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was supposed to be assailed; the belief in Christianity as divine
revelation was felt to be imperilled by a theory which substituted
mythical figment for historic fact. That no such harm was intended, or
was likely to ensue from his labors, the author himself assures us in
the preface to that extraordinary work. "The inner kernel of Christian
faith," he declares, "is entirely independent of all such criticism.
Christ's supernatural birth, his miracles, his resurrection and
ascension, remain eternal truths, however their reality as facts of
history may be called in question."

In this declaration I find a fitting text for the following discourse.

How far does the cause of Christianity depend on the facts, or alleged
facts, of the Gospel narrative? Or, to state the question in other
words, Is the truth of Christianity identical and conterminous with the
literal truth of its record?

It is obvious at the start that a certain amount of historic truth must
be assumed as implied in the very existence of any religion which dates
from a personal founder whose thought it professes to embody, and whose
name it bears. Christianity purports to be founded on the ministry of a
Jewish teacher, entitled by his followers "the Christ." We have the
testimony of a nearly contemporary Latin historian to the fact that an
individual so named was the leader of a numerous body of religionists,
and was put to death by command of Pontius Pilate, in the reign of
Tiberius. But, without this confirmation, the very existence of the
Christian Church compels us to accept as historic facts, the ministry of
Jesus, the strong impression of his word and character, his purity of
manners and moral greatness, his life of beneficent action, his martyr
death, and his manifestation to his disciples after death, however that
manifestation be conceived, whether as subjective experience or as
objective reality. So much, beyond all reasonable question, must stand
as history, vouched by documentary evidence, and by the existence, in
the first century, of a church universally diffused, which affirmed
these facts as the ground of its being, and in the strength of them
overcame the world.

But, observe, it is Christianity that assures the truth of these facts,
and not the facts that prove Christianity. To base the truth of
Christianity on the credibility, in every particular, of the Gospel
record; to measure the claims of the religion by the strict historic
verity of all the narrative of the New Testament, is to prejudice the
Christian cause in the judgment of competent critics. It is to challenge
the cavil and counter-demonstration of unbelief.

Christianity assures the truth of certain facts; but by no means of all
the facts affirmed by the writers of the New Testament. Faith in
Christianity as divine dispensation does not imply, and must not be held
to the belief, as veritable history, of all that is recorded in the
Gospel. Not the historic sense, but the spiritual import; not the facts,
but the ideas of the Gospel, are the genuine topics of faith.

Christianity, like every other religion, has its mythology, - a mythology
so intertwined with the veritable facts of its early history, so braided
and welded with its first beginnings, that history and myth are not
always distinguishable the one from the other. Every historic religion,
that has won for itself a conspicuous place in the world's history, has
evolved from a core of fact a nimbus of legendary matter which criticism
cannot always separate, and which the popular faith does not seek to
separate, from the solid parts of the system. And in one view the
legends or myths which gather around the initial stage of any religion
are as true as the vouched and substantial facts of its record: they are
a product of the same spirit working, in the one case, in the acts and
experiences; in the other, in the visions, the ideas, the literary
activity of the faithful. It is one and the same motive that inspires
both the writer and the doer.

When I speak of historic religions, I mean such as trace their origin
to some historic personage, and bear the impress of his idea, in
contradistinction to those which have sprung from unknown sources, the
wild growths of nature-worship as found in ancient Egypt, in the Indian
and Scandinavian peninsulas, and in Greece.

No distinction in religion is so fundamental as that between the wild
religions and those which have sprung from the word of a human sower
going forth to sow; the religions of sense and those of reflection, the
"natural" and the "revealed." The prime characteristic of the former is
polytheism; that of the latter, monotheism. Mosaism, Mohammedism,
Buddhism, - so far as it knows any God, - even Parsism, is monotheistic in
as much as its dualism is resolvable into the final triumph and
supremacy of the good. No founder of a religion ever taught a plurality
of gods.

Another characteristic of the wild religions is their transitoriness.
The Egyptian, the Greco-Roman, the Scandinavian, perished long ago.
Bramanism, the last survivor of the ancient polytheisms, is fast melting
beneath the advancing heats of Islam and the Brahmo Somaj. The
"revealed" religions on the contrary are permanent. No religion of
historic origin, so far as I know, has ever died out. Judaism, the
eldest of them, still flourishes: never since the destruction of
Jerusalem has it flourished with a greener leaf than now. Mohammedism is
pushing its conquests faster than Christianity in the East, Parsism is
still strong in Bengal, Buddhism in one or another form calls a third
part of the population of the globe its own.

All religions have their mythologies, but with this distinction:
polytheism is mythical in principle as well as form, in soul as well as
body, and mythical throughout. Its whole being is myth. Whatever of
scientific or historic truth may be hidden in any of its legends, such
as the labors of Herakles, the fire-theft of Prometheus, or the rape of
Europa, is matter of pure conjecture. In the "revealed" religions, on
the contrary, the mythical is incidental, not principial, and always
subordinate to doctrine or fact. Always the truth shines through the
myth, explains it, justifies it.

Before proceeding any farther, I desire to explain what I mean by myth
in this connection. I shall not attempt a philosophic definition, but
content myself with this general determination. I call any story a myth
which for good reasons is not to be taken historically, and yet is not a
wilful fabrication with intent to deceive, but the natural growth of
wonder and tradition, or a product of the Spirit uttering itself in a
narrative form. The myth may be the result of exaggeration, the
expansion of a veritable fact which gathers increments and a _posse
comitatus_ of additions as it travels from mouth to ear and ear to mouth
in the carriage of verbal report; or it may be the reflection of a fact
in the mind of a writer, who reproduces it in his writing with the color
and proportions it has taken in his conception; or it may be the poetic
embodiment of a mental experience; or it may be what Strauss calls "the
deposit[8] of an idea," and another critic "an idea shaped into fact." I
think we have examples of all these mythical formations in the New
Testament; and I hold that the credit of the Gospel in things essential
is nowise impaired, nor the claim of Christianity as divine revelation
compromised, by a frank admission of this admixture of fancy with fact
in its record. On the contrary, I deem it important, in view of the
vulgar radicalism which confounds the Christian dispensation and its
record, soul and body, in one judgment, to separate the literary
question from the spiritual, and to free the cause of faith from the
burden of the letter.

[Footnote 8: Niederschlag.]

It has been assumed that the proof of divine revelation rests on
precisely those portions of the record which are most offensive to
unbelief. On this assumption the Christian apologists of a former
generation grounded their plea. Prove that we have the testimony of
eye-witnesses to the miracles recorded in the Gospels, and Christianity
is shown to be a divine revelation. In the absence of such proof (the
inference is) Christianity can no longer claim to be, in the words of
Paul, "the power of God unto salvation." This is substantially Paley's
argument. Planting himself on the premise that revelation is impossible
without miracles, in which it is implied that miracles prove revelation,
he labors to establish two propositions: 1. "That there is satisfactory
evidence that many professing to be original witnesses of the Christian
miracles passed their lives in dangers, labors, and sufferings,
voluntarily undergone in attestation of the accounts which they
delivered, and solely in consequence of their belief in those accounts;
and that they also submitted from the same motives to new rules of
conduct." 2. "That there is _not_ satisfactory evidence that persons
pretending to be original witnesses of any other similar miracles have
acted in the same manner in attestation of the accounts which they
delivered, and solely in consequence of their belief in the truth of
those accounts." The argument is stated with the characteristic
clearness of the author, and as well supported perhaps as Anglican
church-erudition in those days would allow; but the case is not made
out, and, if it were, the argument fails to satisfy the sceptical mind
of to-day. To say nothing of its gross misconception of the nature of
revelation, which it makes external instead of internal, a stunning of
the senses instead of mental illumination, an appeal to prodigy and not
its own sufficient witness, - waiving this objection, the argument fails
when confronted with the fact that, in spite of the evidence which
scholars and critics the most learned and acute of all time have arrayed
in support of the genuineness of the Gospels, the number is nowise
diminished, but rather increases, of intelligent minds that find
themselves unable, on the faith of any book, however ancient, to receive
as authentic a tale of wonders which contradict their experience of the
limits of human ability and their faith in the continuity of nature. For
myself, I beg to say, in passing, I am not of this number. I do not feel
the force of the objection against miracles drawn from this alleged
constancy of nature, which it seems to me reduces the course of human
events to a dead mechanical sequence, makes no allowance for any
reserved power in nature or any incalculable forces of the Spirit, and
virtually rules God, the present inworking God, out of the universe. I
can believe in any miracle which does not actually and demonstrably
contravene and nullify ascertained laws, however phenomenally foreign to
nature's ordinary course. But the possibility of miracles is one thing,
the possibility of proving them another. With such views as these
objectors entertain of the constancy of nature, I confess that no
testimony, not even the written affidavit of a dozen witnesses taken on
the spot, supposing that we had it, would suffice to convince me of the
truth of marvels occurring two thousand years ago, of the kind recounted
in the Gospels. My Christian prepossessions might incline me to believe
in them: the weight of evidence would not. No wise defender of the
Christian cause, at the present day, will rest his plea on the issue to
which Paley committed its claims. After all that Biblical critics and
antiquarian research have raked from the dust of antiquity in proof of
the genuineness and authenticity of the books of the New Testament,
credibility still labors with the fact that the age in which these books
were received and put in circulation was one in which the science of
criticism as developed by the moderns - the science which scrutinizes
statements, balances evidence for and against, and sifts the true from
the false - did not exist; an age when a boundless credulity disposed men
to believe in wonders as readily as in ordinary events, requiring no
stronger proof in the case of the former than sufficed to establish the
latter, - viz., hearsay and vulgar report; an age when literary honesty
was a virtue almost unknown, and when, consequently, literary forgeries
were as common as genuine productions, and transcribers of sacred books
did not scruple to alter the text in the interest of personal views and
doctrinal prepossessions. The newly discovered Sinaitic Code, the
earliest known manuscript of the New Testament, dates from the fourth
century. Tischendorf the discoverer, a very orthodox critic, speaks
without reserve of the license in the treatment of the text apparent in
this manuscript, - a license, he says, especially characteristic of the
first three centuries.

These considerations, though they do not discredit the essential facts
of the Gospel history, - facts assured to us, as I have said, by the
very existence of the Christian Church, - might seem to excuse the
hesitation of the sceptic in accepting, on the faith of the record,
incidental marvels of a kind very difficult of proof at best. I recall
in this connection the remarkable saying of an English divine of the
seventeenth century. "So great, in the early ages," says Bishop Fell,
"was the license of fiction, and so prone the facility of believing,
that the credibility of history has been gravely embarrassed thereby;
and not only the secular world, but the Church of God, has reason to
complain of its mythical periods."[9]

[Footnote 9: Tanta fuit primis seculis fingendi licentia, tam prona in
credendo facilitas, ut rerum gestarum fides graviter exinde laboraverit,
nec orbis tantum terrarum sed et Dei ecclesia de temporibus suis
mythicis merito queratur.]

It is not in the interest of criticism, much less of a wilful
iconoclasm, from which my whole nature revolts, but of Christian faith,
that I advocate the supposition of a mythical element in the New
Testament. I am well aware that in this advocacy I shall lack the
consent of many good people who identify the cause of religion with its
accidents, and fancy that the sanctuary is in danger when a blind is
raised to let in new light. I respect the piety that clings to idols
which Truth has outgrown, as Paul at Athens respected the religion which
worshipped ignorantly the unknown God. But Truth once seen will draw
piety after it, and new sanctities will replace the old. No Protestant
in these days feels himself bound to accept as history the
ecclesiastical legends of the post-apostolic age. Some of them are quite
as significant as some of those embodied in the canon; but no Protestant
scruples to reject as spurious the story of the caldron of boiling oil
into which St. John was thrown by order of the Emperor Domitian, and
from which he escaped unharmed, or that of the lioness which licked the
feet of Thecla in the circus at Antioch, or Peter's encounter with
Christ in the suburbs of Rome. If we talk of evidence, I do not see but
the miracles said to be performed by the relics of martyrs at Milan,
attested by St. Augustine, and those of St. Cuthbert of Durham, attested
by the venerable Bede, are as well substantiated as the opening of the
prison doors and the liberation of the Apostles by an angel, attested by
Luke. The Church of Rome makes no such distinction between the first and
the following centuries: she indorses the miracles of all alike. But
modern Protestantism draws a line of sharp separation between the
apostolic and the post-apostolic ages. On the farther side the portents
are all genuine historic facts: on the hither side they are all
figments. While John the Evangelist, the last of the twelve, yet
breathed, a miracle was still possible: his breath departed, it became
an impossibility for evermore. And yet when Conyers Middleton first ran
this line between the ages, and published his refutation of the claim of
continued miraculous power in the Church, religious sensibility
experienced a shock as great as that inflicted in our day by Strauss,
and resented with equal indignation the affront to Christian faith. The
author of the "Free Inquiry" published in 1748 was assailed by
opponents, who "insinuate" he tells us "fears and jealousies of I know
not what consequences dangerous to Christianity, ruinous to the faith of
history, and introductive of universal scepticism." The larger work had
been preceded by an "Introductory Discourse" put forth as a feeler of
the public pulse; for "I began," he says, "to think it a duty which
candor and prudence prescribed, not to alarm the public at once with an
argument so strange and so little understood, nor to hazard an
experiment so big with consequences till I had at first given out some
sketch or general plan of what I was projecting." The experiment which
required such careful preparation was to ascertain how far the English
public in the middle of the eighteenth century would bear to have it
said that the miracles affirmed by Augustine and Chrysostom and Jerome,
as occurring in their day, were not as worthy of credit as any of the
wonders recorded in the New Testament. Up to that time, English
Protestants as well as Romanists had given equal credence to both, and
esteemed the former as essential to Christian faith as the latter. Men
like Waterland and Dodwell and Archbishop Tillotson held that miracles
continued in the Church until the close of the third century, and were
even occasionally witnessed in the fourth. Whiston, the consistent
Arian, maintained their continuance up to the establishment of the
Athanasian doctrine in 381, and "that as soon as the Church became
Athanasian, antichristian, and popish, they ceased immediately; and the
Devil lent it his own cheating and fatal powers instead."

To me, I confess, the position of the Church of Rome in this matter
seems less indefensible than that of Middleton and modern Protestantism.
Either deny the possibility of miracles altogether to finite powers, or
admit their possibility in the second century, and the third century, as
well as the first, and in all centuries whenever a worthy occasion
demands such agency. I can see no reason for separating, as Middleton
does, the age of the Apostles from all succeeding. Had he drawn the line
between the miracles of Christ and those ascribed to his followers, the
principle of division would have been more intelligible, and more
admissible on the ground of ecclesiastical orthodoxy.

* * * * *

But the question here is not of the possibility or probability of
miracles, as such, in one age rather than another. It is a question
simply of Biblical interpretation, - whether the literal sense of the
record is in every case the true sense, whether history or fiction is
the key to certain Scriptures. Those who insist on the verbal
inspiration of the New Testament will be apt to likewise insist on the
literal historic sense of every part of every narrative. And yet that
mode of interpretation is by no means a necessary consequence or logical
outcome of that theory. Origen believed in the verbal inspiration of the
Old Testament, but Origen did not accept in their literal sense the
Hebrew theophanies: he allegorized whatever seemed to him to degrade the
idea of God. The Spirit can utter itself in fiction as well as fact, and
in communicating with Oriental minds was quite as likely to do so. And
surely, for those who reject the notion of verbal inspiration, the way
is open, in perfect consistency with Christian faith, for such
interpretation as reason may approve or the credit of the record be
thought to require. The credit of the record will sometimes require an
allegorical interpretation instead of a literal one.

It is a childish limitation which in reading stories can feel no
interest in any thing but fact; and a childish misconception which
supposes that where the form is narrative, historic fact must needs be
the substance. Recount to a little child a fable of Pilpay or Æsop, and
his questions betray his inability to apprehend it otherwise than as
literal fact. He has no doubt of the truth of the story; "what did the
lion say then?" he asks; and "what did the fox do next?" The maturer
mind has also no doubt of the truth of the story, but sees that its
truth is the moral it embodies. Of many of the Gospel stories the moral
contained in them is the real truth. In the height of our late civil war
there appeared in a popular journal a story entitled "A Man without a
Country," related with such artistic verisimilitude, such minuteness of
detail, such grave official references, that many who read it not once
suspected the clever invention, and felt themselves somewhat aggrieved
when apprised that fiction, not fact, had conveyed the moral intended by
the genial author. But those who saw from the first through the veil of
fiction the needful truth and the patriotic intent were not less edified
than if they had believed the characters real, and every incident
vouched by contemporary record. The story of William Tell was once
universally received as authentic history: it was written in the hearts
of the people of Uri, and so religiously were all its incidents
cherished, that when a book appeared discrediting the sacred tradition
it was publicly burned by the hangman at Altorf. For five centuries the
chapel on the shore of the Lake of the Four Cantons has commemorated a
hero whose very existence is now questioned, of whom contemporary annals
know nothing, of whose tyrant Gessler the well-kept records of the
Canton exhibit no trace, whose apple placed as a mark for the father's
arrow on the head of his child is proved to have done a foregone service
in an elder Danish tale. The story resolves itself into an idea. That
idea is all that concerns us; and that idea survives, inexpugnable to
criticism, a truth for evermore. In the world of ideas there is still a
William Tell who defied the tyrant at Altorf, and slew him at Küsnacht,
and whose image will live while the mountains stand that gave it birth.

And so all that is memorable out of the past, all that tradition has
preserved, the veritable facts of history as well as the myths of
legendary lore, pass finally into ideas. Only as ideas they survive,
only as ideas have they any abiding value. The anecdote recorded of
Aristides - his writing his own name at the request of an ignorant
citizen on the shell that should condemn him - embodies a noble idea
which has floated down to us from the head-waters of Grecian history. Do
we care to know the evidence on which it rests? If by critical
investigation the fact were made doubtful, would that doubt at all
impair the truth of the idea? The story of Damon and Pythias, reported
by Valerius Maximus, for aught that we know, may be a myth: suppose it
could be proved to be so, the truth that is in it would be none the less
precious. We do not receive it on the faith of the historian, but on the
faith of its own intrinsic beauty. There is scarcely a fact in the
annals of mankind so vouched and ascertained as to be beyond the reach
of historic doubt, if any delver in ancient documents, or curious
sceptic, shall see fit to call it in question. But, however the fact may
be questioned, the idea remains. We have lived to see apologies for
Judas Iscariot, and the literary rehabilitation of Henry VIII. But Judas
is none the less, in popular tradition, the typical traitor, the
impersonation of devilish malice; and Henry VIII. is no less the
remorseless tyrant whose will was his God. When Napoleon I. pronounced
all history a fable agreed on, he reasoned better perhaps than he knew.
The agreement is the thing essential; but that agreement is never
complete, is never final. Every original writer of history finds
something to qualify, and often something to reverse, in the judgment of
his predecessors. How can it be otherwise, when even eye-witnesses
disagree in their observation and report of the same transaction; when
even in a matter so recent as the siege of Paris, or the conflagration
of Chicago, the verification of facts is embarrassed by contradictory
accounts? The best that history yields to philosophic thought is not
facts, but ideas. These are all that remain at last when the tale is
told, - all, at least, that the mind can appropriate, all that profits in
historical studies, the intellectual harvest of the past. A fact means
nothing until thought has transmuted it into itself: its value is simply
the idea it subtends. Homer's heroes are as true in this sense as those
of Plutarch. Ajax and Hector are as real to me as Cimon or Lysander; Don


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