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THE TRUSTWORTHINESS OF THE GOSPELS
All the topics we have considered bear directly or indirectly upon the great question whether the gospels are trustworthy; and the main arguments for or against an affirmative answer are drawn from them. But some additional arguments deserve a place in a, special chapter.
The story of Jesus, as given in the gospels, must be treated as either fact or fiction. Few if any scholars would pronounce it wholly fictitious. They would agree that probably there was such a person as Jesus of Nazareth, an earnest, high-minded Galilean peasant, who gathered a little band of disciples to whom he taught some simple but noble truths about God and man, and who finally was put to death by the Roman authorities. But they would no more treat the gospel story as sober history of this peasant than they would treat Tennyson's “Idylls of the King” as sober history of the British King Arthur. In their opinion it is mostly fiction. If they are right the problem at once arises, Who invented it? For we cannot fairly refuse to accept the story as fact unless we can find some satisfactory explanation of how it originated, if a fiction.
The deists of the eighteenth century declared that the apostles deliberately lied about Jesus. But no one to-day accepts that explanation; it is too evidently absurd. The apostles by such fraud could gain only hardship, suffering, loss, and death; a man does not spend his life in proclaiming what he knows to be a lie for these rewards. The story they told was in many ways not to their own credit, for it recorded their stupidity, selfishness, cowardice; if they were adepts at invention, they certainly would have made their conduct appear more praiseworthy. Moreover, the religion which they preached with all earnestness had in it nothing but denunciation for deception, and eternal doom for liars; how could they proclaim it when conscience told them that they themselves were under its condemnation ? An apostolic band of fiction-makers and mongers is inconceivable.
The theory usually advanced to-day is that the gospel story was a product of the reverent and practically unconscious invention of the early church. To the simple story of Jesus, as originally told by the apostles, constant additions were made by ignorant, enthusiastic, imaginative Christians of the first century. Because they accepted him as Messiah, they believed he must in all respects have fulfilled the Messianic prophecies, and performed the mighty works expected of a Messiah. Because he was the hero of their faith, they gave to him the legendary greatness which increasingly gathers about a hero. Around his head they placed a halo of miracles; in his lips they put discourses of supernatural self-assertion and wisdom. It was not done deliberately and with intent to deceive; they honestly believed all that they delighted to proclaim-it was the self-deception of love.
Against this theory we may bring the objection that so long as the apostles and other companions of Jesus were alive, they would be witnesses to the real facts, and hindrances to the growth of fiction. Indeed, Strauss and the other framers of the theory started with the supposition that the gospels were written well on in the second century, and set forth the thought of the church about Jesus a hundred years after his death. But, as we have seen, it is agreed to-day that certainly three of our gospels were written in the first centuryand at least one of them as early as the middle of the first century-before the original witnesses had passed away, and when there had been little time for the development of myths and legends. Nevertheless, we must remember that among an ignorant, enthusiastic body of followers, myths and legends do develop quickly and persist most stubbornly. The lives of saints and founders of sects—heathen or Christian, ancient, mediæval or modern-are usually embellished with details that will not endure historical criticism. And the mere fact that these lives were written by immediate disciples does not guarantee their accuracy. Accordingly, in considering the trustworthiness of the gospels, it is not enough to show that we have them in their original form, that their date is in the first century, and that their sources are the recollections of the apostles. We must also consider the qualifications of the apostles as witnesses, and the character of the story they tell.
The fact that the gospel narrative is full of the miraculous does not justify an immediate rejection of it as evidently false, or a contemptuous judgment of the apostles as superstitious, credulous witnesses. This is the treatment often given by men who deny miracles; but it is most unfair. The question of miracles is a comprehensive one, starting with the philosophical problem of the existence of a personal God and his relations to the universe, passing next to the religious problem of the attitude of God toward man and the function of miracles in his self-revelation, and ending with the historical problem of the sufficiency of evidence that certain miracles were actually performed. If the student of the gospels is fully convinced that there is no personal God, or that the universe is independent of his will, or that he does not wish man to know him, or that sufficient knowledge of God is given in natural ways, then the miraculous is ruled out, and any report of it is absurd. In other words, the atheist or the deist is justified in affirming that miracles do not happen. But the agnostic, and still less the theist, has little right to make that affirmation until he has carefully examined the historical evidence that miracles have taken place. And no evidence is so important and worthy of serious consideration as that presented in the gospels; for no miracles are in such evident harmony with the noblest conceptions of God and man as the miracles of Christ.
The gospel story comes to us either directly or almost at first-hand from the apostles. This holds true whatever may be the solution of the synoptic and Johannine problems. The apostles were not the only persons who accompanied Jesus during at least a part of his ministry (Acts 1 : 21-26); but they were the men who spoke with authority concerning it, and who considered witness-bearing to be one of their special duties. Were they trustworthy witnesses? They certainly had abundant opportunity to learn the facts which they proclaimed; no one disputes this. And, as we have already noted, their character and lack of inducement to deceive makes us believe that they would report the facts exactly as they had learned them. But were they competent witnesses; or did their ignorance and prejudices and enthusiasm make them, as some critics affirm, wholly incompetent?
Before answering this, notice just what we ask of the apostles. We do not demand that they deal with the miracles as a twentieth-century scientist would, and give us their verdict concerning the supernatural.