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THE CANDOUR OF THE WRITERS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT.
I make this candour to consist in their putting down many passages, and noticing many circumstances, which no writer whatever was likely to have forged; and which no writer would have chosen to appear in his book who had been careful to present the story in the most unexceptionable form, or who had thought himself at liberty to carve and mould the particulars of that story according to his choice, or according to his judgment of the effect.
A strong and well-known example of the fairness of the evangelists offers itself in their account of Christ’s resurrection, namely, in their unanimously stating that after he was risen he appeared to his disciples alone. I do not mean that they have used the exclusive word alone; but that all the instances which they have recorded of his appearance are instances of appearance to his disciples; that their reasonings upon it, and allusions to it, are confined to this supposition; and that by one of them Peter is made to say, “Him God raised up the third day, and showed him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before of God, even to us who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead.” (Acts x. 40, 41.) The most common understanding must have perceived that the history of the resurrection would have come with more advantage if they had related that Jesus appeared, after he was risen, to his foes as well as his friends, to the scribes and Pharisees, the Jewish council, and the Roman governor: or even if they had asserted the public appearance of Christ in general unqualified terms, without noticing, as they have done, the presence of his disciples on each occasion, and noticing it in such a manner as to lead their readers to suppose that none but disciples were present. They could have represented in one way as well as the other. And if their point had been to have their religion believed, whether true or false; if they had fabricated the story ab initio; or if they had been disposed either to have delivered their testimony as witnesses, or to have worked up their materials and information as historians, in such a manner as to render their narrative as specious and unobjectionable as they could; in a word, if they had thought of anything but of the truth of the case, as they understood and believed it; they would in their account of Christ’s several appearances after his resurrection, at least have omitted this restriction. At this distance of time, the account as we have it is perhaps more credible than it would have been the other way; because this manifestation of the historians’ candour is of more advantage to their testimony than the difference in the circumstances of the account would have been to the nature of the evidence. But this is an effect which the evangelists would not foresee: and I think that it was by no means the case at the time when the books were composed.
Mr. Gibbon has argued for the genuineness of the Koran, from the confessions which it contains, to the apparent disadvantage of the Mahometan cause. (Vol. ix. c. 50, note 96.) The same defence vindicates the genuineness of our Gospels, and without prejudice to the cause at all.
There are some other instances in which the evangelists honestly relate what they must have perceived would make against them.
Of this kind is John the Baptist’s message preserved by Saint Matthew (xi. 2) and Saint Luke (vii. 18): “Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or look we for another?” To confess, still more to state, that John the Baptist had his doubts concerning the character of Jesus, could not but afford a handle to cavil and objection. But truth, like honesty, neglects appearances. The same observation, perhaps, holds concerning the apostacy of Judas.5252I had once placed amongst these examples of fair concession the remarkable words of Saint Matthew in his account of Christ’s appearance upon the Galilean mountain: “And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” (Chap. xxviii. 17.) I have since, however, been convinced, by what is observed concerning this passage in Dr. Townshend’s Discourse (Page 177.) upon the Resurrection, that the transaction, as related by Saint Matthew, was really this: “Christ appeared first at a distance; the greater part of the company, the moment they saw him, worshipped, but some as yet, i.e. upon this first distant view of his person, doubted; whereupon Christ came up to them, and spake to them,” (Note: Saint Matthew’s words are: kai proselthon o Iesous elalesen autois [and having come toward them, Jesus spoke]. This intimates that when he first appeared it was at a distance, at least from many of the spectators. Ib. p. 197.) &c.: that the doubt, therefore, was a doubt only at first for a moment, and upon his being seen at a distance, and was afterwards dispelled by his nearer approach, and by his entering into conversation with them.
John vi. 66. “From that time, many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.” Was it the part of a writer who dealt in suppression and disguise to put down this anecdote? Or this, which Matthew has preserved (xii. 58)? “He did not many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.”
Again, in the same evangelist (v. 17, 18): “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil; for, verily, I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle, shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” At the time the Gospels were written, the apparent tendency of Christ’s mission was to diminish the authority of the Mosaic code, and it was so considered by the Jews themselves. It is very improbable, therefore, that, without the constraint of truth, Matthew should have ascribed a saying to Christ, which, primo intuitu, militated with the judgment of the age in which his Gospel was written. Marcion thought this text so objectionable, that he altered the words, so as to invert the sense. (Lardner, Cred., vol. xv. p. 422.)
Once more (Acts xxv. 18): “They brought none accusation against him of such things as I supposed; but had certain questions against him of their own superstition, and of one Jesus which was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive.” Nothing could be more in the character of a Roman governor than these words. But that is not precisely the point I am concerned with. A mere panegyrist, or a dishonest narrator, would not have represented his cause, or have made a great magistrate represent it, in this manner, i.e. in terms not a little disparaging, and bespeaking, on his part, much unconcern and indifference about the matter. The same observation may be repeated of the speech which is ascribed to Gallio (Acts xviii. 15): “If it be a question of words and names, and of your law, look ye to it; for I will be no judge of such matters.”
Lastly, where do we discern a stronger mark of candour, or less disposition to extol and magnify, than in the conclusion of the same history? in which the evangelist, after relating that Paul, on his first arrival at Rome, preached to the Jews from morning until evening, adds, “And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not.”
The following, I think, are passages which were very unlikely to have presented themselves to the mind of a forger or a fabulist.
Matt. xxi. 21. “Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done unto the fig-tree, but also, if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou east into the sea, it shall be done; all things whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, it shall be done.” (See also chap. xvii. 20. Luke xvii. 6.) It appears to me very improbable that these words should have been put into Christ’s mouth, if he had not actually spoken them. The term “faith,” as here used, is perhaps rightly interpreted of confidence in that internal notice by which the apostles were admonished of their power to perform any particular miracle. And this exposition renders the sense of the text more easy. But the words undoubtedly, in their obvious construction, carry with them a difficulty which no writer would have brought upon himself officiously.
Luke ix. 59. “And he said unto another, Follow me: but he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead, but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.” (See also Matt. viii. 21.) This answer, though very expressive of the transcendent importance of religious concerns, was apparently harsh and repulsive; and such as would not have been made for Christ if he had not really used it. At least some other instance would bare been chosen.
The following passage, I, for the same reason, think impossible to have been the production of artifice, or of a cold forgery: — “But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell-fire (Gehennae).” Matt. v. 22. It is emphatic, cogent, and well calculated for the purpose of impression; but is inconsistent with the supposition of art or wariness on the part of the relator.
The short reply of our Lord to Mary Magdalen, after his resurrection (John xx. 16, 17), “Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended unto my Father,” in my opinion must have been founded in a reference or allusion to some prior conversation, for the want of knowing which his meaning is hidden from us. This very obscurity, however, is a proof of genuineness. No one would have forged such an answer.
John vi. The whole of the conversation recorded in this chapter is in the highest degree unlikely to be fabricated, especially the part of our Saviour’s reply between the fiftieth and the fifty-eighth verse. I need only put down the first sentence: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give him is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Without calling in question the expositions that have been given of this passage, we may be permitted to say, that it labours under an obscurity, in which it is impossible to believe that any one, who made speeches for the persons of his narrative, would have voluntarily involved them. That this discourse was obscure, even at the time, is confessed by the writer who had preserved it, when he tells us, at the conclusion, that many of our Lord’s disciples, when they had heard this, said, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?”
Christ’s taking of a young child, and placing it in the midst of his contentious disciples (Matt. xviii. 2), though as decisive a proof as any could be of the benignity of his temper, and very expressive of the character of the religion which he wished to inculcate, was not by any means an obvious thought. Nor am I acquainted with anything in any ancient writing which resembles it.
The account of the institution of the eucharist bears strong internal marks of genuineness. If it had been feigned, it would have been more full; it would have come nearer to the actual mode of celebrating the rite as that mode obtained very early in the Christian churches; and it would have been more formal than it is. In the forged piece called the Apostolic Constitutions, the apostles are made to enjoin many parts of the ritual which was in use in the second and third centuries, with as much particularity as a modern rubric could have done. Whereas, in the history of the Lord’s Supper, as we read it in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, there is not so much as the command to repeat it. This, surely, looks like undesignedness. I think also that the difficulty arising from the conciseness of Christ’s expression, “This is my body,” would have been avoided in a made-up story. I allow that the explication of these words given by Protestants is satisfactory; but it is deduced from a diligent comparison of the words in question with forms of expression used in Scripture, and especially by Christ upon other occasions. No writer would arbitrarily and unnecessarily have thus cast in his reader’s way a difficulty which, to say the least, it required research and erudition to clear up.
Now it ought to be observed that the argument which is built upon these examples extends both to the authenticity of the books, and to the truth of the narrative; for it is improbable that the forger of a history in the name of another should have inserted such passages into it: and it is improbable, also, that the persons whose names the books hear should have fabricated such passages; or even have allowed them a place in their work, if they had not believed them to express the truth.
The following observation, therefore, of Dr. Lardner, the most candid of all advocates, and the most cautious of all inquirers, seems to be well founded: — “Christians are induced to believe the writers of the Gospel by observing the evidences of piety and probity that appear in their writings, in which there is no deceit, or artifice, or cunning, or design.” “No remarks,” as Dr. Beattie hath properly said, “are thrown in to anticipate objections; nothing of that caution which never fails to distinguish the testimony of those who are conscious of imposture; no endeavour to reconcile the reader’s mind to what may be extraordinary in the narrative.”
I beg leave to cite also another author, (Duchal, pp. 97, 98.) who has well expressed the reflection which the examples now brought forward were intended to suggest. “It doth not appear that ever it came into the mind of these writers to consider how this or the other action would appear to mankind, or what objections might be raised upon them. But without at all attending to this, they lay the facts before you, at no pains to think whether they would appear credible or not. If the reader will not believe their testimony, there is no help for it: they tell the truth and attend to nothing else. Surely this looks like sincerity, and that they published nothing to the world but that they believed themselves.”
As no improper supplement to this chapter, I crave a place here for observing the extreme naturalness of some of the things related in the New Testament.
Mark ix. 23. “Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” This struggle in the father’s heart, between solicitude for the preservation of his child, and a kind of involuntary distrust of Christ’s power to heal him, is here expressed with an air of reality which could hardly be counterfeited.
Again (Matt. xxi. 9), the eagerness of the people to introduce Christ into Jerusalem, and their demand, a short time afterwards, of his crucifixion, when he did not turn out what they expected him to be, so far from affording matter of objection, represents popular favour in exact agreement with nature and with experience, as the flux and reflux of a wave.
The rulers and Pharisees rejecting Christ, whilst many of the common people received him, was the effect which, in the then state of Jewish prejudices, I should have expected. And the reason with which they who rejected Christ’s mission kept themselves in countenance, and with which also they answered the arguments of those who favoured it, is precisely the reason which such men usually give: — “Have any of the Scribes or Pharisees believed on him?” (John vii. 48.)
In our Lord’s conversation at the well (John iv. 29), Christ had surprised the Samaritan woman with an allusion to a single particular in her domestic situation, “Thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband.” The woman, soon after this, ran back to the city, and called out to her neighbours, “Come, see a man which told me all things that ever I did.” This exaggeration appears to me very natural; especially in the hurried state of spirits into which the woman may be supposed-to have been thrown.
The lawyer’s subtilty in running a distinction upon the word neighbour, in the precept, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” was no less natural than our Saviour’s answer was decisive and satisfactory. (Luke x. 20.) The lawyer of the New Testament, it must be observed, was a Jewish divine.
The consistency of Saint Paul’s character throughout the whole of his history (viz. the warmth and activity of his zeal, first against, and then for, Christianity) carries with it very much of the appearance of truth.
There are also some properties, as they may be called, observable in the Gospels; that is, circumstances separately suiting with the situation, character, and intention of their respective authors.
Saint Matthew, who was an inhabitant of Galilee, and did not join Christ’s society until some time after Christ had come into Galilee to preach, has given us very little of his history prior to that period. Saint John, who had been converted before, and who wrote to supply omissions in the other Gospels, relates some remarkable particulars which had taken place before Christ left Judea, to go into Galilee. (Hartley’s Observations, vol. ii. p. 103.)
Saint Matthew (xv. 1) has recorded the cavil of the Pharisees against the disciples of Jesus, for eating “with unclean hands.” Saint Mark has also (vii. 1) recorded the same transaction (taken probably from Saint Matthew), but with this addition: “For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands often, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders: and when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not: and many other things there be which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables.” Now Saint Matthew was not only a Jew himself, but it is evident, from the whole structure of his Gospel, especially from his numerous references to the Old Testament, that he wrote for Jewish readers. The above explanation, therefore, in him, would have been unnatural, as not being wanted by the readers whom he addressed. But in Mark, who, whatever use he might make of Matthew’s Gospel, intended his own narrative for a general circulation, and who himself travelled to distant countries in the service of the religion, it was properly added.
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