A Historical Introduction to the Study of the Books of the New Testament

By George Salmon

Chapter 1




The subject appointed for our Lectures this Term is The Bible; but that opens up a field so wide, that to treat adequately of all that it is desirable should be known about it would give us employment, not for one Term, but for several years. Last year you attended Lectures on Natural Religion and on Christian Evidences. I assume that you then went through the proofs that there is a God; that there is no impossibility in His revealing His will to His creatures, using miracle or prophecy as credentials to authenticate His message; and that you went through the proofs of our Lord's divine mission, establishing the conclusion that He was the bearer to the world of a revelation from God. Then, in logical order, follows the question, How is that revelation to be known to us? what are the books that record it? in other words: What is the Canon of Scripture?

In this investigation the determination of the New Testament Canon comes before that of the Old. We must first determine what the books are which contain authentic records of the teaching of our Lord and His Apostles; because we can then use their testimony to the older books, which they reverenced as divinely inspired. Next after the question of the Canon comes that of Biblical Criticism. Supposing it to be established that certain books were written, containing an authoritative record of Divine revelations, we have still to inquire whether those books have come down safely to us how we are to remove all the errors which may have accumulated during the process of transcription in many centuries, and so restore the texts to their original purity. Perhaps here might follow questions concerning the Translation of these texts, for without translation books written in Hebrew and Greek cannot be made available for the instruction of our people. At any rate, we have to consider questions concerning the Interpretation of these books. May we follow the same rules as we do in interpreting any ordinary book, and be satisfied in each case with that plain meaning which it seems the writer intended; or does the fact that the books are divine that the real author is not man, but God; that there may, therefore, often be a meaning unknown even to the human agent who was commissioned to write the words oblige us to employ special methods of interpretation in order to discover the deeper spiritual meaning? And, lastly, we must inquire what is involved in the Divine Inspiration we ascribe to these books. Does it exclude the supposition of the smallest inaccuracy being found in them in science, history, moral or religious teaching? If we admit the possibility of any such inaccuracy, can we put any limits to our concession?

The subjects I have named the Canon, the Criticism, the Interpretation of our books, and the question of their Inspiration are by no means all that might be discussed in treating of the Bible; yet these alone form a programme to which it is impossible to do justice in the time at my disposal, and in practice I have found that, with whatever subject I begin, I am obliged, if I wish to treat it at all adequately, to crowd out nearly all the rest. At present I am about to take up the subject which seems in logical order the first the question what books contain the authentic record of the teaching of our Lord and His Apostles in other words, the question of the New Testament Canon.

I wish to keep the question I have named quite clear of any discussion as to the Inspiration of the sacred books, such discussion plainly belonging to a later stage of the investigation. I wish to examine into the evidence for the genuine ness and authenticity of the books of the Bible in the same way as in the case of any ordinary books. It is clearly one question: At what date and by what authors were certain books written? And quite another question: Is there reason to believe that the authors of these books were aided by supernatural guidance, and if so, what was the nature and extent of that supernatural assistance? The former is, as we shall presently see, a question of vital importance in the controversy between Christians and unbelievers; the latter is one internal among Christians, and only admits of discussion among those who are already convinced of the historic credibility of the New Testament books, and who, because they believe what these books relate about Jesus of Nazareth, find no difficulty in believing also that He endowed with special powers those whom He commissioned to write the revelation which He brought into the world.

I make these remarks at the outset, because it enables us at once to set aside certain topics as irrelevant to the present investigation. Suppose, for example, it be alleged that there are plain contradictions between the first Gospel and the fourth; if we were engaged in an inquiry as to the Inspiration of the Gospels, it would be of the utmost importance to examine whether and how far this allegation is true. But it may be quite possible to set it aside as entirely irrelevant, when we are only inquiring whether or not both Gospels were written by Apostles, It is the constant experience of anyone who has ever engaged in historical investigation to have to reconcile contradictions between his authorities; but such contradictions must reach a high point in number and gravity before they suggest a suspicion that the opposing statements do not both proceed, as they profess to do, from persons having a first-hand knowledge of the matters about which they write.

I have just said that I wish to investigate the genuineness, and authenticity of the books of the Bible in the same way; as we should in the case of any uninspired book. But we are not quite permitted to do so. Those who would approve of interpreting the Bible according to the same rules by which we should interpret any other book apply very different rules in determining the authorship of its parts from what are used in the case of other books. If we were to apply to the re mains of classical literature the same rigour of scrutiny that is used towards the New Testament, there are but few of them that could stand the test. There are many of you who count as good classical scholars, who have always received with simple faith that what you read in your printed books is the work of the author to whom it is commonly ascribed, and have never applied your minds to consider what answer you could give to anyone who should deny it. You are very familiar, for instance, with Horace. Do you know what interval separates the oldest manuscript of his works from the age of Augustus, in which the poet is said to have lived? Can you fill up the gap by quotations from ancient authors? Do you know what ancient authors mention him or quote his poems? Can you tell how far the earliest quotation is separated in time from the poet himself? Can you tell what extent of his writings is covered by quotations? Can you give separate proofs for each book of the Odes, of the Satires and Epistles, and for the Art of Poetry? And if you are able to give a proof for every book, can you meet the requirements of a more severe critic, who might demand a distinct proof of the Horatian origin of every ode of every book? I suppose the chances are that you would not at tempt to answer these questions; because, though you probably have heard of the theory of the Jesuit Hardouin, that the Odes of Horace and other classical books were written by Benedictine monks in the dark ages, it is not likely that | you have given that theory a serious thought. Yet, if we ) were called on to refute it, by producing quotations from the Odes by any writer who lived within two centuries of the poet's death (and later testimony than that would not be thought worth looking at in the case of a New Testament book), we should be able to make only a very unsatisfactory reply. One example is often cited to show how little this kind of investigation is in practice judged to be necessary. The Roman History of Velleius Paterculus has come down to us in a single very corrupt manuscript, and the book is only once quoted by Priscian, a grammarian of the sixth century; yet no one entertains the smallest doubt of its genuineness.1 The first six books of the Annals of Tacitus are also known to us only through a single manuscript which came to light in the fifteenth century. Not long ago an elaborate attempt was made to show that all the books of the Annals were forged in that century by an Italian scholar, Poggio. And it was asserted that no clear and definite! allusion to the Annals can be found until the first half of the fifteenth century. The latest editor of the Annals, Mr. Furneaux, is what, if the subject of his labours were a New Testament book, would be called an apologist: that is to say, he believes that the traditional doctrine as to the authorship is true, and that the supposed discovery of forgery is a mare's nest; yet, in answer to the assertion just quoted, he can only produce one allusion, by no means clear and definite, and that of a date 300 years later than the historian. Thus you see that if the external testimony to the New Testament books, which I shall discuss in future lectures, had not been forthcoming, we might still have good reason for holding fast to the traditional theory of their authorship. But where external proof is most abundant in the case of profane authors, it falls considerably short of what can be produced in support of the chief books of the New Testament.

The reason, however, why a more stringent test is applied i to our books is on account of their contents, namely, because the books contain accounts of miracles and what purport to be prophecies. Now, at first sight, it appears unreasonable to allow this consideration to enter when we are discussing the authorship of books. The works of Livy contain ac counts of prodigies which I may perhaps think Livy credulous for believing, yet I am not on that account in the slightest degree inclined to doubt that Livy was the author f of the history which bears his name. Still more does the remark apply to the accounts of miracles which swarm in the writings of the monkish historians. I disbelieve the miracles, but I make no question that the histories which relate those miracles were written by the authors to whom they are ascribed. But here is the pinch of the matter. These miraculous tales to which I refer relate for the most part to events which the narrators represent as having occurred a long time before their own date. When honest and intelligent men relate things of which they have personal knowledge, as a general rule we do not find them telling of anything miraculous. In short, it is only throwing into other words the statement that a miracle is an exception to the ordinary course of nature, to say that an account of a miracle is not likely to occur in true history, and therefore that, if we meet with such an account, it is likely to proceed from persons not truthful or not well informed. So it is a canon of criticism that stories embellished with miraculous ornaments are distant in time from the age in which the scene is laid. Troy may have been really taken; Achilles and Agamemnon may have been real persons; but when we read in the Iliad of gods and goddesses taking part in the battles round the city, this in itself is reason enough to suspect that Homer lived at such a distance from the events which he relates as permitted him to imagine the men of former days to be very different from such as mortals now are, so that things might have happened to them unparalleled in his own experience. On these principles, then, it is contended that our sacred books, from the mere fact of their containing stories of miracles, are shown not to be the work of contemporaries.

If there is one narrative of the New Testament which more than another contains internal proof of having been related by an eye-witness, it is the account of the voyage and ship wreck of St. Paul. I recommend to your attention the very interesting monograph of Mr. Smith, of Jordan Hill, who himself sailed over the entire course, and by a multitude of minute coincidences verified the accuracy of St. Luke's narrative. Yet, because the story tells of miracles performed in the island on which Paul was cast, it has been supposed, without the smallest reason of any other kind, that these things must have been added by a later hand.2

The same things may be said as to the prophecies which our sacred books contain. In judging of an ordinary book there is no more certain canon of criticism than that the book is later than the latest person named in it, or the last event described in it. If we read a book which contained mention of the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel and of the battle of Waterloo, it would take an amazing amount of evidence to convince us that the book was written in the reign of Queen Anne. It is by taking notice of anachronisms of this kind that the spuriousness has been proved of works which had imposed on an uncritical age; as, for example, the Epistles of Phalaris, which were exposed in Bentley's famous essay, or the Decretal Epistles, purporting to be- written by the early Bishops of Rome, on which so much of the fabric of Roman supremacy has been built. Well, the same principles of criticism have been freely applied to our sacred books. Porphyry contended that the prophecy of Daniel must have been written by some one who lived later than Antiochus Epiphanes, who is clearly described in the book: the latter half of Isaiah, it is urged, must be later than Cyrus: the Gospel of St. Luke must be later than the Destruction of Jerusalem, which it describes as to be trodden down of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled, showing, it is said, that the writer not only lived after the siege, but so long after as to have known that Jerusalem remained for a considerable time in a condition of abiding desolation.

Now, I have intimated in what I have said that I am ready, within reasonable limits, to adopt the canons of criticism to which I have referred. But I cannot admit them to be applicable without exception. Miraculous embellishments may be a ground for suspecting that the narrative is not contemporaneous with the events; but if it is asserted that miraculous stones are never told by men contemporary with the things related, that certainly is not true. I have, at different times, read in periodicals accounts of spiritual manifestations which I entirely disbelieve, yet in many cases impute to the narrators no wilful intention to deceive, nor do I doubt that they were, as they profess, actually present at the scenes they describe. The Life of St. Martin of Tours, by his friend Sulpicius Severus, is full of the supernatural. I do not find that any of those who refuse to believe in the miraculous stories attempt to justify their disbelief by maintaining that Sulpicius was not the author of the Life. These are instances of what I reckon as false miracles; but the course of lectures of last year must have been a failure if they did not establish that true miracles, though from the nature of the case not of common occurrence, are still possible. If so, when they actually do occur, the witnesses of them may relate them in true histories. In short, if miracle and prophecy be impossible, there is an end of the whole matter. Your faith is vain, and our teaching is vain.

Now, this principle, namely, the absolute impossibility of miracle, is the basis of the investigations of the school, some of whose results must be examined in this course of lectures, j Two of its leading writers, Strauss and Renan, in their pre faces, make the absolute rejection of the supernatural the foundation of their whole structure. Renan3 (p. lii.) declares that he will accept a miracle as proved only if it is found that it will succeed on repetition, forgetting that in this case it would not be a miracle at all, but a newly-discovered natural law. Strauss,4 equally, in his preface (p. xv) declares it to be his fundamental principle that there was nothing supernatural in the person or work of Jesus. The same thing may be said about a book which made some sensation on its publication a few years ago, Supernatural Religion.5 The extreme captiousness of its criticism found no approval from respectable foreign reviewers, however little they might be entitled to be classed as believers in Revelation. Dates were assigned in it to some of our New Testament books so late as to shock anyone who makes an attempt fairly to judge of evidence. And the reason is, that the author starts with the denial of the supernatural as his fixed principle. If that principle be, in his eyes, once threatened, all ordinary laws of probability must give way. It is necessary at the outset to call your attention to this fundamental principle of our opponents, because it explains their seeming want of candour; why it is that they are so unreasonably rigorous in their demands of proof of the authenticity of our books; why they meet with evasions proofs that seem to be demonstrative. It is because, to their minds, any solution of a difficulty is more probable than one which would concede that a miracle had really occurred.

Now, it has become more and more plain that, if it be granted that our Gospels were written by the persons to whom they are ascribed, two of whom were Apostles, men who had personal knowledge of the things which they relate, and whose whole narrative bears the impress of honesty, then the reality of miracles necessarily follows. No one has proved this more clearly than Strauss. He has conclusively shown that anyone who has determined to begin by asserting the absolute impossibility of miracle cannot come with a perfectly unbiassed mind to investigate the history of our sacred books, because an acceptance of the traditional account of their origin would be absolutely fatal to this first principle. Strauss begins his latest work on the life of Jesus by criticizing the works of his predecessors, who were as disinclined as himself to admit the reality of miracles, and who yet accepted the traditional account of the authorship of the Gospels; and he shows that every one of them failed, and could not help failing, to maintain this inconsistent position. Paulus6 may serve as a specimen of writers of this class. He receives the Gospel narratives as in some sense true; the Evangelists do not intend to deceive; they tell things that really occurred, but through an error of judgment they represent incidents as miraculous which in truth are capable of a natural explanation. For example, according to him, there was nothing miraculous in Christ's feeding of the multitude. But the example of Christ and His Apostles freely distributing their scanty store among the people shamed all the rest into producing and sharing with their neighbours what they had secretly brought each for himself; and so all were filled, and supposed there had been something supernatural in the multiplication of the food. Similarly, Paulus does not deny that our Lord seemed to walk on the water; but, since of course He could not really have done so, he concludes that He walked on the bank of the lake, where, through an optical delusion, his movements conveyed a false impression to the spectators. He so far believes the story of the announcement by an angel of the Saviour's Incarnation as to concede that the Virgin Mary truly told that a stranger had come in to her with this message, who represented himself to be the angel Gabriel; but since this could not possibly be true, we must conclude that the messenger was an impostor. These few specimens are enough to give you an idea of the mass of improbabilities and absurdities which are accumulated in the working out of this scheme, so that we may fairly say that the history, as Paulus tells it, is a more miraculous one than if we take the Gospel narratives in their literal sense. It is unnecessary for me to waste words in exposing these absurdities, because no one has a more lively sense than Strauss himself of the failure of the attempts of his predecessors to write a non-miraculous life of Jesus; and he owns distinctly that, if the historical character of the Gospels be ever con ceded, it will be impossible to eliminate miracle from the life of Christ.7

Strauss's own solution, you no doubt know, was to deny that the Gospels are historical. According to him, they are not written by eye-witnesses of the things related, but are legends put together at a considerable interval of time after the supposed events. How Jesus of Nazareth succeeded in collecting a number of disciples, and in inspiring them with a persuasion, not to be shaken by the unhappy end of his life, that he was the promised Messiah, Strauss very imperfectly explains. But his theory is, that a community of Jewish Christians arose who somehow or another had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and who had all from childhood been brought up in the belief that the Messiah was to have certain distinguishing marks, that he was to be born in Bethlehem, and soforth; that then stories circulated among them purporting to show how Jesus actually did all that according to their notions he ought to have done; and that these stories, being in perfect accordance with their preconceived notions, when once started were readily believed, and in simple faith passed on from one to another, until in process of time they came to be recorded in the Gospels. It is not the business of this Term to expose the weakness of this theory; and, indeed, Strauss himself appears to have become sensible what a difficult task he had set himself when he undertook to deny the truth of the Gospel histories, and yet clear the historians of conscious imposture. Certainly, there is a very perceptible shifting of ground from his original work, published in 1835, in the new popular version brought out for the use of the German people in the year 1864. But common to both is the principle of the absolute rejection of the supernatural; and this I single out because the investigation in which I wish to engage you proceeds on an opposite plan, and therefore will naturally lead to a different result. My investigation aims at being purely historical. It refuses to be dominated by any philosophical or pseudo-philosophical principle. I wish to examine the evidence for the date of the Christian books on the same principles on which I would act if they were ordinary profane histories, without allowing myself to be prejudiced for or against them by a knowledge of their contents, or by fear of consequences which I shall be forced to admit if I own these works to be genuine. For I do not hold our present experience to be the absolute rule and measure of all possibilities future and past; nor do I deem it so incredible that God should reveal Himself to His creatures, as to refuse to listen to all evidence for such a fact when it is offered.



1) This case is discussed in the controversy between Boyle and Bentley about the Epistles of Phalaris.

2) Davidson, for instance, says ( Introduction to the New Testament' II. 134): The description of the voyage and shipwreck of Paul on his way to Rome is minute and accurate, proceeding from an eye-witness, in A few notices here and there betray a later hand, especially those which llj are framed to show the wonder-working power of the Apostle, such as xxviii. 3-5, 8, 9.

Dr. S. Davidson, for some time Professor in the Lancashire Independent College, published an Introduction to the New Testament, in three volumes, 1848-51. In this the main lines of traditional opinion were followed; but his views show a complete alteration in the new Introduction, in two volumes, which he published in 1868. My quotation is from" the second edition of the later book, published in 1882.

3) The first edition of the 'Vie de Jesus par Ernest Renan' was published in 1863. It was followed by six successive volumes, relating the history of the Origines du Christianisme: that is to say, the formation and early history of the Christian Church. The last volume, bringing the history down to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, was published in 1882. The references in these lectures are usually to an 1863 edition of the Life of Jesus, which alone was available when they were written. It has not been necessary for my purpose to examine minutely the modifications introduced into later editions, because the changes in Kenan's views are sufficiently indicated in the later volumes of his series.

4) D. F. Strauss (1808-1874), a pupil of Baur, published, in 1835, his 'Life of Jesus, the mythical theory propounded in which gave rise to much controversy, and stimulated other attempts to disprove the historic credibility of the Gospel narratives. The book had rather fallen into oblivion when, in 1864, Strauss, availing himself of the labours of those who had written in the interval, published a new 'Life of Jesus,' for the German, people. It is to this popular Life that I refer in the text. In 1872, Strauss broke completely with Christianity, in a book called The Old Faith and the New.

5) This book, published, vols. i. and ii. in 1874, vol. iii in 1877 obtained a good deal of notoriety by dint of enormous puffing, great pains having been taken to produce a belief that Bishop Thirlwall was the author. The aspect of the pages, bristling with learned references, strengthened the impression that the author must be a scholar of immense reading. The windbag collapsed when Lightfoot showed that this supposed Bishop Thirlwall did not possess even a schoolboy acquaintance with Greek and Latin, and that his references were in some cases borrowed wholesale, in others did not prove the things for which they were cited, and very often appealed to writers whose opinion is of no value. But what I wish here to remark is, that what really made the book worthless was not its want of scholarship, but its want of candour. An indifferent scholar, if he were industrious and honest, and, I must add, modest enough not to find fault with the translations of better scholars than himself, might compile a book which would only need the removal of some surface errors to be a really valuable contribution to knowledge. But want of candour vitiates a book through and through. There is no profit in examining the conclusions arrived at by a writer who never seems to care on which side lies the balance of historic probability, but only which conclusion will be most disagreeable to the assertors of the supernatural. For myself, I find instruction in studying the results arrived at by an inquirer who strives to be candid, whether he be orthodox or not; but I have little curiosity to find out the exact amount of evidence which would leave a captious objector without a word to say in justification of his refusal to admit it.

Lightfoot's answers to Supernatural Religion appeared in the Contemporary Review, December, 1874; January, February, May, August, October, 1875; February and August, 1876; May, 1877. In addition to their temporary object of refutation, these articles contain so much of permanent value on the criticism of the remains of the second century, that the announcement is welcome that they are at length to be republished.

Supernatural Religion has also been dealt with by Westcott in a Preface to the later editions of his 'New Testament Canon.'

6) Paulus (1761-1851), Professor, first at Jena, afterwards at Heidelberg, published his Commentary on the New Testament, 1800-1804, and his Life of Jesus in 1828.

7) 'Sind die Evangelien wirklich geschichtliche Urkunden, so ist das Wunder aus der Lebensgeschichte Jesu nicht zu entfernen. Leben Jesu, p. 17.