the Rabbis, from the time of Jesus onward, and every idea in the parables of the Gospels was used by them. In most cases they used the actual stories. The “originality” of Jesus is a myth. The “superb” language attributed to him is largely foolish.
The Sermon On The Mount
Now let us take up the remaining parts of the moral teaching attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. We may begin with the Sermon on the Mount, which contains almost a complete summary of the morality of the Gospels.
The slightest reflection should suffice to make any open- minded reader skeptical about this famous Sermon. For centuries the most learned divines have brooded over it, and written commentaries and sermons on it, and, until recent years, not one of them ever expressed a doubt about its being a correct reproduction of a lengthy discourse by Jesus. Yet the circumstances at once excite suspicion, or more than suspicion.
It is not known to Mark, the oldest Gospel; and Luke, who makes it a Sermon on the Plain, obviously has no account of it in the least resembling that of Matthew. The setting of the story, moreover, in Matthew is not impressive. In order to preach a long sermon to “his disciples” — only four have been mentioned — he goes up “into a mountain” for some mysterious reason. Finally, the four Galilean fishermen who formed his audience must have been totally illiterate, and since no one could write the sermon, it must be supposed to have been miraculously memorized by them. We have here, in fact, one of the plainest cases in the Gospels of a late compilation attributed to Jesus. Matthew actually forgets (vii, 28) that Jesus has (v, 1) left the multitudes behind, and in the end he makes these the audience.
Modern divines recognize these weaknesses, and say that it is not a single discourse, but a collection of sayings of Jesus put in a dramatic form by the writer of the Gospels. This, they say, does not in the least detract from its value. The sentiments embodied in it are superb, unique, etc. Let us see.
It opens with the famous Eight Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and so on. I have noticed that much time is wasted by clericals and anti-clericals in conflicts over this supposed glorification of poverty. Divines with a pretension to a knowledge of Greek assure us that what Jesus really says is: “Blessed be the poor.” That is nonsense, for the Greek text, which lies before me, contains no verb at all. In plain English, this first and much- quoted sentence of the great sermon is a piece of confusion. Consistently with other texts of the Gospels, and the tenets of the Essenians, it ought to be a frank glorification of poverty. But the writer expressly says “the poor in spirit,” or poor-spirited; and the only plausible meaning we can give to it is “the humble in spirit.” Our age does not want that counsel. It has done incalculable harm in the past. But, in any case, to say that there is anything original in a religious moralist commending humility is quite absurd. The later books of the Old Testament and the Talmud are full of such passages, and one could cull even from the pagan moralists a whole anthology of such sentiments. Even material poverty, if any insist that Jesus meant this, is glorified by them, Seneca wrote a treatise on it. Plutarch asks: “What disease shall we say that the rich man suffereth from but spiritual poverty?” (“On Covetousness,” iv). Epictetus says: “Any person may live happy in poverty, but few in wealth and power” (“Fragments,” cxxviii).
The next sentence is “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”: which is almost a quotation from Isaiah (Ixi, 1-2, etc.), or from innumerable verses of the prophets and the psalms. Every moralist who believes in God makes a commonplace of the sentiment. So it is with the blessing of “the meek” — another disastrous counsel which Christianity impressed upon the world. The psalms and prophets are full of it, and every Stoic repeats it. Seneca says: “I will be meek and yielding to my enemies” (“On the Happy Life,” xx, 5). Plutarch writes: “A calm and meek and humane temper is not more pleasant to those with whom we live than to him who possesseth it” (“On Restraining Anger,” xvi).
Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius constantly say it. And I admire it no more in them than in Matthew; but anything less original than these “Eight Platitudes,” as they ought to be called, it would be difficult to conceive. I have in my other work given many perfect parallels to each, and could have given scores. Each sentiment is a moral and religious commonplace, and the language is not a whit better in the Gospels than that of the psalms, the Rabbis, or the Stoic moralists.
After the Beatitudes the writer makes Jesus address his audience as “the salt of the earth,” and “the light of the world,” and so on. It is obviously meant to be an address to a few chosen disciples; yet at the close, we are told, “the people were astonished at his doctrine.” The whole passage is a clumsy late fabrication, for at that time, the very beginning of the career of Jesus, there was no question of any “persecution.” And what would the four burly fishermen, who had just been recruited in Galilee, think of hearing that they were “the light of the world”? It was precisely the title which Jewish pupils gave to their most learned Rabbis.
Jesus is then said to have assured his hearers that he advocated no change whatever in “the Law”: the most essential injunctions of which (sacrifice, etc.) he spent his career in denouncing. “Till heaven and earth shall pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled” (v, 18). Here Matthew puts into the mouth of Jesus the sentiment of the Judaizing Christians, and confirms it in the next verse with a stern threat; and in the very next verse he switches off to the sentiments of the anti-Judaizing Christians and begins to belabor the Pharisees — the model observers of the Law!
The writer does not even understand them. The old law was, he makes Jesus say, that you must not kill: the new law is that you shall not even be angry with your brother “without a cause.” A few verses earlier the lesson was that you must not even be angry with your brother if you have a cause. Moreover, there is nothing in the least new about this “new and higher morality.” The Pharisees of the second century must have smiled at it, because precisely the old law ran (Lev. xix, 18): “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart . … thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” And, as I have already said, the Rabbis quoted in the Talmud and the pagan moralists abound in the same sense.
Matthew makes Jesus follow up his counsel by saying that if you take a gift to the altar and recollect that you have a grudge against a man, you must “leave the gift before the altar” and go first and be reconciled. A pretty anachronism! There were no Christian altars to receive gifts until decades after the death of Jesus; and men did not take “gifts,” but animals to be sacrificed (which Jesus denounced), to the Jewish altars.
He goes on to say that the old law was that you should not commit adultery: the new law makes it a sin even to desire a woman. But the oldest law precisely was: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” and the later books of the Old Testament say exactly what Jesus is supposed to say: “Lust not after her beauty in thine heart” (Prov. vi, 25), and “Gaze not on a maid … gaze not on another’s beauty,” (Ecclus. ix, 5 and 8). The Rabbis went even beyond Jesus. “Whosoever,” says the Talmud, “regardeth even the little finger of a woman hath already sinned in his heart” (Beracbot, 24, 1). Seneca, Epictetus and all the Stoics are just as stern with us. “It is the intention, not the outward act, which makes the wickedness,” says Seneca (“On the Happy Life,” xvi). Our age is not likely to be moved by these exaggerated pruderies.
Then there is the “sublime principle,” in a matter of vital human importance, about divorce. Mark and Luke make Jesus forbid divorce under any conditions. Matthew allows divorce for “fornication.” The result is that the Churches are entirely at variance on one of the most important of social and moral problems. The Catholic thinks all divorce invalid; the British Protestant is sure that a woman commits no sin if she remarries after divorcing her husband for adultery; the German or American Protestant genially commits all three Evangelists (if not Jesus) to the flames and gets a divorce for half a dozen reasons. Verily, our age would be sadly perplexed if it had not these simple and sublime teachings of Jesus!
I may add that the Jews at the time of Jesus were just as divided as the primitive Christians evidently were, and Christians are today. Some Rabbis — unknown to Matthew — forbade divorce altogether; some allowed it for adultery; others admitted many grounds for divorce. And we are told that it is only from religion that we can get any clear and firm guidance on sex-questions.
Several verses on oaths follow: and the writer of the Gospel again makes a mistake in thinking that the Old Testament and the Pharisees did not forbid swearing. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” is one of the Ten Commandments; and more than one passage of the Old Testament says, like Ecclus. xxiii, 9-11, “Accustom not thy mouth to an oath.” There were no civic or official oaths in Judea; but there is no Christian country that has not myriads of them. Until recently Christian civilizations prosecuted any man who acted on Christ’s injunction and refused to take an oath. Less than a century ago men who sought justice in British courts of law were contemptuously dismissed because they had scruples about taking an oath. Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus condemned oaths just as Jesus did. Popes and bishops insist on them.
Next comes the famous council that, whereas the old law permitted one to demand “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” in the new and higher dispensation you must even turn the other cheek to the smiter and give the cloak also to the man who takes your coat.
Since Christendom is unanimously agreed, and always has been agreed, that no man of sense would act upon this “sublime teaching” of Jesus, we need hardly linger over it. But it is necessary to point out once more that it is certainly not Jesus — not a Jew of the year 30 A.D. who said this. For, although the “eye for an eye” principle is found in Exodus, where it seems to be a fragment of earlier tribal customs, the later books of the Old Testament say, over and over again, precisely what Matthew gives as a new law. “I gave my back to the smiters and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair,” says Isaiah (1, 6). “Let him give his cheek to him that smiteth him,” says Jeremiah in Lamentations (iii, 30). “If any demand thy ass, give him also the saddle,” says the Talmud (Baba kamma, 92, 2); and this saying is described as a popular proverb. “Let him strike thee,” says Plato (Gorgias, 527), giving counsel how to deal with an angry man.
How futile is the modern excuse that, while the counsel of Jesus is beyond the range of human nature, it on that very account evinces a superhuman standard of conduct, and could not have been thought out by a mere biographer. Like all these ascetic exaggerations, it occurred to nearly every moralist. The age was morbid, because old faiths had broken down and men had not yet knowledge enough to realize their true positions in the universe. Morbid asceticism arose as naturally as morbid sensuality. Every single pagan moralist at one time or other praised “passive resistance. You must smile, they said, when the angry man insults or strikes you. It is supposed to do him good. Try it.
Once, being at lunch in the Harvard Club with the profoundly Christian Theodore Roosevelt, I remarked, apropos of pacifism (of which one of the guests had maliciously accused me), that my principle was: “If any man smite thee on one cheek, smite him promptly on both.” Roosevelt’s roar of laughter was not complimentary to the Sermon on the Mount. His son told me later that the Colonel had gone around New York for a week telling people that he had “met a pacifist after his own heart.” It is sheer bunk to pretend to admire these “elevated” counsels.
I reserve for the next section the equally famous counsel to love one’s enemies, merely remarking here that we have one more plain proof that no Palestinian Jew ever said what Matthew attributes to Christ. When the writer speaks of the “eye for an eye” principle as the Jewish law, he has at least a possible reference to Exodus though no fair-minded person would quote this as “the law,” when later books of the Old Testament entirely undo it. But when Jesus is represented as saying in the Sermon on the Mount, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy,” we can say at once that it is a false representation. There is no such passage anywhere in the Old Testament. The contrary is repeatedly said; and the Rabbis of the Talmud have, as we shall see, the same teaching. If then, the first part of the sentence is clearly due to some bitterly anti-Jewish writer of a later date, so, apparently, is the counsel to love one’s enemies. There was, in fact, as we shall see, no originality in the counsel. It was a platitude of the super-ethics of the time.
The modern Christian does not read Plato, Epictetus, Plutarch, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. He knows, without reading them, that the Gospel is far superior to them. He is quite sure of the originality of Christ without ever taking the trouble to inquire whether any other moralist ever said the same things. He does not, of course, read the Talmud, and one may excuse him, for a very large part of it is tedious, if not ridiculous; though it would at least teach him that the sayings of Jesus were platitudes of the Jewish schools in the first century. But he may at least be supposed to read the Old Testament occasionally; and there is not a single point of “Christian” morality that is not found in it.
In every dissertation on the supreme excellence and originality of Christ as a moralist we are first, and most triumphantly, confronted with the Golden Rule:
“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”
For forty years I have heard or read disputes about this famous rule. Does it not place Jesus eminently above any other moralist that ever lived? The opponent answers, no, because Kong- fu-tse gave the same rule six centuries earlier; and there is then a long and angry discussion entirely contrary to the teaching of both Jesus and Kong-fu-tse as to whether the Chinese moralist did not give his rule in “a merely negative form.”
Neither side seems to notice that the Golden Rule ends in the Gospel with this phrase: “For this is the law and the prophets.” The writers of the Gospels, probably Greek Christians, steeped in the rancor that grew up between Jews and Christians, say some harsh and untrue things about the Jews. As we saw, they misrepresent the “old law.” They pitch it at a lower note than it really had in order to make Jesus superior to it and original. But precisely here where Jesus is said by his modern admirers to be most clearly original, they claim no originality at all. They make him say that he is merely recommending them to observe the old law.
I am not selecting the Golden Rule for special treatment on the ground of its intrinsic importance. It is trite, obvious, proverbial all over the world (“Do as you would be done by”), and so far from being beyond the range of human wisdom that children quite commonly formulate it as a sensible code of social conduct in their little spheres. Judge Ben B. Lindsey once told me that, in dealing with the most refractory boy be had ever had, he had brought him to his senses only by applying that rule, in a secular sense. It is so far from being religious, or in any way necessarily connected with religion, that it is expressly put by Jesus (or the writer of the Gospel) on a utilitarian basis. The preceding verses plainly say that you are to give to others and then you may expect gifts from them. It is a summary of our social or utilitarian ethic: which Christians affect to despise. But it is a weakly worded summary, a mere popular phrase.
A divine would probably remind me that this rule of life takes a “sublimer” — how they love that word sublime, and how utterly misplaced it is — form in the command: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Many, at least, incautiously choose this as the most characteristic saying of Jesus. It is an unhappy choice, for the sentence is taken verbatim from one of the books of the Old Testament (Leviticus xix, 18).
People forget sometimes, in comparing the morality of the Old Testament with that of the New, that the one covers many centuries, and reflects very different stages of moral evolution, while the Gospels represent a single, and much later, stage. You can quote harsh sayings from the Old Testament; and you can find the antidote, the parallel with the sayings of Jesus, somewhere else in the book — in the later psalms, or Isaiah, or Proverbs, or Ecclesiastes. Leviticus is by no means so early as its position in the Bible suggests. It belongs to the fifth century, when the Jews had been raised to a higher level by the Babylonians and the Persians. And in a series of counsels or commands, which are quite parallel with the counsels of the Sermon on the Mount, the priestly writer lays down the law of brotherly love.
It is, like so much of this ancient morality, an exaggeration, It is a psychological impossibility for any man to love another as he loves himself: that is to say, in practical language, to desire as keenly for another as he does for himself. Thirty years ago I was a professor of philosophy (which included psychology) in a Roman Catholic seminary; and I remember well two Latin aphorisms which my manual directed me to expound to my clerical pupils. The first was: The will desires only what is good (to it). The second was: The will desires only its own good. It was an archaic system of psychology, but on that point the modern psychology of volitions or desires does not differ. A saint or a reformer may seem to love his neighbor as himself; but the saint loves at the same time the reward in heaven which will crown his altruism, and the reformer is not unmindful of the crown on earth. There is only one possible form of altruism: the form which finds expression in the Golden Rule — enlightened egoism.
And to that rule one could quote substantial parallels from the moralists of every civilization. Buddha, if one prefers the more emotional expression that one must love others as one loves oneself, far surpassed Jesus. Love, the love of man for man, was an essential part of his teaching. Indeed, of love of oneself he never dreamed. His whole mission to the common folk about him was to love each other and behave as if they loved each other. The Golden Rule, as such, would have been deemed by Buddha a cold and calculating expression of the true ideal.
In China both the great moralists, Kong-fu-tse and Lao-tse, formulated the Golden Rule. Kong-fu-tse commonly gave as the rule of conduct certain formulas which were identical in substance with that of Christ, but a disciple, one day asked him to put in a single word the essential rule of life. A word, in Chinese, means, not so many letters of the alphabet, but a single character, or two characters combined in one. It was solely on this account that Kong-fu-tse gave his rule in the very short form “Reciprocity,” as it is usually translated. The common statement of Christian controversial writers that he put it in a negative form is quite false. Literally, the character he used was the composite character “as heart”; have one heart with your fellowmen, or behave to them as you would have them behave to you. Lao-tse, his contemporary, very fairly expressed the same rule.
These moralists lived several centuries before the Christian era opened. By the time the Gospels were written Stoicism had inspired a large number of moralists of the ascetic type, and the Greco-Roman world had almost as great a medley of moralities as it had of mythologies. Golden Rules were given on every hand, and the sentiment of the Golden Rule of Kong-fu-tse and Jesus was as familiar as the belief in one God.
Futility Of The Christian Ethic
Some years ago I wrote a work entitled “The Bankruptcy of Religion.” A few reviewers, lay churchmen, smiled at the title. Does not Christianity still dominate civilization? But amongst the many letters which the book brought me was one from an elderly clergyman of the Church of England, in active service, confessing his entire agreement with me. He and large numbers of the clergy were, he said, with a pathetic reference to the economic necessity which enslaved them to error, Agnostics. And the part of my work which won his warmest approval was that which claimed a moral, as well as an intellectual, bankruptcy of the Churches.
The world, once it had been compelled to accept the Gospels, sank rapidly into the Dark Ages, when vice and violence ruled Europe. It is another legend or myth of the Churches that Christianity elevated civilization. Europe sank far lower than it had been in pagan days.
The preacher, who knows nothing of moral and social history, distracts attention from this broad failure of Christian morality by enlarging upon the multitudes of saints and martyrs that it inspired. It would be more accurate to enlarge on the number of legends of forged lives, of saints and martyrs that it inspired. Martyrs were created by the hundred by the corrupt Roman writers of the early Middle Ages. As to saints, we will keep a broad mind and admit that, during the fifteen hundred years of Christian domination, thousands of men and women have found real inspiration in the Gospels; as similar thousands found it in the words of Buddha or of Kong-fu-tse. But this is a trifle compared with the countless millions whose coarse and violent lives throughout the whole of that vast period reflected anything but the ideals of the Gospels.
Why was this supposed teaching of Jesus so ineffective? I would agree with the Protestant that much of the blame is due to the sacerdotal system of the Church of Rome. Certainly I would not agree with him that there was an improvement after the Reformation. England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was almost, if not quite, as immoral as during the Middle Ages. It was only in the nineteenth century, especially the latter part of the nineteenth century, that the standard of taste and conduct rose to the level on which we now live. But the fault lay predominantly with Rome. Dense ignorance always means coarseness; and the Church was responsible for the ignorance of Europe. Moreover, the ritual service, the doctrine of Purgatory and indulgences, the practice of confession, the mechanical rites of kissing relics and attending services in an unintelligible language, all tended to blunt, instead of promote, moral delicacy.
But the teaching of the Gospels was not even in itself calculated to help the mass of men. I have said elsewhere that Jesus was probably an Essanian monk. Such ascetic exaggerations as are attributed to him were not in those days confined to monks. Wandering moralists as well as Egyptian and Palestinian monks said them. Wealthy men like Seneca, emperors like Marcus Aurelius, said them, as well as slaves like Epictetus. Philosophers like Plato and Zeno and Plutarch were little less ascetic in their denunciations of the flesh and its lusts.
But all moral rhetoric of this kind is bound to be ineffective with the mass of mankind. Buddha was not more successful in Asia, on this side, than Plato was in Greece or Jesus in later Europe. Our blood is as much a part of our nature as is our reason. We feel the falseness of a philosophy or an ethic that belittles the pleasure of life and would condemn us, in a world of sunshine and flowers, to close our eyes to the light and color. Only men and women of a peculiar nature ever pay implicit attention to such counsels. The teaching of Jesus was condemned to futility by its own exaggerations. It is not too hard for human nature; but human nature healthily refuses to be ruled by it.
The Churches dare not in our age consistently advocate their Christian ethic. It is a condemnation, root and branch, of all pleasure. An ethic which puts married folk on a lower level, as weaklings who cannot scale the heights of superiority, has no place in the twentieth century. An ethic that preaches that a man must embrace poverty if he would be really virtuous dare not be urged from any pulpit in America. An ethic that bids the really just man turn the other cheek to the smiter is not lofty or sublime, but a sheer blunder. And these things are essential parts of Christ’s morality, however little they may be obtruded in Christian morality.
In fine, the entire atmosphere of the morality of Jesus in the Gospels unfits it for use in modern times. Efforts have been made to explain away the belief in hell of the prophet of Nazareth — ridiculous efforts to get rid of the plain meaning of the Greek words used in the Gospels — but no amount of ingenuity will explain away his belief that the end of the world was near. I should be disposed, on broad grounds, to believe that this is one of the few doctrines we can safely attribute to Jesus himself, not to the compilers of the Gospels. For the source of that belief we must look toward Persia, not the Greek world.
It falsifies the entire conception of human life and duty, and makes the morality of the Gospels quite unsuitable for our time. In the light of that belief we can easily understand the ascetic exaggerations of the sayings of Jesus; and we can just as easily understand how it was that Christian morality never inspired social justice: which is immeasurably more important than personal virtue. Not one of the greater problems of life was ever confronted by the Gospel Jesus or early Christianity. It was left to pagan moralists to denounce war and slavery. It was left to Agnostic sociologists to discover that brutal material conditions would be reflected in brutality of mind, and that a low intellectual level meant infallibly for the majority of men a low moral level. Our modern conception of character and the way to improve and strengthen character has nothing in common with the moral platitudes of ancient Judea.
Nor has our personal conception of our rights anything in common with an ethic which was framed in the belief that God would shortly destroy the earth by fire and summon the souls of all men before his throne. In all our rebellions there is one sound note; we claim a freedom restricted only by the rights of others that we shall not hurt them. The alternative to that would be anarchy. The character of our age is that it is increasingly social, and only a social ethic will meet its needs. Let the platitudes and eccentricities of the Gospels slumber in the Greek books in which they were written. In the great light which has broken upon the world we cast aside the little lamps of long ago. We see our universe from end to end. We chart our path with a knowledge which no other age ever possessed. We need no moralists of old times to tell us how to behave.