THE human mind is somewhat mystified when it dwells on that period in the life of Jesus that extends from His boyhood to the beginning of His public life. As we have just seen, He was thoroughly conscious of His mission, and during eighteen years, at the very age when human activity is most freely and ardently manifested, He is silent and seems to have cast a veil over Himself, amid the details of an ordinary life, as if His heart knew no loftier aspirations. Of His future, of His great religious worth, of His peculiar nature, His compatriots had no suspicion. And yet we may believe that even in these ordinary phases of everyday life, the Master had sweet and useful lessons to inculcate.
The Evangelists, passing over this longest period of His life in complete silence, or at most marking out in three words the general outlines that compose its modest proportions, oblige us to divine, in these words, the conditions of His physical and moral development, the nature of His relations to His family and to society, and of the daily occupations of His youth. Properly speaking, their books are not biographies, but the history of an idea, of a religious revolution, of the GoodTidings, and though, as historians, they have not failed to trace the portrait of their hero in order to render Him more a living reality in the eyes of posterity, as Evangelists they have sought only to transmit to us His words and His works in order to present Him as an ideal, not to our eyes, but to our souls.
St. Luke, however, in writing that Jesus grew in stature and in grace, clearly indicates that external advantages were not wanting in the youth. The term1 he employs signifies, in fact, a stature which develops its traits harmoniously. We are, therefore, justly astonished when we read in St. Justin, in Tertullian, in Clement of Alexandria, or in Origen the avowal that Jesus was small in stature and of an unpleasant exterior.2 Even if these late and unusual declarations were not counterbalanced by the contrary affirmations of St. Jerome or of St. Chrysostom, the information given by St. Luke would alone suffice to destroy, by its undeniable authority, the purely personal views of ecclesiastical authors who wrote two centuries after Jesus Christ.
Yet, beyond this general hint, which makes Jesus a handsome young man of fine stature, we have no precise knowledge. The imagination of the faithful has pleased itself with varied conceptions as to details, but serious critics have commonly agreed that, from the portrait of the Savior drawn by Nicephorus in the fourteenth century, down to the apocryphal letter of Lentulus, everything is founded on the fantastic dreams of certain enterprising minds.3 It is needless to add that the paintings attributed to St. Luke have no greater authority, for, had they been in existence at the time of the Iconoclasts, they would have formed, in the hands of the Fathers of the seventh general council, the second of Nicæa, a most peremptory argument of apostolic character against those terrible innovators.
With His robust constitution and the perfect development of His physical powers, the young man was able to follow the trade of His fosterfather. In fact, we know from the Nazarenes' cry of astonishment4 that Jesus was a carpenter until He reached the age of thirty years. Some have thought that in thus embracing a manual trade, Jesus conformed to the common practice of the Jewish rabbis, who, though devoted to the study of the Sacred Books, were nevertheless skilled in some trade by which they gained their living and in which they found their ordinary relaxation of mind.5 But this is doing violence to historical truth. Jesus was not a rabbi and a carpenter, but only a carpenter gaining His daily bread by the sweat of His brow. It must be admitted that Jesus thereby offended the most deeply rooted prejudices of civilized peoples. It has been in all ages and is now the conviction of aristocracy that artisans, by the very nature of their occupation, constitute a humbled and disparaged class. Jesus wished to demonstrate that the coarsest and most painful labor cannot demean a lofty soul. Are not the vast majority of the sons of Adam condemned to such labor if they wish to live? Could there be any dishonor in the fulfillment of a providential obligation in which man proves by his resignation the vigor of his soul, and by his efforts the generosity of his nature? No more, assuredly, than there would be in a life of poverty; for this latter, instead of enfeebling souls, increases their energy and independence. Misery alone, the usual fruit of vice or of inability, contains aught of shame. Jesus feared not to put on the appearance of poverty, and, making the honorable mediocrity of the workshop the condition of His life, He proved that neither fortune's gifts, nor the brilliancy of the world's most honored positions are necessary to man's happiness, or to His own powerful influence upon the world which He seeks to transform.
Furthermore, this example of Jesus, the workingman, has had the deepest influence on the lot of humanity. Since then, it has become clear to many that poverty can mean happiness and even glory, and to the truly wise that labor involves nothing humiliating or impure, since the hand of the Restorer of mankind has wielded the hammer and the chisel, and divine sweat has bedewed the workshop of the laborer.
So, then, for eighteen years Jesus made, according to the demand, tools that served the peasant in the cultivation of his fields, yokes for the oxen, mattocks and ploughs,6 the rudimentary carpenterwork that supports the roof of the houses, and the doors that protect property against the inroads of robbers, and, in fine, the coarsest of household utensils, chests for the safekeeping of family treasures, milkbasins, and stools for the laborer to rest when fatigued. If the piety of His contemporaries had preserved even one of the products of His divine hand, what price would we not pay for a relic so precious? But at this epoch there was no suspicion of anything particular in His handiwork, and it was no more highly valued than that of an ordinary artisan. For the divine plan was to envelop Jesus in an almost impenetrable veil, until the time for the Messianic revelation should be come. The apocryphal writers relate how the young carpenter more than once miraculously repaired mistakes made by Joseph, who, in their opinion, was a workman of mediocrity and singularly inaccurate in his measurements; but these ridiculous stories have no historical value.7
Jesus' attitude toward His family was, on the contrary, according to St. Luke, one of most respectful subordination, of most filial deference. Joseph probably died at an early date; this accounts for his absence from the scenes of the evangelical ministry. Thus, even from the first disclosure that the Savior makes of His knowledge in the synagogue in Nazareth, His compatriots, in determining His identity, speak particularly of His mother. "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?" as given by St. Mark. To the Son, then, and perhaps prematurely, fell the duty of bearing the family burdens. However, it is not unlikely that after Joseph's death Jesus and Mary dwelt in the house of their nearest relative, His aunt, whose children have since been designated as His brothers and sisters. This family, which counted among its members James, Joseph, Jude, and Simon, were slow to understand the mission of their glorious relative, and their incredulity renders the repulses He meets with among His countrymen less surprising to the Savior.
Happily Mary's heart was enlightened by God's grace. In her alone, after Joseph's death, Jesus found a worthy echo of the emotions of His soul. He spoke with her of the past and of the future. The first virgin soil on which He cast the Gospel seed was His mother's heart.
Jesus's disposition was sweet, kind, generous, and, as St. Luke says, we can understand how He grew in favor with men as well as with God. We easily render homage to qualities of heart when we find them united to beauty of physical form. The charm of Jesus lay in the graciousness of His manners, the wisdom of His discourses, and the loftiness of His sentiments.
It is, in fact, inconceivable that the interior perfection of His nature should not shine forth, in spite of His desire to conceal His divine personality. There are certain emanations that the soul can never fully prevent. Jesus manifested them not only to men, but to all the beings of creation. We can easily picture Him strolling to the summit of one of the hills about Nazareth to sit there in meditation and in ecstasy, or to cast Himself upon His knees before His Heavenly Father in contemplation and adoration. To Him all things spoke a language as yet unintelligible to the rest of mankind; the sun that set in the blue waves of the sea, beyond the peaks of Carmel; the wind that blew down from the heights of Lebanon; the movement of the insect beneath the blade of grass, of the bird in the air, or of the man in the dale of Nazareth; the lily in its robe of white; the little birds in their nest suspended from the rocks above the torrent;8 the noisy games of the children on the hillsides;9 the sower scattering his grain in the furrow; all seemed to Him to be full of God, and His heart expanded in this religious contemplation of His Father's name as He beheld it inscribed on the works of nature. His soul, the sight of the universe, life in all its lofty forms, were the great book of earth whence He drew His human knowledge by the personal enlightenment of the Divine Word. Hence we must pity the efforts of critical science obstinately seeking in His words the echo of the theologians or of the sectarians of His time. He had nothing in common with them; all things serve to separate Him from their teaching.
As for the Pharisees, He must needs have detested their extreme exclusiveness, their hypocritical formalism, their puerile craftiness; He stood forth as their adversary; His religious conscience, broad and upright, made this a duty for Him. As for the Sadducees, He could not but despise the revolting materialism of their principles and the indecency of their moral and political theories. As for the Essenes, He repelled their ideas of fatalism, their empty dreams, their haughty separatism, their fierce asceticism. Holding aloof from all, He was simply Himself; and on the day appointed, His life, long restrained in the silence of reflection and prayer, fully nourished by God, with Whom He was in endless communion, suddenly broadened out strong in beauty and incomparable in its superhuman originality.
The thought of the Sacred Books, which seemed to have been His customary meditation, illumined His soul with new and unexpected light, and none has read the Old Testament as He read it Himself. There again and again He discovers Himself in prophetic symbols, as their true object and divine archetype. The title God of Abraham is to His observing mind an unexpected demonstration of the immortality of souls. In scrutinizing the law of Moses, He finds therein the intimate union of two laws, separated until then, which constitute the sole basis of all moral life: the love that rises up to God and the love that goes out to man. He grasped the true meaning of the Sabbath in the consideration that the Father is unceasingly and restlessly at work. When He speaks, all understand. They feel that He has set forth, in all their phases, the thoughts upon God, upon redemption, upon righteousness; He explains them at will. Incomparable as a teacher, He has a language that reaches all ages, all peoples, all conditions; whereas philosophers always speak the language of time, He has found the language of eternity.
This is what we know of the early life of Jesus. It is so meager that of four Evangelists two have made no mention of it, content to begin His history with His public career.
1 Hlikia means stature, physical development. Cf. Stephanus, Thesaurus Linguæ Græcæ.
2 St. Justin, C. Tryph., xiv, 36, etc.; Clement, Strom., ii, 440; Pæd., iii, 18; Tertul., De Carne Christi, 9: "Nec humanæ honestatis corpus fuit; nedum cælestis claritatis "; Origen, Contra Cels., vi, 75.
3 Nicephorus, H. E., 1, 40, and a reputed apocryphal letter of St. John Damascene, Ad Theoph. Imp. de venerandis Imag., says that Jesus was the living portrait of His mother. Majestic in His carriage, He stooped a little in His lofty height as He walked. His eyes were very beautiful; His blond hair fell in long curls upon His shoulders' ; His complexion was pale, of olive tint; His fingers long and slender; His deep expression was full of wisdom, patience, and goodness. The more precise details given in the Letter by Publius Lentulus, President of the People of Jerusalem (the meaning of this singular title is unknown), betray still more unmistakably a forger as inept as he is artless. This report, addressed to the Roman Senate, is found for the first time in a manuscript of the works of St. Anselm of the twelfth century. The date of its composition is unknown.
The bloody impress supposed to be left by Jesus's face on Veronica's veil and on Nicodemus's shroud (Niceph., H. E., ii, 7) or His radiant portrait outlined on the linen cloth with which He wiped His brow and sent to Abgar, King of Edessa, in place of the portrait which the artist, sent by the king, could not procure (Joann. Damase., in Moses Choron.), furnish no serious historical guarantee, and even less precision in definiteness and clearness of outline.
The statues of Jesus, one of which was fashioned by the "woman with the flow of blood" at Paneas (Eusebius, H. E., vii, 8), and the other which was set up along with the busts of Abraham, Orpheus, and Apollonius, in the oratory of Alexander Severna (Lampridius, Alex. Sev., 29), would, perhaps, if they still existed. be more satisfactory. But they are lost, and, moreover, we fear that the latter, which was fashioned quite late, between the years 208 and 235, would only correspond, like those of Abraham and Orpheus, to an ideal instead of representing a reality.
The most ancient paintings in the catacombs represent Jesus only symbolically under the parables of the Fish, the Lamb, the Good Shepherd. As for the portraits of Jesus properly so called, they are of the least primitive epoch, and at all events are merely the product of the artist's imagination.
It is known that the Gnostic sects loved to place the portrait of Jesus beside those of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle. They were supposed to be copies of an original due to Pilate: Iren., Hæres., i, 24; Philosoph., vii, 32. Two of these portraits have been discovered. It may be said that they have some historic truth. One of them, in. clay, represents Christ's profile, a young and beardless youth, with the inscription Cristos and the symbolic fish. The other, a sort of medallion, bears the name of Jesus in Hebrew and represents Our Lord with His hair parted on the brow, covering His ears and falling upon His shoulders. (See Milman, Hist. of Christianity, p.. 492.)
Christian art may seem to have been inspired from these sources in representing Christ always with head uncovered. It was free to do so; but we must not forget that it thereby places itself within the domain of the ideal and beyond all reality. In ancient times, as well as today, no inhabitant of Palestine went out of doors without some covering on the head, through necessity, on account of the burning sun, as well as out of regard for propriety. We believe Jesus did as all His contemporaries did, and wore the traditional coufyeh. Concerning the portraits of Jesus, see Jablowski, De origin. imag. Christi D. (Ludg. Batav., 1804); Jameson and Eastlake, The History of Our Lord, etc. (London, 1865).
4 Mark vi, 3.
5 Sepp, Life of Christ, part ii, ch. xix, and especially the interesting work of Delitzsch, La Vie de l'artisan chez les Juifs, more particularly § v: " Comment les études bibliques se cambinaient chez éux avec les arts manuels."
6 See Justin, Dial. c. Tryph., 88; Origen, c. Celsum, liv, vi, 36, where the Philosopher clumsily misunderstands the text of St. Mark vi, 3; Theodoret, H. E., iii, 18.
7 Cf. Protev., ch. ix and xiii; Ev. Thomæ, xiii; Ev. Infant. Arab., xxxviii, xxxix; Hist. Josephi Arab., ii and iv.
8 St. Matt. vi 29, etc.
9 St. Matt. xi, 15.
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