Page images
PDF
EPUB

reasoning, for these depend upon the permanent operation of our faculties; and then we must hold our hands and receive everything as equally possible, and must live in an acknowledged anarchy of both nature and intellect.” It will be perceived that the writer carries the mythical out to its full conclusions. What Strauss intimates at the end of his work, Hitchcock avows at the beginning of his. Strauss labors through his heavy volumes to destroy the historical character of individual narratives, and finally puts forth the philosophical principle that makes his previous labor needless. Hitchcock asserts the principle, and declines the labor. But this is not the whole extent of his iniquity, as most will esteem it. The German critic, terror of his time, who was thought to have made havoc of historical Christianity, and who drew down on his head the condign wrath of the defenders of the New Testament, not only allowed a substantial basis of honest literal fact in the story of the Evangelists, but endeavored, while setting the supernatural aside, to show a basis of literal fact beneath much of the marvellous itself. He resolved the supernatural into the natural. The American thinker not only admits no basis of fact for the miraculous, but concedes only the faintest vestige of literal truth to the unmiraculous portions of the biography. The whole story is to him a mythus. The entire narrative is poetical in its nature. The Gospels are not biographies of a living person, but are poems setting forth philosophical truths under the form of symbol. The miracles are symbolical ; the life, in which the miracles are set, is symbolical ; the main figure, by whom the miracles are said to have been wrought, is symbolical. The writer is ready to grant that such a person as Jesus may have existed; on the whole, he is inclined to believe that such a person did exist, and did lay down his life as a martyr to a higher truth than his age could understand; but the historical existence of Jesus is of no importance to his argument, as he admits himself; and to us it seems a blemish, if thus unimportant. The theory is more complete if the Christ is made as mythical as his deeds; for after all he is significant only as a mythus. It is only as a mythus that he is introduced ; it is only as a mythus that he is used.

General Hitchcock's theory is, we venture to say, the boldest ever propounded as an account of the composition of the New Testament. It is bolder than Baur's, for Baur proceeds according to the rules of historical criticism, and moreover does leave a foundation of literal truth in the Evangelical biography, though he finds it impossible to determine just what it was. But the author of the volume before us cuts all the cords of historical tradition, and the mighty fabric of Primitive Christianity floats like a magnificent bubble in the air. Let us not be understood as casting any reproach on the hypothesis before us by the terms in which we describe it; we simply wish to present its features by the fewest possible touches of the pen. Far less would we throw the thinnest shadow of doubt over the author's purpose in framing and making exposition of it. He writes, as we fully believe, and as he earnestly asseverates, in a mood of utter reverence, and in the interest of a pure intellectual faith. He writes with a sincere desire to relieve the doubting from the weight of their doubt, to remove obstacles that lie in the way of faith, to offer deeper views of truth, and to plant the verities of religion on everlasting foundations. He says: “In order to reach a right conception of the spirit of the [New Testament] writings, it seems necessary for modern Christians to look upon the Scriptures, not with less, but with more respect and awe than they are commonly supposed to do. The Scriptures must rise, or be exalted in their estimation to that point of holiness and sacredness when they shall seem as it were to touch divinity." Again: “So far as the seeming historical is herein denied, it is only denied in favor of the spiritual. As mere history, the Gospel would be a thing of the past; but as a divine allegory, it was designed to teach the ever-living truth. To hold pertinaciously to the letter, is to lose its significance to the spirit ; but to yield the letter, not in a spirit of doubt or denial, but in devotion to the truth, is to find the very spirit from which the letter proceeded.”

Once more, speaking of infidelity, he remarks, with a touching beauty : “ Man loves truth instinctively, and hates falsehood. Give him truth, indeed, and if he understands it, he will drink it as the water of life. Error is only ac

were

ceptable when it wears the face of truth. A reputed infidelity turns out almost always to be a protest against a real or an apparent falsehood. For truth is an eternal virgin, and the first love of all mankind, the first-born among many brethren. To wander from it is to love, that is to worship, some mistaken image or shadow of it: and this it is that leads man into the wilderness, through and out of which, however, every man carries with him a Moses, a Joshua, a Jesus, a word in the heart, an angel, a prophet,

a prophet, — through whom the pure wine of truth may be brought to that soul which hungers and thirsts after righteousness.”

So much for the general character of this book, for the spirit in which it was conceived, and the object for which it was composed. Let us now examine with some care the account it gives of primitive Christianity. The writer was led to the opinions he holds respecting the character of the Gospels by a course of study in cabalistic literature running back through a considerable term of years. His first investigations — and they were very diligently pursued directed towards the people who devoted their lives to a search for the philosopher's stone. The result of these investigations he published in 1857, in a small volume entitled “ Alchemy and the Alchemists,” the purpose of which was to show that the philosopher's stone was spiritual truth ; that these strange old men were not trying to find the charm which converted the baser metals into gold, but were trying to find the charm which converted the earthly dross of mortal existence into immortal wisdom ; that the paraphernalia of their pretended science - their elixirs and essences, their acids and alkalies, their astrolabes and alembics, their lilies, lions, and dragons — were but the occult symbols of things they dared not utter in common speech, the grotesquely painted curtain behind which they carried on researches into the inmost nature of moral truth, and entertained speculations concerning the sublime verities of the soul.

In the course of these studies on the alchemists he came, by natural sequence, to Swedenborg, in whom he detected a member of the same great fraternity of seekers behind the veil, - men who talked in symbols, and uttered their profound

est thoughts in the unknown tongue of allegory. The conclusions of his research into the philosophical character of Swedenborg were given to the world one year later, in a second volume, called “Swedenborg a Hermetic Philosopher." By this time General Hitchcock was deep in the allegorical literature. He was introduced to the mystical fathers of the Church; they passed him on to the Alexandrine chambers of imagery, and brought him into acquaintance with Philo, the metaphorical ; he told him of the Essenes, that strange sect among the Jews, whose character has given rise to much speculation, whose relation to Christianity has been the ground of so much uneasy surmise, but whose name cannot be traced certainly to its origin, and whose very existence, as a Hebrew sect flourishing when Christ was born, has been denied.

The Essenes, it was discovered, on evidence which only literary Quixotism, like De Quincey's, could think of calling in question, were a small body of Jews, numbering about four thousand, - at least one hundred and fifty years old at the time Jesus lived, and perhaps much older, - who lived in the “ wilderness” bordering the Dead Sea. They were “ Come-outers” from the Hebrew Church and State, took no part in national affairs, withdrew from the centres of the popular life, and passed their days in homely industry, in the cultivation of personal, domestic, and social virtue, and in the performance of religious duty. In many respects they resembled the Shakers, in the western part of Massachusetts. There was a mystery about them, - about their forms, their opinions, their origin, and their purpose, - the mystery that always attaches to the unknown, the solitary, — the mystery of the desert. It was reported of them by Philo and Josephus, that they had occult doctrines, which they covered over by cabalistic signs, and protected from the vulgar gaze by solemn oaths and initiations; that they used figurative speech, - dealt in symbols and parables, which veiled the naked form of high spiritual truths. This was interesting.

But this would never have drawn the Essenes from their obscurity, or fixed on them the gaze of Christendom, had it not been for the wonderful resemblance of some of their moral teachings and practices to those of the early Christians. This

resemblance attracted our author, as it has attracted a great many before him. He found that the Essenes, as the cardinal principles of religion, announced Love of God, love of Goodness, love of Man. De Quincey, who exercises his utmost ingenuity in establishing the identity of the Essenes with the Christians, sums up the points of similarity in the following order. They were both distinguished for their close affection towards one another. They both had all things in common. They both were “ given to hospitality.” In travelling they carried no purse, but went from house to house among the brotherhood. They held solemn worship before sunrise, with prayers and hymns. They neglected marriage, though they did not absolutely condemn it, giving more praise to continence,“ They were eminent for fidelity to personal trusts. They were peacemakers, denouncing war, in usage and principle. They abjured oaths, except in their initiations, discountenanced all exaggerations of speech, were scrupulously true to their word, and held a promise to be as holy as a bond. By temperance in food, drink, and all sensual indulgence, they lived to a great age, a hundred years and more, — so says Josephus of the Essenes, and so reports tradition of St. John. They exhibited a wonderful contempt for pain and death, a fact which attracted particular notice in the case of the Christians, and which goes far to establish their identity with these old mystics, of whom the same is recorded.

Nor was this all. Eusebius found a striking similarity between the religious practices of the Essenes and those of the Christians. The meetings of both, and the exercises performed at their meetings, were in all main respects precisely the same. In Passion Week, preceding the Easter, they held a solemn festival, when they passed the time in fasting, watching, and the study of the Divine Word. They had a mystical supper, too, and sung hymns, precisely as the Christians did, and the Christians alone.

There was something startling in this close resemblance this more than resemblance - this identity of thought and practice in points of fundamental importance and distinctive character. It raised a very serious question, - Who were these Essenes, and what relation existed between them and

« PreviousContinue »