The Life of Christ
Frederick W. Farrar
Logos/Logos Life of Christ Collection/Amazon
Farrar’s Life of Christ is one of the classic texts on the subject, published in 1886, and used by seminaries and students ever since that time. To understand Farrar’s text, the reader needs to begin with it’s social context. In the late 1800’s, there were many different movements that dramatically impacted the Church’s view of the Scriptures, as well as the Church’s view of the relationship between religion and science. Particularly notable were the higher critical schools of thought about the Scriptures, the strong wave of the application of scientific principles to the practice of medicine, and the emergence of naturalism (using evolution as a vehicle) on the world stage.
Given these contexts, it is no surprise that Ferrar’s view of the Scriptures is only moderately high. For example, Ferrar says:
And the Gospels, always truthful and bearing on every page that simplicity which is the stamp of honest narrative, indicate this fact without comment. There is in them nothing of the exuberance of marvel, and mystery, and miracle, which appears alike in the Jewish imaginations about their coming Messiah, and in the apocryphal narratives about the Infant Christ. -Page 13
But in another place:
I have here attempted to combine, as far as it is possible, in one continuous narrative, the perfectly comprehensible, but slightly differing accounts of the Synoptists (Matt. 4:18–22; Mark 1:16–20; Luke 5:1–11). Let me remark—(1) that any one whose faith is shaken by the so-called “discrepancies” of these and similar stories must (a) either hold some very rigid, untenable, and superstitious view of inspiration, or (b) be wholly unacquainted with the different aspects assumed by perfectly truthful but confessedly fragmentary testimonies; and (2) that the very variety in the narratives, being in no respect inconsistent with essential and truthful unity, is a valuable proof of the independence of the Gospel witnesses.” -Footnote on Page 193
So Ferrar holds what is probably a higher view of the Scriptures than many modern scholars, but not so high a view as to admit they are without error. The second point the modern reader will probably be put off about is Farrar’s clear chronological snobbery.
A very early popular legend, which has crept by interpolation into the text of St. John, attributed the healing qualities of the water to the descent of an angel who troubled the pool at irregular intervals, leaving the first persons who could scramble into it to profit by the immersion. This solution of the phenomenon was in fact so entirely in accordance with the Semitic habit of mind, that, in the universal ignorance of all scientific phenomena, and the utter indifference to close investigation which characterise most Orientals, the populace would not be likely to trouble themselves about the possibility of any other explanation. But whatever may have been the general belief about the cause, the fact that the water was found at certain intervals to be impregnated with gases which gave it a strengthening property, was sufficient to attract a concourse of many sufferers.” -Pages 372-3
Here, and in many other places, Ferrar discusses the state of the “oriental mind,” as if people who lived in the “prescientific age” really just didn’t know that demon posession is really a form of mental illness, or that it was more than just a habit of the “oriental mind,” that a man’s demons could really run into a herd of swine. This entire line of thinking goes hand in hand with his moderate view of the inspiration of the Scriptures.
The positive outcome of Farrar’s thinking along these lines, however, should not be passed over —his insistence on the humanity of Christ. Given as he to cutting miracles down to size, Ferrar brings the human side of Jesus into focus very clearly. The mdoern Church can use a large dose of Jesus’ humanity, and his ability, just within his perfect humanity, to effect many of the scenes we read as miraculous. For instance, the passing of Jesus out of a crowd that wanted to throw him over the brow of a hill need not be a miracle.
Farrar also does a good deal of work in providing the background behind each event in the life of Christ, explaining the position of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and providing the Rabbinical background to a number of incidents. This background information helps to clear up some misconceptions, and to add depth to the narrative in a way few other writings in this genre do. The appendixes (Excurses) are tremendiously helpful, particularly on the oral verses written law, the Sanhedrin, and the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
He does seem to miss the point in a few places; for instance, he misses the reason behind the sudden use of parables at the end of Matthew 12. Rather than seeing parables as an intentional method designed to hide truth from those who aren’t willing to hear, he sees them as a way to more widely express truth. The author does an excellent job of interconnecting the Feasts to the proclomations of Christ, and in showing the bad motives of the leadership in the nature and manner of their questions.
Overall, for those seeking a solid representation of the Life of Christ, and can handle the watermelong seeds with the watermelon, this is a good, if long, book, to read.