In or shortly after “the fifteenth year of Tiberius,” says Luke, Jesus came down to the Jordan to be baptized by John. This decision, by a man now “about thirty years old,” attested Christ’s acceptance of John’s teaching; his own would be essentially the same. His methods and character, however, were different: he would himself never baptize anyone, and he would live not in the wilderness but in the world. Soon after this meeting Herod Antipas, tetrarch (“ruler of four cities”) of Galilee, ordered the imprisonment of John. The Gospels ascribe the arrest to John’s criticism of Herod’s acts in divorcing his wife and marrying Herodias while she was still the wife of his half brother Philip. Josephus attributes the arrest to Herod’s fear that John was fomenting a political rebellion in the guise of a religious reformation. Mark and Matthew tell here the story of Salome, Herodias’ daughter, who danced so alluringly before Herod that he offered her any reward she might name. At her mother’s urging, we are told, she asked for the head of John, and the tetrarch reluctantly accommodated her. There is nothing in the Gospels about Salome loving John, nor anything in Josephus about her share in John’s death.


When John was imprisoned Jesus took up the Baptist’s work, and began to preach the coming of the Kingdom. He “returned to Galilee,” says Luke, “and taught in the synagogues.” We have an impressive picture of the young idealist taking his turn at reading the Scriptures to the congregation at Nazareth, and choosing a passage from Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach glad tidings to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the down-trodden free.

“The eyes of everyone in the synagogue,” Luke adds, “were fixed upon him. And he began by saying to them, ‘This passage of Scripture has been fulfilled here in your hearing today.’ And they all spoke well of him, and were astonished at the winning words that fell from his lips.” When the news came that John had been beheaded, and his followers sought a new leader, Jesus assumed the burden and the risk, at first retiring cautiously to quiet villages, always refraining from political controversy, then more and more boldly proclaiming the gospel of repentance, belief, and salvation. Some of his hearers thought he was John risen from the dead. It is difficult to see him objectively, not only because the evidence is derived from those who worshiped him, but even more because our own moral heritage and ideals are so closely bound up with him and formed on his example that we feel injured in finding any flaw in his character. His religious sensitivity was so keen that he condemned severely those who would not share his vision; he could forgive any fault but unbelief. There are in the Gospels some bitter passages quite out of key with what else we are told about Christ. He seems to have taken over without scrutiny the harshest contemporary notions of an everlasting hell where unbelievers and unrepentant sinners would suffer from inextinguishable fire and insatiable worms. He tells without protest how the poor man in heaven was not permitted to let a single drop of water fall upon the tongue of the rich man in hell. He counsels nobly, “Judge not, that ye be not Judged,” but he cursed the men and cities that would not receive his gospel, and the fig tree that bore no fruit. He may have been a bit harsh to his mother.

He had the puritan zeal of the Hebrew prophet rather than the broad calm of the Greek sage. His convictions consumed him; righteous indignation now and then blurred his profound humanity; his faults were the price he paid for that passionate faith which enabled him to move the world. For the rest he was the most lovable of men. We have no portrait of him, nor do the evangelists describe him; but he must have had some physical comeliness, as well as spiritual magnetism, to attract so many women as well as men. We gather from stray words that, like other men of that age and land, he wore a tunic under a cloak, had sandals on his feet, and probably a cloth headdress falling over his shoulders to shield him from the sun. Many women sensed in him a sympathetic tenderness that aroused in them an unstinted devotion. The fact that only John tells the story of the woman taken in adultery is no argument against its truth; it does not help John’s theology, and is completely in character with Christ. Of like beauty, and hardly within the inventive powers of the evangelists, is the account of the prostitute who, moved by his ready acceptance of repentant sinners, knelt before him, anointed his feet with precious myrrh, let her tears fall upon them, and dried them with her hair; of her Jesus said that her sins were forgiven “because she loved much.” We are told that mothers brought their children to be touched by him, and “he took the children in his arms, laid his hands upon them, and blessed them.” Unlike the prophets, the Essenes, and the Baptist, he was no ascetic. He is represented as providing abundant wine for a marriage feast, as living with “publicans and sinners,” and receiving a Magdalene into his company. He was not hostile to the simple joys of life, though he was unbiologically harsh on the desire of a man for a maid. Occasionally he partook of banquets in the homes of rich men. Generally, however, he moved among the poor, even among the almost untouchable Amhaarez so scorned and shunned by Sadducees and Pharisees alike. Realizing that the rich would never accept him, he built his hopes upon an overturn that would make the poor and humble supreme in the coming Kingdom. He resembled Caesar only in taking his stand with the lower classes, and in the quality of mercy; otherwise what a world of outlook, character, and interests separated them! Caesar hoped to reform men by changing institutions and laws; Christ wished to remake institutions, and lessen laws, by changing men. Caesar too was capable of anger, but his emotions were always under the control of his clear-eyed intellect. Jesus was not without intellect; he answered the tricky questions of the Pharisees with almost a lawyer’s skill, and yet with wisdom; no one could confuse him, even in the face of death. But his powers of mind were not intellectual, did not depend upon knowledge; they were derived from keenness of perception, intensity of feeling, and singleness of purpose. He did not claim omniscience; he could be surprised by events; only his earnestness and enthusiasm led him to overestimate his capacities, as in Nazareth and Jerusalem. That his powers were nevertheless exceptional seems proved by his miracles. Probably these were in most cases the result of suggestion- the influence of a strong and confident spirit upon impressionable souls. His presence was itself a tonic; at his optimistic touch the weak grew strong and the sick were made well. The fact that like stories have been told of other characters in legend and history does not prove that the miracles of Christ were myths. With a few exceptions they are not beyond belief; similar phenomena may be observed almost any day at Lourdes, and doubtless occurred in Jesus’ time at Epidaurus and other centers of psychic healing in the ancient world; the apostles too would work such cures. The psychological nature of the miracles is indicated by two features: Christ himself attributed his cures to the “faith” of those whom he healed; and he could not perform miracles in Nazareth, apparently because the people there looked upon him as “the carpenter’s son,” and refused to believe in his unusual powers; hence his remark that “a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.” We are told of Mary Magdalene that “seven demons had been driven out of her”; i.e., she suffered from nervous diseases and seizures (the word recalls the theory of “possession”); these seemed to abate in the presence of Jesus; therefore she loved him as one who had restored her to life, and whose nearness was indispensable to her sanity. In the case of Jairus’ daughter Christ said frankly that the girl was not dead but asleep- perhaps in a cataleptic state; in calling upon her to awake he used not his wonted gentleness but the sharp command, “Little girl, get up!” This is not to say that Jesus considered his miracles to be purely natural phenomena; he felt that he could work them only through the help of a divine spirit within him. We do not know that he was wrong, nor can we yet set limits to the powers that lie potential in the thought and will of man. Jesus himself seems to have experienced a psychical exhaustion after his miracles. He was reluctant to attempt them, forbade his followers to advertise them, reproved men for requiring a “sign,” and regretted that even his apostles accepted him chiefly because of the “wonders” he performed. These men were hardly of the type that one would have chosen to remold the world. The Gospels realistically differentiate their characters, and honestly expose their faults. They were frankly ambitious; to quiet them Jesus promised that at the Last Judgment they would sit upon twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. When the Baptist was imprisoned one of his followers, Andrew, attached himself to Jesus, and brought with him his brother Simon, whom Christ called Cephas- “the rock”; the Greeks translated the name into Petros. Peter is a thoroughly human figure, impulsive, earnest, generous, jealous, at times timid to the point of a forgivable cowardice. He and Andrew were fishermen on the Lake of Galilee; so were the two sons of Zebedee- James and John; these four forsook their work and their families to become an inner circle about Christ. Matthew was the collector of customs at the frontier town of Capernaum; he was a “publican”- i.e., a man engaged in public or state business, therefore in this case serving Rome, and hated by every Jew who longed for freedom. Judas of Kerioth was the only one of the apostles who did not come from Galilee. The Twelve pooled their material possessions, and entrusted Judas with their common funds. As they followed Christ in his missionary wandering they lived on the country, taking their food now and then from the fields they passed, and accepting the hospitality of converts and friends. In addition to the Twelve Jesus appointed seventy-two others as disciples, and sent two of them to each town that he intended to visit. He bade them “carry no purse, nor wallet, nor shoes.” Kindly and pious women joined the apostles and disciples, contributed to their support, and performed for them those solicitous domestic functions which are the supreme consolation of male life. Through that little band, lowly and letterless, Christ sent his gospel into the world.