These propositions cannot be predicated of any of those books which are commonly called Apocryphal Books of the New Testament.
I do not know that the objection taken from apocryphal writings is at present much relied upon by scholars. But there are many, who, hearing that various Gospels existed in ancient times under the names of the apostles, may have taken up a notion, that the selection of our present Gospels from the rest was rather an arbitrary or accidental choice, than founded in any clear and certain cause of preference. To these it may be very useful to know the truth of the case. I observe, therefore: --
I. That, beside our Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, no Christian history, claiming to be written by an apostle or apostolical man, is quoted within three hundred years after the birth of Christ, by any writer now extant or known; or, if quoted, is not quoted but with marks of censure and rejection.
I have not advanced this assertion without inquiry; and I doubt not but that the passages cited by Mr. Jones and Dr. Lardner, under the several titles which the apocryphal books bear; or a reference to the places where they are mentioned as collected in a very accurate table, published in the year 1773, by the Rev. J. Atkinson, will make out the truth of the proposition to the satisfaction of every fair and competent judgment. If there be any book which may seem to form an exception to the observation, it is a Hebrew Gospel, which was circulated under the various titles of, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Nazarenes, of the Ebionites, sometimes called of the Twelve, by some ascribed to St Matthew. This Gospel is once, and only once, cited by Clemens Alexandrinus, who lived, the reader will remember, in the latter part of the second century, and which same Clement quotes one or other of our four Gospels in almost every page of his work. It is also twice mentioned by Origen, A.D.230; and both times with marks of diminution and discredit. And this is the ground upon which the exception stands. But what is still more material to observe is, that this Gospel, in the main, agreed with our present Gospel of Saint Matthew. (In applying to this Gospel what Jerome in the latter end of the fourth century has mentioned of a Hebrew Gospel, I think it probable that we sometimes confound it with a Hebrew copy of St. Matthew's Gospel, whether an original or version, which was then extant.)
Now if, with this account of the apocryphal Gospels, we compare what we have read concerning the canonical Scriptures in the preceding sections; or even recollect that general but well-founded assertion of Dr. Lardner, |That in the remaining works of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, who all lived in the first two centuries, there are more and larger quotations of the small volume of the New Testament than of all the works of Cicero, by writers of all characters, for several ages;| (Lardner, Cred. vol. xii. p.53.) and if to this we add that, notwithstanding the loss of many works of the primitive times of Christianity, we have, within the above-mentioned period, the remains of Christian writers who lived in Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Egypt, the part of Africa that used the Latin tongue, in Crete, Greece, Italy, and Gaul, in all which remains references are found to our evangelists; I apprehend that we shall perceive a clear and broad line of division between those writings and all others pretending to similar authority.
II. But beside certain histories which assumed the names of apostles, and which were forgeries properly so called, there were some other Christian writings, in the whole or in part of an historical nature, which, though not forgeries, are denominated apocryphal, as being of uncertain or of no authority.
Of this second class of writings, I have found only two which are noticed by any author of the first three centuries without express terms of condemnation: and these are, the one a book entitled the Preaching of Peter, quoted repeatedly by Clemens Alexandrinus, A.D.196; the other a book entitled the Revelation of Peter, upon which the above-mentioned Clemens Alexandrinus is said by Eusebius to have written notes; and which is twice cited in a work still extant, ascribed to the same author.
I conceive, therefore, that the proposition we have before advanced, even after it hath been subjected to every exception of every kind that can be alleged, separates, by a wide interval, our historical Scriptures from all other writings which profess to give an account of the same subject.
We may be permitted however to add, --
1. That there is no evidence that any spurious or apocryphal books whatever existed in the first century of the Christian era, in which century all our historical books are proved to have been extant. |There are no quotations of any such books in the apostolical fathers, by whom I mean Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Hermas, Ignatius, and Polycarp, whose writings reach from about the year of our Lord 70 to the year 108 (and some of whom have quoted each and every one of our historical Scriptures): I say this,| adds Dr. Lardner, |because I think it has been proved.| (Lardner, Cred. vol. xii. p.158.)
2. These apocryphal writings were not read in the churches of Christians;
3. Were not admitted into their volume;
4. Do not appear in their catalogues;
5. Were not noticed by their adversaries;
6. Were not alleged by different parties, as of authority in their controversies;
7. Were not the subjects, amongst them, of commentaries, versions, collections, expositions.
Finally; beside the silence of three centuries, or evidence within that time of their rejection, they were, with a consent nearly universal, reprobated by Christian writers of succeeding ages.
Although it be made out by these observations that the books in question never obtained any degree of credit and notoriety which can place them in competition with our Scriptures; yet it appears from the writings of the fourth century, that many such existed in that century, and in the century preceding it. It may be difficult at this distance of time to account for their origin.
Perhaps the most probable explication is, that they were in general composed with a design of making a profit by the sale. Whatever treated of the subject would find purchasers. It was an advantage taken of the pious curiosity of unlearned Christians. With a view to the same purpose, there were many of them adapted to the particular opinions of particular sects, which would naturally promote their circulation amongst the favourers of those opinions. After all, they were probably much more obscure than we imagine. Except the Gospel according to the Hebrews, there is none of which we hear more than the Gospel of the Egyptians; yet there is good reason to believe that Clement, a presbyter of Alexandria in Egypt, A.D.184, and a man of almost universal reading, had never seen it. (Jones, vol. i. p.243.) A Gospel according to Peter was another of the most ancient books of this kind; yet Serapion, bishop of Antioch, A.D.200, had not read it, when he heard of such a book being in the hands of the Christians of Rhossus in Cilicia; and speaks of obtaining a sight of this Gospel from some sectaries who used it. (Lardner, Cred. vol. ii. p.557.) Even of the Gospel of the Hebrews, which confessedly stands at the head of the catalogue, Jerome, at the end of the fourth century, was glad to procure a copy by the favour of the Nazarenes of Berea. Nothing of this sort ever happened, or could have happened, concerning our Gospels.
One thing is observable of all the apocryphal Christian writings, viz. that they proceed upon the same fundamental history of Christ and his apostles as that which is disclosed in our Scriptures. The mission of Christ, his power of working miracles, his communication of that power to the apostles, his passion, death, and resurrection, are assumed or asserted by every one of them. The names under which some of them came forth are the names of men of eminence in our histories. What these books give are not contradictions, but unauthorised additions. The principal facts are supposed, the principal agents the same; which shows that these points were too much fixed to be altered or disputed.
If there be any book of this description which appears to have imposed upon some considerable number of learned Christians, it is the Sibylline oracles; but when we reflect upon the circumstances which facilitated that imposture, we shall cease to wonder either at the attempt or its success. It was at that time universally understood that such a prophetic writing existed. Its contents were kept secret. This situation afforded to some one a hint, as well as an opportunity, to give out a writing under this name, favourable to the already established persuasion of Christians, and which writing, by the aid and recommendation of these circumstances, would in some degree, it is probable, be received. Of the ancient forgery we know but little; what is now produced could not, in my opinion, have imposed upon any one. It is nothing else than the Gospel history woven into verse; perhaps was at first rather a fiction than a forgery; an exercise of ingenuity, more than an attempt to deceive.