THE BOYHOOD OF JESUS.
THE physical geography of Palestine is, perhaps, more distinctly marked than that of any other country in the world. Along the shore of the Mediterranean runs the Shephelah and the maritime plain, broken only by the bold spur of Mount Carmel; parallel to this is a long range of hills, for the most part rounded and featureless in their character; these, on their eastern side, plunge into the deep declivity of El Ghôr, the Jordan valley; and beyond the Jordan valley runs the straight, unbroken, purple line of the mountains of Moab and Gilead. Thus the character of the country from north to south may be represented by four parallel bandsthe Sea-board, the Hill country, the Jordan valley, and the Trans-Jordanic range.
The Hill country, which thus occupies the space between the low maritime plain and the deep Jordan valley, falls into two great masses, the continuity of the low mountain-range being broken by the plain of Jezreel. The southern mass of those limestone hills formed the land of Judæa; the northern, the land of Galilee.
Gâlîl, in Hebrew, means "a circle," and the name was originally applied to the twenty cities in the circuit of Kedesh-Naphtali, which Solomon gave to Hiram in return for his services in transporting timber, and to which Hiram, in extreme disgust, applied the name of Cabûl, or "disgusting." Thus it seems to have been always the destiny of Galilee to be despised; and that contempt was likely to be fostered in the minds of the Jews from the fact that this district became, from very early days, the residence of a mixed population, and was distinguished as "Galilee of the Gentiles." Not only were there many Phœnicians and Arabs in the cities of Galilee, but, in the time of our Lord, there were also many Greeks, and the Greek language was currently spoken and understood.
The hills which form the northern limit of the plain of Jezreel run almost due east and west from the Jordan valley to the Mediterranean, and their southern slopes were in the district assigned to the tribe of Zebulun.
Almost in the centre of this chain of hills there is a singular cleft in the limestone, forming the entrance to a little valley. As the traveller leaves the plain he will ride up a steep and narrow pathway, broidered with grass and flowers, through scenery which is neither colossal nor overwhelming, but infinitely beautiful and picturesque. Beneath him, on the right hand side, the vale will gradually widen, until it becomes about a quarter of a mile in breadth. The basin of the valley is divided by hedges of cactus into little fields and gardens, which, about the fall of the spring rains, wear an aspect of indescribable calm, and glow with a tint of the richest green. Beside the narrow pathway, at no great distance apart from each other, are two wells, and the women who draw water there are more beautiful, and the ruddy, bright-eyed shepherd-boys who sit or play by the wellsides, in their gay-coloured Oriental costume, are a happier, bolder, brighter-looking race than the traveller will have seen elsewhere. Gradually the valley opens into a little natural amphitheatre of hills, supposed by some to be the crater of an extinct volcano; and there, clinging to the hollows of a hill, which rises to the height of some five hundred feet above it, lie, "like a handful of pearls in a goblet of emerald," the flat roofs and narrow streets of a little Eastern town. There is a small church: the massive buildings of a convent; the tall minaret of a mosque; a clear, abundant fountain; houses built of white stone, and gardens scattered among them, umbrageous with figs and olives, and rich with the white and scarlet blossoms of orange and pomegranate. In spring, at least, everything about the place looks indescribably bright and soft; doves murmur in the trees; the hoopoe flits about in ceaseless activity; the bright blue roller-bird, the commonest and loveliest bird of Palestine, flashes like a living sapphire over fields which are enamelled with innumerable flowers. And that little town is En Nâzirah, Nazareth, where the Son of God, the Saviour of mankind, spent nearly thirty years of His mortal life. It was, in fact, His home, His native village for all but three or four years of His life on earth; the village which lent its then ignominious name to the scornful title written upon His cross; the village from which he did not disdain to draw His appellation when he spake in vision to the persecuting Saul. And along the narrow mountain-path which I have described, His feet must have often trod, for it is the only approach by which, in returning northwards from Jerusalem, He could have reached the home of his infancy, youth, and manhood.
What was His manner of life during those thirty years? It is a question which the Christian cannot help asking in deep reverence, and with yearning love; but the words in which the Gospels answer it are very calm and very few.
Of the four Evangelists, St. John, the beloved disciple, and St. Mark, the friend and "son" of St. Peter, pass over these thirty years in absolute, unbroken silence. St. Matthew devotes one chapter to the visit of the Magi and the Flight into Egypt, and then proceeds to the preaching of the Baptist. St. Luke alone, after describing the incidents which marked the presentation in the Temple, preserves for us one inestimable anecdote of the Saviour's boyhood, and one inestimable verse descriptive of His growth till He was twelve years old. And that verse contains nothing for the gratification of our curiosity; it furnishes us with no details of life, no incidents of adventure; it tells us only how, in a sweet and holy childhood, "the child grew and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon Him." To this period of His life, too, we may apply the subsequent verse, "And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man." His development was a strictly human development. He did not come into the world endowed with infinite knowledge, but, as St. Luke tells us, "He gradually advanced in wisdom." He was not clothed with infinite power, but experienced the weaknesses and imperfections of human infancy. He grew as other children grew, only in a childhood of stainless and sinless beauty"as the flower of roses in the spring of the year, and as lilies by the waters."
There is, then, for the most part a deep silence in the Evangelists respecting this period; but what eloquence in their silence! May we not find in their very reticence a wisdom and an instruction more profound than if they had filled many volumes with minor details?
In the first place, we may see in this their silence a signal and striking confirmation of their faithfulness. We may learn from it that they desired to tell the simple truth, and not to construct an astonishing or plausible narrative. That Christ should have passed thirty years of His brief life in the deep obscurity of a provincial village that He should have been brought up not only in a conquered land, but in its most despised province; not only in a despised province, but in its most disregarded valley; that during all those thirty years the ineffable brightness of His divine nature should have tabernacled among us, "in a tent like ours, and of the same material," unnoticed and unknown; that during those long years there should have been no flash of splendid circumstance, no outburst of amazing miracle, no "sevenfold chorus of hallelujahs and harping symphonies" to announce, and reveal, and glorify the coming Kingthis is not what we should have expectednot what any one would have been likely to imagine or to invent.
We should not have expected it, but it was so; and therefore the Evangelists leave it so; and the very fact of its contradicting all that we should have imagined is an additional proof that so it must have been. An additional proof, because the Evangelists must inevitably have beenas, indeed, we knew that they wereactuated by the same à priori anticipations as ourselves; and had there been any glorious circumstances attending the boyhood of our Lord, they, as honest witnesses, would certainly have told us of them; and had they not been honest witnesses, they wouldif none such occurred in realityhave most certainly invented them. But man's ways are not as God's ways; and because the truth which by their very silence the Evangelists record is a revelation to us of the ways of God, and not of man, therefore it contradicts what we should have invented; it disappoints what, without further enlightenment, we should have desired. But, on the other hand, it fulfils the ideal of ancient prophecy, "He shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and us a root out of a dry ground;" and it is in accordance with subsequent allusion, "He made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant."
We have only to turn to the Apocryphal Gospels, and we shall find how widely different is the false human ideal from the divine fact. There we shall see how, following their natural and unspiritual bent, the fabulists of Christendom, whether heretical or orthodox, surround Christ's boyhood with a blaze of miracle, make it portentous, terror-striking, unnatural, repulsive. It is surely an astonishing proof that the Evangelists were guided by the Spirit of God in telling how He lived in whom God was revealed to man, when we gradually discover that no profane, no irreverent, even no imaginative hand can touch the sacred outlines of that divine and perfect picture without degrading and distorting it. Whether the Apocryphal writers meant their legends to be accepted as history or as fiction, it is at least certain that in most cases they meant to weave around the brows of Christ a garland of honour. Yet how do their stories dwarf, and dishonour, and misinterpret Him! How infinitely superior is the noble simplicity of that evangelic silence to all the theatrical displays of childish and meaningless omnipotence with which the Protevangelium, and the Pseudo-Matthew, and the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy are full! They meant to honour Christ; but no invention can honour Him; he who invents about Him degrades Him; he mixes the weak, imperfect, erring fancies of man with the unapproachable and awful purposes of God. The boy Christ of the Gospels is simple and sweet, obedient and humble; He is subject to His parents; He is occupied solely with the quiet duties of His home and of His age; He loves all men, and all men love the pure, and gracious, and noble child. Already He knows God as His Father, and the favour of God falls on Him softly as the morning sun-light or the dew of heaven, and plays like an invisible aureole round His infantile and saintly brow. Unseen, save in the beauty of heaven, but yet covered with silver wings, and with its feathers like gold, the Spirit of God descended like a dove, and rested from infancy upon the Holy Child.
But how different is the boy Christ of the New Testament Apocrypha! He is mischievous, petulant, forward, revengeful. Some of the marvels told of Him are simply aimless and puerileas when He carries the spilt water in His robe; or pulls the short board to the requisite length; or moulds sparrows of clay, and then claps His hand to make them fly; or throws all the cloth into the dyer's vat, and then draws them out each stained of the requisite colour. But some are, on the contrary, simply distasteful and inconsiderate, as when He vexes and shames and silences those who wish to teach Him; or rebukes Joseph; or turns His playmates into kids: and others are simply cruel and blasphemous, as when He strikes dead with a curse the boys who offend or run against Him, until at last there is a storm of popular indignation, and Mary is afraid to let Him leave the house. In a careful search through all these heavy, tasteless, and frequently pernicious fictions, I can find but one anecdote in which there is a touch of feeling or possibility of truth; and this alone I will quote, because it is at any rate harmless, and it is quite conceivable that it may rest upon some slight basis of traditional fact. It is from the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, and runs as follows:
"Now in the month of Adar, Jesus assembled the boys as if He were their king; they strewed their garments on the ground, and He sat upon them. Then they put on His head a crown wreathed of flowers, and, like attendants waiting upon a king, they stood in order before Him on His right hand and on His left. And whoever passed that way the boys took him by force, crying, 'Come hither and adore the King, and then proceed upon thy way.'"
Yet I am not sure that the sacredness of the evangelic silence is not rudely impaired even by so simple a fancy as this: for it was in utter stillness, in prayerfulness, in the quiet round of daily dutieslike Moses in the wilderness, like David among the sheep-folds, like Elijah among the tents of the Bedawîn, like Jeremiah in his quiet home at Anathoth, like Amos in the sycamore groves of Tekoathat the boy Jesus prepared Himself, amid a hallowed obscurity, for His mighty work on earth. His outward life was the life of all those of His age, and station, and place of birth. He lived as lived the other children of peasant parents in that quiet town, and in great measure as they live now. He who has seen the children of Nazareth in their red caftans, and bright tunics of silk or cloth, girded with a many-coloured sash, and sometimes covered with a loose outer jacket of white or bluehe who has watched their noisy and merry games, and heard their ringing laughter as they wander about the hills of their little native vale, or play in bands on the hill-side beside their sweet and abundant fountain, may perhaps form some conception of how Jesus looked and played when He too was a child. And the traveller who has followed any of those childrenas I have doneto their simple homes, and seen the scanty furniture, the plain but sweet and wholesome food, the uneventful, happy patriarchal life, may form a vivid conception of the manner in which Jesus lived. Nothing can be plainer than those houses, with the doves sunning themselves on the white roofs, and the vines wreathing about them. The mats, or carpets, are laid loose along the walls; shoes and sandals are taken off at the threshold; from the centre hangs a lamp which forms the only ornament of the room; in some recess in the wall is placed the wooden chest, painted with bright colours, which contains the books or other possessions of the family; on a ledge that runs round the wall, within easy reach, are neatly rolled up the gay-coloured quilts, which serve as beds, and on the same ledge are ranged the earthen vessels for daily use; near the door stand the large common water-jars of red clay with a few twigs and green leavesoften of aromatic shrubsthrust into their orifices to keep the water cool. At meal-time a painted wooden stool is placed in the centre of the apartment, a large tray is put upon it, and in the middle of the tray stands the dish of rice and meat, or libbân, or stewed fruits, from which all help themselves in common. Both before and after the meal the servant, or the youngest member of the family, pours water over the hands from a brazen ewer into a brazen bowl. So quiet, so simple, so humble, so uneventful was the outward life of the family of Nazareth.
The reverent devotion and brilliant fancy of the early mediaeval painters have elaborated a very different picture. The gorgeous pencils of a Giotto and a Fra Angelico have painted the Virgin and her Child seated on stately thrones, upon floors of splendid mosaic, under canopies of blue and gold; they have robed them in colours rich as the hues of summer or delicate as the flowers of spring, and fitted the edges of their robes with golden embroidery, and clasped them with priceless gems. Far different was the reality. When Joseph returned to Nazareth he knew well that they were going into seclusion as well as into safety; and that the life of the Virgin and the Holy Child would be spent, not in the full light of notoriety or wealth, but in secrecy, in poverty, and in manual toil.
Yet this poverty was not pauperism; there was nothing in it either miserable or abject; it was sweet, simple, contented, happy, even joyous. Mary, like others of her rank, would spin, and cook food, and go to buy fruit, and evening by evening visit the fountain, still called after her "the Virgin's fountain," with her pitcher of earthenware carried on her shoulder or her head. Jesus would play, and learn, and help His parents in their daily tasks, and visit the synagogues on the Sabbath days. "It is written," says Luther, "that there was once a pious godly bishop, who had often earnestly prayed that God would manifest to him what Jesus had done in His youth. Once the bishop had a dream to this effect. He seemed in his sleep to see a carpenter working at his trade, and beside him a little boy who was gathering up chips. Then came in a maiden clothed in green, who called them both to come to the meal, and set porridge before them. All this the bishop seemed to see in his dream, himself standing behind the door that he might not be perceived. Then the little boy began and said, "Why does that man stand there? shall he not also eat with us?" And this so frightened the bishop that he awoke." "Let this be what it may," adds Luther, "a true history or a fable, I none the less believe that Christ in His childhood and youth looked and acted like other children yet without sin, in fashion like a man."
St. Matthew tells us, that in the settlement of the Holy Family at Nazareth, was fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophets, "He shall he called a Nazarene." It is well-known that no such passage occurs in any extant prophecy. If the name implied a contemptuous dislikeas may be inferred from the proverbial question of Nathanael, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?"then St. Matthew may be summing up in that expression the various prophecies so little understood by his nation, which pointed to the Messiah as a man of sorrows. And certainly to this day "Nazarene" has continued to be a term of contempt. The Talmudists always speak of Jesus as "Ha-nozeri;" Julian is said to have expressly decreed that Christians should be called by the less honourable appellation of Galilæans; and to this day the Christians of Palestine are known by no other title than Nusâra. But the explanation which refers St. Matthew's allusion to those passages of prophecy in which Christ is called "the Branch" (nêtser) seems far more probable. The village may have derived this name from no other circumstance than its abundant foliage; but the Old Testament is full of proofs that the Hebrewswho in philology accepted the views of the Analogistsattached immense and mystical importance to mere resemblances in the sound of words. To mention but one single instance, the first chapter of the prophet Micah turns almost entirely on such merely external similarities in what, for lack of a better term, I can only call the physiological quantity of sounds. St. Matthew, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, would without any hesitation have seen a prophetic fitness in Christ's residence at this town of Galilee, because its name recalled the title by which He was addressed in the prophecy of Isaiah.
"Shall the Christ come out of Galilee?" asked the wondering people. "Search and look!" said the Rabbis to Nicodemus, "for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet" (John vii. 41, 52). It would not have needed very deep searching or looking to find that these words were ignorant or false; for not to speak of Barak the deliverer, and Elon the judge, and Anna the prophetess, three, if not four, of the prophetsand those prophets of the highest eminence, Jonah, Elijah, Hosea, and Nahumhad been born, or had exercised much of their ministry, in the precincts of Galilee. And in spite of the supercilious contempt with which it was regarded, the little town of Nazareth, situated as it was in a healthy and secluded valley, yet close upon the confines of great nations, and in the centre of a mixed population, was eminently fitted to be the home of our Saviour's childhood, the scene of that quiet growth "in wisdom, and stature, and favour with God and man."