Vol. I, No. 4
Letter 2, continued.
3. Immediate tradition from the inspired writer.* This can be to me nothing but mere human fallible tradition; for if a person, whether really or pretendedly inspired, publishes a book or writing, and declares that it contains doctrines dictated by God to himself, his evidence to me is at least but human evidence; and, therefore, uncertain and precarious: for if I believe it written by inspiration, it is on his own authority, which is both human and fallible. This being the case, how or in what manner shall I be able to distinguish the truly inspired writer from the imposter, who should pretend to the like privilege? And if we take the writers' words in all cases, or give heed to their own testimony, we shall be liable to be deceived and imposed on by every imposter or pretender to revelation; and the want of a certain criterion, I apprehend, was the occasion that in the first ages of the church so many different gospels appeared, which by many were received with veneration, while others rejected them as false and spurious: so that this immediate tradition can be no evidence at all of the divine inspiration or infallibility of any book or writing.
4. As to distant tradition, this evidence must be proportionally less the farther it is removed from the original; and if immediate tradition be but human fallible evidence, and a true revelation cannot by it be distinguished from a false one, how can it be the better ascertained by being more distant from the original tradition? for the farther it is removed, the more it is weakened.
5. The evidence arising from education or authority, if it proves any thing, proves that all the different books which give rise to the different religions in the world, are all inspired; for on this footing each person believes his to be so, and, therefore, this can be no evidence at all.
6. Evidence arising from examination.--This is the only one to be depended on; but then it is entirely personal, and can never extend farther than the person who examines: that is, it may appear probable to me, on examination, that such a book was written under God's immediate influence and direction; but if a book appears to me to be probably divinely revealed, this is no reason why another person should believe the same, or that it should appear to him in the same light, unless he likewise find it to be so on his own examination.
Having myself examined the writings of the New Testament, and likewise what is generally offered to support the opinion of their inspiration, I declare it to be altogether insufficient to me; for there does not appear any one circumstance, whether alleged by others, or contained in the writings themselves, sufficient to prove that either of the writers, at the time of writing, was under the unerring guidance or special influence of God. Besides, there is not in all the gospels any one expression intimating any such thing; neither do the writers thereof lay any claim, or in the least pretend to any such privilege or authority; nor indeed could such a prerogative be consistently ever allowed them; for if every one of them at the time of writing had been under the immediate influence of God, they would in this case have given us the very same account of things without the least difference or variation; for it is impossible, if God dictated to them all the same history, that any variation or difference should be found, unless it could be supposed that God could dictate different facts in different histories of the same person. But that there are frequent contradictions is evident.
From this circumstance, and many others, I conclude that the writers of the New Testament could not be under the infallible guidance of God; neither do I find that they published or gave out their writings as such. And if they did not declare themselves inspired, what authority or foundation could any one else have to declare them so? On the contrary, it very evidently appears that there were no writings deemed canonical in what is called the first ages of Christianity, but the Old Testament! The famous Dodwell says, "We have at this day certain most authentic ecclesiastical writers of the times, as Clemens Romanus, Barnabas, Hermas, Ignatius, and Polycarpus, who wrote in the same order wherein I have named them, and after all the writers of the New Testament except Jude and the two Johns, but in Hermas you will not find one passage, nor any mention of the New Testament; nor in all the rest is any one of the Evangelists named; and if sometimes they cite any passages like those we read in our gospels, you will find them so much changed, and for the most part to interpolated, that it cannot be known whether they produced them out of our, or some other apocryphal gospels: nay, they sometimes cite passages which most certainly are not in the present gospels."*
The first who wrote is Matthew, but at what time he did write is uncertain; some fixing his date at one time, and some at another. Again, some think he composed his gospel in the Hebrew or Jerusalem dialect; for it seems the very language he wrote in is uncertain; and it is confessed on all hands that no account can be had of the original; so that if he wrote it in this language, it has disappeared, how and in what manner nobody knows. And what is still more extraordinary, the Judaizing Christians (for whose use it is said he wrote) had a gospel under his name, but its authenticity was not admitted by the other sects; not because they found, on comparing it with the original, that it was corrupted, (for this they could not do for want of the original,) but because it differed from or was contradictory to the many other spurious gospels which they had received, or to the opinion which the majority of that council which settled the canon had embraced. But what will appear still more surprising to you, is, that the Christian should offer to the world for acceptance, as inspired and infallible, a Greek version, which is the one now existing, and which most people mistake for the original of Matthew's gospel, without any person's comparing this version with the original, or indeed without knowing any thing either of the original or the author of the version. Should they now, in an affair of such importance, and before they pretend to fix on it the stamp of infallibility, be certain that it was at least a true version? But nothing of this kind is done, which appears to me such a proceeding as nothing can justify.
They are not wanting, however, in giving it all the authority that possibly can be given to it; and for this purpose, and with this intention, some ascribe the version to St. Matthew himself; others ascribe it to St. James, bishop of Jerusalem; others to St. John; others to St. Paul; others to St. Luke; others to St. Barnabas; and others again ascribe the translation tot the joint labour of all the Apostles; so that the ascription to some one or other, or all of the Apostles, proves nothing but their ignorance in this important matter; and their uncertainty and disagreement prove how little dependence ought to be placed on it, and their manifest intention of imposing on the weak and credulous.
But can people be so serious in persuading others to admit as infallible the version of a book, without any knowledge of the original, or without knowing whether it is a true version, or without as much as a certain knowledge of the person who made this version? For should it be admitted that St. Matthew did write a gospel, how are we to know, or how can it be ascertained, that the version we now have, is from the original, or that it is a true and faithful one? This we know, that in the last century an Armenian translation was discovered, which a doctor of the Sorbonne thought to be of great antiquity, and was of opinion might be very useful in correcting the Greek text. This shows that they do not think it infallible, for if it was, it would require no human correction.*
Of as little authority, or rather less, if possible, is the gospel under the name of Mark. Some take this Evangelist to be the disciple of Peter, and his interpreter; others take him to be the same as John Mark, mentioned in the Acts; some think him to have been a priest, while others say he was Peter's nephew. And as regards the gospel, some take him to be the author of it, while others ascribe it to Peter: others have it that he wrote from what he heard from Peter by word of mouth in his lifetime; others say that Peter dictated it to him; while others affirm that it was written after Peter's death.
The same difference of opinion we find in respect to the place where it was written; for while some affirm it to have been written at Rome, others affirm it to have been written in Egypt. "All their different sentiments," says our author, "are enough to prove that the circumstances of time and place are uncertain, when and where St. Mark composed his gospel. Men are as much divided as to the language it was written in; some saying it was composed in Greek, and others in Latin;"* and I add that these different sentiments evidently prove that they know nothing concerning its infallibility, or the inspiration of its author. It rather appears much more probable, (which indeed is generally believed,) that this gospel is no more than an abridgement made from Matthew; and then it will signify but little who the author was, where, when, or in what language he wrote. "For," says the aforementioned author, "as far as may be judged by comparing the gospel of St. Mark with St. Matthew's, the first is an abridgement of the second. St. Mark very often uses the same terms, relates the same facts, and takes notice of the same circumstances." So that, let it be an original or an abridgement, its infallibility cannot be proved, and, therefore, can be of no authority.