|Vol. VII, No. 9
Kislev 5610, December 1849
Paley’s Evidences of Christianity
The unity of the three persons certainly was not inculcated in the gospels, the Father and the Son being represented as independent subsistencies, standing in the relation to each other of Father and Son, the Holy Ghost as another subsistency separate and distinct from both the others, being all three located in different places, as is proved by Jesus saying, “that he had come down from heaven and was going back to the Father, and that the Holy Ghost or Comforter would be sent to the Apostles after his departure;” but not a word is said as to the unity of the three persons. We may reasonably suppose, that though the gospels were received by the initiated as containing the rule and evidence of the religion, they were not in the hands of the Neophytes or the great body of the Christians. The doctrine of the Trinity and of the real presence, though asserted in the writings of the Fathers <<463>>of the first and second centuries, is conveyed in vague and obscure terms, and as mysteries not to be communicated to the uninitiated.
The agreement of the four evangelists in the account they give of the miracles performed by Jesus, seems to point out that one was the original, and that the others were composed by the writers either from recollection of what they had read in the original themselves, or from the communications from those who had read or heard it read. We are strengthened in this opinion by the different order in which the events are placed, particular facts being mentioned by some and omitted by others, according as their recollection was more or less perfect.
It cannot be supposed that if the genealogy of Joseph had been correct, that Luke would have published a spurious one, or vice versa; but as the descent from David was one characteristic of the Messiahship which Jesus has assumed, it became necessary to give a genealogical table. Matthew and Luke drew on their invention to compose such a table. In drawing a line from David to Joseph, it appears, unfortunately for the veracity of one of the writers, that the two genealogies agree only in the first and last steps, one counting twenty-eight and the other forty-one names. This discrepancy in the two accounts has exercised the ingenuity* of many commentators to reconcile them; but the account given by each of the narrators is too plain and positive to admit of any evasion.
An attempt was made to prove that the genealogy given by Luke was the pedigree of Mary, who was the daughter of Heli, and married to Joseph, who thus became son-in-law to Heli, but was called his son, which the authors says (without any foundation) was a custom among the Jews. But if we allow this explanation, how can we be sure that Heli himself was the son and not the son-in-law of Matthat, thus totally breaking the line of descent from David on the side of Mary? But Luke himself gives an indirect testimony that Mary was of the house of Aaron; for he calls her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John, and the wife of Zachariah, “a daughter of Aaron.” The genealogy of Luke was most probably correct; that of Matthew carries with it an air of fiction by dividing the period from Abraham to Jesus into three parts, each containing fourteen steps. But we may suffer the Christians to make choice of which pedigree they will, it will not improve their position; since they allow that Jesus was not the son of Joseph; and as both the pedigrees are drawn by the male line without there being a single female link in the chain; the fiction of Mary being the <<464>>daughter of Heli does not legalize his claim to the throne, the line being always carried on from male to male.
However we may allow that, notwithstanding the contradictions observable in the gospels, they were received by the early converts with reverence, as containing the elements of their religion, and giving an authentic account of the acts and precepts of the founder during the last three years when he preached. Thus far we may go, but no farther. Whether the account is true, whether Jesus spoke and acted as the evangelists describe him to have, and whether the miracles ascribed to him were really performed, is another and very serious question. Now, allowing that the account given in the gospels was the foundation of the Christian faith, the several sects and heresies which sprung up in the very cradle of Christianity, show that the early Christians were not so convinced of the veracity of the Apostles and their theology as to insure unanimity. Peter arrogated to himself the mission to the Jews; Paul betook himself to the gentiles. They must necessarily have taught two opposite rules of conduct: one enjoining the observance of the Mosaic ritual in obedience to the commands of his master, the other releasing his converts from the restraint which was so irksome to the gentiles, and which was a serious obstacle to his obtaining proselytes.
In his Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul declares that he had heard there were dissensions among them, that some said “I am of Paul, and I am of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ.” We may naturally suppose that there were four different schools under those names. After the time of Paul, these dissensions increased. Perhaps even during his life, the heresy of the Docetae, a branch of the Gnostic Christians, arose, who denied the real presence in the eucharist.* This heresy was followed by that of the Valentinians, Marcosians, Melchesidecians, Pereans, Messalians, Montanists, and Manicheans. The Gnostic sects had each their especial gospel, either forged or corrupted from the evangelists. The Marcionites were able to boast, not only of martyrs, but a long succession of bishops. These doctrines did not merely make a transient impression among the unlearned and lower classes of the Christians; for Tertullian believed in Montanus, and St. Augustine was attached to the sect of the Manicheans until he was thirty years old.†
Shortly after the issue of the edict of Milan by Constantine, which permitted to every one the privilege of choosing and possessing his own religion, another edict appeared announcing the total destruction of all heretics. The sects against which this persecution was directed, were the adherents of Paul of Samosata, the Montanists, the <<465>>Novatians, the Marcionites and Valentinians, and perhaps the Manicheans. Their assemblies were prohibited, and their public property confiscated.
We have no means of ascertaining what numerical proportion the different sects bore to each other or to the one which arrogated to itself the merit of orthodoxy; but it seems the latter had established itself at the court of Constantine, and by the influence of the women and the eunuchs of the palace had succeeded in converting the emperor to their belief, and then employed his power in endeavouring to extirpate all the rival sects. Till then it appears that the Romans were not aware of the existence or any dissensions in the Christian community; they all shared indiscriminately in the favour or persecution of the emperors; but no sooner had one sect secured to itself the favour of Constantine, than he, learned with dismay the existence of many heresies which it became his duty to extirpate. This was most probably more cruel than any other of the ten enumerated persecutions, as it was embittered by a long-suppressed rivalry. How much of the persecutions previous to the conversion of Constantine, was provoked by the outrageous conduct of the Christians themselves, cannot now be positively declared; but it appears* that “the Christians sometimes supplied by their voluntary declaration the want of a public accuser, rudely disturbed the public service of paganism, and rushing in crowds round the tribunal of the magistrates, called upon them to pronounce and inflict the sentence of the law.”
The orthodox party, in whose favour Constantine had issued his edict to effect the total extinction of its rivals, was soon after afflicted by a schism which convulsed the whole of the Christian church for many years, and was the cause of a furious controversy and persecution. The Arian heresy followed a double election to the church of Carthage. Arius maintained that the Son was an independent and spontaneous production, created from nothing by the will of the Father; that his duration was not infinite, and there had been a time which preceded his ineffable generation, yet notwithstanding the effulgence of his glory, he shone only with a reflected light. This doctrine has not anything in it repugnant to reason, it does not involve any contradiction, and though it is not supported by any proof of the existence of a Son of God, was a plausible explanation offered to those who entertained that belief. Accordingly we find that it rapidly spread in the Christian church, and for many years carried on a successful warfare with the advocates of the trinity. Constantine summoned the two parties to discuss the question, and support their respective doctrines before him.
<<466>>Three hundred bishops were assembled within the walls of his palace. The result of this conference was the ratification of the Nicene creed, and the declaration of Constantine that those who resisted the divine judgment of the synod must prepare themselves for immediate exile. This warning reduced the number of protesting bishops immediately from seventeen to two. Arius was banished into one of the remote provinces, and his writings were condemned to the flames. Three years had scarcely elapsed, when Constantine began to show some symptoms of mercy and even of indulgence towards the exiles, who were recalled, and Arius was received at court with the utmost respect. His faith had been approved of by the Synod of Jerusalem. In compensation of the injustice he had suffered, Constantine issued an absolute command, that he should he publicly admitted to the communion in the cathedral of Constantinople. This triumph he did not enjoy, as he died suddenly on the same day which was appointed for that solemn ceremony. The three principal opponents of Arius were deposed on various accusations, and banished into distant provinces by Constantine, who in his last moments received the rite of baptism from an Arian bishop.
The son of Constantine professed the faith and protected the Arians. Many years of fierce and bloody contention ensued. It is very remarkable that the great object of contention between the two sects, the nature of the Son, should have been so little comprehended by the partisans of the trinity. Athanasius himself candidly confessed,* “that whenever he directed his understanding to meditate on the divinity of the Logos, his toilsome and unavailing efforts recoiled on themselves; the more he thought, the less he comprehended, and the more he wrote, the less able was he of expressing his thoughts.” Yet the whole of his life was devoted to the inculcation and maintenance of the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son.
These few particulars, which I learn from Gibbon, will assist me in judging the statement which Paley gives of the faith of the Apostles and the disciples of Jesus, which induced them to pass their lives in dangers, labours, and sufferings. Let us consider what was the condition of the Apostles, what they gave up, and what they got for it. Four of the Apostles were poor fishermen, certainly not a very easy or pleasant mode of life. They quitted it on the first invitation. The other eight, it is said, were also of the lower classes. Shortly after their appointment, they were sent, two and two, in different directions, to make converts. They were directed not to make any provision for <<467>>their journey; either in money or food; on their arrival in a city, they were to inquire who in it were worthy, and to go there and abide with them until they left the place. This, surely, was neither laborious nor dangerous. After their return, they accompanied Jesus in his travels, heard him preach, and were witnesses of the miracles which he is said to have performed. Neither was this a very hard life. They subsisted on the contributions of the believers. One of the twelve carried the purse. We do not find that either the master or the disciples were ill-treated at any of the places where they addressed the people. The worst that happened was that Jesus was not believed, and the contributions stopped. At one place, where Jesus gave the devils permission to enter into a drove of swine, the inhabitants came out in a body, and besought him to leave their coasts. That a man should go about preaching, and at times collecting a crowd of four or five thousand people, was a proceeding which would hardly be tolerated by any government; yet it seems strange it should not have attracted the attention of the Romans, and would almost make us suspect that the number of persons collected on the two occasions, when it is said Jesus fed them, was grossly exaggerated. On the occasion when many of the disciples left him, he asked the twelve whether they also would go. Peter answered, “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” But, independent of the spiritual comforts which they were promised, they had the actual enjoyment of temporal benefits; the females from whom devils had been expelled, and who had been cured of their infirmities, were not ungrateful; Mary Magdalen, Joanna, and Susannah, and many others ministered to him of their substance. When Jesus was betrayed, all the apostles deserted him and fled; but it does not appear from the gospels that they were sought after or annoyed after the crucifixion of Jesus. It therefore does not appear that they lived a laborious or dangerous life, which is the first part of the assertion of Paley.