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With John disappeared the last man of the strange generation which had believed itself to have seen God upon the earth, and had hoped not to die. It was about the same time that that charming book appeared which has preserved to us across the mists of legends the image of the age of gold. Luke, or whoever the author of the third Gospel may have been, undertook that task, which was congenial to his refined soul, to his pure and gentle talents. The prefaces which stand at the head of the third Gospel and at the head of the Acts appear at the first glance to indicate that Luke conceived his work as consisting of two books, one of which contained the Life of Jesus, the other the history of the Apostles as he had known them. There are, however, strong reasons for believing that the compilation of the two works was separated by some interval. The preface to the Gospel does not necessarily imply the intention of composing the Acts. It may be that Luke added this second book to his work only at the end of several years, and at the request of persons with whom the first book had had so much success.


This hypothesis is supported by the part which the author has taken in the first lines of the Acts relative to the ascension of Jesus. In the other Gospels the period of the apparitions of Jesus fades away little by little, without any definite end. The imagination comes to desire a final catastrophe; a definite way of escaping from a state of things which could not continue indefinitely. This myth, the completion of the legend of Jesus, was slowly and painfully evolved. The author of the apocalypse in 69 certainly believed in the Ascension. Jesus, according to him, is carried up into heaven and placed by the throne of God. In the same book the two prophets copied from Jesus, killed like him, rise after three and a half days; after their resurrection, they ascend to heaven in a cloud in the sight of their enemies. Luke, in his Gospel, leaves the matter in suspense, but at the beginning of the Acts he relates, with all desirable accompaniments, the crowning event of the life of Jesus. He knows even how long the life of Jesus lasted beyond the tomb. It was forty days, a remarkable coincidence with the apocalypse of Esdras. Luke at Rome may have been one of the earliest readers of this document, which must have made a profound impression upon him. The spirit of the Acts is the same as that of the third Gospel: gentleness, tolerance, conciliation, sympathy with the humble, aversion from the proud. The author is certainly he who wrote, “Peace to men of good will.” We have explained elsewhere the singular distortions which these excellent intentions have made him give to historic accuracy, and how his book is the first document of the mind of the Roman Church, indifferent to facts and dominated in all things by the official tendencies. Luke is the founder of that eternal fiction which is called ecclesiastical history, with its insipidity, its habit of smoothing off all angles, its foolishly sanctified turns. The à priori of a Church 226always wise, always moderate, is the basis of his narrative. The principal point for him is to show that the disciples of Paul are the disciples not of an intruder but of an apostle like the others who has been in perfect communion with the others. The rest is of small consequence to him. Everything passes as in an idyll. Peter was at heart of Paul’s opinion; Paul was of the opinion of Peter. An inspired assembly has seen all the members of the apostolic college united in the same thought. The first Pagan baptism was performed by Peter; Paul, on the other hand, submitted to the legal prescriptions, and observed them publicly at Jerusalem. All frank expression of a decided opinion is repugnant to this prudent narrator. The Jews are treated as false witnesses because they quote an authentic statement of Jesus, and attribute to the Founder of Christianity an intention of bringing about changes in Mosaism. According to the occasion, Christianity is nothing else than Judaism, or else it is quite a different thing. When the Jew bows before Jesus, his privilege is loudly recognised. Luke then has the most unctuous words for these elders of the family who must be reconciled with the younger brothers. But that does not prevent him from insisting complacently on the Pagans who have been converted, or from opposing them to the hardened Jew, uncircumcised of heart. He may see that at bottom his sympathies are with the former. He greatly prefers the Pagans who are Christians in spirit, the centurions who love the Jews, the plebeians who avow their humility. Return to God, faith in Jesus,—these are matters which equalise all differences, extinguish all rivalries. It is the doctrine of Paul set free from those rudenesses which fill the life of the Apostle with bitterness and disgust.

From the point of view of historical value, two parts, absolutely distinct, ought to be made in the Acts, according to which Luke relates the facts of the life 227of Paul, of which he had personal knowledge, or as he presents to us the accepted theory of his times as to the first years of the Church at Jerusalem. The first years were like a distant mirage, full of illusions. Luke was as ill-placed as possible to understand that world which has disappeared. All that had happened during the years which followed the death of Jesus, was regarded as symbolical and mysterious. Across that deceiving vapour, everything became sacramental. Thus were formed, besides the myth of the Ascension of Jesus, the narrative of the descent of the Holy Ghost, which was connected with the day of the Feast of Pentecost, the exaggerated ideas of the community of goods in the Primitive Church, the terrible legend of Ananias and Sapphira, the fancies which were indulged in as to the altogether hierarchical character of the College of the Twelve, the contradictions as to the gift of tongues, the effect of which was to transform into a public miracle a spiritual phenomenon of the interior of the Churches. All that relates to the institution of the Seven, the conversion of Cornelius, the Council of Jerusalem, and the decrees which are supposed to have been issued from thence by a common consent, arise out of the same tendency. It is now very difficult to discover in these curious pages the truth of the legend or even of the myth. As the desire of finding a Gospel basis for all the dogmas and the institutions which were hatched out every day had encumbered the life of Jesus with fabulous anecdotes, so the desire of finding for these same institutions, for these same dogmas, an apostolic basis, charged the history of the first years of the Church at Jerusalem, with a host of narratives conceived à priori. To write history ad narrandum, non ad probandum, is a feat of disinterested curiosity of which there is no example in the creative periods of the faith.

We have had too many occasions to show in detail 228the principles which govern the narrative of Luke, to be compelled to revert to them here. The reunion of the two parties into which the Church of Jesus was divided, is its principal object. Rome was the point where that supreme work was accomplished. Clemens Romanus had already preluded it. He had probably never seen either Peter or Paul. His great practical sense showed him that the safety of the Christian Church required the reconciliation of its two founders. Did he inspire St Luke, who appears to have been in communication with him, or did these two pious souls fall spontaneously into agreement as to the direction which it was desirable to give to Christian opinion? We do not know, for want of documents. What we do know is that it was a Roman work. Rome possessed two Churches, one coming from Peter, and one from Paul. To those numerous converts who came to Jesus, some by way of the school of Peter, and others by way of the school of Paul, and who were tempted to cry out, “What! are there then two Christs?” it was necessary to be able to say, “No. Peter and Paul are in perfect agreement. The Christianity of the one is the Christianity of the other.” Perhaps a slight colouring was on this account imported into the Gospel legend of the miraculous Draught of Fishes. According to the account of Luke, the nets of Peter were not able to contain the multitude of fishes which were anxious to be captured; Peter is obliged to make signs to his collaborators to come to his aid; a second ship (Paul and his friends) is filled in the same way as the first, and the haul of the kingdom of God is superabundant.

Something analogous to this may be found in what happened about the time of the Revolution, in the party which undertook to restore the worship of the French Revolution. Amongst the heroes of the Revolution, the struggles had been ardent and bitter; there was hatred even to the death. But twenty-five 229years afterwards nothing remained of all that but a great neutral result. It was forgotten that the Girondins, Danton, Robespierre, had cut off each other’s heads. Save for some few and rare exceptions, there were no longer any partisans of the Girondins, of Danton, or of Robespierre; all were partisans of what was considered their common work—that is to say, the Revolution. In the same Pantheon were placed as brethren men who had proscribed each other. In great historical movements there is the moment of exaltation when men associated in view of a common work separate from each other or kill each other for a shade of difference; then comes the moment of reconciliation, when it is sought to prove that these apparent enemies understood each other and laboured for the same end. At the end of a certain time, out of all these disagreements comes forth a single doctrine, and a perfect agreement reigns between the disciples of the men who anathematised each other.

Another essentially Roman feature of Luke, is one which brings him into closer relation with Clement, is his respect for the Imperial authority, and the precautions which he takes not to wound it. We do not find amongst these two writers the bitter hatred of Rome which characterises the authors of the apocalypse and the Sibylline poems. The author of the Acts avoids everything which could present Rome as the enemy of Christianity. On the contrary, he endeavours to show that on many occasions they have defended Paul and the Christians against the Jews. There is never an insulting word for the civil magistrates. If he stops short in his narrative at the arrival of Paul at Rome, it is perhaps because he does not wish to be compelled to relate the monstrosities of Nero. Luke does not admit that the Christians may ever have been legally compromised. If Paul had not appealed to the Emperor, he might 230have been acquitted. A judicial afterthought in perfect agreement with the era of Trajan preoccupies him: he wishes to create precedents, to show that there is no method of prosecuting those who had been so often acquitted. Bad processes do not repel him. Never have patience and optimism been pushed farther. The taste for persecution, the joy of sufferings endured for the name of Jesus, fill the soul of Luke, and make his book the manual par excellence of the Christian missionary.

The perfect unity of the book scarcely allows us to decide whether Luke in composing it had under his eyes previously-written documents, or if he was the first to write the history of the Apostles from oral tradition. There were many Acts of the Apostles, just as there were many Gospels; but whilst several Gospels have been retained in the Canon, only a single book of Acts has been preserved. The “Preaching of Peter,” the object of which was to present Jerusalem as the source of all Christianity, and Peter as the centre of the Hierosolymitan Christianity, is perhaps as ancient at bottom as the Acts; but Luke certainly did not know it. It is gratuitous also to suppose that Luke revised and completed, in the sense of the reconciliation of the Judeo-Christian with Paul, a more ancient document composed to the greater glory of the Church of Jerusalem and the Twelve. The design of putting Paul on a level with the Twelve, and, above all, to connect Peter and Paul, is manifest in our author; but it appears that he followed in his narrative only the framework of a long-established oral tradition. The chiefs of the Church of Rome appear to have a consecrated manner of relating the apostolic history. Luke conformed to it, adding a sufficiently detailed memoir of Paul, and towards the end some personal recollections. Like all the historians of antiquity, he did not deny himself the use of a little innocent rhetoric. At Rome his Greek education had 231been completed, and the sentiment of oratorical composition in the Greek manner awoke in him.

The book of the Acts, like the third Gospel written for the Christian society of Rome, remained for a long time confined to it. So long as the Church developed herself by direct tradition and by internal necessities, only a secondary importance was attached to it, but when the decisive argument in the discussions relative to the ecclesiastical organisations was to remount to the primitive Church as to an ideal, the book of the Acts became of the highest authority. It told of the Ascension, the Pentecost, the Cœnaculum, the miracles of the apostolic Word, the Council of Jerusalem. The foregone conclusions of Luke imposed themselves upon history; and even to the penetrating observers of the modern criticism, the thirty years which were most fertile in ecclesiastical annals, were known only by him. The material truth suffered from it, for that material truth Luke scarcely knew, while he cared still less about it; but almost as much as the Gospels, the Acts fashioned the future. The manner in which things are told is of more consequence in great secular developments than the manner in which they happened. Those who constructed the legend of Jesus have a part in the work of Christianity almost equal to his; that which made the legend of the primitive Church has weighed with an enormous weight in the creation of that spiritual society where so many centuries have found the repose of their souls. Multitudinis credentium erat cor unum et anima una. When one has written that, one has thrust into the heart of humanity the goad which never allows it to rest until what may have been discovered, and what has been seen in slumber, and what has been seen in dreams, and touched that of which we have dreamed.

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