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Jesus, we may say, would not have been portrayed with such sympathy and understanding. It needed the four decades between 30 and 70 to render the period before 30 luminous. Facere celebranda and celebrare facta are two different forms of human energy. It is not often given to one age to accomplish both, and certainly it was not given to the first three decades of our era.
On the other hand, the possibility of such an interval developing less desirable qualities in the tradition (Iren. III. 2. 2, 12. 12) must also be admitted. For example, the two main requirements for the genesis of what is supposed to have been the mythical process, are (a) the Messianic and miraculous 1 conceptions of the early Christians, and (b) a certain time to allow of these ideas passing? into concrete form as incidents and stories (for a list of passages, cp. Stanton, Jewish
Indeed, the position of the gospels as compositions in and for the apostolic age supplies one of the most valid criteria for distinguishing the words of Jesus from those of his reporters. That the latter have given a trustworthy and accurate impression of his life is outside reasonable doubt. But the large amount of material which authenticates itself as genuine is bound up with materials which are as patently evidence for the mental and moral inferiority of Christ's reporters to himself. Such inferiority occasionally has caused misapprehension in the record, but on the whole it ensured a good report, better perhaps than would have come from men less impressed by their own subordin. ate ability, and therefore more apt to have given rein to the activity and inventiveness of their imagination. The profile of Jesus is clear in the gospels, chiefly because the writers were content to view it from below.
i The supernatural excitement of the first century seems to have made the rabbis who lived towards its close extremely shy of miracles as a religious proof (vide Schechter's Studies in Judaism, p. 230 f.).
? On the quick transformation of fact in Eastern popular tradition, and the bearing of this upon the historicity of the NT, Professor Ramsay has a good statement (SPT, pp. 368–370). The miracles of Thomas à Becket are a suggestive illustration of this rapid growth under different conditions. Some of these miracles, as Freeman has shown, were chronicled at the very moment of their occurrence, several within half a dozen years after his death. For a recent discussion of this quick legendary growth in its relation to historic testimony, especially upon the NT, see Dr. E. A. Abbott's Kernel and Husk, pp. 158-224, and his St. Thomas of Canterbury (1898); also Mackintosh's Natural History of Christian Religion (1894), chaps. xi.-xiii., and Réville's chapter, ii. pp. 61-85. More conservative statements upon the miraculous elements in the woof of the gospels are given by Bruce, Miraculous Element in Gospelsa (1890), pp. 79–153, and Steude, Der Beweis d. Glaubens (1897), pp. 89 f., 138 f., 189 f. Otherwise and excellently, Bacon, INT, pp. 215 f., 227 f.
and Christian Messiah, pp. 368–370). “The simple historical structure of the life of Jesus,” wrote Strauss, “was hung with the most varied and suggestive tapestry of devout reflections and fancies, all the ideas entertained by primitive Christianity relative to its lost Master being transformed into facts and woven into the course of his life. The imperceptible growth of a joint creative work of this kind is made possible by oral tradition being the medium of communication.” The modicum of truth which underlies this exaggerated estimate is not visible until the age and conditions of the gospels are understood. It was not a pre-dogmatic age. The Jews brought many dogmas into the Church, including scenic, semi-inaterial, Messianic categories, and the evidence shows us how much activity in primitive Christianity was devoted to fixing the relations between the old dogmas and the new experience (cp. Cone, The Gospel and its Interpretations, 1893, pp. 138–151). The fresh movement triumphed by mastering its inheritance and developing original forms for itself under the limitations of that inheritance. For the nascent religion had to formulate itself. Intuition turned to reflect and justify itself, and by the time that the gospels and even the Pauline letters were composed this tendency had been widely felt in most quarters of Christendom. So with the didactic aim. This again did not necessarily involve any deliberate looseness in reporting facts of history; but it seems to have fostered methods of adapting or creating ? narrative, according to the predominating tendency of the Oriental mind to cast argument and counsel in the form of stories. The extent, nature, and limits of this feature belong to the inner criticism of the gospels (see Carpenter's First Three Gospels, chaps. V., vi., an outline of competent and serious treatment; also Dr. G. L. Cary, in IH, i. pp. 74–77). It embraces the origin of the “doublets ”—one incident existing in two slightly different forms, and finally shaped into two separate events—the phenomena upon which the mythical hypothesis rests, and also the three veræ causc which, as even Dr. Sanday allows (DB, ii. 625), were "to some extent really at work” in shaping the miraculous narratives: (a) the influence of similar OT stories which naturally prompted the disciples to imitate them as they recorded the life and wonders of Jesus; (b) the translation of metaphor into fact, or of parable into the clothing of external reality, by which misunderstandings of language are the origin of certain
1 “Can we conceive of an evangelist stepping out of the actual into the possible, in order that he might have ampler scope for the embodiment of his conception of Jesus than the grudging data of reality supplied, especially in the case of a life of so short duration?... Viewing the matter in the abstract, we are not perhaps entitled to negative dogmatically as inadmissible such use of ideal situations for evangelic purposes” (Bruce, Apologetics, pp. 459, 460). The question is one of the subtlest problems in NT criticism, either as an inquiry into the deliberate aims of the evangelists or as an analysis of the unconscious tendencies under which they worked. Upon the intellectual temper in these days and its relation to religious truth, see Dr. Percy Gardner's Erploratio Evangelica, pp. 148–158 ; also, for the influence of subsequent ideas upon the narration of facts and events, Dr. A. B. Davidson in Exp. i. p. 16 f. The Alexandrian temper and spirit probably affected even the earliest synoptic tradition to a larger extent than is commonly suspected or admitted. The
synoptic account of the baptism of Jesus is a case in point. Here the endowment of Jesus with spiritual power at this initial crisis of his career is ex. plained pictorially by the descent of the holy Spirit in the form of a dove. So naïve a way of representing a religious experience was more than a popular conception; it formed an accepted category of thought in current Hellenistic and Rabbinical Judaism, where, as in Philo (Usener, Religionsgeschichte, i. p. 50 f. ; Holtzmann, HC, i. pp. 62, 63 ; Cony beare, Exp. ix. pp. 451-458 ; Dr. G. L. Cary, IH, i. 59, 60) wisdom or the divine spirit (Xóyos) was symbolised by a dove. In the third gospel the metaphor is more pointedly transmuted into fact. But evidently the process had already begun before the evangelic tradition acquired its most primitive form (Mk); which is an instructive piece of evidence for the mental atmosphere in which the sources and traditions of the gospels, no less than the gospels themselves, germinated. This method of representation, however, is analogous to the Eastern love of an apologue, with its circumstantial narrative, as the most suitable means of conveying instruction. To present the idea is the main point. “The Rabbi em bodies his lesson in a story, whether parable or allegory or seeming historical narrative ; and the last thing he or his disciples would think of is to ask whether the selected persons, events, and circumstances which so vividly suggest the doctrine, are in themselves real or fictitious. ... To make the story the first consideration, and the doctrine it was intended to convey an afterthought, as we, with our dry Western literalness, are predisposed to do, is to reverse the Jewish order of thinking, and to do unconscious injustice to the authors of many edifying narratives of antiquity” (C. J. Ball: Speaker's Commentary. Apocrypha, vol. ii. p. 307. See also Cheyne on “the unconscious artists of the imaginative East,” Hallowing of Criticism, pp. 5-7). Cp. pp. 75, 260.
narratives (a good example, e.g. in the cursing of the fig-tree, Mk 1112–14. 20–25 with Lk 136-9); (c) the exaggeration of what were originally quite natural occurrences. However such phenomena be estimated, they are not intelligible unless the writings are set in their true place as influenced by the dogmatic and didactic aims of a later age. Their contents must be judged from their function and atmosphere, as well as from the interval elapsing between their subject and themselves.
It appears, then, that under this common historical law the interval between the subject and the composition of a writing such as any one of the gospels, involves two aspects of reference—the retrospective and the contemporary. These do not in every case conflict, nor is the proportion between them uniform. It varies, and varies above all with the precise nature of the interval in question. For the significance of this interval is not to be estimated simply by the number of its years, any more than contemporaneousness is to be made a test of credibility (cp. Robertson, Early Religion of Israel, pp. 46, 47). It depends rather upon the aggregate and importance of the changes in belief, feeling, and situation which have occurred within the period. These may be as revolutionary in five years as in fifty, so that the 'mere space of time gives no proper clue to the inner spirit of the intervening age. But whenever any of the more serious forms of change occur, be it in manners or opinion, one consequence is that the past is rendered thereby less intelligible than ever to those who now live upon the other side of the gulf. The book of Acts is a case in point. Here the antagonisms of the early Church are sketched in a smoother and less violent form, so much so that the atmosphere of distant reflection tends occasionally to blur the sharp outlines of the past. But this feature proceeds not so much from conscious purpose or from ignorance, as from the inevitable change of interests which takes place whenever any movement is passing—as undoubtedly Christianity did from between 50 and 80— through rapid and urgent phases of development. The completer the development, the sharper the cleavage, the less able in proportion are posterity to realise with proper sympathy and accuracy a situation which already lies at a comparative distance from their surroundings and even their immediate antecedents, so rapidly has time turned it into what is almost a foreign memory. Thus the value of any historical reconstruction, like that offered in a gospel, varies rather with the character than with the area and the extent of its retrospect. The elements of that value consist in (a) the veracity, object, and opportunities of the author; (6) the psychological climate of his age, especially the relation, continuous or interrupted, between itself and the period which is being treated ; (c) lastly, and only lastly, the amount of the intervening years. The framework of chronology is apt in this connection to become misleading; it does not correspond unerringly to the real historical " distance." The fact is, no truth is more general in historical research than that a term of years may possess a real content quite other than that suggested by the space it occupies upon the printed page.
1 Nothing better has been written upon the correct standpoint for such an estimate than Harnack's few paragraphs in Das Wesen des Christentums (1900), pp. 16-19 (E. Tr. pp. 24 f). Schmiedel's conspectus is occasionally unfair (E Bi, ii. 1881 f.).
When account is fairly taken of this factor of “interval," any one of the historical narratives discloses itself at once as, in some scale and shade at least, a work of contemporary reference. It has been written at a certain distance from its subject, after the lapse of more or less significant changes, in a period of characteristic feelings and facts, by an author of certain sympathies and capacities. Put these elements together, and they throw upon the narrative a light of their own. Alongside of the primary retrospective aspect, they bring out the somewhat elusive" contemporary” aspect of its pages. This latter is set out with special emphasis when a gospel is dated according to its composition. Written not as abstract treatises, but for the practical requirements of their age, the gospels—even Luke's, which most nearly resembles a biography of Jesus—indirectly witness here and there to the circumstances and conditions of the situation in which they originated. They are very far from being theological