By Richard Watson
THE CREDIBILITY OF THE TESTIMONY OF THE SACRED WRITERS.
THE proofs of the existence and actions of Moses and Christ, the founders of the Jewish and Christian religions, having been adduced, with those of the antiquity and uncorrupted preservation of the records which profess to contain the facts of their history, and the doctrines they taught, the only question to be determined before we examine those miracles and prophecies on which the claim of time Divine authority of their mission rests, is, whether these records faithfully record the trans actions of which they give us information, and on which the Divinity of both systems, the Jewish and the Christian, is built. To deny this because we object to the doctrines taught, is equally illogical and perverse, as it is assuming the doctrine to be false before we have considered all the evidence which may be adduced jam its favour; to deny it because we have already determined to reject the miracles, is equally absurd and imious. It has already been proved, that miracles are possible; and whether the transactions related as Such in the Scriptures be really. miraculous or Hot, is a subsequent inquiry to that which respects the faithful recording of them. If the evidence of this is insufficient, the examination of the miracles is unnecessary; if it is strong and convincing, that examination is a subject of very serious import.
We might safely rest the faithfulness of the Scriptural record upon the argument of Leslie, before adduced; but, from time superabundance of evidence which the case furnishes, some amplifications may be added, which we shall confine principally to the authors of the New Testament.
There are four circumstances which never fail to give credibility to a witness, whether he depose to any thing orally or jam writing :-
1. That he is a person of virtuous and sober character.
2. That he was in circumstances certainly to know the truth of whom he relates.
3. That he has no interest in making good the story.
4. That his account is circumstantial.
In the highest degree these guarantees of faithful and exact testimony meet in the evangelists and apostles.
That they were persons of strict and exemplary virtue, must by all candid persons be acknowledged; so much so, that nothing to the contrary was ever urged against the integrity of their conduct by the most malicious enemies of Christianity. Avarice and interest could not sway them, for they voluntarily abandoned all their temporal connections, and embarked in a cause which the world regarded, to the last degree, as wretched and deplorable. Of their sincerity they gave the utmost proof in the openness of their testimony, never affecting reserve, or shunning inquiry. They delivered their testimony before kings and princes, priests and magistrates, in Jerusalem and Judea, where their Master lived and died, and jam the most populous, inquisitive, and learned parts of the world, submitting its evidences to a fair and impartial examination.
"Their minds were so penetrated with a conviction of the truth of the Gospel, that they esteemed it their distinguished honour and privilege to seal their attestation to it by their sufferings, and blessed God that they were accounted worthy to suffer reproach and shame for their profession. Passing through honour and dishonour, through evil report and good report, as deceivers and yet true. Never dejected, never intimidated by any sorrows and sufferings they supported; but when stoned, imprisoned, and persecuted in one city, flying to another, and there preaching the Gospel with intrepid boldness and heaven inspired zeal. Patient in tribulation, fervent in spirit, rejoicing under persecution, calm and composed under calumny and reproach, praying for their enemies, when in dungeons cheering the silent hours of night with hymns of praise to God. Meeting death itself in the most dreadful forms with which persecuting rage could dress it, with a serenity and exultation the Stoic philosophy never knew. In all these public scenes showing to the world a heart infinitely above what men vulgarly style great and happy, infinitely remote from ambition, the lust of gold, and a passion for popular applause, working with their own hands to raise a scanty subsistence for themselves that they might not be burdensome to the societies they had formed, holding up to all with whom they conversed, in the bright faithful mirror of their own behaviour, the amiableness and excellency of the religion they taught, and in every scene and circumstance of life distinguished for their devotion to God, their unconquered love for mankind, their sacred regard for truth, their self government, moderation, humanity, sincerity, and every Divine, social, and moral virtue that can adorn and exalt a character. Nor are there any features of enthusiasm in the writings they have left us. We meet with no frantic fervours indulged, no monkish abstraction from the world recommended, and ma.ceration of the body countenanced, no unnatural institutions established, no vain flights of fancy cherished, no absurd and irrational doctrines taught, no disobedience to any forms of human government encouraged, but all civil establishments and social connections suffered to remain in the same state they were before Christianity. So far were the apostles from being enthusiasts, and instigated by a wild undiscerning religious phrenzy to rush into the jaws of death, when they might have honourably amid lawfully escaped it, that we find them, when they could, without wounding their consciences, legally extricate themselves from persecution and death, pleading their privileges as Roman citizens, and appealing to Cesar's supreme jurisdiction." (Harwood's Introduction to the New Testament.)
As it was contrary to their character to attempt to deceive others. so they could not be deceived themselves. They could not mistake in the case of feeding of the five thousand, and the sudden healing of lepers, and lame and blind persons; they could not but know, whether he with whom they conversed for forty days was the same Jesus, as he with whom they had daily and familiar intercourse long before his crucifixion. They could not mistake as to his ascension into heaven; as to the fact whether they themselves were suddenly endowed with the power of speaking in languages which they had never acquired; and whether they were able to work miracles, and to impart the same power to others.
They were not only disinterested in their testimony; but their irne rests were on the side of concealment. One of the evangelists, Matthew, occupied a lucrative situation when called by Jesus, and was evidently an opulent man; the fishermen of Galilee were at least in circumstances of comfort, and never had any worldly inducement held out to them by their Master; Nicodemus was a ruler among the Jews; Joseph of Arimathea "a rich man ;" and St. Paul, both from his education, connections, and talents, had encouraging prospects in life: but of himself, and of his fellow labourers, he speaks, and describes all the earthly rewards they obtained for testifying both to Jews and Greeks that Jesus was the Christ,-" Even unto this present hour we both hunger and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place; we are made as the filth of the world, and are the off scouring of all things unto this day." Finally, they sealed their testimony in many instances with their blood, a circumstance of which they had been forewarned by their Master, and in the daily expectation of which they lived. From this the conclusion of Dr. Paley is irresistible, "These men could not be deceivers. By only not bearing testimony they might have avoided all their sufferings, and have lived quietly. Would men in such circumstances pretend to have seen what they never saw assert facts of which they had no knowledge; go about lying, to teach virtue; and though not only convinced of Christ's being an impostor, hut having seen the success of his imposture in his crucifixion, yet persist in carrying it on, and so persist as to bring upon themselves, for nothing and with a full knowledge of the consequence, enmity and hatred, danger and death 7"
To complete the character of their testimony, it is in the highest degree circumstantial. We never find that forged or false accounts of things abound in particularities; and where many particulars are related of time, place, persons &c, there is always a strong presumption of truth, arid on the contrary. Here the evidence is more than presumptive. The history of the evangelists and of the Acts of the Apostles is so ful of reference to persons then living, and often persons of consequence, to places in which miracles and other transactions took place publicly and not in secret; and the application of all these facts by the first propagators of the Christian religion to give credit to its Divine authority was so frequent and explicit, and often so reproving to their opposers, that if they had not been true they must have been contradicted; and if contradicted on good evidence, the authors must have been overwhelmed with confusion. This argument is rendered the stronger when it is considered that "these things were not done in a corner," nor was the age dark and illiterate and prone to admit fables. The Augustan age was the most learned the world ever saw. The love of arts, sciences, and literature, was the universal passion in almost every part of the Roman empire, where Christianity was first taught in its doctrines, and proclaimed in its facts; and in this inquisitive and discerning era, it rose, flourished, and established itself, with much resistance to its doctrines, but without being once questioned as to the truth of its historical facts.
Yet how easily might they have been disproved had they been false- that Herod the Great was not the sovereign of Judea when our Lord was born-that wise men from the east did not come to be informed of the place of his birth-and that Herod did not convene the Sanhedrin, to inquire where their expected Messiah was to be born-that the infants in Bethlehem were not massacred-that in the time of Augustus all Judea was not enrolled by an imperial edict-that Simeon did not take the infant in his arms and proclaim him to be the expected salvation of Israel, which is stated to have been done publicly in the temple, before all the people-that the numerous persons, many of whose names are mentioned, and some the relatives of rulers and centurions, were not miraculously healed nor raised from the dead-that the resurrection of Lazarus, stated to have been done publicly, near to Jerusalem, and himself a respectable person, well known, did not occur-that the circumstances of the trial, condemnation, and crucifixion of Christ, did not take place as stated by his disciples; in particular, that Pilate did not wash his hands before them and give his testimony to the character of our Lord; that there was no preternatural darkness from twelve to three in the afternoon on the day of the crucifixion; and that there was no earthquake; facts which if they did not occur could have been contradicted by thousands: finally, that these well-known unlettered men, the apostles, were not heard to speak with tongues by many who were present in the assembly in which this was said to take place. But we might select almost all the circumstances out of the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, and show, that for the most part they were capable of being contradicted at the time when they were first published, and that the immense number of circumstances mentioned would in aftertimes have furnished acute investigators of the history with the means of detecting its falsehood had it not been indubitable, either by comparing the different relations with each other, or with some well authenticated facts of accredited collateral history. On the contrary, the small variations in the story of the evangelists are confirmations of their testimony, being in proof that there was no concert among them to impose upon the world, and they do not affect in the least the facts of the history itself; while as far as collateral, or immediately subsequent history ha.; given its evidence, we have already seen, that it is confirmatory of the exactness and accuracy of the sacred penmen.
For all these reasons, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are to be taken as a faithful and uncorrupted record of the transactions they exhibit; and nothing now appears to be necessary, but that this record be examined in order to determine its claims to be admitted as the deposit of the standing revelations of the will of God to mankind. The evidence of the genuineness and authenticity of the books of which it is composed, at least such of them as is necessary to the argument, is full and complete; and if certain of the facts which they detail are proved to he really miraculous, and the prophecies they record are in the proper sense predictive, then, according to the principles before established, the conclusion must be, THAT THE DOCTRINES WHICH THEY ATTEST ARE DIVINE. This shall be the next subject examined; minor objections being postponed to be answered in a subsequent chapter.