« PreviousContinue »
opposed by the magistrate. The violent temporary persecutions which their intolerance of the heathen deities, and their apparently seditious doctrine of the subversion of all existing political states, brought upon the early Christians, merely fanned instead of extinguishing the flame of proselytism,* and gave to them as martyrs another title to the sympathies of the generous and humane part of mankind. Neither polytheism nor any of the philo- sophies prevalent in the Roman empire possessed vitality enough to resist the powerful influences which thus rolled onward from Palestine; and after three centuries of alternate persecution and repose, a politic emperor found it expedient to offer to the reforming sect an alliance with the state.
* The attempt of Gibbon, in his 16th chapter, to conceal the sufferings of the early Christians is as contradictory to history as it is ungenerous. The persecution under Marcus Antoninus,
glossed over: “During the whole course of his reign, Marcus despised the Christians as a philosopher, and punished them as a sovereign." A parasite of the emperor could not have written in a more courtly manner. But it must be allowed that there were between the persecutions long intervals, in which the Christians lived and practised their rites with tolerable security.
ON THE DATE AND CREDIBILITY OF THE GOSPEL OF
THE four Gospels contain many things agreeing with the usual order of nature, and necessary to account for the growth of Christianity, such as the existence, public preaching, and death of Christ; but they also contain many things unusual in the order of nature, and, as the preceding sketch has shewn, not necessary to account for the growth of Christianity, such as Christ's miracles and resurrection. Admitting that a miracle may be proved by sufficient testimony, we are forced also to admit that testimony, in order to be sufficient in this case, must be considerably stronger than that upon which we should believe ordinary facts. Paley agrees that Hume states the case of miracles fairly, when he says that it is a question whether it be more improbable that the miracle should be true, or the testimony false. Evid. vol. i. p. 11.
Paley, however, labours to prove that we ought to admit an antecedent probability in favour of a miraculous revelation, from our knowledge of the existence, disposition, and constant agency of the Deity. Others, with Rousseau, have argued that it is antecedently improbable that the Deity should choose to reveal himself by signs of such doubtful and difficult verification as miracles. Most of those who approach the evangelical histories are probably influenced by considerations of one or the other sort; and on the antecedent bias it will depend whether the degree of credibility which can be established for the evangelists appear sufficient to attest even their miraculous narratives. Hence the different conclusions arrived at by those who apply to the study of the Christian evidences. In either case there seems to be a departure from the strict inductive method, which should lead us to inquire, not what the Deity would or ought to have done, but what he has actually done. It seems be
yond the power of the human intellect to decide, à priori, whether a miraculous revelation, or instruction through nature alone, be more suitable to the character of God; but mere common sense, accompanied by industry, patience, and candour, is able to form an opinion as to the weight due to the historical evidence alleged in favour of the supposed miraculous revelation. Critical and historical research, therefore, appears to be the only means of arriving at a sound conclusion.
Let us, then, collect the best evidence we can as to the evangelists' veracity and knowledge of the things which they relate, in order to judge if it be so strong as to warrant a reasonable man in believing them when they relate miracles; or, in other words, if, considering the circumstances in which they were placed, and what we can perceive of their views, motives, and characters, it be more improbable that the miracles should be true, or their testimony false.
The first Gospel bears no author's name in itself, but has come down to us from the earliest ages of the church under the title of “the Gospel according to St. Matthew.” Neither does it bear in itself any date. We are obliged, then, to supply these omissions by inferences from the contents of the book itself, and by external evidence.
I. The contents of the book shew that it was published during or immediately after the Jewish war, A.D. 66 to 70; for the 24th chapter, written in the prophetic style, mentions things which agree with real events up to that time, but disagree with them afterwards. This is shewn by the following examination of the chapter as compared with the histories of Josephus and others; besides which there are some internal indications that it was not a prediction really delivered by Jesus, but the writer's own description of his times.
Matt. xxiv. 1, And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple ; and the disciples came to shew him the buildings of the temple. 2, And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things ? Verily, I say unto you, there shall not be left one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down.
This prediction is not referred to in the speeches of the
Apostles in the Acts,* nor in any of the epistles, although those of Paul dwell frequently upon the state and prospects of the Jewish nation.
3, And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us when shall these things be ? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world ?
Since the writer says the prediction was delivered privately, the general testimony of the church must have been wanting to support it. He does not say from which of the disciples he himself obtained his information. Mark says, the disciples to whom it was delivered were Peter, James, John, and Andrew; but we cannot find that any of these mentioned it themselves, although epistles are remaining from three of them, of which one was written shortly before the events referred to. The coming of Jesus, and the end of the world, were generally expected by the Christians about the time of the siege of Jerusalem; but in the lifetime of Jesus the first phrase would have little meaning, for Jesus was already with them; and the disciples then expected, not the end of the world, but the restoration of the throne of Israel.
4, And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. 5, For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ, and shall deceive many.
Jos. War, book ii. ch. 13, “ There was also another body of wicked men gotten together, who laid waste the happy state of the city no less than did these murderers. These were such men as deceived and deluded the people under pretence of divine inspiration, but were for procuring innovations and changes of the government; and these prevailed with the multitude to act like madmen, and went before them into the wilderness, as pretending that God would there shew them the signals of liberty." This was in the procuratorship of Felix, A.D. 55. Ibid. “ Now when these (the Egyptian false prophet and his
* Stephen was accused of having said, that “ Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and change the customs which Moses delivered.” Acts vi. 14. But it does not appear that he referred to any prediction of Jesus himself.
† 1 Peter, about A.D. 64.
company) were quieted, it happened, as it does in a diseased body, that another part was subject to an inflammation; for a company of deceivers and robbers got together, and persuaded the Jews to revolt, and exhorted them to assert their liberty, inflicting death on those that continued in obedience to the Roman government, and saying, that such as willingly chose slavery ought to be forced from such their desired inclinations; for they parted themselves into different bodies, and lay in wait up and down the country, and plundered the houses of the great men, and slew the men themselves, and set the villages on fire; and this till all Judea was filled with the effects of their madness. And thus the flame was every day more and more blown up, till it came to a direct war."
6, And ye shall hear of wars, and rumours of wars ; see that ye be not troubled : for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.
Jos. War ii. ch. 16, “ However, Florus contrived another way to oblige the Jews to begin the war, and sent to Cestius, and accused the Jews falsely of revolting.” Then followed many massacres and tumults in different parts of Judea, in Syria, and at Alexandria; but the people were restrained by Agrippa from an open war. Chap. 17, “And thus did Agrippa then put a stop to the war which was threatened.” After this, Cestius marched to Jerusalem, 30 Oct. A.D. 66, and was beaten; which was the beginning of the war: but Jerusalem itself was not besieged till three years and a half afterwards.
7, For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines and pestilences and earthquakes in divers places. 8, All these are the beginning of sorrows.
Jos. War iv. ch. 8, “In the meantime (about March A.D. 68) an account came that there were commotions in Galatia, and that Vindex, with the men of power in that country, had revolted from Nero. This report excited Vespasian to go on briskly with the war; for he foresaw already the civil wars which were coming upon them, nay, that the very government was in danger; and he thought, if he could first reduce the eastern parts of