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BOOK II.—JESUS OF NAZARETH.
NEARLY nineteen centuries have elapsed since Jesus of Nazareth was born to the destiny of Divinity, as the future Deity of the western branch of that great Aryan race whose illustrious teacher, Sakya-Muni, anticipated the Kingdom of Heaven by the Kingdom of Righteousness, five hundred years before the Christian era; and now commands the reverence of one-third of the world's inhabitants, through varying forms of modern Buddhism.
Filled with admiration of the moral genius of the great Jew who has exercised so vast an influence on the fortunes of Humanity, we feel an absorbing curiosity to learn all that is possible respecting the career of Jesus on earth ; but as he omitted to transmit to posterity any autographic or authenticated record of his life, our scanty sources of knowledge respecting his character and teaching are limited to the anonymous Gospels reaching us through the Christian Church.
Evangelical theologians formerly assigned to the versions of these books in our possession an authenticity as indisputable as if our modern editions were printed
in heaven and Jesus himself revised the proof sheets. But the Gospels have not reached us as divine editions. Jesus never wrote nor edited them, nor did he instruct apostles or disciples to compose sacred books the contents of which should be binding on the reason and conscience of posterity. On the contrary, so unsuggestive of dogma and mysticism was the simple theology of Jesus, that the necessity for written records seems never to have occurred to him. Had he foreseen the future growth of a Christian literature, of authorship so doubtful and interpretation so conflicting as to originate the antagonistic creeds of hostile churches, fruitful in anathemas involving eternal perdition, Jesus would have placed on record, in a few brief words, as intelligible to the multitude as his formula of prayer, the simple articles of faith which, in his opinion, qualify members for the kingdom of heaven.
The sacred books of the Hebrews were the only Scriptures of primitive Christianity. Whilst the religion of Jesus was yet innocent of creeds and dogmas, and its votaries were expecting the early re-appearance of the Messiah, they felt no need of written documents, and were content to hold their simple theology through oral traditions recording with verbal freedom and varying version the acts and teaching of Jesus and his apostles.
The Apostolic Fathers freely quote the Hebrew Scriptures, but traces of reference to evangelical language in their works are too faint to indicate knowledge of extant written Gospels.
In the second century, Papias, although acquainted with early versions of Matthew and Mark, discloses his ignorance of a present or future New Testament of in
fallible authority, by assigning a higher place to oral traditions than to written records.
The first reliable traces of the existence of Evangelists are found in the writings of the Fathers succeeding the Apostolic Age, who, however, adopt a freedom of expression irreconcilable with the theory of an infallible New Testament.
Justin Martyr (A.D. 150) was acquainted with versions of the first and third Gospels. He was ignorant of, or rejected Pauline literature, spoke of Revelations as the work of a ‘man among us named John,' and assigned to books, which we now call apocryphal, the same authority as to works now deemed infallible.
Polycarp (A.D. 150–166), in his epistle to the Philippians, cites the first three Gospels, 1 Peter, and several Pauline epistles, but gives no indication of having ever heard of an infallible New Testament.
The second epistle of Peter, written in the name of that apostle about a century after his death, refers to the Pauline epistles as Scripture; but the author of this pious fiction probably wrote with the laudable design of reconciling the conflicting claims of Pauline and Petrine theology, by depicting Peter canonising in his lifetime the literary productions of his great rival. The age
of oral traditions was followed by a period prolific in Gospels, Acts, and Revelations, ostensibly written by Apostles or men of the Apostolic age, but varying in version with the divergent views of antagonistic sects, mutually suspected of corrupting the text of Christian records. If, therefore, Christianity was ever to assume the form of a definite theology, it became necessary to select and authenticate specific versions as
orthodox materials for the construction of a Catholic religion. But on what authority, human or divine, was this great work accomplished ?
In those early days, no supreme Pontiff or infallible Council held the pretensions, or claimed the right to select and authenticate Sacred Scripture. The task was, therefore, unconsciously undertaken by a small group
of zealous but credulous men, known to us as the early Fathers of the Christian Church. Irenæus, Clement, and Tertullian, who flourished at the close of the second and beginning of the third century, stand out prominently in ecclesiastical history as the canon-makers of the New Testament. And as his successors closely followed in the footsteps of Irenæus, the work was practically accomplished by a man so hopelessly obtuse and credulous that he declares there should be neither more nor less than four Gospels, because there are four universal winds, and four quarters of the globe. If, therefore, Irenæus had counted the winds by the points of the modern compass, he would have selected thirty-two from the numerous Gospels competing for canonisation, and Christianity would have been afflicted with the additional weight of doctrines, dogmas, and mysteries, found in their pages, and accepted by posterity as divine revelation.
Irenæus, writing in the last quarter of the second century, adopted the four Gospels, thirteen epistles of Paul, 1 John, and Revelations; and assigned a secondary place to 2 John, 1 Peter, and the Shepherd of Hermas. He knew nothing of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jude, James, or second and third Peter.
Heresies, iii. 9.
Clement added to this collection the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jude, the Revelations of Peter, the Epistles of Clement of Rome and Barnabas, both of whom he accepts as apostles ; and the Shepherd of Hermas, viewed by modern Orthodoxy as a pious fiction, he declares to be divine.
Turning to the epistle of Clement of Rome, we find the following fable adduced as an argument in favour of the truth of the Resurrection.1
• Let us think of that marvellous sign which occurs in the East, that is to say, in Arabia and the surrounding countries. There is a bird called a Phænix—the only one of its kind—which lives five hundred years, and, when the time of its death is at hand, makes a nest of frankincense, myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is completed, it enters and dies. As the flesh decays, a worm is produced which, fed by the remains of the dead bird, creates feathers. Then, when strong enough, it takes the nest containing the bones of the parent, and passes with them from Arabia to Heliopolis, a city of Egypt, and, flying in the daytime in the sight of all men, it places them on the altar of the sun, and returns to its former home. The priests then refer to the registry of dates, and find that it has returned in exactly five hundred
therefore, think it a great and marvellous thing for the Creator of the universe to raise up again those that have piously served him, in the assurance of faith, when He manifests to us through a bird the greatness of His power to fulfil His promise ?'
If one of the compilers of New Testament Scripture canonises an author sufficiently credulous to adopt this
i Clem. Rom. xxv.