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on which the early Christians, in their sensitiveness, fixed, as being a caricature of Jesus; but the features of the story so little resemble those of the career attributed to Jesus that no caricaturist would have hit his mark who thus distantly described the object aimed at. Yishó Nósri is said to have been a disciple of Rabbi Yehoshua, who took him to Alexandria to avoid persecution to which his sect of the Pharisees was then exposed. Yisho manifested such levity on the journey that the Rabbi excommunicated him. Afterwards he relented towards him, when Yishó broke from him and set up an idol which he worshiped, and induced others to worship. This brought down a sentence of death by lapidation and strangulation, which was executed upon him and his five disciples, named Mathaï, Nigar, Nesar, Búni, and Thoda. It is impossible to trace Jesus or his apostles in this history, and the time thereof, moreover, is laid about a century before the beginning of the Christian era. Excluding this legend, the Professor remarks, “It must for ever remain impossible to link the accounts of the Talmud to those of the gospels, either for mutual support or destruction” (Ibid. 368-370).
The absence, then, of all contemporaneous Jewish support to the history attaching to Christ is fatal to the integrity of this history. Pagan writers were not under equal obligations to have noticed him, but Christian advocates have looked to this source wherewith to fortify themselves, and it is necessary, therefore, that it should be considered. Mr Robert Taylor, in his Diegesis, has brought together all that is traced to classic authors bearing upon Christianity. Some of these supposed advertences are too indistinct to call for observation. Others need only to be pointed to as generally acknowledged forgeries, such as the report of Pontius Pilate to the Emperor Tiberius, which I have already had occasion to refer to, the description of the person of Jesus Christ attributed to Publius Lentulus, the marvellous impression of his features on the Veronica handkerchief, and the corroboration of the darkness said to have occurred at the crucifixion ascribed to Phlegon. These are instances of the active endeavours set on foot to support Christianity by means the resort to which would not have been thought of had real evidence been available.
Practically, the question may be narrowed to the consideration of what may have been said by three of these authors, namely, Pliny the younger (A.D. 106-110), Tacitus (A.D. 107), and Suetonius (A.D. 110). The subject has been carefully examined by two able writers in Mr Scott's series, one the learned author of “Our First Century,” who rejects the evidence as spurious, and the other, Mr Edward Vansittart Neale, who, in his article entitled “The Mythical Element in Christianity," upholds it.
Pliny is represented as addressing the Emperor Trajan for instructions how to deal with Christians as a class of people he had to put down by forcible measures. He says, “Having never been present at any trials concerning those persons who are Christians, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them.” It is impossible to conceive a Roman pro-consul in the dilemna described. The duty before him was of the simplest character, and he could have required no one to inform him that when parties were brought before him as deserving punishment, it was for him to call upon their accusers to say of what they were guilty, and to prove their allegations. Pliny is then made to exhibit his helplessness still further. Not knowing “ well what is the subject matter of punishment, or of inquiry," he is furthermore "perplexed to determine whether any difference ought to be made on account of age, or whether the young and tender, and the full-grown and robust ought to be treated all alike; whether repentance should entitle to pardon, or whether all who have once been Christians ought to be punished, though they are now no longer so.” Truly here is a measure of ineptitude impossible to have existed on the part of any functionary of the law, and still less on that of the ruler of a province in direct relations with the emperor. He does not know what to inquire about, or what to do; he is ignorant even whether he is to make a distinction between the guilty and the guiltless; and on questions of mere moral import he wonders whether he is to measure the thews and sinews of the possible delinquents! After this he proceeds to describe his course of action. “In the meanwhile,” he says, "the method I have observed towards those who have been brought before me as Christians is this: I interrogate them whether they
were Christians; if they confessed I repeated the question twice, adding threats at the same time; and if they persevered I ordered them to be executed immediately.” So that we have Pliny represented as entirely ignorant what the crime of being a Christian involved, feeling that discrimination of circumstances should be exercised in meting out some punishment to them, the nature and scale of which he was, however, incompetent to judge of, needing guidance from the Emperor, and yet boldly proceeding to threaten the accused with consequences unless they abandoned he knew not what, and on their refusal executing them all, and informing the Emperor that he had done so. This can be no report of any actualities, but simply scene-painting of a very inartistic kind. After this, strange to say, Pliny is made to appear fully aware of all that it concerned him to know of the Christian tenets. He applies to the accused the test of paying divine honours to the statue of the emperor and the images of the gods, and of reviling Christ; he describes their meetings and worship of Christ as God, their resolutions against all evil practices, their coming together to partake of a “common and innocent repast,” and his having ascertained, through “putting to the torture two women who were called deaconesses," that there was “nothing” to be " discovered,” connected with the adherents to Christianity,“ beyond an austere and excessive superstition.” On this he determined, he says, to adjourn the trials, and await instructions, proceeding, however, to notice that the new faith had been spreading itself over the whole land, and rendering the temples deserted. It is easy to see here the hand of the painter. We have one scheming to make the best possible representation of his creed, and to magnify its success. Those who followed this creed were, even under the description of their persecutors, the holiest and most blameless of men, suffering death without a cause, and yet covering the land with converts. The Romans were tolerant of all religions, and it would therefore have been a direct violation of the laws and policy of Rome for any one to have acted towards a body of harmless people with the senseless brutality attributed to Pliny. But the Emperor's reply to his subordinate is said to have been “mild and merciful.” “He approves of the governor's conduct, as explained in his letter," says that the Christians are not to be sought for, nor anonymous accusations against them received, and that the test to be applied when they were brought up was to be their consent to worship the Roman divinities (Smith, Dict. of Greek and Roman Biography). In short, the reply is one in appearance only, and destitute of realities. It neither rebukes the subordinate who stands committed to the extremes of feebleness and cruelty, nor gives him any solid instructions for his future guidance.
The testimony imputed to Tacitus is associated with Nero and the burning of Rome (A.D. 64). A report was spread about that Nero had ordered the conflagration, on which Tacitus is made to say, that to suppress the rumour Nero “ falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. The founder of that name,” he adds, “one Christus, was put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, in the reign of Tiberius; but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, whither all things horrible and disgraceful flow from all quarters, as to a common receptacle, and where they are encouraged.”
The question first to be considered, is the presence of Christians at Rome in the year 64. According to the Acts of the Apostles, and the marginal chronology in the authorized version, Paul was on the spot the previous year, and so little were the Christians known of any where in that region that the chief Jews of the place, on his arrival, beg him to tell them what they were to think of the movement. They knew nothing of the accusations Paul is said to have lain under as a leader of the party, and say, “We desire to hear of thee what thou thinkest : for as concerning this sect, we know that everywhere it is spoken against ” (xxviii. 22). Thereupon he preaches to them as to people who heard of Christianity from his lips then for the first time. This account in the Acts absolutely negatives the statement attributed to Paul in the Epistle to the Romans, that there was already at Rome a church whose “faith ” was “spoken of throughout the whole world” (i. 8). Then we have Josephus at Rome from the year 70 till the close of the century, knowing nothing of the existence of Christianity. The passage appearing in Tacitus is not noticed by such writers as Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and above all Eusebius. Tertullian and Eusebius have the representations ascribed to Pliny the younger in his alleged letter to Trajan, but show no acquaintance with that in Tacitus. They also appear to have been unaware of the particular persecution connected with the burning of Rome therein described. This fact, but without citation of any authority for it from Tacitus or any other, Mr Vansittart Neale allows is first met with in the writings of Sulpicius Severus at the close of the fourth century. The earliest MSS. of Tacitus, containing the passage in question, Mr Neale further states, are two that are traceable to the monastery of Casino, said in the years 1427 and 1428 to have been copied there in the eleventh century.
The testimony for the passage under consideration is thus on all sides the reverse of satisfactory. The act imputed to Nero is such an instance of wanton atrocity resorted to in connection with an event of historic notoriety, that no writers occupied with the trials of the early Christians could have failed to have noticed it, had there been such an occurrence ; there is even room to conclude that there were no Christians at Rome at the time in question to have been so dealt with ; at length, three centuries and a half after the period of Nero, some one, in depicting his crimes, brings against him this charge of sacrificing Christians as the incendiaries of his capital, but without quoting Tacitus for the circumstance; and at length, about a thousand years after the era of Tacitus, the passage before us makes its appearance ; and it comes to us under the very suspicious hand of a monkish copyist. There is perhaps no source of apparent independent testimony for the existence of Christianity in its first alleged age, to which its advocates more confidently appeal, thân this statement in the work of the renowned historian Tacitus, but the integrity of the passage, it may be seen, rests upon no true foundations. To the multitude of the fabrications of the early Christian times, this piece of evidence may be added ; nor is it traceable to the first ages, but belongs to a period and a class of persons universally mistrusted in Protestant circles.