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"Can it at all lessen the credibility of the two Evangelists, (Matthew and Luke,) that each admitted into his history (of the Nativity) some passages not purely historical? Certainly not with a candid judge, who considers that all this serves still only as a prelude to the proper subject of the history, which was the Public Life of Jesus." Schleiermacher, Critical Essay on the Gospel of St. Luke, English Trans. p. 51.
In the examination of the notices of the Birth of Jesus of Nazareth, there are certain considerations to be attended to, which, although they may not lead us near enough to the truth to enable us to discern its precise form, are nevertheless indispensable guides, so far as they go.
Receiving the sketches, that have come down to us, of the life of Jesus as simple human histories, the productions of honest and intelligent men, while we acknowledge their substantial truth, we cannot possibly avoid admitting the liability of their authors to error. To hold the Gospels to be human compositions and to maintain their absolute freedom from mistake are ideas wholly irreconcilable. For it is of the nature of every thing human to be marked with imperfection. But because these writings, being human, are necessarily
imperfect, to assert that they lose all claim to trustworthiness, is a very precipitate and dangerous conclusion. A perfect human work is, in strict terms, not an impossibility, but an absurdity. We might as well speak of a perfect imperfect work. The pretension therefore in behalf of any book to absolute perfection, might justly provoke skepticism and "cast ominous conjecture on its whole success." On the other hand, the very imperfections of any human work, taking their form from the time and place of the writer, from his character and the nature of the subject of which he treats, aid us in determining the extent of his credibility. The strongest argument for the truth of the Gospel narratives is found, as I have endeavoured in the foregoing pages to show, in the marks of human nature, in the traces, every where visible throughout these remarkable histories, of human minds, honest and intelligent, and yet impressed by the institutions, partaking of the opinions and prejudices of a certain period and country, and affected, in various ways, more or less powerfully, by the very facts they narrate. We are not then to be dismayed at the slightest appearance of misstatement in works which we acknowledge to be productions of men. The thing is inevitable. But not only so, the mistakes that appear, produced in part by the very truth of the facts related, not only do not impair, they may confirm our faith, and more powerfully than any direct external evidence.
It is true the errors discoverable in a given work may be so numerous, and of so serious a character, as entirely to destroy its credibility. It is none the less true, none the less to be considered that, as no man is so honest and wise as to be placed beyond the possibility of misapprehension, so some degree of error may consist with sterling integrity of purpose and first rate
RUMOURS OF APPARITIONS
powers of observation. An individual may relate to us an event, ordinary or extraordinary, in such terms, in such a manner, with such an air, as to satisfy us perfectly that he must have witnessed it. Such may be his relation, that, upon the closest examination, we may be convinced, beyond the possibility of doubt, that it is founded in reality. He may tell us at the same time of another event, equally remarkable and as confidently believed in by him, of which, however, he neither professes to have, nor, from his own showing, could he possibly have, the same direct personal knowledge as in the former instance. Are we to receive both relations with the same confidence? Or because we hesitate to admit one must our faith in the other waver? Perhaps the very reality of the first fact related has occasioned misapprehension in the other case.
For example. Matthew relates that at the crucifixion of Jesus "many bodies of the saints who slept rose, and after his resurrection, came into the holy city and appeared unto many." I suppose that Matthew believed this statement. And his believing it is a strong reason why it should be considered well and decided upon with care. But my confidence in his integrity and intelligence is not to be questioned because I hesitate to admit it, nor, without a violation of common charity and common sense, can it be inferred that I doubt the truth of the other and more important parts of the narrative. Did I not fully believe the other facts, the works, death and resurrection of Jesus, did I not perceive the numerous and decisive evidences to his competency as an eye-witness, which Matthew has given in the whole structure of his narrative, I should not see the reason that I do for pausing over the passages referred to. As it is, I cannot help observing that Matthew does not say, nor imply, that
AFTER THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS.
either he himself or any of the immediate disciples saw the saints who rose from their graves and came into the city. He simply states what 'many' affirmed. And precisely in proportion to the vividness of our faith in the miraculous career of Jesus, as narrated by Matthew, in the thrilling impression which his extraordinary life and death and the rumour of his resurrection must have made on the public mind, we shall perceive how very natural it was, under the circumstances, that 'many' should see visions and dream dreams, that throughout the city, the scene of the great catastrophe, rumours should be rife of ghosts and apparitions, rumours communicated by one to another with white cheeks and lips and glaring eyes, and that in such an excited state of public feeling, these things should be told as actual facts, unquestionable visitations from the world of spirits. As such they are represented by Matthew. And we may suppose that he believed them without questioning his good sense or his honesty. Let a man of no ordinary soundness of judgment and purity purpose be placed in Matthew's situation, and witness the things which the Evangelist had seen, and we may easily conceive that he would have been impressed more or less deeply by popular reports, and disposed to give them credit. It does not weaken a rational confidence in Matthew that in this instance he has stated a rumour as a fact. On the contrary, our confidence in the soundness of his judgment may well be increased when we observe how little of fiction is mingled with his narrative, and what abounding internal evidences are presented that the things he relates, are not illusions but realities, not matters of hearsay, credited upon inadequate grounds, but facts, which the writer knew. I am persuaded that he was a man remarkably sound in head and heart, protected against false im
THE DELIVERANCE OF PETER
pressions by a mind of singular truth. Neither he nor his brother historians give us the slightest reason to regret, that wiser and better men were not present to be the witnesses and narrators of those great events. Taking all things into consideration, I am unable to conceive how the work could have been better done.
The aim of these remarks is best shown by instances; and I mention another. In the 12th chapter of the Book of Acts, there is an account of the deliverance of the Apostle Peter from the prison into which he had been thrown by Herod. "Peter therefore was kept in prison; but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him. And when Herod would have brought him forth (to put him to death), the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains; and the keepers before the door kept the prison. And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shone in the prison; and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands. And the angel said unto him, 'Gird thyself and bind on thy sandals:' and so he did. And he saith unto him, 'Cast thy garments about thee, and follow me.' And he went out and followed him; and wist not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision. When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth into the city; which opened to them of its own accord; and they went out, and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him, and when Peter was come to himself, he said, 'Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath sent his angel and hath delivered me out of the hands of Herod and from all the expectations of the Jews.""
Now, without casting the slightest suspicion on the