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REPLY TO CHAPTER XVII.
Miracles--Hume—Gibbon-Witchcrast a Superstition-Catholic Testimony
“ The Star in the East” and the “ Wise Men”—Fenelon and the Bible Ques. tion-Josephus—Tooley Street Tailors—The Prodigies Attending the Birth of Jesus-Renan on Miracles.
'The question of miracles seems now to be admitted on all hands to be simply a question of evidence.” (“The Reign of Law,” by the Duke of Argyll.)
" It is not for us to demonstrate the impossibility of a miracle; it is for the miracle to demonstrate itself. What proof have we that sirens and centaurs do not exist except that they have never been seen ? What has banished from the civilized world a belief in the old demonology, except the observation that all the deeds formerly attributed to demons are well enough explained without their agency? A being who does not reveal himself by an act, is, for science, a being without existence" (Ernest Renan).
Ingersoll.—“How is it known that it was claimed during the life of Christ that he wrought a miracle?”
Lambert.—“ It is known from four histories written by four well-known historians who were contemporaries of the Jewish historian Josephus. Their names are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”
Ingersoll.—“And if the claim was made, how is it known that it was not denied ?"
Lambert.—“There is contemporary evidence that the claim was made and admitted, and there is no evidence whatever that it was ever denied. On the contrary, all history takes those miracles as facts that have been passed upon, as no longer legitimate subjects of dispute."
Right here let me inquire whether it is true that all history takes these alleged miracles as facts. Gibbon was a historian second to few, if any; did he believe in miracles? Hume was one of the most erudite and accomplished of historians; did he believe in miracles? He wrote a treatise to prove that no possible amount of testimony was sufficient to render a miracle credible. As to Gibbon, further on. I dissent from Hume's doctrine, and agree with Argyll that the question of miracles is a question of evidence. Can we or should we accept as true the statement that miracles were ever wroughtsuch as healing the sick, raising the dead, the conversion of water into wine, and the manufacture from five loaves and two fishes of bread and fish sufficient in quantity to feed five thousand men and a multitude of women and children, leaving twelve basketfuls remaining ? Should we accept such statements on the same kind and amount of evidence as we do the reign of a monarch, the history of a battle or the constitution of a State ? No, for there is an antecedent improbability that such things ever happened. They contradict human experience. They imply the intervention of a force unknown either to science or philosophy. Not only so, but we find them wedded to superstitions which the educated world has long ago discarded.
Who now questions that astrology was a compound of superstition and imposition, or that witchcraft was a delusion? Not the Catholic Church, surely, for I hold in my hand “The Faith of our Fathers," by the Rt. Rev. James Gibbons, D. D., in which he speaks of the "ridiculous charge of witchcraft”
(p. 245). He says: “And who is ignorant of the number of innocent creatures that suffered death in the same State [Massachusetts] on the ridiculous charge of witchcraft toward the end of the seventeenth century ?" Yet astrologers are called in to testify to the birth of Jesus. They saw his star in the cast and came to worship him (Matt. ii, 1, 9-11). And who were those “ wise men,” Magi or magicians ? They were the illusionists, the sleight-of-hand performers of the east, filled with the religion of Zoroaster and all the mysticism which a warm climate could generate in superstitious brains. Let me introduce you to these worshipful witnesses. Gibbon in his history, chapter viii., says: “The memory of Zoroaster,
“ the ancient prophet and philosopher of the Persians, was still revered in the east; but the obsolete and mysterious language in which the Zandavesta [Persian Bible] was composed opened a field of dispute to seventy sects, who explained the fundamental doctrines of their religion and were all indifferently derided by the crowd of infidels, who rejected the divine mission and the miracles of the prophet. To suppress the idolaters, reunite the schismatics, and confute the unbelievers by the infallible decision of a general council, the pious Artaxerxes summoned the Magi from all parts of his dominions. These priests, who had so long sighed in contempt and obscurity, obeyed the welcome summons; and on the appointed day appeared to about the number of eighty thousand. But as the debates of so tumultuous an assembly could not have been directed by the authority of reason, or influenced by the art of policy, the Persian synod was reduced, by successive operations, to forty thousand, to four thousand, to four hundred, to forty and at last to seven Magi, the most respected for their learning and piety. One of these, Erdivirath, a young but holy prelate, received from the hands of his brethren three cups of soporiferous wine. He drank them
off and instantly fell into a long and profound sleep. As soon as he waked he related to the king and to the believing multitude his journey to heaven, and his intimate conference with the Deity. Every doubt was silenced by this supernatural evidence; and the articles of faith of Zoroaster were fixed with equal authority and precision." These were the kind of men who saw the star in the east (or from the east) and went to proffer the gold and frankincense and myrrh to the infant Saviour. But if the Magi suspected the divine mission of Christ they were doing violence to their own faith, for Herodotus says: “The people (of Persia) reject the use of temples, of altars and of statues, and smile at the follies of those nations who imagine that the gods are sprung from or bear any affinity with the human nature.” If this be so, would the Magi have believed that a god-man, born of woman, had descended upon the earth?
If, as learned priests and bishops contend, the Bible does not prove itself, how can it prove what it contains—especially the most incredible part, the miraculous ? Will tradition help us out? If so, give us the most serviceable traditions and we will read them with care and discuss them with candor. Or, shall we invoke extrinsic evidence to convince us of the credibility of the entire gospel narratives? If so, where shall we look for the extrinsic evidence that may suffice for that purpose ? Before we can credit miracles we must insist on the most indubitable proof—not such as may suffice in a question of a common historical or every day fact, but such as disinterested, educated and unbiased minds would deem sufficient.
Should the Father bring me word that my friend, his neighbor, was dead and that he was with him when he expired, I would credit his statement implicitly; but if he should assure me that a priest or bishop had restored the dead one to lifeI might think him honest—but I would not believe one word of his statement. I would think first of trances and of all natural causes which might produce the semblance of death; but no number of witnesses, in that particular case, would convince me that the dead had been brought to life.
But were the accounts of miracles given us by the evangelists strictly contemporary with the events they record ? Or, was the present canon of Scripture accepted and the books therein contained unquestioned as to genuineness and inspiration in the infancy of the church? I love to quote Catholic authority: it is often so charming in its explicitness. Bishop (afterwards Archbishop) Purcell, in his debate with Campbell (p. 130), says: “You did not see the miracles; the books that record them were written long after they occurred; and many of the most important portions of this very book were doubted for upwards of three hundred years after Christ, even by Luther himself, in the enlightened sixteenth century! His [Campbell's] author, Du Pin, says, there were abundance of false Gospels, false epistles, false Acts, in the early ages. How then, according to his [Campbell's] principles, can we be sure of the authenticity of a single book of the Old or the New Testament, being we have no vouchers for the truth but the testimony of men ? Here are chasms to be bridged, and links in the chain of Scriptural testimony to be welded, for full three hundred years, aye, sixteen hundred years before the various books of the Scriptures were collected together.”
But have we a divine sanction, or other proof, to show that Jesus ever authorized any one to write a history of his acts and sayings ? Let Catholic authority answer. See “The Bible Question,” by the great and good Fenelon, Fletcher's notes, p. 48: “Our Divine Redeemer wrote nothing: he only preached. But did he not command his apostles to write? Of this or of such command there is no testimony in the Bible. So that thus there is no proof, in the sacred book itself, that any writ