I shall consider this objection, first, as it applies to the letters of the apostles preserved in the New Testament; and secondly, as it applies to the remaining writings of other early Christians.
The epistles of the apostles are either hortatory or argumentative. So far as they were occupied in delivering lessons of duty, rules of public order, admonitions against certain prevailing corruptions, against vice, or any particular species of it, or in fortifying and encouraging the constancy of the disciples under the trials to which they were exposed, there appears to be no place or occasion for more of these references than we actually find.
So far as these epistles are argumentative, the nature of the argument which they handle accounts for the infrequency of these allusions. These epistles were not written to prove the truth of Christianity. The subject under consideration was not that which the miracles decided, the reality of our Lord's mission; but it was that which the miracles did not decide, the nature of his person or power, the design of his advent, its effects, and of those effects the value, kind, and extent. Still I maintain that miraculous evidence lies at the bottom of the argument. For nothing could be so preposterous as for the disciples of Jesus to dispute amongst themselves, or with others, concerning his office or character; unless they believed that he had shown, by supernatural proofs, that there was something extraordinary in both. Miraculous evidence, therefore, forming not the texture of these arguments, but the ground and substratum, if it be occasionally discerned, if it be incidentally appealed to, it is exactly so much as ought take place, supposing the history to be true.
As a further answer to the objection, that the apostolic epistles do not contain so frequent, or such direct and circumstantial recitals of miracles as might be expected, I would add, that the apostolic epistles resemble in this respect the apostolic speeches, which speeches are given by a writer who distinctly records numerous miracles wrought by these apostles themselves, and by the Founder of the institution in their presence; that it is unwarrantable to contend that the omission, or infrequency, of such recitals in the speeches of the apostles negatives the existence of the miracles, when the speeches are given in immediate conjunction with the history of those miracles: and that a conclusion which cannot be inferred from the speeches without contradicting the whole tenour of the book which contains them cannot be inferred from letters, which in this respect are similar only to the speeches.
To prove the similitude which we allege, it may be remarked, that although in Saint Luke's Gospel the apostle Peter is represented to have been present at many decisive miracles wrought by Christ; and although the second part of the same history ascribes other decisive miracles to Peter himself, particularly the cure of the lame man at the gate of the temple (Acts iii.1), the death of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts v.1), the cure of Aeneas (Acts ix.34), the resurrection of Dorcas (Acts ix.40); yet out of six speeches of Peter, preserved in the Acts, I know but two in which reference is made to the miracles wrought by Christ, and only one in which he refers to miraculous powers possessed by himself. In his speech upon the day of Pentecost, Peter addresses his audience with great solemnity thus: |Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you, by miracles, and wonders, and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know:| (Acts ii.22.) &c. In his speech upon the conversion of Cornelius, he delivers his testimony to the miracles performed by Christ in these words: |We are witnesses of all things which he did, both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem.| (Acts x.39.) But in this latter speech no allusion appears to the miracles wrought by himself notwithstanding that the miracles above enumerated all preceded the time in which it was delivered. In his speech upon the election of Matthias, (Acts i.15.) no distinct reference is made to any of the miracles of Christ's history except his resurrection. The same also may be observed of his speech upon the cure of the lame man at the of the temple; (Acts iii.12.) the same in his speech before the Sanhedrim; (Acts iv.8.) the same in his second apology in the presence of that assembly Stephen's long speech contains no reference whatever to miracles, though it be expressly related of him, in the book which preserves the speech, and almost immediately before the speech, |that he did great wonders and miracles among the people.| (Acts vi.8.) Again, although miracles be expressly attributed to Saint Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, first generally, as at Iconium (Acts xiv.3), during the whole tour through the Upper Asia (xiv.27; xv.12), at Ephesus (xix.11, 12); secondly, in specific instances, as the blindness of Elymas at Paphos, (Acts xiii.11.) the cure of the cripple at Lystra, (Acts xiv.8.) of the pythoness at Philippi, (Acts xvi.16.) the miraculous liberation from prison in the same city, (Acts xvi.26.) the restoration of Eutychus, (Acts xx.10.) the predictions of his shipwreck, (Acts xxvii.1.) the viper at Melita, the cure of Publius's father; (Acts xxvii.8.) at all which miracles, except the first two, the historian himself was present: notwithstanding, I say, this positive ascription of miracles to St. Paul, yet in the speeches delivered by him, and given as delivered by him, in the same book in which the miracles are related, and the miraculous powers asserted, the appeals to his own miracles, or indeed to any miracles at all, are rare and incidental. In his speech at Antioch in Pisidia, (Acts xiii.16.) there is no allusion but to the resurrection. In his discourse at Miletus, (Acts xx.17.) none to any miracle: none in his speech before Felix; (Acts xxiv.10.) none in his speech before Festus; (Acts xxv.8.) except to Christ's resurrection and his own conversion.
Agreeably hereunto, in thirteen letters ascribed to Saint Paul, we have incessant references to Christ's resurrection, frequent references to his own conversion, three indubitable references to the miracles which he wrought; (Gal. iii.5; Rom. xv.18, 19; 2 Cor. xii.12.) four other references to the same, less direct, yet highly probable; (1 Cor. ii.4, 5; Eph. iii.7; Gal. ii.8; 1 Thess. i.8.) but more copious or circumstantial recitals we have not. The consent, therefore, between Saint Paul's speeches and letters is in this respect sufficiently exact; and the reason in both is the same, namely, that the miraculous history was all along presupposed, and that the question which occupied the speaker's and the writer's thoughts was this: whether, allowing the history of Jesus to be true, he was, upon the strength of it, to be received as the promised Messiah; and, if he was, what were the consequences, what was the object and benefit of his mission?
The general observation which has been made upon the apostolic writings, namely, that the subject of which they treated did not lead them to any direct recital of the Christian history, belongs to the writings of the apostolic fathers. The epistle of Barnabas is, in its subject and general composition, much like the epistle to the Hebrews; an allegorical application of divers passages of the Jewish history, of their law and ritual, to those parts of the Christian dispensation in which the author perceived a resemblance. The epistle of Clement was written for the sole purpose of quieting certain dissensions that had arisen amongst the members of the church of Corinth, and of reviving in their minds that temper and spirit of which their predecessors in the Gospel had left them an example. The work of Hermas is a vision; quotes neither the Old Testament nor the New, and merely falls now and then into the language and the mode of speech which the author had read in our Gospels. The epistles of Polycarp and Ignatius had for their principal object the order and discipline of the churches which they addressed. Yet, under all these circumstances of disadvantage, the great points of the Christian history are fully recognised. This hath been shown in its proper place. (Vide supra, pp.48-51. [Part 1, Chapter 8])
There is, however, another class of writers to whom the answer above given, viz. the unsuitableness of any such appeals or references as the objection demands to the subjects of which the writings treated, does not apply; and that is the class of ancient apologists, whose declared design it was to defend Christianity, and to give the reasons of their adherence to it. It is necessary, therefore, to inquire how the matter of the objection stands in these.
The most ancient apologist of whose works we have the smallest knowledge is Quadratus. Quadratus lived about seventy years after the ascension, and presented his apology to the Emperor Adrian. From a passage of this work, preserved in Eusebius, it appears that the author did directly and formally appeal to the miracles of Christ, and in terms as express and confident as we could desire. The passage (which has been once already stated) is as follows: |The works of our Saviour were always conspicuous, for they were real: both they that were healed, and they that were raised from the dead, were seen, not only when they were healed or raised, but for a long time afterwards; not only whilst he dwelled on this earth, but also after his departure, and for a good while after it; insomuch as that some of them have reached to our times,| (Euseb. Hist. I. iv. c.3.) Nothing can be more rational or satisfactory than this.
Justin Martyr, the next of the Christian apologists, whose work is not lost, and who followed Quadratus at the distance of about thirty years, has touched upon passages of Christ's history in so many places, that a tolerably complete account of Christ's life might be collected out of his works. In the following quotation he asserts the performance of miracles by Christ, in words as strong and positive as the language possesses: |Christ healed those who from their birth were blind, and deaf, and lame; causing, by his word, one to leap, another to hear, and a third to see; and having raised the dead, and caused them to live, he, by his works, excited attention, and induced the men of that age to know him: who, however, seeing these things done, said that it was a magical appearance, and dared to call him a magician, and a deceiver of the people.| (Just. Dial. p.258, ed. Thirlby.)
In his first apology, (Apolog. prim. p.48, ib.) Justin expressly assigns the reason for his having recourse to the argument from prophecy, rather than alleging the miracles of the Christian history; which reason was, that the persons with whom he contended would ascribe these miracles to magic; |lest any of our opponents should say, What hinders, but that he who is called Christ by us, being a man sprung from men, performed the miracles which we attribute to him by magical art?| The suggestion of this reason meets, as I apprehend, the very point of the present objection; more especially when we find Justin followed in it by other writers of that age. Irenaeus, who came about forty years afar him, notices the same evasion in the adversaries of Christianity, and replies to it by the same argument: |But if they shall say, that the Lord performed these things by an illusory appearance (phantasiodos), leading these objectors to the prophecies, we will show from them, that all things were thus predicted concerning him, and Strictly came to pass.| (Iren. I. ii. c.57.) Lactantius, who lived a century lower, delivers the same sentiment upon the same occasion: |He performed miracles; -- we might have supposed him to have been a magician, as ye say, and as the Jews then supposed, if all the prophets had not with one spirit foretold that Christ should perform these very things.| (Lactant. v.3.)
But to return to the Christian apologists in their order. Tertullian: -- |That person whom the Jews had vainly imagined, from the meanness of his appearance, to be a mere man, they afterwards, in consequence of the power he exerted, considered as a magician, when he, with one word, ejected devils out of the bodies of men, gave sight to the blind, cleansed the leprous, strengthened the nerves of those that had the palsy, and lastly, with one command, restored the dead to life; when he, I say, made the very elements obey him, assuaged the storms, walked upon the seas, demonstrating himself to be the Word of God.| (Tertul. Apolos. p.20; ed. Priorii, Par.1675.)
Next in the catalogue of professed apologists we may place Origen, who, it is well known, published a formal defence of Christianity, in answer to Celsus, a heathen, who had written a discourse against it. I know no expressions by which a plainer or more positive appeal to the Christian miracles can be made, than the expressions used by Origen; |Undoubtedly we do think him to be the Christ, and the Son of God, because he healed the lame and the blind; and we are the more confirmed in this persuasion by what is written in the prophecies: Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall hear, and the lame man shall leap as a hart.' But that he also raised the dead, and that it is not a fiction of those who wrote the Gospels, is evident from hence, that if it had been a fiction, there would have been many recorded to be raised up, and such as had been a long time in their graves. But, it not being a fiction, few have been recorded: for instance, the daughter of the ruler of a synagogue, of whom I do not know why he said, She is not dead, but sleepeth, expressing something peculiar to her, not common to all dead persons: and the only son of a widow, on whom he had compassion, and raised him to life, after he had bid the bearers of the corpse to stop; and the third, Lazarus, who had been buried four days.| This is positively to assert the miracles of Christ, and it is also to comment upon them, and that with a considerable degree of accuracy and candour.
In another passage of the same author, we meet with the old solution of magic applied to the miracles of Christ by the adversaries of the religion. |Celsus,| saith Origen, |well knowing what great works may be alleged to have been done by Jesus, pretends to grant that the things related of him are true; such as healing diseases, raising the dead, feeding multitudes with a few leaves, of which large fragments were left.| (Orig. cont. Cels. lib. ii. sect.48.) And then Celsus gives, it seems, an answer to these proofs of our Lord's mission, which, as Origen understood it, resolved the phenomena into magic; for Origen begins his reply by observing, |You see that Celsus in a manner allows that there is such a thing as magic.| (Lardner's Jewish and Heath. Test, vol. ii. p.294, ed.4to.)
It appears also from the testimony of St. Jerome, that Porphyry, the most learned and able of the heathen writers against Christianity, resorted to the same solution: |Unless,| says he, speaking to Vigilantius, |according to the manner of the Gentiles and the profane, of Porphyry and Eunomius, you pretend that these are the tricks of demons.| (Jerome cont. Vigil.)
This magic, these demons, this illusory appearance, this comparison with the tricks of jugglers, by which many of that age accounted so easily for the Christian miracles, and which answers the advocates of Christianity often thought it necessary to refute by arguments drawn from other topics, and particularly from prophecy (to which, it seems, these solutions did not apply), we now perceive to be gross subterfuges. That such reasons were ever seriously urged and seriously received, is only a proof what a gloss and varnish fashion can give to any opinion.
It appears, therefore, that the miracles of Christ, understood as we understand them in their literal and historical sense, were positively and precisely asserted and appealed to by the apologists for Christianity; which answers the allegation of the objection.
I am ready, however, to admit, that the ancient Christian advocates did not insist upon the miracles in argument so frequently as I should have done. It was their lot to contend with notions of magical agency, against which the mere production of the facts was not sufficient for the convincing of their adversaries: I do not know whether they themselves thought it quite decisive of the controversy. But since it is proved, I conceive with certainty, that the sparingness with which they appealed to miracles was owing neither to their ignorance nor their doubt of the facts, it is, at any rate, an objection not to the truth of the history, but to the judgment of its defenders.