Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

Many volumes have been written by learned divines in order to reconcile St. Matthew with St. Luke on the subject of the genealogy of Jesus Christ. The former enumerates only twenty-seven generations from David through Solomon, while Luke gives forty-two, and traces the descent through Nathan. The following is the method in which the learned Calmet solves a difficulty relating to Melchizedek: The Orientals and the Greeks, ever abounding in fable and invention, fabricated a genealogy for him, in which they give us the names of his ancestors. But, adds this judicious Benedictine, as falsehood always betrays itself, some state his genealogy according to one series, and others according to another. There are some who maintain that he descended from a race obscure and degraded, and there are some who are disposed to represent him as illegitimate.

This passage naturally applies to Jesus, of whom, according to the apostle, Melchizedek was the type or figure. In fact, the gospel of Nicomedes expressly states that the Jews, in the presence of Pilate, reproached Jesus with being born of fornication; upon which the learned Fabricius remarks, that it does not appear from any clear and credible testimony that the Jews directed to Jesus Christ during His life, or even to His apostles, that calumny respecting His birth which they so assiduously and virulently circulated afterwards. The Acts of the Apostles, however, inform us that the Jews of Antioch opposed themselves, blaspheming against what Paul spoke to them concerning Jesus; and Origen maintains that the passage in St. John’s gospel “We are not born of fornication, we have never been in subjection unto any man” was an indirect reproach thrown out by the Jews against Jesus on the subject of His birth. For, as this father informs us, they pretended that Jesus was originally from a small hamlet of Judæa, and His mother nothing more than a poor villager subsisting by her labor, who, having been found guilty of adultery with a soldier of the name of Panther, was turned away by her husband, whose occupation was that of a carpenter; that, after this disgraceful expulsion, she wandered about miserably from one place to another, and was privately delivered of Jesus, who, pressed by the necessity of His circumstances, was compelled to go and hire Himself as a servant in Egypt, where He acquired some of those secrets which the Egyptians turn to so good an account, and then returned to His own country, in which, full of the miracles He was enabled to perform, He proclaimed Himself to be God.

According to a very old tradition, the name of Panther, which gave occasion to the mistake of the Jews, was, as we are informed by St. Epiphanius, the surname of Joseph’s father, or rather, as is asserted by St. John Damascene, the proper name of Mary’s grandfather.

As to the situation of servant, with which Jesus was reproached, He declares Himself that He came not to be served, but to serve. Zoroaster, according to the Arabians, had in like manner been the servant of Esdras. Epictetus was even born in servitude. Accordingly, St. Cyril of Jerusalem justly observed that it is no disgrace to any man.

On the subject of the miracles, we learn indeed from Pliny that the Egyptians had the secret of dyeing with different colors, stuffs which were dipped in the very same furnace, and this is one of the miracles which the gospel of the Infancy attributes to Jesus. But, according to St. Chrysostom, Jesus performed no miracle before His baptism, and those stated to have been wrought by Him before are absolute fabrications. The reason assigned by this father for such an arrangement is, that the wisdom of God determined against Christ’s performing any miracles in His childhood, lest they should have been regarded as impostures.

Epiphanius in vain alleges that to deny the miracles ascribed by some to Jesus during His infancy, would furnish heretics with a specious pretext for saying that He became Son of God only in consequence of the effusion of the Holy Spirit, which descended upon Him at His baptism; we are contending here, not against heretics, but against Jews.

Mr. Wagenseil has presented us with a Latin translation of a Jewish work entitled “Toldos Jeschu,” in which it is related that Jeschu, being at Bethlehem in Judah, the place of his birth, cried out aloud, “Who are the wicked men that pretend I am a bastard, and spring from an impure origin? They are themselves bastards, themselves exceedingly impure! Was I not born of a virgin mother? And I entered through the crown of her head!”

This testimony appeared of such importance to M. Bergier, that that learned divine felt no scruple about employing it without quoting his authority. The following are his words, in the twenty-third page of the “Certainty of the Proofs of Christianity”: “Jesus was born of a virgin by the operation of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Himself frequently assured us of this with His own mouth; and to the same purpose is the recital of the apostles.” It is certain that these words are only to be found in the “Toldos Jeschu”; and the certainty of that proof, among those adduced by M. Bergier, subsists, although St. Matthew applies to Jesus the passage of “Isaiah”: “He shall not dispute, he shall not cry aloud, and no one shall hear his voice in the streets.”

According to St. Jerome, there was in like manner an ancient tradition among the Gymnosophists of India, that Buddha, the author of their creed, was born of a virgin, who was delivered of him from her side. In the same manner was born Julius Cæsar, Scipio Africanus, Manlius, Edward VI. of England, and others, by means of an operation called by surgeons the Cæsarian operation, because it consists in abstracting the child from the womb by an incision in the abdomen of the mother. Simon, surnamed the Magician, and Manès both pretended to have been born of virgins. This might, however, merely mean, that their mothers were virgins at the time of conceiving them. But in order to be convinced of the uncertainty attending the marks and evidences of virginity, it will be perfectly sufficient to read the commentary of M. de Pompignan, the celebrated bishop of Puy en Velai, on the following passage in the Book of Proverbs: “There are three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not. The way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent upon a rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man in his youth.” In order to give a literal translation of the passage, according to this prelate (in the third chapter of the second part of his work entitled “Infidelity Convinced by the Prophecies”), it would have been necessary to say, Viam viri in virgine adolescentula”— The way of a man with a maid. The translation of our Vulgate, says he, substitutes another meaning, exact indeed and true, but less conformable to the original text. In short, he corroborates his curious interpretation by the analogy between this verse and the following one: “Such is the life of the adulterous woman, who, after having eaten, wipeth her mouth and saith, I have done no wickedness.”

However this may be, the virginity of Mary was not generally admitted, even at the beginning of the third century. “Many have entertained the opinion and do still,” said St. Clement of Alexandria, “that Mary was delivered of a son without that delivery producing any change in her person; for some say that a midwife who visited her after the birth found her to retain all the marks of virginity.” It is clear that St. Clement refers here to the gospel of the conception of Mary, in which the angel Gabriel says to her, “Without intercourse with man, thou, a virgin, shalt conceive, thou, a virgin, shalt be delivered of a child, thou, a virgin, shalt give suck”; and also to the first gospel of James, in which the midwife exclaims, “What an unheard-of wonder! Mary has just brought a son into the world, and yet retains all the evidences of virginity.” These two gospels were, nevertheless, subsequently rejected as apocryphal, although on this point they were conformable to the opinion adopted by the church; the scaffolding was removed after the building was completed.

What is added by Jeschu —“I entered by the crown of the head”— was likewise the opinion held by the church. The Breviary of the Maronites represents the word of the Father as having entered by the ear of the blessed woman. St. Augustine and Pope Felix say expressly that the virgin became pregnant through the ear. St. Ephrem says the same in a hymn, and Voisin, his translator, observes that the idea came originally from Gregory of Neocæsarea, surnamed Thaumaturgos. Agobar relates that in his time the church sang in the time of public service: “The Word entered through the ear of the virgin, and came out at the golden gate.” Eutychius speaks also of Elian, who attended at the Council of Nice, and who said that the Word entered by the ear of the virgin, and came out in the way of childbirth. This Elian was a rural bishop, whose name occurs in Selden’s published Arabic List of Fathers who attended the Council of Nice.

It is well known that the Jesuit Sanchez gravely discussed the question whether the Virgin Mary contributed seminally in the incarnation of Christ, and that, like other divines before him, he concluded in the affirmative. But these extravagances of a prurient and depraved imagination should be classed with the opinion of Aretin, who introduces the Holy Spirit on this occasion effecting his purpose under the figure of a dove; as mythology describes Jupiter to have succeeded with Leda in the form of a swan, or as the most eminent authors of the church — St. Austin, Athenagoras, Tertullian, St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Cyprian, Lactantius, St. Ambrose — and others believed, after Philo and Josephus, the historian, who were Jews, that angels had associated with the daughters of men, and engaged in sexual connection with them. St. Augustine goes so far as to charge the Manichæans with teaching, as a part of their religious persuasion, that beautiful young persons appeared in a state of nature before the princes of darkness, or evil angels, and deprived them of the vital substance which that father calls the nature of God. Herodius is still more explicit, and says that the divine majesty escaped through the productive organs of demons.

It is true that all these fathers believed angels to be corporeal. But, after the works of Plato had established the idea of their spirituality, the ancient opinion of a corporeal union between angels and women was explained by the supposition that the same angel who, in a woman’s form, had received the embraces of a man, in turn held communication with a woman, in the character of a man. Divines, by the terms “incubus” and “succubus,” designate the different parts thus performed by angels. Those who are curious on the subject of these offensive and revolting reveries may see further details in “Various Readings of the Book of Genesis,” by Otho Gualter; “Magical Disquisitions,” by Delvis, and the “Discourses on Witchcraft,” by Henry Boguet.

§ II.

No genealogy, even although reprinted in Moréri, approaches that of Mahomet or Mahommed, the son of Abdallah, the son of Abd’all Montaleb, the son of Ashem; which Mahomet was, in his younger days, groom of the widow Khadijah, then her factor, then her husband, then a prophet of God, then condemned to be hanged, then conqueror and king of Arabia; and who finally died an enviable death, satiated with glory and with love.

The German barons do not trace back their origin beyond Witikind; and our modern French marquises can scarcely any of them show deeds and patents of an earlier date than Charlemagne. But the race of Mahomet, or Mohammed, which still exists, has always exhibited a genealogical tree, of which the trunk is Adam, and of which the branches reach from Ishmael down to the nobility and gentry who at the present day bear the high title of cousins of Mahomet.

There is no difficulty about this genealogy, no dispute among the learned, no false calculations to be rectified, no contradictions to palliate, no impossibilities to be made possible.

Your pride cavils against the authenticity of these titles. You tell me that you are descended from Adam as well as the greatest prophet, if Adam was the common father of our race; but that this same Adam was never known by any person, not even by the ancient Arabs themselves; that the name has never been cited except in the books of the Jews; and that, consequently, you take the liberty of writing down false against the high and noble claims of Mahomet, or Mohammed.

You add that, in any case, if there has been a first man, whatever his name might be, you are a descendant from him as decidedly as Khadijah’s illustrious groom; and that, if there has been no first man, if the human race always existed, as so many of the learned pretend, then you are clearly a gentleman from all eternity.

In answer to this you are told that you are a plebeian (roturier)from all eternity, unless you can produce a regular and complete set of parchments.

You reply that men are equal; that one race cannot be more ancient than another; that parchments, with bits of wax dangling to them, are a recent invention; that there is no reason that compels you to yield to the family of Mahomet, or to that of Confucius; or to that of the emperors of Japan; or to the royal secretaries of the grand college. Nor can I oppose your opinion by arguments, physical, metaphysical, or moral. You think yourself equal to the dairo of Japan, and I entirely agree with you. All that I would advise you is, that if ever you meet with him, you take good care to be the stronger.

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