Page images
PDF
EPUB

critical conclusions of this book, but it is necessary to indicate them.

That these conclusions rest upon no solid foundation in historical or literary fact, that the theory comes about as near being pure theory as ever theory did or can,—is an objection, and a serious one, but not absolutely fatal, in this department of inquiry. Every account of the origin, the authorship, the construction of the New Testament, is largely made up of hypothesis. The account that is generally received is perhaps quite as largely made up of hypothesis as any other. So little is really known in regard to primitive Christianity and the earliest Christian literature, that the plain truth of history is not to be obtained. One theory may be more plausible than another; but, inasmuch as we can have nothing better than theory, no writing can be condemned on that ground alone.

[ocr errors]

The chief weakness of the author's position consists in the exaggerated importance that he attaches, and that others have attached, to the resemblance between Essenism and the primitive Christianity. No doubt this resemblance is very curious and very close in some particulars. The ethics of the Essenes and the ethics of the New Testament are nearly identical. If to account for this it were necessary to suppose an historical connection between the two, it would be sufficient to say that the systems touched at this one point. The Evangelists may have belonged to the "brotherhood," and may have given their coloring to the precepts of Jesus. Numbers of the early disciples may have entered the Church from the brotherhood between the death of Jesus and the composition of the New Testament. There is no difficulty in presuming that Jesus himself was intimately acquainted with the members of a sect which had so much that was in unison with his own cast of sentiment, and which would naturally impart something of its own temper to one endowed and moved as he was. A contact with Essenism at this single point, where alone the similitude is very apparent, does not involve an intimate alliance with it, far less need it imply a vital dependence on it, or an absorp

tion in it.

[ocr errors]

But it is not necessary to suppose even thus much historical 5TH S. VOL. XI. NO. III.

VOL. LXXIII.

28

connection between Essenism and Christianity. For that which they held thus cordially in common, they both held in common with all the spiritualists of that epoch and of that quarter of the globe. The lofty ethics of the New Testament were not peculiar to those purists of Palestine. If the Essenes had them before the Christians, the Therapeutæ of Egypt had them before the Essenes, and the Persians had them before the Therapeutæ. They are not Syrian, but Oriental. They are all found in their elements, some of them are found fully stated, in the books of the Old Testament. The writer of "Christ the Spirit" admits and argues that these precepts contained only the spirit of the Law; if that is so, they were the common heritage of all illuminated Jews, to whatever sect they belonged. They were the exclusive possession of no party and of no person; and their presence in the New Testa ment is no more strange, and no less strange, than their presence in other spiritual writings. Why should we allow to the Essenes a monopoly of moral insight? Why admit that this lofty virtue when found in a Pharisee's possession must be attached as stolen property? Why fear lest Christianity should lose its prestige of originality, because it must share with others what belongs to all, since it possesses this on those high conditions which the truly original alone enjoy?

We hold, then, that this ancient apprehension of the secondary origin of Christianity on the score of its Essenian character is groundless. The similarity brings no grave historical consequences with it. But this is not the whole case. A great deal has been said about the agreement between Essenism and Christianity. There is on the other side a great deal to be said about the disagreement between them. There are considerations which make it quite impossible to believe that either was derived from the other. Primitive. Christianity was, past all doubt, Hebraic; Essenism was deeply tinged with the mysticism of Oriental thought. It is reported to have had secret doctrines, which were imparted only to the initiated. What those doctrines were is not positively known; but so far as they are known, they suggest the theosophy of Parsism. The Essene Deity was wholly unlike the Hebrew Jehovah; there was a philosophy of the

spiritual world such as certainly did not prevail in the early Church, such as certainly did prevail among the people beyond the Euphrates; there was a philosophy of angels, of which great account was made; there was large parade of occult wisdom; there was the Eastern speculation in regard to the soul and the body, the impurity of the flesh, the uncleanness of the world, the expiatory design of human existence. The elements of Pantheism lurked there, as Philo intimates distinctly enough. The Essenes raised the symbol of the sun to such dignity, that many have suspected them of being fire-worshippers.

Something of all this appeared in the Christian Church of the second century, and it may have been introduced by the Essenes; but if it was, it was introduced as a corruption. Ewald contends that it was thus brought in. Ewald-whose authority on such a matter stands high as the highest gives it as his opinion that the Essenes, being a "close communion," having no share in the popular life, and no intercourse with other sects, for a long period kept aloof from the Christian fraternity; but, as in course of time the new religion spread and made its influence felt in the remote corners and among the secluded people of the country, many of them were drawn to it by spiritual affinity. These retained their peculiarities of faith and observance as far as it was possible, and endeavored to carry them over to the new sect. As their numbers increased, their success in leavening the still unorganized mass of the Christians became palpable and apparent; so much so, that the genuine spiritualists took alarm, and proceeded against these intruders as heretics. Paul especially held them in distrust, warned the churches against their fanciful speculations, and assailed them as the representatives of that hard, narrow exclusiveness of mind, that obstinate formalism, that stiff Hebraism, which, in his view, hindered the spread, polluted the purity, and smothered the genius of the faith. The Essenes are reported as being strenuous observers of the Law, and jealous guardians of its privileges. They were of the native Hebrew party; of course, the Apostle to the Gentiles found among them no friends.

But whether Ewald be right or wrong in his conjecture that

the Essenes, instead of being the originators of Christianity, were the perverters of it, and instead of being its purifiers were its corrupters; that, instead of losing their influence early, and gradually diminishing in importance, till they died out, leaving the Church in the hands of the literalists, they gained their influence late, and steadily increased, keeping the Church in the hands of the literalists; thus much is pretty clear, that the Essenes, if they are correctly described by Philo and Josephus, could not have written the New Testament as it stands. They could have written, "Cast not your pearls before swine"; "Go not among the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not." Could they have written, "They shall come from the east and the west, and the north and the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God"? Could they have invented the story of the Canaanite woman, or fancied the Christ journeying among the people who kept swine?

They held very sacred the prejudices of caste; they abhorred the uncircumcised; they would eat no food that was not prepared by their own cooks; they respected the sanctity of social distinctions, and, hating the Pharisees, carried even beyond Pharisaic limits the pride of the "elect." Could such people have penned the beatitudes, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"; "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God"? Could they imagine their immaculate spirit offering its intimacy to pub licans, and breaking the bread of life with "sinners"?

They were the severest of precisians; would they be likely to personify their Christ in the attitude of sending an adulteress away uncondemned, or pardoning a "woman of the town"?

They were Sabbatarians of the straitest sect; how could they paint their symbolic person as a Sabbath-breaker? How could they put into the mouth of their incarnate spirit those stern rebukes of their own holy bigotries? How could they imagine Jesus plucking the ears of corn on the Sabbath, and then flinging in the teeth of his enemies the declaration that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath? The supposition that they did so is inadmissible, wholly. If

it is urged that, in all he said and did respecting the Sabbath, Christ did not go beyond the spirit of the Law, that may be granted; but he certainly did go beyond the Essene conception of the spirit of the Law.

The Essenes were ascetics; they discouraged marriage; they ate no flesh; they used no oil. The New Testament describes the Son of Man as "eating and drinking," contrary to the usage of the ascetic Baptist, and presents him -in metaphor if you will-as honoring with his company a marriage feast, and furnishing more and better wine to guests who had already well drunken. Has not allegory its moral as well as its literary laws? May one metaphorically violate his principles? Is it legitimate, even in poetry, to contradict in the form of the representation the doctrines that are propounded in the substance of the truth conveyed? If the New Testament is a poem, it is a poem conceived in a higher strain than the members of that secret brotherhood heard floating on the air in the neighborhood of the Dead Sea.

We here dismiss the theory which this book, entitled "Christ the Spirit," was written to advocate. But we are not yet prepared to dismiss the book itself, which contains very much more than its theory, and very much better. The title suggests thoughts which the volumes, in their purpose, fall short of and disappoint; and the author plainly has thoughts that are too large to be contained in his hypothesis; for, in trying to tell his readers what this Spirit is which Christ symbolizes and personifies, he draws lines of definition so wide and all-embracing, that the sect of the Essenes can hardly be seen within them, and the place occupied by the Hebrew Scriptures is only a corner. "In the main," he says, in delightful inconsistency with his chief view, "this truth might have been seen in or through the older Jewish Scriptures; yet, in its own nature, truth transcends those records. Hence, while Christ represents the truth of the Jewish sacred writings, he is made to represent a higher order of truth at the same time." Again: "Not only is the truth exhibited in a higher form in Christ than in the old Law, but he is represented as promising a still further advance." Once more: "We have no adequate idea of truth when we imagine it can be exhausted and limited

« PreviousContinue »