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There are, however, a few preliminary reflections, by which we may draw up with more regularity to the propositions upon which the close and particular discussion of the subject depends. Of which nature are the following:
I. We are able to produce a great number of ancient manuscripts, found in many different countries, and in countries widely distant from each other, all of them anterioúr to the art of printing, some certainly seven or eight hundred years old, and some which have been preserved probably above a thousand years*. We have also, many ancient versions of these books, and some of them into languages which are not at present, nor for many ages have been, spoken in any part of the world. The existence of these manuscripts and versions proves that the scriptures were not the production of any modern contrivance. It does away also the uncertainty which hangs over such publications as the works, real or pretended, of Ossian and Rowley, in which the editors are challenged to produce their manuscripts, and to show where they obtained their copies. The number of manuscripts, far exceeding those of
any other book, and their wide dispersion, afford an argument, in some measure, to the senses, that the scriptures anciently, in like manner as at this day, were more read and sought after than any other books, and that also in many different countries. The greatest part of spurious Christian writings, are utterly lost, the rest preserved by some single manuscript. There is weight also in Dr. Bentley's observation, that the New Testament has suffered less injury by the errours of transcribers than the works of any profane author of the same size and antiquity; that is, there never was any writing in the preservation and purity of which the world was so interested or so careful.
* The Alexandrian manuscript, now in the British Museum, was written probably in the fourth or fifth century. VOL. II.
II. An argument of great weight with those who are judges of the proofs upon which it is founded, and capable, through their testimony, of being addressed to every understanding, is that which arises from the style and language of the New Testament. It is just such a language as might be expected from the apostles, from persons of their age and in their situation, and from no other persons. It is the style neither of classick authors, nor of the ancient Christian fathers, but Greek coming from men of Hebrew origin ; abounding, that is, with Hebraick and Syriack idioms, such as would naturally be found in the writings of men who used a language spoken indeed where they lived, but not the common dialect of the country. This happy peculiarity is a strong proof of the genuineness of these writings; for who should forge them? The Christian fathers were for the most part totally ignorant of Hebrew, and therefore were not likely to insert Hebraisms and Syriasms into their writings. The few who had a knowledge of the Hebrew, as Justin Martyr, Origen, and Epiphanius, wrote in a language which bears no resemblance to that of the New Testament. The Nazarenes, who understood Hebrew, used chiefly, perhaps almost entirely, the gospel of St. Matthew, and therefore cannot be suspected of forging the rest of the sacred writings. The argument, at any rate, proves the antiquity of these books; that they belonged to the age of the apostles; that they could be composed indeed in no other*.
III. Why should we question the genuineness of these books? Is it for that they contain accounts of supernatural events ? I apprehend that this, at the bottom, is the real, though secret, cause of our hesitation about them ; for, had the writings inscribed with the names of Matthew and John
* See this argument stated more at large in Michaelis's introduction, (Marsh's translation) vol. I. c. ii. sect. 10. from which these observations are taken,
related nothing but ordinary history, there would have been no more doubt whether these writings were theirs, than there is concerning the acknowledged works of Josephus or Philo; that is, there would have been no doubt at all. Now it ought to be considered that this reason, however it may apply to the credit which is given to a writer's judgment or veracity, affects the question of genuineness very indirectly. The works of Bede exhibit many wonderful relations; but who, for that reason, doubts that they were written by Bede? The same of a multitude of other authors. To which may be added, that we ask no more for our books than what we allow to other books in some sort similar to ours. We do not deny the genuineness of the Koran. We admit that the history of Apollonius Tyanæus, purporting to be written by Philostratus, was really written by Philostratus.
IV. If it had been an easy thing in the early times of the institution to have forged Christian writings, and to have obtained currency and reception to the forgeries, we should have had many appearing in the name of Christ himself. No writings would have been received with so much avidity and respect as these ; consequently none afforded so great temptation to forgery. Yet have we heard but of one attempt of this sort deserving of the smallest notice, that in a piece of a very few lines, and so far from succeeding, I mean from obtaining acceptance and reputation, or an acceptance and reputation in any wisé similar to that which can be proved to have attended the books of the New Testament, that it is not so much as mentioned by any writer of the three first centuries. The learned reader need not be informed that I mean the epistle of Christ to Abgarus, king of Edessa, found at present in the works of Eusebius,* as a piece acknowledged by him, though
* Hist, Eccl. lib. i. c. 15.
not without considerable doubt whether the whole
passage be not an interpolation, as it is most certain that, after the publication of Eusebius's work, this epistle was universally rejected. *
V. If the ascription of the Gospels to their respective authors had been arbitrary or conjectural, they would have been ascribed to more eminent men. This observation holds concerning the three first Gospels, the reputed authors of which were enabled, by their situation, to obtain true intelligence, and were likely to deliver an honest account of what they knew, but were persons not distinguished in the history by extraordinary marks of notice or commendation. Of the apostles, I hardly know any one of whom less is said than of Matthew, or of whom the little that is said, is less calculated to magnify his character. Of Mark nothing is said in the gospels; and what is said of any person of that name in the Acts, and in the epistles, in no part bestows praise or eminence upon him. The name of Luke is mentioned only in St. Paul's epistles, and that very transiently. The judgment, therefore, which assigned these writings to these authors proceeded, it may be presumed, upon proper knowledge and evidence, and not upon a voluntary choice of names.
Augustin, A. D. 395, (De Consens. Evang. c. 54.) had heard that the Pagans pretended to be possessed of an epistle from Christ to Peter and Paul, but he had never seen it, and appears to doubt of the existence of any such piece, either genuine or spurious. No other ancient writer mentions it. He also, and he alone, notices, and that in order to con. demn it, an epistle ascribed to Christ by the Manichees, A. D. 270, and a short hymn attributed to him by the Priscillianists, A. D. 378, (cont. Faust. Man. lib. xxviii.c. 4.) The lateness of the writer who notices these things, the manner in which he notices them, and, above all, the silence : of every preceding writer, render them unworthy of consideration.
† Col. iv. 14. 2 Tim. iv. 11. Philem. 24.
VI. Christian writers and Christian churches appear to have soon arrived at a very general agreement upon the subject, and that without the interposition of any publick authority. When the diversity of opinion, which prevailed, and prevails among Christians in other points, is considered, their concurrence in the canon of scripture is remarkable, and of great weight, especially as it seems to have been the result of private and free inquiry. We have no knowledge of any interference of authority in the question before the council of Laodicea in the year 363. Probably the decree of this council rather declared than
regulated the publick judgment, or, more properly speaking, the judgment of some neighbouring churches, the council itself consisting of no more than thirty or forty bishops of Lydia and the adjoining countries.* Nor does its authority seem to have extended farther ; for we find numerous Christian writers, after this time, discussing the question, “ what books were entitled to be received as scripture," with great freedom, upon proper grounds of evidence, and without any reference to the decision at Laodicea.
These considerations are not to be neglected : but of an argument concerning the genuineness of ancient writings, the substance undoubtedly and strength is ancient testimony.
This testimony it is necessary to exhibit somewhat in detail : for when Christian advocates merely tell us, that we have the same reason for believing the gospels to be written by the evangelists whose names they bear, as we have for believing the Commentaries to be Cæsar's, the Æneid Virgil's, or the Orations Cicero's, they content them
Lardner, Cred. vol. VIII. p. 291, et seq.