The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: Preface

Author's Bias: Unknown

In presenting these volumes to the reader, I must offer an explanation, -though I would fain hope that such may not be absolutely necessary. The title of this book must not be understood as implying any pretense on my part to write a ‘Life of Christ’ in the strict sense. To take the lowest view, the materials for it do not exist. Evidently the Evangelists did not intend to give a full record of even the outward events in that History; far less could they have thought of compassing the sphere or sounding the depths of the Life of Him, Whom they present to us as the God-Man and the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father. Rather must the Gospels be regarded as four different aspects in which the Evangelists viewed the historical Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfillment of the Divine promise of old, the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of man, and presented Him to the Jewish and Gentile would for their acknowledgment as the Sent of God, Who revealed the Father, and was Himself the Way to Him, the Truth, and the Life. And this view of the Gospel-narratives underlies the figurative representation of the Evangelist in Christian Symbolism.

In thus guarding my meaning in the choice of the title, I have already indicated my own standpoint in this book. But in another respect I wish to disclaim having taken any predetermined dogmatic standpoint at the outset of my investigations. I wished to write, not for a definite purpose, be it even that of the defense of the faith-but rather to let that purpose grow out of the book, as would be pointed out by the course of independent study, in which arguments on both sides should be impartially weighed and facts ascertained. In this manner I hoped best to attain what must be the first object in all research, but especially in such as the present: to ascertain, as far as we can, the truth, irrespective of consequences. And thus also I hoped to help others, by going, as it were, before them, in the path which their inquiries must take, and removing the difficulties and entanglements which beset it. So might I honestly, confidently, and, in such a matter, earnestly, ask them to follow me, pointing to the height to which such inquiries must lead up. I know, indeed, that there is something beyond and apart from this; even the restful sense on that height, and the happy outlook from it. But this is not within the province of one man to give to another, nor yet does it come in the way of study, however earnest and careful; it depends upon, and implies the existence of a subjective state which comes only by the direction given to our inquiries by the true Holy Spirit (St John xvi. 13).

This statement of the general object in view will explain the course pursued in these inquiries. First and foremost, this book was to be a study of the Life of Jesus the Messiah, retaining the general designation, as best conveying to others the subject to be treated.

But, secondly, since Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, spoke to, and moved among Jews, in Palestine, and at a definite period of its history, it was absolutely necessary to view that Life and Teaching in all its surroundings of place, society, popular life, and intellectual or religious development. This would form not only the frame in which to set the picture of the Christ, but the very background of the picture itself. It is, indeed, most true that Christ spoke not only to the Jews, to Palestine, and to that time, but-of which history has given the evidence-to all men and to all times. Still He spoke first and directly to the Jews, and His words must have been intelligible to them, His teaching have reached upwards from their intellectual and religious standpoint, even although it infinitely extended the horizon so as, in its full application, to make it wide as the bounds of earth and time. Nay, to explain the bearing of the religious leaders of Israel, from the first, towards Jesus, it seemed also necessary to trace the historical development of thought and religious belief, till it issued in that system of Traditionalism, which, by an internal necessity, was irreconcilably antagonistic to the Christ of the Gospels.

On other grounds also, such a full portraiture of Jewish life, society, and thinking seemed requisite. It furnishes alike a vindication and an illustration of the Gospel-narratives. A vindication-because in measure as we transport ourselves into that time, we feel that the Gospels present to us a real, historical scene; that the men and circumstances to which we are introduced are real-not a fancy picture, but just such as we know and now recognize them, and would expect them to have spoken, or to have been. Again, we shall thus vividly realize another and most important aspect of the words of Christ. We shall perceive that their form is wholly of the times, their cast Jewish-while by the side of this similarity of form there is not only essential difference but absolute contrariety of substance and spirit. Jesus spoke as truly a Jew to the Jews, but He spoke not as they-no, not as their highest and best teachers would have spoken. And this contrariety of spirit with manifest similarity of forms is, to my mind, one of the strongest evidences of the claims of Christ, since it raises the all-important question, whence the Teacher of Nazareth-or, shall we say, the humble Child of the Carpenter-home in a far-off little place of Galilee-had drawn His inspiration? And clearly to set this forth has been the first object of the detailed Rabbinic quotations in this book.

But their further object, besides this vindication, has been the illustration of the Gospel-narratives. Even the general reader must be aware that some knowledge of Jewish life and society at the time is requisite for the understanding of the Gospel-history. Those who have consulted the works of Lightfoot, Schottgen, Meuschen, Wetstein and Wunsche, or even the extracts from them presented in Commentaries, know that the help derived from their Jewish references is very great. And yet, despite the immense learning and industry of these writers, there are serious drawbacks to their use. Sometimes the references are critically not quite accurate; sometimes they are derived from works that should not have been adduced in evidence; occasionally, either the rendering, or the application of what is separated from its context, is not reliable. A still more serious objection is that these quotations are not infrequently one sided; but chiefly this-perhaps, is the necessary consequence of being merely illustrative notes to certain verses in the Gospels-that they do not present a full and connected picture. And yet it is this which so often gives the most varied and welcome illustration of the Gospel-narratives. In truth, we know not only the leading personages in Church and State in Palestine at that time, their views, teaching, pursuits, and aims; the state of parties; the character of popular opinion; the proverbs, the customs, the daily life of the country-but we can, in imagination, enter their dwellings, associate with them in familiar intercourse, of follow them to the Temple, the Synagogue, the Academy, or to the marketplace and the workshop. We know what clothes they wore, what dishes they ate, what wines they drank, what they produced and what they imported: nay, the cost of every article of their dress or food, the price of houses and of living; in short, every detail that can give vividness to a picture of life.

All this is so important for the understanding of the Gospel-history as, I hope, to justify the fullness of archaeological detail in this book. And yet I have used only a portion of the materials which I had collected for the purpose. And here I must frankly own, as another reason for this fullness of detail, that many erroneous and misleading statements on this subject, and these even on elementary points, have of late been made. Supported by references to the labors of truly learned German writers, they have been sometimes set forth with such confidence as to impose the laborious and unwelcome duty of carefully examining and testing them. But to this only the briefest possible reference has been made, and chiefly in the beginning of these volumes.

Another explanation seems more necessary in this connection. In describing the Traditionalism of the time of Christ, I must have said what, I fear, may, most unwillingly on my part, wound the feelings of some who still cling, if not to the faith of, yet to what now represents the ancient Synagogue. But let me appeal to their fairness. I must needs state what I believe to be the facts; and I could neither keep them back nor soften them, since it was of the very essence of my argument to present Christ as both in contact and in contrast with Jewish Traditionalism. No educated Western Jew would, in these days, confess himself as occupying the exact standpoint of Rabbinic Traditionalism. Some will select parts of the system; others will allegorize, explain, or modify it; very many will, in heart-often also openly-repudiate the whole. And here it is surely not necessary for me to rebut of disown those vile falsehoods about the Jews which ignorance, cupidity, and bigoted hatred have of late again so strangely raised. But I would go further, and assert that, in reference to Jesus of Nazareth, no educated Israelite of today would identify himself with the religious leaders of the people eighteen centuries ago. Yet is not this disclaimer of that Traditionalism which not only explains the rejection of Jesus, but is the sole logical raison d’etre of the Synagogue, also its condemnation?

I know, indeed, that from this negative there is a vast step in advance to the positive in the reception of the Gospel, and that many continue in the Synagogue, because they are not so convinced of the other as truthfully to profess it. And perhaps the means we have taken to present it have not always been the wisest. The mere appeal to the literal fulfillment of certain prophetic passages in the Old Testament not only leads chiefly to critical discussions, but rests the case on what is, after all, a secondary line of argumentation. In the New Testament prophecies are not made to point to facts, but facts to point back to prophecies. The New Testament presents the fulfillment of all prophecy rather than of prophecies, and individual predictions serve as fingerposts to great outstanding facts, which mark where the roads meet and part. And here, as it seems to me, we are at one with the ancient Synagogue. In proof, I would call special attention to Appendix IX., which gives a list of all the Old Testament passages Messianically applied in Jewish writings. We, as well as they, appeal to all Scripture, to all prophecy, as that of which the reality is in the Messiah. But we also appeal to the whole tendency and new direction which the Gospel presents in opposition to that of Traditionalism; to the new revelation of the Father, to the new brotherhood of man, and to the satisfaction of the deepest wants of the heart, which Christ has brought-in short, to the Scriptural, the moral, and the spiritual elements; and we would ask whether all this could have been only the outcome of a Carpenter’s Son at Nazareth at the time, and amidst the surroundings which we so well know.

In seeking to reproduce in detail the life, opinions, and teaching of the contemporaries of Christ, we have also in great measure addressed ourselves to what was the third special object in view in this History. This was to clear the path of difficulties-in other words, to meet such objections as might be raised to the Gospel-narratives. And this, as regards principle-not details and minor question, which will cause little uneasiness to the thoughtful and calm reader; quite irrespective also of any theory of inspiration which may be proposed, and hence of any harmonistic or kindred attempts which may be made. Broadly speaking, the attacks on the Gospel-narratives may be grouped under these three particulars: they may be represented as intentional fraud by the writers, and imposition on the readers; or, secondly, a rationalistic explanation may be sought of them, showing how what originally had been quite simple and natural was misunderstood by ignorance, or perverted by superstition; or, thirdly, they may be represented as the outcome of ideas and expectations at the time, which gathered around the beloved Teacher of Nazareth, and so to speak, found body in legends that clustered around the Person and Life of Him Who was regarded as the Messiah…. And this is supposed to account for the preaching of the Apostles, for their life-witness, for their martyr-death, for the Church, for the course which history has taken, as well as for the dearest hopes and experiences of Christian life!

Of the three modes of criticism just indicated, importance attaches only to the third, which has been broadly designated as the mythical theory. The fraud-theory seems-as even Strauss admits-psychologically so incompatible with admitted facts as regards the early Disciples and the Church, and it does such violence to the first requirements of historical inquiry, as to make it-at least to me-difficult to understand how any thoughtful student could be swayed by objections which too often are merely an appeal to the vulgar, intellectually and morally, in us. For-to take the historical view of the question-even if every concession were made to negative criticism, sufficient would still be left in the Christian documents to establish a consensus of the earliest belief as to all the great facts of the Gospel-History, on which both the preaching of the Apostles and the primitive Church have been historically based. And with this consensus at least, and its practical outcome, historical inquiry has to reckon. And here I may take leave to point out the infinite importance, as regards the very foundation of our faith, attaching to the historical Church-truly in this also the Church of the Living God, the pillar and stay [support] of the truth).

As regards the second class of interpretation-the rationalistic-it is altogether so superficial, shadowy and unreal that it can at most be only regarded as a passing phase of light-minded attempts to set aside felt difficulties.

But the third mode of explanation, commonly, though perhaps not always quite fairly, designated as the mythical, deserves and demands, at least in its sober presentation, the serious consideration of the historical student. Happily it is also that which, in the nature of it, is most capable of being subjected to the test of historical examination. For, as previously stated, we possess ample materials for ascertaining the state of thought, belief, and expectancy in the time of Christ, and of His Apostles. And to this aspect of objections to the Gospels the main line of argumentation in this book has been addressed. For, if the historical analysis here attempted has any logical force, it leads up to this conclusion, that Jesus Christ was, alike in the fundamental direction of His teaching and work, and in its details, antithetic to the Synagogue in its doctrine, practice, and expectancies.

But even so, one difficulty-we all feel it-remaineth. It is that connected with miracles, or rather with the miraculous, since the designation, and the difficulty to which it points, must not be limited to outward and tangible phenomena. But herein, I venture to say, lies also its solution, at least so far as such is possible-since the difficulty itself, the miraculous, is of the very essence of our thinking about the Divine, and, therefore one of the conditions of it: at least, in all religions of which the origin is not from within us, subjective, but from without us, objective, or, if I may so say, in all that claim to be universal religions (Catholic thinking). But, to my mind, the evidential value of miracles (as frequently set forth in these volumes) lies not in what, without intending offense, I may call their barely super-naturalistic aspect, but in this, that they are the manifestations of the miraculous, in the widest sense, as the essential element in revealed religion. Miracles are of chief evidential value, not in themselves, but as instances and proof of the direct communication between Heaven and earth. And such direct communication is, at least, the postulate and first position in all religions. They all present to the worshipper some medium of personal communication from Heaven to earth-some prophet or other channel of the Divine-and some medium for our communication with Heaven. And this is the fundamental principle of the miraculous as the essential postulate in all religion that purposes again to bind man to God. It proceeds on the twofold principle that communication must first come to man from Heaven, and then that it does so come. Rather, perhaps, let us say, that all religion turns on these two great factors of our inner experience: man’s felt need and (as implied in it, if we are God’s creatures) his felt expectancy. And in the Christian Church this is not merely matter of the past-it has attained its fullest realty, and is a constant present in the indwelling of the Paraclete.

Yet another part of the task in writing this book remains to be mentioned. In the nature of it, such a book must necessarily have been more or less of a Commentary on the Gospels. But I have sought to follow the text of the Gospels throughout, and separately to consider every passage in them, so that, I hope, I may truthfully designate it also a Commentary of the Four Gospels-though an informal one. And here I may be allowed to state that throughout I have had the general reader in view, reserving for the footnotes and Appendices what may be of special interest to students. While thankfully availing myself of all critical help within my reach-and here I may perhaps take the liberty of specially singling out Professor Westcott’s Commentary on St. John-I have thought it right to make the sacred text the subject of fresh and independent study. The conclusions at which I arrived I would present with the more deference, that, from my isolated position, I had not, in writing these volumes, the inestimable advantage of personal contact, on these subjects, with other students of the sacred text.

It only remains to add a few sentences in regard to other matters-perhaps of more interest to myself than to the reader. For many years I had wished and planned writing such a book, and all my previous studies were really in preparation for this. But the task was actually undertaken at the request of the Publishers, of whose kindness and patience I must here make public acknowledgment. For, the original term fixed for writing it was two or three years. It has taken me seven years of continual and earnest labor-and, even so, I feel as if I would fain, and ought to, spend other seven years upon what could, at most, be touching the fringe of this great subject. What these seven years have been to me I could not attempt to tell. In a remote country parish, entirely isolated from all social intercourse, and amidst not a few trials, parochial duty has been diversified and relieved by many hours of daily work and of study-delightful in and for itself. If any point seemed not clear to my own mind, or required protracted investigation, I could give days of undisturbed work to what to others might perhaps seem secondary, but was all-important to me. And so these seven years passed-with no other companion in study than my daughter, to whom I am indebted, not only for the Index Rerum, but for much else, especially for a renewed revision, in the proof-sheets, of the references made throughout these volumes. What labor and patience this required every reader will perceive-although even so I cannot hope that no misprint or slip of the pen has escaped our detection.

And now I part from this book with thankfulness to Almighty God for sparing me to complete it, with lingering regret that the task is ended, but also with unfeigned diffidence. I have, indeed, sought to give my best and most earnest labor to it, and to write what I believed to be true, irrespective of party or received opinions. This, in such a book, was only sacred duty. But where study necessarily extended to so many, and sometimes new, departments, I cannot hope always to carry the reader with me, or-which is far more serious-to have escaped all error. My deepest and most earnest prayer is that He, in Whose Service I have desired to write this book, would graciously accept the humble service-forgive what is mistaken and bless what is true. And if anything personal may intrude into these concluding lines, I would fain also designate what I have written as Apologia pro vita meu (alike in its fundamental direction and even ecclesiastically)-if, indeed, that may be called an Aplologia which is the confession of this inmost conviction of mind and heart: 'Lord, to Whom shall we go? The words of eternal life hast Thou! And we have believed and know that Thu art the Holy One of God.'

Alfred Edersheim, 8 Bradford Road, Oxford: September 1883

Taken from "The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah" by Alfred Edersheim. ©1980 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Used by permission of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 255 Jefferson Ave. S.E., Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503. (

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