« VorigeDoorgaan »
religious nature; recommended to the perusal of unbelievers, as containing the authentic account of the Christian doctrine;-when we attend, I say, to this representation, we perceive in it not only full proof of the early notoriety of these books, but a clear and sensible line of discrimination, which separates these from the pretensions of any others.
The epistles of St. Paul stand particularly free of any doubt or confusion that might arise from this source. Until the conclusion of the fourth century, no intimation appears of any attempt whatever being made to counterfeit these writings; and then it appears only of a single and obscure instance. Jerome, who flourished in the year 392, has this expression : 'Legunt quidam et ad Laodicenses; sed ab omnibus exploditur;" there is also an Epistle to the Laodiceans, but it is rejected by every body 12. Theodoret, who wrote in the year 423, speaks of this epistle in the same terms13. Beside these, I know not whether any ancient writer mentions it. It was certainly unnoticed during the first three centuries of the church; and when it came afterwards to be mentioned, it was mentioned only to show that, though such a writing did exist, it obtained no credit. It is probable that the forgery to which Jerome alludes is the epistle which we now have under that title. If so, as hath been already observed, it is nothing more than a collection of sentences from the genuine epistles; and was perhaps, at first, rather the exercise of some idle pen than any serious attempt to impose a forgery upon the public. Of an Epistle to the Corinthians under St. Paul's name, which was brought into 13 Ibid. vol. xi. p. 88.
12 Lardner, vol. x. p. 103.
Europe in the present century, antiquity is entirely silent. It was unheard of for sixteen centuries; and at this day, though it be extant, and was first found in the Armenian language, it is not, by the Christians of that country, received into their Scriptures. I hope, after this, that there is no reader who will think there is any competition of credit or of external proof between these and the received Epistles; or rather who will not acknowledge the evidence of authenticity to be confirmed by the want of success which attended imposture.
When we take into our hands the letters which the suffrage and consent of antiquity hath thus transmitted to us, the first thing that strikes our attention is the air of reality and business, as well as of seriousness and conviction, which pervades the whole. Let the sceptic read them. If he be not sensible of these qualities in them, the argument can have no weight with him. If he be; if he perceive in almost every page the language of a mind actuated by real occasions, and operating upon real circumstances, I would wish it to be observed, that the proof which arises from this perception is not to be deemed occult or imaginary, because it is incapable of being drawn out in words, or of being conveyed to the apprehension of the reader in any other way than by sending him to the books themselves.
And here, in its proper place, comes in the argument which it has been the office of these pages to unfold. St. Paul's epistles are connected with the history by their particularity, and by the numerous circumstances which are found in them. When we descend to an examination and comparison of these
circumstances, we not only observe the history and the epistles to be independent documents unknown to or at least unconsulted by each other, but we find the substance and oftentimes very minute articles of the history recognised in the epistles, by allusions and references, which can neither be imputed to design nor, without a foundation in truth, be accounted for by accident; by hints and expressions, and single words dropping as it were fortuitously from the pen of the writer, or drawn forth, each by some occasion proper to the place in which it occurs, but widely removed from any view to consistency or agreement. These, we know, are effects which reality naturally produces; but which, without reality at the bottom, can hardly be conceived to exist.
When therefore, with a body of external evidence which is relied upon, and which experience proves may safely be relied upon, in appreciating the credit of ancient writings, we combine characters of genuineness and originality which are not found, and which, in the nature and order of things, cannot be expected to be found in spurious compositions; whatever difficulties we may meet with in other topics of the Christian evidence, we can have little in yielding our assent to the following conclusions: That there was such a person as St. Paul; that he lived in the age which we ascribe to him; that he went about preaching the religion of which Jesus Christ was the founder; and that the letters which we now read were actually written by him upon the subject, and in the course of that his ministry.
And if it be true that we are in possession of the very letters which St. Paul wrote, let us consider
what confirmation they afford to the Christian history. In my opinion they substantiate the whole transaction. The great object of modern research is to come at the epistolary correspondence of the times. Amidst the obscurities, the silence, or the contradictions of history, if a letter can be found, we regard it as the discovery of a landmark; as that by which we can correct, adjust, or supply the imperfections and uncertainties of other accounts. One cause of the superior credit which is attributed to letters is this, that the facts which they disclose generally come out incidentally, and therefore without design to mislead the public by false or exaggerated accounts. This This reason may be applied to St. Paul's epistles with as much justice as to any letters whatever. Nothing could be farther from the intention of the writer than to record any part of his history. That his history was in fact made public by these letters, and has by the same means been transmitted to future ages, is a secondary and unthought-of effect. The sincerity therefore of the apostle's declarations cannot reasonably be disputed; at least we are sure that it was not vitiated by any desire of setting himself off to the public at large. But these letters form a part of the muniments of Christianity, as much to be valued for their contents as for their originality. A more inestimable treasure the care of antiquity could not have sent down to us, Beside the proof they afford of the general reality of St. Paul's history, of the knowledge which the author of the Acts of the Apostles had obtained of that history, and the consequent probability, that he was, what he professes himself to have been, a companion of the apostle's; beside the support they lend to these
important inferences, they meet specifically some of the principal objections upon which the adversaries of Christianity have thought proper to rely. In particular they show,
I. That Christianity was not a story set on foot amidst the confusions which attended and immediately preceded the destruction of Jerusalem; when many extravagant reports were circulated, when men's minds were broken by terror and distress, when, amidst the tumults that surrounded them, inquiry was impracticable. These letters show incontestably that the religion had fixed and established itself before this state of things took place.
II. Whereas it hath been insinuated, that our Gospels may have been måde up of reports and stories which were current at the time, we may observe that, with respect to the Epistles, this is impossible. A man cannot write the history of his own life from reports; nor, what is the same thing, be led by reports to refer to passages and transactions in which he states himself to have been immediately present and active. I do not allow that this insinuation is applied to the historical part of the New Testament with any colour of justice or probability; but I say, that to the Epistles it is not applicable at all.
III. These letters prove that the converts to Christianity were not drawn from the barbarous, the mean, or the ignorant set of men which the representations of infidelity would sometimes make them. We learn from letters the character not only of the writer, but, in some measure, of the persons to whom they are written. To suppose that these letters were addressed