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PART THE THIRD.
A BRIEF CONSIDERATION OF SOME POPULAR
The Discrepancies between the several Gospels.
I KNOW not a more rash or more unphilosophical conduct of the understanding than to reject the substance of a story by reason of some diversity in the circumstances with which it is related. The usual character of human testimony is substantial truth under circumstantial variety. This is what the daily experience of courts of justice teach
When accounts of a transaction come from the mouths of different witnesses, it is seldom that it is not possible to pick out apparent or real inconsistencies between them. These inconsistencies are studiously applied by an adverse pleader, but oftentimes with little impression upon the minds of the judges. On the contrary, a close and minute agreement induces the suspicion of confederacy and fraud. When written histories touch upon the same scenes of action, the comparison almost always affords ground for a like reflection. Numerous, and sometimes important, variations present themselves; not seldom also, absolute and final contradictions; yet neither one nor the other are deemed sufficient to shake the credibility of the main fact. The embassy of the Jews to deprecate the execution of Claudian's order to place his statue in their temple, Philo places in harvest, Josephus in seed-time; both contemporary writers. No reader is led by this inconsistency to doubt, whether such an embassy was sent, or whether such an order was given. Our own history supplies examples of the same kind. In the account of the Marquis of Argyle's death in the reign of Charles the Second, we have a very remarkable contradiction. Lord Clarendon relates that he was condemned to be hanged, which was performed the same day: on the contrary, Burnet, Woodrow, Heath, Echard, agree that he was beheaded; and that he was condemned upon the Saturday, and executed upon the Monday. Was any reader of the English history ever sceptic enough, to raise from hence a question, whether the *See Biog. Britan.
Marquis of Argyle was executed or not? Yet this ought to be left in uncertainty, according to the principles upon which the Christian history has sometimes been attacked. Dr. Middleton contended, that the different hours of the day assigned to the crucifixion of Christ by John and by the other evangelists, did not admit of the reconcilement which learned men had proposed; and then concludes the discussion with this hard remark; "We must be forced, with several of the critics, to leave the difficulty just as we found it, chargeable with all the consequences of manifest inconsistency." But what are these consequences? by no means the discrediting of the history as to the principal fact, by a repugnancy (even supposing that repugnancy not to be resolvable into different modes of computation) in the time of the day, in which it is said to have taken place.
A great deal of the discrepancy observable in the gospels, arises from omission; from a fact or a passage of Christ's life being noticed by one writer, which is unnoticed by another. Now omission is at all times a very uncertain ground of objection. We perceive it, not only in the comparison of different writers, but even in the same writer, when compared with himself. There are a great many particulars, and some of them of importance, mentioned by Josephus in his Antiquities, which, as we should have supposed, ought to have been put down by him in their place in his Jewish wars.t Suetonius, Tacitus, Dio Cassius, have, all three, written of the reign of Tiberius. Each has mentioned many things omitted by the rest, yet no objection is from thence taken to the respective credit of their histories. We have in our own times, if there were not something indecorous in the comparison, the life of an eminent person, written by three of his friends, in which there is very great variety in the incidents selected by them, some apparent, and perhaps some real contradictions; yet without any impeachment of the substantial truth of their accounts, of the authenticity of the books, the competent information or general fidelity of the writers.
But these discrepancies will be still more numerous, when men do not write histories, but memoirs; which is perhaps the true name, and proper description of our gospels: that is, when they do not undertake, or ever meant to deliver, in order of time, a regular and complete account of all the things of importance, which the person, who is
* Middleton's Reflections answered by Benson, Hist. Christ, vol. III. p. 50.
the subject of their history, did or said; but only, out of many similar ones, to give such passages, or such actions and discourses as offered themselves more immediately to their attention, came in the way of their inquiries, occurred to their recollection, or were suggested by their particular design at the time of writing.
This particular design may appear sometimes, but not always, nor often. Thus I think that the particular design, which St. Matthew had in view whilst he was writing the history of the resurrection, was to attest the faithful performance of Christ's promise to his disciples to go before them into Galilee; because he alone, except Mark, who seems to have taken it from him, has recorded this promise, and he alone has confined this narrative to that single appearance to the disciples which fulfilled it. It was the preconcerted, the great and most public manifestation of our Lord's person. It was the thing which dwelt upon St. Matthew's mind, and he adapted his narrative to it. But, that there is nothing in St. Matthew's language, which negatives other appearances, or which imports that this his appearance to his disciples in Galilee, in pursuance of his promise, was his first or only appearance, is made pretty evident by St. Mark's gospel, which used the same terms concerning the appearance in Galilee as St. Matthew uses, yet itself records two other appearances prior to this; "Go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee, then shall ye see him as he said unto you." (xvi. 7.) We might be apt to infer from these words, that this was the first time they were to see him: at least, we might infer it, with as much reason as we draw the inference from the same words in Matthew: yet the historian himself did not perceive that he was leading his readers to any such conclusion, for, in the twelfth and two following verses of this chapter, he informs us of two appearances, which, by comparing the order of events, are shown to have been prior to the appearance in Galilee. "He appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked and went into the country; and they went and told it unto the residue, neither believed they them: afterwards he appeared unto the eleven, as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief, because they believed not them that had seen him after he was risen."
Probably the same observation, concerning the particular design which guided the historian, may be of use in comparing many other passages of the gospels.
Erroneous opinions imputed to the Apostles.
A SPECIES of candour which is shown towards every other book, is sometimes refused to the scriptures; and that is, the placing of a distinction between judgment and testimony. We do not usually question the credit of a writer, by reason of any opinion he may have delivered upon subjects unconnected with his evidence; and even upon subjects connected with his account, or mixed with it in the same discourse or writing, we naturally separate facts from opinions, testimony from observation, narrative from argument.
To apply this equitable consideration to the Christian records, much controversy and much objection has been. raised, concerning the quotations of the Old Testament found in the New; some of which quotations, it is said, are applied in a sense, and to events, apparently different from that which they bear, and from those to which they belong, in the original. It is probable, to my apprehension, that many of those quotations were intended by the writers of the New Testament as nothing more than accommodations. They quoted passages of their scripture, which suited, and fell in with, the occasion before them, without always undertaking to assert, that the occasion was in the view of the author of the words. Such accommodations of passages from old authors, from books especially which are in every one's hands, are common with writers of all countries; but in none, perhaps, were more to be expected, than in the writings of the Jews, whose literature was almost entirely confined to their scriptures. Those prophecies which are alleged with more solemnity, and which are accompanied with a precise declaration, that they originally respected the event then related, are, I think, truly alleged. But were it otherwise; is the judgment of the writers of the New Testament, in interpreting passages of the Old, or sometimes, perhaps, in receiving established interpretations, so connected, either with their veracity, or with their means of information concerning what was passing in their own times, as that a critical mistake, even were it clearly made out, should overthrow their historical credit? -Does it diminish it ?-Has it any thing to do with it? Another error, imputed to the first Christians, was the expected approach of the day of judgment. I would in
troduce this objection, by a remark, upon what appears to me a somewhat similar example. Our Saviour, speaking to Peter of John, said, “ If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?"* These words, we find, had been so misconstrued, as that "a report" from thence "went abroad among the brethren that that disciple should not die." Suppose that this had come down to us amongst the prevailing opinions of the early Christians, and that the particular circumstance, from which the mistake sprung, had been lost, (which humanly speaking was most likely to have been the case) some at this day would have been ready to regard and quote the error, as an impeachment of the whole Christian system. Yet with how little justice such a conclusion would have been drawn, or rather suck a presumption taken up, the information which we happen to possess enables us now to perceive. To those who think that the scriptures lead us to believe, that the early Christians, and even the apostles, expected the approach of the day of judgment in their own times, the same reflection will occur, as that which we have made, with respect to the more partial perhaps and temporary, but still no less ancient error, concerning the duration of St. John's life. It was an error, it may be likewise said, which would effectually hinder those, who entertained it, from acting the part of impostors.
The difficulty which attends the subject of the present chapter, is contained in this question; if we once admit the fallibility of the apostolic judgment, where are we to stop, or in what can we rely upon it? To which questions, as arguing with unbelievers, and as arguing for the substantial truth of the Christian history, and for that alone, it is competent to the advocate of Christianity to reply, Give me the apostles' testimony, and I do not stand in need of their judgment: give me the facts, and I have complete security for every conclusion I want.
But, although I think, that it is competent to the Christian apologist to return this answer; I do not think that it is the only answer which the objection is capable of receiving. The two following cautions, founded, I apprehead, in the most reasonable distinctions, will exclude all uncertainty upon this head, which can be attended with danger.
First, to separate what was the object of the apostolic mission, and declared by them to be so, from what was extrane
John xxi. 26.