Last Updated on : Saturday, October 11, 2014
by Robert Roberts
to the first edition
It is no new thing to try to exhibit Christ's wonderful life in biographic form. Varied in times past and recent have been the efforts in this direction. That the author should add to the number of such efforts may seem either superfluous or presumptuous: -- superfluous, if previous efforts have been successful; presumptuous, if it argue an opinion that they have been failures. Perhaps it is neither one nor the other. Other efforts may have been successful in a measure that still leaves the way open to something more complete.
But the author, with a sense of pain at the seeming arrogance, is impelled to go further and say that, in order to give a truthful conception of the personage whose memory is enshrined in the four gospels, something totally different is needed from any Life of Christ that has yet appeared. That this book is that something in an exhaustive form, he dares not, with a full sense of human insufficiencies, profess. But he thinks it is at least a step towards it. It has in some respects a new picture to exhibit -- a new story to tell -- new and not new -- new as to current models, not new as to the original which it seeks to reproduce.
If most attempts at the Life of Christ have failed to exhibit this original, the author believes it is attributable to two palpably distinct causes: either they have tried to bring Christ into a merely human conception; or have tried to force him into the groove of a conventional theology to which he does not belong. If the author may have succeeded in a third line of treatment, it is because of another work that has been done in our age, of which the world has heard little, and which it esteems less -- the rediscovery of the truth originally promulgated by the apostles in harmony with Moses, the prophets, and the apostles; and its extrication from obscuring association with mere ecclesiastical tradition of both Romish and Protestant complexion.
A re-investigation of the theological problems of the age, in the full light of what the Bible is in itself, compels the conviction that false views of God and man have for centuries prevailed in Europe through the influence naturally attaching to a State-supported ecclesiasticism. It is these false views that have chiefly interfered with a right apprehension of the subject in hand. Christ is built into the whole structure of the Bible; and it is essential to a right interpretation of him that the purpose of God as revealed and embodied in that structure be understood. If (as will be found to be the case) this purpose has been obscured by the theologies of all denominations of Christendom, it is the natural result that a consistent and truly rational biography of Christ should be impossible in professional theological hands, notwithstanding the great abilities brought to bear, and the abundance of the materials supplied in the writings of the apostles. If impossible in theological hands, how much more in the hands of the so-called rationalistic school.
It is the conviction thus foreshadowed that must be the author's excuse for entering upon a work apparently overdone already, and by men, too, whose names the world accepts as unimpeachable guarantees of capacity and scientific accuracy. Eddersheim has produced a stupendous monument of what is understood by "learning," namely: acquaintance with ancient (and mostly valueless) writers on various phases of the subject. But his subject is lost in the attenuated spinning out of such material. The simple picture of the apostolic narratives disappears in the weak and steaming vapour arising from such elaborate cookery. Farrar gives us a beautiful view of a certain sort, but it is the beauty of a highly-coloured picture in Berlin wool. It has no naturalness of outline or colour. It is gaudy and garish. It is reverent but artificial; worshipful yet derogatory to the surpassing eminence of his subject by reason of his deferences at human shrines. Renan, in another line of things, gives us a piece of elegant superficiality, which, from a divine point of view, can only be fitly characterised as a lie, pure and simple. It is significant that Carlyle, who, in the course of his voluminous writings, has exhausted the resources of universal literature in his passion for human biography, passes by on the other side when Jesus of Nazareth is in question -- not in the spirit of derision, far from it. His few and brief allusions to him are those of profound reverence for the inscrutable. It was characteristic of the man not to meddle with what he did not understand. Yet to understand Christ (approximately) has been made possible in the Scriptures, and to present a clear and authentic picture of him is not an unattainable performance, as the author hopes to show in the following chapters.
In those chapters, the author goes very little outside the apostolic narrative. There and there alone are to be found the materials for a truthful presentment of the subject. Reference to other writers may have a show of learning, but can contribute little of real value to the main question. The Gospel-writers (with the exception of Luke) were "eye-witnesses" of what they narrate; and all of them were qualified for their work in a way which it is fashionable for "learning" now-a-days to ignore. The author is not afraid to avow the belief that the apostolic writers were guided by the Spirit of God in the execution of their work. This belief is unavoidable on the evidence, which is of a very varied and powerful character. It is impossible to believe in the Christ of the Gospels without believing this. Nay, the Gospels themselves are the most conclusive evidence of their divine inspiration. Both as regards the topics selected for treatment, and the mode and method of narrative and comment, the apostolic writings are as different from the turgid and puny efforts of man as the calm blue of heaven is different from the grimy walls of a human workshop. The stamp of divine wisdom is upon them to the eye that can recognise it.
It was a promise of Christ to the apostles before he left them that the Spirit of God would employ them as witnesses to testify conjointly with itself the things pertaining to Him: "The Spirit of truth which proceedeth from the Father, He shall testify of me, and ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning" (Jno. XV. 26-27). The apostles were to be witnesses (that is, testifiers) of the "things they had seen and heard" (Acts i. 8; ii. 32; iv. 20; v. 32; xxvi. 16, &c.). Hence the qualification of an apostle was that he should have been a companion of Christ from his baptism in the Jordan till his crucifixion and resurrection (Acts i, 21-22), or at the least that he should have seen Christ after his resurrection (1 Cor. ix. 1). A witness is one who speaks from personal knowledge. The apostles, as witnesses, spoke from personal knowledge, and to this extent, their personal characteristics would affect their personal testimony, as evidenced by the authorities perceiving that the inspired and boldly-speaking Peter and John were "unlearned and ignorant men" (Acts iv. 13).
But the Spirit of God was upon them to guide them in the what to say and how to say it. Their natural endowments were employed in the work, but they were employed by the Spirit of God, and in strict subordination to the purposes aimed at by the Spirit. Even their actions were checked and guided in harmony with these, as when Paul and Silas "essayed to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit suffered them not" (Acts xvi. 7), or as when John was about to write certain things that he heard, and a voice from heaven said "Write them not" (Rev. x. 4). When, therefore, we read an apostolic writing, we read a writing which, though humanly written, has been shaped by the Spirit of God for its own ends. When we peruse the apostolic testimony to the sayings and doings of Christ, we receive testimony which, though theirs, is only so much theirs in the characteristic sense, as the Spirit permits. This is a duality in the production which accounts for every feature in the case. The apostles and the Spirit both had to do with the production, but the apostles were under the strict control of the Spirit. This accounts for so much of the human peculiarity of the writer as may be visible in the productions, which is a very faint element in the case. The Spirit permitted it for its own ends. At the same time, it accounts for the superhuman tone and attitude that are their most conspicuous and striking features.
There are variations in the apostolic writings. How are we to estimate them? It is impossible to impute them to error if we allow the participation of the Spirit of God in the work. Jesus said the Spirit would guide the apostles into all truth (Jno. xvi. 13), and we must therefore recognise it as a cardinal postulate in the consideration of the question, that whatever appearance of discrepancy may exist, is not to be accounted for on the principle that there is an element of error in their writings. There are variations in the apostolic narratives, but variation is not error. Four men necessarily relate the same thing in different ways. Even the same person relating the same matter four times would narrate it differently each time. Mental operation is too subtle a thing to be held in stereotyped grooves. The apostolic variations are due to the diversity of the men employed by the Spirit of God to give testimony to Christ: but their diversities are held in strict subordination to truth. Their narrative was controlled by the Spirit. The Spirit knowing all meanings can secure the exact meaning in a diversity of forms. The diversity of form does not interfere with the presence and guidance of the Spirit in the diversity. Nay, it is rather an attribute of the Spirit, whether in creation or revelation, to delight in diversity in unity: -- "Diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit ... Diversities of operations, but the same God which worketh all in all ... all these worketh the one and the self-same Spirit, dividing to every man severally as He will" (1 Cor. xii. 4, 6, 11).
Hence, the variations are not inconsistent with the Spirit's guidance. First, as to the order of events in the four narratives: it is not the same. This would be a difficulty if there were a profession in each case that the exact order of the events as they occurred was observed. There is no such profession except in Matthew. In this, each scene is linked with what goes before in a way that involves historical sequence. But in Mark and Luke, there is no such exact placing of events. Hence the frequency of such general introductions as "It came to pass on a certain day," "And it came to pass as he went to Jerusalem," "And it came to pass as he went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees," &c., &c. They have an order but do not profess to give the order. Therefore diversity of order is not conflict. The order was immaterial, and was evidently not aimed at by Mark and Luke, except in a rough way, as a basis of what Jesus did and said.
But the order of events has a certain importance. Therefore in Matthew we have a chronological basis on which the accounts of the others can be arranged. As for John, his effort was a supplemental one, with the specific object of giving the conversations and discourses of Christ that had a bearing on his relation to the Father. Here also the exact order of events is immaterial to the object, and is not professed to be given.
Then as to the words attributed to the actors in the scenes selected for narrative, there is no profession of a verbatim report. The substance of what passed is related and often in the identical words, though frequently with variations. In this there cannot be any difficulty when we realise that many words besides those reported must have been spoken in connection with each transaction. Each writer reports words spoken but does not profess to give all the words; therefore each may select different words while reporting the same matter, and the difference in the words does not mean that in either case there is a wrong report, but that a different selection is made from the words actually spoken, and that in their several places, each report is right.
The difficulty only arises when a false assumption is introduced as to what an inspired account ought to be. Those who oppose the inspiration of the Gospels tacitly contend that four inspired accounts ought to be exactly the same. In this they leave out of account the dual nature of the authorship. They forget that the apostles are used as witnesses, and that, therefore, their narratives, though shaped and guided by the Spirit, reflect, to the extent permitted, the diversities of natural spectatorship. Or, on the other hand, they wrongfully insist that if the Spirit has had anything to do with the selection of the words, the human aspect of the testimony ought not to be visible at all.
The variations are due to the plurality of minds concerned in the production of the narratives, but because all these minds were under the control of one mind, which was using them for its own purposes exclusively, the variations were so regulated as all to be consistent with truth. Even in such an apparently extreme case as the variations in the wording of the inscription over the head of Christ on the cross, it is not difficult to apply these principles. The writing was in three languages, and it is impossible to tell from which of the three the several writers made their selection. Matthew wrote in Hebrew and may have selected the Hebrew. Luke wrote with the educated world in view, and though he wrote in Greek, he may have selected his rendering of the inscription from the language of the ruling power -- the Roman (Latin). John, writing for believers, after the dispersion, may have selected the Greek -- the currently spoken language of the East -- all making their respective selection under the guidance of the Spirit. Here would be a source of verbal variation, without the least literal inaccuracy. The idioms of the languages differ; whence a variation of language might arise.
In addition to this, there may have been an intentional difference in one inscription from another. Pilate's draughtsman may have varied them with a view to the spectators. He might introduce "of Nazareth" into the title for the strangers who might be in the crowd, and who might need a piece of local information unnecessary in the Hebrew and Roman versions which could be read by the Jews. Who knows? There are these uncertainties in the case, and we are bound to exhaust the possibilities they yield rather than give in to the suggestion of error in the apostolic writings which so many considerations exclude.
And even if there were not these alternatives, there would be an easy escape in another way. The several gospel narrators do not profess to give us the exact wording, though John does. They simply tell us that his accusation was written over his head, and they tell us what the accusation was. They do not say: "And this was the exact warding in which the accusation was expressed." Matthew says: -- "He set up over his head his accusation written: 'This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.' " Mark: -- "And the superscription of his accusation was written over him: 'The King of the Jews.' " Luke: -- "And the superscription was written over him in letters of Greek and Latin and Hebrew: 'This is the King of the Jews.' " Joan: -- "Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross, and the writing was: 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.' "
There is no inconsistency in these four accounts. Only one of them professes to copy the writing. The others give the sense, and that, too, in nearly the very words. There is here only the variation of truth. There is scarcely even variation; it is only degrees of selection. There is in fact complete agreement. Mark says: "The King of the Jews." These words were in the inscription: he does not say they were the only words. Luke says "This is the King of the Jews" -- two words more: these were in the inscription. Luke does not say they were the only words. Matthew says, This is Jesus, the King of the Jews" -- three words more. These were in the inscription; he does not say there were no others. They all fit into one another like different sized dishes. John adds "of Nazareth" to the words of the others, and omits the demonstrative pronoun -- probably copying the exact phraseology of Pilate's Latin. It must be obvious that these variations are but forms of truth, whose place in narratives self evidently divine compels us to include them in that supervision and sanction of the Holy Spirit from which an unskilful criticism would exclude them.
The same remark applies to other cases relied upon by those who contend for a fallible composition. Their explanation is found in the Spirit's union with the apostles in the authorship, which imparted a liberty of variation not permissible to a merely human reporter. The Spirit was the author of all the sayings and doings recorded, and could therefore paraphrase or vary the description of His own acts or utterances, with the liberty that any author exercises in reference to his own productions. It is the failure to recognise the all-prevailing presence of the Spirit of God in the production of these writings that creates the difficulties of criticism. Rules applicable to merely human productions are applied to a class of composition which is outside the ordinary literary category altogether. There is no parallel between a human writer who puts down his own thoughts and impressions merely, and one whose mentality is fused for the time being with a guiding mind outside of his own, whose servant he is, and under whose influence he may even write things he does not understand.
The Spirit of God aimed in the apostolic narratives to present the essence of the facts recorded, and not the particular form in which those facts were presented or expressed at the time of their occurrence. The New Testament is not a paper, but a storehouse of spiritual power, -- the power lying not in variant forms of expression, but in the things expressed. Hence, when it tells us that on a certain occasion, Jesus was publicly proclaimed the Son of God, it secures the record of the fact in a form beyond all question, but it does not give us all the details belonging to the occasion, nor tell us everything that was said. It is evident from John's narrative, that much more passed, both as regard what John said, and as regards what the Spirit said, than what would appear in the other narratives. And if two forms of the Spirit's words are given, "This is my beloved Son," and "Thou art my beloved Son," -- it is just possible that both forms were employed during the transaction -- one addressed to the spectators and the other to Jesus himself. The narratives are too meagre as narratives (though full of substance) to afford ground for a definite contention one way or other on a point like this. Any view is legitimate rather than the view that the Spirit of God helped the apostles and allowed them to blunder. The variations are all variations of truth; and if they were much greater than they are, they would be perfectly legitimate in the Spirit's rendering of its own intentions in the record of its own work.
These remarks meet every case. The words recorded do not in any case profess to be all the words spoken. Many more words were spoken than are recorded. Those recorded are but a selection: and in different accounts, a different selection is made, though the difference is not great. There is nothing in this inconsistent with perfect truth.
Let the two features of the case be distinctly apprehended: the Spirit's presence and control, and the part assigned to the apostles as witnesses, and all difficulty will vanish. The application of one or other of these to the exclusion of the others is the cause of the confusion -- in the orthodox school on the one hand, and the critical school of merely human learning on the other.
Acting on these principles in the following pages, the author has endeavoured to fuse the four narratives of the New Testament into one harmonious story, embracing every particular and adjusting every apparent variation in the four evangelists. He sends forth the result with a degree of affectionate reverence for the subject that words cannot express, and with a desire unutterable that the public mind (starving on all kinds of intellectual inanity) might awake to the feast of fat things which God provided for the world 1850 years ago in the life and work of Christ; and for which he will shortly secure renewed attention in world-wide events that will cause every ear to tingle.
Birmingham, 12th September, 1890...