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which in former ages would undoubtedly have been considered as mi-
raculous. These may very well have actually occurred, and be as historical
as any other part of the narrative.

But when we come to such miracles as raising the dead, or perma-
nently curing organic diseases, they require a special supernatural inter-
ference with the laws of nature. Now what does reason say to such
miracles ? It tells us that in thousands of such cases of alleged miracles,
both in Pagan, early Christian, and mediaeval ages, once firmly believed
in and attested by what seems strong contemporary evidence, not one
now holds the field and is seriously accepted, with the possible exception
of some half-dozen, which are accepted solely on the authority of the
New Testament.

Take, as an illustration, the statement that one who was really dead
returned to life. There are some thousand millions of people living in
the world who are renewed by death and birth at least three times in every
century, and this has been going on for some fifty centuries. That
makes some 15,000,000,000 human beings who have died, and of whom
it may be said with certainty that not one has ever returned in the body
to life. You wish to establish some five or six exceptions to this rule, or
rather one, for if the return to life of Jesus cannot be proved, few would
be disposed to rest their faith in miracles on any other of the alleged cases
of resurrection. And the historical truth of the appearances of a living
and tangible Jesus after death hinges mainly on the account of the
Ascension given by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. This is the
crowning miracle of all, the appropriate conclusion of his mission on
earth, and strongest proof of his Divine nature; and it is described in the
fullest detail as having occurred in the presence of a large number of wit-
nesses. St. Paul says of this, or of some other appearance not recorded
in any of the Gospels, five hundred witnesses, many of whom remained
alive till his day, and in a definite and well-known locality close to the
large city of Jerusalem. If the evidence for this miracle fails us, how
can we believe in others more obscure and less well authenticated ?

Surely the evidence for an event which is a solitary exception to
15,000,000,000 experiences, requires to be proved by testimony far
stronger than would be required to prove an ordinary occurrence. But
how stands the evidence for the miracle of the Ascension ? Of the four
witnesses called into court, one, Mark, the oldest of all, and probably
deriving his information direct from St, Peter, makes no mention what-
ever (if we omit the last verses, which are an obvious addendum, and, as



fee authors of the revised edition tell us, are not found in the oldest
manuscripts) of the Ascension, or of any other supernatural event con-
nected with the Resurrection. Matthew says distinctly that the message
sent by Jesus to his apostles was to "depart into Galilee," and that they
went there accordingly, where they saw him, but "some doubted," and
makes no reference to any Ascension. John describes certain miracles
occurring at Jerusalem, but places the concluding scene of the Resurrec-
tion, when Jesus took his final farewell of his disciples, in Galilee, and,
like Mark and Matthew, makes no mention of any Ascension.

Observe that Luke says distinctly that Jesus charged the apostles " not
to depart from Jerusalem," and that all the miraculous appearances, in-
cluding the Ascension, occurred there. There cannot be a more flagrant
contradiction than that between Matthew and Luke. Consider now^what
would be the chance of establishing, not a stupendous miracle, but such
a commonplace event as the signature of a will, if the first witness called
was a solicitor who said that the testator in his last illness asked him to
remain in London to draw and attest his will, which he did, while the
second witness was another solicitor, who swore that the testator told him
he was going down to his place in Yorkshire on the chance that the air
of the country might revive him, and asked the witness to follow him there
by the next day's train, in order to complete his will, which instructions
he accordingly carried out. And let any candid and dispassionate person
say how, if tried by the ordinary rules of reason, this differs from the
direct contradiction between Matthew and Luke.

With this conclusive proof of the impossibility of establishing the great-
est of all miracles by the ordinary rules of evidence, it is almost super-
fluous to refer to the many other circumstances which, on the showing of
the Gospels themselves, lead to the same result For instance, the next
greatest miracle to those of the Resurrection, the raising of Lazarus, is re-
lated only in one Gospel, and that the latest and least authentic; while if
it really occurred, it must have been known to and recorded by the three
other evangelists. Or what can be said of the admission that even the
minor miracles of casting out devils and faith-healing depended on faith,
and could not be performed in the sceptical atmr sphere of Nazareth,
where Jesus and his family and surroundings were well known; or of the
refusal of Jesus to comply with the perfectly reasonable request of the
Pharisees to prove His Messiahship by a sign from heaven, a refusal which,
if He possessed the power, was unfair to men who, if narrow and fanati-
cal, were doubtless many of them sincere and zealous for their country
and religion.

I do not see how it can be doubted that the evidence for many early
Christian and mediaeval miracles, which no one any longer believes, is
much stronger than those of the Gospels. St. Augustine, a perfectly his-
torical and leading personage of his day, testifies that in his own time,
and in his own bishopric of Hippo, upwards of seventy miracles, had


been wrought by the relics of St Stephen. The friend and biographer of
St Ambrose relates numerous miracles, one a resurrection from the dead,
which had been notoriously wrought at Milan by the saint during his life-
time. Eginhard, the secretary of Charlemagne, who was a well-known
historical character, relates, as from his own experience, a number of mir-
acles wrought by the relics of two Christian martyrs which an emissary of
his had purloined from Rome, and which he was transporting to Heili-
genstadt To come to later times, St Thomas-a-Becket was as well
known an historical character as King Henry, but no miracles were attrib-
uted to him in his life-time; but after his murder, under circumstances
causing universal horror and excitement, a whole crop of miracles sprung
up about his shrine at Canterbury. Any one who will consult the authori-
ties cited by Freeman will be astonished to find how very precise and cir-
cumstantial is the evidence for many of these miracles. One instance is
that of the attestation of the mayor and several burgesses of a Northern bor-
ough, to the fact that a fellow-townsman of theirs, blind from his youth,
had gone to the shrine and returned with perfect sight. There is nothing
in the account of any miracle in the New Testament at all approaching
this in what constitutes the force of evidence, precision of date, place, per-
sons, and circumstance. And yet for millions who believe on the weaker
evidence, there is scarcely one who retains any belief in such miracles as
those related of St. Thomas-a-Becket

The reason is obvious; miracles are in a totally distinct province, that
of faith. What is faith ? St. Paul tells us it is " the assurance of things
hoped for, the proving of things not seen." Hardly of "things not
seen," for in that case, mathematicians and chemists who believe in atoms
and molecules would, of all men, have the largest faith. But say of
"things not proven," and it is a very accurate definition. There can be
no doubt that there are men, often of great piety and excellence, who
have, or fancy they have, a sort of sixth sense, or as Cardinal Newman
calls it, an "illative sense," by which they see by intuition, and arrive at
a fervid conviction of the truth of things unprovable or disprovable by
ordinary reason. The existence of a personal God, the divinity of Christ,
the inspiration of the Bible, and consequent reality of miracles, appear to
them to be fundamental and necessary truths beyond the scope of reason.
They feel that if their belief in these were shaken their whole life would
be shattered, and they would lose what Wordsworth says Nature was to

"The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being."

With such men I have no quarrel. Let them hold to their faith, and
leave reason to poor ordinary mortals, who, like myself, have no such
transcendental intuitions. Only do not let them confound the two prov-
inces, and try to ride on two horses at the same time. Faith is either a


delusion, or something, which is above and beyond reason. If the latter,
they only weaken it by seeking to prop it up by weak and sophistical
arguments. If, for instance, a man tells me that he believes in the miracle
of the Ascension by faith, I have no more to say; but if he proceeds to
back up his assertion by arguing that there is no contradiction between
Luke's account of it and that of the other evangelists, I say, " This man
is either insincere or illogical." His motto is, " Believe if you can ; if
you can't, Cant." .

I do not, therefore, so much deny the truth of the Christian miracles
as affirm that they are altogether outside of the province of reason, and
have no place in such an historical resume as I am attempting to give in
this essay.

Another reservation I have to make, that if the historical element in
the life of Jesus may seem to be reduced to very slender proportions, this
does not necessarily affect the vital truth of the Christian religion. This
religion has always been to a considerable extent, and is becoming more
and more every day, not so much a question of external evidence or of
dogma, as of a sincere love and reverence for the ideal which has come to
be associated with the name of Jesus. This ideal is a fact, and has long
been, and will continue to be, an important factor in the progress of
human evolution from lower to higher things. How the ideal grew up
and came to be established is of far less importance than what it is.
Love, charity, purity, compassion, self-sacrifice are not the less virtues
because the ideas and emotions of so many good men and women, for
nineteen centuries, have taken form and crystallized about a comparatively
small nucleus of historical fact

My meaning will be best explained by an illustration. In Catholic
countries there is a figure which competes with, if indeed it do not often
supersede, that of Jesus the figure of the Virgin Mary. Now here we
can trace the historical nucleus down to a minimum. What do we really
know of the mother of Jesus as an historical fact ? That she was a
Jewish matron, the wife of a mechanic in a small provincial town, the
mother of a large family, for four brothers of Jesus are mentioned as well
as sisters. Apart from the legends of the Nativity, which are obviously
mythical, nothing else is known of her, except that she was probably one
of the sceptical friends and kindred at Nazareth whose want of faith pre-
vented the working of miracles there, and whose impression seems to have
been that Jesus was not altogether in his right mind. Her relations with
her Son do not appear to have been very cordial, from his refusal to go
out to her when she came to the door asking to see him, and his em-
phatic assertion that those who believed in him were dearer to him than his
blood relations.

The only other mention of Mary by St. John, who describes her as
sitting at the foot of the Cross, is apocryphal, being directly contradicted
by the very precise statement in the three other Gospels, that the Mary


who was present on that occasion was a different woman, the mother of
Salome". The motive of this introduction of Mary, the mother of Jesus,
by the author of the fourth Gospel is obvious, viz. , to exalt the character
of St John, as is apparent throughout this Gospel, in which the "Boan-
erges, " the violent and narrow-minded John of the other Gospels, is con-
verted into the gentle and amiable apostle whom Jesus loved.

What is the sort of figure which, if we relied on historical evidence
only, we should draw from these scanty records ? That of a plain,
motherly Jewish woman, who did her own scrubbing and washing, and
was probably too much oppressed by household cares, and those of a
large family, to know or care much for the spiritual aspirations and pro-
phetical pretensions of her eldest son.

And yet from this homely figure what a world of beautiful ideas and
associations have flowered into life. The Madonna has become an em-
bodiment of all female virtues carried to a point where they become
divine. Love, purity, innocence, maternal affection, human suffering,
have all found their highest ideal in the " Mother of God," the "mild
and merciful Madonna," the "Blessed Virgin." Do you tell me this is
not a fact because it is not based on historical evidence ? I tell you it is
&fact, far more certain and more important than nine-tenths of the events
related in history. If you doubt it, look at Raffaelle's Madonna di San
Sisto, or Murillo's Immaculate Conception; or listen to Mozart's Ave Maria,
or Rossini's Stabat Mater, and you will see that this ideal worship of the
carpenter's wife of Nazareth has produced works which will remain for
ever as high-water marks which have been reached in the evolution of
modern art. You will say with Byron

" Ave Maria, oh, that face so fair,
Those downcast eyes beneath the Almighty dove.
Ave Maria, may our spirits dare
Soar up to thee and to thy son above."

And so of Jesus; the historical figure, though a good deal more certain
and definite than that of his mother, is but a small matter compared with
the ideal which has grown up in the course of ages about it. It is but as
the fragment which, dropping into a saturated solution, attracts molecule
after molecule, until it grows into a large and lovely crystal which all eyes

With these reservations, which may go some way to mitigate the
scruples of orthodox readers, if I should happen to have any, viz., that
miracles are a question of faith, and that the historical element does not
materially affect the vital truth of Christianity, I fall back on my own
humble province of reason, and attempt to show what can be gathered by
it from the earliest records as to the personality and teaching of Jesus.

I begin by stating the two principles by which I have been mainly
guided in the research. The first is what I call the ' ' Minimum of
Miracle." Of different biographies of the same person, that which con-


tains the fewest miraculous legends is almost certain to be the earliest and
most authentic. It is far more likely that such legends should be added
or invented than that, if they actually occurred, or were generally
accredited, they should be designedly omitted. As an illustration of what
I mean by this, take the case already referred to of St. Thomas-a-Becket.
If newspapers had existed in his time which published a biography of
eminent men on the day after their death, such a biography would have
contained no miracles; one written a few weeks later would have doubtless
contained some reference to the miraculous vision of the monk who
watched by his remains, and some of the miracles said to have occurred
at his shrine; while still later accounts would have multiplied the
miracles into scores and hundreds. There can be no doubt here that the
succession in point of time would have been, no miracles, few miracles,
many miracles. And the same holds good of all biographies of eminent
men, saints, and martyrs. The outlines of their historical figures are
almost lost in the accumulation of myths and legends, which in uncritical
times have grown up about them.

The second even more important principle is, that admissions of events
and sayings which tell against the point of view of the writer, are far more
likely to be historical, than those which have the appearance of being
introduced to show the fulfillment of prophecies, to answer objections, or
to support dogmatic views. Thus if Jesus is described as being born and
bred at Nazareth, the son of a carpenter whose family and surroundings
were well known there, the statement is far more likely to be true than one
which describes him as having been born at Bethlehem, and attributes to
him a whole series of marvellous and miraculous incidents.

Tried by both these tests, the Gospel of Mark has every appearence of
being the earliest and most authentic record, and when this is confirmed
by the clear and explicit statement of Papias, I have no hesitation in
assuming it to be the surest basis of our historical knowledge, and in all
probability mainly derived from the reminiscenes of Peter himself, or of
other contemporary witnesses of the events described.

Starting from this basis, I assume, as beyond all doubt, that Jesus was
an historical personage. There is nothing in Mark which would lead to
the supposition that any considerable portion of his Gospel was legend or
myth. The time is too modern, and the narrative too precise, to allow
us to suppose that the whole story had been elaborated by later theolo-
gians from Oriental myths and Messianic prophecies. The age was long
past when religions could originate in solar myths and misunderstood
personifications of natural phenomena. Every great religious movement
which comes fairly within the historical period, from Buddha and Zor-
oaster down to Mahomet, had some real personality as its starting-point,
about whom myths and dogmas accumulated, until almost obscuring the
the historical nucleus, So also was doubtless the case with Jesus.

The next point I consider to be quite certain is, that he was bora of


humble parents at the little town of Nazareth in Galilee. The legends

of the Nativity and Infancy may all be dismissed as purely mythical.
The two accounts and genealogies in Matthew and Luke do not agree,
and are each hopelessly inconsistent with the evidence of the other Gos-
pels. It is plain that during his life and afterwards Jesus was supposed
to have been born at Nazareth, that this was cast in his teeth as being
irreconcilable with any claim to be the Messiah, and that neither he nor
his apostles ever attempted to deny it, or made any claim to his having
been born at Bethlehem. If such a series of startling events as are de-
scribed by Matthew had really occurred, the inhabitants of Nazareth could
hardly have ignored his claims as a prophet on the ground that he was a
mere ordinary fellow townsman, " the Son of the carpenter, whose brothers
and sisters are with us every day."

The accounts of the Nativity, Infancy, and early Manhood of Jesus may
be dismissed as purely legendary. I do not say so merely because they
contain so many miracles, but on the ordinary grounds of historical
criticism. In the first place, the two accounts of Matthew and Luke are
contradictory. The second admits that Nazareth was the abode of Joseph
and Mary, and accounts for the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem by the sup-
posed necessity of Joseph's going there to be taxed, as being of the family
of David; while the first assumes that Bethlehem was the abode of the
parents, and says that they only went to Nazareth some years later from
fear of Archelaus, who had succeeded to his father Herod. Matthew
describes the Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, and says that Jesus
escaped it by flying into Egypt; while Luke omits all mention of the
"^assacre, the miraculous star and the wise men of the East, and says that
the parents took the babe straight to Jerusalem. In both cases all the
events are described as happening in fulfillment of prophecies. The other
two evangelists, Mark and John, make no mention of any such occurrences,
and begin their biographies with the visit of Jesus, when a grown-up man
to John the Baptist

But the most conclusive fact is that these legends are identical, 'both in
their general tenor and in many minute details, with similar legends of
earlier religions. Thus the miraculous birth from a virgin is related of
Horus, of Krishna, of Buddha, and of many of the celebrated heroes and
gods of antiquity, and is almost certainly derived from a solar myth of the
sun rising in the constellation of Virgo. The story of the massacre of the
innocents is related of Krishna, and if we accept the narrative of Matthew,
we have to suppose that there were two wicked kings, one in India and
another in Judaea, separated by an interval of many centuries, who both
adopted the same expedient of a massacre of all male children under two
years of age, to destroy a Divine Incarnation who was born in one of their
cities. The escape by flight, owing to a miraculous warning and other
particulars, are almost word for word the same in the two legends, and
we may fairly assume that both are alike unhistorical. We know that a


whole crop of such legends grow up in early Christian tradition, for we
have the Gospel of the Infancy, which is full of the most childish and
-,bsurd magical tricks, supposed to have been performed during the boy-
hood of the Messiah.

The first firm historical ground is afforded by the Gospel of St Mark,
who begins with the visit of Jesus to John the Baptist. This is very
likely to be true, for we know from Josephus that the time was one of
great religious and political excitement, and that there were several such
preachers or prophets as John the Baptist is described to have been, who
went about holding what may be called camp-meetings, and in some
cases causing local insurrections, which had to be repressed by the
Roman soldiery. Nothing is more likely than that a young man of orig-
inal genius and strong religious sentiment, should go to one of such
meetings, not far from his home, to hear a celebrated preacher. That
such a young man was not altogether satisfied with the narrow and fierce
denunciations of a rude ascetic, and did not enroll himself as one of his
disciples, was also very probable; but that John really did make a con-
siderable impression on him is evident from the fact that he left his home
immediately afterwards, assumed the character of a wandering missionary,
and began to preach identically the same gospel as that of John " Re-
pent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

Let us pause for a moment to consider what was meant by the king-
dom of heaven being at hand. It did not mean such a millennium as
certain enthusiasts may now suppose, after nineteen centuries of unful-
filled expectation, that is, the advent of an era of purer morals and bette*
laws, but the literal end of the world and last judgment, to take place
within the lifetime of some of the existing generation. " The sun was to
be darkened, the moon not to give her light, and the stars fall from
heaven." And then they were to see the " Son of Man coming in clouds
with great power and glory," and his angels to gather all mankind from
the four winds of heaven before the judgment seat, where the tares are to
be separated from the wheat, the goats from the sheep, the good rewarded
and the wicked cast into everlasting fire. Nothing can be more explicit
than the assurance that this event would come to pass in the lifetime of
the present generation. "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall
not pass away until all these things are accomplished."

Such was evidently the current opinion among the apostles and early
Christians; and even the cultured and educated Paul, some twenty years
later, repeats it with the fullest conviction, and describes how "the Lord
shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel,
and with the trump of God ; " and how " the dead shall rise first ; then
we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in
the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air."

It is clear that, according to all rules of ordinary reason, predictions
thus confidently made and conclusively refuted, are an irresistible argu-


ment against the possession of any inspiration or special foresight on the
part of the prophets, and that prophecies, like miracles, must be relegated

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