THE FAITH AND RITES OF THE PRIMITIVE CHURCH ARE
CONFIRMED BY INDUBITABLE CHRISTIAN, AND BY
IMPORTANT NON-CHRISTIAN EVIDENCE.
Whom do men say that I the Son of Man am? And they said:
Some say that Thou art John the Baptist; some Elijah,
and others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. He saith
unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter
answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son
of the living God. Matthew 16:13-16.
IT cannot be regarded as a real digression from the line of our argument if, before proceeding, we guard ourselves against a preliminary objection, since, if it were established, our whole reasoning would be disposed of. Hitherto we have contended that the New Testament in its origin looks back upon the Old; that the one all-pervading idea of the Old Testament is, that of the Kingdom of God through the Messiah; and that the Apostles and primitive disciples saw the realisation of it in the mission, the history, and the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. But what if this point were called in question, and there be no real ground for believing that the views which we impute to them were held by the primitive Christians? And the inquiry into the primitive belief of the Church gains in importance as we remember that the primitive records in the Gospels have been assailed on many sides: their date and authorship have been disputed; they have been described as partly spurious, partly interpolated; as exaggerated, or else coloured by prevailing superstitions; and as designed to foist later ideas upon primitive teaching, and to bring professedly apostolic authority to bear on existing controversies. Besides, what evidence is there outside the four Gospels (or some allusions in the Epistles)all of them being in the nature of interested witnessesthat these supposed facts really formed the data on which primitive Christian belief rested? It is evident that these questions concern the very existence of the citadel to which we have been seeking to trace the avenues.
Some of the points just mentioned lie, indeed, outside our present inquiry. Our argument only requires us to make sure of the primitive belief of the Church in the facts recorded in the Gospels, and on which the conviction was grounded that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy. It does not require us to establish that this belief was well founded, nor yet that the facts themselves on which it rested were absolutely and literally true. We have at present to deal with the authenticity of the Gospel-records only as expressive of the primitive faith, not with the grounds on which that faith rested. The latter inquiry is, indeed, of the deepest importance, nor would we shrink from making it were this the right place for it.1
But our present business is only to show that the primitive disciples believed certain facts (whether true or false), on the ground of which they regarded Jesus as the Messiah. Nor is it even necessary for our argument to prove that all that is recorded in the four Gospels represents the primitive tradition and belief of the Church. This also is a most important question, but it forms not the subject of our present inquiry. For our purpose it is enough if sufficient is established on which to ground the conviction that Jesus was the Messiah: sufficient that looked back into the past of Old Testament prophecy, and forward into the future of New Testament history.
1. Perhaps I may be allowed to say that this is a task which I have in view, in another book.
But even in this narrowed aspect of the question an affirmative answer will advance us a long way. It will establish the historic continuity of the New with the Old Testament; it will make quite clear what the primitive Christians did certainly believe about the Christ, why they regarded Jesus as the Messiah, and how far their primary belief led them. And more than this, and beyond the scope of our present argument, it will afford presumptive evidence of the reality of the facts on which primitive belief rested. For, if it were proved by the general consensus of primitive tradition that certain facts concerning Jesus were universally held to have occurred, and that certain doctrines were founded on them as inferences from these facts, and certain rites introduced as memorials of themor, conversely, if certain doctrines or rites can be historically established as primitive which look back upon certain Gospel facts as their necessary basisthen we have such presumptive evidence in their favour that it will be requisite for negative criticism not only historically to prove their incorrectness, but also historically to account for this general consensus of belief regarding them in the primitive Church, and for the origin of the doctrines and rites which were their outcome.
And here, as already stated, we are not limited to the mere historical record of these facts in the Gospels or Epistles. We have other, and quite as strong, evidence that they formed part of the primitive faith of the Church in the doctrines and rites which demonstrably looked back upon them. If we can prove from undoubted and even non-Christian testimony that certain doctrines were held and certain rites practised, which necessarily refer to certain facts recorded in the Gospel-history, we have pro tanto confirmation of the reception of these factsthat is, that they formed part of the primitive belief of the Church. We have thus two lines of evidence: that from the unquestioned record of primitive tradition in the Christian writings, and that from the unquestionable evidence of the existence of certain doctrines and practices in the primitive Church. The one will rest on Christian, the other on non-Christian documents; and as regards the latter, it may be found sometimes to stretch beyond the evidence of doctrines and rites to that of some of the facts recorded in the Gospels.
If in the view of some we needlessly narrow the evidence in favour of primitive doctrines and rites by confining it to non-Christian (Jewish and heathen) testimony, there is in the present argument good ground for so doing. It is, indeed, not likely that those possessing at once sufficient information on the subject and calmness of judgment would regard the picture of the primitive Church, or rather of the two fundamentally dissimilar Churches, which M. Renan has painted in his 'Conferences d'Angleterre,'2
as a portraiture of the original state of matters; still less, that they would accept his views as to the 'posthumous' conciliation of what he calls the Church of St. Peter with that of St. Paulthe Church of Rome with that of Jerusalemand of their union, which the 'Book of Acts' is supposed, by a pious fraud, to represent as accomplished from the first. The historical assumptions are here too evident, the facts on the other side too numerous, and the explanatory hypothesis is too ingenious, to allow ourselves to be carried away by the brilliant diction and the epigrammatic generalisations of the eloquent Frenchman. It would require far more than this to lead us to attribute to the simple-mindedness of the early Christians such an act of haute politique in what to them was matter of deepest spiritual conviction; or to ascribe to them deliberate fraud in that for which they were ready to pour forth their life's blood. And the more you accentuateas is the wont of that schoolthe supposed fundamental differences between Petrine and Pauline teaching; the more you insist on the intensity with which each party clung to its principles, the less likely does a 'reconciliation,' such as that described, appear. Not a peaceful fusion that covered the differences, but a life-and-death struggle, would be the likely result with such combatants. But while the line of defence is on all sides good, yet there is such difference of views and such contention about the apostolic, and, on many points, such unclearness about many things in the post-apostolic, Church, that we willingly forego in our present argument all reference to either, so as to avoid what after all would be a needless complication. We shall, therefore, not go beyond the period of the Gospels; and appeal for the rest to non-Christian evidence, in proof that the main facts, on which the conviction rested that Jesus was the Old Testament Messiah, formed part of the primitive belief of the Church.
2. See especially the second and third 'Conference,' and notably pp. 134, etc. I may be allowed here to quote a sentence from a well-known Jewish writer which seems to me apposite: 'It is certainly no exaggeration if I say that from one aspect I prefer the orthodox representation of the origins of Christianity to that of Renan' (Joel, Bl. in d. Relig.-Gesch. 2 p. 9). He then proceeds to show the self-contradictory character of some of Renan's views.
In other respects, also, it is equally interesting and important to draw the line of distinction between Evangelic and Apostolic times, and between Evangelic and Apostolic literaturethe latter including 'the Book of Acts.' The doctrine (διδαχη) which is the outcome of the one we may designate as the faith and rites of the primitive Christians; that of the other, as the dogmas and practices of the Apostolic Church. In regard to the latter, we may say that the one grand principle underlying all is that of Apostolicity. I hasten to add that I use the term, not in the sense which in recent theological discussions has been attached to it, but in what is its real meaningChristsentness. In this sense, apostolicity has a twofold application: as apostolicity of office and apostolicity of teaching. Whatever diversity of gifts or of administration may have existed or been tolerated, above them all was apostolicity of office, which St. Paul, as well as St. Peter, St. John, and St. James, energetically vindicated for themselves against all gainsayers. Whatever was not apostolic or apostolically sanctioned was to be repudiated. And by the side of this supremacy of the apostolic office we have that of apostolic teaching. Whatever differences in views or practices may have been toleratedand there is evidence of the most wide-hearted liberality in both respectsyet, what of doctrine or practice was apostolic must be absolutely received, while the opposite was absolutely banned. Evidently, we have already passed, or at least are passing, out of the formative into the historic period. The age of historic memorial has already begun, when appeal is made to the teaching and the practice of Apostles, apostolic men, and apostolic Churches. Not so during the first or formative period of the Church. Then the teaching was directly that of Christ, and the rites and practices were simply the outcome of that teaching. And this also is distinctive. Under the Old Testament, doctrine was in great measure the outcome of rites; under the New, rites are the outcome of doctrine. The relation is in accordance with the character of each: in the one case, from without inwards; in the other, from within outwards. The application of these principles is wide-reaching, and, as will appear in the sequel, closely bears on our present argument.
To the Christian heart it must at all times be most painful to follow in detail the criticism of the Gospels as made by the more advanced negative school. Quite irrespective of the valid answer which, we are fully convinced, can, on scientific grounds, be given to their objections, and the good defence which can be made of the positions taken up by the Church, there are preliminary considerations which will, with good reason, weigh with thoughtful persons more heavily than merely logical arguments and ingenious hypotheses. The school in question proceeds in its criticism of the Gospels on the avowed principle, that where they do not preserve the original tradition, they interpolate or intentionally falsify for a definite purposethat purpose bearing mainly on the supposed two hostile tendencies in the Church of Judaic and Gentile Christianity, the supposed object being to advocate either the one or the other tendency, or else to conciliate them. To adopt the expressive term of German critics: where our present Gospels deviate from the original traditions, they are mainly Tendenz-Schriftenz (tendency writings). But, to my thinking, it seems inconceivable, from the intellectual, and still more from the moral point of view, that the early Christiansand, indeed, it must have been the leading men among themshould have deliberately falsified facts and invented incidents, and that in connection with the Personality of Jesus, Who to them was the all in all. That the writers of our Gospels should have so altered the original traditions and documents (which, according to our opponents, they elaborated into their works), seems, to say the least, intellectually highly improbable, and morally absolutely incredible. That they who so thought of the Christ should, for ecclesiastical purposes, or to bring about a 'conciliation'which in itself seems psychologically and historically an unlikely undertakinghave falsified and invented, constitutes the very climax of improbabilities. They may have been misinformed; they may have been mistaken; they may have viewed things from the standpoint of their time; they may have exaggerated: all this is conceivable, though historical proof would be required for itbut to associate with them 'Tendency-Literature' seems morally impossible.3
3. The argument is in no way affected by the undoubted existence of religious interpolations in early writings, and the introduction of spurious ones, or other 'pious frauds.' For neither was this done by Apostolic men, nor yet did they set forth foundation-facts or truths which were universally and unquestioningly received, nor yet were their authors prepared to stake their lives on the veracity of their accounts. But the main element is the moralthat Spirit of Truth sent by the Father into the hearts of the Apostles to lead them into all truth.
But our argument is not merely ą priori. We have quite a series of witnesses who give incidental confirmation to much in the Gospels. St. Paul, who became a Christian some years after the Crucifixion, must have been acquainted with the traditions and views about Jesus current among those early believers whom he had persecuted. And there is evidence throughout his writings, that after his conversion he had taken pains further to acquaint himself with the historical grounds, that is, with the facts in Christ's history, on which the belief of the Church rested. Indeed this must have been a primary necessity to a nature so logical as his, and to one who had to advocate among Greeks and philosophers a doctrine so inherently unlikely as the Divine Mission, the atoning Death, and the Resurrection of Christ. And his teachingeven limiting ourselves to those epistles which the most severe negative criticism admits as genuine,4
is in every point grounded upon the data of the Gospels, and hence pro tanto a confirmation of them. Besides, the bases of his doctrinal system also rest on the teaching of Jesus, as we gather its spirit from the reports in the Gospels. We remind ourselves here of such teaching as concerning the valuelessness of mere outward observances; concerning the Law as presented by the Leaders of Israel; concerning the opening of the Kingdom of God to the Gentile world; concerning the insufficiency and inefficacy of outward distinctions and advantages; concerning the rule of the Spirit within the heart, and His transformation of our nature; concerning the need of absolute self-surrender to God, like that of Christ; concerning the character and purpose of Christ's Death; His institution of the Last Supper; His Resurrection, and His coming again. All this, and more that could be mentioned, carries with it a train of obvious sequences evidential of the historical character of the Gospels.
4. According to Wittichen (u.s. p. 14) these are, Romans (with the exception of the greater part of the two last chapters), Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, parts of Colossians and of 2 Timothy, Philemon, and Phillipians.
But even this is not all. The reference of St. Paul to the Twelve Apostles, (1 Cor 15:5) and to the 'brethren of the Lord,' are not the only direct references to incidents in the Gospel narrative. Even on the admission of negative critics, we have in the undoubted Pauline epistles direct verbal references to passages in the Gospels. Thus, St. Matthew 5:39, &c., is the basis of Romans 12:17, 21; we are reminded of St. Matthew 13:33 in Galatians 5:9; of St. Matthew 22:40 in Galatians 5:14; of St. Mark 11:23 by 1 Corinthians 13:2; of St. Mark 13:26 by 1 Thessalonians 4:17; of St. Luke 6:27, &c., by 1 Corinthians 4:12, &c.; comp. Romans 12:14; and of St. Luke 12:40 in 1 Thessalonians 5:2.5
These verbal as well as real coincidences are of the most important evidential bearing on the Gospel narratives. And to these might be added similar references in the other epistles of St. Paul, which have not been here adduced, because their authenticity has been questioned by certain critics, our present object being to present only such evidence as is undisputed. Suffice it to state that references to St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke have been traced in the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians.6
5. I have taken (and re-arranged) these references from Wittichen (u.s., p. 50), whom, in general, I have followed in his argument, and that the more readily because he represents the very extreme of negative criticism. I have thus sought to support my argument on grounds taken from our most pronounced opponents, and based it on their admissions.
6. Holtzmann, Kritik d. Eph. u. Col. brief, pp. 248-250. Most of the instances there mentioned are certainly very striking, although a few seem strained.
Similar references to the Synoptic Gospelsto which we here confine ourselvesoccur in other apostolic writings, notably in the Epistle of St. James and the Book of Revelation. In the former class we mention the following: St. Matthew 5:3 as compared with St. James 1:9; St. Matthew 5:7 with St. James 2:13; St. Matthew 5:9 with St. James 3:18; St. Matthew 5:12 with St. James 1:2, and also 5:10; St. Matthew 5:34-37 with St. James 5:12; St. Matthew 6:19 with St. James 5:2; St. Matthew 7:24-27 with St. James 1:22;7
St. Matthew 12:7 with St. James 2:13; St. Matthew 21:21, 22 with St. James 1:6; St. Matthew 22:39 with St. James 2:8; and St. Matthew 23:12 with St. James 4:6, 10.8
7. These references to the Sermon on the Mount are peculiarly interesting.
8. Wittichen, u.s. p. 54. For other instances, see Canon Westcott, Introduction to the Study of the Gospels, p. 174, Note 2. In general comp. ib. pp. 173-179.
The references in the 'Book of Revelation' are not confined to the Gospel according to St. Matthew, but extend to the other two Synoptists. Thus, we have reference to St. Matthew 10:32 in Revelation 3:5; to St. Matthew 11:15, and to 13:9 and 43 in Revelation 2:7; to St. Mark 13:22 in Revelation 13:13, 14; to St. Mark 13:24, &c., in Revelation 6:12; to St. Luke 12:36-38 in Revelation 3:20; to St. Luke 12:39, 40 in Revelation 3:3, and Revelation 16:15; and to St. Luke 23:30 in Revelation 6:16.9
9. Wittichen, u.s.
But all this presents only a small part of the evidence at our disposal. We can appeal to the simplicity, vividness, and naturalness of so many of the Gospel narratives; to their psychological truthfulness, their internal connection and reference one to another; to the utter impossibility of accounting for them by notions or expectations prevailing at the time; to the agreement between the narratives in the different Gospels; to the accordance of the persons and surroundings with what we know of the history and the manners of the time, and to many little traits which can scarcely be described, but to which the student of history is sensitive, all bearing their witness to the Gospels. And beyond it all stands out the Figure of the historical Christ, as He was in the days of His Flesh, and as He is to all time and now: Himself the best evidence of the Gospel narratives.
And when from this we descend to the position which even negative criticism concedes to us, we remember that, according to its admissions, the earliest document, or documents, in which primitive tradition found expression dates from less than thirty years after the Crucifixion, and was derived from eyewitnesses of these events and disciples of Jesus.10
And we feel that this canon of our opponents has a far wider application than they give it: that 'doubt is only warrantable where scientific reasons can be asserted for it.' Further, when we examine what, with frequent forgetfulness of their own canon, the most advanced of that school have selected out of our Gospels as the original narrative,11
10. Wittichen, p. 47.
we perceive that, while much more might be inferred from their own admissions, they have left us quite sufficient to establish the grounds on which the primitive Church recognised Jesus as the Messiah promised in the Old Testament.
11. I refer here especially to the detailed compilation which Wittichen has made, while at the same time I would use the strongest expressions in my power to indicate my absolute disagreement with the conclusions at which this critic has arrived.
2. From this we turn to a far different class of evidence: that from the testimony of avowed enemies. We cannot, indeed, expect that either Jews or Romans would furnish us with details about Christian doctrine, unless, in the case of the former, for controversial purposes. But to a certain extent they bear testimony as to facts and practices, and if their witness bears out what we find in the New Testament, this may surely be regarded as giving important support to the fuller account of such persons, practices, or doctrines in the New Testament itself. We can only in the briefest manner follow this line of evidence.
A. The Talmudthough containing very early, even pre-Christian notices, is, as a whole, of much later date than the New Testament. Moreover, its statements are utterly unhistorical, and it is charged with bitter enmity to the new faith. Accordingly we cannot look for any positive testimony in its pages. But there are important admissions, ascribed to Rabbis belonging to the Apostolic or Early Post-Apostolic age, which are at least negatively of great evidential value. Thus miracles on the part of Jesus seem to be admitted, and they are not accounted for either by delusion or imposture. However accounted for, we find the belief in the miraculous power of Jesus confirmed. Indeed, miraculous cures are also attributed to the disciples of Christ, and the strict prohibition to avail one's self of them, even if life itself were in danger, only affords additional evidence of the general credence of them. Again, we have undoubted reference to early Christian writings. Whether allowed or forbidden to be saved from the fireand there were voices on either sidethese writings had evidently been intended for the reading of Jews, and must therefore have been written in the Aramęan. Nor can we be mistaken in supposing that they were either documents treating of the history and claims of Christ, or at any rate connected with the original primitive Christian documents. A distinct quotation, or rather misquotation, of St. Matthew 5:17 occurs in Shabbath 116b, as from the 'Evangilyon'which in the word-play not uncommon in Talmudic writings is styled the Aven or else Avan Gilyon, 'mischief of blank (empty) paper' (עון גליון, or else און).
This testimony reaches up into the first century, and it is comparatively unimportant for our argument whether the quotation was from St. Matthew or from a document earlier or later than our Gospel.13
12. Shabbath 116b. The quotation appears in a curious connection:A Christian philosopher (judge) under the influence of bribery first arguing 'since your dispersion from your land the Law of Moses has been taken away and another law given,' and then next day, having received a larger bribe on the other side, reversing his decision and saying that in the passage at the end of [following in] the book (the Gospel) he saw it was written, 'I have come not to diminish from the Law of Moses, nor yet have I come to add to the Law of Moses.' Professor Delitzsch, Anlag. d. ersten Evang. p. 22, seems to adopt the reading אלא לאוספי instead of ולא, which would alter the meaning to 'but to add to the Law of Moses have I come.'
Similar remarks apply to what we regard as a reference to the Gospel of St. John on the part of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrqanos.14
13. See, in general, the brochure of Professor Delitzsch just quoted, which has much of interest on these points.
In both cases we haveto take the lowest standpointconfirmation, that what we read in the Gospels as the teaching and mission of Christ formed part of the primitive belief of the Church. And we feel that in so far they also afford confirmation of the Gospels themselves.
14. I must here refer the reader to the quotations and the discussion of the point in my Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (note at end of file), vol. 2. pp. 193, 194.
The whole subject is so interesting and novelat any rate to English readersthat we may be allowed to present it, at least in outline, following, so far as may be, the arguments and admissions of Jewish writers,15
in order to avoid controversy.
15. I refer here to Joel, Blicke in d. Relig. Gesch, 1 and 2, but especially to Friedlander, Patrist. u. Talmud. Stud., whose reasoning I have tried to follow. I may here be allowed specially to refer to a statement by Joel, u.s. p. 58, of some interest as regards the criticism of the Synoptic Gospels, although tinged with that spirit of hypercriticism which characterises so many writers of that school. Joel maintains that the Talmud derived its knowledge of the origins of Christianity from such parts of Evangelic tradition as had reached it, and from what had been witnessed in the second century. He regards Sanh. 11.4, and Tos. Sanh. 11.7, which enacted that one who had incited to apostacy was to be brought before the great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, kept there till one of the great feasts, and executed on the Feast-day, as an ex post facto Halachah, due to this that Rabbi Akiba had known from the synoptic tradition that Christ had been crucified on the Passover Day, and that he had wished to give the Law for it. This seems to me very doubtful (comp. Siphre on Deut 21:22). Still more so is the explanation thatwhat he regards as a younger MishnahSanh. 4.1, which orders that a process involving life or death was not to be begun on the eve of a Sabbath or of a feast day, was brought in, because the fourth Gospel places (according to Joel) the death of Christ on the day before the feast. This is quite too ingeniousbesides being wholly unsupported. But even if the theory of the origin of those Mishnahs were correct, Sanh. 4.1. might as readily be ascribed to the desire of controverting the Evangelical tradition about the death of Christ, as to any regard for the supposed chronology of the fourth Gospel.
It is the contention of certain Jewish writers that at first there was not the same separation between the Synagogue and the primitive disciples as at a later period, and that such would not have ensued had it not been for the Pauline direction and the Anti-Jewish Gentile movement which was its sequence. We mark the concessions which this implies, while we emphatically deny that what is called the 'Pauline direction' is correctly represented in them. And we recall the account in the Book of Acts of the bitter hostility to the infant Church, and the consequent persecutions, which preceded the so-called 'Pauline direction,' and in which, indeed, Saul of Tarsus was himself a principal agent. But we also know that this enmity actually preceded the Death of Christ, and was the cause of it. And as regards the teaching of St. Paul, we are prepared to maintain that, throughout, it had its root and spring in the teaching of the Master concerning traditionalism and Pharisaism. But this in their contention is certainly true, that at first there was much more close religious intercourse between Jews and Christians. Nay, to quote the words of a recent Jewish writer: 'It cannot be denied that the movement which originated within Judaism, and attached itself to the Name of Jesus, drew for a short time also many of the Teachers of the Law into the vortex' (Friedlander).
As a further fact against the Jewish assertion, that Judaism stood in close peaceful relation to the primitive Church, we must here take note of their own admission, that Gentile and Jewish Christian controversialists received far different treatment at the hands of the Synagogue. The former were treated with a kind of benevolent pity; the latter provoked the bitterest hostility,16
to such extent that the people were warned against all intercourse with those who were regarded as blasphemers.17
16. Friedlander, u.s. pp. 62, 67, 68.
At the same time we mark differences in the statements of the Rabbis concerning such intercourse, and this, not only on the part of different teachers, but even of the same teachers, apparently on different occasions. In general, the principle prevailed that no intercourse of any kind should be held with those heretics; and that even the preservation of life might not be sought by their healing.18
17. So even Tryphon in Justin's Dial., c. 38.
Sacred as the occurrence of the Divine Name was to the Jew, the Rabbis would have deemed it duty to burn the Gospels and similar heretical books, even though containing the hallowed mention; nay, they would rather have fled into a heathen temple for protection from a murderer or a serpent, than taken refuge among Christians.19
18. Abodah Zarah, 27b.
19. Shabbath, 116a.
In other circumstances, however, opinions would appear changed. At the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century, when Christianity had already become a power, we find that the celebrated Rabbi Abbahu not only called in Christian medical aid, though his colleagues happily averted his purpose, which the Talmud declares would have led to his being killed; but that, when asked whether the writings of the heretics might on the Sabbath be saved from the fire, he replied sometimes affirmatively, at others negatively. But then this Rabbi Abbahu was a sort of ideal personage: handsome, liberal, who favoured Grecian culture, lived at Cęsarea, and was in favour with the Roman authorities. While the Jewish Patriarchate had sunk very low under Gamaliel IV, Abbahu was a sage among sages, and, what was most meritorious, he knew how to inflict the most crushing defeats upon the Nazarenes.20
No wonder that, according to Talmudic story, the Christians would fain have done away with hima fate which, as we have seen, was only averted by the timely intervention of his colleagues.
20. Abodah Zarah, 28a.
To be sure, they must have been very peculiar controversialists those Christians, if we are to credit the Talmudic accounts of their ratiocination. But, although neither the Christian philosopher nor yet the Jew Tryphon in Justin's 'Dialogue' seems powerful in argument, it is scarcely possible to conceive that statements so utterly puerile as the Talmudists report should have been urged in serious controversy. No wonder the Midrash applied to them the opening words of Ecclesiastes 1:8, declaring these arguments wearisome, wearing;21
nor yet, that when the colleagues of another noted Rabbinic controversialist, Joshua ben Chananyah,22
21. Qobel. R. ed. Warsh, p. 80a.
mourned, as he lay dying, that now there would not be any to resist the daring of the Christians, the dying teacher should have comforted them by saying, that if their council had perished, the wisdom of their opponents had become rotten.23
22. Comp. on this point also Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (note at end of file), vol. 2. pp. 194.
But the Midrash on Ecclesiastes 1:8 tells us many things which seem to indicate that the words of these heretics must have been more weighty than the arguments reported by the Rabbis. Thus, we find the great Eliezer ben Hyrqanos24
23. Chag. 5b.
was so gravely suspected as to be actually arraigned before the civil magistrate on the charge of Christianity, from which accusation he only escaped by a misunderstanding on the part of the magistrate.25
24. Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (note at end of file), vol. 2. pp. 193, 194.
In truth he made certain important admissions in regard to it. Thus, when his disciples in vain endeavoured to comfort him in his deep sorrow, the Great Rabbi Akiba at last suggested, that Eliezer might on some occasion have listened with pleasure to an exposition by the heretics. The Talmud relates this interpretation, which will scarcely bear repetition. But in view of what we have recorded in another place concerning Eliezer, and what we regard as his references to St. John's Gospel, we may be allowed to doubt whether it represents the whole that had passed. We can scarcely suppose an Eliezer affected by discussions, concerning many of which the Rabbinic students could question their teacher in such terms as these, that he had driven back his opponents with a straw, but what had he to say to them?26
25. Abodah Zarah, 16b. The words of Eliezer which gave rise to the misunderstanding have been differently rendered by Jewish scholars. Comp. Toettermann, Eliez. b. Hirc. p. 21.
And in truth the remark of these disciples as to the insufficiency of such replies seems well founded, and, at least on the occasion here referred to, the Christian argument must have turned on the most important points.27
26. Ber. R. 8, ed. Warsh. p. 18a; Comp. Sanh. 38b.
27. It seems, in fact, to have been a Scriptural discussion on the Plurality of Persons in the Divine Being.
Eliezer was the brother-in-law of Gamaliel II, and flourished in the first century. He may have been acquainted with Saul of Tarsus. His citation before the magistrate for suspected Christianity took place during the Trajan persecution. This brings us to the period of Pliny, whom we shall presently adduce as a witness in our favour. It thus connects, in a most interesting manner, the story of the Jewish Rabbi with the evidence of the heathen governor. Meanwhile, I can only express my personal belief that the excommunication which the Rabbis laid upon Eliezer, and their opposition to his teaching, must have been due to far weightier causes than such differences of teaching as are recorded, and which were never otherwise visited with such punishment.28
But Rabbi Eliezer was not the only great teacher affected by the Christian movement, nor yet Rabbis Abbahu and Joshua ben Chananyah the only Jewish controversialists. Rabbi Saphra, whom Abbahu had praised to the Jewish Christians in most extravagant terms, was apparently worsted by them in an argument based on Amos 3:2, which, I presume, they must have quoted by way of urging that some great national sin must rest on Israel to account for the sufferings that had come upon them.29
28. The whole of this subject is very ably discussed by Toettermann.
29. Abodah Zarah, 4a. This inference is, of course, my own. In the Talmud Abbahu is represented as giving by a parabolic illustration a satisfactory explanation of the verse.
But we can ascend to an earlier age for evidence of Christian influence on Jewish teachers. As a Jewish writer (Friedlander) argues, Akiba would not have suggested to Eliezer the possibility of such a cause of his misfortunes, if intercourse and discussions with Jewish Christians had been of only exceptional occurrence. Rabbi Ishmael belonged to the illustrious circle of sages who flourished after the destruction of Jerusalem. In his hatred of Jewish Christians and desire to see their sacred writings burned, he yielded nothing to his colleague, Tarphon.30
Nevertheless, his almost equally learned nephew, Ben Dama, solicited his permission to study 'Grecian wisdom' [חכמת יװנית]may it not have been Christian writings?and was in such relationship towards Jewish Christians, that, when bitten by a serpent, he would fain have availed himself of the miraculous healing by one of them, appealing to Scripture for its lawfulness, but was prevented by his uncle, and so perished.31
30. Comp. Shabbath 116a.
A similar story is told of Rabbi Joshua, one of the most celebrated teachers, and who, in his youth, was said to have been among the Levite singers in the Temple.32
31. Comp. Abodah Zarah 27b, Midr. on Eccl 1.9.
His nephew, Chanina, came under the influence of the Christians of Capernaum; and, to withdraw him from it, his uncle had to send him to Babylonia, where he afterwards exercised the greatest influence.33
32. In general, see the collatin of passages giving his history in the Seder Haddoroth, ed. Warsh. 1878; part 2. p. 93a, col b.
The same Rabbi Joshua is said to have also rescued a disciple of Rabbi Jonathan from the toils of the heretics. The details of the story will scarcely bear repetition.
33. Midr. on Eccl. 1.9. And yet Berakoth 63a shows that he was not in good relations with Palestine, while the conjunction of his name in that passage with those of Abbahu and Saphra may have a peculiar meaning.
If true, the Christians, by whom the young Rabbi had been entangled, must have been Nicolaitans. But there is more than this to be told. The ordinance of the patriarch Gamaliel (II), which directed that thenceforth admission to the Academy should only be allowed to such whose 'interior' was like their 'exterior,'34
has been understood to referat least in partto the fact that many who frequented the Rabbinic schools were under the influence of the new faith, and would have spread the new opinions.35
34. Berakoth 28a.
This affords striking evidence of the effect which Christianity exercised at its rise upon very many of the best Jewish minds, and gives confirmation to the account of the spread of the faith in the opening chapters of the Book of Acts. Nay, there is evidence that 'heretical,' that is, Christian, prayers were sometimes actually introduced into the worship of the Synagogue by those who led the devotions, against which the sharpest precautions were to be taken.36
35. Comp. Freudenthal, p. 78, and especially p. 141, note 11.
Surely, then, Christianity must have had many and most influential adherents among the Jews at its rise.
36. Berakoth 29a, 33b, 34a.
But even so the evidence is not complete. We find that the same Gamaliel put to the assembled sages the question, which of them could compose a prayer against the new faith which should be inserted in the most solemn part of the worshipthe so-called eighteen benedictions. It has been well argued that while the necessity for, and the introduction of such a prayer in the liturgy are in themselves most significant, the appeal of the patriarch to the sages must have implied the challengenot which of them could, but which of them would, compose such a prayer. And, indeed, the correct repetition of this formula was henceforth made a test of orthodoxy.37
Berakoth, 28b, 29a. In connection with this there is a curious and enigmatic story about the author of this formula having forgotten it next year, and requiring several hours to recall it. The context also is somewhat mysterious, and almost seems to point to hesitation about the whole matter. The remarks of Joel on the subject (2.93, 94) are not quite satisfactory.
But perhaps the best practical proof of the existence of such intercourse and influence is this, that apparently there were meeting-places for regular religious discussions, and that a special literature seems to have been the outcome of them. The former are mentioned under a twofold name: probably designating assemblies of different character. It is not easy to understand the precise meaning and distinction of these two designations. We read of the Be Abhidan ('House of Abhidan'), and of 'the writings of the Be Abhidan'; and we also read of the Be Notsrephi or Nitsrephi ('House of Notsrephi').38
Both names seem corruptions of other words, or, rather, as the custom was, word-puns by which a name was converted into an opprobrious epithet.39
38. See here Delitzsch, u.s. pp. 19, 90; Furst, Kultur u. Lit. Gesch. p. 235, note 741; Dukes, Rabb. Blumenlese, p. 163; Levy, Neuhebr. Worterb. vols. 1 and 3 sub voc.; and especially the Aruch, ed. Kohut, vol 2. pp. 45-47. Joel, u.s. 2. pp 91, 92, strongly maintains that the Be Abhidan referred simply and exclusively to Ebionite meetings. On this occasion he makes an interesting and not unlikely suggestion as to the origin of the name Minim (heretics) for Christians. He supposes that the original designation for those Jews who believed in Jesus was Maaminim, which he regards as equivalent to πιστοι, and that, when the hostility towards the Christians began, the first part of the word was dropped, and the Christians were called Minim, which would mean the adherents of a falsehood.
They are universally regarded as having been places for religious discussions between Jews and Christians of different parties. The Be Abhidan is supposed to represent a corruption of Ebionites (אביוני = אבידן), although the Ebionites were also known by their proper name;40
39. This is not the place to speculate as to the words from which these puns have been derived. No doubt they were intended as opprobrious designations.
or it may possibly refer to a Gnostic sect, such as the Ophites.41
40. In Baba Kamma 117a, R. Huna is said to have arrived לבי אביוני (Be-Ebyone).
On the other hand, it is easy to recognise in the Be Notsrephi a perversion of the term Be Notsri, Christian, and to see in it a designation of the Church. The subject is not, however, wholly free from difficulty. The Talmud describes one sage (Samuel) as going to the Be Abhidan, but not to the Be Notsrephi, while another (Rabh) would not attend the former, much less the latter.42
41. In the Targum בידין stands for πυθων. But as in one of the three Talmudic passages in which Be Abhidan is mentioned (Shabbath 152a; the other two are Shabbath 116a, Abodah Zarah 17b), the Emperor (Hadrian) is said to have questioned R. Joshua why he did not attend those discussions, the inference seems suggested that general religious disputations may also have been held in those places. For the reason stated by Levy (vol. 1. p. 9b), it seems impossible to suppose that Parsee doctrines were there discussed.
Other Rabbis plead age and fear of suffering bodily injury as excuse for their absence from such meetings. And we can readily believe that gatherings for discussion may, among hot-blooded Easterns, have often ended in scenes of violence. Indeed, one Rabbi tells us that he had agreed with his theological opponents that the victor in controversy should be allowed to take bloody vengeance on his adversary, which the successful Rabbi had also done, although this seems to have required considerable effortwhether of the theological or physical kind, does not clearly appear.
42. Shabbath 116a.
To sum up at least some of the results of this long digression. While admitting that Talmudic writings are utterly untrustworthy as regards historical accuracy, this much at least seems established from them, that miraculous power of healing was attributed to Jesus and to the early Christians; that their sacred writingspresumably in Aramęanexisted, were known, and circulated; that there was extensive religious communication between the disciples of Christ and the most eminent Teachers of the Law, and frequent, if not regular, discussions with them; and that many of the leaders of the Jewish world, and naturally many more of the people, were affected by the new movement. In fact, it was supposed that Divine punishment had visited a great Rabbi who confessed to having derived pleasure from their interpretations; while others had to flee or to die, in order to escape the dangerous heresy. Even to hold intercourse with these heretics, who were for ever excluded from eternal life, was regarded as already the first step towards becoming a Christian convert, and was to be carefully avoided.
Thus far all accords with the impressions derived from the Christian records. But we have other and more direct evidence to produce.
B. From the Talmud we pass to the Jewish historian Josephus, whom we may describe as in early life the contemporary of St. Paul. Indeed, there is ground for believing that, as a young man, Josephus was in Rome during St. Paul's first imprisonment there. His systematic ignoring of Christianity will scarcely seem strange when we remember the character of the man, the ulterior object of his writings, and the relations between Christianity and Judaism, on the one hand, and heathenism, on the other. But there are three passages in the works of Josephus, occurring in all existing manuscripts, which bear testimony respectively to John the Baptist,43
to James the brother of Jesus,44
43. Ant. 18.5.2.
and to Christ Himself.45
44. Ant. 20.9.1.
45. Ant 18.3.3.
Without entering on detailed criticism, suffice it to say that, while the passage about Christ must have had some genuine substratum,46
it appears to be so altered and interpolated in its present form as for all practical purposes to be spurious. More credit attaches to the passage about James, the Lord's brother. But even this is in its present form so doubtful that we prefer leaving it unnoticed, as, in any case, not affecting the present argument. On the other hand, sober-minded critics of all schools are now generally agreed that the passage in Josephus concerning John the Baptist is genuine and trustworthy. For evidential purposes it may be described as bearing testimony on these four points: 1st, the exalted character of John and his preaching of repentance; 2ndly, his baptism and its relation to the forgiveness of sins; 3rdly, the crowds which from all parts flocked to him and were deeply moved by his preaching; and, lastly, that John was executed by Herod, because he feared that the preaching of the Baptist might issue in a new movement or rebellion against himself, since the people 'seemed ready to do anything by his counsel.'
46. This is substantially the conclusion of most modern critics, such as Ewald, Renan, Joel. The latter (u.s. 2. p. 52) says, not without presumptive good reason, that the writings of Josephus may originally have contained more than our present copies. But he goes beyond the bounds of the likely when he suggests extensive falsifications, especially in regard to the Pharisees.
This fourfold testimony covers, with one exception, all the main facts recorded in the Gospels about the Baptist, although with such variations as we might expect from the standpoint of the Jewish historian. Thus far, then, it affords important confirmation of the Gospel history. And even the notable omission to which we have referred, that of any allusion to the announcement by the Baptist of the coming Messianic Kingdom, is rather apparent than real. For this rebellion which Herod is said to have dreaded, in consequence of the people's readiness to do anything by John's counsel, must have referred to his proclamation of the near Advent of the Messianic Kingdom and King. Josephus does not give a hint of any political element in the preaching of John; on the contrary, he sums it up as enjoining 'righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God,' 'and so to come to baptism.' If therefore a new political movement was apprehended from such preaching, the inference seems almost irresistible that John had announced the near Kingdom. And here we remember that the claims of Jesus to the Messiahship gave rise to the charge of setting up another King, and that the bare suggestion of the birth of such a Messiah so excited the fears of Herod's father as to lead to the murder of the Innocents at Bethlehem. And, even at the last, when such a claim might seem almost impossible, Pilate discussed it with Jesus; and such deep hold had it taken, that at a later period Domitian summoned the relatives of Jesus to his presence, to see whether their appearance betokened danger to his sovereignty. Hence we can readily believe that this would, under Pharisaic instigation of his fears, be the deeper motive in Herod's conduct towards the Baptist, and that the reproof about Herodias would only represent the climax of offence, and the final occasion of the Baptist's imprisonment. Thus viewed, the silence of Josephus on what would have obliged him to refer to Christianity is itself of evidential value.
But there is even more to be learned from the testimony of Josephus. It not only attests, and that by a witness hostile to Christianity, the exalted character of the Baptist, and implies his announcement of the near Messianic Kingdom, but it affords at least indirect evidence that Jesus brought something new, instituted a new kingdom, such as we know it from the Gospels. We infer this not only from what Josephus records as the subject-matter of John's preaching, but from the rite of baptism which, according to his testimony, John had instituted. We need not here discuss the historically untenable suggestion that the Baptist or his baptism were connected with Essenism. Suffice it to say, that the baptism of the Essenes was not for the people generally, but for the initiated; not once for repentance, but daily for superior sanctity. Indeed, Essenism had nothing to say to men, except to come out and join the Sect; and it fundamentally differed, on almost all important points, from the teaching of John. But if the preaching and baptism of John were not Essene, neither were they Judaic. Rabbinism knows no preaching of repentance such as that to which John called his hearers, or, as Josephus describes it, wherein what the Rabbis would have denounced as sinnersthe unlearned, soldiers, and publicanswould have been allowed to continue in their condition, only with changed minds and conduct. Nor was any such baptism either practised or known in Judaism. There were the legal washings connected with Levitical defilements, and the baptism of heathens on becoming Proselytes of Righteousness. But a baptism of Jews as connected with repentance was wholly unprecedented. It inaugurated something different from all the past, something new. Whether viewed in connection with the typical purification preparatory to Israel's reception of the Law at Mount Sinai, or as symbolic of the better washingin the language of Josephus, 'after that the soul had previously been cleansed by righteousness'it marked the commencement of a new development, the preparation for a new kingdom, in which righteousness would reign. And in this respect also the silence of Josephus is most significant. Thus, when read in connection with the Gospel narrative, the language of Josephus not only implies the Baptist's proclamation of the coming Messiah, but also that He would found a new kingdom for which baptism was the appropriate preparation.
C. One step still remains. We have had testimony from hostile, and certainly not impartial Jews; we shall now have it from a hostile but impartial heathen. We have been carried to the threshold of the history of Jesus, and have had a look forward into it; we shall now be transported to the period after His death, and from that standpoint have a look backwards on the Gospel narrative. The testimony of Josephus covers the period from the time of St. Paul to that of Trajanmore exactly from A.D. 37 or 38 to after the year 100 of our era. But before that period expires the testimony of another unimpeached and unimpeachable witness begins. I allude here to the well-known Epistle which Pliny the Younger addressed to the Emperor Trajan.47
The facts are briefly as follows. Under the reign of Trajan (98-117), the younger Pliny, who had already filled the highest offices, became Governor of Bithynia. The precise date of his governorship, and consequently of his Epistle to the Emperor about the Christians, is not quite certain, though the possible difference is only that of a few yearssay, between 106 and 111 A.D. But this does not adequately represent the state of the case. For, as some of those by whose examination Pliny ascertained the tenets and practices of the Christians had left the Christian community so long as twenty years previously, the testimony of the younger Pliny concerning Christianity really reaches up to between 86 and 90 of our erathat is, to more than ten years before the death of Josephus.48
47. The evidential value of the statements of Tacitus (Ann. 15.44) has been very moderately set forth by Wittichen (comp. Lardner, u.s. pp. 253-255). They attest the origin of Christianity in Judæa by Christ; the crucifixion of Christ by Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; the revival of the movement which seemed suppressed; its transplantation to Rome, its separation from the Synagogue; and its opposition to heathenism. [Wittichen accentuates, although on insufficient grounds, that the Christians are charged not with scelera, or crimes, but with flagitia.] On the epistle of Pliny comp. Lardner, u.s. pp. 287-318. See text given at the end of this Lecture. Joel (Blicke in d. Relig. Gesch. 2. passim, but especially Sect. 5) has, in my view, without sufficient reason, denied the existence of a sharply-defined distinction between the Synagogue and the Church at the time of Nero.
The two witnesses are, therefore, so to speak, historically connected.
48. The supposed silence of Josephus can, therefore, not be of any evidential force against Christianity.
The chief points in the information supplied by the Epistle of Pliny may be summarised as follows: The Governor applies to the Emperor for guidance, being in doubt what conduct to pursue towards the Christians. He had not previously been present at any judicial examination of Christians (which at least shows that they were well known), and did not well know with what strictness to bear himself in the matter. Hitherto his practice had been to question the accused, and if they professed themselves Christians, to repeat the question a second and third time, threatening the punishment of death. Those who remained constant were forthwith punished; this, not so much on account of their opinions, of which he seemed still in doubt, as for their obstinacy. But Christianity only spread, and Pliny was beset with anonymous as well as regular information against many, of all ages, of every rank, and of both sexes. Of the persons thus brought before Pliny's tribunal, many denied being Christians, when he applied the crucial test of making them offer heathen worship, and revile the Name of Christ; neither of which, as he had learned, Christians would do under any compulsion. Others admitted having been Christians, but professed to have left the community three or more, and some even more than twenty years before. Although these persons had no hesitation in performing heathen rites, and reviling Christ, they maintained that even while Christians their practices had been wholly harmless, such as Pliny proceeds to describe. And, to be quite sure of it, Pliny next subjected two of the actual Deaconesses to torture, but elicited nothing beyond 'a depraved and excessive superstition' (superstitionem pravam et immodicam). In these circumstances, and finding that the number of those who would have to suffer was far greater than he had imagined, and that the new faith had not only taken hold on the towns and villages, but even spread to the country districts, Pliny applies to the Emperor for direction.
Putting aside our natural feeling of indignation at the conduct of Pliny towards those of both sexes, and of all ages and ranks, who were faithful to their convictions unto torture and death, let us see what light this unquestioned historical documentwhich takes us, say, to about half a century after the death of Christcasts on the New Testament record.
1. It tells us of a vast number of believers, in all ranks and of all ages, in the province over which Pliny ruled. According to his account, 'the temples had been almost forsaken'; their sacred solemnities intermitted, and it was the most rare thing to find purchasers for the victims (rarissimus emptor inveniebatur).
2. As regards the tenets, or rather the observances, of the Christians, we cannot, indeed, expect to derive precise dogmatic statements from criminal informations laid before a heathen judge. The confession of the two Deaconesses under torture may have contained an account of their faith. Pliny describes it as a 'debased and excessive superstition.' But the account given by apostates bore reference to the practices of Christians. It deserves special notice that even these persons had nothing evil to say of their former co-religionists. But what they report of their practices is most instructive.
a. The Christians are described as meeting for worship on a stated day. It is impossible to avoid the inference that this was the first day of the week; and as its corollary, that this day was observed as the memorial of Christ's Resurrection. Thus, the Sunday worship and the underlying belief in the Resurrection, are attested within about half a century of the death of Jesus.
b. They are said on these occasions to have offered Divine Worship to Christ, and this, whether we understand the language of Pliny as denoting specifically the singing of hymns or the offering of prayer, to Christ as to a God (quasi Deo). Let it be remembered that Pliny here reports the testimony of former Christians, and hence cannot be understood as meaning that the Christians worshipped Jesus as a God in the same sense in which Pliny would offer worship to the Emperor. Moreover, it must be kept in view that, according to Pliny, it was distinctive of these same Christians rather to suffer martyrdom than to offer even the supposed inferior homage to the Roman Emperor, although they fully owned his supreme civil authority. Hence the Christian worship of Jesus must have been consciously and literally offered to Christ as a Divine Person. We have, therefore, testimony that the central point in their worshipthat which these former Christians singled out as the distinctive characteristic, was worship of Jesus, with the underlying tenet that He was the Son of God, 'Very God of Very God.'
c. They are said on these occasions to have bound themselves 'by an oath' (sacramento), against the commission of all crime or sin, and to all truthfulness and uprightness. We would suggest that this 'oath,' at their solemn meetings, must bear some reference to moral obligations undertaken at the Holy Communion. In any case, we have here testimony of the distinctive holiness of the early Christians, as organically connected with their worship and belief; in short, to the moral theology of the New Testament as the outcome of its dogmatic teaching.
d. Lastly, we have in the account of these former Christians a notice of certain common mealsnot in the worship of the Christians, but after itreferring probably to the love-feasts or agapes of 1 Corinthians. We are the more confirmed in this view, since these common meals seem to have been regarded as not of vital importance, for they are said to have been intermitted after the publication of Pliny's edict.
The importance of the historic testimony just analysed can scarcely be overrated. It not only gives historic reality to the picture of the early Church, such as from the New Testament we would trace its outlines; but it fully confirms the power and spread of the new faith, as the Book of Acts and the Apostolic Epistles set them before us. Moreover, it presents, in regard to the Resurrection as the great central truth of Christian faith, the Person of Christ as the grand central Object of Christian worship, and the Holy Eucharist as the main part of Christian ritual, the exact counterpart of the New Testament account. The Christianity of the year 86 or 90 of our era is, so to speak, the coin which bears the device of the mint of the New Testament. If we were to translate into fact the history which closes with the four Gospelssay in the year 30 of our erawe would have precisely Pliny's account of the Christians in the year 86 or 90. We have here the Sunday worship, with its look back on the Resurrection, and therefore upon the Crucifixion, the Incarnation, and Messianic activity of Jesus; the Divine Worship of Christ, with its upward look to the Saviour at the Right Hand of the Father, having all power; the earnest, conscious striving against all sin and after all holiness, amidst the corrupt, festering mass of heathenism arounda new creation in Christ Jesus by the Holy Ghost, whose living temples Christians are, and this as an integral part of their worship, the outcome of their faith; then, the simple common meetings for prayer and the Holy Sacrament, and, when possible, love-feasts of brotherly fellowship; finally, the enduring perseverance of the Church, even to the loss of all things and to death itself.
Narrow as the line of evidence may seem which we have followed, it has, we trust, fully established the main proposition of this Lecture. What we have learned about the Gospels has not in any part been invalidated, but in many respects confirmed, by such trustworthy notices as we have gathered from Talmudic writings. Then, the testimony of Josephus concerning John and his Baptism has flashed light forward on the beginning of Christ's Ministry, on its object and character; whilst the testimony of Pliny has flashed light backwards to the end of Christ's Ministry, to His Resurrection, and to the faith and practice of the early Church. John the Baptist and Jesus Christ are true historical personages, and the influence of their activity is precisely such as the New Testament describes it. And what we have learned about the power of Christianity and its spread, about the life of Christians, and their readiness to be faithful unto death, sets before us in vivid colouring an historical picture of that primitive Church which saw in Jesus of Nazareth the fulfilment of the Old Testament promises, and the reality of that kingdom which had been the hope of the Fathers.
NOTE TO LECTURE 3.
Text of the letter of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan.
Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96-97
It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.
Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christnone of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to dothese I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of foodbut ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.
I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.
Trajan to Pliny the Younger
You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves itthat is, by worshiping our godseven though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.
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