Between the letters which bear the name of Saint Paul in our collection and his history in the Acts of the Apostles there exist many notes of correspondency. The simple perusal of the writings is sufficient to prove that neither the history was taken from the letters, nor the letters from the history. And the undesignedness of the agreements (which undesignedness is gathered from their latency, their minuteness, their obliquity, the suitableness of the circumstances in which they consist to the places in which those circumstances occur, and the circuitous references by which they are traced out) demonstrates that they have not been produced by meditation, or by any fraudulent contrivance. But coincidences, from which these causes are excluded, and which are too close and numerous to be accounted for by accidental concurrences of fiction, must necessarily have truth for their foundation. This argument appeared to my mind of so much value (especially for its assuming nothing beside the existence of the books), that I have pursued it through Saint Paul's thirteen epistles, in a work published by me four years ago, under the title of Horae Paulinae. I am sensible haw feebly any argument which depends upon an induction of particulars is represented without examples. On which account I wished to have abridged my own volume, in the manner in which I have treated Dr. Lardner's in the preceding chapter. But, upon making the attempt, I did not find it in my power to render the articles intelligible by fewer words than I have there used. I must be content, therefore, to refer the reader to the work itself. And I would particularly invite his attention to the observations which are made in it upon the first three epistles. I persuade myself that he will find the proofs, both of agreement, and undesignedness, supplied by these epistles, sufficient to support the conclusion which is there maintained, in favour both of the genuineness of the writings and the truth of the narrative.
It remains only, in this place, to point out how the argument bears upon the general question of the Christian history.
First, Saint Paul in these letters affirms, in unequivocal terms, his own performance of miracles, and, what ought particularly to be remembered, “That miracles were the signs of an Apostle.” (Rom. xv. 18, 19. 2 Cor. xii. 12.) If this testimony come from Saint Paul's own hand, it is invaluable. And that it does so, the argument before us fixes in my mind a firm assurance.
Secondly, it shows that the series of action represented in the epistles of Saint Paul was real; which alone lays a foundation for the proposition which forms the subject of the first part of our present work, viz. that the original witnesses of the Christian history devoted themselves to lives of toil, suffering, and danger, in consequence of their belief of the truth of that history, and for the sake of communicating the knowledge of it to others.
Thirdly, it proves that Luke, or whoever was the author of the Acts of the Apostles (for the argument does not depend upon the name of the author, though I know no reason for questioning it), was well acquainted with Saint Paul's history; and that he probably was, what he professes himself to be, a companion of Saint Paul's travels; which, if true, establishes, in a considerable degree, the credit even of his Gospel, because it shows that the writer, from his time, situation, and connexions, possessed opportunities of informing himself truly concerning the transactions which he relates. I have little difficulty in applying to the Gospel of Saint Luke what is proved concerning the Acts of the Apostles, considering them as two parts of the same history; for though there are instances of second parts being forgeries, I know none where the second part is genuine, and the first not so.
I will only observe, as a sequel of the argument, though not noticed in my work, the remarkable similitude between the style of Saint John's Gospel and of Saint John's Epistle. The style of Saint John's is not at all the style of Saint Paul's Epistles, though both are very singular; nor is it the style of Saint James's or of Saint Peter's Epistles: but it bears a resemblance to the style of the Gospel inscribed with Saint John's name, so far as that resemblance can be expected to appear, which is not in simple narrative, so much as in reflections, and in the representation of discourses. Writings so circumstanced prove themselves, and one another, to be genuine. This correspondency is the more valuable, as the epistle itself asserts, in Saint John's manner, indeed, but in terms sufficiently explicit, the writer's personal knowledge of Christ's history: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the word of life; that which we have seen and heard, declare we unto you.” (Ch. i. ver. 1—3.)Who would not desire, who perceives not the value of an account delivered by a writer so well informed as this?
OF THE HISTORY OF THE RESURRECTION.
The history of the resurrection of Christ is a part of the evidence of Christianity: but I do not know whether the proper strength of this passage of the Christian history, or wherein its peculiar value, as a head of evidence, consists, be generally understood. It is not that, as a miracle, the resurrection ought to be accounted a more decisive proof of supernatural agency than other miracles are; it is not that, as it stands in the Gospels, it is better attested than some others; it is not, for either of these reasons, that more weight belongs to it than to other miracles, but for the following, viz., That it is completely certain that the apostles of Christ, and the first teachers of Christianity, asserted the fact. And this would have been certain, if the four Gospels had been lost, or never written. Every piece of Scripture recognizes the resurrection. Every epistle of every apostle, every author contemporary with the apostles, of the age immediately succeeding the apostles, every writing from that age to the present genuine or spurious, on the side of Christianity or against it, concur in representing the resurrection of Christ as an article of his history, received without doubt or disagreement by all who called themselves Christians, as alleged from the beginning by the propagators of the institution, and alleged as the centre of their testimony. Nothing, I apprehend, which a man does not himself see or hear can be more certain to him than this point. I do not mean that nothing can be more certain than that Christ rose from the dead; but that nothing can be more certain than that his apostles, and the first teachers of Christianity, gave out that he did so. In the other parts of the Gospel narrative, a question may be made, whether the things related of Christ be the very things which the apostles and first teachers of the religion delivered concerning him? And this question depends a good deal upon the evidence we possess of the genuineness, or rather perhaps of the antiquity, credit, and reception of the books. On the subject of the resurrection, no such discussion is necessary, because no such doubt can be entertained. The only points which can enter into our consideration are, whether the apostles knowingly published a falsehood, or whether they were themselves deceived; whether either of these suppositions be possible. The first, I think, is pretty generally given up. The nature of the undertaking, and of the men; the extreme unlikelihood that such men should engage in such a measure as a scheme; their personal toils, and dangers and sufferings in the cause; their appropriation of their whole time to the object; the warm and seemingly unaffected zeal and earnestness with which they profess their sincerity exempt their memory from the suspicion of imposture. The solution more deserving of notice is that which would resolve the conduct of the apostles into enthusiasm; which would class the evidence of Christ's resurrection with the numerous stories that are extant of the apparitions of dead men. There are circumstances in the narrative, as it is preserved in our histories, which destroy this comparison entirely. It was not one person but many, who saw him; they saw him not only separately but together, not only by night but by day, not at a distance but near, not once but several times; they not only saw him, but touched him, conversed with him, ate with him, examined his person to satisfy their doubts. These particulars are decisive: but they stand, I do admit, upon the credit of our records. I would answer, therefore, the insinuation of enthusiasm, by a circumstance which arises out of the nature of the thing; and the reality of which must be confessed by all who allow, what I believe is not denied, that the resurrection of Christ, whether true or false, was asserted by his disciples from the beginning; and that circumstance is, the non-production of the dead body. It is related in the history, what indeed the story of the resurrection necessarily implies, that the corpse was missing out of the sepulchre: it is related also in the history, that the Jews reported that the followers of Christ had stolen it away.* And this account, though loaded with great improbabilities, such as the situation of the disciples, their fears for their own safety at the time, the unlikelihood of their expecting to succeed, the difficulty of actual success,+ and the inevitable consequence of detection and failure, was, nevertheless, the most credible account that could be given of the matter. But it proceeds entirely upon the supposition of fraud, as all the old objections did. What account can be given of the body, upon the supposition of enthusiasm? It is impossible our Lord's followers could believe that he was risen from the dead, if his corpse was lying before them. No enthusiasm ever reached to such a pitch of extravagancy as that: a spirit may be an illusion; a body is a real thing, an object of sense, in which there can be no mistake. All accounts of spectres leave the body in the grave. And although the body of Christ might be removed by fraud, and for the purposes of fraud, yet without any such intention, and by sincere but deluded men (which is the representation of the apostolic character we are now examining), no such attempt could be made. The presence and the absence of the dead body are alike inconsistent with the hypothesis of enthusiasm: for if present, it must have cured their enthusiasm at once; if absent, fraud, not enthusiasm, must have carried it away.
* “And this saying,” Saint Matthew writes, “is commonly reported amongst the Jews until this day” (chap. xxviii. 15). The evangelist may be thought good authority as to this point, even by those who do not admit his evidence in every other point: and this point is sufficient to prove that the body was missing. It has been rightly, I think, observed by Dr. Townshend (Dis. upon the Res. p. 126), that the story of the guards carried collusion upon the face of it:—“His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept.” Men in their circumstances would not have made such an acknowledgment of their negligence without previous assurances of protection and impunity.
+ “Especially at the full moon, the city full of people, many probably passing the whole night, as Jesus and his disciples had done, in the open air, the sepulchre so near the city as to be now enclosed within the walls.” Priestley on the Resurr. p. 24.
But further, if we admit, upon the concurrent testimony of all the histories, so much of the account as states that the religion of Jesus was set up at Jerusalem, and set up with asserting, in the very place in which he had been buried, and a few days after he had been buried, his resurrection out of the grave, it is evident that, if his body could have been found, the Jews would have produced it, as the shortest and completest answer possible to the whole story. The attempt of the apostles could not have survived this refutation a moment. If we also admit, upon the authority of Saint Matthew, that the Jews were advertised of the expectation of Christ's followers, and that they had taken due precaution in consequence of this notice, and that the body was in marked and public custody, the observation receives more force still. For notwithstanding their precaution and although thus prepared and forewarned; when the story of the resurrection of Christ came forth, as it immediately did; when it was publicly asserted by his disciples, and made the ground and basis of their preaching in his name, and collecting followers to his religion, the Jews had not the body to produce; but were obliged to meet the testimony of the apostles by an answer not containing indeed any impossibility in itself, but absolutely inconsistent with the supposition of their integrity; that is, in other words, inconsistent with the supposition which would resolve their conduct into enthusiasm.
THE PROPAGATION OF CHRISTIANITY
IN this argument, the first consideration is the fact—in what degree, within what time, and to what extent, Christianity actually was propagated.
The accounts of the matter which can be collected from our books are as follow: A few days after Christ's disappearance out of the world, we find an assembly of disciples at Jerusalem, to the number of “about one hundred and twenty;” (Acts i. 15.) which hundred and twenty were probably a little association of believers, met together not merely as believers in Christ, but as personally connected with the apostles, and with one another. Whatever was the number of believers then in Jerusalem, we have no reason to be surprised that so small a company should assemble: for there is no proof that the followers of Christ were yet formed into a society; that the society was reduced into any order; that it was at this time even understood that a new religion (in the sense which that term conveys to us) was to be set up in the world, or how the professors of that religion were to be distinguished from the rest of mankind. The death of Christ had left, we may suppose, the generality of his disciples in great doubt, both as to what they were to do, and concerning what was to follow.
This meeting was holden, as we have already said, a few days after Christ's ascension: for ten days after that event was the day of Pentecost, when, as our history relates, (Acts ii. 1.) upon a signal display of divine agency attending the persons of the apostles, there were added to the society “about three thousand souls.” (Acts ii. 41.) But here, it is not, I think, to be taken, that these three thousand were all converted by this single miracle; but rather that many who before were believers in Christ became now professors of Christianity; that is to say, when they found that a religion was to be established, a society formed and set up in the name of Christ, governed by his laws, avowing their belief in his mission, united amongst themselves, and separated from the rest of the world by visible distinctions; in pursuance of their former conviction, and by virtue of what they had heard and seen, and known of Christ's history, they publicly became members of it.
We read in the fourth chapter (verse 4) of the Acts, that soon after this, “the number of the men,” i. e. the society openly professing their belief in Christ, “was about five thousand.” So that here is an increase of two thousand within a very short time. And it is probable that there were many, both now and afterwards, who, although they believed in Christ, did not think it necessary to join themselves to this society; or who waited to see what was likely to become of it. Gamaliel, whose advice to the Jewish council is recorded Acts v. 34, appears to have been of this description; perhaps Nicodemus, and perhaps also Joseph of Arimathea. This class of men, their character and their rank, are likewise pointed out by Saint John, in the twelfth chapter of his Gospel: “Nevertheless, among the chief rulers also many believed on him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue, for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” Persons such as these might admit the miracles of Christ, without being immediately convinced that they were under obligation to make a public profession of Christianity at the risk of all that was dear to them in life, and even of life itself.*
* “Beside those who professed, and those who rejected and opposed, Christianity, there were in all probability multitudes between both, neither perfect Christians nor yet unbelievers. They had a favourable opinion of the Gospel, but worldly considerations made them unwilling to own it. There were many circumstances which inclined them to think that Christianity was a divine revelation, but there were many inconveniences which attended the open profession of it; and they could not find in themselves courage enough to bear them to disoblige their friends and family, to ruin their fortunes, to lose their reputation, their liberty, and their life, for the sake of the new religion. Therefore they were willing to hope, that if they endeavoured to observe the great principles of morality which Christ had represented as the principal part, the sum and substance of religion; if they thought honourably of the Gospel; if they offered no injury to the Christians; if they did them all the services that they could safely perform, they were willing to hope that God would accept this, and that He would excuse and forgive the rest.” Jortin's Dis. on the Christ. Rel. p. 91, ed. 4.
Christianity, however, proceeded to increase in Jerusalem by a progress equally rapid with its first success; for in the next chapter of our history, we read that “believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.” And this enlargement of the new society appears in the first verse of the succeeding chapter, wherein we are told, that “when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected;” (Acts v. 14; vi. 1) and afterwards, in the same chapter, it is declared expressly, that “the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly, and that a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.”
This I call the first period in the propagation of Christianity. It commences with the ascension of Christ, and extends, as may be collected from incidental notes of time, (Vide Pearson's Antiq. 1. xviii. c. 7. Benson's History of Christ, b. i. p. 148.) to something more than one year after that event. During which term, the preaching of Christianity, so far as our documents inform us, was confined to the single city of Jerusalem. And how did it succeed there? The first assembly which we meet with of Christ's disciples, and that a few days after his removal from the world, consisted of “one hundred and twenty.” About a week after this, “three thousand were added in one day;” and the number of Christians publicly baptized, and publicly associating together, was very soon increased to “five thousand.” “Multitudes both of men and women continued to be added;” “disciples multiplied greatly,” and “many of the Jewish priesthood as well as others, became obedient to the faith;” and this within a space of less than two years from the commencement of the institution.
By reason of a persecution raised against the church at Jerusalem, the converts were driven from that city, and dispersed throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. (Acts viii. l.) Wherever they came, they brought their religion with them: for our historian informs us, (Acts viii. 4.) that “they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word.” The effect of this preaching comes afterwards to be noticed, where the historian is led, in the course of his narrative, to observe that then (i. e. about three years posterior to this, [Benson, b. i. p. 207.]) the churches had rest throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified, and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied. This was the work of the second period, which comprises about four years.
Hitherto the preaching of the Gospel had been confined to Jews, to Jewish proselytes, and to Samaritans. And I cannot forbear from setting down in this place an observation of Mr. Bryant, which appears to me to be perfectly well founded;—“The Jews still remain: but how seldom is it that we can make a single proselyte! There is reason to think, that there were more converted by the apostles in one day than have since been won over in the last thousand years.” (Bryant on the Truth of the Christian Religion, p. 112.) It was not yet known to the apostles that they were at liberty to propose the religion to mankind at large. That “mystery,” as Saint Paul calls it, (Eph. iii. 3—6.) and as it then was, was revealed to Peter by an especial miracle. It appears to have been (Benson, book ii. p. 236.) about seven years after Christ's ascension that the Gospel was preached to the Gentiles of Cesarea. A year after this a great multitude of Gentiles were converted at Antioch in Syria. The expressions employed by the historian are these:—“A great number believed, and turned to the Lord;” “much people was added unto the Lord;” “the apostles Barnabas and Paul taught much people.” (Acts xi. 21, 24, 26.) Upon Herod's death, which happened in the next year, (Benson, book ii, p. 289.) it is observed, that “the word of God grew and multiplied.” (Acts xii. 24.) Three years from this time, upon the preaching of Paul at Iconium, the metropolis of Lycaonia, “a great multitude both of Jews and Greeks believed:” (Acts xiv. 1.) and afterwards, in the course of this very progress, he is represented as “making many disciples” at Derbe, a principal city in the same district. Three years (Benson's History of Christ, book iii. p. 50.) after this, which brings us to sixteen after the ascension, the apostles wrote a public letter from Jerusalem to the Gentile converts in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, with which letter Paul travelled through these countries, and found the churches “established in the faith, and increasing in number daily.” (Acts xvi. 5.) From Asia the apostle proceeded into Greece, where, soon after his arrival in Macedonia, we find him at Thessalonica: in which city, “some of the Jews believed, and of the devout Greeks a great multitude.” (Acts xvii. 4.) We meet also here with an accidental hint of the general progress of the Christian mission, in the exclamation of the tumultuous Jews of Thessalonica, “that they who had turned the world upside down were come thither also.” (Acts xvii. 6.) At Berea, the next city at which Saint Paul arrives, the historian, who was present, inform us that “many of the Jews believed.” (Acts xvii. 12.) The next year and a half of Saint Paul's ministry was spent at Corinth. Of his success in that city we receive the following intimations; “that many of the Corinthians believed and were baptized;” and “that it was revealed to the Apostle by Christ, that be had much people in that city.” (Acts xviii, 8—10.) Within less than a year after his departure from Corinth, and twenty-five (Benson, book iii. p, 160.) years after the ascension, Saint Paul fixed his station at Ephesus for the space of two years (Acts xix. 10.) and something more. The effect of his ministry in that city and neighbourhood drew from the historian a reflection how “mightily grew the word of God and prevailed.” (Acts xix. 20.) And at the conclusion of this period we find Demetrius at the head of a party, who were alarmed by the progress of the religion, complaining, that “not only at Ephesus, but also throughout all Asia (i. e. the province of Lydia, and the country adjoining to Ephesus), this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people.” (Acts xix. 26.) Beside these accounts, there occurs, incidentally, mention of converts at Rome, Alexandria, Athens, Cyprus, Cyrene, Macedonia, Philippi.
This is the third period in the propagation of Christianity, setting off in the seventh year after the ascension, and ending at the twenty-eighth. Now, lay these three periods together, and observe how the progress of the religion by these accounts is represented. The institution, which properly began only after its Author's removal from the world, before the end of thirty years, had spread itself through Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, almost all the numerous districts of the Lesser Asia, through Greece, and the islands of the Aegean Sea, the seacoast of Africa, and had extended itself to Rome, and into Italy. At Antioch, in Syria, at Joppa, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, Berea, Iconium, Derbe, Antioch in Pisidia, at Lydda, Saron, the number of converts is intimated by the expressions, “a great number,” “great multitudes,” “much people.” Converts are mentioned, without any designation of their number,* at Tyre, Cesarea, Troas, Athens, Philippi, Lystra, Damascus. During all this time Jerusalem continued not only the centre of the mission, but a principal seat of the religion; for when Saint Paul returned thither at the conclusion of the period of which we are now considering the accounts, the other apostles pointed out to him, as a reason for his compliance with their advice, “how many thousands (myriads, ten thousands) there were in that city who believed.”+
* Considering the extreme conciseness of many parts of the history, the silence about the number of converts is no proof of their paucity; for at Philippi, no mention whatever is made of the number, yet Saint Paul addressed an epistle to that church. The churches of Galatia, and the affairs of those churches, were considerable enough to be the subject of another letter, and of much of Saint Paul's solicitude; yet no account is preserved in the history of his success, or even of his preaching in that country, except the slight notice which these words convey:—“When they had gone throughout Phrygia, and the region of Galatia, they assayed to go into Bithynia.” Acts xvi. 6.
+ Acts xxi. 20.
Upon this abstract, and the writing from which it is drawn, the following observations seem material to be made:
I. That the account comes from a person who was himself concerned in a portion of what he relates, and was contemporary with the whole of it; who visited Jerusalem, and frequented the society of those who had acted, and were acting the chief parts in the transaction. I lay down this point positively; for had the ancient attestations to this valuable record been less satisfactory than they are, the unaffectedness and simplicity with which the author notes his presence upon certain occasions, and the entire absence of art and design from these notices, would have been sufficient to persuade my mind that, whoever he was, he actually lived in the times, and occupied the situation, in which he represents himself to be. When I say, “whoever he was,” I do not mean to cast a doubt upon the name to which antiquity hath ascribed the Acts of the Apostles (for there is no cause, that I am acquainted with, for questioning it), but to observe that, in such a case as this, the time and situation of the author are of more importance than his name; and that these appear from the work itself, and in the most unsuspicious form.
II. That this account is a very incomplete account of the preaching and propagation of Christianity; I mean, that if what we read in the history be true, much more than what the history contains must be true also. For, although the narrative from which our information is derived has been entitled the Acts of the Apostles, it is, in fact, a history of the twelve apostles only during a short time of their continuing together at Jerusalem; and even of this period the account is very concise. The work afterwards consists of a few important passages of Peter's ministry, of the speech and death of Stephen, of the preaching of Philip the deacon; and the sequel of the volume, that is, two thirds of the whole, is taken up with the conversion, the travels, the discourses, and history of the new apostle, Paul; in which history, also, large portions of time are often passed over with very scanty notice.
III. That the account, so far as it goes, is for this very reason more credible. Had it been the author's design to have displayed the early progress of Christianity, he would undoubtedly have collected, or at least have set forth, accounts of the preaching of the rest of the apostles, who cannot without extreme improbability be supposed to have remained silent and inactive, or not to have met with a share of that success which attended their colleagues.
To which may be added, as an observation of the same kind,
IV. That the intimations of the number of converts, and of the success of the preaching of the apostles, come out for the most part incidentally: are drawn from the historian by the occasion, such as the murmuring of the Grecian converts; the rest from persecution; Herod's death; the sending of Barnabas to Antioch, and Barnabas calling Paul to his assistance; Paul coming to a place and finding there disciples; the clamour of the Jews; the complaint of artificers interested in the support of the popular religion; the reason assigned to induce Paul to give satisfaction to the Christians of Jerusalem. Had it not been for these occasions it is probable that no notice whatever would have been taken of the number of converts in several of the passages in which that notice now appears. All this tends to remove the suspicion of a design to exaggerate or deceive.
Parallel Testimonies with the history are the letters of Saint Paul, and of the other apostles, which have come down to us. Those of Saint Paul are addressed to the churches of Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, the church of Galatia, and, if the inscription be right, of Ephesus; his ministry at all which places is recorded in the history: to the church of Colosse, or rather to the churches of Colosse and Laodicea jointly, which he had not then visited. They recognise by reference the churches of Judea, the churches of Asia, and “all the churches of the Gentiles.” (Thess ii. 14.) In the Epistle to the Romans (Rom. xv. 18, 19.) the author is led to deliver a remarkable declaration concerning the extent d his preaching, its efficacy, and the cause to which he ascribes it,—“to make the Gentiles obedient by word and deed, through mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God; so that from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the Gospel of Christ.” In the epistle to the Colossians, (Col. i. 23.) we find an oblique but very strong signification of the then general state of the Christian mission, at least as it appeared to Saint Paul:—“If ye continue in the faith, grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the Gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven;” which Gospel, he had reminded them near the beginning of his letter (Col. i. 6.), “was present with them, as it was in all the world.” The expressions are hyperbolical; but they are hyperboles which could only be used by a writer who entertained a strong sense of the subject. The first epistle of Peter accosts the Christians dispersed throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.
It comes next to be considered how far these accounts are confirmed or followed up by other evidence.
Tacitus, in delivering a relation, which has already been laid before the reader, of the fire which happened at Rome in the tenth year of Nero (which coincides with the thirtieth year after Christ's ascension), asserts that the emperor, in order to suppress the rumours of having been himself the author of the mischief, procured the Christians to be accused. Of which Christians, thus brought into his narrative, the following is so much of the historian's account as belongs to our present purpose: “They had their denomination from Christus, who, in the reign of Tiberius, was put to death as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate. This pernicious superstition, though checked for a while, broke out again, and spread not only over Judea, but reached the city also. At first they only were apprehended wire confessed themselves of that sect; afterwards vast multitude were discovered by them.” This testimony to the early propagation of Christianity is extremely material. It is from an historian of great reputation, living near the time; from a stranger and an enemy to the religion; and it joins immediately with the period through which the Scripture accounts extend. It establishes these points: that the religion began at Jerusalem; that it spread throughout Judea; that it had reached Rome, and not only so, but that it had there obtained a great number of converts. This was about six years after the time that Saint Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans, and something more than two years after he arrived there himself. The converts to the religion were then so numerous at Rome, that of those who were betrayed by the information of the persons first persecuted, a great multitude (multitudo ingens) were discovered and seized.
It seems probable, that the temporary check which Tacitus represents Christianity to have received (repressa in praesens) referred to the persecution of Jerusalem which followed the death of Stephen (Acts viii.); and which, by dispersing the converts, caused the institution, in some measure, to disappear. Its second eruption at the same place, and within a short time, has much in it of the character of truth. It was the firmness and perseverance of men who knew what they relied upon.
Next in order of time, and perhaps superior in importance is the testimony of Pliny the Younger. Pliny was the Roman governor of Pontus and Bithynia, two considerable districts in the northern part of Asia Minor. The situation in which he found his province led him to apply to the emperor (Trajan) for his direction as to the conduct he was to hold towards the Christians. The letter in which this application is contained was written not quite eighty years after Christ's ascension. The president, in this letter, states the measures he had already pursued, and then adds, as his reason for resorting to the emperor's counsel and authority, the following words:—“Suspending all judicial proceedings, I have recourse to you for advice; for it has appeared to me a matter highly deserving consideration, especially on account of the great number of persons who are in danger of suffering: for many of all ages, and of every rank, of both sexes likewise, are accused, and will be accused. Nor has the contagion of this superstition seized cities only, but the lesser towns also, and the open country. Nevertheless it seemed to me that it may be restrained and corrected. It is certain that the temples, which were almost forsaken, begin to be more frequented; and the sacred solemnities, after a long intermission, are revived. Victims, likewise, are everywhere (passim) bought up; whereas, for some time, there were few to purchase them. Whence it is easy to imagine that numbers of men might be reclaimed if pardon were granted to those that shall repent.” (C. Plin. Trajano Imp. lib. x. ep. xcvii.)
It is obvious to observe, that the passage of Pliny's letter here quoted, proves, not only that the Christians in Pontus and Bithynia were now numerous, but that they had subsisted there for some considerable time. “It is certain,” he says, “that the temples, which were almost forsaken (plainly ascribing this desertion of the popular worship to the prevalency of Christianity), begin to be more frequented; and the sacred solemnities, after a long intermission, are revived.” There are also two clauses in the former part of the letter which indicate the same thing; one, in which he declares that he had “never been present at any trials of Christians, and therefore knew not what was the usual subject of inquiry and punishment, or how far either was wont to be urged.” The second clause is the following: “Others were named by an informer, who, at first, confessed themselves Christians, and afterwards denied it; the rest said they had been Christians some three years ago, some longer, and some about twenty years.” It is also apparent, that Pliny speaks of the Christians as a description of men well known to the person to whom he writes. His first sentence concerning them is, “I have never been present at the trials of Christians.” This mention of the name of Christians, without any preparatory explanation, shows that it was a term familiar both to the writer of the letter and the person to whom it was addressed. Had it not been so, Pliny would naturally have begun his letter by informing the emperor that he had met with a certain set of men in the province called Christians.
Here then is a very singular evidence of the progress of the Christian religion in a short space. It was not fourscore years after the crucifixion of Jesus when Pliny wrote this letter; nor seventy years since the apostles of Jesus began to mention his name to the Gentile world. Bithynia and Pontus were at a great distance from Judea, the centre from which the religion spread; yet in these provinces Christianity had long subsisted, and Christians were now in such numbers as to lead the Roman governor to report to the emperor that they were found not only in cities, but in villages and in open countries; of all ages, of every rank and condition; that they abounded so much as to have produced a visible desertion of the temples; that beasts brought to market for victims had few purchasers; that the sacred solemnities were much neglected:—circumstances noted by Pliny for the express purpose of showing to the emperor the effect and prevalency of the new institution.
No evidence remains by which it can be proved that the Christians were more numerous in Pontus and Bithynia than in other parts of the Roman empire; nor has any reason been offered to show why they should be so. Christianity did not begin in these countries, nor near them. I do not know, therefore, that we ought to confine the description in Pliny's letter to the state of Christianity in these provinces, even if no other account of the same subject had come down to us; but, certainly, this letter may fairly be applied in aid and confirmation of the representations given of the general state of Christianity in the world, by Christian writers of that and the next succeeding age.
Justin Martyr, who wrote about thirty years after Pliny, and one hundred and six after the ascension, has these remarkable words: “There is not a nation, either of Greek or barbarian, or of any other name, even of those who wander in tribes, and live in tents, amongst whom prayers and thanksgivings are not offered to the Father and Creator of the universe by the name of the crucified Jesus.” (Dial cum Tryph.) Tertullian, who comes about fifty years after Justin, appeals to the governors of the Roman empire in these terms: “We were but of yesterday, and we have filled your cities, islands, towns, and boroughs, the camp, the senate, and the forum. They (the heathen adversaries of Christianity) lament that every sex, age, and condition, and persons of every rank also, are converts to that name.” (Tertull. Apol. c. 37.) I do allow that these expressions are loose, and may be called declamatory. But even declamation hath its bounds; this public boasting upon a subject which must he known to every reader was not only useless but unnatural, unless the truth of the case, in a considerable degree, corresponded with the description; at least, unless it had been both true and notorious, that great multitudes of Christians, of all ranks and orders, were to be found in most parts of the Roman empire. The same Tertullian, in another passage, by way of setting forth the extensive diffusion of Christianity, enumerates as belonging to Christ, beside many other countries, the “Moors and Gaetulians of Africa, the borders of Spain, several nations of France, and parts of Britain inaccessible to the Romans, the Sarmatians, Daci, Germans, and Scythians;” (Ad Jud. c. 7.) and, which is more material than the extent of the institution, the number of Christians in the several countries in which it prevailed is thus expressed by him: “Although so great a multitude, that in almost every city we form the greater part, we pass our time modestly and in silence.” (Ad Scap. c. iii.) A Clemens Alexandrinus, who preceded Tertullian by a few years, introduced a comparison between the success of Christianity and that of the most celebrated philosophical institutions: “The philosophers were confined to Greece, and to their particular retainers; but the doctrine of the Master of Christianity not remain in Judea, as philosophy did in Greece, but is throughout the whole world, in every nation, and village, and city, both of Greeks and barbarians, converting both whole houses and separate individuals, having already brought over to the truth not a few of the philosophers themselves. If the Greek philosophy he prohibited, it immediately vanishes; whereas, from the first preaching of our doctrine, kings and tyrants, governors and presidents, with their whole train, and with the populace on their side, have endeavoured with their whole might to exterminate it, yet doth it flourish more and more.” (Clem. AI. Strora. lib. vi. ad fin.) Origen, who follows Tertullian at the distance of only thirty years, delivers nearly the same account: “In every part of the world,” says he, “throughout all Greece, and in all other nations, there are innumerable and immense multitudes, who, having left the laws of their country, and those whom they esteemed gods, have given themselves up to the law of Moses, and the religion of Christ: and this not without the bitterest resentment from the idolaters, by whom they were frequently put to torture, and sometimes to death: and it is wonderful to observe how, in so short a time, the religion has increased, amidst punishment and death, and every kind of torture.” (Orig. in Cels. lib. i.) In another passage, Origen draws the following candid comparison between the state of Christianity in his time and the condition of its more primitive ages: “By the good providence of God, the Christian religion has so flourished and increased continually that it is now preached freely without molestation, although there were a thousand obstacles to the spreading of the doctrine of Jesus in the world. But as it was the will of God that the Gentiles should have the benefit of it, all the counsels of men against the Christians were defeated: and by how much the more emperors and governors of provinces, and the people everywhere strove to depress them, so much the more have they increased and prevailed exceedingly.” (Orig. cont. Cels. lib vii.)
It is well known that, within less than eighty years after this, the Roman empire became Christian under Constantine: and it is probable that Constantine declared himself on the side of the Christians because they were the powerful party: for Arnobius, who wrote immediately before Constantine's accession, speaks of “the whole world as filled with Christ's doctrine, of its diffusion throughout all countries, of an innumerable body of Christians in distant provinces, of the strange revolution of opinion of men of the greatest genius,—orators, grammarians, rhetoricians, lawyers, physicians having come over to the institution, and that also in the face of threats, executions and tortures.” (Arnob. in Genres, 1. i. pp. 27, 9, 24, 42, 41. edit. Lug. Bat. 1650.)
And not more than twenty years after Constantine's entire possession of the empire, Julius Firmiens Maternus calls upon the emperors Constantius and Constans to extirpate the relics of the ancient religion; the reduced and fallen condition of which is described by our author in the following words: “Licet adhue in quibusdam regionibus idololatriae morientia palpitont membra; tamen in eo res est, ut a Christianis omnibus terris pestiferum hoc malum funditus amputetur:" and in another place, “Modicum tautum superest, ut legibus vestris—extineta idololatriae pereat funesta contagio.” (De Error. Profan. Relig. c. xxi. p. 172, quoted by Lardner, vol. viii. p. 262.) It will not be thought that we quote this writer in order to recommend his temper or his judgment, but to show the comparative state of Christianity and of Heathenism at this period. Fifty years afterwards, Jerome represents the decline of Paganism, in language which conveys the same idea of its approaching extinction: “Solitudinem patitur et in urbe gentilitas. Dii quondam nationum, cum bubonibus et noctuis, in solis culminibus remanserunt.” (Jer. ad Lect. ep. 5, 7.) Jerome here indulges a triumph, natural and allowable in a zealous friend of the cause, but which could only be suggested to his mind by the consent and universality with which he saw; the religion received. “But now,” says he, “the passion and resurrection of Christ are celebrated in the discourses and writings of all nations. I need not mention Jews, Greeks, and Latins. The Indians, Persians, Goths, and Egyptians philosophise, and firmly believe the immortality Of the soul, and future recompenses, which, before, the greatest philosophers had denied, or doubted of, or perplexed with their disputes. The fierceness of Thracians and Scythians is now softened by the gentle sound of the Gospel; and everywhere Christ is all in all.” (Jer. ad Lect. ep. 8, ad Heliod.) Were, therefore, the motives of Constantine's conversion ever so problematical, the easy establishment of Christianity, and the ruin of Heathenism, under him and his immediate successors, is of itself a proof of the progress which had made in the preceding period. It may be added also, “that Maxentius, the rival of Constantine, had shown friendly to the Christians. Therefore of those who were tending for worldly power and empire, one actually and flattered them, and another may be suspected to have himself to them partly from consideration of interest: so considerable were they become, under external disadvantages of all sorts.” (Lardner, vol. vii. p. 380.) This at least is certain, that, throughout the whole transaction hitherto, the great seemed to follow, not to lead, the public opinion.
It may help to convey to us some notion of the extent and progress of Christianity, or rather of the character and quality of many early Christians, of their learning and their labours, to notice the number of Christian writers who flourished in these ages. Saint Jerome's catalogue contains sixty-six writers within the first three centuries, and the first six years of the fourth; and fifty-four between that time and his own, viz. A. D. 392. Jerome introduces his catalogue with the following just remonstrance:—“Let those who say the church has had no philosophers, nor eloquent and learned men, observe who and what they were who founded, established, and adorned it; let them cease to accuse our faith of rusticity, and confess their mistake.” (Jer. Prol. in Lib. de Ser. Eccl.) Of these writers, several, as Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Bardesanes, Hippolitus, Eusebius, were voluminous writers. Christian writers abounded particularly about the year 178. Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem, founded a library in that city, A.D. 212. Pamphilus, the friend of Origen, founded a library at Cesarea, A.D. 294. Public defences were also set forth, by various advocates of the religion, in the course of its first three centuries. Within one hundred years after Christ's ascension, Quadratus and Aristides, whose works, except some few fragments of the first, are lost; and, about twenty years afterwards, Justin Martyr, whose works remain, presented apologies for the Christian religion to the Roman emperors; Quadratus and Aristides to Adrian, Justin to Antoninus Pins, and a second to Marcus Antoninus. Melito, bishop of Sardis, and Apollinaris, bishop of Hierapolis, and Miltiades, men of great reputation, did the same to Marcus Antoninus, twenty years afterwards; (Euseb. Hist. lib. iv. c. 26. See also Lardner, vol. ii. p. 666.) and ten years after this, Apollonius, who suffered martyrdom under the emperor Commodus, composed an apology for his faith which he read in the senate, and which was afterwards published. (Lardner, vol. ii. p. 687.) Fourteen years after the apology of Apollonius, Tertullian addressed the work which now remains under that name to the governors of provinces in the Roman empire; and, about the same time, Minucius Felix composed a defence of the Christian religion, which is still extant; and, shortly after the conclusion of this century, copious defences of Christianity were published by Arnobius and Lactantius.
REFLECTIONS UPON THE PRECEDING ACCOUNT.
In viewing the progress of Christianity, our first attention is due to the number of converts at Jerusalem, immediately after its Founder's death; because this success was a success at the time, and upon the spot, when and where the chief part of the history had been transacted.
We are, in the next place, called upon to attend to the early establishment of numerous Christian societies in Judea and Galilee; which countries had been the scene of Christ's miracles and ministry, and where the memory of what had passed, and the knowledge of what was alleged, must have yet been fresh and certain.
We are, thirdly, invited to recollect the success of the apostles and of their companions, at the several places to which they came, both within and without Judea; because it was the credit given to original witnesses, appealing for the truth of their accounts to what themselves had seen and heard. The effect also of their preaching strongly confirms the truth of what our history positively and circumstantially relates, that they were able to exhibit to their hearers supernatural attestations of their mission.
We are, lastly, to consider the subsequent growth and spread of the religion, of which we receive successive intimations, and satisfactory, though general and occasional, accounts, until its full and final establishment.
In all these several stages, the history is without a parallel for it must be observed, that we have not now been tracing thee progress, and describing the prevalency, of an opinion founded upon philosophical or critical arguments, upon mere of reason, or the construction of ancient writing; (of which are the several theories which have, at different times, possession of the public mind in various deportments of and literature; and of one or other of which kind are the tenets also which divide the various sects of Christianity;) but that we speak of a system, the very basis and postulatum of which was a supernatural character ascribed to a particular person; of a doctrine, the truth whereof depends entirely upon the truth of a matter of fact then recent. “To establish a new religion, even amongst a few people, or in one single nation, is a thing in itself exceedingly difficult. To reform some corruptions which may have spread in a religion, or to make new regulations in it, is not perhaps so hard, when the main and principal part of that religion is preserved entire and unshaken; and yet this very often cannot be accomplished without an extraordinary concurrence of circumstances, and may be attempted a thousand times without success. But to introduce a new faith, a new way of thinking and acting, and to persuade many nations to quit the religion in which their ancestors have lived and died, which had been delivered down to them from time immemorial; to make them forsake and despise the deities which they had been accustomed to reverence and worship; this is a work of still greater difficulty.” (Jortin's Dis. on the Christ. Rel. p. 107, 4th edit.) The resistance of education, worldly policy, and superstition, is almost invincible.
If men, in these days, be Christians in consequence of their education, in submission to authority, or in compliance with fashion, let us recollect that the very contrary of this, at the beginning, was the case. The first race of Christians, as wall as millions who succeeded them, became such in formal opposition to all these motives, to the whole power and strength of this influence. Every argument, therefore, and every instance, which sets forth the prejudice of education, and the almost irresistible effects of that prejudice (and no persons are more fond of expatiating upon this subject than deistical writers), in fact confirms the evidence of Christianity.
But, in order to judge of the argument which is drawn from the early propagation of Christianity, I know no fairer way of proceeding than to compare what we have seen on the subject with the success of Christian missions in modern ages. In the East India mission, supported by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, we hear sometimes of thirty, sometimes of forty, being baptized in the course of a year, and these principally children. Of converts properly so called, that is, of adults voluntarily embracing Christianity, the number is extremely small. “Notwithstanding the labour of missionaries for upwards of two hundred years, and the establishments of different Christian nations who support them, there are not twelve thousand Indian Christians, and those almost entirely outcasts.” (Sketches relating to the history, learning, and manners of the Hindoos, p. 48; quoted by Dr. Robertson, Hist. Dis. concerning Ancient India, p. 236.)
I lament as much as any man the little progress which Christianity has made in these countries, and the inconsiderable effect that has followed the labours of its missionaries; but I see in it a strong proof of the Divine origin of the religion. What had the apostles to assist them in propagating Christianity which the missionaries have not? If piety and zeal had been sufficient, I doubt not but that our missionaries possess these qualities in a high degree: for nothing except piety and zeal could engage them in the undertaking. If sanctity of life and manners was the allurement, the conduct of these men is unblameable. If the advantage of education and learning be looked to, there is not one of the modern missionaries who is not, in this respect, superior to all the apostles; and that not only absolutely, but, what is of more importance, relatively, in comparison, that is, with those amongst whom they exercise their office. If the intrinsic excellency of the religion, the perfection of its morality, the purity of its precepts, the eloquence, or tenderness, or sublimity, of various parts of its writings, were the recommendations by which it made its way, these remain the same. If the character and circumstances under which the preachers were introduced to the countries in which they taught be accounted of importance, this advantage is all on the side of the modern missionaries. They come from a country and a people to which the Indian world look up with sentiments of deference. The apostles came forth amongst the Gentiles under no other name than that of Jews, which was precisely the character they despised and derided. If it be disgraceful in India to become a Christian, it could not be much less so to be enrolled amongst those “quos, per flagitia invisos, vulgus Christianos appellabat.” If the religion which they had to encounter be considered, the difference, I apprehend, will not be great. The theology of both was nearly the same: “what is supposed to be performed by the power of Jupiter, Neptune, of Aeolus, of Mars, of Venus, according to the mythology of the West, is ascribed, in the East, to the agency Agrio the god of fire, Varoon the god of oceans, Vayoo god of wind, Cama the god of love.” (Baghvat Gets, p. 94, quoted by Dr. Robertson, Ind. Dis. p. 306.) The sacred rites of the Western Polytheism were gay, festive, and licentious; the rites of the public religion in the East partake of the same character, with a more avowed indecency. “In every function performed in the pagodas, as well as in every public procession, it is the office of these women (i. e. of women prepared by the Brahmins for the purpose) to dance before the idol, and to sing hymns in his praise; and it is difficult to say whether they trespass most against decency by the gestures they exhibit, or by the verses which they recite. The walls of the pagodas were covered with paintings in a style no less indelicate.” (Others of the deities of the East are of an austere and gloomy character, to be propitiated by victims, sometimes by human sacrifices, and by voluntary torments of the most excruciating kind. Voyage de Gentil. vol. i. p. 244—260. Preface to the Code of Gentoo Laws, p. 57; quoted by Dr. Robertson, p. 320.)
On both sides of the comparison, the popular religion had a strong establishment. In ancient Greece and Rome it was strictly incorporated with the state. The magistrate was the priest. The highest officers of government bore the most distinguished part in the celebration of the public rites. In India, a powerful and numerous caste possesses exclusively the administration of the established worship; and are, of consequence, devoted to its service, and attached to its interest. In both, the prevailing mythology was destitute of any proper evidence: or rather, in both, the origin of the tradition is run up into ages long anterior to the existence of credible history, or of written language. The Indian chronology computes eras by millions of years, and the life of man by thousands “The Suffec Jogue, or age of purity, is said to have lasted three million two hundred thousand years; and they hold that the life of man was extended in that age to one hundred thousand years; but there is a difference amongst the Indian writers of six millions of years in the computation of this era.” (Voyage de Gentil. vol. i. p. 244—260. Preface to the Code of Gentoo Laws, p. 57; quoted by Dr. Robertson, p. 320.) and in these, or prior to these, is placed the history of their divinities. In both, the established superstition held the same place in the public opinion; that is to say, in both it was credited by the bulk of the people, but by the learned and philosophical part of the community either derided, or regarded by them as only fit to be upholden for the sake of its political uses.*
* “How absurd soever the articles of faith may be which superstition has adopted, or how unhallowed the rites which it prescribes, the former are received, in every age and country with unhesitating assent, by the great body of the people, and the latter observed with scrupulous exactness. In our reasonings concerning opinions and practices which differ widely from our own, we are extremely apt to err. Having been instructed ourselves in the principles of a religion worthy in every respect of that Divine wisdom by which they were dictated, we frequently express wonder at the credulity of nations, in embracing systems of belief which appear to us so directly repugnant to right reason; and sometimes suspect that tenets so wild and extravagant do not really gain credit with them. But experience may satisfy us, that neither our wonder nor suspicions are well founded. No article of the public religion was called in question by those people of ancient Europe with whose history we are best acquainted; and no practice which it enjoined appeared improper to them. On the other hand, every opinion that tended to diminish the reverence of men for the gods of their country, or to alienate them from their worship, excited, among the Greeks and Romans, that indignant zeal which is natural to every people attached to their religion by a firm persuasion of its truth.” Ind. Dis. p. 321. That the learned Brahmins of the East are rational Theists, and secretly reject the established theory, and contemn the rites that were founded upon them, or rather consider them as contrivances to be supported for their political uses, see Dr. Robertson's Ind. Dis. p. 324-334.
Or if it should be allowed, that the ancient heathens believed in their religion less generally than the present Indians do, I am far from thinking that this circumstance would afford any facility to the work of the apostles, above that of the modern missionaries. To me it appears, and I think it material to be remarked, that a disbelief of the established religion of their country has no tendency to dispose men for the reception of another; but that, on the contrary, it generates a settled contempt of all religious pretensions whatever. General infidelity is the hardest soil which the propagators of a new religion can have to work upon. Could a Methodist or Moravian promise himself a better chance of success with a French esprit fort, who had been accustomed to laugh at the popery of his country, than with a believing Mahometan or Hindoo? Or are our modern unbelievers in Christianity, for that reason, in danger of becoming Mahometans or Hindoos? It does not appear that the Jews, who had a body of historical evidence to offer for their religion, and who at that time undoubtedly entertained and held forth the expectation of a future state, derived any great advantage, as to the extension of their system, from the discredit into which the popular religion had fallen with many of their heathen neighbours.
We have particularly directed our observations to the state and progress of Christianity amongst the inhabitants of India: but the history of the Christian mission in other countries, where the efficacy of the mission is left solely to the conviction wrought by the preaching of strangers, presents the same idea as the Indian mission does of the feebleness and inadequacy of human means. About twenty-five years ago was published, in England, a translation from the Dutch of a History of Greenland and a relation of the mission for above thirty years carried on in that country by the Unitas Fratrum, or Moravians. Every part of that relation confirms the opinion we have stated. Nothing could surpass, or hardly equal, the zeal and patience of the missionaries. Yet their historian, in the conclusion of his narrative, could find place for no reflections more encouraging than the following:—“A person that had known the heathen, that had seen the little benefit from the great pains hitherto taken with them, and considered that one after another had abandoned all hopes of the conversion of these infidels (and some thought they would never be converted, till they saw miracles wrought as in the apostles' days, and this the Greenlanders expected and demanded of their instructors); one that considered this, I say, would not so much wonder at the past unfruitfulness of these young beginners, as at their steadfast perseverance in the midst of nothing but distress, difficulties, and impediments, internally and externally: and that they never desponded of the conversion of those poor creatures amidst all seeming impossibilities.” (History of Greenland, vol. ii. p. 376.)
From the widely disproportionate effects which attend the preaching of modern missionaries of Christianity, compared with what followed the ministry of Christ and his apostles under circumstances either alike, or not so unlike as to account for the difference, a conclusion is fairly drawn in support of what our histories deliver concerning them, viz. that they possessed means of conviction which we have not; that they had proofs to appeal to which we want.