On The Interpretation Of The New Testament: Voltaire

My Brethren:

There are in the New Testament, as there are in the Old, depths that we cannot sound, and sublimities that our poor reason can never attain. I do not propose here either to reconcile the gospels, which seem to contradict each other at times, or to explain mysteries which, by the very fact that they are mysteries, must be inexplicable. Let those who are more learned than I discuss whether the Holy Family betook itself to Egypt after the massacre of the children at Bethlehem, as Matthew says, or remained in Judæa, as Luke says; let them seek if the father of Joseph was named Jacob, his grandfather Matthan, and his great-grandfather Eleazar, or if his great-grandfather was Levi, his grandfather Matthat, and his father Heli. Let them settle this genealogical tree according to their light; it is a study that I respect. I know not if it would enlighten my mind, but I do know that it cannot speak to my heart. Paul the Apostle tells us himself, in his first epistle to Timothy, that we must not trouble ourselves about genealogies. We will not be any the better for knowing precisely who were the ancestors of Joseph, in what year Jesus was born, and whether James was his brother or his cousin. What will it profit us to consult what remains of the Roman annals to see if Augustus really did order a census of all the peoples of the earth when Mary was pregnant with Jesus, Quirinus governor of Syria, and Herod king of Judæa? Quirinus, whom Luke calls Cyrenius, was (the learned say) not governor in the time of Herod, but of Archelaus, ten years later; and Augustus never ordered a census of the Roman Empire.

We are told that the Epistle to the Hebrews, attributed to Paul, was not written by Paul; that neither Revelation nor the Gospel of John was written by John; that the first chapter of this gospel was evidently written by a Greek Platonist; that the book could not possibly come from a Jew; and that no Jew could ever have made Jesus say: “I give you a new commandment: that you love each other.” This commandment, they say, was certainly not new. It is given expressly, and in even stronger terms, in the laws of Leviticus: “Thou shalt love thy God above all things, and thy neighbour as thyself.” Such a man as Jesus Christ—a man learned in the law, who confounded the doctors at the age of twelve, and was ever speaking of the law—could not be ignorant of the law; and his beloved disciple could not possibly have charged him with so palpable a mistake.

Let us not be troubled, my brethren. Let us remember that Jesus spoke a dialect, half Syrian and half Phœnician, that was hardly intelligible to Greeks; that we have the Gospel of John only in Greek; that this gospel was written more than fifty years after the death of Jesus; that the copyists may easily have altered the text; and that it is more probable that the text ran, “I give you a commandment that is not new,” than that it said: “I give you a new commandment.” Let us return to our great principle. The precept is good; it is our duty to fulfil it as well as we may, whether or no Zoroaster was the first to announce it, and Moses copied it, and Jesus renewed it.

Shall we penetrate into the thickest darkness of antiquity to learn whether the darkness which covered the whole earth at the death of Jesus was due to an eclipse of the sun at a time of full moon, whether an astronomer named Phlegon, whom we have no longer, spoke of this phenomenon, or if any one ever saw the star of the three wise men? These are difficulties that may very well interest an antiquarian; but he will not have spent in good works the precious time he devotes to the clearing-up of this chaos; and he will end with more doubt than piety. My brethren, the man who shares his bread with the poor is better than he who has compared the Hebrew text with the Greek, and both of them with the Samaritan.

All that relates to history only gives rise to a thousand disputes; what concerns our duties gives rise to none. You will never understand how the devil took God into the desert; how he tempted him for forty days; or how he carried him to the top of a hill from which he could see all the kingdoms of the world. The devil offering all these things to God will greatly shock you. You will seek the mystery that is hidden in these things, and so many others, and your mind will be fatigued  in vain. Every word will plunge you into uncertainty, and the anguish of a restless curiosity which can never be satisfied. But if you confine your attention to morals the storm will pass, and you will rest in the bosom of virtue.

I venture to flatter myself, my brethren, that if the greatest enemies of the Christian religion were to listen to us in this secluded temple, in which the love of virtue brings us together; if Lord Herbert, Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Bolingbroke, Tindal, Toland, Collins, Whiston, Trenchard, Gordon, and Swift were to witness our gentle and innocent simplicity, they would have less disdain and repugnance for us. They cease not to reproach us with an absurd fanaticism. We are not fanatical in belonging to the religion of Jesus. He worshipped one God, as we do; he despised empty ceremonies, as we do. No gospel has said that his mother was the mother of God, or that he was consubstantial with God. In no gospel will you find that the disciples of Jesus should arrogate the title of “Holy Father,” or “My Lord,” or that a priest who lives at Lambeth should have an income of two thousand a year while so many useful tillers of the soil have hardly the seed for the three or four acres they water with their tears.

The gospel did not say to the bishops of Rome: Forge a donation of Constantine in order to seize the city of the Scipios and Cæsars and become sovereigns of Naples. It did not urge the bishops of Germany to profit by a time of anarchy to invade half of Germany. Jesus was a poor man preaching to the poor. What should we say of the followers of Penn and Fox, those enemies of pomp  and friends of peace, if they bore golden mitres on their heads and were surrounded by soldiers; if they grasped the substance of the peoples; if they would give orders to kings; if their satellites, with executioners in their train, were to cry out at the top of their voices, “Foolish nations, believe in Fox and Penn, or you will die in torment”?

You know better than I what a fatal contrast the ages have witnessed between the humility of Jesus and the pride of those who have assumed his name; between their avarice and his poverty, their debauches and his chastity, his submissiveness and their bloody tyranny.

I confess, my brethren, that no word of his has made such an impression on me as that which he spoke to those who were so brutal as to strike him before he was led to execution: “If I have spoken well, why do you strike me?” That is what ought to be said to all persecutors. If my opinion differs from yours on things that it is impossible to understand; if I see the mercy of God where you would see only his power; if I have said that all the disciples of Jesus were equal, while you have thought it your duty to trample on them; if I have worshipped God alone while you have given him associates; if I have spoken ill in differing from you, bear witness of the evil; and if I have spoken well, why do you heap on me your insults and epithets? Why do you persecute me, cast me in irons, deliver me to torture and flames, and insult me even after my death? If, indeed, I had spoken ill, it was yours only to pity and instruct me. You are confident that you are infallible, that your opinion is divine, that the gates of hell will never prevail against it, that the whole world will one day embrace your opinion, that the world will be subject to you, and that you will rule from Mount Atlas to the islands of Japan. How, then, can my opinion hurt you? You do not fear me, and you persecute me! You despise me, and do away with me!

What reply can we make, my brethren, to these modest and forceful reproaches? Only the reply of the wolf to the lamb, “You have disturbed the water that I drink.” Thus have men treated each other—the gospel in one hand and sword in the other; preaching disinterestedness and accumulating treasures, praising humility and walking on the heads of prostrate princes, recommending mercy and shedding human blood.

If these barbarians find in the gospel any parable that may be distorted in their favour by fraudulent interpretation, they fasten upon it as an anvil on which they may forge their murderous weapons.

Is there a word about two swords hung above a wall? They arm themselves at once with a hundred swords. It is said that a king has killed his fatted beasts, compelled the blind and the lame to come to his feast, and cast into outer darkness him who had no wedding garment; is that, my brethren, a reason that justifies them in putting you in prison like this guest, tearing your limbs asunder on the rack, plucking out your eyes to make you blind like those who were dragged to the feast, or slaying you as the king slew his fatted beasts? Yet it is to such equivocal passages that men have so often appealed for the right to desolate a large part of the earth.

Those terrible words, “Not peace, but a sword, I bring unto you,” have caused more Christians to perish than ambition has ever sacrificed.

The scattered and unhappy Jews are consoled in their wretchedness when they see us always fighting each other from the earliest days of Christianity, always at war in public or in secret, persecuted or persecuting, oppressed or oppressing. They are united, and they laugh at our interminable quarrels. It seems that we have been concerned only in avenging them.

Wretches that we are, we insult the pagans, yet they never knew our theological quarrels; they have never shed a drop of blood for the interpretation of a dogma, and we have flooded the earth with it. In the bitterness of my heart I say to you: Jesus was persecuted, and whoever shares his thoughts will be persecuted. What was Jesus in the eyes of men, who could assuredly have no suspicion of his divinity? A good man who, having been born in poverty, spoke to the poor in opposition to the superstitions of the rich Pharisees and the insolent priests—the Socrates of Galilee. You know how he said to these Pharisees, “Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat and swallow a camel! Woe unto you, for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within you are full of extortion and excess” (Matthew xxiii.).

He often calls them “whitened sepulchres” and “race of vipers.” They were, nevertheless, men of some dignity, and they avenged themselves by his  death. Arnold of Brescia, John Huss, and Jerome of Prague said much less than this to the pontiffs of their time, and they, too, were put to death. Never tilt against the ruling superstition, unless you be powerful enough to withstand it, or clever enough to escape its pursuit. The fable of Our Lady of Loretto is more extravagant than all Ovid’s metamorphoses, it is true: the miracle of St. Januarius at Naples is more ridiculous than the miracle of Egnatia, mentioned by Horace, I agree. But say aloud at Naples or Loretto what you think of these absurdities, and it will cost you your life. It is not so among certain enlightened nations. There the people have their errors, though they are less gross; and the least superstitious people are always the most tolerant.

Cast off all superstition, and be more humane. But when you speak against fanaticism, anger not the fanatics; they are delirious invalids, who would assault their physicians. Let us make their ways more gentle, not aggravate them. And let us instil, drop by drop, into their souls that divine balm of tolerance which they would reject with horror if offered to them in full.

SOURCE: Voltaire, Toleration and Other Essays [1755]