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ON THE CONSENT BETWEEN THE SCRIPTURES AND THE HEATHEN POETS.
SOME ingenious men, of more wit than experience, have objected to the Christian revelation, because they find no traces of it in their favourite classical writers. The testimony of an adversary is always valuable; but upon this occasion we have no reason to expect it from those who had their reasons for vilifying the Jews, and all that belonged to them. If we find any thing to our purpose, we must have it as it were by accident; and of this sort much may be collected.
You have began to read Horace. If you examine his third ode, you will see him confirming the Sacred History of the Scripture in some particulars not unworthy of your notice, which could be derived to the heathens only from the fountains of Divine Revelation, or from tradition proceeding from the same original. What can we understand by the audax Japeti genus, but the posterity of Japhet, that son of Noah, from whom the European nations are descended? Japhet was the first father of the Greeks and Romans after the flood, as surely as Adam was the father of all mankind. Then, what is Prometheus's fraud against Heaven, but that offence, whatever it was, which brought death into the world? Here we have a theft acknowledged against Heaven, and all manner of evils and diseases are sent upon earth in consequence of it:
Post ignem ætherea domo
And what is more remarkable, he tells us of the change which was made in the period of human life, with the reason of it;
Semotique prius tarda necessitas
Here it is affirmed by implication, that death was originally at a greater distance, and that the divine justice shortened human life slowly and unwillingly, not till the increasing corruption of the world had made it necessary to lessen the opportunities of sin. The lives of men before the flood, were of many hundred years; but when all flesh had corrupted his way, then the curse took place at the flood, and man's life was contracted nearly to the present span. How should Horace know this? Or how should Hesiod know it, from whom he borrowed it? for it is precisely the doctrine of the Mosaic history. And as it carries us back to the times before the flood, of which no human history was ever written, it must have been taken either from the Scripture itself, or from some tradition, which, if it could be traced, would carry us back to the same original.
These things then, though they are in Horace, are not of Horace; nor are they of the Greeks or the Romans but of Divine revelation: and it is remarkable, that we should meet with so many sacred doctrines in so small a compass. I take the opportunity. to speak of this while the ode is under our consideration but when you are farther acquainted with hea
then learning, you will find abundant evidence of the same sort, which they who are disaffected to the Christian system, and would set up the classics against the Bible, will never like to hear of; but will endeavour to discountenance all such things, and dismiss them in the lump, as if they had no relation to the sacred history, but such as fancy or partiality hath given them.
ON THE SAME SUBJECT.
As you seemed to be entertained with those passages of Horace which are parallel to the Sacred History, I shall lead you on to some more passages of the same sort in other authors; and if you should not understand all of them critically at present, I hope the time will come when you will find little or no difficulty in any of them.
Herod, you know, who was king in Judea at the birth of Christ, slew all the children in Bethlehem. By birth and education he was a Jew, and as such would eat no swine's flesh. Macrobius, a learned heathen writer in the earliest times of the Church, tells us, that the slaughter of infants by Herod was so sudden and indiscriminate, that Herod's own child, then at nurse, was put to death among the rest; which fact being told to the emperor Augustus, he made this reflection upon it, that" it was better to be Herod's hog than A a
his son." You will naturally argue upon this case, that if Augustus actually said this, Herod's child was slain: if so, the infants were slaughtered in Bethlehem; Jesus Christ was born there; the Wise Men of the East came to worship him, and reported his birth to Herod, &c. as the Gospel relates; for all these circumstances hang together, and account for one another.
Tacitus and Suetonius, both bitter enemies to the Christians, agree in relating that extraordinary circumstance of a persuasion generally prevailing among the heathens, about the time of Christ's birth, that a king should come from the East. The Roman senate were in such a panic at the apprehension of a king, that they were about to make a decree, that no child born in a certain year should be brought up, lest this great king should arise among themselves. Some temporising Jews, called Herodians, flattered Herod that he was the king expected; and it is probable this opinion, which they had infused into him, made him so jealous of a rival, when the birth of Christ was reported to him. Persius, in his fifth satire, alludes to the extraordinay pomp and illumination with which Herod's birth-day was celebrated even in the reign of Nero.
But the manner in which this tradition operated upon Virgil is still more extraordinary, and little short of a prodigy. It produced from that serious and cautious poet, the wonderful eclogue entitled Pollio; the imagery and expressions of which are so different from the Roman style, and so near to the language of the prophet Isaiah, that if this eclogue had been written as early as the days of Hesiod, the infidels of this time would most probably undertake to prove, that the prophet had borrowed from the poet.
Bishop Lowth has shewn, with great judgment, that this eclogue could not possibly be meant of any one of those persons to whom heathen critics have applied it and it does not appear how we can give any rational account of it, unless we allow that the poet had seen the predictions of the prophet, and accommodated the matter of them to the prevailing expectation of the times; ascribing them unjustly to a Sibylline oracle of heathen original, because nothing great was to be allowed to the Jews.
It will be worth your attention to consider some of the particulars minutely. He calls the time in which this wonderful person is to be born, ultima ætas, the last days, after the manner of the Scripture: God, saith the apostle, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son. According to the prophet Daniel, the Messiah was to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity. So saith the poet :
Te duce si qua manent sceleris vestigia nostri,
The prophet Isaiah saith, unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given; and his name shall be called, the mighty God, the Prince of Peace: the sense of all which is thus expressed in the eclogue,
Ille Deum vitam accipiet, divisque videbit
The scenery by which the prophet hath figuratively signified the times of the Gospel is minutely adopted,