The Character of Jesus Christ

                     The surpassing eminence of the character of Jesus has been acknowledged by
                     men of the most varied type:

                          Kant testifies to His ideal perfection;
                          Hegel sees in Him the union of the human and the Divine;
                          the most advanced sceptics do Him homage;
                          Spinoza speaks of Him as the truest symbol of heavenly wisdom;
                          the beauty and grandeur of His life overawe Voltaire;
                          Napoleon I, at St. Helena, felt convinced that "Between him [Jesus] and
                          whoever else in the world there is no possible term of comparison"
                          (Montholon, "Récit de la Captivité de l'Empereur Napoléon").
                          Rousseau testifies: "If the life and death of Socrates are those of a sage,
                          the life and death of Jesus are those of a god."
                          Strauss acknowledges: "He is the highest object we can possibly imagine
                          with respect to religion, the being without whose presence in the mind
                          perfect piety is impossible".
                          To Renan "The Christ of the Gospels is the most beautiful incarnation of
                          God in the most beautiful of forms. His beauty is eternal; his reign will
                          never end."
                          John Stuart Mill spoke of Jesus as "a man charged with a special,
                          express, and unique commission from God to lead mankind to truth and
                          virtue".

                     Not that the views of the foregoing witnesses are of any great importance for the
                     theological student of the life of Jesus; but they show at least the impression
                     made on the most different classes of men by the history of Christ. In the
                     following paragraphs we shall consider the character of Jesus as manifested first
                     in His relation to men, then in His relation to God.

                                    A. JESUS IN HIS RELATION TO MEN

                     In His relation to men Jesus manifested certain qualities which were perceived by
                     all, being subject to the light of reason; but other qualities were reserved for those
                     who viewed Him in the light of faith. Both deserve a brief study.

                     (1) In the Light of Reason

                     There is no trustworthy tradition concerning the bodily appearance of Jesus, but
                     this is not needed in order to obtain a picture of His character. It is true that at
                     first sight the conduct of Jesus is so many-sided that His character seems to
                     elude all description. Command and sympathy, power and charm, authority and
                     affection, cheerfulness and gravity, are the some of the qualities that make the
                     analysis impossible. The make-up of the Gospels does not facilitate the work. At
                     first they appear to us a bewildering forest of dogmatic statements and moral
                     principles; there is no system, no method, everything is occassional , everything
                     fragmentary. The Gospels are neither a manual of dogma nor a treatise on
                     casuistry, though they are the fountain of both. No wonder then the various
                     investgators have arrived at entirely different conclusion at the study of Jesus.
                     Some call Him a fanatic, others make Him a socialist, others again an anarchist,
                     while many call Him a dreamer, a mystic, an Essene. But in this variety of views
                     there are two main concepts under which the others may be summarized: Some
                     consider Jesus an ascetic, others an aesthete; some emphasize His suffering,
                     others His joyfulness; some identify Him with ecclesiasticism, others with
                     humanism; some recognize in Him the prophetic picture of the Old Testament
                     and the monastic of the New, others see in Him only gladness and poetry. There
                     may be solid ground for both views; but they do not exhaust the character of
                     Jesus. Both are only by-products which really existed in Jesus, but were not
                     primarily intended; they are only enjoyed and suffered in passing, while Jesus
                     strove to attain an end wholly different from either joy or sorrow.

                     (a) Strength

                     Considering the life of Jesus in the light of reason, His strength, His poise, and
                     His grace are His most characteristic qualities. His strength shows itself in His
                     manner of life, His decision, His authority. In His rugged, nomadic, homeless life
                     there is no room for weakness or sentimentality. Indecision is rejected by Jesus
                     on several occasions: "No man can serve two masters"; "He that is not with me,
                     is against me"; Seek first the kingdom of God", these are some of the
                     statements expressing Christ's attitude to indecision of will. Of Himself He said:
                     "My meat is to do the will of him that sent me"; "I seek not my own will, but the
                     will of him that sent me." The authority of the Master does not allow its power to
                     be questioned; He calls to men in their boats, in their tax-booths, on their
                     homes, "Follow me", and they look up into His face and obey. St. Mathew
                     testifies, "The multitude...glorified God that gave such power to men"; St. Mark
                     adds, "the kingdom of God comes to power"; St. Luke says, "Thou hast given
                     him power over all flesh"; the Book of the Acts reads, "God anointed him...with
                     power"; St. Paul too is impressed with "the power of our Lord Jesus". In His
                     teaching Jesus does not argue, or prove, or threaten, like the Phrarisees, but He
                     speaks like one having authority. Nowhere is Jesus merely a long-faced ascetic
                     or a joyous comrade, we find Him everywhere to be leader of men, whose
                     principles are built on a rock.

                     (b) Poise

                     It may be said that the strength of Christ's character gives rise to another quality
                     which we may call poise. Reason is like the sails of the boat, the will is its
                     rudder, and the feelings are the waves thrown upon either side of the ship as it
                     passes through the waters. The will-power of Jesus is strong enough to keep a
                     perfect equilibrium between His feelings and His reason; His body is the perfect
                     instrument in the performance of His duty; His emotions are wholly subservient to
                     the Will of His Father; it is the call of complying with His higher duties that
                     prevents His austerity from becoming excessive. There is therefore a perfect
                     balance or equilibrium in Jesus between the life of His body, of His mind, and of
                     His emotions. His character is so rounded off that, at first sight, there remains
                     nothing which could make it characteristic. This poise in the character of Jesus
                     produces a simplicity which pervades every one of His actions. As the old
                     Roman roads led stright ahead in spite of mountains and valleys, ascents and
                     declivities, so does the life of Jesus flow quietly onward in accordance with the
                     call of duty, in spite of pleasure or pain, honour or ignominy. Another trait in
                     Jesus which may be considered as flowing from the poise of His character is His
                     unalterable peace, a peace which may be ruffled but cannot be destroyed either
                     by His inward feelings or outward encounters. And these personal qualities in
                     Jesus are reflected in his teaching. He establishes an equilibrium between the
                     rightousness of the Old Testament and the justice of the New, between the love
                     and life of the former and those of the latter. He lops off indeed the Pharisaic
                     conventionalism and externalism, but they were merely degenerated outgrowths;
                     He urges the law of love, but shows that it embraces the whole Law and the
                     Prophets; He promises life, but it consists not so much in our possession as in
                     our capacity to use our possession. Nor can it be urged that the poise of Christ's
                     teachhing is destroyed by His three paradoxes of self-reliance, of service, and of
                     idealism. The law of self-sacrifice inculcates that we shall find life by losing it; but
                     the law of biological organisms, of physiological tissues, of intellectual
                     achivements, and of economic processes shows that self-sacrifice is
                     self-realization in the end. The second paradox is that of service: "Whosoever will
                     be the greater among you, let him be your minister: and he that will be first
                     among you, shall be your servant." But in the industrial and artistic world, too,
                     the greatest men are those who have done most service. Thirdly, the idealism of
                     Jesus is expressed in such words as "The life is more than the meat", and "Not
                     in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of
                     God." But even our realistic age must grant that the reality of the law is its
                     ideals, and again, that the world of the idealist is impossible only for the weak,
                     while the strong character creates the world after which he strives. The character
                     of Jesus therefore is the embodiment of both strength and poise. It thus verifies
                     the definition given by such an involved writer as Emerson: "Character is
                     centrality, the impossibility of being displaced or overset...The natural measure of
                     this power is the resistence of circumstances."

                     (c) Grace

                     But if there were not a third essential element entering into the character of
                     Jesus, it might not be attractive after all. Even saints are at times bad
                     neighbours; we may like them, but sometimes we like them only at a distance.
                     The character of Christ carries with it the trait of grace, doing away with all
                     harshness and want of amiability. Grace is the unconstrained expression of the
                     self-forgetting and kindly mind. It is a beautiful way of doing the right thing, in the
                     right way, at the right time, therefore opens all hearts to its possessor.
                     Sympathy is the widst channel through which grace flows, and the abundance of
                     the stream testifies to the reserve of grace. Now Jesus sympathizes with all
                     classes, with the rich and the poor, the learned and the ignorant, the happy and
                     the sad; He moves with the same sense of familiarity among all classes of
                     society. For the self-righteous Pharisees He has only the words, "Woe to you,
                     hypocrites"; he disciples, "Unless you become as little children, you shall not
                     enter into the kingdom of heaven." Plato and Aristotle are utterly unlike Jesus;
                     they may speak of natural virtue, but we never find children in their arms. Jesus
                     treats the publicans as His friends; He encourages the most tentative beginnings
                     of moral growth. He chooses common fishermen for the corner -stones of His
                     kingdom, and by His kindliness trains them to become the light of the world and
                     the salt of the earth; He bends down to St. Peter whose character was a heap of
                     sand rather than a solid "foundation, but He graciously forms Peter into the rock
                     upon which to build his Church. After two of the Apostles had fallen, Jesus was
                     gracious to both, though He saved only one, while the other destroyed himself.
                     Women in need are not excluded from the general graciousness of Jesus; He
                     receives the homage of the sinful woman, He consolves the sorrowing sisters
                     Martha and Mary, He cures the mother-in -law of St. Peter and restores the
                     health of numerous other women of Galilee, He has words of sympathy for the
                     women of Jerusalem who bewailed His sufferings, He was subject to His mother
                     till He reached man's estate, and when dying on the Cross commanded her to
                     the care of His beloved disciple. The grace of the Master is also evident in the
                     form of His teaching: He lays under contribution the simple phases of nature, the
                     hen with her chickens, the gnat in the cup, the camel in the narrow street, the fig
                     tree and its fruit, the fishermen sorting the catch. He meets with the lightest
                     touch, approaching sometimes the play of humour and sometimes the thrust of
                     irony, the simple doubts of His disciples, the selfish questions of His hearers,
                     and the subtlest snares of his enemies. He feels no need of thrift in His benefits
                     on the few as abundantly as the vastest multitudes. He flings out His parables
                     into the world that those who have ears may hear. There is a prodigality in this
                     manifestation of Christ's grace that can only be symbolized, but not equalled, by
                     the waste of seed in the realm of nature.

                     (2) In the Light of Faith

                     In the light of faith the life of Jesus is an uninterrupted series of acts of love for
                     man. It was love that impelled the Son of God to take on human nature, though
                     He did so with the full consent of His Father: "For God so loved the world, as to
                     give his only begotten Son" (John, iii, 16). For thirty years Jesus shows His love
                     by a life of poverty, labour, and hardship in the fulfillment of the duties of a
                     common trademan. When His public ministry began, He simply spent Himself for
                     the good of His neighbour, "doing good, and healing all that were oppressed by
                     the devil" (Acts, x, 38). He shows a boundless compassion for all the infirmities
                     of the body; He uses His miraculous power to heal the sick, to free the
                     possessed, to resuscitate the dead. The moral weaknesses of man move His
                     heart still more effectively; the woman at Jacob's well, Mathew the publican,
                     Mary Magdalen the public sinner, Zacheus the unjust administrator, are only a
                     few instances of sinners who received encouragement from the lips of Jesus. He
                     is ready with forgiveness for all; the parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates His
                     love for the sinner. In His work of teaching He is at the service of the poorest
                     outcast of Galilee as well as of the theological celebrities of Jerusalem. His
                     bitterest enemies are not excluded from the manifestations of His love; even
                     while He is being crucified He prays for their pardon. The Scribes and Pharisees
                     are treated severely, only because they stand in the way of His love. "Come to
                     me, all you that labour, and are burdened, and I will refresh you" (Matt., xi, 28) is
                     the message of His heart to poor suffering humanity. After laying down the rule,
                     "Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends"
                     (John, xv, 13), He surpasses as it were His own standard by dying for His
                     enemies. Fulfilling the unconscious prophecy of the godless high-priest, "It is
                     expedient for you that one man should die for the people" (John, xi, 50), He freely
                     meets His sufferings which He could have easily avoided (Matt., xxvi, 53),
                     undergoes the greatest insults and ignominies, passes through the most severe
                     bodily pains, and sheds His blood for men "unto remission of sins" (Matt., xxvi,
                     28). But the love of Jesus embraced not only the spiritual welfare of men, it
                     extended also to their temporal happiness: "Seek ye therefore first the kingdom
                     of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matt., vi,
                     33).

                                    B. JESUS IN HIS RELATION TO GOD

                     Prescinding from the theological discussions which are usually treated in the
                     theses "De Verbo Incarnato", we may consider the relations of Jesus to God
                     under the headings of His sanctity and His Divinity.

                     (1) Sanctity of Jesus

                     From a nagative point of view, the sanctity of Jesus consists in His unspotted
                     sinlessness. He can defy His enemies by asking, "Which of you shall convince
                     me of sin?" (John, viii, 46). Even the evil spirits are forced to acknowledge Him as
                     the Holy One of God (Mark, i, 24; Luke, iv, 34). His enemies charge Him with
                     being a Samaritan, and having a devil (John, viii, 48), with being a sinner (John,
                     ix, 24), a blasphemer (Matt., xxvi, 65), a violator of the Sabbath (John, ix, 16), a
                     malefactor (John, xviii, 30), a disturber of the peace (Luke, xxiii, 5), a seducer
                     (Matt., xxvii, 63). But pilate finds and declares Jesus innocent, and, when
                     pressed by the enemies of Jesus to condemn Him, he washes his hands and
                     exclaims before the assembled people, "I am innocent of the blood of this just
                     man" (Matt., xxvii, 24). The Jewish authorities practically admit that they cannot
                     prove any wrong against Jesus; they only insist, "We have a law; and according
                     to the law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God" (John, xix,
                     7). The final charge urged against Christ by His bitterest enemies was His claim
                     to be the Son of God.

                     The positive side of the sanctity of Jesus is well attested by His constant zeal in
                     the service of God. At the age of twelve He asks His mother, "Did you not know,
                     that I must be about my father's business?". He urges on His hearers the true
                     adoration in spirit and in truth (John, iv, 23) required by His Father. Repeatedly
                     He declares His entire dependence on His Father (John, v, 20, 30; etc.); He is
                     faithful to the Will of His Father (John, viii, 29); He tells His disciples, "My meat
                     is to do the will of him that sent me" (John, iv, 34). Even the hardest sacrifices do
                     not prevent Jesus from complying with His Father's Will: "My Father, if this
                     chalice may not pass away, but I must drink it, thy will be done" (Matt., xxvi, 42).
                     Jesus honours His Father (John, ii, 17), and proclaims at the end of His life, "I
                     have glorified thee on the earth" (John, xvii, 4). He prays almost incessantly to
                     His Father (Mark, i, 35; vi, 46; etc.), and teaches His Apostles the Our Father
                     (Matt., vi, 9). He always thanks His Father for His bounties (Matt., xi, 25; etc.),
                     and in brief behaves throughout as only a most loving son can behave towards
                     his beloved father. During His Passion one of His most intense sorrows is His
                     feeling of abandonment by His Father (Mark, xv, 34), and at the point of death He
                     joyfully surrenders His Soul into the hands of His Father (Luke, xxiii, 46).

                     (2) Divinity of Jesus

                     The Divinity of Jesus is proved by some writers by an appeal to prophecy and
                     miracle. But, though Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament to the
                     letter, He Himself appears to appeal to them mainly in proof of His Divine
                     mission; He shows the Jews that He fulfills in His Person and His work all that
                     had been foretold of the Messias. The prophecies uttered by Jesus Himself differ
                     from the predictions of the Old Testament in that Jesus does not speak in the
                     name of the Lord, like the seers of old, but in His own name. If it could be strictly
                     proved that they were made in virtue of His own knowledge of the future, and of
                     His own power to dispose of the current of events, the prophecies would prove
                     His Divinity; as it is they prove at least that Jesus is a messenger of God, a
                     friend of God, inspired by God. This is not the place to discuss the historical and
                     philosophical truth of the miracles of Jesus, but we know that Jesus appeals to
                     His works as bearing witness to the general truth of His mission (John, x, 25, 33,
                     38), and also for the verity of some particulr claims (Matt., ix, 6; Mark, ii, 10, 11;
                     etc.) They show, therefore, at least that Jesus is a Divine legate and that His
                     teaching is infallibly true.

                     Did Jesus teach that He is God? He certainly claimed to be the Messias (John,
                     iv, 26), to fulfill the Messianic descriptions of the Old Testament (Matt., xi, 3-5;
                     Luke, vii, 22-23; iv, 18-21), to be denoted by the current Messianic names, "king
                     of israel" (Luke, xix, 38; etc), "Son of David" (Matt., ix, 27; etc), "Son of man"
                     (passim), "he that cometh in the name of the Lord" (Matt., xxi, 9.etc). Moreover,
                     Jesus claims to be greater than Abraham (John, viii, 53, 56), than Moses (Matt.,
                     xix, 8-9), than Solomon and Jonas (Matt., xii, 41-42); He habitually claims to be
                     sent by God (John, v, 36, 37, 43; etc), calls God His Father (Luke, ii, 49; etc),
                     and He willingly accepts the titles "Master" and "Lord" (John, xiii, 13, 14). He
                     forgives sin in answer to the observation that God alone can forgive sin (Mark, ii,
                     7, 10; Luke, v, 21, 24; etc). He acts as the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt., xii, 8;
                     etc), and tells St. Peter that as "Son" He is free from the duty of paying
                     temple-tribute (Matt., xvii, 24, 25). From the beginning of His ministry he allows
                     Nathanael to call Him "Son of God" (John, i, 49); the Apostles (Matt., xiv, 33) and
                     Martha (John, xi, 27) give Him the same title. Twice He approves of Peter who
                     calls Him "the Christ, the Son of God" (John, vi, 70), "Christ, the Son of the living
                     God" (Matt., xvi, 16). Four distinct times does He proclaim Himself the Son of
                     God; to the man born blind (John, x, 30, 36); before the two assemblies of the
                     Jewish Sanhedrin on the night before His death (Matt., xxvi, 63-64; Mark, xiv,
                     61-62; Luke, xxii, 70). He does not manifest His Divine Sonship before Satan
                     (Matt., iv, 3, 6) or before the Jews who are deriding Him (Matt., xxvii, 40). Jesus
                     does not wish to teach the evil spirit the mystery of His Divinity; to the Jews He
                     gives a greater sign than they are asking for. Jesus, therefore, applies to Himself,
                     and allows others to apply to Him, the title "Son of God" in its full meaning. If
                     there had been a misunderstanding He would have corrected it, even as Paul and
                     Barnabas corrected those who took them for gods (Acts, xiv, 12-14).

                     Nor can it be said that the title "Son of God" denotes a merely adoptive sonship.
                     The foregoing texts do not admit of such an interpretation. St. Peter, for instance,
                     places his master above John the Baptist, Elias, and the Prophets (Matt., xvi,
                     13-17). Again, the Angel Gabriel declares that the Child to be born will be "the
                     Son of the most High" and "Son of God" (Luke, i, 32, 35), in such a way that He
                     will be without an earthly father. Mere adoption presupposes the existence of the
                     child to be adopted; but St. Joseph is warned that "That which is conceived in
                     her [Mary], is of the Holy Ghost" (Matt., i, 20); now one's being conceived by the
                     operation of another implies one's natural relation of sonship to him. Moreover,
                     the Divine Sonship claimed by Jesus is such that he and the Father are one
                     (John, x, 30, 36); a merely adopted sonship does not constitute a physical unity
                     between the son and his adoptive father. Finally if Jesus had claimed only an
                     adoptive sonship, He would have deceived His judges; they could not have
                     condemned Him for claiming a prerogative common to all pious Israelites.
                     Harnack (Wesen des Christentums, 81) contends that the Divine Sonship
                     claimed by Jesus is an intellectual relation to the Father, springing from special
                     knowledge of God. This knowledge constitutes "the sphere of the Divine
                     Sonship", and is implied in the words of Matt., xi, 27: "No one knoweth the Son,
                     but the Father: neither doth any one know the Father, but the Son, and he to
                     whom it shall please the Son to reveal him". But if the Divine Sonship of Christ is
                     a mere intellectual relation, and if Christ is God in a most figurative sense, the
                     Paternity of the Father and the Divinity of the Son will be reduced to a figure of
                     speech. (See CHRISTOLOGY.)

                     A. J.  Maas
                     Transcribed by Joseph P. Thomas
                     In memory of Archbishop Mathew Kavukatt

                                       The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII
                                    Copyright © 1910 by Robert Appleton Company
                                    Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
                                 Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor
                                 Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York

The Catholic Encyclopedia: NewAdvent.org