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On the Principles of Historical Evidence, and their Application to the Question of the Truth of Christianity.

WERE a verbal communication to come of that communication. We may know and to us from a person at a distance, there are appreciate the natural signs of veracity. two ways in which we might try to satisfy There is a tone, and a manner characterourselves, that this was a true communica-istic of honesty, which may be both inteltion, and that there was no imposition in ligible and convincing. There may be a the affair. We might either sit in examina- concurrence of several messengers. There tion upon the substance of the message; and then from what we knew of the person from whom it professed to come, judge whether it was probable that such a message would be sent by him; or we may sit in examination upon the credibility of the messengers.

It is evident, that in carrying on the first examination, we might be subject to very great uncertainty. The professed author of the communication in question may live at such a distance from us, that we may never have it in our power to verify his message by any personal conversation with him. We may be so far ignorant of his character and designs, as to be unqualified to judge of the kind of communication that should proceed from him. To estimate aright the probable authenticity of the message from what we know of its author, would require an acquaintance with his plans, and views, and circumstances, of which we may not be in possession. We may bring the greatest degree of sagacity to this investigation; but then the highest sagacity is of no avail, when there is an unsufficiency of data. Our ingenuity may be unbounded; but then we may want the materials. The principle which we assume may be untrue in itself, and therefore may be fallacious in its appli


Thus, we may derive very little light from our first argument. But there is still a second in reserve,-the credibility of the messengers. We may be no judges of the kind of communication which is natural, or likely to proceed from a person with whom we are but imperfectly acquainted; but we may be very competent judges of the degree of faith that is to be reposed in the bearers

may be their substantial agreement. There may be the total want of any thing like concert or collusion among them. There may be their determined and unanimous perseverance, in spite of all the incredulity and all the opposition which they meet with. The subject of the communication may be most unpalatable to us; and we may be so unreasonable, as to wreak our unpleasant feeling upon the bearers of it. In this way, they may not only have no earthly interest to deceive us, but have the strongest inducement possible to abstain from insisting upon that message which they were charged to deliver. Last of all, as the conclusive seal of their authenticity, they may all agree in giving us a watchword, which we previously knew could be given by none but their master; and which none but his messengers could ever obtain the possession of. In this way, unfruitful as all our efforts may have been upon the first subject of examination, we may derive from the second the most decisive evidence, that the message in question is a real message, and was actually transmitted to us by its professed author.

Now, this consideration applies in all its parts to a message from God. The argument for the truth of this message resolves itself into the same two topics of examination. We may sit in judgment upon the subject of the message; or we may sit in judgment upon the credibility of its bearers.

The first forms a great part of that argument for the truth of the Christian religion, which comes under the head of its internal evidences. The substance of the message is neither more nor less, than that particular scheme of the divine economy which is revealed to us in the New Testa

tament; and the point of inquiry is, whether with those to whom the message was origithis scheme be consistent with that know-nally addressed. They had personal acledge of God and his attributes which we are previously in possession of?

cess to the messengers; and the evidences of their veracity lay before them. They were It appears to many, that no effectual ar- the eye and ear-witnesses of those facts gument can be founded upon this consider- which occurred at the commencement of ation, because they do not count themselves the Christian religion, and upon which its enough acquainted with the designs or cha- credibility rests. What met their observaracter of the being from whom the message tion must have been enough to satisfy them; professes to have come. Were the author but we live at the distance of nearly 2000 of the message some distant and unknown years, and is there enough to satisfy us? individual of our own species, we would Those facts, which constitute the evidence scarcely be entitled to found an argument for Christianity, might have been credible upon any comparison of ours, betwixt the and convincing to them, if they really saw import of the message and the character of them; but is there any way by which they the individual, even though we had our can be rendered credible and convincing to general experience of human nature to help us, who only read of them? What is the us in the speculation. Now, of the invisible expedient by which the knowledge and beGod, we have no experience whatever. We lief of the men of other times can be transare still further removed from all direct and mitted to posterity? Can we distinguish personal observation of him or of his coun-between a corrupt and a faithful transmissels. Whether we think of the eternity of his government, or the mighty range of its influence over the wide departments of nature and providence, he stands at such a distance from us, as to make the management of his empire a subject inaccessible to all our faculties.

sion? Have we evidence before us, by which we can ascertain what was the belief of those to whom the message was first communicated? And can the belief which existed in their minds be derived to ours, by our sitting in judgment upon the reasons which produced it?

The surest way in which the belief and knowledge of the men of former ages can be transmitted to their descendants, is through the medium of written testimony; and it is fortunate for us, that the records of the Christian religion are not the only historical documents which have come down to us. A great variety of information has come down to us in this way; and a great part of that information is as firmly believed, and as confidently proceeded upon, as if the thing narrated had happened within the limits of our eye-sight. No man doubts the invasion of Britain by Julius Cæsar; and no man doubts, therefore, that a conviction of the truth of past events may be fairly produced in the mind by the instrumentality of a written memorial. This is the kind of evidence which is chiefly appealed to for the truth of ancient history; and it is counted satisfying evidence for all that part of it, which is received and depended upon.

It is evident, however, that this does not apply to the second topic of examination. The bearers of the message were beings like ourselves; and we can apply our safe and certain experience of man to their conduct and testimony. We may know too little of God, to found any argument upon the coincidence which we conceive to exist between the subject of the message and our previous conceptions of its author. But we may know enough of man to pronounce upon the credibility of the messengers. Had they the manner and physiognomy of honest men? Was their testimony resisted, and did they persevere in it? Had they any interest in fabricating the message; or did they suffer in consequence of this perseverance? Did they suffer to such a degree, as to constitute a satisfying pledge of their integrity? Was there more than one messenger, and did they agree as to the substance of that communication which they made to the world? Did they exhibit any special mark of their office as the mes- In laying before the reader, then, the evisengers of God; such a mark as none but dence for the truth of Christianity, we do God could give, and none but his approved not call his mind to any singular or unpremessengers could obtain the possession of? cedented exercises of its faculties. We call Was this mark the power of working mira-him to pronounce upon the credibility of cles; and were these miracles so obviously written documents, which profess to have addressed to the senses, as to leave no sus-been published at a certain age, and by cerpicion of deceit behind them? These are tain authors. The inquiry involves in it no questions which we feel our competency to principle which is not appealed to every day take up, and to decide upon. They lie with-in questions of ordinary criticism. To sit in the legitimate boundaries of human observation; and upon the solution of these do we rest the question of the truth of the Christian religion.

This, then, is the state of the question

in judgment on the credibility of a written document, is a frequent and familiar exercise of the understanding with literary men. It is fortunate for the human mind, when so interesting a question as its religious faith

of abstract and unfeeling intelligence. He should give up every thing to the supremacy of argument, and be able to renounce, without a sigh, all the tenderest possessions of infancy, the moment that truth demands of him the sacrifice. Let it be remembered, however, that while one species of prejudice operates in favour of Christianity, another prejudice operates against it. There is a class of men who are repelled from the investigation of its evidences, because in their minds Christianity is allied with the weakness of superstition; and they feel that they are descending when they bring down their attention to a subject which engrosses so much respect and admiration from the vulgar.

can be placed under the tribunal of such | clusions the most painful and melancholy. evidence as it is competent to pronounce He should train his mind to all the hardihood upon. It was fortunate for those to whom Christianity (a professed communication from heaven) was first addressed, that they could decide upon the genuineness of the communication by such familiar and everyday principles, as the marks of truth or falsehood in the human bearers of that communication. And it is fortunate for us that when, after that communication has assumed the form of a historical document, we can pronounce upon the degree of credit which should be attached to it, by the very same exercise of mind which we so confidently engage in, when sitting in examination upon the other historical documents that have come down to us from antiquity. If two historical documents possess equal degrees of evidence, they should produce equal degrees of conviction. But if the object of the one be to establish some fact connected with our religious faith, while the object of the other is to establish some fact, about which we feel no other interest than that general curiosity which is gratified by the solution of any question in literature, this difference in the object produces a difference of effect in the feelings and tendencies of the mind. It is impossible for the mind, while it inquires into the evidence of a Christian document, to abstain from all reference to the important conclusion of the inquiry. And this will necessarily mingle its influence with the arguments which engage its attention. It may be of importance to attend to the peculiar feelings which are thus given to the investigation, and in how far they have affected the impression of the Christian argument.

We know it to be the opinion of some, that in this way an undue advantage has been given to that argument. Instead of a pure question of truth, it has been made a question of sentiment; and the wishes of the heart have mingled with the exercises of the understanding. There is a class of men who may feel disposed to overrate its evidences, because they are anxious to give every support and stability to a system, which they conceive to be most intimately connected with the dearest hopes and wishes of humanity; because their imagination is carried away by the sublimity of its doctrines, or their heart engaged by that amiable morality which is so much calculated to improve and adorn the face of society.

It appears to us, that the peculiar feeling which the sacredness of the subject gives to the inquirer, is, upon the whole, unfavourable to the impression of the Christian argument. Had the subject not been sacred, and had the same testimony been given to the facts that are connected with it, we are satisfied that the history of Jesus in the New Testament would have been looked upon as the best supported by evidence of any history that has come down to us. It would assist us in appreciating the evidence for the truth of the gospel history, if we could conceive for a moment, that Jesus, instead of being the founder of a new religion, had been merely the founder of a new school of philosophy, and that the different histories which have come down to us had merely represented him as an extraordinary person, who had rendered himself illustrious among his countrymen by the wisdom of his sayings, and the beneficence of his actions. We venture to say, that had this been the case, a tenth part of the testimony which has actually been given, would have been enough to satisfy us. Had it been a question of mere erudition, where neither a predilection in favour of a religion, nor an antipathy against it, could have impressed a bias in any one direction, the testimony, both in weight and in quantity, would have been looked upon as quite unexampled in the whole compass of ancient literature.

To form a fair estimate of the strength and decisiveness of the Christian argument, we should, if possible, divest ourselves of all reference to religion, and view the truth of the gospel history, purely as a question of Now we are ready to admit, that as the erudition. If at the outset of the investigaobject of the inquiry is not the character, tion we have a prejudice against the Chrisbut the truth of Christianity, the philosopher tian religion, the effect is obvious; and withshould be careful to protect his mind from out any refinement of explanation, we see the delusion of its charms. He should sepa- at once how such a prejudice must dispose rate the exercises of the understanding from us to annex suspicion and distrust to the the tendencies of the fancy or of the heart. testimony of the Christian writers. He should be prepared to follow the light even when the prejudice is on the side of of evidence, though it may lead him to con-Christianity, the effect is unfavourable on a


There is something in the very sacredness of the subject, which intimidates the understanding, and restrains it from making the same firm and confident application of its faculties, which it would have felt itself perfectly warranted to do, had it been a question of ordinary history. Had the apos

mind that is at all scrupulous about the rec-| author, which he had rather been without, titude of its opinions. In these circumstan- because he finds it difficult to compute the ces, the mind gets suspicious of itself. It precise amount of its influence; and the feels a predilection, and becomes apprehen- consideration of this restrains him from that sive lest this predilection may have disposed clear and decided conclusion, which he it to cherish a particular conclusion, inde- would infallibly have landed in, had it been pendently of the evidences by which it is purely a secular investigation. supported. Were it a mere speculative question, in which the interests of man, and the attachments of his heart had no share, he would feel greater confidence in the result of his investigation. But it is difficult to separate the moral impressions of piety, and it is no less difficult to calculate their precise influence on the exercises of the un-tles been the disciples of some eminent phiderstanding. In the complex sentiment of attachment and conviction, which he annexes to the Christian religion, he finds it difficult to say, how much is due to the tendencies of the heart, and how much is due to the pure and unmingled influence of argument. His very anxiety for the truth, disposes him to overrate the circumstances which give a bias to his understanding, and through the whole process of the inquiry, he feels a suspicion and an embarrassment, which he would not have felt, had it been a question of ordinary erudition.

losopher, and the fathers of the church, their immediate successors in the office of presiding over the discipline and instruction of the numerous schools which they had established, this would have given a secular complexion to the argument, which we think would have been more satisfying to the mind, and have impressed upon it a closer and more familiar conviction of the history in question. We should have immediately brought it into comparison with the history of other philosophers, and could not have failed to recognize, that, in minuteness of information, in weight and quantity of evidence, in the concurrence of numerous and independent testimonies, and in the total absence of every circumstance that should dispose us to annex suspicion to the account which lay before us, it far surpassed any thing that had come down to us from antiquity. It so happens, however, that, instead of being the history of a philosopher, it is the history of a prophet. The veneration we annex to the sacredness of such a character, mingles with our belief in the truth of his history. From a question of simple truth, it becomes a question in which the heart is interested; and the subject from that moment assumes a certain holiness and mystery, which veil the strength of the argument, and takes off from that familiar and intimate conviction which we annex to the far less authenticated histories of profane authors.

The same suspicion which he attaches to himself, he will be ready to attach to all whom he conceives to be in similar circumstances. Now, every author who writes in defence of Christianity, is supposed to be a Christian; and this, in spite of every argument to the contrary, has the actual effect of weakening the impression of his testimony. This suspicion effects, in a more remarkable degree, the testimony of the first writers on the side of Christianity. In opposition to it, you have no doubt, to allege the circumstances under which the testimony was given; the tone of sincerity which runs through the performance of the author; the concurrence of other testimonies; the persecutions which were sustained in adhering to them, and which can be accounted for on no other principle, than the power of conscience and conviction; and the utter impossibility of imposing a false testimony on the world, had they even been disposed to do it. Still there is a lurking suspicion, which often survives this strength of all argument, and which it is difficult to get rid of, even after it has been demonstrated to be completely unreasonable. He is a Christian. He is one of the party. Am I an infidel? I persist in distrusting the testimony. Am I a Christian? I rejoice in the strength of it; but this very joy becomes matter of suspicion to a scrupulous inquirer. He feels something more than the concurrence of his belief in the testimony of the writer. He catches the infection of his piety and his moral sentiments. In addition to the acquiesence of the understanding, there is a con amore feeling both in himself, and in his

It may be further observed, that every part of the Christian argument has been made to undergo a most severe scrutiny. The same degree of evidence which in questions of ordinary history commands the easy and universal acquiescence of every inquirer, has, in the subject before us, been taken most thoroughly to pieces, and pursued, both by friends and enemies, into all its ramifications. The effect of this is unquestionable. The genuineness and authenticity of the profane historian, are admitted upon much inferior evidence to what we can adduce for the different pieces which make up the New Testament. And why? Because the evidence has been hitherto thought sufficient, and the genuineness and authenticity have never been questioned. Not so with

the Gospel history. Though its evidence is | tion, too, and the time of its appearance, are precisely the same in kind, and vastly supe- far better established, and by precisely that rior in degree to the evidence for the history kind of argument which is held decisive in of the profane writer, its evidence has been every other question of erudition. Besides questioned, and the very circumstance of its all this, we have the testimony of at least being questioned has annexed a suspicion to five of the Christian fathers, all of whom had it. At all points of the question, there has the same, or a greater, advantage in point of been a struggle and a controversy. Every time than Tacitus, and who had a much ignorant objection, and every rash and petu- nearer and readier access to original sources lant observation, has been taken up and of information. Now, how comes it that the commented upon by the defenders of Chris- testimony of Tacitus, a distant and later histianity. There has at last been so much said torian, should yield such delight and satisfacabout it, that a general feeling of insecurity is tion to the inquirer, while all the antecedent apt to accompany the whole investigation. testimony (which, by every principle of apThere has been so much fighting, that Chris-proved criticism, is much stronger than the tianity now is looked upon as debatable other) should produce an impression that is ground. Other books, where the evidence comparatively languid and ineffectual? It is much inferior, but which have had the ad- is owing, in a great measure, to the principle vantage of never being questioned, are re- to which we have already alluded. There ceived as of established authority. It is is a sacredness annexed to the subject, so striking to observe the perfect confidence long as it is under the pen of fathers and with which an infidel will quote a passage evangelists, and this very sacredness takes from an ancient historian. He perhaps does away from the freedom and confidence of not overrate the credit due to him. But the argument. The moment that it is taken present him with a tabellated and compara- up by a profane author, the spell which held tive view of all the evidences that can be the understanding in some degree of restraint adduced for the gospel of Matthew, and any is dissipated. We now tread on the more profane historian, which he chooses to fix familiar ground of ordinary history; and the upon, and let each distinct evidence be dis-evidence for the truth of the Gospel appears cussed upon no other principle than the ordinary and approved principles of criticism, we assure him that the sacred history would far outweigh the profane in the number and value of its testimonies.

more assimilated to that evidence, which brings home to our conviction the particulars of the Greek and Roman story.

To say that Tacitus was upon this subject a disinterested historian, is not enough to In illustration of the above remarks, we explain the preference which you give to can refer to the experience of those who have his testimony. There is no subject in which attended to this examination. We ask them the triumph of the Christian argument is to recollect the satisfaction which they felt, more conspicuous, than the moral qualificawhen they came to those parts of the ex- tions which give credit to the testimony of amination, where the argument assumes a its witnesses. We have every possible evisecular complexion. Let us take the testi- dence, that there could be neither mistake mony of Tacitus for an example. He as- nor falsehood in their testimony: a much serts the execution of our Saviour in the greater quantity of evidence, indeed, than reign of Tiberius, and under the procurator- can actually be produced to establish the ship of Pilate; the temporary check, which credibility of any other historian. Now all this gave to his religion; its revival, and the we ask is, that where an exception to the progress it had made, not only over Judea, veracity of any historian is removed, you but to the city of Rome. Now all this is restore him to that degree of credit and inatt sted in the Annals of Tacitus. But it is fluence which he ought to have possessed, also attested in a far more direct and cir- had no such exception been made. In no cumstantial manner in the annals of another case has an exception to the credibility of an author, in a book entitled the History of the author been more triumphantly removed, Acts of the Apostles by the Evangelist than in the case of the early Christian Luke. Both of these performances carry writers; and yet, as a proof that there really on the very face of them the appearance of exists some such delusion as we have been unsuspicious and well-authenticated docu- labouring to demonstrate, though our eyes ments. But there are several circumstances, are perfectly open to the integrity of the in which the testimony of Luke possesses a Christian witnesses, there is still a disposidecided advantage over the testimony of tion to give the preference to the secular hisTacitus. He was the companion of these torian. When Tacitus is placed by the side very apostles. He was an eye witness to of the evangelist Luke, even after the demany of the events recorded by him. He cisive argument, which establishes the credit had the advantage over the Roman historian of the latter historian has convinced the unin time and in place, and in personal know-derstanding, there remains a tendency in the ledge of many of the circumstances in his mind to annex a confidence to the account history. The genuineness of his publica- of the Roman writer, which is altogether

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