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THE CONSISTENCY OF THE GOSPELS.
histories beyond all controversy. Their authors have related a number of incidents in the briefest and most sketchy manner, unaccompanied by comments, and with no special regard to any sort of order, even to the order of time. So true is this that there is hardly any thing more difficult to determine than the precise period occupied by the events which they relate. And yet by means of these incidents, thus carelessly strung together, we come at distinct, harmonious ideas of the persons presented in the scene. In this respect, these narratives resemble those curious pictures that we sometimes see, which at first view appear to be nothing more than representations of landscapes, composed of trees, rocks and ruins. But on closer inspection, we discover that the objects depicted are so grouped as to form complete and symmetrical figures, in attitudes of life, grace, and motion. And this effect is so successful that although not obvious, yet when once perceived, it can hardly by any effort be lost sight of. Only in the case of these histories, the several forms of moral life resulting from the incidents related are, let me repeat, produced wholly without design. The writers betray no sort of suspicion of what they were doing.
That this harmony of character should have been the work of accident or cunning is entirely out of the question. Material objects, or the representations of material objects, may be so put together as to form momentary and chance resemblances of living forms and features. The fantastic combinations of the clouds of a summer sunset may present the rude appearance of a castle, a warrior, or some huge animal; and this only for a little while.
"That, which is now a horse, even with a thought,
As water is in water."
But those occurrences must have an existence in truth whose keeping is so natural as to create in the most natural manner in our minds individual and complete and permanent ideas of intellectual and moral life. From a mere disjointed collection of falsehoods and fables such a result could never flow. They might be circumstantially, but they never could be morally and intellectually consistent.
Does it not constitute the chief miraculousness of the genius of Shakspeare, that adopting a form of composition, the Dramatic, which allows little or no room for the direct and elaborate delineation of character, he has been able somewhat in the way now referred to, to construct spiritual forms consistent with themselves and standing out individually before us, through the words they are made to speak, and the scenes, acts, and sufferings in which they are represented as concerned. But even in the case of Shakspeare's creations, the moral consistency which renders them so wonderful is wrought out, not indeed with any apparent labour on the part of the artist, but only by means of numerous and diversified illustrations. The characters, which his genius creates and inspires, are made to do and to bear and to say much in order to their full unfolding. Whereas, in the New Testament histories, character is developed, as we shall see, by the briefest word and the slightest incident, and if they are fictions, then as works of genius, they leave the productions of Shakspeare as far behind as these excel all others.
Without farther preliminary remark, I proceed to illustrate my meaning by examples, the consideration of which will suggest appropriate reflections.
There are two females, Mary and Martha, mentioned three or four times very briefly in the course of these narratives. Once, as we read, Jesus "went to
MARY AND MARTHA.
a certain village, and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus' feet and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered with much serving, and came to him and said, 'Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone, bid her therefore that she help me.' And Jesus answered, and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. But one thing is needful. and Mary hath chosen that good part that shall not be taken away from her."" Again these two sisters are mentioned more particularly in the account of the raising of Lazarus. They are introduced once more in the next chapter of John, where we are told that Mary came and poured very precious ointment upon Jesus, while he sat at meat.
Now, there is no attempt to describe the distinctive qualities of these two individuals. They occupy only a small place in the scene. They appear before us but for a moment at a time, and they say and do but little. And yet they stand out with wonderful distinctness. Their images are not blended and intermixed. Their characteristic features are unveiled in the most incidental manner-by a word; a breath lifts the veil, and their faces once seen are never to be confounded.
From the first notice of them we gather that Martha was possessed of an active, matter-of-fact temperament, and that if not by age, by right of her peculiar character, she took the lead in household concerns. She set herself immediately at work to provide an ample entertainment for her beloved guest, and had so little sympathy with Mary, so imperfect an appreciation of the real greatness of Jesus, so little of the sensibility whch was so prominent in her sister, that she complained of Mary, and invoked the authority of Jesus, to
MARY AND MARTHA.
obtain her sister's aid in her domestic labours.
the reader, now, to mark the beautiful correspondence of the other notices of the sisters with their characters thus incidentally developed.
When, upon the death of Lazarus, their brother, Jesus approached Bethany, the village where they dwelt, and the rumour of his coming preceded him, it was Martha that first heard it, and went forth to meet him. Mary sat still in the house. Martha, we may suppose, was engaged in the active concerns of the household. How naturally the report of the approach of Jesus came to her ears first! Mary, with her greater tenderness of mind, was in a retired part of the house. The custom of the age and country allowed the afflicted to spend seven days in the indulgence of grief, and in receiving visits of condolence. With the disposition of Mary this custom harmonised, and she naturally availed herself of it. On any other occasion -under any other circumstances, Mary, we may suppose, would have been the first to hasten to meet Jesus. As it was, Martha went first, because she first heard that he was coming. Mary went as soon as she was informed of his approach. If Mary had heard that Jesus was coming, before she learned it from Martha, then her friends from Jerusalem, who were with her, must have known it also, and they would have suspected whither she was going, and not have supposed that she was going to the grave to weep there.
And then how characteristic the manner in which the sisters meet their venerated Friend. They both addressed him in the same words, and the coincidence is very natural, because the thought which they expressed must have been continually uppermost in their minds. They had perhaps said the same thing to each other and to themselves a thousand times. "If thou
MARY AND MARTHA.
hadst been here, my brother had not died!"* But while Martha was able to enter into conversation with Jesus, unembarrassed by her feelings, Mary as soon as she saw him uttered a few words, and then fell at his feet in an agony of tears.
When he directed the stone to be removed from the mouth of the sepulchre, observe it is Martha, and not Mary, who interferes, questioning the propriety of the direction, and betraying the coarse turn of her mind; "Lord! by this time he is offensive, for he hath been dead four days!" Such a suggestion, we perceive, came naturally from her. Mary's reverence for Jesus was too profound to permit her to object to any thing he might propose. While Martha, constitutionally incapable of as deep a feeling, presumed to speak as if he knew not what he was doing.
We have only one mention more of Mary and Martha. Shortly after Lazarus had been raised from the dead, Jesus again visited Bethany. Martha served. But Mary brought a quantity of costly ointment and poured it upon his person.'t By this act, she simply intended to express her personal reverence for Jesus. How like herself is the attitude in which she is here represented! Perfumes and ointments formed a part of the offices of hospitality. But the use of an ointment so precious was a mark of extraordinary respect, and showed how deeply Mary reverenced Jesus.
Let the incidents just briefly specified be pondered well. Mark their exceeding brevity, and the accidental manner in which they are introduced. And yet how
*This coincidence is no slight evidence of the unsuspecting integrity of the narrator. If the story were fictitious, its author would scarcely have ventured, without some explanation, to put the same words into the mouths of the sisters, as it would certainly appear at first sight to want verisimilitude. † See Chap. X. Part II.