But the champions of this theory may admit all this, and yet fasten the delusion upon the disciples of Christ, who were so dazzled by his character, words, and works, that they mistook an extraordinary man for a divine being, and extraordinary medical cures for supernatural miracles.
This is the view of the older German Rationalism.75 It forms a parallel to the heathen rationalism of Euhemerus, of the Cyrenaic school: he explained the gods of the Greek mythology as human sages, heroes, kings, and tyrants, whose superior knowledge or great deeds secured them divine honors, or the hero-worship of posterity.76
The rationalistic explanation, after having been tried first, by Eichhorn and others, with the miracles of the Old Testament, was fully developed and applied to the gospel-history, with an unusual degree of patient and painstaking learning and acumen, by the late professor H. E. G. Paulus, of Heidelberg.77 This German Euhemerus takes the gospel-history as actual history; but, by a critical separation of what he calls fact from what he calls judgment of the actor or narrator, he explains it exclusively from natural causes, and thus brings it down to the level of everyday experience. In other words, the supernatural events related by the evangelists, and honestly believed by them, are erroneous conceptions and innocent amplifications of historical facts which fall within the sphere of the laws of nature. Sometimes the fault lies only in the reader or interpreter, and the supposed miracle turns out to be a grammatical blunder; as, for example, when Christ's walking epi tes thalasses (Matt. xiv.25), which means simply his walking on the bank of the sea, or on the high shore above the sea, -- a very easy and natural performance indeed! -- is turned into a walking on the sea, or over the sea.78
This interpretation, however, which claims to be "natural," turns out to be very unnatural, and commits innumerable sins against the context, the laws of hermeneutics, and against common sense itself. To prove this, it is only necessary to give some specimens from the exegesis of Paulus and his school. The glory of the Lord, which, in the night of his birth, shone around the shepherds of Jerusalem, was simply an ignis fatuus, or a meteor, or a lantern which was flashed in their eyes. The miracle at Christ's baptism may be easily reduced to thunder and lightning, and a sudden disappearance of the clouds. The tempter in the wilderness was a cunning Pharisee, and was only mistaken by the evangelists for the devil, who does not exist, except in the imagination of the superstitious. The supposed miraculous cures of the Saviour turn out, on closer examination, to be simply deeds either of philanthropy, or medical skill, or good luck: thus the healing of the blind was accomplished through an efficacious powder applied to the eye, -- a circumstance which was unnoticed by the miracle-loving reporters. The coin for the payment of tribute was to be obtained by Peter, not in the mouth of the fish, but by selling the fish in the market. The changing of water into wine was an innocent and benevolent wedding-joke; and the delusion of the company, by the sudden appearance of the wine previously provided by the disciples, must be charged on the twilight, not upon Christ. The miraculous feeding of the five thousand is easily explained by secret magazines, or by provisions which the people brought with them in their pockets, -- Jesus, like a true philanthropist, advising the rich to share their abundance with the poor. The daughter of Jairus, the youth of Nain, Lazarus,. and Jesus himself, were raised, not from real death, but simply from a trance or swoon; and the angels of the resurrection were nothing more nor less than the white linen cloths which the pious mistook for celestial beings. And, finally, the ascension of the Lord resolves itself into his sudden disappearance behind a cloud that accidentally intervened between him and his disciples!
And yet these very evangelists, who, according to this most unnatural "natural exegesis," must have been destitute of the most ordinary talent of observation, and even of common sense, have contrived to paint a character and to write a story, which, in sublimity, grandeur, and interest, throws the productions of the proudest historians into the shade, and has exerted an irresistible charm upon Christendom for these eighteen hundred years! No wonder that those absurdities of a misguided learning and ingenuity hardly survived their author. It is a decided merit of Strauss, that he, in his larger work on the "Life of Jesus," has thoroughly refuted the system of his predecessor, and given it the critical death-blow. But his own theory will share no better fate. Renan too, in his "Essay on the Critical Historians of Jesus," speaks quite contemptuously of this "very narrow exegesis," this "shabby method of interpretation," "an exegesis made up of subtilties, founded on the mechanical use of a few incidents, -- ecstasy, lightning, storm, cloud, etc.;" and says: "The so-called rationalistic interpretation may have satisfied the first bold desire of the human mind on its taking possession of a long-forbidden domain; but experience could not but disclose very soon the inexcusable defects, the dryness, the coarseness of it. Never was better realized the ingenious allegory of the daughters of Minos, who were turned into bats for having seriously criticised the vulgar credences. There is as much simplicity and credulity, and much less poetry, in clumsily discussing a legend in its details, as in accepting it, once for all, as it is."79 So one infidel refutes the other, and by the very process undermines his own system.