« PreviousContinue »
THE ERA OF CHRISTIANITY.
CHRISTIANITY purports to be a system of religion derived from a superhuman source. It needed that a divine personage should descend from heaven to inculcate it by precept and example, and seal its doctrines with his blood. On this foundation is built up a scheme for the deliverance of mankind from sin and its consequences. The blood was shed sacrificially, and is of efficacy to ransom the sinner's soul and blot out all his guilt. The first Adam brought in sin and its penalty. The second Adam redeems those who rely on him from all evil, setting them, in their ultimate condition and sphere, above the possibility of perpetrating sin or incurring suffering. The message is a tempting one, if only it be offered on reliable grounds. It is specially acceptable to souls burdened with a sense of guilt, and deprived, by systematic teaching, from infancy, of all reliance on their Creator, as such.
Excluding, for the present, the canonical Christian scriptures, the earliest formulated history we have of this faith is by Eusebius, who was bishop of Cæsarea, and wrote towards the beginning of the fourth century. After the lapse, therefore, of nearly three hundred years from the death of the alleged founder of the system, we have the first attempt to place before us, historically, its uprise and development.
It is assuredly no advantage to the cause of Christianity that its outwardly discernible foundations were laid at so late a time as the reign of Constantine, and by one noted, not for virtue, but crime. Nor is it to the credit of its first historian that he should have been associated in the work of organizing the creed of Christianity with so flagitious a char
ense of guilt.
acter, to whom, in the fulsomeness of adulation, he attributed supereminent godliness.
The writer, as might be expected, when treating of days, when society was on a disturbed and imperfect footing, and literary productions scant and crude, came to his task with considerable disadvantage, and he consequently claims for his work lenient consideration. “I freely confess," he says, " it will crave indulgence, especially since, as the first of those that have entered upon the subject, we are attempting a kind of trackless and unbeaten path. Looking up with prayer to God as our guide, we trust, indeed, that we shall have the power of Christ as our aid, though we are totally unable to find even the bare vestiges of those who may have travelled the way before us; unless, perhaps, what is only presented in the slight intimations which some in different ways have transmitted to us in certain partial narratives of the times in which they lived; who, raising their voices before us, like torches at a distance, and as looking down from some commanding height, call out and exhort us where we should walk, and whither direct our course with certainty and safety” (Ec. Hist. i. 1). While the historian acknowledges having proceeded to his task in great destitution of materials, we have him ending by placing before us a work teeming with facts. Through the vista of fifteen hundred and fifty years we have to judge of the results thus arrived at. The author wrote with a particular purpose. “Whatsoever, therefore,” he goes on to inform us, “we deem likely to be advantageous to the proposed subject, we shall endeavour to reduce to a compact body by historical narration.” His object is to build up Christianity on historic foundations. He has to grope his way through unexplored and dubious channels; we, at this distant day, have to depend entirely on his judgment and integrity; and it cannot be said that he has not sufficiently shown his hand to place us upon our guard in accepting his results. “My first, my best, and almost my only authority," says Dr Donaldson, who has given the whole subject a careful study, “is Eusebius. ... All: subsequent writers have simply repeated his statenients, sometimes indeed misrepresenting them. Eusebius therefore stands as my first and almost only authority” (Hist. of Christ. Lit. and Doctrine, I. 13, 14).
The most important guides which present themselves to the student of Christianity in the present times are, of course, the accepted scriptures. But Eusebius did not stand upon similar vantage ground with ourselves. The canon of the scripture was maturing itself in his day, but was far from being absolutely settled. There was a large body of writings, preceding and accompanying the now accepted scriptures, which, by existing universal consent, have been long disallowed as apocryphal. That distinction had been only partially drawn in the time of Eusebius, and he had to steer his course with no certain direction to guide him but his own judgment in deciding upon his authorities. He exercised this judgment apparently but little conscious of the perils besetting him.
There was also a flood of literature, illustrative of Christianity, consisting of doctrinal epistles, controversial writings, formal defences and apologies of Christianity, and also a current of traditionary information, from which he had to cull materials.
Dr Donaldson certainly has not been able to form a high estimate of the sole guide he has had to follow in his attempt to unravel the labyrinth of the writings of the early Christians. “ Like all the rest of his age,” he states, speaking of Eusebius, “ he was utterly uncritical in his estimate of evidence, and where he, as it were, translates the language of others into his own, not giving their words but his own idea of their meaning, he is almost invariably wrong. Every statement therefore which he makes himself, is to be received with caution” (Hist. of Christ. Lit., I. 14).
The times were not characterized by accuracy of representation. Deception in literary productions was not only practised, but openly defended. The object being to exalt religious sentiment among mankind, and to fix it on that form of faith which was accounted of paramount value, it was considered warrantable to promote these aims, by whatsoever means. The Christian writers were not the authors of such principles; they inherited them from the teachers that had gone before them. “The Platonists and Pythagoreans held it as a maxim that it was not only lawful, but even praiseworthy to deceive, and even to use the expedient of a lie, in order to advance the cause of truth and piety. The Jews, who lived in Egypt, had learned and received this maxim
from them, before the coming of Christ, as appears incontestably from a multitude of ancient records ; and the Christians were infected from both these sources with the same pernicious error, as appears from the number of books attributed falsely to great and venerable names, from the sibylline verses, and several productions which were spread abroad in this (the first) and the following century" (Mosheim, Ec. Hist., I., iii, 15). “With the greatest grief we find ourselves compelled to acknowledge, that the upright and laudable exertions thus made by the wise and pious part of the Christian community, were not only human means which in this century (the second) were employed in promoting the propagation of the Christian faith. For by some of the weaker brethren, in their anxiety to assist God with all their might, such dishonest artifices were occasionally resorted to, as could not, under any circumstances, admit of excuse, and were utterly unworthy of that sacred cause, which they were unquestionably intended to support. Perceiving, for instance, in what vast repute the poetical effusions of those ancient prophetesses, termed Sibyls, were held by the Greeks and Romans, some Christian, or rather, perhaps, an association of Christians, in the reign of Antoninus Pius, composed eight books of Sibylline Verses, made up of prophecies respecting Christ and his kingdom, with a view to persuade the ignorant and unsuspecting, that even so far back as the time of Noah, a Sibyl had foretold the coming of Christ, and the rise and progress of his church. This artifice succeeded with not a few, nay some even of the principal Christian teachers themselves were imposed upon by it; but it evidently brought great scandal on the Christian cause, since the fraud was too palpable to escape the searching penetration of those who gloried in displaying their hostility to the Christian name. By others, who were aware that nothing could be held more sacred than the name and authority of Hermes Trismegistus were by the Egyptians, a work bearing the title of Poemander, and other books, replete with Christian principles and maxims, were sent forth into the world, with the name of this most ancient and highly venerated philosopher prefixed to them, so that deceit might, if possible, effect the conversion of those whom reason had failed to convince. Many other deceptions of this sort, to which custom has very improperly given the denomination of PIOUS FRAUDS, are known to have been practised in this and the succeeding century. The authors of them were, in all probability, actuated by no ill intention, but this is all that can be said in their favour, for their conduct in this respect was certainly most ill-advised and unwarrantable. Although the greater part of those who were concerned in these forgeries on the public, undoubtedly belonged to some heretical sect or other, and particularly to that class which arrogated to itself the pompous denomination of Gnostics, I yet cannot take upon me to acquit even the most strictly orthodox from all participation in this species of criminality; for it appears from evidence superior to all exception, that a pernicious maxim, which was current in the schools not only of the Egyptians, the Platonists, and the Pythagoreans, but also of the Jews, was very early recognized by the Christians, and soon found amongst them numerous patrons, namely, that those who made it their business to deceive with a view of promoting the cause of truth, were deserving rather of commendation than censure” (Mosheim, Early Christians, II., vii). “It is certain,” says Mr Mackay, “that pseudonymous writing was from early times a common Israelitish custom. ... Early Christian literature avowedly swarmed with what we should term forgeries” (The Tubingen School, 331, 335, citing Irenæus). Speaking of the credulity of the early Christian Fathers, the learned author of Supernatural Religion says, “No fable could be too gross, no invention too transparent for their unsuspicious acceptance, if it assumed a pious form, or tended to edification. No period in the history of the world ever produced so many spurious works as the first two or three centuries of our era. The name of every apostle or Christian teacher, not excepting the great Master himself, was freely attached to every description of religious forgery. False gospels, epistles, acts, martyrologies were unscrupulously circulated, and such pious falsification was not even intended or regarded as a crime, but perpetrated for the sake of edification ” (I. 465, 466). “The early Christians adopted the very illogical principle of criticism, that whatever was edifying was true, whatever was true was genuine, whatever was genuine was old, whatever was old was apostolic, whatever was apostolic was authoritative, and whatever was autho