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Letters on Christianity.

No. III.

To The Rev. I. M. Wise, D. D.

Dear Sir:

This week I have received your letter of last month through the press. I thank you for it: I have already given to its con tents some hours of scrutinizing thought, and I hasten to present you with a reply.

Your letter commences and ends with the assertion that all hope and labour to convert the Jews are “ridiculous;” and I have no doubts but that from the point of faith or speculation where you stand, all such labours appear singularly ridiculous. I give you full credit for the sincerity of your remark. There are instances in which the ridiculous foolishness of an enterprise is attributable more to ourselves than to itself,—to our organs of vision more than to its properties. Unbelief, prejudice and conceit oft often make things appear supremely ridiculous, which in themselves are true and momentous. In the seventeenth century, if I am correctly informed, many of the most enlightened doctors <<288>>considered the circulation of the blood very ridiculous; but while they were abusing and refuting and persecuting the new doctrine, their own blood was most ridiculously rushing from their heart, through their arteries, and returning through their veins. It was once supremely ridiculous and even impious to assert that the earth moves round the sun, and that there are other worlds, and still thousands of aged, experienced persons knew better than to believe any such new thing.

To the Egyptian court it was as ridiculous as it could be, that the Lord of heaven should choose the Israelites as his peculiar favourites. To many of the most enlightened minds in Israel, it was ridiculous that Moses, who had married a daughter of Midian, should profess to be the deliverer of Israel and prophet of God; and what greater amusement could they have had than the threat that their unbelief might destroy them? Near the close of the last century, it was to a great and highly enlightened nation most ridiculous that God should rest on the seventh day, and appoint a Sabbath for man, and, in their universal laugh, they plunged themselves into the most desperate social and moral crime and anguish. Many a man raised a contemptuous laugh at the idea of converting the Chinese, when Morrison started to spend his life in China, and undertook to translate the Bible into Chinese. Yet every man, Jew or Christian, who believes that the knowledge of God shall cover the earth, must look with sublime approbation and hope on Morrison’s enterprise. Some men's minds are so morally perverted that the most sacred and important objects presented before such mirrors, must appear distorted, monstrous, ridiculous; and the more grand the proportions of the object, the more ridiculous its image in their minds. I presume it is best to think on all religious matters in solemn earnestness: in the most groundless absurdities that hare been connected with religion, I see little to be laughed at.

But to the particular subject before us. To your philosophy of the divine nature, it appears supremely ridiculous that there should be the Father and the Son in the one divine essence, that an eternal Father implies an eternal Son, an eternal cause, an eternal activity and effect, or that an everlasting fountain of <<289>>being and life implies a commensurate everlasting issue. Possibly, eternal absolute existence, without any eternal relative existence, is a more serious absurdity than you have ever supposed in your philosophy. It is ridiculous to you that Christians call the Messiah the Son of God in a peculiar sense, implying no earthly father,—perhaps equally ridiculous that Adam was the son of God in the same sense, and that the Messiah is called in the Psalms, the Son of God, the first born. (Ps. ii. 7, lxxxix. 27). It is ridiculous to you that Christ withstood during forty days the temptations and opposition of the wicked one; but most probably if you had more orthodox and solemn views of the moral ruin which has been effected through the original tempter, the old serpent, as described in the beginning of Genesis, you would better appreciate the necessity that the saviour from this ruin, enter into conflict with the original infernal tempter.

The existence of evil spirits appears very ridiculous to you. The Talmud, as you are aware, shows that the existence of such spirits, of מזיקין was a generally received and strongly held doctrine of the Rabbis; and we cannot go far in ברכות without meeting a horrible page on these malignant spirits. The same doctrine is clearly taught in the most ancient Targums. It might be interesting to know how you have cut yourself loose from all rabbinical tradition on this subject, and have got out on the wide ocean of scepticism. That man ought to have resided on more worlds than one who dares to assert positively that there are no wicked spirits in the universe, except the spirits of men dwelling in clay; if there is depravity among us, there may be a more invisible, dangerous, and fully developed depravity among other and higher orders of beings; if there are good angels, there may be fallen angels. The same stupidity and conceit which assert confidently that there are no other worlds in the universe than our earth, are capable of asserting, with equal confidence and on equally limited experience, that there are no other devils in the universe than human devils.

I see nothing absurd in the idea that there are invisible, wicked agents, and that they have had a great influence both on the bodies and the minds of men; there is much, both in sacred and profane <<290>>record, to favour this idea; and when I see the Son of man approaching them in irresistible hostility, and depriving them of their power to make men mad and extremely dangerous and miserable, and to cause men, at will, either to be silent, or to roar, curse, and blaspheme everything that is sacred,—when I see him casting them down from this, their high place of power among men, and giving them only a momentary permission to infuse their madness into some lower animals, and this necessarily not that impious madness which curses and blasphemes; I trust that I see Satan falling as lightning from heaven, and the seed of the woman bruising the serpent’s head.

If you cannot accredit to Christianity a peculiar opposition to evil spirits, how do you account for the intimate acquaintance which the Rabbis of the Talmud professed to have had with the מזיקין?

The devil, you say, is a personage of Persian origin. I suppose then, the tempting serpent of Genesis, a personage of Persian origin! The Satan of Job and the Satan of Zechariah, who appeared as the adversary of Joshua, a personage of Persian origin! The foreign unnatural element must have worked itself tremendously into Judaism.

You laugh at the existence of a hell, and this laugh proves that there is in your religious character a presumptuous, impious insensibility, where there ought to be in such sinful beings as we are, a tender sensibility and fear. If you had more deep and humbling views of the demerit of sin and of the holiness and strictness of God’s law; if you had higher views of the moral government  of God. you would not thus scoff at the idea of a future terrible retribution to the wicked. You remind me of the ancient sinners against whom Isaiah pronounced a terrible wo, and who, when God threatened, blasphemously replied: “Let him make speed, and hasten his work, that we may see it; and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw nigh and come, that we may know it.”

Precisely so, in the face of all such passages as the following in your own Bible: “For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell.” Deut. xxxii. 22.) “Then understood I their end. Surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castest them down into destruc-<<291>>tion. For lo, they that are far from thee shall perish.” (Psalm lxxiii. 17, 18, 27.) “Therefore will I also deal in fury; mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity; and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet will I not hear them.” (Ezek. viii. 18.) “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Dan. xii. 2.) In the face of these and many other passages in your own Bible, and of many clearer assertions of future punishment in the New Testament, you laugh at every terror beyond the grave, and ask, as the sinners of old did, for some clearer proof. Let the Almighty, you say, make speed, and show us his counsel, if it be so terrible. Let us see if he can punish us any more than to take away our mortal breath. Let us have some more convincing experience of the terrors of which Isaiah speaks, of the worm that never dies and the fire that is never quenched, and then we will be here.

It would, assuredly, be very agreeable to a congregation of hearers who desire as much as possible to cast off the fear of God, to hear your elaborate arguments that in all such passages there is no intimation of punishment continuing after death.

As to the genealogies of Matthew and Luke, you know that in the last volume of the Occident, I have endeavoured to show their harmony, to account for the omission of the three kings, and to prove that Jehoiakim is counted. In your brief reply some months since, you assert that there must have been more than fourteen generations between Abraham and David: but remember the Hebrew Bible itself gives no more than fourteen, and if your expected Messiah should appear tomorrow, he would have to present his genealogy precisely as Matthew gives it between Abraham and David.

On the next difficulty to which you call attention, that, according to both Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born under Herod the Great, and according to Luke there was an enrolment of the inhabitants of Palestine at the time, whereas the famous taxation described at length by Josephus and incidentally mentioned by Luke (Acts v. 371, was completed about the eighth year of the Christian era, let me here submit to you one of various solutions presented in Horne’s Introduction.

“Towards the close of his reign, Herod the Great (who held his kingdom by a grant from Mark Antony, with the consent of the Senate, which had been confirmed by Augustus), having incurred the emperor’s displeasure, to whom his conduct had been misrepresented, Augustus issued a decree reducing Judea to a Roman Province and commanding an enrolment, or register, to be made of every person’s estate, dignity, age, employment, and office. The making of this enrolment was confided to Cyrenius or Quirinius, a Roman Senator, who was collector of the imperial revenue; but Herod having sent his trusty minister, Nicholas of Damascus, to Rome, the latter found means to undeceive the emperor, and soften his angers in consequence of which the actual operation of the decree was suspended. Eleven years afterwards, however, it was carried into effect, on the deposition and banishment of Archelaus (Herod’s son and successor) for maladministration, by Augustus, upon the complaint of the Jews, who, weary of the tyranny of the Herodian family, requested that Judaea might be made a Roman Province. Cyrenius was now sent as President of Syria, with an armed force, to confiscate the property of Archelaus, and to complete the census, to which the Jewish people submitted.

It was this establishment of the assessment or taxing under Cyrenius which was necessary to complete the Roman census, to which the Evangelist alludes in the parenthetical remark occurring in Luke ii. 2., which may be more correctly written and translated thus : It came to pass in those days, that is, a few days before our Saviour’s birth, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the land [of Judea, Galilee, Idumea, &c. under Herod’s dominion ] should be enrolled preparatory to a census or taxing, (‘The taking itself was first made when Cyrenius was Governor of Syria:) and all went to be enrolled, every one to his own city.’

In addition to this, I would suggest that this enrolment might properly be called the first one of Cyrenius, governor of Syria, though he was not then governor. If I say a given battle was the first battle of the late President or the United States, I do not mean that General Taylor was, at the time of this battle, President.

To be silent is not necessarily to contradict. You yourself are aware, that you have not a single positive contradiction in history to the murder of the children in Bethlehem. Herod was very capable of such a bloody deed. Voltaire, whose illustrious example you follow in reproaching Christian sacred history with fables and fabrications, seems to have been so anxious to wound Christianity deeply on this point, that he would make the children born annually in the little village of Bethlehem more numerous than those in either Paris or London.

In your letter you bring prominently forward Luke iii. 1, 2, and I will give this a prominent place in my reply. “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high-priests.” May we invite you now to mark candidly the impress of historical verity on every one of these six points. We now stand near, or in, the twenty-eighth or twenty-ninth year of the life of Christ. Reckoning this number of years back from the fifteenth of Tiberius, we may place the birth of Christ in the forty-second year of Augustus, and, therefore, according to both sacred and profane history, in the time of Herod. We have the authority of Josephus, that in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and had been governor probably more than two years. (See Jos. Ant. xviii. 2, 2, and 4, 2. We have, farther, his testimony that Herod was tetrarch of Galilee. (Ant. xviii. 2, 3.) We have farther the most explicit authority of Josephus, that Philip, Herod’s brother, was not only at this time, hut long before, and some years after, the tetrarch of Trachonitis, Gaulonitis, and of the nation of the Bataneans. ( Ant. xviii. -1, 6.) The Iturea of Luke may be here expressed by one or both of the other names. You lay your principal objection against the fifth point, Lysa-raids the tetrarch of Abilene. Your first assertion is that Lysanias was never a ruler of Abilene : Josephus flatly contradicts you in his using the expression, Abila of Lysanias.” (Ant. xix. 5, 1.) Josephus farther gives Luke an important corrobora-<<294>>tion on this very point, in alleging that the Emperor Caius gave Agrippa Major the tetrarch of Lysanias, which must have occurred about seven years after the time when, according to Luke, Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene. (Ant. xviii. 6, 10.) You make a great mistake in identifying this Lysanias with the Lysanias, son of Ptolemy, who was put to death thirty-six years before Christ. The expression, “Anna and Caiaphas being high priests, means merely that these two high priests were living when the given history occurred, and this is according to Josephus. When you assert the stupidity displayed in asserting that two men were high priests at the same time, you ought not to forget that some duties peculiar to the high priesthood were performed by two men: the high priest had his סגן.

Now, candidly, is it not very remarkable that Josephus confirms Luke so materially in all the six points!

Mark vii. 31: “And again, departing from the coasts Tyre and Sidon, he came unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.” This verse stands so in my English Bible, and is a correct translation of the Greek. Any good map  will show you how, in going directly from Tyre or Sidon to the sea of Galilee, he passed through the borders of Decapolis. By some unaccountable means you have got this verse to read so:

“He came unto the sea of Galilee and came unto the coasts of Judea beyond Jordan.”

Excuse me, if I dismiss such a mistake with nothing more than a smile. You determine from this, that the Evangelists were so ignorant they did not know that Samaria was between Galilee and Judea; but John tells us that Jesus going from Judea to Galilee, had to pass through Samaria. What a pity that you have not been able to assist the Evangelists! you could have taught them both to quote better, and to describe better!

On the quotations of the New Testament from the Old, let me first present some leading principles. In the Hebrew Bible the same composition is very seldom presented in the same language. The variations are innumerable, and while some few may be the mistakes of copyists, the majority are evidently designed. The Decalogue itself is not the same in Exodus and <<295>>Deuteronomy. The passage common to Isaiah and Micah is not, in all its words, the same in both prophets. The one great song of David, the crowning composition of all his life, is very different as recorded in 2 Samuel xxii., and in Psalm xviii. Words are changed by the introduction of different letters, the meaning in some instances is different and there are even whole lines in one place which are left out in the other. If the lath Psalm were in the New Testament, instead of being where it is, you would say that there is no such a Psalm in the Book of Samuel. Every orthodox Jew will say that it was the will of God that these variations should be made, or that the very same thing should be recorded differently. The design of the Spirit of inspiration was to give us thoughts rather than words. The Old Testament as well as the New, is, in its appropriate nature, spirit rather than letter.

The free Spirit of inspiration and truth teaches us, by these variations in the Old Testament, that its freedom was never bound by the iron chains of verbal forms. A most sublime principle lies at the foundation of these variation. Who, in view of this subject, does not exclaim, variety and unity, variety in expression, unity in spirit, unity in the essence, variety in the manifestation!—this is godlike! Now you would certainly expect that one who believes in the “Identity of Judaism and Christianity” of the Old Testament and the New, would rejoice to find passages varied in the New, from the original, just as they are varied in the Old,—to find in both Testaments the same freedom in all quotations. Grant us the same sublime principle for the New Testament which you recognise in the Old, and all your quibbles about incorrect quotations evaporate instantly.

Matthew does not say it was written by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene,” but that it was said by the prophets. How do we know that there was not a traditionary saying on the subject? It seems to me most probable that Matthew had in view the predictions of several prophets, that the Messiah should be despised, and that he considered them partially fulfilled: in the fact that Jesus obtained the opprobrious name, Nazarene.

You must know that, in the quotation of Matthew and Luke, <<296>>from the 40th chapter of Isaiah, the words in the wilderness may be connected either with the preceding, or with the following, and that, since in the Hebrew the little Zakeph separates the preceding word from them, and the great Zakeph separates them from what follows, the Hebrew and the Greek correspond. Perhaps you mean to show your adroitness in making a distinction between a voice crying and a voice of one crying: very well; —full credit to your philological and philosophical acumen. You cannot find any such a verse in Isaiah as “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Had you read a little farther, you would have found the verse which has been translated thus, “All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” (Isaiah lii. 10.)

In every age there has been great variety in the pronunciaton of the Hebrew, and its spelling with foreign letters. The Ephraimites could not pronounce like the other tribes. Your criticism on the Greek spelling of one Hebrew word in the New Testament cannot militate much against the truth of the statement there made. The word itself is a curiosity for the museum of the philologist, rather than to be ridiculed. It is not stated in the Acts, as you insinuate, that the Hebrews voluntarily exposed their children: all that is implied is, that they were severely treated in being forced to see their children exposed to death. See the original.

The ridiculous mistakes which you find in Acts may not be so ridiculous after all. Stephen evidently meant to mention both Hebron and Sychem as the burying-place of the fathers; hence his expressions are to be applied partly to one and partly to the other. Your whole objection is, that he makes the matter confused and contradictory, in endeavouring to combine the two. There may have been good reason for all this brevity and confusion in his address to the august council, as he was about to be stoned to death. There is solemnity in his broken, confused, unfinished expressions, rather than ground for ridicule.

I have now gone over all the important points of your letter. except the question in relation to the virgin. My letter is already too long to admit the introduction of this discussion, and << 297>>I would rather recommend you to Dr. Alexander’s Commentary on Isaiah, which, if you do not possess it, I hope you will receive from the Rev. Dr. J. N. Campbell of Albany, to whom I would be glad in this way to introduce you.

Though the answers which I have given to your difficulties, appear to me satisfactory, I dare not say that I can answer all the objections which you may present. In every system of truth, both in the natural world and in the moral, there are in explicable points.

Yours, most truly,
New York, August 16, 1850.

NOTE BY THE EDITOR.—Mr. Miller is not unanswerable; but we leave Dr. Wise to answer him; and if he do not, we will do so ourself. But for his future papers, we must remind Mr. M. to confine himself to his subject, without making appeals or personal allusions; the argument gains nothing by overwhelming an opponent with questions which will place him in an unpleasant light before the public. At least, this is our method of thinking, and we act up to it when we argue.