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Preface to Androcles and the Lion by George Bernard Shaw

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Why not give Christianity a Trial?
Why Jesus more than Another?
Was Jesus a Coward?
Was Jesus a Martyr?
The Gospels without Prejudice
The Gospels now unintelligible to Novices
Worldliness of the Majority
Religion of the Minority. Salvationism
The Difference between Atonement and Punishment
Salvation at first a Class Privilege; and the Remedy
Retrospective Atonement; and the Expectation of the Redeemer
Completion of the Scheme by Luther and Calvin
John Barleycorn
Looking for the End of the World
The Honor of Divine Parentage

The Annunciation: the Massacre: the Flight
John the Baptist
Jesus joins the Baptists
The Savage John and the Civilized Jesus
Jesus not a Proselytist
The Teachings of Jesus
The Miracles
Matthew imputes Bigotry to Jesus
The Great Change
Jerusalem and the Mystical Sacrifice
Not this Man but Barabbas
The Resurrection
Date of Matthew's Narrative
Class Type of Matthew's Jesus

The Women Disciples and the Ascension

Luke the Literary Artist
The Charm of Luke's Narrative
The Touch of Parisian Romance
Waiting for the Messiah

A New Story and a New Character
John the Immortal Eye Witness
The Peculiar Theology of Jesus
John agreed as to the Trial and Crucifixion
Credibility of the Gospels
Fashions of Belief Credibility and Truth
Christian Iconolatry and the Peril of the Iconoclast
The Alternative to Barabbas
The Reduction to Modern Practice of Christianity
Modern Communism
Shall He Who Makes, Own?
Labor Time
The Dream of Distribution According to Merit
Vital Distribution
Equal Distribution
The Captain and the Cabin Boy
The Political and Biological Objections to Inequality
Jesus as Economist
Jesus as Biologist
Money the Midwife of Scientific Communism
Judge Not
Limits to Free Will
Jesus on Marriage and the Family
Why Jesus did not Marry
Inconsistency of the Sex Instinct For Better for Worse
The Remedy
The Case for Marriage
Celibacy no Remedy
After the Crucifixion
The Vindictive Miracles and the Stoning of Stephen
Confusion of Christendom
Secret of Paul's Success
Paul's Qualities
Acts of the Apostles
The Controversies on Baptism and Transubstantiation
The Alternative Christs
Credulity no Criterion
Belief in Personal Immortality no Criterion
The Secular View Natural, not Rational, therefore Inevitable
"The Higher Criticism"
The Perils of Salvationism
The Importance of Hell in the Salvation Scheme
The Right to refuse Atonement
The Teaching of Christianity
Christianity and the Empire



The question seems a hopeless one after 2000 years of resolute
adherence to the old cry of "Not this man, but Barabbas." Yet it
is beginning to look as if Barabbas was a failure, in spite of
his strong right hand, his victories, his empires, his millions
of money, and his moralities and churches and political
constitutions. "This man" has not been a failure yet; for nobody
has ever been sane enough to try his way. But he has had one
quaint triumph. Barabbas has stolen his name and taken his cross
as a standard. There is a sort of compliment in that. There is
even a sort of loyalty in it, like that of the brigand who breaks
every law and yet claims to be a patriotic subject of the king
who makes them. We have always had a curious feeling that though
we crucified Christ on a stick, he somehow managed to get hold of
the right end of it, and that if we were better men we might try
his plan. There have been one or two grotesque attempts at it by
inadequate people, such as the Kingdom of God in Munster, which
was ended by crucifixion so much more atrocious than the one on
Calvary that the bishop who took the part of Annas went home and
died of horror. But responsible people have never made such
attempts. The moneyed, respectable, capable world has been
steadily anti-Christian and Barabbasque since the crucifixion;
and the specific doctrine of Jesus has not in all that time been
put into political or general social practice. I am no more a
Christian than Pilate was, or you, gentle reader; and yet, like
Pilate, I greatly prefer Jesus to Annas and Caiaphas; and I am
ready to admit that after contemplating the world and human
nature for nearly sixty years, I see no way out of the world's
misery but the way which would have been found by Christ's will
if he had undertaken the work of a modern practical statesman.
Pray do not at this early point lose patience with me and shut
the book. I assure you I am as sceptical and scientific and
modern a thinker as you will find anywhere. I grant you I know a
great deal more about economics and politics than Jesus did, and
can do things he could not do. I am by all Barabbasque standards
a person of much better character and standing, and greater
practical sense. I have no sympathy with vagabonds and talkers
who try to reform society by taking men away from their regular
productive work and making vagabonds and talkers of them too; and
if I had been Pilate I should have recognized as plainly as he
the necessity for suppressing attacks on the existing social
order, however corrupt that order might be, by people with no
knowledge of government and no power to construct political
machinery to carry out their views, acting on the very dangerous
delusion that the end of the world was at hand. I make no defence
of such Christians as Savonarola and John of Leyden: they were
scuttling the ship before they had learned how to build a raft;
and it became necessary to throw them overboard to save the crew.
I say this to set myself right with respectable society; but I
must still insist that if Jesus could have worked out the
practical problems of a Communist constitution, an admitted
obligation to deal with crime without revenge or punishment, and
a full assumption by humanity of divine responsibilities, he
would have conferred an incalculable benefit on mankind, because
these distinctive demands of his are now turning out to be good
sense and sound economics.

I say distinctive, because his common humanity and his subjection
to time and space (that is, to the Syrian life of his period)
involved his belief in many things, true and false, that in no
way distinguish him from other Syrians of that time. But such
common beliefs do not constitute specific Christianity any more
than wearing a beard, working in a carpenter's shop, or believing
that the earth is flat and that the stars could drop on it from
heaven like hailstones. Christianity interests practical
statesmen now because of the doctrines that distinguished Christ
from the Jews and the Barabbasques generally, including


I do not imply, however, that these doctrines were peculiar to
Christ. A doctrine peculiar to one man would be only a craze,
unless its comprehension depended on a development of human
faculty so rare that only one exceptionally gifted man possessed
it. But even in this case it would be useless, because incapable
of spreading. Christianity is a step in moral evolution which is
independent of any individual preacher. If Jesus had never
existed (and that he ever existed in any other sense than that in
which Shakespear's Hamlet existed has been vigorously questioned)
Tolstoy would have thought and taught and quarrelled with the
Greek Church all the same. Their creed has been fragmentarily
practised to a considerable extent in spite of the fact that the
laws of all countries treat it, in effect, as criminal. Many of
its advocates have been militant atheists. But for some reason
the imagination of white mankind has picked out Jesus of Nazareth
as THE Christ, and attributed all the Christian doctrines to him;
and as it is the doctrine and not the man that matters, and, as,
besides, one symbol is as good as another provided everyone
attaches the same meaning to it, I raise, for the moment, no
question as to how far the gospels are original, and how far they
consist of Greek and Chinese interpolations. The record that
Jesus said certain things is not invalidated by a demonstration
that Confucius said them before him. Those who claim a literal
divine paternity for him cannot be silenced by the discovery that
the same claim was made for Alexander and Augustus. And I am not
just now concerned with the credibility of the gospels as records
of fact; for I am not acting as a detective, but turning our
modern lights on to certain ideas and doctrines in them which
disentangle themselves from the rest because they are flatly
contrary to common practice, common sense, and common belief, and
yet have, in the teeth of dogged incredulity and recalcitrance,
produced an irresistible impression that Christ, though rejected
by his posterity as an unpractical dreamer, and executed by his
contemporaries as a dangerous anarchist and blasphemous madman,
was greater than his judges.


I know quite well that this impression of superiority is not
produced on everyone, even of those who profess extreme
susceptibility to it. Setting aside the huge mass of inculcated
Christ-worship which has no real significance because it has no
intelligence, there is, among people who are really free to think
for themselves on the subject, a great deal of hearty dislike of
Jesus and of contempt for his failure to save himself and
overcome his enemies by personal bravery and cunning as Mahomet
did. I have heard this feeling expressed far more impatiently by
persons brought up in England as Christians than by Mahometans,
who are, like their prophet, very civil to Jesus, and allow him a
place in their esteem and veneration at least as high as we
accord to John the Baptist. But this British bulldog contempt is
founded on a complete misconception of his reasons for submitting
voluntarily to an ordeal of torment and death. The modern
Secularist is often so determined to regard Jesus as a man like
himself and nothing more, that he slips unconsciously into the
error of assuming that Jesus shared that view. But it is quite
clear from the New Testament writers (the chief authorities for
believing that Jesus ever existed) that Jesus at the time of his
death believed himself to be the Christ, a divine personage. It
is therefore absurd to criticize his conduct before Pilate as if
he were Colonel Roosevelt or Admiral von Tirpitz or even Mahomet.
Whether you accept his belief in his divinity as fully as Simon
Peter did, or reject it as a delusion which led him to submit to
torture and sacrifice his life without resistance in the
conviction that he would presently rise again in glory, you are
equally bound to admit that, far from behaving like a coward or a
sheep, he showed considerable physical fortitude in going through
a cruel ordeal against which he could have defended himself as
effectually as he cleared the moneychangers out of the temple.
"Gentle Jesus, meek and mild" is a snivelling modern invention,
with no warrant in the gospels. St. Matthew would as soon have
thought of applying such adjectives to Judas Maccabeus as to
Jesus; and even St. Luke, who makes Jesus polite and gracious,
does not make him meek. The picture of him as an English curate
of the farcical comedy type, too meek to fight a policeman, and
everybody's butt, may be useful in the nursery to soften
children; but that such a figure could ever have become a centre
of the world's attention is too absurd for discussion; grown men
and women may speak kindly of a harmless creature who utters
amiable sentiments and is a helpless nincompoop when he is called
on to defend them; but they will not follow him, nor do what he
tells them, because they do not wish to share his defeat and


It is important therefore that we should clear our minds of the
notion that Jesus died, as some are in the habit of declaring,
for his social and political opinions. There have been many
martyrs to those opinions; but he was not one of them, nor, as
his words show, did he see any more sense in martyrdom than
Galileo did. He was executed by the Jews for the blasphemy of
claiming to be a God; and Pilate, to whom this was a mere piece
of superstitious nonsense, let them execute him as the cheapest
way of keeping them quiet, on the formal plea that he had
committed treason against Rome by saying that he was the King of
the Jews. He was not falsely accused, nor denied full
opportunities of defending himself. The proceedings were quite
straightforward and regular; and Pilate, to whom the appeal lay,
favored him and despised his judges, and was evidently willing
enough to be conciliated. But instead of denying the charge,
Jesus repeated the offence. He knew what he was doing: he had
alienated numbers of his own disciples and been stoned in the
streets for doing it before. He was not lying: he believed
literally what he said. The horror of the High Priest was
perfectly natural: he was a Primate confronted with a heterodox
street preacher uttering what seemed to him an appalling and
impudent blasphemy. The fact that the blasphemy was to Jesus a
simple statement of fact, and that it has since been accepted as
such by all western nations, does not invalidate the proceedings,
nor give us the right to regard Annas and Caiaphas as worse men
than the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Head Master of Eton. If
Jesus had been indicted in a modern court, he would have been
examined by two doctors; found to be obsessed by a delusion;
declared incapable of pleading; and sent to an asylum: that is
the whole difference. But please note that when a man is charged
before a modern tribunal (to take a case that happened the other
day) of having asserted and maintained that he was an officer
returned from the front to receive the Victoria Cross at the
hands of the King, although he was in fact a mechanic, nobody
thinks of treating him as afflicted with a delusion. He is
punished for false pretences, because his assertion is credible
and therefore misleading. Just so, the claim to divinity made by
Jesus was to the High Priest, who looked forward to the coming of
a Messiah, one that might conceivably have been true, and might
therefore have misled the people in a very dangerous way. That
was why he treated Jesus as an imposter and a blasphemer where we
should have treated him as a madman.


All this will become clear if we read the gospels without
prejudice. When I was young it was impossible to read them
without fantastic confusion of thought. The confusion was so
utterly confounded that it was called the proper spirit to read
the Bible in. Jesus was a baby; and he was older than creation.
He was a man who could be persecuted, stoned, scourged, and
killed; and he was a god, immortal and all-powerful, able to
raise the dead and call millions of angels to his aid. It was a
sin to doubt either view of him: that is, it was a sin to reason
about him; and the end was that you did not reason about him, and
read about him only when you were compelled. When you heard the
gospel stories read in church, or learnt them from painters and
poets, you came out with an impression of their contents that
would have astonished a Chinaman who had read the story without
prepossession. Even sceptics who were specially on their guard,
put the Bible in the dock, and read the gospels with the object
of detecting discrepancies in the four narratives to show that
the writers were as subject to error as the writers of
yesterday's newspaper.

All this has changed greatly within two generations. Today the
Bible is so little read that the language of the Authorized
Version is rapidly becoming obsolete; so that even in the United
States, where the old tradition of the verbal infallibility of
"the book of books" lingers more strongly than anywhere else
except perhaps in Ulster, retranslations into modern English have
been introduced perforce to save its bare intelligibility. It is
quite easy today to find cultivated persons who have never read
the New Testament, and on whom therefore it is possible to try
the experiment of asking them to read the gospels and state what
they have gathered as to the history and views and character of


But it will not do to read the gospels with a mind furnished only
for the reception of, say, a biography of Goethe. You will not
make sense of them, nor even be able without impatient weariness
to persevere in the task of going steadily through them, unless
you know something of the history of the human imagination as
applied to religion. Not long ago I asked a writer of
distinguished intellectual competence whether he had made a study
of the gospels since his childhood. His reply was that he had
lately tried, but "found it all such nonsense that I could not
stick it." As I do not want to send anyone to the gospels with
this result, I had better here give a brief exposition of how
much of the history of religion is needed to make the gospels and
the conduct and ultimate fate of Jesus intelligible and


The first common mistake to get rid of is that mankind consists
of a great mass of religious people and a few eccentric atheists.
It consists of a huge mass of worldly people, and a small
percentage of persons deeply interested in religion and concerned
about their own souls and other peoples'; and this section
consists mostly of those who are passionately affirming the
established religion and those who are passionately attacking it,
the genuine philosophers being very few. Thus you never have a
nation of millions of Wesleys and one Tom Paine. You have a
million Mr. Worldly Wisemans, one Wesley, with his small
congregation, and one Tom Paine, with his smaller congregation.
The passionately religious are a people apart; and if they were
not hopelessly outnumbered by the worldly, they would turn the
world upside down, as St. Paul was reproached, quite justly, for
wanting to do. Few people can number among their personal
acquaintances a single atheist or a single Plymouth Brother.
Unless a religious turn in ourselves has led us to seek the
little Societies to which these rare birds belong, we pass our
lives among people who, whatever creeds they may repeat, and in
whatever temples they may avouch their respectability and wear
their Sunday clothes, have robust consciences, and hunger and
thirst, not for righteousness, but for rich feeding and comfort
and social position and attractive mates and ease and pleasure
and respect and consideration: in short, for love and money. To
these people one morality is as good as another provided they are
used to it and can put up with its restrictions without
unhappiness; and in the maintenance of this morality they will
fight and punish and coerce without scruple. They may not be the
salt of the earth, these Philistines; but they are the substance
of civilization; and they save society from ruin by criminals and
conquerors as well as by Savonarolas and Knipperdollings. And as
they know, very sensibly, that a little religion is good for
children and serves morality, keeping the poor in good humor or
in awe by promising rewards in heaven or threatening torments in
hell, they encourage the religious people up to a certain point:
for instance, if Savonarola only tells the ladies of Florence
that they ought to tear off their jewels and finery and sacrifice
them to God, they offer him a cardinal's hat, and praise him as a
saint; but if he induces them to actually do it, they burn him as
a public nuisance.


The religion of the tolerated religious minority has always been
essentially the same religion: that is why its changes of name
and form have made so little difference. That is why, also, a
nation so civilized as the English can convert negroes to their
faith with great ease, but cannot convert Mahometans or Jews. The
negro finds in civilized Salvationism an unspeakably more
comforting version of his crude creed; but neither Saracen nor
Jew sees any advantage in it over his own version. The Crusader
was surprised to find the Saracen quite as religious and moral as
himself, and rather more than less civilized. The Latin Christian
has nothing to offer the Greek Christian that Greek Christianity
has not already provided. They are all, at root, Salvationists.

Let us trace this religion of Salvation from its beginnings. So
many things that man does not himself contrive or desire are
always happening: death, plagues, tempests, blights, floods,
sunrise and sunset, growths and harvests and decay, and Kant's
two wonders of the starry heavens above us and the moral law
within us, that we conclude that somebody must be doing it all,
or that somebody is doing the good and somebody else doing the
evil, or that armies of invisible persons, benefit-cut and
malevolent, are doing it; hence you postulate gods and devils,
angels and demons. You propitiate these powers with presents,
called sacrifices, and flatteries, called praises. Then the
Kantian moral law within you makes you conceive your god as a
judge; and straightway you try to corrupt him, also with presents
and flatteries. This seems shocking to us; but our objection to
it is quite a recent development: no longer ago than Shakespear's
time it was thought quite natural that litigants should give
presents to human judges; and the buying off of divine wrath by
actual money payments to priests, or, in the reformed churches
which discountenance this, by subscriptions to charities and
church building and the like, is still in full swing. Its
practical disadvantage is that though it makes matters very easy
for the rich, it cuts off the poor from all hope of divine favor.
And this quickens the moral criticism of the poor to such an
extent, that they soon find the moral law within them revolting
against the idea of buying off the deity with gold and gifts,
though they are still quite ready to buy him off with the paper
money of praise and professions of repentance. Accordingly, you
will find that though a religion may last unchanged for many
centuries in primitive communities where the conditions of life
leave no room for poverty and riches, and the process of
propitiating the supernatural powers is as well within the means
of the least of the members as within those of the headman, yet
when commercial civilization arrives, and capitalism divides the
people into a few rich and a great many so poor that they can
barely live, a movement for religious reform will arise among the
poor, and will be essentially a movement for cheap or entirely
gratuitous salvation. To understand what the poor mean by
propitiation, we must examine for a moment what they mean by


The primitive idea of justice is partly legalized revenge and
partly expiation by sacrifice. It works out from both sides in
the notion that two blacks make a white, and that when a wrong
has been done, it should be paid for by an equivalent suffering.
It seems to the Philistine majority a matter of course that this
compensating suffering should be inflicted on the wrongdoer for
the sake of its deterrent effect on other would-be wrongdoers;
but a moment's reflection will show that this utilitarian
application corrupts the whole transaction. For example, the
shedding of innocent blood cannot be balanced by the shedding of
guilty blood. Sacrificing a criminal to propitiate God for the
murder of one of his righteous servants is like sacrificing a
mangy sheep or an ox with the rinderpest: it calls down divine
wrath instead of appeasing it. In doing it we offer God as a
sacrifice the gratification of our own revenge and the protection
of our own lives without cost to ourselves; and cost to ourselves
is the essence of sacrifice and expiation. However much the
Philistines have succeeded in confusing these things in practice,
they are to the Salvationist sense distinct and even contrary.
The Baronet's cousin in Dickens's novel, who, perplexed by the
failure of the police to discover the murderer of the baronet's
solicitor, said "Far better hang wrong fellow than no fellow,"
was not only expressing a very common sentiment, but trembling on
the brink of the rarer Salvationist opinion that it is much
better to hang the wrong fellow: that, in fact, the wrong fellow
is the right fellow to hang.

The point is a cardinal one, because until we grasp it not only
does historical Christianity remain unintelligible to us, but
those who do not care a rap about historical Christianity may be
led into the mistake of supposing that if we discard revenge, and
treat murderers exactly as God treated Cain: that is, exempt them
from punishment by putting a brand on them as unworthy to be
sacrificed, and let them face the world as best they can with
that brand on them, we should get rid both of punishment and
sacrifice. It would not at all follow: on the contrary, the
feeling that there must be an expiation of the murder might quite
possibly lead to our putting some innocent person--the more
innocent the better--to a cruel death to balance the account with
divine justice.


Thus, even when the poor decide that the method of purchasing
salvation by offering rams and goats or bringing gold to the
altar must be wrong because they cannot afford it, we still do
not feel "saved" without a sacrifice and a victim. In vain do we
try to substitute mystical rites that cost nothing, such as
circumcision, or, as a substitute for that, baptism. Our sense of
justice still demands an expiation, a sacrifice, a sufferer for
our sins. And this leaves the poor man still in his old
difficulty; for if it was impossible for him to procure rams and
goats and shekels, how much more impossible is it for him to find
a neighbor who will voluntarily suffer for his sins: one who will
say cheerfully "You have committed a murder. Well, never mind: I
am willing to be hanged for it in your stead?"

Our imagination must come to our rescue. Why not, instead of
driving ourselves to despair by insisting on a separate atonement
by a separate redeemer for every sin, have one great atonement
and one great redeemer to compound for the sins of the world once
for all? Nothing easier, nothing cheaper. The yoke is easy, the
burden light. All you have to do when the redeemer is once found
(or invented by the imagination) is to believe in the efficacy of
the transaction, and you are saved. The rams and goats cease to
bleed; the altars which ask for expensive gifts and continually
renewed sacrifices are torn down; and the Church of the single
redeemer and the single atonement rises on the ruins of the old
temples, and becomes a single Church of the Christ.


But this does not happen at once. Between the old costly religion
of the rich and the new gratuitous religion of the poor there
comes an interregnum in which the redeemer, though conceived by
the human imagination, is not yet found. He is awaited and
expected under the names of the Christ, the Messiah, Baldur the
Beautiful, or what not; but he has not yet come. Yet the sinners
are not therefore in despair. It is true that they cannot say, as
we say, "The Christ has come, and has redeemed us;" but they can
say "The Christ will come, and will redeem us," which, as the
atonement is conceived as retrospective, is equally consoling.
There are periods when nations are seething with this expectation
and crying aloud with prophecy of the Redeemer through their
poets. To feel that atmosphere we have only to take up the Bible
and read Isaiah at one end of such a period and Luke and John at
the other.


We now see our religion as a quaint but quite intelligible
evolution from crude attempts to propitiate the destructive
forces of Nature among savages to a subtle theology with a costly
ritual of sacrifice possible only to the rich as a luxury, and
finally to the religion of Luther and Calvin. And it must be said
for the earlier forms that they involved very real sacrifices.
The sacrifice was not always vicarious, and is not yet
universally so. In India men pay with their own skins, torturing
themselves hideously to attain holiness. In the west, saints
amazed the world with their austerities and self-scourgings and
confessions and vigils. But Luther delivered us from all that.
His reformation was a triumph of imagination and a triumph of
cheapness. It brought you complete salvation and asked you for
nothing but faith. Luther did not know what he was doing in the
scientific sociological way in which we know it; but his instinct
served him better than knowledge could have done; for it was
instinct rather than theological casuistry that made him hold so
resolutely to Justification by Faith as the trump card by which
he should beat the Pope, or, as he would have put it, the sign in
which he should conquer. He may be said to have abolished the
charge for admission to heaven. Paul had advocated this; but
Luther and Calvin did it.


There is yet another page in the history of religion which must
be conned and digested before the career of Jesus can be fully
understood. people who can read long books will find it in
Frazer's Golden Bough. Simpler folk will find it in the peasant's
song of John Barleycorn, now made accessible to our drawingroom
amateurs in the admirable collections of Somersetshire Folk Songs
by Mr. Cecil Sharp. From Frazer's magnum opus you will learn how
the same primitive logic which makes the Englishman believe today
that by eating a beefsteak he can acquire the strength and
courage of the bull, and to hold that belief in the face of the
most ignominious defeats by vegetarian wrestlers and racers and
bicyclists, led the first men who conceived God as capable of
incarnation to believe that they could acquire a spark of his
divinity by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. And from the
song of John Barleycorn you may learn how the miracle of the
seed, the growth, and the harvest, still the most wonderful of
all the miracles and as inexplicable as ever, taught the
primitive husbandman, and, as we must now affirm, taught him
quite rightly, that God is in the seed, and that God is immortal.
And thus it became the test of Godhead that nothing that you
could do to it could kill it, and that when you buried it, it
would rise again in renewed life and beauty and give mankind
eternal life on condition that it was eaten and drunk, and again
slain and buried, to rise again for ever and ever. You may, and
indeed must, use John Barleycorn "right barbarouslee," cutting
him "off at knee" with your scythes, scourging him with your
flails, burying him in the earth; and he will not resist you nor
reproach you, but will rise again in golden beauty amidst a great
burst of sunshine and bird music, and save you and renew your
life. And from the interweaving of these two traditions with the
craving for the Redeemer, you at last get the conviction that
when the Redeemer comes he will be immortal; he will give us his
body to eat and his blood to drink; and he will prove his
divinity by suffering a barbarous death without resistance or
reproach, and rise from the dead and return to the earth in glory
as the giver of life eternal.


Yet another persistent belief has beset the imagination of the
religious ever since religion spread among the poor, or, rather,
ever since commercial civilization produced a hopelessly poor
class cut off from enjoyment in this world. That belief is that
the end of this world is at hand, and that it will presently pass
away and be replaced by a kingdom of happiness, justice, and
bliss in which the rich and the oppressors and the unjust shall
have no share. We are all familiar with this expectation: many of
us cherish some pious relative who sees in every great calamity a
sign of the approaching end. Warning pamphlets are in constant
circulation: advertisements are put in the papers and paid for by
those who are convinced, and who are horrified at the
indifference of the irreligious to the approaching doom. And
revivalist preachers, now as in the days of John the Baptist,
seldom fail to warn their flocks to watch and pray, as the great
day will steal upon them like a thief in the night, and cannot be
long deferred in a world so wicked. This belief also associates
itself with Barleycorn's second coming; so that the two events
become identified at last.

There is the other and more artificial side of this belief, on
which it is an inculcated dread. The ruler who appeals to the
prospect of heaven to console the poor and keep them from
insurrection also curbs the vicious by threatening them with
hell. In the Koran we find Mahomet driven more and more to this
expedient of government; and experience confirms his evident
belief that it is impossible to govern without it in certain
phases of civilization. We shall see later on that it gives a
powerful attraction to the belief in a Redeemer, since it adds to
remorse of conscience, which hardened men bear very lightly, a
definite dread of hideous and eternal torture.


One more tradition must be noted. The consummation of praise for
a king is to declare that he is the son of no earthly father, but
of a god. His mother goes into the temple of Apollo, and Apollo
comes to her in the shape of a serpent, or the like. The Roman
emperors, following the example of Augustus, claimed the title of
God. Illogically, such divine kings insist a good deal on their
royal human ancestors. Alexander, claiming to be the son of
Apollo, is equally determined to be the son of Philip. As the
gospels stand, St. Matthew and St. Luke give genealogies (the two
are different) establishing the descent of Jesus through Joseph
from the royal house of David, and yet declare that not Joseph
but the Holy Ghost was the father of Jesus. It is therefore now
held that the story of the Holy Ghost is a later interpolation
borrowed from the Greek and Roman imperial tradition. But
experience shows that simultaneous faith in the descent from
David and the conception by the Holy Ghost is possible. Such
double beliefs are entertained by the human mind without
uneasiness or consciousness of the contradiction involved. Many
instances might be given: a familiar one to my generation being
that of the Tichborne claimant, whose attempt to pass himself off
as a baronet was supported by an association of laborers on the
ground that the Tichborne family, in resisting it, were trying to
do a laborer out of his rights. It is quite possible that Matthew
and Luke may have been unconscious of the contradiction: indeed
the interpolation theory does not remove the difficulty, as the
interpolators themselves must have been unconscious of it. A
better ground for suspecting interpolation is that St. Paul knew
nothing of the divine birth, and taught that Jesus came into the
world at his birth as the son of Joseph, but rose from the dead
after three days as the son of God. Here again, few notice the
discrepancy: the three views are accepted simultaneously without
intellectual discomfort. We can provisionally entertain half a
dozen contradictory versions of an event if we feel either that
it does not greatly matter, or that there is a category
attainable in which the contradictions are reconciled.

But that is not the present point. All that need be noted here is
that the legend of divine birth was sure to be attached sooner or
later to very eminent persons in Roman imperial times, and that
modern theologians, far from discrediting it, have very logically
affirmed the miraculous conception not only of Jesus but of his

With no more scholarly equipment than a knowledge of these habits
of the human imagination, anyone may now read the four gospels
without bewilderment, and without the contemptuous incredulity
which spoils the temper of many modern atheists, or the senseless
credulity which sometimes makes pious people force us to shove
them aside in emergencies as impracticable lunatics when they ask
us to meet violence and injustice with dumb submission in the
belief that the strange demeanor of Jesus before Pilate was meant
as an example of normal human conduct. Let us admit that without
the proper clues the gospels are, to a modern educated person,
nonsensical and incredible, whilst the apostles are unreadable.
But with the clues, they are fairly plain sailing. Jesus becomes
an intelligible and consistent person. His reasons for going
"like a lamb to the slaughter" instead of saving himself as
Mahomet did, become quite clear. The narrative becomes as
credible as any other historical narrative of its period.



Let us begin with the gospel of Matthew, bearing in mind that it
does not profess to be the evidence of an eyewitness. It is a
chronicle, founded, like other chronicles, on such evidence and
records as the chronicler could get hold of. The only one of the
evangelists who professes to give first-hand evidence as an
eyewitness naturally takes care to say so; and the fact that
Matthew makes no such pretension, and writes throughout as a
chronicler, makes it clear that he is telling the story of Jesus
as Holinshed told the story of Macbeth, except that, for a reason
to be given later on, he must have collected his material and
completed his book within the lifetime of persons contemporary
with Jesus. Allowance must also be made for the fact that the
gospel is written in the Greek language, whilst the first-hand
traditions and the actual utterances of Jesus must have been in
Aramaic, the dialect of Palestine. These distinctions were
important, as you will find if you read Holinshed or Froissart
and then read Benvenuto Cellini. You do not blame Holinshed or
Froissart for believing and repeating the things they had read or
been told, though you cannot always believe these things
yourself. But when Cellini tells you that he saw this or did
that, and you find it impossible to believe him, you lose
patience with him, and are disposed to doubt everything in his
autobiography. Do not forget, then, that Matthew is Holinshed and
not Benvenuto. The very first pages of his narrative will put
your attitude to the test.

Matthew tells us that the mother of Jesus was betrothed to a man
of royal pedigree named Joseph, who was rich enough to live in a
house in Bethlehem to which kings could bring gifts of gold
without provoking any comment. An angel announces to Joseph that
Jesus is the son of the Holy Ghost, and that he must not accuse
her of infidelity because of her bearing a son of which he is not
the father; but this episode disappears from the subsequent
narrative: there is no record of its having been told to Jesus,
nor any indication of his having any knowledge of it. The
narrative, in fact, proceeds in all respects as if the
annunciation formed no part of it.

Herod the Tetrarch, believing that a child has been born who will
destroy him, orders all the male children to be slaughtered; and
Jesus escapes by the flight of his parents into Egypt, whence
they return to Nazareth when the danger is over. Here it is
necessary to anticipate a little by saying that none of the other
evangelists accept this story, as none of them except John, who
throws over Matthew altogether, shares his craze for treating
history and biography as mere records of the fulfillment of
ancient Jewish prophecies. This craze no doubt led him to seek
for some legend bearing out Hosea's "Out of Egypt have I called
my son," and Jeremiah's Rachel weeping for her children: in fact,
he says so. Nothing that interests us nowadays turns on the
credibility of the massacre of the innocents and the flight into
Egypt. We may forget them, and proceed to the important part of
the narrative, which skips at once to the manhood of Jesus.


At this moment, a Salvationist prophet named John is stirring the
people very strongly. John has declared that the rite of
circumcision is insufficient as a dedication of the individual to
God, and has substituted the rite of baptism. To us, who are
accustomed to baptism as a matter of course, and to whom
circumcision is a rather ridiculous foreign practice of no
consequence, the sensational effect of such a heresy as this on
the Jews is not apparent: it seems to us as natural that John
should have baptized people as that the rector of our village
should do so. But, as St. Paul found to his cost later on, the
discarding of circumcision for baptism was to the Jews as
startling a heresy as the discarding of transubstantiation in the
Mass was to the Catholics of the XVI century.


Jesus entered as a man of thirty (Luke says) into the religious
life of his time by going to John the Baptist and demanding
baptism from him, much as certain well-to-do young gentlemen
forty years ago "joined the Socialists." As far as established
Jewry was concerned, he burnt his boats by this action, and cut
himself off from the routine of wealth, respectability, and
orthodoxy. He then began preaching John's gospel, which, apart
from the heresy of baptism, the value of which lay in its
bringing the Gentiles (that is, the uncircumcized) within the
pale of salvation, was a call to the people to repent of their
sins, as the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Luke adds that he
also preached the communism of charity; told the surveyors of
taxes not to over-assess the taxpayers; and advised soldiers to
be content with their wages and not to be violent or lay false
accusations. There is no record of John going beyond this.


Jesus went beyond it very rapidly, according to Matthew. Though,
like John, he became an itinerant preacher, he departed widely
from John's manner of life. John went into the wilderness, not
into the synagogues; and his baptismal font was the river Jordan.
He was an ascetic, clothed in skins and living on locusts and
wild honey, practising a savage austerity. He courted martyrdom,
and met it at the hands of Herod. Jesus saw no merit either in
asceticism or martyrdom. In contrast to John he was essentially a
highly-civilized, cultivated person. According to Luke, he
pointed out the contrast himself, chaffing the Jews for
complaining that John must be possessed by the devil because he
was a teetotaller and vegetarian, whilst, because Jesus was
neither one nor the other, they reviled him as a gluttonous man
and a winebibber, the friend of the officials and their
mistresses. He told straitlaced disciples that they would have
trouble enough from other people without making any for
themselves, and that they should avoid martyrdom and enjoy
themselves whilst they had the chance. "When they persecute you
in this city," he says, "flee into the next." He preaches in the
synagogues and in the open air indifferently, just as they come.
He repeatedly says, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice," meaning
evidently to clear himself of the inveterate superstition that
suffering is gratifying to God. "Be not, as the Pharisees, of a
sad countenance," he says. He is convivial, feasting with Roman
officials and sinners. He is careless of his person, and is
remonstrated with for not washing his hands before sitting down
to table. The followers of John the Baptist, who fast, and who
expect to find the Christians greater ascetics than themselves,
are disappointed at finding that Jesus and his twelve friends do
not fast; and Jesus tells them that they should rejoice in him
instead of being melancholy. He is jocular and tells them they
will all have as much fasting as they want soon enough, whether
they like it or not. He is not afraid of disease, and dines with
a leper. A woman, apparently to protect him against infection,
pours a costly unguent on his head, and is rebuked because what
it cost might have been given to the poor. He poohpoohs that
lowspirited view, and says, as he said when he was reproached for
not fasting, that the poor are always there to be helped, but
that he is not there to be anointed always, implying that you
should never lose a chance of being happy when there is so much
misery in the world. He breaks the Sabbath; is impatient of
conventionality when it is uncomfortable or obstructive; and
outrages the feelings of the Jews by breaches of it. He is apt to
accuse people who feel that way of hypocrisy. Like the late
Samuel Butler, he regards disease as a department of sin, and on
curing a lame man, says "Thy sins are forgiven" instead of "Arise
and walk," subsequently maintaining, when the Scribes reproach
him for assuming power to forgive sin as well as to cure disease,
that the two come to the same thing. He has no modest
affectations, and claims to be greater than Solomon or Jonah.
When reproached, as Bunyan was, for resorting to the art of
fiction when teaching in parables, he justifies himself on the
ground that art is the only way in which the people can be
taught. He is, in short, what we should call an artist and a
Bohemian in his manner of life.


A point of considerable practical importance today is that be
expressly repudiates the idea that forms of religion, once
rooted, can be weeded out and replanted with the flowers of a
foreign faith. "If you try to root up the tares you will root up
the wheat as well." Our proselytizing missionary enterprises are
thus flatly contrary to his advice; and their results appear to
bear him out in his view that if you convert a man brought up in
another creed, you inevitably demoralize him. He acts on this
view himself, and does not convert his disciples from Judaism to
Christianity. To this day a Christian would be in religion a Jew
initiated by baptism instead of circumcision, and accepting Jesus
as the Messiah, and his teachings as of higher authority than
those of Moses, but for the action of the Jewish priests, who, to
save Jewry from being submerged in the rising flood of
Christianity after the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction
of the Temple, set up what was practically a new religious order,
with new Scriptures and elaborate new observances, and to their
list of the accursed added one Jeschu, a bastard magician, whose
comic rogueries brought him to a bad end like Punch or Til
Eulenspiegel: an invention which cost them dear when the
Christians got the upper hand of them politically. The Jew as
Jesus, himself a Jew, knew him, never dreamt of such things, and
could follow Jesus without ceasing to be a Jew.


So much for his personal life and temperament. His public career
as a popular preacher carries him equally far beyond John the
Baptist. He lays no stress on baptism or vows, and preaches
conduct incessantly. He advocates communism, the widening of the
private family with its cramping ties into the great family of
mankind under the fatherhood of God, the abandonment of revenge
and punishment, the counteracting of evil by good instead of by a
hostile evil, and an organic conception of society in which you
are not an independent individual but a member of society, your
neighbor being another member, and each of you members one of
another, as two fingers on a hand, the obvious conclusion being
that unless you love your neighbor as yourself and he
reciprocates you will both be the worse for it. He conveys all
this with extraordinary charm, and entertains his hearers with
fables (parables) to illustrate them. He has no synagogue or
regular congregation, but travels from place to place with twelve
men whom he has called from their work as he passed, and who have
abandoned it to follow him.


He has certain abnormal powers by which he can perform miracles.
He is ashamed of these powers, but, being extremely
compassionate, cannot refuse to exercise them when afflicted
people beg him to cure them, when multitudes of people are
hungry, and when his disciples are terrified by storms on the
lakes. He asks for no reward, but begs the people not to mention
these powers of his. There are two obvious reasons for his
dislike of being known as a worker of miracles. One is the
natural objection of all men who possess such powers, but have
far more important business in the world than to exhibit them, to
be regarded primarily as charlatans, besides being pestered to
give exhibitions to satisfy curiosity. The other is that his view
of the effect of miracles upon his mission is exactly that taken
later on by Rousseau. He perceives that they will discredit him
and divert attention from his doctrine by raising an entirely
irrelevant issue between his disciples and his opponents.

Possibly my readers may not have studied Rousseau's Letters
Written From The Mountain, which may be regarded as the classic
work on miracles as credentials of divine mission. Rousseau
shows, as Jesus foresaw, that the miracles are the main obstacle
to the acceptance of Christianity, because their incredibility
(if they were not incredible they would not be miracles) makes
people sceptical as to the whole narrative, credible enough in
the main, in which they occur, and suspicious of the doctrine
with which they are thus associated. "Get rid of the miracles,"
said Rousseau, "and the whole world will fall at the feet of
Jesus Christ." He points out that miracles offered as evidence of
divinity, and failing to convince, make divinity ridiculous. He
says, in effect, there is nothing in making a lame man walk:
thousands of lame men have been cured and have walked without any
miracle. Bring me a man with only one leg and make another grow
instantaneously on him before my eyes; and I will be really
impressed; but mere cures of ailments that have often been cured
before are quite useless as evidence of anything else than desire
to help and power to cure.

Jesus, according to Matthew, agreed so entirely with Rousseau,
and felt the danger so strongly, that when people who were not
ill or in trouble came to him and asked him to exercise his
powers as a sign of his mission, he was irritated beyond measure,
and refused with an indignation which they, not seeing Rousseau's
point, must have thought very unreasonable. To be called "an evil
and adulterous generation" merely for asking a miracle worker to
give an exhibition of his powers, is rather a startling
experience. Mahomet, by the way, also lost his temper when people
asked him to perform miracles. But Mahomet expressly disclaimed
any unusual powers; whereas it is clear from Matthew's story that
Jesus (unfortunately for himself, as he thought) had some powers
of healing. It is also obvious that the exercise of such powers
would give rise to wild tales of magical feats which would expose
their hero to condemnation as an impostor among people whose good
opinion was of great consequence to the movement started by his

But the deepest annoyance arising from the miracles would be the
irrelevance of the issue raised by them. Jesus's teaching has
nothing to do with miracles. If his mission had been simply to
demonstrate a new method of restoring lost eyesight, the miracle
of curing the blind would have been entirely relevant. But to say
"You should love your enemies; and to convince you of this I will
now proceed to cure this gentleman of cataract" would have been,
to a man of Jesus's intelligence, the proposition of an idiot. If
it could be proved today that not one of the miracles of Jesus
actually occurred, that proof would not invalidate a single one
of his didactic utterances; and conversely, if it could be proved
that not only did the miracles actually occur, but that he had
wrought a thousand other miracles a thousand times more
wonderful, not a jot of weight would be added to his doctrine.
And yet the intellectual energy of sceptics and divines has been
wasted for generations in arguing about the miracles on the
assumption that Christianity is at stake in the controversy as to
whether the stories of Matthew are false or true. According to
Matthew himself, Jesus must have known this only too well; for
wherever he went he was assailed with a clamor for miracles,
though his doctrine created bewilderment.

So much for the miracles! Matthew tells us further, that Jesus
declared that his doctrines would be attacked by Church and
State, and that the common multitude were the salt of the earth
and the light of the world. His disciples, in their relations
with the political and ecclesiastical organizations, would be as
sheep among wolves.


Matthew, like most biographers, strives to identify the opinions
and prejudices of his hero with his own. Although he describes
Jesus as tolerant even to carelessness, he draws the line at the
Gentile, and represents Jesus as a bigoted Jew who regards his
mission as addressed exclusively to "the lost sheep of the house
of Israel." When a woman of Canaan begged Jesus to cure her
daughter, he first refused to speak to her, and then told her
brutally that "It is not meet to take the children's bread and
cast it to the dogs." But when the woman said, "Truth, Lord; yet
the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master's table,"
she melted the Jew out of him and made Christ a Christian. To
the woman whom he had just called a dog he said, "O woman, great
is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt." This is somehow
one of the most touching stories in the gospel; perhaps because
the woman rebukes the prophet by a touch of his own finest
quality. It is certainly out of character; but as the sins of
good men are always out of character, it is not safe to reject
the story as invented in the interest of Matthew's determination
that Jesus shall have nothing to do with the Gentiles. At all
events, there the story is; and it is by no means the only
instance in which Matthew reports Jesus, in spite of the charm of
his preaching, as extremely uncivil in private intercourse.


So far the history is that of a man sane and interesting apart
from his special gifts as orator, healer, and prophet. But a
startling change occurs. One day, after the disciples have
discouraged him for a long time by their misunderstandings of his
mission, and their speculations as to whether he is one of the
old prophets come again, and if so, which, his disciple Peter
suddenly solves the problem by exclaiming, "Thou are the Christ,
the son of the living God." At this Jesus is extraordinarily
pleased and excited. He declares that Peter has had a revelation
straight from God. He makes a pun on Peter's name, and declares
him the founder of his Church. And he accepts his destiny as a
god by announcing that he will be killed when he goes to
Jerusalem; for if he is really the Christ, it is a necessary part
of his legendary destiny that he shall be slain. Peter, not
understanding this, rebukes him for what seems mere craven
melancholy; and Jesus turns fiercely on him and cries, "Get thee
behind me, Satan."

Jesus now becomes obsessed with a conviction of his divinity, and
talks about it continually to his disciples, though he forbids
them to mention it to others. They begin to dispute among
themselves as to the position they shall occupy in heaven when
his kingdom is established. He rebukes them strenuously for this,
and repeats his teaching that greatness means service and not
domination; but he himself, always instinctively somewhat
haughty, now becomes arrogant, dictatorial, and even abusive,
never replying to his critics without an insulting epithet, and
even cursing a fig-tree which disappoints him when he goes to it
for fruit. He assumes all the traditions of the folk-lore gods,
and announces that, like John Barleycorn, he will be barbarously
slain and buried, but will rise from the earth and return to
life. He attaches to himself the immemorial tribal ceremony of
eating the god, by blessing bread and wine and handing them to
his disciples with the words "This is my body: this is my blood."
He forgets his own teaching and threatens eternal fire and
eternal punishment. He announces, in addition to his Barleycorn
resurrection, that he will come to the world a second time in
glory and establish his kingdom on earth. He fears that this may
lead to the appearance of impostors claiming to be himself, and
declares explicitly and repeatedly that no matter what wonders
these impostors may perform, his own coming will be unmistakable,
as the stars will fall from heaven, and trumpets be blown by
angels. Further he declares that this will take place during the
lifetime of persons then present,


In this new frame of mind he at last enters Jerusalem amid great
popular curiosity; drives the moneychangers and sacrifice sellers
out of the temple in a riot; refuses to interest himself in the
beauties and wonders of the temple building on the ground that
presently not a stone of it shall be left on another; reviles the
high priests and elders in intolerable terms; and is arrested by
night in a garden to avoid a popular disturbance. He makes no
resistance, being persuaded that it is part of his destiny as a
god to be murdered and to rise again. One of his followers shows
fight, and cuts off the ear of one of his captors. Jesus rebukes
him, but does not attempt to heal the wound, though he declares
that if he wished to resist he could easily summon twelve million
angels to his aid. He is taken before the high priest and by him
handed over to the Roman governor, who is puzzled by his silent
refusal to defend himself in any way, or to contradict his
accusers or their witnesses, Pilate having naturally no idea that
the prisoner conceives himself as going through an inevitable
process of torment, death, and burial as a prelude to
resurrection. Before the high priest he has also been silent
except that when the priest asks him is he the Christ, the Son of
God, he replies that they shall all see the Son of Man sitting at
the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven. He
maintains this attitude with frightful fortitude whilst they
scourge him, mock him, torment him, and finally crucify him
between two thieves. His prolonged agony of thirst and pain on
the cross at last breaks his spirit, and he dies with a cry of
"My God: why hast Thou forsaken me?"


Meanwhile he has been definitely rejected by the people as well
as by the priests. Pilate, pitying him, and unable to make out
exactly what he has done (the blasphemy that has horrified the
high priest does not move the Roman) tries to get him off by
reminding the people that they have, by custom, the right to have
a prisoner released at that time, and suggests that he should
release Jesus. But they insist on his releasing a prisoner named
Barabbas instead, and on having Jesus crucified. Matthew gives no
clue to the popularity of Barabbas, describing him simply as "a
notable prisoner." The later gospels make it clear, very
significantly, that his offence was sedition and insurrection;
that he was an advocate of physical force; and that he had killed
his man. The choice of Barabbas thus appears as a popular choice
of the militant advocate of physical force as against the
unresisting advocate of mercy.


Matthew then tells how after three days an angel opened the
family vault of one Joseph, a rich man of Arimathea, who had
buried Jesus in it, whereupon Jesus rose and returned from
Jerusalem to Galilee and resumed his preaching with his
disciples, assuring them that he would now be with them to the
end of the world. At that point the narrative abruptly stops. The
story has no ending.


One effect of the promise of Jesus to come again in glory during
the lifetime of some of his hearers is to date the gospel without
the aid of any scholarship. It must have been written during the
lifetime of Jesus's contemporaries: that is, whilst it was still
possible for the promise of his Second Coming to be fulfilled.
The death of the last person who had been alive when Jesus said
"There be some of them that stand here that shall in no wise
taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom"
destroyed the last possibility of the promised Second Coming, and
bore out the incredulity of Pilate and the Jews. And as Matthew
writes as one believing in that Second Coming, and in fact left
his story unfinished to be ended by it, he must have produced his
gospel within a lifetime of the crucifixion. Also, he must have
believed that reading books would be one of the pleasures of the
kingdom of heaven on earth.


One more circumstance must be noted as gathered from Matthew.
Though he begins his story in such a way as to suggest that Jesus
belonged to the privileged classes, he mentions later on that
when Jesus attempted to preach in his own country, and had no
success there, the people said, "Is not this the carpenter's
son?" But Jesus's manner throughout is that of an aristocrat, or
at the very least the son of a rich bourgeois, and by no means a
lowly-minded one at that. We must be careful therefore to
conceive Joseph, not as a modern proletarian carpenter working
for weekly wages, but as a master craftsman of royal descent.
John the Baptist may have been a Keir Hardie; but the Jesus of
Matthew is of the Ruskin-Morris class.

This haughty characterization is so marked that if we had no
other documents concerning Jesus than the gospel of Matthew, we
should not feel as we do about him. We should have been much less
loth to say, "There is a man here who was sane until Peter hailed
him as the Christ, and who then became a monomaniac." We should
have pointed out that his delusion is a very common delusion
among the insane, and that such insanity is quite consistent with
the retention of the argumentative cunning and penetration which
Jesus displayed in Jerusalem after his delusion had taken
complete hold of him. We should feel horrified at the scourging
and mocking and crucifixion just as we should if Ruskin had been
treated in that way when he also went mad, instead of being cared
for as an invalid. And we should have had no clear perception of
any special significance in his way of calling the Son of God the
Son of Man. We should have noticed that he was a Communist; that
he regarded much of what we call law and order as machinery for
robbing the poor under legal forms; that he thought domestic ties
a snare for the soul; that he agreed with the proverb "The nearer
the Church, the farther from God;" that he saw very plainly that
the masters of the community should be its servants and not its
oppressors and parasites; and that though he did not tell us not
to fight our enemies, he did tell us to love them, and warned us
that they who draw the sword shall perish by the sword. All this
shows a great power of seeing through vulgar illusions, and a
capacity for a higher morality than has yet been established in
any civilized community; but it does not place Jesus above
Confucius or Plato, not to mention more modern philosophers and



Let us see whether we can get anything more out of Mark, whose
gospel, by the way, is supposed to be older than Matthew's. Mark
is brief; and it does not take long to discover that he adds
nothing to Matthew except the ending of the story by Christ's
ascension into heaven, and the news that many women had come with
Jesus to Jerusalem, including Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had
cast seven devils. On the other hand Mark says nothing about the
birth of Jesus, and does not touch his career until his adult
baptism by John. He apparently regards Jesus as a native of
Nazareth, as John does, and not of Bethlehem, as Matthew and Luke
do, Bethlehem being the city of David, from whom Jesus is said by
Matthew and Luke to be descended. He describes John's doctrine as
"Baptism of repentance unto remission of sins": that is, a form
of Salvationism. He tells us that Jesus went into the synagogues
and taught, not as the Scribes but as one having authority: that
is, we infer, he preaches his own doctrine as an original moral-
ist instead of repeating what the books say. He describes the
miracle of Jesus reaching the boat by walking across the sea, but
says nothing about Peter trying to do the same. Mark sees what he
relates more vividly than Matthew, and gives touches of detail
that bring the event more clearly before the reader. He says, for
instance, that when Jesus walked on the waves to the boat, he was
passing it by when the disciples called out to him. He seems to
feel that Jesus's treatment of the woman of Canaan requires some
apology, and therefore says that she was a Greek of Syrophenician
race, which probably excused any incivility to her in Mark's
eyes. He represents the father of the boy whom Jesus cured of
epilepsy after the transfiguration as a sceptic who says "Lord, I
believe: help thou mine unbelief." He tells the story of the
widow's mite, omitted by Matthew. He explains that Barabbas was
"lying bound with them that made insurrection, men who in the
insurrection had committed murder." Joseph of Arimathea, who
buried Jesus in his own tomb, and who is described by Matthew as
a disciple, is described by Mark as "one who also himself was
looking for the kingdom of God," which suggests that he was an
independent seeker. Mark earns our gratitude by making no mention
of the old prophecies, and thereby not only saves time, but
avoids the absurd implication that Christ was merely going
through a predetermined ritual, like the works of a clock,
instead of living. Finally Mark reports Christ as saying, after
his resurrection, that those who believe in him will be saved and
those who do not, damned; but it is impossible to discover
whether he means anything by a state of damnation beyond a state
of error. The paleographers regard this passage as tacked on by a
later scribe. On the whole Mark leaves the modern reader where
Matthew left him.



When we come to Luke, we come to a later storyteller, and one
with a stronger natural gift for his art. Before you have read
twenty lines of Luke's gospel you are aware that you have passed
from the chronicler writing for the sake of recording important
facts, to the artist, telling the story for the sake of telling
it. At the very outset he achieves the most charming idyll in the
Bible: the story of Mary crowded out of the inn into the stable
and laying her newly-born son in the manger, and of the shepherds
abiding in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night,
and how the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of
the Lord shone around them, and suddenly there was with the angel
a multitude of the heavenly host. These shepherds go to the
stable and take the place of the kings in Matthew's chronicle.
So completely has this story conquered and fascinated our
imagination that most of us suppose all the gospels to contain
it; but it is Luke's story and his alone: none of the others have
the smallest hint of it.


Luke gives the charm of sentimental romance to every incident.
The Annunciation, as described by Matthew, is made to Joseph, and
is simply a warning to him not to divorce his wife for
misconduct. In Luke's gospel it is made to Mary herself, at much
greater length, with a sense of the ecstasy of the bride of the
Holy Ghost. Jesus is refined and softened almost out of
recognition: the stern peremptory disciple of John the Baptist,
who never addresses a Pharisee or a Scribe without an insulting
epithet, becomes a considerate, gentle, sociable, almost urbane
person; and the Chauvinist Jew becomes a pro-Gentile who is
thrown out of the synagogue in his own town for reminding the
congregation that the prophets had sometimes preferred Gentiles
to Jews. In fact they try to throw him down from a sort of
Tarpeian rock which they use for executions; but he makes his way
through them and escapes: the only suggestion of a feat of arms
on his part in the gospels. There is not a word of the
Syrophenician woman. At the end he is calmly superior to his
sufferings; delivers an address on his way to execution with
unruffled composure; does not despair on the cross; and dies with
perfect dignity, commending his spirit to God, after praying for
the forgiveness of his persecutors on the ground that "They know
not what they do." According to Matthew, it is part of the
bitterness of his death that even the thieves who are crucified
with him revile him. According to Luke, only one of them does
this; and he is rebuked by the other, who begs Jesus to remember
him when he comes into his kingdom. To which Jesus replies, "This
day shalt thou be with me in Paradise," implying that he will
spend the three days of his death there. In short, every device
is used to get rid of the ruthless horror of the Matthew
chronicle, and to relieve the strain of the Passion by touching
episodes, and by representing Christ as superior to human
suffering. It is Luke's Jesus who has won our hearts.


Luke's romantic shrinking from unpleasantness, and his
sentimentality, are illustrated by his version of the woman with
the ointment. Matthew and Mark describe it as taking place in the
house of Simon the Leper, where it is objected to as a waste of
money. In Luke's version the leper becomes a rich Pharisee; the
woman becomes a Dame aux Camellias; and nothing is said about
money and the poor. The woman washes the feet of Jesus with her
tears and dries them with her hair; and he is reproached for
suffering a sinful woman to touch him. It is almost an adaptation
of the unromantic Matthew to the Parisian stage. There is a
distinct attempt to increase the feminine interest all through.
The slight lead given by Mark is taken up and developed. More is
said about Jesus's mother and her feelings. Christ's following of
women, just mentioned by Mark to account for their presence at
his tomb, is introduced earlier; and some of the women are named;
so that we are introduced to Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod's
steward, and Susanna. There is the quaint little domestic episode
between Mary and Martha. There is the parable of the Prodigal
Son, appealing to the indulgence romance has always shown to
Charles Surface and Des Grieux. Women follow Jesus to the cross;
and he makes them a speech beginning "Daughters of Jerusalem."
Slight as these changes may seem, they make a great change in the
atmosphere. The Christ of Matthew could never have become what is
vulgarly called a woman's hero (though the truth is that the
popular demand for sentiment, as far as it is not simply human,
is more manly than womanly); but the Christ of Luke has made
possible those pictures which now hang in many ladies' chambers,
in which Jesus is represented exactly as he is represented in the
Lourdes cinematograph, by a handsome actor. The only touch of
realism which Luke does not instinctively suppress for the sake
of producing this kind of amenity is the reproach addressed to
Jesus for sitting down to table without washing his hands; and
that is retained because an interesting discourse hangs on it.


Another new feature in Luke's story is that it begins in a world
in which everyone is expecting the advent of the Christ. In
Matthew and Mark, Jesus comes into a normal Philistine world like
our own of today. Not until the Baptist foretells that one
greater than himself shall come after him does the old Jewish
hope of a Messiah begin to stir again; and as Jesus begins as a
disciple of John, and is baptized by him, nobody connects him
with that hope until Peter has the sudden inspiration which
produces so startling an effect on Jesus. But in Luke's gospel
men's minds, and especially women's minds, are full of eager
expectation of a Christ not only before the birth of Jesus, but
before the birth of John the Baptist, the event with which Luke
begins his story. Whilst Jesus and John are still in their
mothers' wombs, John leaps at the approach of Jesus when the two
mothers visit one another. At the circumcision of Jesus pious men
and women hail the infant as the Christ.

The Baptist himself is not convinced; for at quite a late period
in his former disciple's career he sends two young men to ask
Jesus is he really the Christ. This is noteworthy because Jesus
immediately gives them a deliberate exhibition of miracles, and
bids them tell John what they have seen, and ask him what he
thinks now: This is in complete contradiction to what I have
called the Rousseau view of miracles as inferred from Matthew.
Luke shows all a romancer's thoughtlessness about miracles; he
regards them as "signs": that is, as proofs of the divinity of
the person performing them, and not merely of thaumaturgic
powers. He revels in miracles just as he revels in parables: they
make such capital stories. He cannot allow the calling of Peter,
James, and John from their boats to pass without a comic
miraculous overdraft of fishes, with the net sinking the boats
and provoking Peter to exclaim, "Depart from me; for I am a
sinful man, O Lord," which should probably be translated, "I want
no more of your miracles: natural fishing is good enough for my

There are some other novelties in Luke's version. Pilate sends
Jesus to Herod, who happens to be in Jerusalem just then, because
Herod had expressed some curiosity about him; but nothing comes
of it: the prisoner will not speak to him. When Jesus is ill
received in a Samaritan village James and John propose to call
down fire from heaven and destroy it; and Jesus replies that he
is come not to destroy lives but to save them. The bias of Jesus
against lawyers is emphasized, and also his resolution not to
admit that he is more bound to his relatives than to strangers.
He snubs a woman who blesses his mother. As this is contrary to
the traditions of sentimental romance, Luke would presumably have
avoided it had he not become persuaded that the brotherhood of
Man and the Fatherhood of God are superior even to sentimental
considerations. The story of the lawyer asking what are the two
chief commandments is changed by making Jesus put the question to
the lawyer instead of answering it.

As to doctrine, Luke is only clear when his feelings are touched.
His logic is weak; for some of the sayings of Jesus are pieced
together wrongly, as anyone who has read them in the right order
and context in Matthew will discover at once. He does not make
anything new out of Christ's mission, and, like the other
evangelists, thinks that the whole point of it is that Jesus was
the long expected Christ, and that he will presently come back to
earth and establish his kingdom, having duly died and risen again
after three days. Yet Luke not only records the teaching as to
communism and the discarding of hate, which have, of course,
nothing to do with the Second Coming, but quotes one very
remarkable saying which is not compatible with it, which is, that
people must not go about asking where the kingdom of heaven is,
and saying "Lo, here!" and "Lo, there!" because the kingdom of
heaven is within them. But Luke has no sense that this belongs to
a quite different order of thought to his Christianity, and
retains undisturbed his view of the kingdom as a locality as
definite as Jerusalem or Madagascar.



The gospel of John is a surprise after the others. Matthew, Mark
and Luke describe the same events in the same order (the
variations in Luke are negligible), and their gospels are
therefore called the synoptic gospels. They tell substantially
the same story of a wandering preacher who at the end of his life
came to Jerusalem. John describes a preacher who spent
practically his whole adult life in the capital, with occasional
visits to the provinces. His circumstantial account of the
calling of Peter and the sons of Zebedee is quite different from
the others; and he says nothing about their being fishermen. He
says expressly that Jesus, though baptized by John, did not
himself practise baptism, and that his disciples did. Christ's
agonized appeal against his doom in the garden of Gethsemane
becomes a coldblooded suggestion made in the temple at a much
earlier period. Jesus argues much more; complains a good deal of
the unreasonableness and dislike with which he is met; is by no
means silent before Caiaphas and Pilate; lays much greater stress
on his resurrection and on the eating of his body (losing all his
disciples except the twelve in consequence); says many apparently
contradictory and nonsensical things to which no ordinary reader
can now find any clue; and gives the impression of an educated,
not to say sophisticated mystic, different both in character and
schooling from the simple and downright preacher of Matthew and
Mark, and the urbane easy-minded charmer of Luke. Indeed, the
Jews say of him "How knoweth this man letters, having never


John, moreover, claims to be not only a chronicler but a witness.
He declares that he is "the disciple whom Jesus loved," and that
he actually leaned on the bosom of Jesus at the last supper and
asked in a whisper which of them it was that should betray him.
Jesus whispered that he would give a sop to the traitor, and
thereupon handed one to Judas, who ate it and immediately became
possessed by the devil. This is more natural than the other
accounts, in which Jesus openly indicates Judas without eliciting
any protest or exciting any comment. It also implies that Jesus
deliberately bewitched Judas in order to bring about his own
betrayal. Later on John claims that Jesus said to Peter "If I
will that John tarry til I come, what is that to thee?"; and
John, with a rather obvious mock modesty, adds that he must not
claim to be immortal, as the disciples concluded; for Christ did
not use that expression, but merely remarked "If I will that he
tarry till I come." No other evangelist claims personal intimacy
with Christ, or even pretends to be his contemporary (there is no
ground for identifying Matthew the publican with Matthew the
Evangelist); and John is the only evangelist whose account of
Christ's career and character is hopelessly irreconcilable with
Matthew's. He is almost as bad as Matthew, by the way, in his
repeated explanations of Christ's actions as having no other
purpose than to fulfil the old prophecies. The impression is more
unpleasant, because, as John, unlike Matthew, is educated,
subtle, and obsessed with artificial intellectual mystifications,
the discovery that he is stupid or superficial in so simple a
matter strikes one with distrust and dislike, in spite of his
great literary charm, a good example of which is his
transfiguration of the harsh episode of the Syrophenician woman
into the pleasant story of the woman of Samaria. This perhaps is
why his claim to be John the disciple, or to be a contemporary of
Christ or even of any survivor of Christ's generation, has been
disputed, and finally, it seems, disallowed. But I repeat, I take
no note here of the disputes of experts as to the date of the
gospels, not because I am not acquainted with them, but because,
as the earliest codices are Greek manuscripts of the fourth
century A.D., and the Syrian ones are translations from the
Greek, the paleographic expert has no difficulty in arriving at
whatever conclusion happens to suit his beliefs or disbeliefs;
and he never succeeds in convincing the other experts except when
they believe or disbelieve exactly as he does. Hence I conclude
that the dates of the original narratives cannot be ascertained,
and that we must make the best of the evangelists' own accounts
of themselves. There is, as we have seen, a very marked
difference between them, leaving no doubt that we are dealing
with four authors of well-marked diversity; but they all end in
an attitude of expectancy of the Second Coming which they agree
in declaring Jesus to have positively and unequivocally promised
within the lifetime of his contemporaries. Any believer compiling
a gospel after the last of these contemporaries had passed away,
would either reject and omit the tradition of that promise on the
ground that since it was not fulfilled, and could never now be
fulfilled, it could not have been made, or else have had to
confess to the Jews, who were the keenest critics of the
Christians, that Jesus was either an impostor or the victim of a
delusion. Now all the evangelists except Matthew expressly
declare themselves to be believers; and Matthew's narrative is
obviously not that of a sceptic. I therefore assume as a matter
of common sense that, interpolations apart, the gospels are
derived from narratives written in the first century A.D. I
include John, because though it may be claimed that he hedged his
position by claiming that Christ, who specially loved him,
endowed him with a miraculous life until the Second Coming, the
conclusion being that John is alive at this moment, I cannot
believe that a literary forger could hope to save the situation
by so outrageous a pretension. Also, John's narrative is in many
passages nearer to the realities of public life than the simple
chronicle of Matthew or the sentimental romance of Luke. This may
be because John was obviously more a man of the world than the
others, and knew, as mere chroniclers and romancers never know,
what actually happens away from books and desks. But it may also
be because he saw and heard what happened instead of collecting
traditions about it. The paleographers and daters of first
quotations may say what they please: John's claim to give
evidence as an eyewitness whilst the others are only compiling
history is supported by a certain verisimilitude which appeals to
me as one who has preached a new doctrine and argued about it, as
well as written stories. This verisimilitude may be dramatic art
backed by knowledge of public life; but even at that we must not
forget that the best dramatic art is the operation of a
divinatory instinct for truth. Be that as it may, John was
certainly not the man to believe in the Second Coming and yet
give a date for it after that date had passed. There is really no
escape from the conclusion that the originals of all the gospels
date from the period within which there was still a possibility
of the Second Coming occurring at the promised time.


In spite of the suspicions roused by John's idiosyncrasies, his
narrative is of enormous importance to those who go to the
gospels for a credible modern religion. For it is John who adds
to the other records such sayings as that "I and my father are
one"; that "God is a spirit"; that the aim of Jesus is not only
that the people should have life, but that they should have it
"more abundantly" (a distinction much needed by people who think
a man is either alive or dead, and never consider the important
question how much alive he is); and that men should bear in mind
what they were told in the 82nd Psalm: that they are gods, and
are responsible for the doing of the mercy and justice of God.
The Jews stoned him for saying these things, and, when he
remonstrated with them for stupidly stoning one who had done
nothing to them but good works, replied "For a good work we stone
thee not; but for blasphemy, because that thou, being a man,
makest thyself God." He insists (referring to the 82nd psalm)
that if it is part of their own religion that they are gods on
the assurance of God himself, it cannot be blasphemy for him,
whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, to say "I am
the son of God." But they will not have this at any price; and he
has to escape from their fury. Here the point is obscured by the
distinction made by Jesus between himself and other men. He says,
in effect, "If you are gods, then, a fortiori, I am a god." John
makes him say this, just as he makes him say "I am the light of
the world." But Matthew makes him say to the people "Ye are the
light of the world." John has no grip of the significance of
these scraps which he has picked up: he is far more interested in
a notion of his own that men can escape death and do even more
extraordinary things than Christ himself: in fact, he actually
represents Jesus as promising this explicitly, and is finally led
into the audacious hint that he, John, is himself immortal in the
flesh. Still, he does not miss the significant sayings
altogether. However inconsistent they may be with the doctrine he
is consciously driving at, they appeal to some sub-intellectual
instinct in him that makes him stick them in, like a child
sticking tinsel stars on the robe of a toy angel.

John does not mention the ascension; and the end of his narrative
leaves Christ restored to life, and appearing from time to time
among his disciples. It is on one of these occasions that John
describes the miraculous draught of fishes which Luke places at
the other end of Christ's career, at the call of the sons of


Although John, following his practice of showing Jesus's skill as
a debater, makes him play a less passive part at his trial, he
still gives substantially the same account of it as all the rest.
And the question that would occur to any modern reader never
occurs to him, any more than it occurred to Matthew, Mark, or
Luke. That question is, Why on earth did not Jesus defend
himself, and make the people rescue him from the High Priest? He
was so popular that they were unable to prevent him driving the
money-changers out of the temple, or to arrest him for it. When
they did arrest him afterwards, they had to do it at night in a
garden. He could have argued with them as he had often done in
the temple, and justified himself both to the Jewish law and to
Caesar. And he had physical force at his command to back up his
arguments: all that was needed was a speech to rally his
followers; and he was not gagged. The reply of the evangelists
would have been that all these inquiries are idle, because if
Jesus had wished to escape, he could have saved himself all that
trouble by doing what John describes him as doing: that is,
casting his captors to the earth by an exertion of his miraculous
power. If you asked John why he let them get up again and torment
and execute him, John would have replied that it was part of the
destiny of God to be slain and buried and to rise again, and that
to have avoided this destiny would have been to repudiate his
Godhead. And that is the only apparent explanation. Whether you
believe with the evangelists that Christ could have rescued
himself by a miracle, or, as a modern Secularist, point out that
he could have defended himself effectually, the fact remains that
according to all the narratives he did not do so. He had to die
like a god, not to save himself "like one of the princes." *

* Jesus himself had refered to that psalm (LXXII) in which
men who have judged unjustly and accepted the persons of the
wicked (including by anticipation practically all the white
inhabitants of the British Isles and the North American
continent, to mention no other places) are condemned in the
words, "I have said, ye are gods; and all of ye are children
of the Most High; but ye shall die like men, and fall like
one of the princes."

The consensus on this point is important, because it proves the
absolute sincerity of Jesus's declaration that he was a god. No
impostor would have accepted such dreadful consequences without
an effort to save himself. No impostor would have been nerved to
endure them by the conviction that he would rise from the grave
and live again after three days. If we accept the story at all,
we must believe this, and believe also that his promise to return
in glory and establish his kingdom on earth within the lifetime
of men then living, was one which he believed that he could, and
indeed must fulfil. Two evangelists declare that in his last
agony he despaired, and reproached God for forsaking him. The
other two represent him as dying in unshaken conviction and
charity with the simple remark that the ordeal was finished. But
all four testify that his faith was not deceived, and that he
actually rose again after three days. And I think it unreasonable
to doubt that all four wrote their narratives in full faith that
the other promise would be fulfilled too, and that they
themselves might live to witness the Second Coming.


It will be noted by the older among my readers, who are sure to
be obsessed more or less by elderly wrangles as to whether the
gospels are credible as matter-of-fact narratives, that I have
hardly raised this question, and have accepted the credible and
incredible with equal complacency. I have done this because
credibility is a subjective condition, as the evolution of
religious belief clearly shows. Belief is not dependent on
evidence and reason. There is as much evidence that the miracles
occurred as that the battle of Waterloo occurred, or that a large
body of Russian troops passed through England in 1914 to take
part in the war on the western front. The reasons for believing
in the murder of Pompey are the same as the reasons for believing
in the raising of Lazarus. Both have been believed and doubted by
men of equal intelligence. Miracles, in the sense of phenomena we
cannot explain, surround us on every hand; life itself is the
miracle of miracles. Miracles in the sense of events that violate
the normal course of our experience are vouched for every day:
the flourishing Church of Christ Scientist is founded on a
multitude of such miracles. Nobody believes all the miracles:
everybody believes some of them. I cannot tell why men who will
not believe that Jesus ever existed yet believe firmly that
Shakespear was Bacon. I cannot tell why people who believe that
angels appeared and fought on our side at the battle of Mons, and
who believe that miracles occur quite frequently at Lourdes,
nevertheless boggle at the miracle of the liquefaction of the
blood of St. Januarius, and reject it as a trick of priestcraft.
I cannot tell why people who will not believe Matthew's story of
three kings bringing costly gifts to the cradle of Jesus, believe
Luke's story of the shepherds and the stable. I cannot tell why
people, brought up to believe the Bible in the old literal way as
an infallible record and revelation, and rejecting that view
later on, begin by rejecting the Old Testament, and give up the
belief in a brimstone hell before they give up (if they ever do)
the belief in a heaven of harps, crowns, and thrones. I cannot
tell why people who will not believe in baptism on any terms
believe in vaccination with the cruel fanaticism of inquisitors.
I am convinced that if a dozen sceptics were to draw up in
parallel columns a list of the events narrated in the gospels
which they consider credible and incredible respectively, their
lists would be different in several particulars. Belief is
literally a matter of taste.


Now matters of taste are mostly also matters of fashion. We are
conscious of a difference between medieval fashions in belief and
modern fashions. For instance, though we are more credulous than
men were in the Middle Ages, and entertain such crowds of
fortunetellers, magicians, miracle workers, agents of
communication with the dead, discoverers of the elixir of life,
transmuters of metals, and healers of all sorts, as the Middle
Ages never dreamed of as possible, yet we will not take our
miracles in the form that convinced the Middle Ages. Arithmetical
numbers appealed to the Middle Ages just as they do to us,
because they are difficult to deal with, and because the greatest
masters of numbers, the Newtons and Leibnitzes, rank among the
greatest men. But there are fashions in numbers too. The Middle
Ages took a fancy to some familiar number like seven; and because
it was an odd number, and the world was made in seven days, and
there are seven stars in Charles's Wain, and for a dozen other
reasons, they were ready to believe anything that had a seven or
a seven times seven in it. Seven deadly sins, seven swords of
sorrow in the heart of the Virgin, seven champions of
Christendom, seemed obvious and reasonable things to believe in
simply because they were seven. To us, on the contrary, the
number seven is the stamp of superstition. We will believe in
nothing less than millions. A medieval doctor gained his
patient's confidence by telling him that his vitals were being
devoured by seven worms. Such a diagnosis would ruin a modern
physician. The modern physician tells his patient that he is ill
because every drop of his blood is swarming with a million
microbes; and the patient believes him abjectly and instantly.
Had a bishop told William the Conqueror that the sun was
seventy-seven miles distant from the earth, William would
have believed him not only out of respect for the Church, but
because he would have felt that seventy-seven miles was the
proper distance. The Kaiser, knowing just as little about it as
the Conqueror, would send that bishop to an asylum. Yet he (I
presume) unhesitatingly accepts the estimate of ninety-two and
nine-tenths millions of miles, or whatever the latest big figure
may be.


And here I must remind you that our credulity is not to be
measured by the truth of the things we believe. When men believed
that the earth was flat, they were not credulous: they were using
their common sense, and, if asked to prove that the earth was
flat, would have said simply, "Look at it." Those who refuse to
believe that it is round are exercising a wholesome scepticism.
The modern man who believes that the earth is round is grossly
credulous. Flat Earth men drive him to fury by confuting him with
the greatest ease when he tries to argue about it. Confront him
with a theory that the earth is cylindrical, or annular, or
hour-glass shaped, and he is lost. The thing he believes may be
true, but that is not why he believes it: he believes it because
in some mysterious way it appeals to his imagination. If you ask
him why he believes that the sun is ninety-odd million miles off,
either he will have to confess that he doesn't know, or he will
say that Newton proved it. But he has not read the treatise in
which Newton proved it, and does not even know that it was
written in Latin. If you press an Ulster Protestant as to why he
regards Newton as an infallible authority, and St. Thomas Aquinas
or the Pope as superstitious liars whom, after his death, he will
have the pleasure of watching from his place in heaven whilst
they roast in eternal flame, or if you ask me why I take into
serious consideration Colonel Sir Almroth Wright's estimates of
the number of streptococci contained in a given volume of serum
whilst I can only laugh at the earlier estimates of the number of
angels that can be accommodated on the point of a needle, no
reasonable reply is possible except that somehow sevens and
angels are out of fashion, and billions and streptococci are all
the rage. I simply cannot tell you why Bacon, Montaigne, and
Cervantes had a quite different fashion of credulity and
incredulity from the Venerable Bede and Piers Plowman and the
divine doctors of the Aquinas-Aristotle school, who were
certainly no stupider, and had the same facts before them. Still
less can I explain why, if we assume that these leaders of
thought had all reasoned out their beliefs, their authority
seemed conclusive to one generation and blasphemous to another,
neither generation having followed the reasoning or gone into the
facts of the matter for itself at all.

It is therefore idle to begin disputing with the reader as to
what he should believe in the gospels and what he should
disbelieve. He will believe what he can, and disbelieve what he
must. If he draws any lines at all, they will be quite arbitrary
ones. St. John tells us that when Jesus explicitly claimed divine
honors by the sacrament of his body and blood, so many of his
disciples left him that their number was reduced to twelve. Many
modern readers will not hold out so long: they will give in at
the first miracle. Others will discriminate. They will accept the
healing miracles, and reject the feeding of the multitude. To
some the walking on the water will be a legendary exaggeration of
a swim, ending in an ordinary rescue of Peter; and the raising of
Lazarus will be only a similar glorification of a commonplace
feat of artificial respiration, whilst others will scoff at it as
a planned imposture in which Lazarus acted as a confederate.
Between the rejection of the stories as wholly fabulous and the
acceptance of them as the evangelists themselves meant them to be
accepted, there will be many shades of belief and disbelief, of
sympathy and derision. It is not a question of being a Christian
or not. A Mahometan Arab will accept literally and without
question parts of the narrative which an English Archbishop has
to reject or explain away; and many Theosophists and lovers of
the wisdom of India, who never enter a Christian Church except as
sightseers, will revel in parts of John's gospel which mean
nothing to a pious matter-of-fact Bradford manufacturer. Every
reader takes from the Bible what he can get. In submitting a
precis of the gospel narratives I have not implied any estimate
either of their credibility or of their truth. I have simply
informed him or reminded him, as the case may be, of what those
narratives tell us about their hero.


I must now abandon this attitude, and make a serious draft on the
reader's attention by facing the question whether, if and when
the medieval and Methodist will-to-believe the Salvationist and
miraculous side of the gospel narratives fails us, as it plainly
has failed the leaders of modern thought, there will be anything
left of the mission of Jesus: whether, in short, we may not throw
the gospels into the waste-paper basket, or put them away on the
fiction shelf of our libraries. I venture to reply that we shall
be, on the contrary, in the position of the man in Bunyan's
riddle who found that "the more he threw away, the more he had.
"We get rid, to begin with, of the idolatrous or iconographic
worship of Christ. By this I mean literally that worship which is
given to pictures and statues of him, and to finished and
unalterable stories about him. The test of the prevalence of this
is that if you speak or write of Jesus as a real live person, or
even as a still active God, such worshippers are more horrified
than Don Juan was when the statue stepped from its pedestal and
came to supper with him. You may deny the divinity of Jesus; you
may doubt whether he ever existed; you may reject Christianity
for Judaism, Mahometanism, Shintoism, or Fire Worship; and the
iconolaters, placidly contemptuous, will only classify you as a
freethinker or a heathen. But if you venture to wonder how Christ
would have looked if he had shaved and had his hair cut, or what
size in shoes he took, or whether he swore when he stood on a
nail in the carpenter's shop, or could not button his robe when
he was in a hurry, or whether he laughed over the repartees by
which he baffled the priests when they tried to trap him into
sedition and blasphemy, or even if you tell any part of his story
in the vivid terms of modern colloquial slang, you will produce
an extraordinary dismay and horror among the iconolaters. You
will have made the picture come out of its frame, the statue
descend from its pedestal, the story become real, with all the
incalculable consequences that may flow from this terrifying
miracle. It is at such moments that you realize that the
iconolaters have never for a moment conceived Christ as a real
person who meant what he said, as a fact, as a force like
electricity, only needing the invention of suitable political
machinery to be applied to the affairs of mankind with
revolutionary effect.

Thus it is not disbelief that is dangerous in our society: it is
belief. The moment it strikes you (as it may any day) that Christ
is not the lifeless harmless image he has hitherto been to you,
but a rallying centre for revolutionary influences which all
established States and Churches fight, you must look to
yourselves; for you have brought the image to life; and the mob
may not be able to bear that horror.


But mobs must be faced if civilization is to be saved. It did not
need the present war to show that neither the iconographic Christ
nor the Christ of St. Paul has succeeded in effecting the
salvation of human society. Whilst I write, the Turks are said to
be massacring the Armenian Christians on an unprecedented scale;
but Europe is not in a position to remonstrate; for her
Christians are slaying one another by every device which
civilization has put within their reach as busily as they are
slaying the Turks. Barabbas is triumphant everywhere; and the
final use he makes of his triumph is to lead us all to suicide
with heroic gestures and resounding lies. Now those who, like
myself, see the Barabbasque social organization as a failure, and
are convinced that the Life Force (or whatever you choose to call
it) cannot be finally beaten by any failure, and will even
supersede humanity by evolving a higher species if we cannot
master the problems raised by the multiplication of our own
numbers, have always known that Jesus had a real message, and
have felt the fascination of his character and doctrine. Not that
we should nowadays dream of claiming any supernatural authority
for him, much less the technical authority which attaches to an
educated modern philosopher and jurist. But when, having entirely
got rid of Salvationist Christianity, and even contracted a
prejudice against Jesus on the score of his involuntary
connection with it, we engage on a purely scientific study of
economics, criminology, and biology, and find that our practical
conclusions are virtually those of Jesus, we are distinctly
pleased and encouraged to find that we were doing him an
injustice, and that the nimbus that surrounds his head in the
pictures may be interpreted some day as a light of science rather
than a declarations of sentiment or a label of idolatry.

The doctrines in which Jesus is thus confirmed are, roughly, the

1. The kingdom of heaven is within you. You are the son of God;
and God is the son of man. God is a spirit, to be worshipped in
spirit and in truth, and not an elderly gentleman to be bribed
and begged from. We are members one of another; so that you
cannot injure or help your neighbor without injuring or helping
yourself. God is your father: you are here to do God's work; and
you and your father are one.

2. Get rid of property by throwing it into the common stock.
Dissociate your work entirely from money payments. If you let a
child starve you are letting God starve. Get rid of all anxiety
about tomorrow's dinner and clothes, because you cannot serve two
masters: God and Mammon.

S. Get rid of judges and punishment and revenge. Love your
neighbor as yourself, he being a part of yourself. And love your
enemies: they are your neighbors.

4. Get rid of your family entanglements. Every mother you meet is
as much your mother as the woman who bore you. Every man you meet
is as much your brother as the man she bore after you. Don't
waste your time at family funerals grieving for your relatives:
attend to life, not to death: there are as good fish in the sea
as ever came out of it, and better. In the kingdom of heaven,
which, as aforesaid, is within you, there is no marriage nor
giving in marriage, because you cannot devote your life to two
divinities: God and the person you are married to.

Now these are very interesting propositions; and they become more
interesting every day, as experience and science drive us more
and more to consider them favorably. In considering them, we
shall waste our time unless we give them a reasonable
construction. We must assume that the man who saw his way through
such a mass of popular passion and illusion as stands between us
and a sense of the value of such teaching was quite aware of all
the objections that occur to an average stockbroker in the first
five minutes. It is true that the world is governed to a
considerable extent by the considerations that occur to
stockbrokers in the first five minutes; but as the result is that
the world is so badly governed that those who know the truth can
hardly bear to live in it, an objection from an average
stockbroker constitutes in itself a prima facie case for any
social reform.


All the same, we must reduce the ethical counsels and proposals
of Jesus to modern practice if they are to be of any use to us.
If we ask our stockbroker to act simply as Jesus advised his
disciples to act, he will reply, very justly, "You are advising
me to become a tramp." If we urge a rich man to sell all that he
has and give it to the poor, he will inform us that such an
operation is impossible. If he sells his shares and his lands,
their purchaser will continue all those activities which oppress
the poor. If all the rich men take the advice simultaneously the
shares will fall to zero and the lands be unsaleable. If one man
sells out and throws the money into the slums, the only result
will be to add himself and his dependents to the list of the
poor, and to do no good to the poor beyond giving a chance few of
them a drunken spree. We must therefore bear in mind that
whereas, in the time of Jesus, and in the ages which grew darker
and darker after his death until the darkness, after a brief
false dawn in the Reformation and the Renascence, culminated in
the commercial night of the nineteenth century, it was believed
that you could not make men good by Act of Parliament, we now
know that you cannot make them good in any other way, and that a
man who is better than his fellows is a nuisance. The rich man
must sell up not only himself but his whole class; and that can
be done only through the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The dis-
ciple cannot have his bread without money until there is bread
for everybody without money; and that requires an elaborate
municipal organization of the food supply, rate supported. Being
members one of another means One Man One Vote, and One Woman One
Vote, and universal suffrage and equal incomes and all sorts of
modern political measures. Even in Syria in the time of Jesus his

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