Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Christian Evidences

In the last chapter, I invited my reader to put his hand across the page (so to speak) and leave out of sight all that has happened since the beginning of the Christian era; to treat the year 1 B.C. as if it were the limit of his historical knowledge. I will now ask him, if I may pursue the same metaphor, to take his hand away, all except the top finger --to blot out from memory all that he knows of what happened between 1 B.C. and A.D. 100, and to look with fresh eyes at the literature of the period which immediately follows the Twelve Caesars; the literature, roughly speaking, that dates between A.D. 90 and 120.

You find the world still pagan; the same tradition of Greco-Roman culture persists, not menaced hitherto by grave corruption within, or formidable competition from without. Meanwhile, the Jewish race has disappeared from view, for the time being, as completely as it has ever disappeared in history.

Jerusalem has been sacked, not one stone left on another; and with the loss of its nerve-centre the active life of Judaism seems temporarily suspended; the Roman satirist only connects it with the soothsayers, who practised upon the fashionable superstitions of the day.

At the same time, in Bithynia, a province very far distant from Judea, a Roman governor with great conscientiousness and some mildness of disposition, the younger Pliny, is becoming exercised over a pressing imperial problem. He writes to the Emperor Trajan to know if he has been right in the policy which he has adopted towards the troublesome sect of the Christians.

There is no reason to think that the difficulty was merely local; that Bithynia was more infested with Christians than other provinces in the Hellenised portion of the Roman world. We have no statistics, but it is evident that the criminals in question were sufficiently numerous; both Pliny and Trajan are anxious to discourage the activities of the informer (a sure sign that you are afraid of learning the true strength of your adversaries); and not a few, it would appear, of the accused renounced their opinions under the threat of punishment--the movement, therefore, was already sufficiently fashionable to be attracting half-hearted supporters. Pliny has heard various tales to the discredit of these strange votaries, tales of incestuous marriages and of child-eating; but he confesses that in all his inquiries he has found no evidence to support such charges. On the contrary, it appears that the Christians are bound by an oath or sacrament to abstain from all crime against their neighbours, and their secret meetings involve nothing more serious than a religious service which includes a sacramental meal, and the singing of a hymn "to Christ as God." Those who consent to offer sacrifice to the emblems of the heathen deities and of the Emperor himself are dismissed with a caution; those who remain obstinate are ordered, by a convenient euphemism, to be "led away."

This need for repressive action against the Christians-- breaking the butterfly sect upon the wheel of imperial efficiency--had been felt, though perhaps dimly felt, much earlier. A historian, Tacitus, Pliny's contemporary and friend, describes how Nero, fifty years before, had sent Roman Christians to the stake. Tacitus is an unfriendly witness, and describes the Christians as "hated on account of their crimes"; but then, so doubtless would Pliny until he acquired first-hand experience in Bithynia. In a great city like Rome one does not know one's neighbours; and the most fantastic reports gain easy credit when they are circulated against a religion which is practised in secret. No hint of revolutionary or unpatriotic action on the Christians' part is ever dropped, unless it be in the statement of Suetonius that the Jews were banished from Rome because they were "making continual disturbances under the instigation of Christus", which may conceivably have reference to differences between Christians and Jews.

That the founder of this sect suffered under Tiberius, we have Tacitus' evidence; for a fuller account of his character we might go to the Jewish historian Josephus, who, writing a little earlier, gives a thumb-nail sketch of the career of one Jesus of Nazareth, whom he identifies with Christus in a footnote. But the suspicion of Christian additions to the text forbids us to accept without hesitation the further details of this remarkable passage. There is no reason whatever to suspect the allusions in Tacitus of being later, Christian interpolations; there is a complete absence of external proof, and the references themselves proclaim their genuineness by their moderation; a Christian interpolator would assuredly have made a better job of it.

So much we should know (I am giving only the more salient instances, and the outlines of them, not the details) even if Christian literature had wholly disappeared from the face of the planet. We should know that between the years 60 and 120 the Jewish people had lost the limited political importance which it had hitherto enjoyed, and that, during the same years, a sect which originated on Jewish soil (but was certainly quite unconnected with official Judaism) had spread across Asia Minor to the coasts of the Black Sea, and across Greece to the imperial capital itself; that in spite of rigid persecution its determined opposition to idolatry, and therefore to Caesar-worship, had become an imperial problem which needed constant reference to headquarters; and that a central part of its creed was the Divinity of Christus, a Man who suffered under Tiberius somewhere about A.D. 30. The record would surely strike us as a curious one. No public action had had to be taken, as far as we know, against any religion as such, since the (purely local) suppression of the Bacchanals at Rome early in the second century B.C. That there were other secret religions which enjoyed some popularity during the first century we are well aware. Orphic mysteries and Isis-worship and so on. No doubt Christianity resembled them as it resembles many other religions, in having its secret pass-words, its ceremony of initiation, its sacramental meal; it may even have adopted into its language some of their jargon about initiation, illumination, and the rest. But the most fantastic speculations have failed to prove any trace of interconnection; and meanwhile it is obviously unscientific to classify Christianity among the mystery cults. For Christianity has salient qualities which utterly distinguish it from them. The mystery religions not only contrived to live on terms with the old heathen worship, but actually busied themselves in tracing their origin to one or other of the well-known figures in classical mythology. Christianity, from the first moment of its appearance, dates its origin quite frankly from the year A.D. 30, and regards all the figures of heathen mythology as abominations. Consequently Christianity, unlike the mystery religions, was persecuted in the name of pagan theology, and its tenets were supposed to be incompatible with the duties of a good citizen. As a mere matter of observation, Christianity is from the first "sui generis," and Judaism is the only system which approaches in any way to its strangely exclusive and intolerant attitude.

Let us now turn our attention to the documents of the same period (A.D. 90- 120) which come to us from Christian sources--the Epistles, let us say, of Ignatius and Clement. Here you find the record of an institutional religion already firmly established, with a definite creed and a definite system of Church government. You find abundant material to corroborate Pliny's statement that the Christians worshipped Christ as God; you find the explanation of this attitude in the conviction that Christ rose from the dead. You find a marked antagonism towards the whole genius of paganism, and a firm belief that death suffered in defiance of heathenism is the preface to a glorious immortality. You find a habit of epistolography--the individual addressing his message to an assembled "church"--which assumes the existence of an established model (a Pauline model, as we shall see later). You find the clear confidence that the whole of Judaism was only a preparation for Christianity. You find the assumption that Christianity is everywhere represented by a common type, with an overseer (or "bishop") in control. You find that the centre of all this system is already fixed at the metropolitan city of Rome; since Clement, in the name of the Church there, addresses his expostulations to fellow-Christians on the other side of the Adriatic who had revolted against their "priests," and Ignatius credits the same Church with an imperfectly defined title to presidency. So much for Christianity in the second generation, an impressive proof of its uncompromising attitude and its rapid development, even if no earlier documents were available. But, as we know, we have a set of documents in Our possession, most of which are certainly anterior in date to the period we have been considering--I mean the documents which go to form the New Testament scriptures. I need hardly remind the reader that in this and the next three chapters those documents will be treated, not as if they had any claim upon our faith as authoritative formulas of religion, but merely as historical documents whose value must be estimated according to historical principles.

We have a series of "epistles," some of them genuine letters, written to satisfy an immediate demand, some of them treatises in epistolary form. A round dozen of these come from the same hand; the incoherence of their style, the embarrassed egotism of the author's attitude, his insistent and sometimes irrelevant reiteration of a few favorite doctrinal principles, are the hall-mark of their unity. Nor is there any serious doubt, on internal or external grounds, that they are what they profess to be--the work of Paul, a propagandist of the new religion who had been particularly active in European Greece and on the sea-board of Asia Minor. His principal preoccupation's in writing seem to have been (i.) to define the exact relations, at that time sufficiently obscure, between Christianity and its foster-parent Judaism; (ii.) to collect money for the needs of the poor Christians at Jerusalem; (iii.) to assert his own accredited position as a Christian missionary, in answer to various critics who tried to represent him as a free-lance. But he also deals individually with local problems; as, the exaggerated enthusiasm of Corinth, the premature fears of a world- upheaval felt in Macedonian, and the danger of contamination from superstitious cults at Ephesus and Colossae.

These letters, from internal evidence or from comparison with another document to be mentioned presently, have to be dated earlier, for the most part, than A.D. 60. In reading them, the unbiased critic can hardly fail to be struck by the following points:--

(i.) That in spite of the confusion introduced by the competition of rival missionaries, it is constantly assumed that the Christians of the world form a single body. The local "church" is only the model of a potentially world-wide institution, the Church.

(ii.) That this Church consists of those who have made an act of faith in Christ, which is identified in significance with the outward ceremony of baptism.

(iii.) That the Christian Church, young as it is, has already traditions which are to be maintained, and a fixed deposit of belief.

(iv.) That faith in Christ implies assent to the doctrine that he rose from the dead, a fact attested by various witnesses, of whom, in virtue of a particular moment of mystical experience, Paul considers himself one.

(v.) That Christ is, in a few texts, explicitly identified as God; and that the general place assigned to him in the scheme of "Redemption" is inconsistent with the supposition that his dignity is other than Divine.

(vi.) That the covenant under which the Jewish Church claimed to be the chosen Assembly of God has now been superseded by a fresh covenant with an international Assembly, the Christian Church.

(vii.) That idolatry, or even co-operation in idolatry, is directly contrary to the Christian profession; Christians have a sacrificial meal or ceremony of their own, the supernatural character of which is elsewhere explicitly asserted.

Side by side with these epistles goes a book which even the more rigorous critics attribute to a companion of Paul, and date before A.D. 70 or very soon after it, the Acts of the Apostles. The first part of this book gives a historical sketch of this Christian Church in its earliest beginnings, of which the whole tone is obviously primitive; the second part contains an account of Paul's missionary activities, and shows for the most part the work of an eye-witness. This document entirely bears out the account of Christianity which we have already derived from Paul's epistles, and adds something to the definiteness of the picture; e.g., it describes assemblies of leading Christians which clearly regard themselves as empowered to legislate for the welfare of the Church, and it records the ceremonial imposition of hands, both upon the newly baptised and upon men singled out to take part in the work of evangelisation. We need not consider the other "epistles," of non-Pauline or doubtfully Pauline origin, since they do not add much to the picture for our present purposes.

Suppose that were all. Suppose, "par impossible," that we had no Gospels. What would be, and what ought to be our attitude towards the Catholic Church? We should at least have to admit that this extraordinary institution has persisted for nearly nineteen hundred years, accused, sometimes, of over-definition, but never of cancelling its beliefs, of development, but never of any break in its historic continuity. We should have to admit that its career is highly documented back to the very date of its Founder's death, or at worst to within twenty years of it; that its main structure, the more intimate of its doctrines and the more prominent of its ceremonies, had remained unaltered through the centuries. That its chief credential, from the first, had been this amazing story of a dead Man coming to life; and that it had imposed this belief, in the first instance, on people who were that Man's contemporaries, and had been living in the very country, in the very city, where his death took place. That it had absorbed into itself, before long, the energies of that religious movement which John the Baptist had initiated; that it had claimed to fulfil the age-long expectation of the Jewish people at the moment when its fulfilment was expected. We should have had to admit that it was worth while questioning an institution like this, and finding out what story it had to tell.

And it would have told us its story, handed down by word of mouth through the centuries, and verifiable only by stray allusions, here and there, in the literature of those centuries. How its own Founder was miraculously born, in fulfilment of Isaias' prophecy; how John bore witness to him; how he fasted and was tempted in the desert; how he went about doing good, and how he taught, and, how his teaching roused against him the envious spite of the Jewish leaders; how he performed miracles, fed five thousand men with five loaves, and walked on the sea, and raised the dead, even, to life; the circumstances of his betrayal, judgment, and death. All this would have been enshrined in the oral traditions of the Church, as it must have been in the days before the Gospels were written--those first converts, surely, asked questions? And the apostles who had lived with the Christ had some answers, surely, to satisfy their curiosity. We should have been in the same position; only that an occasional literary allusion could have been quoted, here and there, in support of the traditional statement.

We are not left to depend on an oral tradition. For the tradition itself was written down, before the scent (you may say) had had time to grow cold, by four separate chroniclers. The story they tell is a curiously incomplete one, if you judge it by the principles of modem biography. It is only a fragment, but it has left an ineffaceable picture upon the imagination of mankind. It takes back the oral tradition, not indeed to the very earliest times of Christianity, but to a period so little removed from them that there is little fear of its misrepresenting apostolic belief. Three of these chronicles, at least, must have been written when men still lived who had had speech with the Christ, and could check the facts recorded. It is to this documentary tradition, then, that we go for our picture of Christ's Life. Indeed, for practical purposes it is all we have left to us. For the documentary tradition replaces, and so kills, the oral tradition. It is extraordinary how few legends there are, with any respectable claim to authenticity, to supplement the Gospel story. It is extraordinary how few sayings of our Lord have been preserved (there is one in Acts xx. 351) which are not recorded in the Gospels themselves. Men will not trust their memory when they have written sources to refer to.

The text of these four documents is as well established as any text could be. Owing to their frequent transcription, the manuscripts must have divided very early into different "families," and it is unlikely that the text of any one "family" should have become extinct. This division into families has left its traces, naturally, on the manuscripts we still possess, but none of the differences is sufficiently serious to concern our present purpose. The text of the Gospel record can be taken as a fixed quantity; and it is only by risking all their reputation as textual critics that scholars can have the hardihood to question the genuineness of a single verse (as some have questioned Matthew xxviii. 19), so strong is the consensus of manuscript evidence.

There is far less general agreement as to the authorship of the Gospels and the written sources, if any, which lie behind them. A mass of ponderous learning has been accumulating, these hundred years past, over the "Synoptic problem," and we are no nearer the solution of it. The fact is that in our day we have no real qualifications for pronouncing on "documentary hypotheses"; for deciding whether document A was copied from document B, or vice versa, or whether both were copied from a lost source C; whether, in that case, C was another document or an oral tradition; how much revision and "editing" is to be expected from the men who finally put the documents into shape. Infinite ingenuity has been bestowed upon the task, but we lack experience. Printing has made everything so easy for us that we have no longer any means of judging what was probable or improbable in the first century, what were the chances of a document getting lost, getting mutilated, getting surreptitiously altered; how much authors worked by memory, how much by consulting their authorities- how much they allowed their order of arrangement to be interfered with by considerations of practical convenience. I propose, then, in the following chapter to treat the Synoptic record as a promiscuous whole. It is enough for us to notice that the wilder extravagances of criticism are now obsolescent, and that we can, without attracting the derision of scholars, treat the first three Gospels as documents dating back behind A.D. 70--that is, documents written within the lifetime of people who were grown up when the events in question took place.

The Fourth Gospel--I must repeat, we are not here treating the Bible as an inspired record--we must use more charity. If we accept the tradition of its authorship, it seems probable that it was the work of a man in extreme old age, and the objector might legitimately question whether his memory was still accurate. Many modern scholars refuse to accept the tradition, and would put the record outside the first century altogether. From its very nature it is a baffling subject of study. People will tell you that it is, for the most part, a work of philosophic reflection, casting Christian doctrine, by a dramatic device, into monologue or dialogue form. For myself, I confess that it reads to me much more like the laborious recollections of a very old man, meticulously accurate about unimportant details, merely in order to show that he does remember them, and constantly forgetting what stage he has reached (as old men will) in the story or in the argument. But, whatever be said of it, it seems clear at least that in some of its main outlines it preserves an independent tradition. The very fact that it corrects the ideas we might otherwise have formed about the length of our Lord's ministry, the day of his Passion, etc., is good proof that it does not depend entirely on the other Gospels for its representation of the incidents. This fourth record, then, must also be taken into account if we are to form a complete view of the evidence at our disposal.

In order to confine our considerations as far as possible to matters of practical importance, I shall make no attempt to recall to the reader the details of a Life so familiar as that of our Lord. I shall pursue, in the two following chapters, two isolated lines of argument; asking first whether the Founder of Christianity did himself claim to be God, and then, granting that he did, how far his claim can be justified by a study of his Personality and of his career.


1. ". . . remember the word of the Lord Jesus, how he said: It is a more blessed thing to give than to receive."

Ronald Knox, 'The Christian Evidences,' The Belief of Catholics

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