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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : SECTION VIII. The four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of Saint Paul the Firstà

Evidences Of Christianity by William Paley

SECTION VIII. The four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of Saint Paul the Firstà

The four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of Saint Paul the First Epistle of John, and the First of Peter, were received without doubt by those who doubted concerning the other books which are included in our present Canon.

I state this proposition, because, if made out, it shows that the authenticity of their books was a subject amongst the early Christians of consideration and inquiry; and that, where there was cause of doubt, they did doubt; a circumstance which strengthens very much their testimony to such books as were received by them with full acquiescence.

I. Jerome, in his account of Caius, who was probably a presbyter of Rome, and who flourished near the year 200, records of him, that, reckoning up only thirteen epistles of Paul, he says the fourteenth, which is inscribed to the Hebrews, is not his: and then Jerome adds, |With the Romans to this day it is not looked upon as Paul's .| This agrees in the main with the account given by Eusebius of the same ancient author and his work; except that Eusebius delivers his own remark in more guarded terms: |And indeed to this very time, by some of the Romans, this epistle is not thought to be the apostle's .| (Lardner, vol. iii. p.240.)

II. Origen, about twenty years after Caius, quoting the Epistle to the Hebrews, observes that some might dispute the authority of that epistle; and therefore proceeds to quote to the same point, as undoubted books of Scripture, the Gospel of Saint Matthew, the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul's First Epistle to the Thessalonians. (Lardner, vol. iii. p.246.) and in another place, this author speaks of the Epistle to the Hebrews thus: |The account come down to us is various; some saying that Clement who was bishop of Rome, wrote this epistle; others, that it was Luke, the same who wrote the Gospel and the Acts.| Speaking also, in the same paragraph, of Peter, |Peter,| says he, |has left one epistle, acknowledged; let it be granted likewise that he wrote a second, for it is doubted of.| And of John, |He has also left one epistle, of a very few lines; grant also a second and a third, for all do not allow them to be genuine.| Now let it be noted, that Origen, who thus discriminates, and thus confesses his own doubts and the doubts which subsisted in his time, expressly witnesses concerning the four Gospels, |that they alone are received without dispute by the whole church of God under heaven.| (Lardner, vol. iii. p.234.)

III. Dionysius of Alexandria, in the year 247, doubts concerning the Book of Revelation, whether it was written by Saint John; states the grounds of his doubt, represents the diversity of opinion concerning it, in his own time, and before his time. (Lardner, vol. iv. p.670.) Yet the same Dionysius uses and collates the four Gospels in a manner which shows that he entertained not the smallest suspicion of their authority, and in a manner also which shows that they, and they alone, were received as authentic histories of Christ. (Lardner, vol. iv. p.661.)

IV. But this section may be said to have been framed on purpose to introduce to the reader two remarkable passages extant in Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History. The first passage opens with these words: -- |Let us observe the writings of the apostle John which are uncontradicted: and first of all must be mentioned, as acknowledged of all, the Gospel according to him, well known to all the churches under heaven.| The author then proceeds to relate the occasions of writing the Gospels, and the reasons for placing Saint John's the last, manifestly speaking of all the four as parallel in their authority, and in the certainty of their original. (Lardner, vol. viii. p.90.) The second passage is taken from a chapter, the title of which is, |Of the Scriptures universally acknowledged, and of those that are not such.| Eusebius begins his enumeration in the following manner: -- |In the first place are to be ranked the sacred four Gospels; then the book of the Acts of the Apostles; after that are to be reckoned the Epistles of Paul. In the next place, that called the First Epistle of John, and the Epistle of Peter, are to be esteemed authentic. After this is to be placed, if it be thought fit, the Revelation of John, about which we shall observe the different opinions at proper seasons. Of the controverted, but yet well known or approved by the most, are, that called the Epistle of James, and that of Jude, and the Second of Peter, and the Second and Third of John, whether they are written by the evangelist, or another of the same name.| (Lardner, vol. viii. p.39.) He then proceeds to reckon up five others, not in our canon, which he calls in one place spurious, in another controverted, meaning, as appears to me, nearly the same thing by these two words.

It is manifest from this passage, that the four Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles (the parts of Scripture with which our concern principally lies), were acknowledged without dispute, even by those who raised objections, or entertained doubts, about some other parts of the same collection. But the passage proves something more than this. The author was extremely conversant in the writings of Christians which had been published from the commencement of the institution to his own time: and it was from these writings that he drew his knowledge of the character and reception of the books in question. That Eusebius recurred to this medium of information, and that he had examined with attention this species of proof, is shown, first, by a passage in the very chapter we are quoting, in which, speaking of the books which he calls spurious, |None,| he says, |of the ecclesiastical writers, in the succession of the apostles, have vouchsafed to make any mention of them in their writings;| and, secondly, by another passage of the same work, wherein, speaking of the First Epistle of Peter, |This,| he says, |the presbyters of ancient times have quoted in their writings as undoubtedly genuine;| (Lardner, vol. viii. p.99.) and then, speaking of some other writings bearing the name of Peter, |We know,| he says, |that they have not been delivered down to us in the number of Catholic writings, forasmuch as no ecclesiastical writer of the ancients, or of our times, has made use of testimonies out of them.| |But in the progress of this history,| the author proceeds, |we shall make it our business to show, together with the successions from the apostles, what ecclesiastical writers, in every age, have used such writings as these which are contradicted, and what they have said with regard to the Scriptures received in the New Testament, and acknowledged by all, and with regard to those which are not such.| (Lardner, vol. viii. p.111)

After this it is reasonable to believe that when Eusebius states the four Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles, as uncontradicted, uncontested, and acknowledged by all; and when he places them in opposition, not only to those which were spurious, in our sense of that term, but to those which were controverted, and even to those which were well known and approved by many, yet doubted of by some; he represents not only the sense of his own age, but the result of the evidence which the writings of prior ages, from the apostles' time to his own, had furnished to his inquiries. The opinion of Eusebius and his contemporaries appears to have been founded upon the testimony of writers whom they then called ancient: and we may observe, that such of the works of these writers as have come down to our times entirely confirm the judgment, and support the distinction which Eusebius proposes. The books which he calls |books universally acknowledged| are in fact used and quoted in time remaining works of Christian writers, during the 250 years between the apostles' time and that of Eusebius, much more frequently than, and in a different manner from, those the authority of which, he tells us, was disputed.

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