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Paley’s Evidences of Christianity.

(Concluded from p. 29.)

Paley, throughout his work, seems intent on proving that the Christianity taught at the beginning was the same as now professed as to its principal dogmas, leaving untouched the question of its truth. All those who professed Christianity, or wrote in support of it, must naturally and necessarily have maintained its principal dogmas; even those books which are accounted spurious, that is, not having been composed by the persons to whom they are ascribed, must agree in the main with the genuine works, and express the same belief which the persons in whose names they were written would be supposed to entertain; therefore  their transmitting the account of the resurrection is not to be wondered at. But the mere transmission of the tale, whether in genuine or spurious writings, does not add to the proof of the facts being true. Any of the apostles who wrote on the history of Jesus, or discoursed on it with his disciples, if he did not conclude with asserting the resurrection, what other proof could he give of his divinity?

Paley says he does not mean that nothing can be more certain than that Christ rose from the dead, but that nothing can be more certain than that his apostles and the first teachers of Christianity gave out that he did. Surely it was a waste of time to argue that the apostles and the first teachers taught Christianity, and if they did not assert the resurrection, what proof could they give of the divinity of Jesus, or the truth of Christianity?

They did not hold him up as the Mussulmans do Mahomet, merely as a prophet and lawgiver, whose death occurred in the common course of nature, and would not weaken his claim to those characters; but they represented him as a divinity whose death was only temporary, and who revived or was resuscitated after a short time. To support the  tale of the resurrection was of vital importance, and of an immediate necessity; and unless that first step were laid, there would not have been such Christianity as now exists.

There might have been a schismatic sect among the Jews, who threw off all the restraints of the law, and perhaps have made proselytes among the heathen; but there would not have been a nation who adored Jesus as the Son and equal of God. Had the first promulgators of this dogma not asserted it at once, it would not have been possible for any of their successors to have done <<87>>it. Jesus might have been revered by his followers as a prophet and legislator, but nothing more.

Paley again reverts to the question, whether the things related of Jesus in the Gospel are the same as the apostles and first teachers delivered? This, he says, depends on the degree of credit which is accorded to those books; but he says, on the subject of the resurrection, no such discussion is necessary, because no such doubt can be entertained. This is a bold assertion, since there is no stronger evidence of the truth of the resurrection than there is of any other miracle ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels.

But it is a matter of little importance in the discussion, and I am ready to concede that the story as now received was then delivered, and will proceed to the only two points that can enter into consideration, “Whether the apostles knowingly published a falsehood, or whether they were themselves deceived? Whether either of these suppositions be possible?”

“The first,” he says, “I believe is pretty generally given up;” but he does not say by whom. He points out what should exempt their memory from the suspicion of imposture; first, the nature of the undertaking, and the men. Now, what was the nature of the undertaking? To assert a falsity, that they had seen Jesus after his death, “not only at a distance, but near, conversed with him, touched him, ate with him, examined his person to satisfy their doubts, not separately but together, not once, but many times.”

This long array of particulars makes a great display, but does not strengthen the evidence. One single instance of his having been seen by one disinterested person would have been sufficient, if it could be established that there could not have been any illusion. This single instance he could not give. As to the men, we may admit that they were ignorant, and of narrow mind; but such characters often possess a large share of low cunning. We must take into consideration the vital importance it was to them to report that he had risen from the dead, and to support their assertion by all the circumstances they could invent; but they could not give the only test by proving that he had appeared publicly to both friends and foes.

Paley allows that he appeared to the Eleven, and to them only; and argues from that the truth of the resurrection, and the candour and truth of the Evangelists in leaving the narrative open to such a grave suspicion. He insists on the veracity of the apostles from their “personal toils, and dangers, and sufferings in the cause; their appropriation of their whole time to the object; the warm and seemingly unaffected zeal and <<88>>earnestness with which they profess their sincerity.”

That they did not believe in the resurrection promised by Jesus is plain from the surprise they evinced when it was announced to them that the body was gone from the sepulchre; their relating this, perhaps, will be represented as a proof of their candour; but their scepticism does them little honour,—this is supposing the truth of the circumstance which I deny.

As to the personal toil, danger, and suffering which are brought into the account, we must remember that the report of the resurrection must have been spread soon after the event, at which time the apostles had not experienced any toil, danger, or suffering; they travelled about with Jesus, living at free quarters on the believers; even after his death they do not appear to have been molested for some time, as it appears from Acts ii. 26, that the resurrection was preached by Peter publicly.

After the ascension, it seems that the Eleven abode together “with the women and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.” I do not see anything in the arguments of Paley to show any improbability that the Eleven should have invented the tale of the resurrection, but there is every reason to suppose this to have been the case; for, unless they did so, their “occupation” was gone,—the whole scheme would have fallen to the ground.

Jesus had, in a manner, staked his claim to divinity on the fact of his resurrection; the apostles had, accordingly, no alternative but to raise the report, and that would not have been effectual, if the body had been found. It remains to be shown, from the account given in the Gospels, that there was ample time and opportunity to remove the body. Matthew says, that after Jesus had expired, when “even was come,” Joseph of Arimathea (a disciple) begged of Pilate the body, which he wrapped in a clean cloth, and laid in his own new tomb, and rolled a great stone to the door. The women who fol­lowed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him, witnessed the execution from afar. “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting over against the sepulchre.” At that time it was most probably nearly dark.

Next day the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate and requested that the sepulchre should be made sure, lest the disciples should steal away the body, and say he had risen. Pilate told them to place a watch, which was done, and the stone sealed. The sepulchre was found open and empty on the following morning. Now, in the first place, there is no evidence that Joseph of Arimathea did actually bury the body; he was one of Jesus’ disciples, and as much interested as the others that the body should not be found. But supposing he did really bury the body, there was an interval of twelve or fourteen hours at least <<89>>from the time when the interment is said to have taken place, to the time when the priests set the watch; of these several were between the two daylights, and afforded a good opportunity for the removal. Paley, quoting an observation of Priestley, says that it was moonlight, full moon,—that the city was full of people, many probably passing the whole night, as Jesus and his disciples had done, in the open air,—and the sepulchre was so near the city as to be now enclosed within the walls.

I do not consider these remarks of any weight. Although it was moonlight, we may reasonably suppose there were not, on the first night of the Passover, many persons who passed the whole night in the open air; and as to the supposed vicinity of the sepulchre, from the fact of the spot so named being now inclosed within the wall I believe there is no evidence of the spot now identified with it being really the sepulchre, as it is described as a new tomb which Joseph of Arimathea had hewn out of the rock.

Matthew certainly says that the priests placed a guard and sealed the stone the morning after the interment; but there is no evidence that the body was then within the tomb; the possibility or probability of the disciples stealing away the body does not appear to have occurred to the priests till the next morning.

I have thus shown that there was time and opportunity for the Eleven, in combination with Joseph, who had the custody of the body, to have removed it, and also how essential it was to them that it should not be found, and farther it appears that nobody but they saw the body after the reported resurrection. There are many minor circumstances in the account which militate against its veracity, besides the discrepancies in the several statements of the four Evangelists, on which I shall not make any remarks; but it is a very suspicious circumstance, that Paley should only have devoted a short chapter of six pages to the momentous subject of the resurrection, which must be a test of the truth of the Christian theology.

The resurrection is the primary point,—the ascension is the completion of the proof of Jesus’ divinity, and yet it is still more devoid of evidence; the former has the evidence, true or false, of the Eleven, who affirm being witnesses of its truth; but the ascension has not a single witness. In the account given by the four Evangelists, Mark and Luke do not pretend to have seen it, saying it was only witnessed by the Eleven. The only two of them who have written the biography of Jesus, do not assert the ascension. They who record it were not eye-witnesses, and they who are said to have witnessed it, do not record it. This is conclusive on the subject.

On the whole, I have been much disappointed in the work of Paley which he <<90>>calls the Evidences of Christianity. I expected he meant an exposition of the doctrine and proof of the veracity of its dogmas,—instead of which he confines himself to the proof that Christianity, at and from its first propagation, was pretty nearly as it has descended down to the present time, as to its fundamental principles; that the four canonical Gospels were received from an early age as containing those principles, and quoted as authentic by a succession of ecclesiastical writers from that, time to the fifth century. But all that is scarcely worth the trouble of contesting. He has not shown the truth of Christianity, but merely that it has existed down to the present time. A work written that Buddhism and Brahminism has existed for a certain number of centuries unchanged, would not give any support to the alleged veracity of the religion of Buddha or Bramah.

I must, in conclusion, apologize for an incorrectness in this examination, in which I have treated the reverend author as being still in existence, which was to avoid a more circuitous mode of expression.

I remain with esteem,

Reverend Sir,
Yours, truly,
J. R. P.