THE ORIGINALITY OF JESUS
"I make all things new."
- ReveIation xxi:5.
THE word "originality" does not occur in the New Testament, for no one in Palestine ever raised the question whether Jesus was original or not. Every one took it for granted that he was. Wherever he went the eyes of men opened wide. Judea had become a drowsy place, but Jesus by his teaching shook it out of its lethargy and sleep. Wherever he went men were stirred to fever heat by what they saw and by what they heard, and cried out in astonishment, "We have never seen it after this fashion." His teaching itself struck Jesusí contemporaries as novel. "A new teaching!" was the exclamation that followed many of his discourses. It was the opinion of his severest critics that no man had ever spoken as he was speaking. There was something in the manner as well as in the matter that arrested attention and threw a fresh light upon God and men. There had been many a teacher in Palestine, but not one of his predecessors had spoken with his accent. The common people observed at once that his manner was not the manner of the professional teacher of the land. He taught, them as one who possessed authority. The man himself, men soon saw, was different from other men then living. Sometimes they imagined he might indeed be one of the giants of the early centuries returned to the earth again., and at other times they could offer no explanation for his genius, simply exclaiming, "What manner of man is this!" It was because Jesus was different from all other men of his day and generation that he created a sensation that left the nation quivering. If he had repeated the old teachings in the old fashion, he would not have infuriated the Scribes and Pharisees, and brought about the tragedy of Golgotha. He was too original to be endurable, he advanced too many strange and revolutionary ideas to make it safe for the land to hold him; it was because he made all things new that they nailed him to the cross.
Strange to say, the world has come at last to question the originality of Jesus. This is one of the fiercely debated questions of our day. Numerous schools of Bible students have vigorously denied his originality, and with industry and ingenuity have demonstrated that everything he said had been said before, and that to the world of thought he has not contributed a single fresh idea. His language, even, so these men assert, is taken from the poets and the prophets, while every one of his conceptions can be found in the literature of earlier days. To make out their case these deniers of Jesusí originality have ransacked the Old Testament in search of phrases similar to those which Jesus used, and through all the extant writings of the ancient Rabbis they have made their way looking with keen and eager eyes for evidence that Jesusí best ideas were borrowed. Nor has the attention been confined to Hebrew literature alone. The sacred books of distant Oriental lands have been summoned to give their testimony to prove that this Hebrew prophet was after all a plagiarist or an echo. The supposition has been advanced that possibly at some time in his life Jesus may have traveled into India gathering up ideas there for the instruction of his people. According, therefore, to certain writers, Jesusí discourses are a patchwork of quotations. He was a repeater of the wisdom taught by men before his day, an imitator of illustrious orators and poets, a shrewd and talented eclectic who gathered together the gems of many minds and times and dazzled the world by the treasures which he had borrowed.
What shall we say to all this? Was Jesus really original? This subject of originality is always provocative of discussion. No man has ever claimed to be original whose claim has not been disputed. No genius has ever been placed among the thinkers of the world without stirring up a host of critics who have vehemently denied his right to a place there. Moliere is probably the most creative and inventive genius which France has yet produced, but there were Frenchmen in his day, and there have been Frenchmen since his day, who have declared that he stole half his works from the old bookstalls. Englandís most original poet is Shakespeare, but by his contemporaries he was accused of masquerading in the brilliant plumage of other birds, and there are those who, familiar with the French and Italian writings from which the English poet drew his material, are unwilling to concede the claim that his mind was indeed original. No American writer has been more suggestive than Ralph Waldo Emerson, but to many students of literature he is little more than a gleaner in the wide fields of thought, his essays being counted strings of gems borrowed from the kings Ė and queens of other lands and times.
Was Jesus then original? It depends on what you mean by originality. If to be original one must coin words never heard before and speak in phrases that no other tongue has ever used, then Jesus was not original. He coined no new words and many of his phrases have the flavor of the olden times. Nor was he the proclaimer of ideas that had never entered manís mind before. All his main ideas of God and the soul, of duty, and of destiny had been if not expanded in the writings of the Hebrew poets and prophets at least suggested there, and the principles of conduct which Jesus taught were for the most part the very principles which had been proclaimed by men of God before his day. This may be surprising to those who have not given the subject careful thought, but on reflection you will see that this is just what might reasonably have been expected. If there is a God who loves our race, it is incredible that no correct idea of Deity or the soul, of duty or of destiny, should have entered the human mind before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Sad indeed it would have been had Jesus, on coming to the earth, found no conceptions in menís minds which corresponded to the truth, and no feelings in their hearts which God could take delight in. The fact is that God has never left himself without a witness. The Son of God has always been in the world. He is the light that lights every man who is born. From the beginning he has been giving men right ideas and right feelings and helping them to reach right conclusions and decisions. We ought, therefore, to expect nothing in Jesusí teaching absolutely unthought of before his incarnation. We ought to expect to find just what we do find, that everything he taught had been anticipated, and that all his cardinal ideas had existed in germ in the writings of holy men who at divers times had been moved by the Holy Spirit. Jesus instead of suggesting ideas never before heard of, and expounding truths of which no man had ever conceived, picked up the ancient writings, declaring that they contain the word of the Almighty and that he had come to interpret their meaning and to fulfill what the poets and prophets had dreamed. He did not come to destroy the old ideas or the old truths. He came to fill full. There had been foreshadowings and anticipations and approximations, and now in the fullness of time God is going to speak His full-toned message through His Son.
It is at this point, then, that we are to look for the originality of Jesus. We shall not find it in his phrases or even in his conceptions, but rather in his emphasis and his manner of reading life and the world. He began by reading an old chapter in Isaiah, but he gave it an emphasis that it had never known before, the result being that it burst upon the congregation in Nazareth with the force of a fresh revelation. Men were reading the Scriptures, but they did not know which words to emphasize. Jesus understood. The result was that the Scripture became new. Religion is partly ceremony and partly ethics. Like all things else on earth, it must have a body and also a spirit. But the leaders of the Jewish church had forgotten the point of emphasis. Jesus knew. By emphasizing mercy instead of sacrifice he made religion new. Men had forgotten how to read the world. There were institutions and there were human beings, and the wisest men of Israel had forgotten which is most important, an institution or a man. Jesus threw the emphasis on the individual soul and by so doing opened a new epoch in the history of the world.
There was also an accent in his teaching which men had never heard before, not even in the voice of Moses or Elijah. It was the accent of assurance, certainty, authority. It is not the words that a man speaks, but the way in which he speaks them which determines their effect upon the life of the world. No such an accent as that of Jesus had ever before been heard in Palestine. There was never a quaver in his voice. In no discourse was there anything problematic. He never hesitated, speculated, made use of intonations that indicate a wavering mind. He was always positive, certain, infallible. "Verily, verily, I say unto you." Such was the manner of his speech, and it was a manner that he caught from none other.
The new accent and the new emphasis were the product of a new personality. No personality like that of Jesus had ever been encased in flesh before. He was a new man. Even Roman soldiers could feel that he was different from every other man they had ever known. He had all the faculties and passions of our common humanity, and yet no one had ever had them in the combination and in the strength in which they were found in him. Some one has said that in all schools of art an artist is praised not for what is different in him from others, but only for doing most strongly what all are endeavoring. Jesus was man completed. What a fullness of life there was in him! What a power he had. The world of nature responded to the gentlest touch of his fingertips. He was different from all other men that had ever been, and he said so. He lifted himself into a unique position and claimed for himself privileges and rights that he denied to all others. He claimed to be the light of the world, the bread of life, the water of life, the only good shepherd, the way, the truth, the life, the only mediator between God and man, the only one who knows deity completely and who can save the world from its sins. Here we strike something which is unique and in every sense original. No other man had ever spoken after this fashion either in Palestine or out of it. No language like this was ever heard in India or anywhere else. There is nothing even resembling this in the greatest of the Hebrew poets or prophets. It is when Jesus speaks of himself that we catch a note original in the music of our world. When you hear some one challenging the originality of Jesus and talking about the parallel passages to be found in the rabbinical writers, ask for a few parallel passages corresponding to the paragraphs in the Gospels in which Jesus declares what he is.
John, who knew him best, heard him saying, "Behold I make all things new." He could say this because he was new himself. Not having our infirmities and fears, our frailties and our sins, his eyes see things as ours do not see them, and his heart has feelings which we but dimly understand. He says, "Come unto me and I will make all things new!" He does it by giving us a changed attitude to life, by teaching us how to shift the emphasis from words unimportant to words important, and by showing us the insignificance of show and form compared with the qualities of a loving heart, by taking away our fears which stand round us like grim Kings of Night, and substituting in their places the angels of Faith and Hope, by striking off our fetters and bringing us into the light and liberty which belong to the sons of God. It is an original work, and only he can do it. He did it for Paul. Paul was a scholar and was familiar with those wonderful rabbinical writings in which certain modern scholars find such stores of treasures. But for some reason these wonderful writings even when taught by the greatest of rabbis did not reach the core of Paulís need, and he kept on crying, "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me front the body of this death?" And then one day he met Jesus, and behold, all things became new. From that day to the day of his death Paul urged men to put off the old man and to put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.
It may be that for some of you life has grown irksome and the world drab and commonplace. Life has lost its sparkle and its zest and the world is no longer to you what Charles Lamb said it was to him, "a very pretty place." The days are threadbare and everything has lost its bloom. What will you do? This is the wise thing to do: Go to Jesus and give yourself afresh to him. Sink your life deeper into his life and catch his ways of seeing things and serving God. Take his standpoint, assume his attitude, catch his emphasis, drink in the accent of his voice, and undoubtedly he will do for you what he did for Saul of Tarsus, and what he has done and is doing still for many Ė he will make all things new. He unifies human life and simplifies it and elevates it and transforms it and transfigures it, all because he is the Master and the Savior of the heart. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away Ė behold all things are become new."