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This is not only true of those writings of Christians, which are genuine, and of acknowledged authority, but it is, in a great measure, true of all their ancient writings which remain ; although some of these may have been erroneously ascribed to authors to whom they did not belong, or may contain false accounts, or may appear to be undeserving of credit, or never indeed to have obtained any. Whatever fables they have mixed with the narrative, they preserve the material parts, the leading facts, as we have them; and, so far as they do this, although they be evidence of nothing else, they are evidence that these points were fixed, were received and acknowledged by all Christians in the ages in which the books were written. At least, it may be asserted, that, in the places where we were most likely to meet with such things, if such things had existed, no reliques appear of any story substantially different from the present, as the cause, or as the pretence, of the institution.
Now that the original story, the story delivered by the first preachers of the institution, should have died away so entirely as to have left no record or memorial of its existence, although so many records and memorials of the time and transaction remain ; and that another story should have stepped into its place, and gained exclusive possession of the belief of all who professed themselves disciples of the institution, is beyond any example of the corruption of even oral tradition, and still less consistent with the experience of written history : and this improbability, which is very great, is rendered still greater by the reflection, that no such change, as the oblivion of one story and the substitution of another, took place in any future period of the Christian era. Christianity hath travelled through dark and turbulent ages ; nevertheless it came out of the cloud and the storm, such, in substance, as it entered in. Many additions were made to the primitive history, and these entitled to different degrees of credit ; many doctrinal errours also were from time to time grafted into the publick creed, but still the original story remained, and remained the same.
In all its principal parts it has been fixed from the beginning
Thirdly, The religious rites and usages that prevailed amongst the early disciples of Christianity, were such as belonged to, and sprung out of, the narrative now in our hands ; which accordancy shews, that it was the narrative upon which these persons acted, and which they had received from their teachers. Our account makes the founder of the religion direct that his disciples should be baptized : we know that the first Christians were baptized. Our account makes him direct that they should hold religious assemblies : we find that they did hold religious assemblies. Our accounts make the apostles assemble upon a stated day in the week : we find, and that from information perfectly independent of our accounts, that the Christians of the first century did observe stated days of assembling. Our histories record the institution of the rite which we call the Lord's Supper, and a command to repeat it in perpetual succession : we find, amongst the early Christians, the celebration of this rite universal. And indeed we find concurring in all the above mentioned observances, Christian societies of many different nations and languages, removed from one another by a great distance of place and dissimilitude of situation. It is also extremely material to remark, that there is no room for insinuating that our books were fabricated with a studious accommodation to the usages which obtained at the time they were written; that the authors of the books found the
established, and framed the story to account for their original. The scripture accounts, especially of the Lord's Supper, are
too short and cursory, not to say too obscure, and, in this view, deficient, to allow a place for any such suspicion*.
Amongst the proofs of the truth of our proposition, viz. that the story, which we have now, is, in substance, the story which the Christians had then, or, in other words, that the accounts in our gospels are, as to their principal parts at least, the accounts which the apostles and original teachers of the religion delivered, one arises from observing, that it appears by the gospels themselves, that the story was publick at the time ; that the Christian community was already in possession of the substance and principal parts of the narrative. The gospels were not the original cause of the Christian history being believed, but were themselves among the consequences of that belief. This is expressly affirmed by St. Luke in his brief, but, as I think, very
important and instructive preface. “ Forasmuch (says the evangelist) as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most-surely believed amongst us, even as they delivered them unto us, which, from the beginning, were eye-witnesses and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightest know the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed.”—This short introduction testifies, that the substance of the history, which the evangelist was about to write, was already believed by Christians; that it was believed upon the declarations of eye-witnesses and ministers of the word; that it formed the account of their religion, in which Christians were instructed; that the office which the historian proposed to himself, was to trace each particular to its origin, and to fix the certainty of many things which the reader had before heard of. In St. John's Gospel, the same point appears from hence, that there are some principal facts, to which the historian refers, but which he does not relate. A remarkable instance of this kind is the ascension, which is not mentioned by St. John in its place, at the conclusion of his history, but which is plainly referred to in the following words of the sixth chapter* : “ What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up
* The reader who is conversant in these rescarches, by comparing the short scripture accounts of the Christian rites above mentioned with the minute and circumstantial directions contained in the pretended apostolical constitutions, will see the force of this observation; tlie difference between truth and forgery.
where he was before ?” And still more positively in the words which Christ, according to our evangelist, spoke to Mary after his resurrection, “Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go unto my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, unto my God and your Godt.” This can only be accounted for by the supposition, that St. John wrote under a sense of the notoriety of Christ's ascension, amongst those by whom his book was likely to be read. The same account must also be given of St. Matthew's omission of the same important fact. The thing was very well known, and it did not occur to the historian that it was necessary to add any particulars concerning it. It agrees also with this solution, and with no other, that neither Matthew nor John disposes of the person of our Lord in any manner whatever. Other intimations in St. John's Gospel of the then general notoriety of the story are the following:
His manner of introducing his narrative, (ch. i. v. 15.) “ John bare witness of him, and cried, saying,” evidently presupposes that his readers knew who John was. His rapid parenthetical reference to John's imprisonment, “ for John was not yet cast into prisont,” could only come from a
writer whose mind was in the habit of considering John's imprisonment as perfectly notorious. The description of Andrew by the addition “Simon Peter's brother," takes it for granted, that Simon Peter was well known. His name had not been mentioned before. The evangelist's noticing the prevailing misconstruction of a discourse, which Christ held with the beloved disciple, proves that the characters and the discourse were already publick. And the observation which these instances afford, is of equal validity for the purpose of the present argument, whoever were the authors of the histories.
These four circumstances ;—first, the recognition of the account in its principal parts, by a series of succeeding writers ; secondly, the total absence of any account of the ' origin of the religion substantially different from ours ; thirdly, the early and extensive prevalence of rites and institutions, which result from our account; fourthly, our account bearing, in its construction, proof that it is an account of facts, which were known and believed at the time; are sufficient, I conceive, to support an assurance, that the story which we have now, is, in general, the story which Christians had at the beginning. I say in general; by which term I mean, that it is the same in its texture, and in its principal facts. For instance, I make no doubt, for the reasons above stated, but that the resurrection of the founder of the religion was always a part of the Christian story. Nor can a doubt of this remain
any one who reflects that the resurrection is, in some form or other, asserted, referred to, or assumed, in every Christian writing, of every description, which hath come down to us.
And if our evidence stopped here, we should have a strong case to offer : for we should have to allege, that, in