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Apostle's head or heart, we may suppose that he misapprehended the circumstances here stated. That he was a man "of an incorrigible and losing honesty," the statement itself shows. He relates that he was 'asleep' when the angel came to him, and that when he was awake, 'he wist not that it was real which was done by the angel, but thought he saw a vision.' And when the angel left him, he speaks of coming to himself.' Is it for a moment to be disputed that the testimony of an individual to the things, which he sees in such a state of mind, is to be taken with some abatement? He may be eminently discreet and honest, yet as he is a man he is liable in such a state to misapprehend what passes before him. There are no mortal powers of observation so strong as not to be disturbed, more or less, under such circumstances. We are permitted, nay, we are required, in all truth to suspect a mistake, especially since our knowledge of the state of things intimates with the greatest probability the true account of this incident. Let us look at it more closely.
We have a very imperfect sense of the magnitude of these things which Peter had witnessed, of the singular powers of Him with whom the Apostle had been associated as a friend and disciple, if we overlook the effect which the recent ministry of Jesus must have had on Peter's mind. What an experience had been his! Having witnessed the wonders wrought by his master, having held converse with one whom God had sent and whom the grave had restored, having come himself to be engaged in a great work, a work which enjoyed the special providence of Heaven, could he have possibly avoided being swayed by all that he had seen and felt? Suddenly aroused from sleep in the prison from which he looked to be liberated only by
THE STATE OF PETER'S MIND,
death, was it not natural that his first and absorbing impression should be, that God had specially interposed for his deliverance, and that the person, who led him out, was an angel from Heaven; and was it not equally natural that every thing that occurred should be coloured by this impression?
And further, do we really believe that the events, recorded in the gospels, actually took place? Do we believe in that miraculous Man of Nazareth, in the instantaneous restoration of the sick, lame, and blind, in the raising of Lazarus, and in the awful death and reappearance of Jesus himself, and can we conceive that, at such a spectacle, the like of which had never before been exhibited on earth, the minds of all who came within sight and sound thereof, did not stir and quake to their inmost depths? Why, enough had happened to shake the very world out of its place. The whole history of Jesus gives evidence that he wrought on the public mind with unprecedented power. The common people heard him gladly, and thronged around him by thousands, and, but that they were cowering slaves, they would have risen in a mass against the spiritual tyrants who oppressed them, and put him to death. At the time of Peter's imprisonment, there were thousands of Christians in and around Jerusalem. He would not have been thought worthy of Herod's notice, if the cause in which he was engaged, was not making alarming progress. Thousands were praying fervently for his deliverance. It is not to be doubted that there were hundreds, thousands more, secret friends and well-wishers of the Christians, persons imperfectly acquainted with Christianity, neither considered, nor calling themselves, disciples, and yet ready to help the Christians, or at least, to connive at their success. Secret favourers of the cause, it is natural to suppose,
TO BE TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT.
were to be found every where, even among the ministers of the law, and official servants of the government. These things being so, and we must shut our eyes to all history and observation, and to all we know of human nature to suppose otherwise, is it not highly probable that the Apostle was liberated by a plan concerted by persons who were either unknown to him and his immediate friends, or were anxious for their own safety to keep themselves concealed, and who, through some address, had obtained the means of entering the prison? The two chains by which he was bound to the two guards sleeping beside him, and which to the wondering, half-awake Apostle seemed to fall from him, were probably unfastened softly before he awoke, that the guards might not be aroused. The gate, that appeared to open of itself, was opened by a human, though an unseen, hand. It is easy to conceive how such a plot may have been laid and executed. And if it were, nothing is more natural than that it should have appeared to Peter precisely as it did. Had he viewed it otherwise, it would have argued a lack of sensibility in him, and shown that his mind had not been impressed by the exciting experience of the few years previous, as it must have been, were that mind human, and that experience, real. I cannot imagine how an honest, devout man, a witness of the life of Jesus, a prisoner expecting death, and a Jew, in the bewilderment in which he declares himself to have been, could have avoided the misapprehension into which he fell.
This account of the mode of Peter's escape from prison, may or may not be the true account. But he who objects to it that it affects the authority of Christianity, knows not the impregnable foundations upon
THE GOSPELS, TRUE.
which our religion, as an historical fact, rests. The above account presupposes the substantial truth of the history of Christ. It is the reality of all that preceded the imprisonment of Peter that makes this view of the case probable.
These observations are wholly misapprehended if they are thought to imply, or to have a tendency to produce, a distrust of the historical truth of the gospels. The ground here taken is plainly this: supposing these narratives to be true, the best histories ever written, still, as they are the compositions of men, they cannot be devoid of error. We must make up our minds to find mistakes here as in every human work. A book may contain many errors, and yet, all circumstances considered, make pretensions to no ordinary degree of accuracy. No charge of error brought against the Gospels alarms me. If it be sweeping and unqualified, if it be said that they are full of errors, that the main facts are wholly misstated, I deny it utterly, and demand proof without fear. I know better. I see that the whole texture of these books was woven in the loom of Truth. But if it be meant only that there are errors with regard to a few subordinate particulars, the answer is, some degree of error was to be expected, especially when we consider to what untried and powerful influences the minds of their authors were exposed. It could not be otherwise. Calmly and fearlessly then, nay, with confidence and hope let us examine the probable errors, and see to what they amount. I venture to assert that in every case as in the two instances I have adduced, it will be found that the error was occasioned by the stirring truth of the principal facts recorded; that whenever the writers have misapprehended certain particulars, it was because they had
THE ACCOUNTS OF THE NATIVITY.
been eye-witnesses of the life of Jesus, participants in its wonderful scenes.
The foregoing remarks have a direct bearing upon our inquiries into the circumstances of the birth of Christ. The History informs us that he was conceived in a miraculous manner, that an angel appeared to his mother, a virgin, and announced his birth, and that he was accordingly born without a human father, the offspring of the Holy Spirit of God.*
Now there is an improbability of the truth of this account, arising from its very unusual and extraordinary character, which, however, is not decisive. We cannot conclude upon this ground alone that the account is false. It justifies us in demanding very powerful evidence, but no more. We are not at liberty to reject the story altogether. If the fact proposed, however strange, is not an absurdity, a contradiction in terms, a nonentity, it may admit of proof, although it might require the very strongest. Whatever is possible is probable. I use this word, not in its most common sense as implying an actual and admitted preponderance of evidence, but, in a stricter sense, as equivalent to 'capable of proof.' And with this use of the term, I say again, whatever is possible is probable, because we live, and move, and have our being, in the midst of a Power of inexhaustible resources and ceaseless activity. Thus situated, seeing what we see, it is natural and right for us to expect new manifestations
*It is well known that the genuineness of the passage in Matthew from which the above account is derived, has been, and is disputed. But the principal objections to it rest upon internal considerations, and will of course lose their weight, if it should appear that its internal character has not been rightly apprehended. See Norton on the Genuineness of the Gospels, additional notes, p. liii.