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CHAPTER THE FOURTH.
THE GOSPEL NARRATIVES.
In the early ages of Christianity there was but little respect left for the gods of the Grecian mythology, and the poets assisted in destroying the popular veneration by railleries, which drew their almost irresistible force from common sense : Juvenal and Lucian commenced the task which the early Christian writers and teachers achieved. When the Christians opposed their benevolent and plausible religion to these decayed absurdities, when they explained their elevated opinions of the divine nature and their hopes of a glorious immortality, the victory could not long be uncertain. The Pagans disputed with good humour, because they were not interested in the truth of their fanciful theories ;* and the new religion was propagated with great success, among the lower classes in particular, without the necessity for any arguments or evidences whatever.
To attempt to demonstrate the truth of miracles in an age when every one believed in their frequent occurrence, when even the most enlightened men believed in witchcraft, necromancy, thousand other absurdities, would have been a superfluous task; and we therefore find that a mere appeal to the pretended notoriety of the miracles, and their benevolent object, and an explanation of the pure morality of their doctrines, were sufficient to form the apologies of the early defenders of Christianity. So remarkable were the easy credulity and gross superstition of the second and many succeeding centuries, that Porphyry, an opponent of Christianity, who lived more than two hundred years after Christ, calls the miracles “ works of cunning demons ;” and Hierocles, a century later, does not deny their occurrence,
* I am indebted for this hint to Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose learning and piety will not be disputed. Vide Boswell's Life of Johnson (Croker's edition), vol, vi., p. 125.
MIRACLES DIVINE AND DIABOLICAL.
but asserts that Apollonius, of Tyana, had performed much greater wonders, which were recorded not, as he terms them, by ignorant men, such as Peter and Paul, but by many renowned philosophers.* Only a few quotations from the works of Porphyry, Celsus, and other early opponents of Christianity, are extant. All bouks of that nature were destroyed by the Emperor Theodosius.
But, it may be objected, the opponents of the Christian religion could not deny the truth of the miracles, because they were supported by such incontrovertible evidence. There was exactly the same evidence, and no more, in the third and fourth centuries that there is now, namely, certain narratives, the earliest of which was certainly not written sooner than thirty years after the death of Christ; but the superstition and ignorance of those imes were such, that accounts of supernatural events met with easy credit, and were attributed by some to divine, and by others to diabolical agency, according as they approved or disliked the character of the miracle-worker, or the tendency of his doctrines. The Christian fathers acknowledge their belief in the Pagan miracles, but term them infernal prodigies. We find even in the most enlightened periods of antiquity a singular carelessness, or want of just perception of evidence, as to the truth of events and the causes of natural phenomena, strikingly contrasted with the urgent demand for reason and testimony in these matter-of-fact and unpoetical times. Christian writers would try to persuade us that the people of the first and second centuries were even more cautious than we are now, in giving credence to wonderful stories. Hardly two centuries ago a man in England was considered, even by the educated, as little better than an atheist, if he doubted that many old women were endowed by the devil with the power of working miracles without number.t
• Lardner's “ Jewish and Heathen Testimonies," chap. 37-39. t"I have ever believed, and do now know, that there are witches; they that doubt of these do not only deny them, but spirits; and are obliquely and upon consequence a sort, not of infidels, but atheists. Those that to confute their incredulity desire to see apparitions, shall questionless never behold any, nor have the power to be so much as witches; the devil hath them
ORIGIN AND GROWTH OF MIRACLES.
It was necessary, in order that the Christian religion should be introduced to the world in a presentable shape, suited to the tastes and expectations of the age, that Christ should work miracles; and it is no wonder when the interests of all parties were favourable to fraud, and when credulity was general, that miracles should be feigned, circumstantially related, ard implicitly believed. Whether the pretended miracles, or miraculous stories, were feigned or circulated during the life of Jesus, or whether they were inventeá, narrated, and at last collected and arranged by various disciples at various times after his death, cannot now be determined. Most probably both cases occurred. Every one knows how a story grows, and in any country where all are ignorant—where all believe that miracles occasionally occur to illustrate and bear testimony to the true church or a true prophetany wonderful occurrence or unexpectedly-sudden cure, after undergoing the process of a centuple relation, may be exalted into a miracle, with the necessary complement of credible, credulous, and willing witnesses.
We should be cautious how we impute pure and unmingled hypocrisy even to the original promulgators of a religious imposture; their benevolent but mistaken motives have led religious and holy men into the grossest frauds, in every age of the church. Were Ignatius, Irenæus, Origen, Cyprian, Basil, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine-were all the Catholic fathers and doctors, down to the late excellent and learned Dr. John Milner, who relates several modern miracles in his “End of Religious Controversy”—were they all liars and impostors, all conspirators in a league to deceive mankind for their own sordid purposes ? The human mind is of a ductile nature, and will yield to repeated impressions; it is not safe to trifle with the truth; men have frequently begun by deceiving others, and have ended by deceive ing themselves, not perhaps into a belief in facts of their own invention, but into a belief that the fraud was necessary and divinely sanctioned, already in a heresy as capital as witchcraft, and to appear to them were but to convert them.”--Sir Thomas Browne: Religio Medici, Part I., Section 29; 1642,
A DILEMMA DISSIPATED.
There is nothing surprising in the numerous threats and denunciations against false Christs, false prophets, liars, and deceivers, to be found in the New Testament. The founders of Chris. tianity must bave known, from their own successful attempt, how easy it would be for some future pretender by similar means to alter or abolish that religion which they, with so much labour and zeal, had established, and the origin and doctrines of which, firmly believed by them to be from God, formed the excuse and justification of their own pious frauds.
And yet we find the following sophism introduced with great appearance of triumph in every defence of Christianity-it is to this effect : if the Apostles were bad men, what could have induced them to take such pains to promote virtue, and to inculcate doctrines which gondemn liars and impostors to hell ? and if they were good men, they would not have travelled all over the country with a string of lies in their mouths, and imposed them upon the people as divine truths. The whole of this sophistical dilemma rests upon this absurd foundation, that men must be either absolutely and entirely good, or perfectly bad ; that bad men cannot advn. cate good doctrines, and that good men cannot be led away by religious enthusiasm, in a period of the profoundest ignorance and the grossest superstition, first to deceive themselves, and afterwards their fellow men, with the purest and most benevolent motives. In short, although all the world knows that religious zeal, and Christian religious zeal, aye, and Protestant zeal too, has, on innumerable occasions, led men to wage war, with all its attendant horrors and desolation, against their fellows: although all the world knows that it has led men to torture, hang, burn, and assassinate secretly those whom religious zeal had taught them to call heretics and enemies of their sect: although.all the world knows that all these crimes have been committed from a wish to advance the interests of religion by men, some of whom were certainly not by nature more cruel or bloodthirsty than their neighbours,* and with a firm consciousness of rectitude; yet the
• “ There was a time when men born of women and fashioned like ourselves-yes, and men softened by education and pot un
THE APOSTLES WERE ZEALOUS BELIEVERS.
Christian world cannot believe that the Apostles, who were men, could not, in a most ignorant and superstitious age, with this game religious zeal, but with much higher, purer, and more urgent motives, tell a few lies, and stick to them. Nay, although all the world knows that, on innumerable occasions, men have, from religious zeal, and the most disinterested motives, perpetrated the grossest frauds, and have called them and thought them pious; and originated or assisted in spreading false reports of miracles wrought by prayers before Saints' relics and images : and although it is notorious that all these frauds are committed now daily in this enlightened age by religious and otherwise moral men; yet the Christian world cannot believe that the Apostles and early Christians, who were human, and who were educated in many foolish superstitions and false principles, could not also for the glory of God, and for the propagation of doctrines in which they firmly believed, tell a few lies, perpetrate a few pious frauds, and stick to them.
But, says the Christian, the eye-witnesses of the Gospel miracles submitted to martyrdom in attestation of the truth of these facts. That is untrue. Of the lives and deaths of nine out of the twelve Apostles we have no accounts, except some notorious legends of the third century; but that a small number of Christians,* after making due allowance for exaggeration, did endure persecution and martyrdom in the latter half of the first century, cannot be doubted: but this does not in any measure tend to
informed by Christianity, saints and doctors, delicate recluses aud unearthly contemplatists, men who slept only three hours and prayed six or ten-when such men gave all the passion of their souls and all the eloquence of their lips to the work of hunting thousands of their fellows, innocent and helpless, into the fires of the Church."-Fanaticism, p. 69. By I. Taylor.
• Origen, a good authority, states, in express terms, that the number of martyrs was very inconsiderable. Vide Gibbon's “Decline and Fail," chap. 16, note 72. James the Apostle, and Stephen, are the only two mentioned in the New Testament. The account of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul at Rome rests only on a very doubtful tradition, as several Christian authors have proved.