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There is satisfactory evidence that many professing to be original witnesses of the Christian miracles, passed their lives in labours, dangers, and sufferings, voluntarily undergone in attestation of the accounts which they delivered, and solely in consequence of their belief of those accounts; and that they also submitted, from the same motives, to new rules of conduct.
The account of the treatment of the religion, and of the exertions of its first preachers, as stated in our Scriptures (not in a professed history of persecutions, or in the connected manner in which I am about to recite it, but dispersedly and occasionally, in the course of a mixed general history, which circumstance, alone negatives the supposition of any fraudulent design), is the following: “That the Founder of Christianity, from the commencement of his ministry to the time of his violent death, employed himself wholly in publishing the institution in Judea and Galilee; that, in order to assist him in this purpose, he made choice, out of the number of his followers, of twelve persons, who might accompany him as he travelled from place to place; that, except a short absence upon a journey in which he sent them two by two to announce his mission, and one of a few days, when they went before him to Jerusalem, these persons were steadily and constantly attending upon him; that they were with him at Jerusalem when he was apprehended and put to death; and that they were commissioned by him, when his own ministry was concluded, to publish his Gospel, and collect disciples to it from all countries of the world.” The account then proceeds to state, “that a few days after his departure, these persons, with some of his relations, and some who had regularly frequented their society, assembled at Jerusalem; that, considering the office of preaching the religion as now devolved upon them, and one of their number having deserted the cause, and, repenting of his perfidy, having destroyed himself, they proceeded to elect another into his place, and that they were careful to make their election out of the number of those who had accompanied their master from the first to the last, in order, as they alleged, that he might be a witness, together with themselves, of the principal facts which they were about to produce and relate concerning him; (Acts i. 12, 22.) that they began their work at Jerusalem by publicly asserting that this Jesus, whom the rulers and inhabitants of that place had so lately crucified, was, in truth, the person in whom all their prophecies and long expectations terminated; that he had been sent amongst them by God; and that he was appointed by God the future judge of the human species; that all who were solicitous to secure to themselves happiness after death, ought to receive him as such, and to make profession of their belief, by being baptised in his name.” (Acts xi.)
The history goes on to relate, “that considerable numbers accepted this
proposal, and that they who did so formed amongst themselves a strict
union and society; (Acts iv. 32.) that the attention of the Jewish
government being soon drawn upon them, two of the principal persons of
the twelve, and who also had lived most intimately and constantly with
the Founder of the religion, were seized as they were discoursing to the
people in the temple; that after being kept all night in prison, they
were brought the next day before an assembly composed of the chief
persons of the Jewish magistracy and priesthood; that this assembly,
after some consultation, found nothing, at that time, better to be done
towards suppressing the growth of the sect, than to threaten their
prisoners with punishment if they persisted; that these men, after
expressing, in decent but firm language, the obligation under which they
considered themselves to be, to declare what they knew, ‘to speak the
things which they had seen and heard,’ returned from the council, and
reported what had passed to their companions; that this report, whilst
it apprized them of the danger of their situation and undertaking, had
no other effect upon their conduct than to produce in them a general
resolution to persevere, and an earnest prayer to God to furnish them
with assistance, and to inspire them with fortitude, proportioned to the
increasing exigency of the service.” (Acts iv.) A very short time after
this, we read “that all the twelve apostles were seized and cast into
prison; (Acts v. 18.) that, being brought a second time before the
Jewish Sanhedrim, they were upbraided with their disobedience to the
injunction which had been laid upon them, and beaten for their
contumacy; that, being charged once more to desist, they were suffered
to depart; that however they neither quitted Jerusalem, nor ceased from
preaching, both daily in the temple, and from house to house (Acts iv.
32.) and that the twelve considered themselves as so entirely and
exclusively devoted to this office, that they now transferred what may
be called the temporal affairs of the society to other hands.”77 I do not know that it has ever been insinuated that the Christian
mission, in the hands of the apostles, was a scheme for making a
fortune, or for getting money. But it may nevertheless be fit to remark
upon this passage of their history, how perfectly free they appear to
have been from any pecuniary or interested views whatever. The most
tempting opportunity which occurred of making gain of their converts,
was by the custody and management of the public funds, when some of the
richer members, intending to contribute their fortunes to the common
support of the society, sold their possessions, and laid down the prices
at the apostles’ feet. Yet, so insensible or undesirous were they of the
advantage which that confidence afforded, that we find they very soon
disposed of the trust, by putting it into the hands, not of nominees of
their own, but of stewards formally elected for the purpose by the
society at large.
We may add also, that this excess of generosity, which cast private property into the public stock, was so far from being required by the apostles, or imposed as a law of Christianity, that Peter reminds Ananias that he had been guilty, in his behaviour, of an officious and voluntary prevarication; “for whilst,” says he, “thy estate remained unsold, was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?”
Hitherto the preachers of the new religion seem to have had the common people on their side; which is assigned as the reason why the Jewish rulers did not, at this time, think it prudent to proceed to greater extremities. It was not long, however, before the enemies of the institution found means to represent it to the people as tending to subvert their law, degrade their lawgiver, and dishonour their temple. (Acts vi. 12.) And these insinuations were dispersed with so much success as to induce the people to join with their superiors in the stoning of a very active member of the new community.
The death of this man was the signal of a general persecution, the activity of which may be judged of from one anecdote of the time: — “As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and taking men and women committed them to prison.” (Acts viii. 3.) This persecution raged at Jerusalem with so much fury as to drive most of the new converts out of the place,88Acts viii. 1. “And they were all scattered abroad;” but the term “all” is not, I think, to be taken strictly as denoting more than the generality; in like manner as in Acts ix. 35: “And all that dwelt at Lydda and Saron saw him, and turned to the Lord.” except the twelve apostles. The converts thus “scattered abroad,” preached the religion wherever they came; and their preaching was, in effect, the preaching of the twelve; for it was so far carried on in concert and correspondence with them, that when they heard of the success of their emissaries in a particular country, they sent two of their number to the place, to complete and confirm the mission.
An event now took place, of great importance in the future history of the religion. The persecution which had begun at Jerusalem followed the Christians to other cities, (Acts ix.) in which the authority of the Jewish Sanhedrim over those of their own nation was allowed to be exercised. A young man, who had signalized himself by his hostility to the profession, and had procured a commission from the council at Jerusalem to seize any converted Jews whom he might find at Damascus, suddenly became a proselyte to the religion which he was going about to extirpate. The new convert not only shared, on this extraordinary change, the fate of his companions, but brought upon himself a double measure of enmity from the party which he had left. The Jews at Damascus, on his return to that city, watched the gates night and day, with so much diligence, that he escaped from their hands only by being let down in a basket by the wall. Nor did he find himself in greater safety at Jerusalem, whither he immediately repaired. Attempts were there also soon set on foot to destroy him; from the danger of which he was preserved by being sent away to Cilicia, his native country.
For some reason not mentioned, perhaps not known, but probably connected with the civil history of the Jews, or with some danger99Dr. Lardner (in which he is followed also by Dr. Benson) ascribes the cessation of the persecution of the Christians to the attempt of Caligula to set up his own statue in the temple of Jerusalem, and to the consternation thereby excited in the minds of the Jewish people; which consternation for a season superseded every other contest. which engrossed the public attention, an intermission about this time took place in the sufferings of the Christians. This happened, at the most, only seven or eight, perhaps only three or four years after Christ’s death, within which period, and notwithstanding that the late persecution occupied part of it, churches, or societies of believers, had been formed in all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria; for we read that the churches in these countries “had now rest and were edified, and, walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.” (Acts ix. 31.) The original preachers of the religion did not remit their labours or activity during this season of quietness; for we find one, and he a very principal person among them, passing throughout all quarters. We find also those who had been before expelled from Jerusalem by the persecution which raged there, travelling as far as Poenice, Cyprus, and Antioch; (Acts xi. 19.) and lastly, we find Jerusalem again in the centre of the mission, the place whither the preachers returned from their several excursions, where they reported the conduct and effects of their ministry, where questions of public concern were canvassed and settled, whence directions were sought, and teachers sent forth.
The time of this tranquillity did not, however, continue long. Herod Agrippa, who bad lately acceded to the government of Judea, “stretched forth his hand to vex certain of the church.” (Acts xii. 1.) He began his cruelty by beheading one of the twelve original apostles, a kinsman and constant companion of the Founder of the religion. Perceiving that this execution gratified the Jews, he proceeded to seize, in order to put to death, another of the number, — and him, like the former, associated with Christ during his life, and eminently active in the service since his death. This man was, however, delivered from prison, as the account states miraculously, (Acts xii. 3-17.) and made his escape from Jerusalem.
These things are related, not in the general terms under which, in giving the outlines of the history, we have here mentioned them, but with the utmost particularity of names, persons, places, and circumstances; and, what is deserving of notice, without the smallest discoverable propensity in the historian, to magnify the fortitude, or exaggerate the sufferings, of his party. When they fled for their lives, he tells us. When the churches had rest, he remarks it. When the people took their part, he does not leave it without notice. When the apostles were carried a second time before the Sanhedrim, he is careful to observe that they were brought without violence. When milder counsels were suggested, he gives us the author of the advice and the speech which contained it. When, in consequence of this advice, the rulers contented themselves with threatening the apostles, and commanding them to be beaten with stripes, without urging at that time the persecution further, the historian candidly and distinctly records their forbearance. When, therefore, in other instances, he states heavier persecutions, or actual martyrdoms, it is reasonable to believe that he states them because they were true, and not from any wish to aggravate, in his account, the sufferings which Christians sustained, or to extol, more than it deserved, their patience under them.
Our history now pursues a narrower path. Leaving the rest of the apostles, and the original associates of Christ, engaged in the propagation of the new faith, (and who there is not the least reason to believe abated in their diligence or courage,) the narrative proceeds with the separate memoirs of that eminent teacher, whose extraordinary and sudden conversion to the religion, and corresponding change of conduct, had before been circumstantially described. This person, in conjunction with another, who appeared among the earlier members of the society at Jerusalem, and amongst the immediate adherents of the twelve apostles, (Acts iv. 36.) set out from Antioch upon the express business of carrying the new religion through the various provinces of the Lesser Asia. (Acts xiii. 2.) During this expedition, we find that in almost every place to which they came, their persons were insulted, and their lives endangered. After being expelled from Antioch in Pisidia, they repaired to Iconium. (Acts xiii. 51.) At Iconium, an attempt was made to stone them; at Lystra, whither they fled from Iconium, one of them actually was stoned and drawn out of the city for dead. (Acts xiv. 19.) These two men, though not themselves original apostles, were acting in connection and conjunction with the original apostles; for, after the completion of their journey, being sent on a particular commission to Jerusalem, they there related to the apostles (Acts xv. 12-26.) and elders the events and success of their ministry, and were in return recommended by them to the churches, “as men who had hazarded their lives in the cause.”
The treatment which they had experienced in the first progress did not deter them from preparing for a second. Upon a dispute, however, arising between them, but not connected with the common subject of their labours, they acted as wise and sincere men would act; they did not retire in disgust from the service in which they were engaged, but, each devoting his endeavours to the advancement of the religion, they parted from one another, and set forward upon separate routes. The history goes along with one of them; and the second enterprise to him was attended with the same dangers and persecutions as both had met with in the first. The apostle’s travels hitherto had been confined to Asia. He now crosses for the first time the Aegean sea, and carries with him, amongst others, the person whose accounts supply the information we are stating. (Acts xvi. 11.) The first place in Greece at which he appears to have stopped, was Philippi in Macedonia. Here himself and one of his companions were cruelly whipped, cast into prison, and kept there under the most rigorous custody, being thrust, whilst yet smarting with their wounds, into the inner dungeon, and their feet made fast in the stocks. (Acts xvi. 23, 24, 33.) Notwithstanding this unequivocal specimen of the usage which they had to look for in that country, they went forward in the execution of their errand. After passing through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica; in which city the house in which they lodged was assailed by a party of their enemies, in order to bring them out to the populace. And when, fortunately for their preservation, they were not found at home, the master of the house was dragged before the magistrate for admitting them within his doors. (Acts xvii. 1-5.) Their reception at the next city was something better: but neither had they continued long before their turbulent adversaries the Jews, excited against them such commotions amongst the inhabitants as obliged the apostle to make his escape by a private journey to Athens. (Acts xvii. 13.) The extremity of the progress was Corinth. His abode in this city, for some time, seems to have been without molestation. At length, however, the Jews found means to stir up an insurrection against him, and to bring him before the tribunal of the Roman president. (Acts xviii. 12.) It was to the contempt which that magistrate entertained for the Jews and their controversies, of which he accounted Christianity to be one, that our apostle owed his deliverance. (Acts xviii. 15.)
This indefatigable teacher, after leaving Corinth, returned by Ephesus into Syria; and again visited Jerusalem, and the society of Christians in that city, which, as hath been repeatedly observed, still continued the centre of the mission. (Acts xviii. 22.) It suited not, however, with the activity of his zeal to remain long at Jerusalem. We find him going thence to Antioch, and, after some stay there, traversing once more the northern provinces of Asia Minor. (Acts xviii. 23.) This progress ended at Ephesus: in which city, the apostle continued in the daily exercise of his ministry two years, and until his success, at length, excited the apprehensions of those who were interested in the support of the national worship. Their clamour produced a tumult, in which he had nearly lost his life. (Acts xix. 1, 9, 10.) Undismayed, however, by the dangers to which he saw himself exposed, he was driven from Ephesus only to renew his labours in Greece. After passing over Macedonia, he thence proceeded to his former station at Corinth. (Acts xx. 1, 2.) When he had formed his design of returning by a direct course from Corinth into Syria, he was compelled by a conspiracy of the Jews, who were prepared to intercept him on his way, to trace back his steps through Macedonia to Philippi, and thence to take shipping into Asia. Along the coast of Asia, he pursued his voyage with all the expedition he could command, in order to reach Jerusalem against the feast of Pentecost. (Acts xx. 16.) His reception at Jerusalem was of a piece with the usage he had experienced from the Jews in other places. He had been only a few days in that city, when the populace, instigated by some of his old opponents in Asia, who attended this feast, seized him in the temple, forced him out of it, and were ready immediately to have destroyed him, had not the sudden presence of the Roman guard rescued him out of their hands. (Acts xxi. 27-33.) The officer, however, who had thus seasonably interposed, acted from his care of the public peace, with the preservation of which he was charged, and not from any favour to the apostle, or indeed any disposition to exercise either justice or humanity towards him; for he had no sooner secured his person in the fortress, than he was proceeding to examine him by torture. (Acts xxii. 24.)
From this time to the conclusion of the history, the apostle remains in public custody of the Roman government. After escaping assassination by a fortunate discovery of the plot, and delivering himself from the influence of his enemies by an appeal to the audience of the emperor, (Acts xxv. 9, 11.) he was sent, but not until he had suffered two years’ imprisonment, to Rome. (Acts xxiv. 27.) He reached Italy after a tedious voyage, and after encountering in his passage the perils of a desperate shipwreck. (Acts xxvii.) But although still a prisoner, and his fate still depending, neither the various and long-continued sufferings which he had undergone, nor the danger of his present situation, deterred him from persisting in preaching the religion: for the historian closes the account by telling us that, for two years, he received all that came unto him in his own hired house, where he was permitted to dwell with a soldier that guarded him, “preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence.”
Now the historian, from whom we have drawn this account, in the part of his narrative which relates to Saint Paul, is supported by the strongest corroborating testimony that a history can receive. We are in possession of letters written by Saint Paul himself upon the subject of his ministry, and either written during the period which the history comprises, or, if written afterwards, reciting and referring to the transactions of that period. These letters, without borrowing from the history, or the history from them, unintentionally confirm the account which the history delivers, in a great variety of particulars. What belongs to our present purpose is the description exhibited of the apostle’s sufferings: and the representation, given in our history, of the dangers and distresses which he underwent not only agrees in general with the language which he himself uses whenever he speaks of his life or ministry, but is also, in many instances, attested by a specific correspondency of time, place, and order of events. If the historian put down in his narrative, that at Philippi the apostle “was beaten with many stripes, cast into prison, and there treated with rigour and indignity;” (Acts xvi. 23, 24.) we find him, in a letter to a neighbouring church, (I Thess. ii. 2.) reminding his converts that, “after he had suffered before, and was shamefully entreated at Philippi, he was bold, nevertheless, to speak unto them (to whose city he next came) the Gospel of God.” If the history relates that, (Acts xvii. 5.) at Thessalonica, the house in which the apostle was lodged, when he first came to that place, was assaulted by the populace, and the master of it dragged before the magistrate for admitting such a guest within his doors; the apostle, in his letter to the Christians of Thessalonica, calls to their remembrance “how they had received the Gospel in much affliction.” (1 Thess. i. 6.) If the history deliver an account of an insurrection at Ephesus, which had nearly cost the apostle his life, we have the apostle himself, in a letter written a short time after his departure from that city, describing his despair, and returning thanks for his deliverance. (Acts xix.; 2 Cor. i. 8-10.) If the history inform us, that the apostle was expelled from Antioch in Pisidia, attempted to be stoned at Iconium, and actually stoned at Lystra; there is preserved a letter from him to a favourite convert, whom, as the same history tells us, he first met with in these parts; in which letter he appeals to that disciple’s knowledge “of the persecutions which befell him at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra.” (Acts xiii. 50; xiv. 5, 19. 2 Tim. iii. 11.) If the history make the apostle, in his speech to the Ephesian elders, remind them, as one proof of the disinterestedness of his views, that, to their knowledge, he had supplied his own and the necessities of his companions by personal labour; (Acts xx. 34.) we find the same apostle, in a letter written during his residence at Ephesus, asserting of himself, “that even to that hour he laboured, working with his own hands.” (1 Cor. iv. 11, 12.)
These coincidences, together with many relative to other parts of the apostle’s history, and all drawn from independent sources, not only confirm the truth of the account, in the particular points as to which they are observed, but add much to the credit of the narrative in all its parts; and support the author’s profession of being a contemporary of the person whose history he writes, and, throughout a material portion of his narrative, a companion.
What the epistles of the apostles declare of the suffering state of Christianity the writings which remain of their companions and immediate followers expressly confirm.
Clement, who is honourably mentioned by Saint Paul in his epistle to the Philippians, (Philipp. iv. 3.) hath left us his attestation to this point, in the following words: “Let us take (says he) the examples of our own age. Through zeal and envy, the most faithful and righteous pillars of the church have been persecuted even to the most grievous deaths. Let us set before our eyes the holy apostles. Peter, by unjust envy, underwent not one or two, but many sufferings; till at last, being martyred, he went to the place of glory that was due unto him. For the same cause did Paul, in like manner, receive the reward of his patience. Seven times he was in bonds; he was whipped, was stoned; he preached both in the East and in the West, leaving behind him the glorious report of his faith; and so having taught the whole world righteousness, and for that end travelled even unto the utmost bounds of the West, he at last suffered martyrdom by the command of the governors, and departed out of the world, and went unto his holy place, being become a most eminent pattern of patience unto all ages. To these holy apostles were joined a very great number of others, who, having through envy undergone, in like manner, many pains and torments, have left a glorious example to us. For this, not only men, but women, have been persecuted; and, having suffered very grievous and cruel punishments, have finished the course of their faith with firmness.” (Clem. ad Cor. c. v. vi. Abp. Wake’s Trans.)
Hermas, saluted by Saint Paul in his epistle to the Romans, in a piece very little connected with historical recitals, thus speaks: “Such as have believed and suffered death for the name of Christ, and have endured with a ready mind, and have given up their lives with all their hearts.” (Shepherd of Hermas, c. xxviii.)
Polycarp, the disciple of John (though all that remains of his works be a very short epistle), has not left this subject unnoticed. “I exhort (says he) all of you, that ye obey the word of righteousness, and exercise all patience, which ye have seen set forth before your eyes, not only in the blessed Ignatius, and Lorimus, and Rufus, but in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself and the rest of the apostles; being confident in this, that all these have not run in vain, but in faith and righteousness; and are gone to the place that was due to them from the Lord, with whom also they suffered. For they loved not this present world, but him who died, and was raised again by God for us.” (Pol. ad Phil c. ix.)
Ignatius, the contemporary of Polycarp, recognises the same topic, briefly indeed, but positively and precisely. “For this cause, (i. e. having felt and handled Christ’s body at his resurrection, and being convinced, as Ignatius expresses it, both by his flesh and spirit,) they (i. e. Peter, and those who were present with Peter at Christ’s appearance) despised death, and were found to be above it.” (19. Ep. Smyr. c. iii.)
Would the reader know what a persecution in those days was, I would refer him to a circular letter, written by the church of Smyrna soon after the death of Polycarp, who it will be remembered, had lived with Saint John; and which letter is entitled a relation of that bishop’s martyrdom. “The sufferings (say they) of all the other martyrs were blessed and generous, which they underwent according to the will of God. For so it becomes us, who are more religious than others, to ascribe the power and ordering of all things unto Him. And, indeed, who can choose but admire the greatness of their minds, and that admirable patience and love of their Master, which then appeared in them? Who, when they were so flayed with whipping that the frame and structure of their bodies were laid open to their very inward veins and arteries, nevertheless endured it. In like manner, those who were condemned to the beasts, and kept a long time in prison, underwent many cruel torments, being forced to lie upon sharp spikes laid under their bodies, and tormented with divers other sorts of punishments; that so, if it were possible, the tyrant, by the length of their sufferings, might have brought them to deny Christ.” (Rel. Mor. Pol. c. ii.)
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