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whilst they exercised their ministry under the harassings of frequent persecution, and in a state of almost continual alarm, it is not probable that, in this engaged, anxious, and unsettled condition of life, they would think immediately of writing histories for the information of the publick or of posterity*. But it is very probable, that emergencies might draw from some of them occasional letters upon the subject of their mission, to converts, or to societies of converts, with which they were connected; or that they might address written discourses and exhortations to the disciples of the institution at large, which would be received and read with a respect proportioned to the character of the writer. Accounts in the mean time would get abroad of the extraordinary things that had been passing, written with different degrees of information and correct
The extension of the Christian society, which could no longer be instucted by a personal intercourse with the apostles, and the possible circulation of imperfect or erroneous narratives, would soon teach some amongst them the expediency of sending forth authentick memoirs of the life and doctrine of their master. When accounts appeared, authorized by the name, and credit, and situation of the writers, recommended or recognized by the apostles and first preachers of the religion, or found to coincide with what the apostles and first preachers of the religion had taught, other accounts would fall into disuse and neglect; whilst these, maintaining their reputation (as, if genuine and well founded, they would do) under the test of time, inquiry, and contradiction, might be expected to
* This thought occurred to Eusebius : “Nor were the apostles of Christ greatly concerned about the writing of books, being engaged in a inore excellent ministry, which is above all human power." Eccles. llist. I. iii. c. 24.---The same consideration accounts also for the paucity of Christian writings in the first century of its era.
make their way into the hands of Christians of all countries of the world.
This seems the natural progress of the business; and with this the records in our possession, and the evidence concerning them, correspond. We have remaining, in the first place, many letters of the kind above described, which have been preserved with a care and fidelity answering to the respect with which we may suppose that such letters would be received. But as these letters were not written to prove the truth of the Christian religion, in the sense in which we regard that question ; nor to convey information of facts, of which those to whom the letters were written had been previously informed ; we are not to look in them for any thing more than incidental allusions to the Christian history. We are able, however, to gather from these documents various particular attestations which have been already enumerated ; and this is a species of written evidence, as far as it goes, in the highest degree satisfactory, and in point of time perhaps the first. But for our more circumstantial information we have, in the next place, five direct histories, bearing the names of persons acquainted, by their situation, with the truth of what they relate, and three of them purporting, in the very body of the narrative, to be written by such persons ; of which books we know that some were in the hands of those who were contemporaries of the apostles, and that, in the age immediately posteriour to that, they were in the hands, we may say, of every one, and received by Christians with so much respect and deference, as to be constantly quoted and referred to by them without any doubt of the truth of their accounts. They were treated, as such histories, proceeding from such authorities, might expect to be treated. In the preface to one of our histories we have intimations left us of the existence of some ancient accounts which are now lost. There is no.
thing in this cirsumstance that can surprize us. It was to be expected, from the magnitude and novelty of the occasion, that such accounts would swarm. When better accounts came forth, these died away. Our present histories superseded others. They soon acquired a character and established a reputation which does not appear to have belonged to an other : that, at least, can be proved concerning them, which cannot be proved concerning any other. .
But to return to the point which led to these reflections. By considering our records in either of the two views in which we have represented them, we shall perceive that we possess a collection of proofs, and not a naked or solitary testimony ; and that the written evidence is of such a kind, and comes to us in such a state, as the natural order and progress of things, in the infancy of the institution, might be expected to produce.
Thirdly: The genuineness of the historical books of the New Testament is undoubtedly a point of importance, because the strength of their evidence is augmented by our knowledge of the situation of their authors, their relation to the subject, and the part which they sustained in the transaction ; and the testimonies which we are able to produce, compose a firm ground of persuasion that the gospels were written by the persons whose names they bear. Nevertheless, I'must be allowed to state, that, to the argument which I am endeavouring to maintain, this point is not essential ; I mean, so essential as that the fate of the argument depends upon it. The question before us is, whether the gospels exhibit the story which the apostles and first emissaries of religion published, and for which they acted and suffered in the manner, in which, for some miraculous story or other, they did act and suffer. Now let us sup. pose that we possessed no other information concerning these books than that they were written by early disciples
of Christianity ; that they were known and read during the time, or near the time, of the original apostles of the religion; that by Christians whom the apostles instructed, by societies of Christians which the apostles founded, these books were received, (by which term “ received," I mean that they were believed to contain authentick accounts of the transaction upon which the religion rested, and accounts which were accordingly used, repeated, and relied upon) this reception would be a valid proof that these books, whoever were the authors of them, must have accorded with what the apostles taught. A reception by the first race of Christians is evidence that they agreed with what the first teachers of the religion delivered. In particular, if they had not agreed with what the apostles themselves preached, how could they have gained credit in churches and societies which the apostles established ?
Now the fact of their early existence, and not only of their early existence but their reputation, is made out by some ancient testimonies which do not happen to specify the names of the writers : add to which, what hath been already hinted, that two out of the four gospels contain averments in the body of the history, which, though they do not disclose the names, fix the time and situation of the authors, viz. that one was written by an eye-witness of the sufferings of Christ, the other by a contemporary of the apostles. In the gospel of St. John, (xix. 35) after describing the crucifixion, with the particular circumstance of piercing Christ's side with a spear, the historian adds, as for himself, “ and he that saw it bare record, and his record is true, and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe.” Again, (xxi. 24.) after relating a conversation which passed between Peter and the disciple, as it is there expressed, whom Jesus loved, it is added, “this is the disciple which testifieth of these things and wrote these things." This testimony, let it be remarked, is not the less worthy of regard, because it is, in one view, imperfect. The name is not mentioned ; which, if a fraudulent purpose had been intended, would have been done. The third of our present gospels purports to have been written by the person who wrote the Acts of the Apostles ; in which latter history, or rather latter part of the same history, the author, by using in various places the first person plural, declares himself to have been a contemporary of all, and a companion of one of the original preachers of the religion.
There is satisfactory evidence that many persons, profes.
sing to be original witnesses of the Christian Miracles, passed their lives in labours, dangers, and suffering-s, voluntarily undergone in attestation of the accounts which they delivered, and solely in consequence of their belief of the truth of those accounts ; and that they also submitted, from the same motives, to new rules of conduct.
“ OF THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE SCRIPTURES.”
Not forgetting, therefore, what credit is due to the evangelical history, supposing even any one of the four gospels to be genuine ; what credit is due to the gospels, even supposing nothing to be known concerning them but that they were written by early disciples of the religion, and received with deference by early Christian churches ; more especially not forgetting what credit is due to the New Testament in its capacity of cumulative evidence; we now proceed to state the proper and distinct proofs, which shew not only the general value of these records, but their specifick authority, and the high probability there is that they actually came from the persons-whose names they bear.