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Paley’s Evidences of Christianity

(Continued from vol. vii. p. 595.)

The riches of others seems to have excited great indignation in the apostles. There is little doubt but that, during the ministry of Jesus, when they wandered with him from one place to another. they subsisted by levying contributions. Judas was purse-bearer. Occasionally they were joined by large companies of curious spectators. Mark mentions that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less, and of Joses and Salome, followed Jesus when he was in Galilee, and ministered unto him, (we must suppose that their ministry was restricted to cooking and mending) were present at the crucifixion, together with many other women which came up with him to Jerusalem.

There is another view in which Paley presents the discourses of Jesus. He gives no particular description of the invisible world, but merely inculcates the doctrine of the Pharisees, the resurrection and the <<25>> final retribution to the just and the wicked. In the course of his discourses he uses a number of metaphors and comparisons, the point of which may not always have been discovered by his hearers. As a fabulist he is decidedly inferior to Æsop and Phædrus. A disquisition into the merit and applicability of his parables would be superfluous, as they cannot have any weight in the question of the truth of the Christian doctrine.

Paley observes that Jesus, bred up a Jew under a religion extremely technical, in an age and among a people more tenacious of their ceremonies than any other part of their religion, he delivered an institution containing less of ritual, and that more simple, than is to be found in any religion which ever prevailed among mankind. Now what is the fact? He confirmed and predicted the duration and obligation of the law which contained that technical religion. He personally observed the ritual, and never opposed any of the institutions. When it was objected to him that his disciples had profaned the Sabbath, he did not attempt to justify them and say the commandment was no longer valid, but excuses them under the plea of necessity, refers to the case of Abiatar, who gave to David and his followers the shew-bread, which it was not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and ends with the pompous declaration, that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, which though quite true has nothing to do with the question, whether it was lawful for his disciples to pluck the corn. In the same manner, when it was inquired why his disciples did not fast as the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees did, he did not offer any excuse, but evaded the question with a fable or parable about the children of the bride-chamber, about patching old clothes, and putting new wine into old bottles.

Jesus finds fault with the Pharisees for their over-scrupulousness, their refining on the law, and extending their observances to the most minute objects; but he never denied the ordinances. His injunctions to his disciples to cut off their hand or their foot, and pluck out their eye if it offend them, are instances of the over-scrupulousness which he condemns in the Pharisees, though I am at a loss to understand how the hand, or foot, or eye, can offend so as to bring the owner in jeopardy of being cast into hell-fire, since he has affirmed that all sin proceeds from the heart. The instances which Paley gives of his meekness, devotion, hatred of strife, and submission to authority, show the amiability of his character. The habitual denunciation of hell-fire to the Pharisees and others, which are related of him, are unnatural to one of his disposition, and we must ascribe them to the rancorous feel <<26>>ings of the apostles, or whoever were the writers of the gospels. When searching questions were propounded to him, he did not attempt to answer them, but evaded them, sometimes by putting another question to the questioner, other times by some observation which had not any bearing on the subject, or by telling a parable.

In asserting my belief of the meek and pious turn of his mind, in course I do not mean to admit any claim to divinity; he was a good but weak man, and no doubt there have been and are many equally amiable characters. He no doubt first deceived himself with respect to his divinity by the bold assertion of Peter, before he attempted to deceive others; but he must have had some misgivings on the subject, when he anticipated from the enmity of the priests and Pharisees, that he should be put to death. A man under the illusion of being a god, and consequently, not subject to death, would not entertain such an idea. His earnest supplication to God in the garden (when he acknowledged his unity) would prove that the illusion was then dispelled, could we be assured that he actually made that prayer; but it seems, according to Matthew, that leaving the rest of the disciples, he took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee with him, and going a little further along, prayed; when he returned, he found them asleep; this occurred all the three times that he repeated the prayer; we may therefore reasonably inquire, how they came to the knowledge of what he prayed for?

Paley adds a few remarks on the moral tendency of the epistles of Paul, which I shall not at present examine; but will only observe that they do not bear on the truth of Christianity, in respect of its theology. He proceeds to point out the candour of the writers of the New Testament, in not relating their story in the most unexceptionable form; but we must keep in mind that the apostles preached a very few years after the crucifixion, and most likely among the Jews who were contemporary with Jesus. Peter was the home missionary, and it behoved him not to advance anything which would be positively contradicted by any of his hearers. Paul most likely allowed himself a little more latitude, but would not deliver anything which Peter did not teach or would positively deny, for there seems to have existed a feeling or jealousy between them. The gospels were written to collect and recapitulate all that the disciples had taught at the several churches; and although written thirty years after the events they recorded, and the lapse of time might have afforded opportunity to insert statements to corroborate the facts as at first published, they did not find it practicable to insert additional proofs which had been kept back so long, and which might be therefore subject to suspicion.

Paley gives an instance of this candour in the admis<<27>>sion by all the four evangelists that after the resurrection, Jesus appeared only to the eleven; but that is a proof of their art, not of their candour; for had they asserted that Jesus had appeared to the scribes and Pharisees, the Roman Governor, and Jewish Council, this assertion, coming as it must have done, directly after the event, and forming a principal support of their doctrine, would, have been rejected by the personal knowledge of the Jewish converts, and the common sense of the Greek converts, who would not be able to conceive the possibility of such an astounding occurrence having taken place without its being universally known, or if it did take place, without convincing the whole Jewish nation. Such an assertion would have stamped the whole story with falsehood. Be it also remembered that Matthew relates that at the crucifixion, the graves were opened, and many of the saints arose and went into the holy city and appeared to many. I think few Christians would contend for the truth of this last assertion, which has a greater claim for evidence than the other, it being a public appearance, while the other was strictly private, being confined to the eleven; as far as Matthew is concerned, they must both be believed or neither.

The next proof adduced of the candour of the evangelists, is the doubt expressed by John the Baptist in his message: “Art thou he who should come, or look we for another?” This doubt was expressed that it might be removed, for there could not be any doubt with John, who had baptized him some time before, and on whom he saw the spirit descend from heaven. The avowal of John that many of the disciples went back and walked no more with him, I cannot account for, except as a warning to renegadoes; as Paul says, those who had believed and fallen away, could not repent and return. The writers of the gospels had to inculcate a doctrine which was rejected by the nation to which it was preached; it was therefore necessary to account in some measure why it was not received; they, for this reason, gave some instances in which it was rejected. They prepared their readers for the little publicity which attended the miraculous cures said to have been performed by Jesus, by making him always enjoin on the convalescent to keep them secret.

The admission of the perpetuality of the law I believe to have been made by Jesus, and to have been retained by the Evangelists to account for his adherence to all the observances and frequent references to the Law. Paley says it is a proof of their regard for truth that they should have ascribed a saying to Christ “which primo intuitu militated with the judgment of the age in which his (Matthew’s) gospel was written.”

Does he call the judgment of the age the doctrine which was inculcated <<28>>to a few knots of proselytes which Paul had converted, and which he dignified with the title of “churches?” “At the time the Gospels were written, the apparent tendency of the mission of Christ was to diminish the authority of the Mosaic Code, and it was so considered by the Jews themselves.” If the Jews thought so it was not from the doctrine which Jesus taught, but from the preaching of Paul. The first converts under the ministry of James were “all zealous of the Law.”

Paley thinks it very unlikely that the statement of Jesus having told his disciples that if they had faith, and bade the mountain be removed, and cast into the sea, it would be done,* should not be true. He may possibly have said it, and believed it too. The evangelist ran no danger in repeating it or inventing it, and if any enthusiast tried the experiment and failed, the answer was ready, “You have not faith, or it would have been done.” Matthew relates this promise to the faithful in reference to the miracle of the fig tree. Paley, with very bad taste, quotes his account rather than that of Luke, to which he refers at the foot of the page, where the same promise is given without, reference to the fig tree but applied to a sycamore tree.† Duly impressed as I am with the omnipotence of our God, I cannot believe that he performed that miracle (of the fig tree), which would not answer any other purpose than to make the apostles stare. It does not say much for the common sense of Jesus, who went to it to seek for figs, though “the time of figs was not yet;” in his anger and disappointment he cursed it. “And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever,”‡ was it the fig tree to which he answered, or whom?

* Matt. xxi. † Luke xvii. 6. ‡ Mark xi. 15.

Paley argues that the conversation recorded in John, vi. is very unlikely to have been fabricated; as it is there that his disciples said, “This is a hard saying, who can hear it?” It is very probable that Jesus said this as well as what is attributed to him at the Last Supper to the same effect; but we must recollect that he also declared that he was in the Father, and the Father in him, and that whoever saw him saw the Father. Such extravagant declarations are not incompatible with the usual mildness of his character. It may have been bad policy to have recorded so many instances where Jesus was not believed, or where the disciples left him on some startling dogma; but they had to account to their proselytes for the rejection of their doctrine by the Jewish nation, and the doctrine of the real presence was too firmly established, as we see by the Acts and the Epistles, to be weakened by the unbelief of the disciples recounted in the Gospels; it is well known <<29>>that the doctrine of the real presence was taught from the time of Paul, and is still implicitly believed by the Roman and Greek Churches.

I cannot now make this letter much longer, and have taken the subjects from Paley’s work promiscuously, without rejecting any one for its apparent difficulty; but to have noticed every one would have filled a large volume. I will conclude with some remarks on the short chapter which he devotes to “The History of the Resurrection.” He sets out with the fact that the resurrection is part of the evidence of Christianity, and expresses a doubt whether “the proper strength of this passage of the Christian history or its peculiar value as a head of evidence consists be generally understood.” He allows that it is not as a miracle that it is a more decisive proof of supernatural agency than other miracles are, nor that as it stands in the Gospel it is better attested than some others. It is not for these reasons that more weight belongs to it than to other miracles, but for the following: that it is completely certain that the apostles and the first teachers of Christianity asserted it. A most cogent reason; pretending to show that the mere fact of a tale being asserted by the inventors was a proof of its veracity. He assumes that the certainty would not be affected if the four gospels had been lost or never written; since every piece of Scripture recognises the resurrection, every epistle of every apostle, every contemporary author, every writing from that age to the present, whether genuine or spurious, all concur in representing the resurrection of Christ as an article of his history, received without doubt or disagreement by all who called themselves Christians, as alleged from the beginning and as the centre of their testimony.

(To be continued.)