The New Testament Record
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Now, then, will be perceived the bearing and gravity of what I some little way back said, that the more we convince ourselves of the liability of the New Testament writers to mistake, the more we really bring out the greatness and worth of the New Testament. For the more the reporters were fallible and prone to delusion, the more does Jesus become independent of the mistakes they made, and unaffected by them. We have plain proof that here was a very great spirit; and the greater he was, the more certain were his disciples to misunderstand him. The depth of their misunderstanding of him is really a kind of measure of the height of his superiority. And this superiority is what interests us in the records of the New Testament ; for the New Testament exists to reveal Jesus Christ, not to establish the immunity of its writers from error.
Jesus himself is not a New Testament writer ; he is the object of description and comment to the New Testament writers. As the Old Testament speaks about the Eternal and bears an invaluable witness to him, without yet ever adequately in words defining and expressing him ; so, and even yet more, do the New Testament writers speak about Jesus and give a priceless record of him, without adequately and accurately comprehending him. They are altogether on another plane from Jesus, and their mistakes are not his.
It is not Jesus himself who relates his own miracles to us who tells us of his own apparitions after his death ; who alleges his crucifixion and sufferings as a fulfilment of the prophecy : The Eternal keepeth all the bones of the righteous, so that not one of them is broken ; 1 who proves salvation to be by Christ alone, from the promise to Abraham being made to seed in the singular number, not the plural. If, therefore, the human mind is now drawing away from reliance on miracles, coming to perceive the community of character which pervades them all, to understand their natural laws, so to speak,—their loose mode of origination and their untrustworthiness,—and is inclined rather to distrust the dealer in them than to pin its faith upon him ; then it is good for the authority of Jesus, that his reporters are evidently liable to ignorance and error. He is reported to deal in miracles, to be above all a thaumaturgist. But the more his reporters were intellectually men of their nation and time, and of its current beliefs,—the more, that is, they were open to mistakes, the more certain they were to impute miracles to a wonderful and half-understood personage like Jesus, whether he would or no. He himself may, at the same time, have had quite other notions as to what he was doing and intending.
Again, the mistake of imagining that the world was to end, as St. Paul announces, within the lifetime of the first Christian generation, is palpable. But the reporters of Jesus make him announcing just the same thing ' This generation shall not pass away till they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory, and then shall he send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds.' 2 Popular theology can put a plain satisfactory sense upon this, but, as usual, through that process de-scribed by Butler by which anything can be made to mean anything ; and from this sort of process the human mind is beginning to shrink. A more plausible theology will say that the words are an accommodation ; that the speaker lends himself to the fancies and expectations of his hearers. A good deal of such accommodation there is in this and other sayings of Jesus ; but accommodation to the full extent here supposed would surely have been impossible, To suppose it, is most violent and unsatisfactory. Either, then, the words were, like St. Paul's announcement, a mistake, or they are not really the very words Jesus said, just as he said them. That is, the reporters have given them a turn, however slight, a tone and a colour, a connexion, to make them comply with a fixed idea in their own minds, which they unfeignedly believed was a fixed idea with Jesus also. Now, the more we regard the reporters of Jesus as men liable to err, full of the turbid Jewish fancies about 'the grand consummation' which were then current, the easier we can understand these men inevitably putting their own eschatology into the mouth of Jesus, when they had to report his discourse about the kingdom of God and the troubles in store for the Jewish nation, and the less need have we to make Jesus a co-partner in their eschatology.
Again, the futility of such demonstrations from prophecy as those of which I have quoted examples, and generally of all that Jewish exegesis, based on a mere unintelligent catching at the letter of the Old Testament, isolated from its context and real meaning, of which the New Testament writers give us so much, begins to disconcert attentive readers of the Bible more and more, and to be felt by them as an embarrassment to the cause of Jesus, not a support. Well, then, it is good for the authority of Jesus, that those who establish it by arguments of this sort should be clearly men of their race and time, not above its futile methods of reasoning and demonstration. The more they were this, and the more they were sure to mix up much futile logic and exegesis with their presentation of Jesus, the less is Jesus himself responsible for such logic and exegesis, or at all dependent upon it. He may himself have rated such argumentation at precisely its true value, and have based his mission and authority upon no grounds but solid ones. Whether he did so or not, his hearers and reporters were sure to base it on their own fantastic grounds also, and to credit Jesus with doing the same.
In short, the more we conceive Jesus as almost as much over the heads of his disciples and reporters then, as he is over the heads of the mass of so-called Christians now, and the more we see his disciples to have been, as they were, men raised by a truer moral susceptiveness above their country-men, but in intellectual conceptions and habits much on a par with them, all the more do we make room, so to speak, for Jesus to be a personage immensely great and wonderful ; as wonderful as anything his reporters imagined him to be, though in a different manner.