Volume VII. No. 12
Veadar 5610 March 1850
Paley’s Evidences of Christianity.
Paley proposes to prove, in regard to the four Gospels and the Acts, not that the former were written by the persons to whom they are attributed, but that they were received from the apostolical times as containing an account of the acts and the doctrines of the founder of the religion; that they were received and held in reverence as holy books by a long series of writers during the first three or four centuries after they were published; that they and they alone are quoted as containing the true account of the occurrences of which they treat; that though there may have been spurious gospels professing to give spurious accounts they were not held in much esteem; that the <<589>>heathens who attacked Christianity objected to the doctrine as contained in these records, but never contested their integrity or authority; that the many sects into which Christianity was split from almost the times in which these books were composed, received them equally with that which proved eventually the dominant and orthodox party. There is not anything in these propositions which tends to prove the truth and divinity of the Christian religion; they are rather the natural and necessary consequences of the promulgation of the religion; the travels and preaching of Paul and of Peter and the other disciples would naturally create a desire in the converts to have a connected and written account of the events and doctrine which had been imparted to them in verbal discourses and on different occasions; these works would be given and received as containing the doctrine taught by the founder and his personal adventures; and to profess Christianity implied a firm belief in the truth and authenticity of these works. For the truth of the religion which they adopted depended on the veracity of the authors as to the truth of the miracles and occurrences of which they profess to have been witnesses; hence necessarily they may have been received by the early Christians as the proof, and the only one of the truth of the religious faith they had adopted, and those who wrote in defence of them regarded them in consequence as inspired, and endowed with all the virtues which should characterize men thus circumstanced.
The second volume of Paley’s work is devoted to what he calls the auxiliary evidences of Christianity, the first being Prophecy; and he quotes from Isaiah lii. 13, to the end of chapter liii. He then proceeds with his remarks, that these words are extant in a book purporting to contain the predictions of a writer who lived 700 years before the Christian era; and to prove that they have always been considered authentic and prophetic he says, the application of this prophecy to the evangelic history is plain and appropriate, that there is no double sense, no figurative expression but what is sufficiently intelligible to every reader of every country. But plain as they are, he does not make any application of them to the person of Jesus or the scheme of Christianity, but proceeds to state what turn the Jews give to this prophecy. The ancient Rabbins, he says, explained it of their expected Messiah; but the modern expositors represent it as a description of the calamitous state and intended restoration of the Jewish nation, which is there exhibited under the character of a single person.
Now I cannot understand how the explanation given by the Jewish commentators can afford any evidence in support of Christianity, unless they agreed with <<590>>their opponents in the application they make of the prophecy. He contends that the application they make of the prophecy labours under insuperable difficulties; in particular he inquires, “In whose name or person, if the Jewish nation be the sufferer, does the prophet speak when he says, ‘He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows?’” He will find no difficulty in understanding it, if he admits our application as laid down by the commentators, and bears in mind the figurative and poetic language of the prophecies and those of Isaiah in particular.
Again, he says, “the grave and the tomb are not applicable to the fortune of a nation.” Is it more inapplicable than when Pharaoh and Egypt are threatened by Ezekiel xxix., where he describes him as “the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers,” and prophesies that God would put hooks in his jaws and draw him forth with all the fish of his rivers sticking to his scales?
With these objections against the applicability of the prophecy to the Jewish nation, Paley leaves the subject without telling his readers how it is applicable to the evangelic history. He says there are other prophecies of the Old Testament interpreted by Christians to relate to the gospel history; but in order that their value might be represented with any tolerable degree of fidelity, required a long discussion; that is, they required to be interpreted in a certain manner to be applicable to the gospel history. But the proof which he considers “the clearest and the strongest of all,” is furnished by that of which he has been treating. If so, the Christian religion is very little indebted for proofs to the prophecies of the Old Testament.
In the next section he says, “A second head of argument from prophecy” is founded on the prediction of Jesus of the destruction of Jerusalem. Now this prophecy certainly lies open to the suspicion of having been written after the event, and Paley seems to have felt the objection by the reasons he gives why it should not have been so. He argues, that had the event already taken place at the time the prophecy was published, the authors would have alluded to it as a proof of the prophetic inspiration of Jesus. But they were too crafty to be seduced to take advantage of that circumstance which would infallibly have laid the prophecy open to the doubt of having been written after the event. They left the question open, by not giving any clue to the date of writing the account they gave. The credibility of the prophecy depends greatly if not entirely on the date of the gospels.
Dr. [Nathaniel] Lardner, to whose authority and learning Paley gives the most implicit confidence, states they were published respectively in the years 64, 64, 63, and 68, and that Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles about the same time. This <<591>>account would place them a few years prior to the destruction of Jerusalem; but there is no internal evidence by which their dates can be fixed. From some allusion to public events, such as the death of Peter, (John xxi. 19,) it may be shown that they were not written before that event, though perhaps not (how long?) after.
It appears from Dr. Lardner, as quoted by Paley, that the first allusion to the gospel is in an epistle ascribed to Barnabas, the companion of Paul, and which purports to have been written soon after the destruction of Jerusalem; but it is not mentioned by any of the fathers before Clement of Alexandria, in the year 194. It is again mentioned by Eusebius and Jerome, near 200 years afterwards, who describe it as an ancient book bearing the name of Barnabas, well known and read among Christians, though not accounted a part of Scripture. Now it is very singular that this epistle is not mentioned or quoted by any of the fathers who mention the four Gospels by name. Paley cites a passage in this epistle which is found in Matthew, which is introduced by the words “as it is written,” which he says was the form in which the Jews quoted their Scriptures; and Barnabas being a Jew, he argues, would not have used this phrase in speaking of any book but what had acquired a kind of scriptural authority. Can he show that the Jews only used it in referring to their Scriptures? was it not the most natural way of quoting any passage in the writings of a person whom they did not name?
Certainly the occurrence of that phrase is not proof of Barnabas having read Matthew or any of the Gospels in which the prophecy of Jesus is related; and a strong presumption that he had not, is found in the fact or his not having alluded to it when he mentions the destruction of Jerusalem. It is so natural that a person whose object was to establish the divinity and celebrate the words and actions of Jesus should have quoted his prophecy and its fulfillment; instead of this, however, he gives quotations from Isaiah xl.12; xlix. 12; and lxi. 1, Zephaniah, Daniel, and Haggai. The first and third have no relation to the destruction; the other, xlix. 12, he perverts, as is usually done by the advocates of Christianity when they quote the Mikra,* saying, “Behold they that destroy this temple, even they shall again build it up;” the English authorized version being, “Thy children shall make haste, thy destroyers and they that make thee waste shall go forth out of thee.” Barnabas xiii. 14, in alluding to this prophecy says, “And so it came to pass, for through their wars it is now destroyed by their enemies, and the servants of their enemies build it up.” This refers to <<592>>the command given by Adrian to rebuild Jerusalem in the year 135, consequently could not be written less than 65 years after the destruction of Jerusalem.
I repeat, that there is no testimony in Barnabas that he knew anything of the prophecy ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels; the allusion he makes may have been to other books treating of the actions and sayings of Jesus; and that such books there were is evident from the introduction to Luke’s gospel, where he tells his disciple Theophilus, “that as many had taken in hand to set forth those things that were most surely believed among them, he determined to write to him that he might know the certainty of those things wherein he had been instructed.” This proem teaches us that there were at that early age of Christianity many gospels extant, and we may fairly infer that they were different from the doctrine which Theophilus had been taught, else Luke would not have thought it necessary to write his gospel that he might know the certainty of what he had been taught. However, I think I have shown that there is no proof that the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem ascribed to Jesus was published before the event, and although I do not hold prophecy to be any proof of the divinity of the prophet, still, should our opponents bring forward such a claim they would not be able to support it.
The next argument in support of Christianity is drawn from the morality of the gospel. On the head of morality, I would not differ from Paley; but I deny its affording any support to the theology of Christianity. All the practicable precepts are drawn from the Jewish law, the few new ones are impracticable exaggerations of the beautiful rules for our conduct laid down in the Pentateuch, evincing a morbid sensitiveness in the mild character of Jesus, but incompatible with the imperfect nature of mankind. Paley has classed mankind under two opposite descriptions of character: one of which possesses vigour, firmness, resolution; the other being meek, yielding, complying, and forgiving, willing to suffer, silent and gentle under rudeness and insult, seeking for reconciliation where others would demand satisfaction. The former, he observes, is and ever hath been the favourite of the world.
It is the character of great men; there is a dignity in it which universally commands respect. The latter, he says, is poor-spirited, tame, and abject. Yet so it hath happened that with the founder of Christianity, the latter is the subject of his commendation, his precepts, his example, and that the former is so in no part of his composition. Now this is not drawing a very flattering picture of his master, whom he places among the poor-spirited, tame, and abject, and excludes him from the class of those who are and ever have been the favourites of <<593>>the world, who are characterized as great men, and universally command respect. That the aim of Christianity is to form characters of the second class, he proves by quoting the following extravagant precepts: “Resist not evil, but whomsoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also, and if any man will sue you at law and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also, and whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain; love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.”
He concludes with this remark: “This certainly is not common-place morality—it certainly is very original.” But in laying down these rules for the conduct of his followers, did not Jesus betray great ignorance of the nature and disposition of mankind in general, as well as the inconvenience that would result from their being adopted and practised by a nation? It has been objected to Judaism that it was not intended for a large nation, instancing the obligation on every male to appear before the Lord at Jerusalem thrice in every year, which would be impracticable should the diffusion of Judaism become general all over the world. But would not the adoption of those precepts be fatal to the existence of any nation, or, rather, would it not prevent the growth of any nation? And does not the spread of Christianity prove that they have never been acted on by Christians in general? The early Christian communities were protected by their insignificance, and, till they acquired power under Constantine, they worked by sapping, not storm; at all events, their progress cannot be ascribed to the above precepts.
After eulogizing those almost impracticable precepts, Paley proceeds to those whose object it is to restrain wicked and impure thoughts, on which he quotes a saying of [Herman] Boerhaave, that Jesus knew mankind better than Socrates. I think it more correct to say, that Jesus knew little of mankind, whom he judged from his own mild and unimpassioned character. Our spontaneous thoughts depend greatly on our physical constitution, the merit consists in not putting them in operation. A young, healthy, and vigorous man, feels naturally certain sensations at the sight of a beautiful woman, and is entitled to praise in refraining from indulging them should an opportunity offer, much more than a weak and apathetic man, who never feels those sensations, and in consequence, is not tempted by such thoughts, and desires.
It is very singular that in the accounts we have of the temptations to which the saints have been subjected, a beautiful woman is always a prominent object and the most difficult to be resisted; even St. Anthony <<594>>gave a sly glance at the lovely vision which was presented to him. The idea of confounding the natural and spontaneous feelings of a man with the actual commission of the crime, surely never entered into the imagination of any legislator.
Now as to the precepts which are to form the rule of a man’s conduct, Paley refers to the answer which Jesus gave to the question— which is the great commandment in the law? “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; this is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself; on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” These two precepts are the foundation of a man’s duty to God and to his fellow-man. Paley allows (what indeed he could not deny) that they are extant in the Mosaic code; and this confirms what I have said above, that the morality of Christianity is only that of Judaism. The merit challenged for this answer, is the judicious selection of these two precepts from that voluminous institution. The answer to the question would naturally suggest itself to any one who had read the law; but I will allow there was some ingenuity and quickness in selecting the second, which forms the groundwork of all the rest; but it is remarkable that when he asked the man (Luke x. 27) what was written in the law, he points out the very same two precepts.
Paul (Rom. xiii. 9) only gives the latter part of the answer, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself; he who loves another hath fulfilled the law,”—this same law of which on another occasion, he says, “The law killeth.” Paley says, “this temper (meekness and brotherly love), for sometime at least, descended in its purity to succeeding Christians,” in proof of which he gives a long quotation from Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians, in which he reminds them of their former good conduct, that they were “humble-minded, not boasting of anything, desiring rather to be subject than to govern, to give than receive.” But it seems they were greatly changed; for this Epistle was written to reprove them, (1 Clem. i. 3) for “that wicked and detestable sedition so unbecoming the elect of God, which a few heady and self-willed men have fomented to such a degree of madness that your venerable and respected name, so worthy of all men to be beloved, is greatly to be blasphemed thereby.” Clement asks (xxii. 1), “If this sedition, this contention, and these schisms, be on my account, I am ready to depart.” The writer was then at Rome, of whose church he was afterwards bishop; the two epistles under his name are not received at present into the canon of the New Testament. It is singular that they abound with passages from the Mikra, which seems to indicate that the Christians were well acquainted with those books, and were taught to seek in them support for the doctrine they received from their teachers.
Paley next examines the manner in which Jesus taught. “His lessons did not consist of disquisitions, or anything like moral essays, or like sermons; when he delivered his precepts, it was seldom that he added any proof or argument; still more seldom that he accompanied them with what all precepts require, limitation and distinction; his instructions were conceived in short, emphatic, sententious rules, in occasional reflections and round maxims. I do not think this was a natural or would be a proper method for a philosopher or moralist; but I contend that it was suitable to the character which Christ assumed, and to the situation in which as a teacher he was placed; he produced himself as a messenger from God.”
His doctrine was calculated to make men like himself, meek, merciful, and forgiving; the very exaggeration in some of his precepts which renders them all but impracticable, arose from his boundless philanthropy; and in reading his biography, we must reject all those passages which are incompatible with those characteristics. We may not believe that when the disciple asked, “Suffer me first to bury my father,” he said, “Follow me, and let the dead bury the dead.” Again, when he was, told that his mother and brethren were standing without desiring to speak with him, he is said to have answered, “Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?” and pointing to his disciples, said, “Behold my mother and my brethren.” Mark relates that a man came and asked him what he should do to inherit eternal life? Jesus refers him to the Decalogue; when he said he had observed them from his youth. Jesus then said, “One thing thou lackest, go thy ways, sell whatever thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come take up thy cross and follow me.” The man went away sad, for he had great possessions. Mark then makes him tell his disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
These speeches were never made by him; they are not in unison with his mild character. They were invented and ascribed to him by his disciples, or at all events, by the Evangelists, to show the converts that the devotion to their teachers was to exceed all bounds, that the sacred duty of burying a father must be neglected, that the natural bonds of affection to our family were to be broken whenever they interfered with our devotedness to our instructors.