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In like manner will it be in committing to paper. The same difference of proximity, of attention, of impression, &c. will in writing the history produce a vast difference in the mode of relating. This will retain a circumstance in his memory entire. ly, another imperfectly ; the third not any traces at all of it. The one will relate an affair very briefly, the other with prolixity. The one will behold it in this, the other in a different point of view. In short, all four will write, as honest people, but no one will, in all respects, tally with another.
And of this we may convince ourselves any day of our lives. We need only attend to the first report we hear of some transaction either in town or country, as brought to us by ten persons who were present. Each will believe he is communicating to us a true statement of facts, and all ten will relate it differently. In all the ten accounts we shall fiod several circumstances altered, and observe a want of coincidence.
Some indeed will object, that with the sacred historians this dissonance and contradiction ought not to appear; seeing the spirit of God inspired them verbally, all that they wrote; and it would be absurd to admit that a good God has inspired four gospels, and yet purposely indited the contents variously, both as to circumstances and to time. And this objection, which is a very old one, has in all times moved those of the learned, who believe in a verbal inspiration, with unspeakable toil to compose harmonies of the gospels, in order to reconcile these discrepances and contradictions. It must be owned however, that sagacious and worthy men, not inferior to them in numbers, do not believe that verbal inspiration, and hold those harmonies (the authors of which differ extremely from one ano. ther) a vain and fruitless labour ; consequently, that the whole affair is among the number of those facts that are open to inquiry.
That is, those who chuse, may leave the matter there. I for my part think it not necessary for saving the honour of the evangelists. The four gospels, inspired or not inspired, continue in my mind the most credible of all histories, notwithstanding their variations. Nay, I hold the authors of them for that very reason, people of honour and veracity, because they do not verbally coincide. For, if they accurately agreed throughout, I must of necessity suspect them of confederacy, since it would be an unheard of, and therefore incredible, instance, that four men had related the same story exactly alike. And we may be the more easy about the subject; since as I observed above, the detail, the particular detached circumstances of the history of Jesus, are likewise in the class of examinable truths. It is sufficient for our comfort, for our faith, that the history of Jesus on the whole is true, granting even that parti.
cular circumstances are not in all points to be ascertained. For, how can it affect our interests, for example, whether the centurion of Capernaum went himself to Christ, or whether, by the account of another evangelist, he sent his servant to him
This being premised in general, we will now proceed to lay down a few particular rules, the observance whereof will enable us to be more at ease concerning that variation, and render the narratives of the evangelists conceivable.
1. We must take for granted, that they were simple and unlearned men, who worked no peculiar plan, confined themselves to no particular point of view, and even neither understood nor contemplated the great plan of Jesus, which he pursued through the whole of his history. They penned down what they had seen and heard, exactly as it struck them, and as well as each of them could recollect; and they relate of all only that which fell under their senses, oply the surface. Accordingly, the attentive and sagacious reader must take upon himself the trouble every where to seek out the proper point of view, to pursue the course of the narrative, to penetrate into the interior of the events, to arrange the detached occurrences together, to complete one evangelist from the materials of another, in order to produce a consistent whole.
II. We must again assume, that the evangelists seldom relate entirely and verbally the discourses of Jesus. They generally acquaint us only of the main subject of a copious and diffuse discourse in few words. They have frequently remarked only an energetic thought, an ingenious expression, a proposition that sounds paradoxical or surprising, which they now record. Hence it is, that the speeches of Christ, as they quote them, appear often to us too abrupt, or unsatisfactory, or even unintelligible.
III. We must further admit, that Christ on the same occasion performs the same act again, delivers the same speech, wherefore it is no contradiction, if the evangelists inform us of some things under different circumstances.
-IV. We must be aware that the disciples of Jesus had not complete and perspicuous conceptions of all things, and therefore their relations are placed in a wrong light; as we shall see by and by
V. We must consider that the disciples of Jesus, as well as Jesus himself, spoke in the dialect of the Jews, and consequently for signifying their ideas they employed such expressions as al. luded to Jewish conceptions and prejudices. Therefore the mo. dern reader must previously make allowance for this allusion, ere he can extract for himselfthe pure and unsophisticated ideas, and reconcile a narration with the other circumstances or the
character of the person.—Thus, for example, it is a mere Jewish expression, when Jesus says to the Syro-Phenician woman, it is not fit to take the childrens bread and cast it to the dogs : since the Jews were accustomed 60 to denominate the hea. thens.
VI. It must, lastly, be presumed, that even in the gospels as we have them, many inaccurracies have slipped in from the numerous copies that were taken of them, which canot reasonably be placed to the account of the historiographer.
And now to my second preliminary, which I already began to notice in the fourth rule. It relates not merely to the nar: ratives, but also to the conceptions and views of the first disciples of Jesus.
Not all that the disciples of Jesus conceived and said of their master, was so perfectly accurate, that we are no longer privileged to look about for corrections of their ideas. They in particular attach themselves too strictly to the Jewish expressions, which Jesus sometimes made use of when speaking of his person and his offices; and understand them always in their full Jewish conception, whereas they should have taken them in the loosest comparison. When, for example, Jesus told them, he was the Messiah—the son of man, who came down from heayen--they immediately fix their thoughts on the several expectations of the then yulgar Jews, who looked for a Saviour, that was to free them from the supremacy of the Romans. So they still entertained the gener. al prejudice of the Jews, who almost always regarded the unusual and inexplicable as supernatural, and held them to be immediate interpositions of Deity, or the agency of invisible spirits. So were they likewise in moral objects, raw, as it were, and unimproved : as, e. gr. when they asked Jesus, to let them call fire from heaven upon the obstinate and perverse : for which cruel intolerance Jesus very severely reproved them, Even after the pentecost, when their views had however attained to greater maturity, they did not think rightly and conceive distinctly of many things ; as, among others, the differences and altercations between Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, evidently prove. And though their conceptions became gradually more clear and correct, yet they never arrived to the utmost degree of perfection. Paul therefore always speaks modestly, of his attainments, and admonishes other teachers likewise of the primitive church, always to consider that our knowledge here below is partial and imperfect.
Nor ought this to surprise us—the disciples of Jesus were men, who partook in the common lot of humanity that of being imperfect and limited ; aud of becoming gradually by information, experience, and continued reflection, more ripe in their judgments. They had from God all that they wanted at the time for the administration of their office, though he gave them not all at once, but dealt out to each his proper measure. Generally speaking, nature makes no leaps. Even in the suceeding ages the possibility of increasing and ascending attainments remained. And this ascent of our religious knowledge will still subsist in eteroity. Then will a Paul be as much obliged to learn as we. And in conformity to this perfectly rational hypothesis, that the attainments of the apostles and the doctrinal precepts relating to them, had not reached the highest degree of perfection (which belongs to another period); consequently were susceptible of correction, of amplification, of completion : in conformity to this hypothesis, I say the doctors of the church in all ages have acted. They begani very early to give a definite meaning in their days) to the indefinite expressions of the apostles, to enlarge their conceptions, and to render the system of the Christian religion more complete : so that whoever at present takes a view of our quartos and folios, which contain systems of the Christian religion, and compares them with short and simple doctrines of the apostles, must own with astonishment, that we know more by far than the apostles knew.
It is our duty therefore likewise, in reading the scriptures, to endeavour to come at the true meaning of the discourses of Jesus for ourselves at present, to get more definite conceptions of the frequently indefinite expressions of the apostles, to separate the Jewish ideas from the simple truth, and to study the spirit of Christianity in all its purity. This will be my object in what I have yet to communicate.
The history of Jesus commences with occurrences, of which those who relate them were not eye-witnesses. It was the practice in the earliest Christian congregations to entertain themselves with various stories of the pedigree of Jesus, of his birth, of his infancy, &c. And some evangelists, in planning their written compositions, thought proper to adopt :se. veral of these relations, and transmit them to posterity.
Though we are unable to form an accurate judgment of all such narratives, yet it may be presumed, that even the history of Jesus, especially that of his infancy, might have shared the common fate of being embellished in particular parts with harmJess additions. Hence it is, that in a certain ancient book, known under the title of Evangelium Infantiæ Christi, several relations are found, which have not obtained remarkable credit with reflecting and well-trained Christians. And it is possible that this may be one reason that some of the learned have doubted concerning the authenticity of the two first chapters of Matthew : especially since Mark, who appears to be the epitomator of Matthew, has nothing of those two chapters, and Josephus, the Jewish bistorian, makes no mention at all of one of the most extraordinary facts contained in them; I mean the general infanticide at Bethlehem.
And here we cannot avoid being reminded of the common propensity of mankind, of which instances occur in all ages of the world, and which may be derived from a fondness for the marvellous- I allude to the propensity respecting extraordinary personages, and especially such as excelled by an unusual de gree of wisdom and sagacity, to discover traces of the supernatural. Thus Pliny, for instance, relates of Zoroaster, who is said to have been the author of a more exalted religious knowledge among the Persians, that “ he, the only one of his species, smiled on the day that he came into the world (instead of crying as other children do on being introduced to the light) and that his brain heaved or thumped, so as to repel the hand that was laid upon his head : which was taken for a sign, that the infant would prove a man of superior wisdom.”-A similar and still more curious circumstance is related of the wise Plato. “An apparition of the divinity (Apollo's statue) is reported to have impregnated his mother Perictione.” Olympiodorus adds: “ her husband abstained from cohabiting with her, till the child was born.” And the holy father Hieronymus informs us, that Speusippus, Clearchus, and other philosophers, formerly asserted, that the chief of the sages could no otherwise be born than of a virgin."--Socrates too beheld in a dream a cygnet, or young swan, fly into the bosom of a God, from thence ascend to heaven, where he ravished the ears of Gods and men by singing the most melodious strains : and as he was relating this dream, Aristo entered the assembly, bringing with him his son, the young Plato, in order to have him admitted among his scholars ; when Socrates immediately recognised the sagacious boy by the lineaments of his face, and exclaimed-“my friends, this is the swan that I saw."-To be brief, Cicero relates of the same Plato, who really afterwards was one of the wisest and most virtuous of men, of whom several of the church fathers affirm, that he must have been in the school of the prophet Jeremiah-" Whilst he was yet a very little child, bees swarmed about his mouth, and this was accounted a divine intimation that hereafter refreshing instructions should issue from it.” In the sequel it fared with the bee-story, as with all such reports : something was continually added to it; it grew in passing from mouth to mouth; and at length Olympiodorus thus records it : "On the birth of Plato, his parents took the babe, and carried it to mount Hymettus, in order to sacrifice to the deities of the place. And as it lay there, bees came and built a hive in his mouth, that it might be