Jesus and Christianity: Selection from 'Glimpses of World History'

By Jawaharlal Nehru

The Kushan Empire in the north-west of India and Han dynasty in China have carried us beyond an important landmark in history, and we must go back to it. So far we have been dealing with dates BC-before Christ. Now we are in the Christian era-AC, or AD. The era, as its name implies , dates from Christ , from the supposed date of birth of Christ. As a matter of fact, it is probable that Christ was born four years before this date, but that makes little difference. It is customary to refer to dates after Christ as AD-Anno Domini-in the year of the Lord. There is no harm in following this widespread practice, but it seems to me more scientific to use the letters AC-after Christ- for these dates just as we have been using BC. I propose to do so.

The story of Christ or Jesus, as his name was, is given in the New Testament of the Bible, and you know something about it. In these accounts given in the Gospels, little is said about his youth. He was born at Nazareth, he preached in Galilee, and he came to Jerusalem when he was over thirty. Soon after he was tried and sentenced by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. It is  not clear what Jesus did or where he went before he started his preaching. All over Central Asia, in Kashmir and Ladakh and Tibet and even farther north,  there is still a strong belief that Jesus or Isa traveled about there. Some people believe that he visited India also. It is not possible to say anything with certainty, any indeed most authorities who have studied the life of Jesus do not believe that Jesus came to India or central Asia. But there is nothing  inherently improbable in his having done so. In those days the great universities of India, especially Takshashila in the north-west, attracted earnest students from distant countries, and Jesus might well have come there in quest of knowledge. In many respects the teaching of Jesus is so similar to Gautama’s teaching that it seems highly probable that he was fully acquainted with it. But Buddhism was sufficiently known in other countries, and Jesus could well have known of it without coming to India.

Religions , as every schoolgirl knows, have led to conflict and bitter struggles. But it is interesting to watch the beginnings of the world-religions and to compare them. There is so much that is similar in their outlook and their teaching that one wonders why people should be foolish enough to quarrel about the details and unessentials. But the early  teachings are added to and distorted till it is difficult to recognize them; and the place of the teacher is taken by the narrow-minded and intolerant bigots. Often enough, religion has served as a handmaiden to politics and imperialism. It was the old Roman policy to cultivate superstition for the benefit, or rather for the exploitation, of the masses, for it was easier to keep down the people if they were superstitious. The Roman aristocrats would consent to dabble in high philosophy, but what was good for them was not good or safe for the masses. Machiavelli, a famous Italian of a later day, who has written a book on politics , states that religion is necessary for government, and that it may be the duty of a ruler to support a religion which he believes to be false. Even in recent times we have had innumerable instances of imperialism advancing under the cloak of religion. It is not surprising that Karl Marx wrote that  “Religion is the opium of the masses”.

Jesus was a Jew, and the Jews were and are a peculiar and strangely persevering people. After a brief period of glory in the days of David and Solomon they fell on evil days. Even this glory was on a small scale, but it was magnified in their imaginations till it became a kind of Golden age of the past, which would come again at the appointed time when the Jews would become great and powerful. They spread out all over the Roman Empire and elsewhere, but held together , firm in the belief that their day of glory was coming and that a messiah would usher this in. It is one of the wonders of history how the Jews , without a home or a refuge, harassed and persecuted beyond measure, and often done to death, have preserved their identity and held together for over 2000 years.

The Jews expected a messiah, and perhaps they had hopes of Jesus. But they were soon disappointed. Jesus talked a strange language  of revolt against existing conditions and the social order. In particular he was against the rich and the hypocrites who made of religion a matter of certain observances   and ceremonial. Instead of promising wealth and glory, he asked people to give up even what they had for a vague and mythical kingdom of heaven. He talked in stories and parables, but it is clear that he was a born rebel who could not tolerate existing conditions and was out to change them. This was not what the Jews wanted, and so most of them turned against him and handed him over to the Roman authorities.

The Roman  people were not intolerant so far as religions  went, for the empire tolerated all  religions, and even if someone chose to blaspheme or curse any of the gods, he was not punished. As one of the emperors, Tiberius, said: “if the gods are insulted, let them see to it themselves.” The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, before whom Jesus was produced, could not therefore have  worried  about  the religious aspect of the matter. Jesus was looked upon  as a political, and by the Jews as a social, rebel; and as such he was tried and sentenced  and crucified at Golgotha. In the hour of his agony even his chosen disciples deserted him and denied him, and by their betrayal made his suffering almost unbearable, so that, before he died, he uttered those strangely moving words: “My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?”

Jesus was quite young, being only a little over thirty when he died. We read in the beautiful language of the Gospels the tragic story of his death, and are moved. The growth of Christianity in after ages has made millions revere the name of Jesus, although they have seldom followed his teachings. But we must remember that when he was crucified, he was not widely known outside Palestine. The people in Rome knew nothing about him, and even Pontius Pilate must have attached little importance to the incident.

The immediate followers and disciples of Jesus were frightened into denying him, but soon after his death a newcomer, Paul, who had not seen Jesus himself, started spreading what he considered to be the Christian doctrine. Many people think that the Christianity that Paul preached was very different from the teachings of Jesus. Paul was an able and learned person, but he was not a social rebel such as Jesus was. Paul succeeded, however, and Christianity gradually spread. The Roman attached little importance to it to begin with. They thought Christians were sect of the Jews. But the Christians became aggressive. They were hostile  to all other religions and they refused absolutely to worship the Emperor’s image. The Roman could not understand this mentality and, as it appeared to them, narrow-mindedness. They considered the Christians therefore as cranks who were pugnacious and uncultured  and opposed to human progress. As a religion, they might have tolerated Christianity, but the Christian refusal to pay homage to the Emperor’s image was looked upon as political treason and was made punishable with death. The Christians also strongly criticized the gladiatorial shows. Then followed the persecution of the Christians, and their property was confiscated and they were thrown to the lions. You must  have read stories of these Christian martyrs and perhaps  you have also seen cinema films of them. But when a person is prepared to die for a cause, and indeed to glory in such a death, it is impossible  to suppress him or the cause he represents. And the Roman Empire wholly failed to suppress the Christians. Indeed, it was Christianity that came out triumphant in the conflict, and early in the fourth century after the Christ one of the Roman emperors himself became a Christian , and Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. This was Constantine, who founded Constantinople. We shall come to him later.

As Christianity grew, violent disputes arose about the divinity of Jesus. You will remember my telling you how Gautama, the Buddha, who claimed no divinity , came to be worshipped as a god and as an avatar. Similarity, Jesus claimed no divinity. His repeated statements that he was the son of God and the son of man do not necessarily mean any divine or superhuman claim. But human beings  like to make gods of their great men, whom, having deified, they refrain from following! Six hundred years later the Prophet  Mohammad started another great religion, but, profiting, perhaps, by these instances, he started clearly and repeatedly that he was human, and not divine.

So, instead of understanding and following the teachings of Jesus, the Christians argued and quarreled about the nature of  Jesus’s divinity and about the Trinity. They called each other heretics and persecuted each other and cut each other’s heads off. There was a great and violent controversy at one time among different Christian sects over a certain diphthong. One party said that the word Homo-ousion  should be used in a prayer; the other wanted Homoi-ousion-this difference had reference to the divinity of Jesus. Over this diphthong fierce war was raged and large numbers of people were slaughtered.

These internal disputes took place as the Church grew in power. They have continued between various Christian sects till quite recent times in the West.

You may be surprised to learn that Christianity came to India long before it went to England  or western Europe, and when even in Rome it was a despised and proscribed sect. Within 100 years or so of the death of Jesus, Christian missionaries came to south India by sea. They were received courteously and permitted to preach their new faith. They  converted a large number of people, and their descendants have lived there, with varying fortunes, to this day. Most of them belong to old Christian sects which have ceased to exist in Europe. Some of these have their headquarters   now in Asia minor. [Nehruji is here referring to Syrian Catholics]

Christianity is politically the dominant religion today, because it is the religion of the dominant people of Europe. But it is strange to think of the rebel Jesus preaching non-violence and ahimsa and a revolt against the social order, and then to compare him with his loud-voiced followers of today, with their imperialism and armaments and wars and worship of wealth. The Sermon on the Mount and modern European and American Christianity –how amazingly dissimilar they are! It is not surprising that many people should think that Bapu (Gandhiji) is far nearer to Christ’s teaching than most of his so-called followers in the West today.

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