Current Literature—The Cradle of the Christ
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5. — The Cradle of the Christ: A Study of Primitive Christianity. By Octavius Brooks Frothingham. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 8vo.
As regards seriousness of purpose, importance of subject, and charm of diction this book is to be classed with such works as “ Ecce Homo “ and “ Literature and Dogma;” but, in the time which has already elapsed since its publication, it is made evident that the somewhat eager reception accorded to those works is not to be accorded to this. It is to be regretted that it could not have come to us from across the water, with some little mystification as to authorship, and backed by a trans-Atlantic reputation. The experiment were worth trying, had it been possible. Mr. Frothingham is a bite noir to so respectable a portion of the reading public that his writings must fare as fares any cause presented to a hostile tribunal. If the court knows itself, and respects itself, it will give no countenance to so revolutionary utterances.
But the experiment would be impracticable, for the authorship of Mr. Frothingham’s books could not be hidden; they need no autograph ; and its absence from the title page could give rise to no mystification while on all the other pages its presence is so pronounced.
Mr. Frothingham’s rather flippant treatment of other essays in the department of Christology may, however, partially reconcile the evenminded reader to the unjust indifference of the public towards himself. Why not serve him up with his own sauce ? Why not include his own works with those others, and dismiss his own claim to attention as lightly as he dismisses the claims of others, saying with him : “ Books have been written about the New Testament by the thousand, — libraries of books ; but they merely supplant and refute one another. Each is entitled to as much consideration as the rest, and to no more “ ? This is substantially one more book about the New Testament. Are we, then, to concede off-hand that a prophet has come to judgment at last ? In view of a self-assurance so sublime, and in defence of the splendid literature so carelessly contemned, one is sorely tempted to condone the public inhospitality. But the book must still be judged on its merits. And it is to be said, moreover, that this dictum of our author is not quite so complacent as it seems, standing alone. He may fairly claim, and impliedly does claim, that his own work is exempted from the judgment thus flung broadcast upon the works of others by reason of its different method. Whereas those have been written from the standpoint of supernaturalism, this is not so written. Those were dogmatic; this is literary. In dogmatism all is confusion, — mere assertion and refutation. The literary method, on the other hand, gives promise of definite result. There is, therefore, neither praise nor blame. It is not in the man that walketh to direct his steps; all is of the method which the spirit of the age permits him to grasp.
The literary method, as employed by the author, leads straight to one result sufficiently definite to alienate the great majority of Biblereaders from his present undertaking: “ The literary laws forbid under these circumstances our reading the gospel narratives as authentic histories,— constrain us, in fact, to read them, in some sort, as disquisitions, making allowance, as we go along, for the infusion of doctrinal elements.” This statement involves the fundamental premise of the whole work. Here must the opponent make a stand, if he would not incontinently yield himself or flee. When we have once surrendered the notion of a special inspiration of some sort exempting the New Testament from literary treatment, will our next step place us by the side of our author ? If so, we shall be quite likely to go with him the rest of the way. It surely is not far to his inference that “ the actual Jesus is inaccessible to scientific research.”
At any rate, by this statement the author opens wide the way for the enterprise of tracing the origin and development of the Christ-idea; the book is partially devoted to that undertaking. But it is also “ a study of primitive Christianity.” Unfortunately the two subjects thus indicated only lap marginally one upon the other ; they are not coincident ; for the most part an excursion into one involves a departure from the other, so that the reader finds himself unwittingly attempting the feat of being in two places at the same time; or, seeking to read with undivided mind, he is put to the labor of assorting the author’s material, and discovering for himself — a task not always easy — what has reference to the principal thesis and what to the sub-titular “ study.”
The “ Cradle of the Christ “ was the Hebrew hope of a national deliverer. The Messianic faith of the earlier disciples pertained to the prevailing Jewish conceptions of the period. The “ Son of Man “ of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, “ their Pauline elements being eliminated,”’ does not transcend the requirements of the common expectation. Jesus does but repeat with persuasive lips what the law-givers of his race had proclaimed. “ He is a radical Pharisee, who has at heart the enfranchisement of his people.” He is made a native of Galilee, “ the insurgent district of the country;” is associated with Bethlehem, the city of David, and laboriously connected with the royal line; is represented by frequent iteration as fulfilling Old Testament anticipations; and is formally welcomed by John the Baptist, himself thoroughly imbued with the popular Messianic expectation. The story of the Temptation is patterned after incidents in the career of Moses. The story of the Transfiguration derives its point from the introduction of the law-giver and prophet of the old dispensation. The phrase “ kingdom of heaven,” as used by Jesus, was interpreted into conformity with the common expectation, as describing the reign of a prince of David’s line. It was expected that the Messiah would work miracles, and Jesus is made to fulfil that expectation. His moral precepts are in character with his position, echoes of ancient ethical law. His religious beliefs are the ordinary beliefs of his age and people, nor does his conception of his office differ materially from that of his countrymen.
The Pauline phase of Christianity is put also under the lineage of Hebrew thought. Paul’s religious belief was not altered by his conversion. He was a Messianic believer before that crisis and after it. His writings thoroughly reflect the speculations of the Talmud. His teachings do not go beyond the times of Jewish thought.
In the fourth gospel — the Johannean authorship of which is unqualifiedly denied — “ vestiges of the popular Jewish conception appear but faintly here and there.” But the conception underlying the representation of Christ as the Logos — the conception of the divine reason personified — was of ancient date, and had worked its way into the substance of Jewish thought. “ Here is already the germ of a trinity maturing within the bosom of the Hebrew monotheism. The process has been simple ; the consecutive steps have been inevitable. But in the process the solid ground of Judaism has been left; the massive substance of the ancient faith has been melted into cloud.”
To the Christ-idea thus formed in the East the West gave currency; made it the central feature of a vast religious system ; crowned it, and placed it on a throne. There is a supplementary chapter in which are considered the claims of Jesus to a place in history. Throughout his work the author distinguishes between Jesus and the Christ. The Christ-idea has had obviously an historical development; the historical status of Jesus is another question, — a question which his subject does not oblige him to touch upon, but which he is not unwilling to consider in deference to the reader’s probable expectation. He doubts if such a person as Jesus is presumed to have been was necessary to account for the existence of the religion afterwards called Christian. “ As an impelling force he was not required, for his age was throbbing and bursting with suppressed energy.” “J^sus is not necessary to account for the ethics of the New Testament. They were, as has been said, the native ethics of Judaism unqualified.” He concludes that “ no clearly defined traces of the personal Jesus remain on the surface, or beneath the surface, of Christendom.” “ The image of Jesus, has been irrecoverably lost.” “The person of Jesus, though it may have been immense, is indistinct. That a great character was there may be conceded; but precisely wherein the character was great is left to our conjecture.”
We have sufficiently indicated the general scope of the volume before us. What is the bearing of this argument upon the common faith of to-day ? Does it tend to invalidate the claims of Christianity ? The author affirms that it does not. He separates religion from criticism, and divests the subject in hand of religious implications. He disclaims all purpose or desire “ to undermine Christianity.” He believes that religion is independent of history, and that Christianity is independent of the New Testament. Any system of religion must stand on its merits, — that is to say, its uses. “ The church that arrogates for itself the right to control the spiritual concerns of the modern world must not plead in justification of its pretension that it satisfied the requirements of devout people in another hemisphere two thousand years ago.” “ Christianity must prove its adaptation to the hour that now is; its adaptation to days gone by is not to the purpose.” In short, “ a church that does not bless mankind cannot be saved, and a church that does bless mankind cannot be destroyed.”
This is well and truly said. The question remains, however: Are the author’s conclusions just and true ? That question must be referred to the reader’s judgment. It must not be concealed, however, that the book has much the appearance of an ex parte statement. And this may be said without imputing to the author either wilful reservations or conscious partisanship. The fault is in his stars; he is apparently equipped with organs to discern very clearly the under side of things. Towards sentiment, which gives presentiment of an upper side, his attitude is indulgent, but not sympathetic. “ Sentiment is conservative. The poetic feeling detains in picturesque form the ideas which, if exposed to the clear action of intelligence, would be rejected as unsubstantial.” Must we, then, reject as unsubstantial ideas that are not wholly clear to intelligence ? Possibly; but if the reader of this work is not prepared to concede that whatever is undemonstrable is unworthy of regard, and that there is no verity in the unverifiable, he must apprehend that a mind intolerant of the undemonstrable and unverifiable will ignore some aspects of a religion that are essential to its complete presentation.
While the author is indulgent towards sentiment, in regard to the flat-footed class of writers and speakers his utterance is more decided. “ The acute, unimaginative, determined minds, impatient of the mists, however beautiful, that conceal knowledge, clear a way for the homes and gardens of the new generations.” It may be fairly doubted, however, whether a mind that is impatient of the mists that veil in mystery the sources of religious sentiment and devotion (mists that no impatience, or science either, ever can dispel); a mind that is only “ acute, unimaginative, determined,”—is fully qualified for a fair estimate of the sources and sanctions of the Christ-idea.
However this may be, the unbroken terrestrial tenor of the work must give it an appearance of one-sidedness, even to impartial readers. The mental prepossession is too apparent to be questioned. After following out this theory that the Christ came up, born of a nation’s mood and nurtured by political emergencies, one feels that, though the case is well made out on that side, — or because it is, — an advocate should be immediately heard upon the other side, in favor of the alternative — or rather supplementary — hypothesis that the Christ came down “from above.”
The questionable prepossession now referred to appears distinctly in the following allusion to Jesus : “ If the time ever comes when his lineaments are fully revealed to sight, he will be found not much greater nor much better than his generation justified.” The theory here, it is noticeable, is essentially identical with the theory concerning the Christ-idea, and the doubtful character of this reflects doubt upon that. What is the maximum limit under this rule ? Does Shakspere, for example, transcend the limit ? If he does, so perhaps may Jesus ; if he does not, the rule would seem to have no application; it would be difficult, to say the least, to adjust the proportion between Shakspere and “his generation.”
The stature of soul is not to be estimated in that way. And it is a supposition not to be altogether ignored that, whether through special inspiration from on high, or through a fortuitous concurrence of atomic felicities, or through a happy combination of ancestral gifts, the soul of Jesus attained such stature that he himself was able to lift the Jewish notion of a Deliverer to the sublimity of the Christ-idea.
C. W. B.
Charles W. Buck, “Current Literature—The Cradle of the Christ,” The Radical Review 1, no. 4 (February 1878): 797-801.