38. The Condition of the World at the Birth of Jesus

The world's destiny grew critical; the darkened sky was filled with sinister portents.

Despite the efforts of the initiates in Asia, Africa and Europe, polytheism had ended with the collapse of civilization. This does not exclude the sublime cosmogony of Orpheus, so splendidly extolled but already weakened in the time of Homer. One can lay the blame on the difficulty human nature has in maintaining itself at a high spiritual level. For the great spirits of antiquity, the gods were merely a poetic expression of the hierarchical forces of nature, a speaking image of its internal organism. As symbols of cosmic and animate forces these gods continue to live in the consciousness of mankind. In the thinking of the initiates, this diversity of gods or of forces was superseded and penetrated by the Supreme God or pure Spirit. The chief goal of the sanctuaries of Memphis, Delphi and Eleusis had been to teach this unity of God, along with the moral discipline attached to it. But the disciples of Orpheus, Pythagoras and Plato failed in face of the egotism of the politicians, the meanness of the Sophists and the passions of the crowd.

The social and political disintegration of Greece was the result of her religious, moral and intellectual deterioration. Apollo, the solar Word, the manifestation of the supreme God and of the supraterrestrial world through beauty, justice and divination, grows silent. There are no more oracles, no more inspired men, no more real poets: Minerva, Wisdom and Providence, veils herself before her people who are changing into satyrs, profaning the Mysteries, insulting the sages and gods in the theatre of Bacchus, by means of Aristophanic farces. The Mysteries themselves are corrupted, for sycophants and courtesans are admitted to the festivals of Eleusis. When the soul becomes clouded, religion becomes idolatrous; when thought becomes materialistic, philosophy falls into skepticism. Thus we see Lucian, a poor microbe born from the corpse of paganism, ridiculing the myths after Carneades misunderstood their scientific origin.

Superstitious in religion, agnostic in philosophy, selfish and divided in politics, drunk with anarchy and fatally sworn to tyranny; this is what had become of this divine Greece which transmitted the science of Egypt and the Mysteries of Asia to us in forms of immortal beauty.

If anyone understood what was lacking in the ancient world, if anyone tried to raise it again by an effort of heroism and genius, it was Alexander the Great. This legendary conqueror, like his father, Philip, initiated into the Mysteries of Samothrace, revealed himself much more as the spiritual son of Orpheus than the disciple of Aristotle. Doubtless this Achilles of Macedonia who set out with a handful of Greeks, crossing Asia to India, dreamed of a universal empire, but not through the oppression of peoples or through crushing religion and free science, as did the Caesars. His great idea was the reconciliation of Asia and Europe through a synthesis of religions, based upon a scientific authority. Thus motivated, he paid homage to the science of Aristotle as well as to Minerva of Athens, Jehovah of Jerusalem, Osiris of Egypt and Brahma of the Hindus. As a true initiate he recognized the same Divinity and the same Wisdom beneath all these symbols. This was the broad view, the superb divination of this new Dionysus! The sword of Alexander was the last lightning-flash of the Greece of Orpheus. It illumined both Orient and Occident. Philip's son died, intoxicated by his victory and his dream, leaving the remnants of his empire to rapacious generals. But his thought did not die with him. He had founded Alexandria, where Oriental philosophy, Judaism and Hellenism were ultimately to blend in the crucible of Egyptian esoterism, awaiting the word of the Resurrection of Christ.70 As the star-twins of Greece, Apollo and Minerva, faded on the horizon, men saw a threatening sign ascending into the stormy sky: the Roman She-Wolf.

What is Rome's origin? The conjuration of a greedy oligarchy in the name of brute force; the oppression of human intellect, of religion, science and art through deified political power; in other words, the opposite of the truth, according to which a government draws its power only from the supreme principles of science, justice and economy. All Roman history is but the outgrowth of this pact of iniquity by which the Roman senators declared war first on Italy, then on the human race. They chose their symbol well! The brass She-Wolf, raising her wild hair and moving her hyena-head on the Capitoline, is the reflection of this government, the demon which will possess the Roman soul to the very last.

In Greece, at least, men always respected the sanctuaries of Delphi and Eleusis. In Rome they suppressed science and art from the beginning. The efforts of the sage Numa, an Etruscan initiate, failed before the limitless ambition of the Roman senators. To Rome he brought the Sibylline Books, containing a part of the science of Hermes. He created arbitrating judges, elected by the people; he distributed lands to the latter; he erected a temple to Good Faith and Janus, a hierogram which means universality of law; he submitted the right of war to the Fecials. King Numa, whose memory the people did not cease to cherish, and whom they considered to have been inspired by a divine genius, seems therefore to be a historical intervention of sacred science in government. King Numa does not represent Roman genius, but the genius of Etruscan initiation, which followed the same principles as the Schools of Memphis and Delphi.

After Numa, the Roman Senate burned the Sibylline Books, destroyed the authority of the flamens, demolished the judicial institutions and returned to a system where religion was merely an instrument of political domination. Rome became the hydra which swallowed up peoples as well as their gods. Slowly the nations of the earth were subjugated and plundered. The Mamertine Prison was filled with kings from North and South. Wanting no priests other than slaves and charlatans, Rome assassinates the last guardians of esoteric tradition in Gaul, Egypt, Judea and Persia. She pretends to worship the gods, but worships only her She-Wolf. And now in a bloody dawn appears the last son of that wolf, epitomizing the genius of Rome: Caesar! Rome has absorbed all peoples; Caesar, her incarnation, devours all powers. Caesar not only dreams of being Emperor of Nations; uniting the tiara and the diadem in his crown, he has himself named Pontifex Maximus. After the Battle of Thapsus he is deified as a hero; after Munda, he is declared a god; finally, his statue is placed in the temple of Quirinus and a school of curates is established, bearing his name: the Julian priests. As an example of supreme irony and supreme logic of events, this same Caesar who makes himself god, denies the immortality of the soul in presence of the Senate. Is it possible to say more clearly that there is no longer any god except Caesar?

With the Caesars in control, Rome, heiress of Babylon, lifts her hand over the whole world. -- Meanwhile, what has become of the Roman State? It has destroyed all collective life outside the Capital. Dictatorship by the military is established in Italy, extortions by governors and publicans in the provinces.  -- Conquering Rome settles like a vampire upon the corpse of ancient societies.

Now the Roman orgies can parade openly with their bacchanale of vice, their procession of crimes. They begin with the voluptuous meeting of Mark Antony and Cleopatra; they will end with Messalina's outbursts and Nero's madness. They begin with a lascivious, public caricature of the Mysteries; they will end in the Roman Circus, where wild beasts fall upon naked virgins, martyrs of their faith, to the applause of twenty thousand spectators.

Nevertheless, among the peoples conquered by Rome were those who were called the people of God, and whose genius was the opposite of Roman genius. How does it happen that Israel, worn out by internal struggle, crushed by three hundred years of slavery, had preserved their faith undaunted? Why did these conquered people rise up in the face of Greek decadence and Roman orgies like a prophet, head covered with sackcloth and ashes, eyes flashing in terrible anger? How did they dare predict the fall of the masters who had their feet on their neck, and speak of a yet unknown, final triumph, at a time when they too were approaching final ruin? It is because a great idea lived in Israel. This idea had been inculcated by Moses. Under Joshua, the Twelve Tribes had raised a memorial stone with the inscription, "This is a covenant between us and Jehovah, who is the only God."

In the chapters on Moses we have seen how and why the law-maker of Israel made monotheism the cornerstone of his science, of his social law and of a universal religious idea. He had had the genius to understand that the future of mankind depended upon the victory of this idea. In order to preserve it, he had written a hieroglyphic book, built a golden Ark, raised a people out of the nomadic dust of the desert. Moses caused the fire of heaven to flash, the thunder to roar over these witnesses of the spiritual idea. Against them were pitted not only the Moabites, the Philistines, the Amalakites and all the peoples of Palestine, but also the passions and weaknesses of the Jewish people themselves. The book ceased to be understood by the priesthood, the Ark was captured by enemies, and again and again the people almost forgot their mission. Why then, in spite of everything, did they remain faithful? Why did Moses' idea remain engraved in letters of fire upon the brow and heart of Israel? To whom is this singular perseverance due -- this magnificent fidelity in the midst of the vicissitudes of a turbulent history filled with catastrophes, the fidelity which gives Israel its unique physiognomy among nations? One can answer, To the prophets, and to the institution of prophecy. By oral tradition, this dates back to Moses.

The Hebrews had prophets in all periods of their history, even until the time of their dispersal, but the institution of prophecy appears in an organic form for the first time in the period of Samuel. It was Samuel who founded those brotherhoods of Nebiim, those schools of prophets, in the face of a rising royalty and an already degenerate priesthood. He made the schools the strict guardians of esoteric tradition and of the universal religious thought of Moses, as opposed to the kings, in whom the political idea and nationalism were to predominate. In effect, in these brotherhoods were preserved the remains of Moses' science, the sacred music with its modes and powers, occult therapy and, finally, the art of divination which the great prophets handled with great ability and outstanding reverence.

Divination existed in the most varied forms among all peoples of ancient times. But in Israel prophecy was an unfolding, an elevation, an authority in which monotheism preserved the human soul. Prophecy, represented by the theologians of the earth as direct communication with a personal God, denied by naturalistic philosophy as pure superstition, is in reality but the higher manifestation of the universal laws of the spirit. "The general truths which govern the world," says Ewald in his fine book on the prophets, "in other words, the thoughts of God, are unchangeable and unassailable, entirely independent of the fluctuations of things, of the will and the actions of men. Man is originally intended to share in them, to understand them and to translate them freely into actions. Thus he reaches his own real destination. But in order for the Word of the Spirit to penetrate the flesh of man, man must first be shaken to his depths by the great upheavals of history. Then eternal Truth bursts forth like a stream of light. This is why it is so often said in the Old Testament that 'Jehovah is the one living God.' When man hears the divine call, a new life builds up within him; he no longer feels alone, but finds himself in communion with God and with all Truth. Now he is prepared to move from one truth to another, infinitely. In this new life his thought is identified with the universal Will. He has a clear view of the present and a complete faith in the ultimate victory of the divine idea. The man who experiences this is a prophet, that is, he feels irresistibly compelled to show himself to others as God's representative. His thought becomes vision, and that higher Power which makes Truth well up in his soul, sometimes by breaking it, constitutes the prophetic element. The prophetic manifestations in history have been the thunderbolts and lightnings of Truth."

From this stream those giants, Elias, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah drew their strength. In the depth of their caves or in kings' palaces, they were truly the sentinels of the Lord and, as Elisha says of his master, Elijah, "The chariots and horsemen of Israel." Often with perfect accuracy they foretell the death of kings, the fall of kingdoms and the punishments of Israel. Again, they are mistaken. Although lighted from the sun of divine Truth, in their hands the prophetic torch frequently flickers and grows dark at the breath of national passions. But never do they blunder in regard to moral truths, the true mission of Israel, or the ultimate triumph of justice among men. As true initiates they preach contempt for external cult, the abolition of bloody sacrifices, purification of the soul and charity. Their insight is particularly admirable in what concerns the ultimate victory of monotheism, its liberating and peacemaking role for all people.

The most terrible misfortunes which can strike a nation, including foreign invasion and mass deportation to Babylon, were unable to shake that faith. Listen to Isaiah during Sennacherib's invasion: "Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her: all ye that mourn for her, rejoice with her with a great joy. For thus saith the Lord: Behold I shall extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream: then shall ye suck and shall be borne upon her sides, and dandled upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforteth, so shall I comfort you; and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem. For I know their works and their thoughts; it shall come to pass that I will gather all nations and all tongues; and they shall come and shall behold my glory."

Only today, before the tomb of Christ, is this vision beginning to be fulfilled; but who can deny its prophetic truth when one considers Israel's role in the history of mankind?

No less unshakable than this faith in the future glory of Jerusalem, in its moral grandeur and its religious universality, is the faith of the prophets in a Savior or Messiah. All speak about him. Again, the incomparable Isaiah is the one who sees him most clearly, who describes him with most power in his bold language: "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.... But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked." At this vision, the despairing soul of the prophet is calmed, lighting up like a cloudy sky at the tremor of a celestial harp, and all the storms vanish. For now it is truly the picture of the Galilean which is traced before his inner eye: "He shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness.... He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows.... Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.... He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a Iamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth."

For eight centuries, above dissensions and national misfortunes, the thundering word of the prophets caused the idea and the image of the Messiah to be present, sometimes as a terrible avenger, sometimes as an angel of mercy. Born under Assyrian tyranny, amidst the exile of Babylon, unfolded under Persian domination, the Messianic idea continued to grow during the reign of the Seleucides and Maccabees. When the Roman domination and the reign of Herod came, the Messiah was living in the consciousness of all. If the great prophets had seen him as a just man and a martyr, a true son of God, the people -- faithful to the Judaic idea -- imagined him as a David, a Solomon or a new Maccabeus. But whoever this restorer of Israel's glory was to be, everyone believed in him, waited for him, called upon him. Such is the power of prophetic activity.

Thus, just as Roman history ended fatally with Caesar by way of destiny's instinctive path and infernal logic, so Israel's history led freely to Christ by way of the conscious path and the divine logic of Providence, manifested in its visible representatives, the prophets. Evil is fatally condemned to contradict itself and to destroy itself because it is false; but the Good, despite all obstacles, engenders light and harmony in the succession of the ages because it is the fecundity of Truth. From its triumph Rome had only Caesarism; from its decline, Israel gave birth to the Messiah, lending truth to that beautiful saying of a modern poet, "Out of its own shipwreck, hope creates the thing contemplated."

A faint expectancy hung over the peoples of the earth. In the excess of their evils, all humanity had a foreboding of a Saviour. For centuries all mythologies had dreamed of a divine child. Temples spoke of him mysteriously; astrologers calculated his coming; in their delirium the Sibyls had screamed of the fall of the pagan gods. The initiates had announced that one day the world would be ruled by one of their own, by a son of God. The earth waited for a spiritual king who would be understood by children, by the humble and the poor.

The great Aeschylus, son of a priest of Eleusis, was almost murdered by the Athenians because through the mouth of his Prometheus he dared say in the public theatre that the reign of Jupiter-Fate would end. Four centuries later, in the shadow of the throne of Augustus, gentle Virgil announces a new age, and dreams of a marvelous child: "That last Age, predicted by the Cumaean Sibyl, has come. The great order of centuries past is beginning again; already from the heavenly heights a new race descends. Deign, chaste Lucina, to protect this Child, whose birth is to banish the Age of Iron and to restore the Golden Age to the world; already your brother Apollo reigns. . . . See the world in balance, see earth and seas in their immensity, the sky and its deep vault, all nature trembling with the hope of the Age to come."

Where will this child be born? From what divine world will this soul come? By what lightning-flash of love will he descend to earth? By what wondrous purity, by what superhuman energy will he remember the heaven he has left behind? By what still more tremendous effort will he know how to arise once more from the depths of earthly consciousness, leading humanity in his train?

No one would have dared admit it, but everyone awaited him. Herod the Great, Idumean usurper and protégé of Caesar Augustus, was dying in his palace in Jericho after a luxurious and bloody reign, which had covered Judea with marvelous buildings and human hecatombs. Stricken with a frightful malady, a decomposition of the blood, he was breathing his last, hated by all, eaten by fury and remorse, haunted by the specters of his innumerable victims among whom was his innocent wife, -- the noble Miriam, descended from the Maccabees, as well as three of his own sons. The seven women of his harem had fled before the royal phantom which, still living, already smelled of the sepulchre. Even his bodyguard had abandoned him. Impassive, watching beside the dying, was his sister Salome, his evil genius, the instigator of his blackest crimes. Diadem upon her brow, her breast shimmering with precious jewels, haughtily she watched, awaiting the last breath of the king so she could seize the royal power.

Thus died the last king of the Jews. At that very moment, the future spiritual king of humanity had just been born. Silently, in profound humility and obscurity, the few initiates of Israel prepared for his reign.


Notes for this chapter:

70. How did Jesus become the Messiah? This is the original, most fundamental question in the concept of the Christ, but the problem cannot be solved without intuition and without esoteric tradition. It is with this esoteric light, this inner flame of all religions, this central truth of all fertile philosophy, that I have attempted to reconstruct the life of Jesus in broad outline, while taking into account all the previous work of historical criticism which has prepared the way. As far as what concerns the historical and relative value of the Gospels, I have taken the three Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as a basis, and John's Gospel as the arcanum of the esoteric doctrine of Christ, at the same time allowing for the posterior composition and symbolic tendency of this Gospel.

The four Gospels, which must be compared with each other, are equally authentic, but in different ways. Matthew and Mark are the valuable Gospels of the letter and fact; the public acts and speeches are found there. Gentle Luke lets the meaning of the Mysteries be partly seen beneath the poetic veil of legend. This is the Gospel of the Soul, of Woman and of Love, John unveils these mysteries. One finds with him the deep foundation of the doctrine, the secret teaching, the meaning of the Promise, the esoteric reserve. Clement of Alexandria, one of the rare Christian bishops who possessed the key of universal esoterism, has well called it "the Gospel of the Spirit." John has a profound view of the transcendent truths revealed by the Master and a powerful way of summarizing them. His symbol is the Eagle, whose wings fly through space, and whose flaming eye observes the deepest secrets. (See also Rudolf Steiner's book, Christianity as Mystical Fact and the Mysteries of Antiquity, as well as his published lecture cycles on the four Gospels. Emil Bock's Studies in the Gospels and his The Three Years also contain useful material.--Ed.)


39. Jesus' Early Development

The Great Initiates