I. General division of the following discourse, with regard to Pagan and Jewish authors, who mention particulars relating to our Saviour.
II. Not probable that any such should be mentioned by Pagan writers who lived at the same time, from the nature of such transactions.
III. Especially when related by the Jews.
IV. And heard at a distance by those who pretended to as great miracles of their own.
V. Besides, that no Pagan writers of that age lived in Judea, or its confines.
VI. And because many books of that age are lost.
VII. An instance of one record proved to be authentic.
VIII. A second record of probable, though not undoubted, authority.
I. THAT I may lay before you a full state of the subject under our consideration and methodise the several particulars that I touched upon in discourse with you, I shall first take notice of such Pagan authors as have given their testimony to the history of our Saviour; reduce these authors under their respective classes, and shew what authority their testimonies carry with them. Secondly, I shall take notice of Jewish authors in the same light.
II. There are many reasons why you should not expect that matters of such a wonderful nature should be taken notice of by those eminent Pagan writers, who were contemporaries with Jesus Christ, or by those who lived before his disciples had personally appeared among them, and ascertained the report which had gone abroad concerning a life so full of miracles.
Supposing such things had happened at this day in Switzerland, or among the Grisons, who make a greater figure in Europe than Judea did in the Roman Empire, would they be immediately believed by those who live at a great distance from them? or would any certain account of them be transmitted into foreign countries, within so short a space of time as that of our Saviour's public ministry? Such kinds of news, though never so true, seldom gain credit, till some time after they are transacted, and exposed to the examination of the curious, who, by laying together circumstances, attestations, and characters of those who are concerned in them, either receive or reject what at first none but eye-witnesses could absolutely believe or disbelieve. In a case of this sort, it was natural for men of sense and learning to treat the whole account as fabulous: or, at farthest, to suspend their belief of it, until all things stood together in their full light.
III. Besides, the Jews were branded not only for superstitions different from all the religions of the Pagan world, but in a particular manner ridiculed for being a credulous people: so that whatever reports of such a nature came out of that country, were looked upon by the Heathen world as false, frivolous, and improbable.
IV. We may further observe, that the ordinary practice of magic in those times, with the many pretended prodigies, divinations, apparitions, and local miracles among the Heathens, made them less attentive to such news from Judea, till they had time to consider the nature, the occasion, and the end of our Saviour's miracles, and were awakened by many surprising events, to allow them, any consideration at all.
V. We are indeed told by St. Matthew, that the fame of our Saviour, during his life, went throughout all Syria; and that there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, Judea, Decapolis, Idumea, from beyond Jordan, and from Tyre and Sidon. Now, had there been any historians of those times and places, we might have expected to have seen in them some account of those wonderful transactions in Judea; but there is not any single author extant, in any kind, of that age, in any of those countries.
VI. How many books have perished in which possibly there might have been mention of our Saviour? Look among the Romans, how few of their writings are come down to our times! In the space of two hundred years from our Saviour's birth when there was such a multitude of writers of all kinds, how small is the number of authors that have made their way to the present age.
VII. One authentic record, and that the most authentic Heathen record, we are pretty sure is lost, I mean the account sent by the governor of Judea, under whom our Saviour was judged, condemned, and crucified. It was the custom in the Roman Empire, as it is to this day, in all the governments of the world, for the prefects and viceroys of distant provinces, to transmit to their sovereign a summary relation of every thing remarkable in their administration. That Pontius Pilate, in his account, would have touched on so extraordinary an event in Judea, is not to be doubted: and that he actually did, we learn from Justin Martyr, who lived about a hundred years after our Saviour's death, resided, made converts, and suffered martyrdom at Rome, where he was engaged with philosophers, and in a particular manner with Crescens the Cynic, who could easily have detected, and would not fail to have exposed him, had he quoted a record not in being, or made any false citation out of it. Would the great apologist have challenged Crescens to dispute the cause of Christianity with him before the Roman senate, had he forged such an evidence? Or would Crescens have refused the challenge, could he have triumphed over him in the detection of such a forgery? To which we must add, that the apology which appeals to this record, was presented to a learned emperor, and to the whole body of the Roman senate. This father, in his apology, speaking of the death and suffering of our Saviour, refers the emperor for the truth of what he says to the acts of Pontius Pilate which I have here mentioned. Tertullian, who wrote his apology about fifty years after Justin, doubtless referred to the same record, when he tells the governor of Rome, that the emperor Tiberius having received an account out of Palestine in Syria, of the divine person who had appeared in that country, paid him a particular regard, and threatened to punish any who should accuse the Christians; nay, that the emperor would have adopted him among the deities whom they worshipped, had not the senate refused to come in to his proposal. Tertullian, who gives us this history, was not only one of the most learned men of his age, but, what adds a greater weight to his authority in this case, was eminently skilful and well read in the laws of the Roman Empire. Nor can it be said, that Tertullian grounded his quotation upon the authority of Justin Martyr, because we find he mixes it with matters of fact which are not related by that author. Eusebius mentions the same ancient record, but as it was not extant in his time, I shall not insist upon his authority in this point. If it be objected that this particular is not mentioned in any Roman historian, I shall use the same argument in a parallel case, and see whether it will carry any force with it. Ulpian the Great Roman lawyer gathered together all the imperial edicts that had been made against the Christians; but did any one ever say that there had been no such edicts, because they were not mentioned in the histories of those Emperors? Besides, who knows but this circumstance of Tiberius was mentioned in other historians that have been lost; tho' not to be found in any still extant? Has not Suetonius many particulars of this Emperor omitted by Tacitus, and Herodian many that are not so much as hinted at by either! As for the spurious acts of Pilate, now extant, we know the occasion and time of their writing, and had there not been a true and authentic record of this nature, they would never have been forged.
VIII. The story of Abgarus, king of Edessa, relating to the letter which he sent to our Saviour, and to that which he received from him, is a record of great authority; and though I will not insist upon it, may venture to say, that had we such an evidence for any fact in Pagan history, an author would be thought very unreasonable who should reject it. I believe you will be of my opinion, if you will peruse, with other authors who have appeared in vindication of there letters as genuine, the additional arguments which have been made use of by the late famous and learned Dr. Grabe, in the second volume of his Spicilegium.