I. What facts in the history of our Saviour might be taken notice of by Pagan authors.
II. What particular facts are taken notice of, and by what Pagan authors.
III. How Celsus represented our Saviour's miracles.
IV. The same representation made of them by other unbelievers, and proved unreasonable.
V. What facts in our Saviour's history not to be expelled from Pagan writers.
I. WE come now to consider what undoubted authorities are extant among Pagan writers: and here we must premise, that some parts of our Saviour's history may be reasonably expected from Pagans. I mean such parts as might be known to those who lived at a distance from Judea, as well as to those who were the followers and eye-witnesses of Christ.
II. Such particulars are most of these which follow, and which are all attested by some one or other of those Heathen authors, who lived in or near the age of our Saviour and his disciples. |That Augustus Cæsar had ordered the whole empire to be censed or taxed,| which brought our Saviour's reputed parents to Bethlehem: this is mentioned by several Roman historians, as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dion. |That a great light, or a new star, appeared in the east, which directed the wise men to our Saviour:| this is recorded by Chalcidius. |That Herod, the king of Palestine, so often mentioned in the Roman history, made a great slaughter of innocent children,| being so jealous of his successor, that he put to death his own sons on that account: this character of him is given by several historians: and this cruel fact mentioned by Macrobius, a Heathen author, who tells it as a known thing, without any mark or doubt upon it. |That our Saviour had been in Egypt:| this Celsus, though he raises a monstrous story upon it, is so far from denying, that he tells us, our Saviour learned the arts of magic in that country. |That Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea; that our Saviour was brought in judgment before him and by him condemned and crucified:| this is recorded by Tacitus. |That many miraculous cures and works, out of the ordinary course of nature, were wrought by him; this is confessed by Julian the apostate, Porphyry, and Hierocles, all of them not only Pagans, but professed enemies and persecutors of Christianity. |That our Saviour foretold several things which came to pass according to his predictions;| this was attested by Phlegon in his annals, as we are assured by the learned Origen against Celsus. |That at the time when our Saviour died, there was a miraculous darkness, and a great earthquake:| this is recorded by the same Phlegon the Trallian, who was likewise a Pagan, and freeman to Adrian the emperor. We may here observe, that a native of Trallium, which was not situate at so great a distance from Palestine, might very probably be informed of such remarkable events as had passed among the Jews in the age immediately preceding his own times, since several of his countrymen with whom he had conversed might have received a confused report of our Saviour before his crucifixion, and probably lived within the shake of the earthquake, and the shadow of the eclipse, which are recorded by this author. |That Christ was worshipped as a God among the Christians; that they would rather suffer death than blaspheme him: that they received a sacrament, and by it entered into a vow of abstaining from sin and wickedness,| conformable to the advice given by St. Paul: |That they had private assemblies of worship, and used to join together in hymns;| this is the account which Pliny the younger gives of Christianity in his days, about seventy years after the death of Christ, and which agrees in all its circumstances with the accounts we have in holy writ, of the first state of Christianity after the crucifixion of our blessed Saviour. |That St. Peter, whose miracles are many of them recorded in holy writ, did many wonderful works,| is owned by Julian the apostate, who therefore represents him as a great magician, and one who had in his possession a book of magical secrets, left him by our Saviour. |That the devils or evil spirits were subject to them,| we may learn from Porphyry, who objects to Christianity, that since Jesus had begun to be worshipped, Esculapius, and the rest of the Gods, did no more converse with men. Nay, Celsus himself affirms the same thing in effect, when he says, that the power which seemed to reside in Christians proceeded from the use of certain names, and the invocation of certain demons. Origen remarks on this passage, that the author doubtless hints at those Christians who put to flight evil spirits, and healed those who were possessed with them: a fact which had been often seen, and which he himself had seen, as he declares in another part of his discourse. against Celsus. But at the same time he assures us, that this miraculous power was exerted by the use of no other name but that of Jesus; to which were added several passages in this history, but nothing like any invocation to demons.
III. Celsus was so hard set with the report of our Saviour's miracles, and the confident attestations concerning him, that though he often intimates that he did not believe them to be true, yet knowing he might be silenced in such an answer, provides himself with an other retreat, when beaten out of this, viz. that our Saviour was a magician. Thus he compares the feeding of so many thousands, at two different times, with a few loaves and fishes, to the magical feasts of those Egyptian impostors, who would present their spectators with visionary entertainments, that had in them neither substance nor reality: which, by the way, is to suppose, that a hungry and fainting multitude were filled by an apparition, or strengthened and refreshed with shadows. He knew very well that there was so many witnesses and actors, if I may call them such, in these two miracles, that it was impossible to refute such multitudes, who had doubtless sufficiently spread the fame of them, and was therefore in this place forced to resort to the other solution, that it was done by magic. It was not enough to say that a miracle, which appeared to so many thousand eye-witnesses, was a forgery of Christ's disciples; and therefore supposing them to be eye-witnesses, he endeavours to shew how they might be deceived.
IV. The unconverted Heathens, who were pressed by the many authorities that confirmed our Saviour's miracles, as well as the unbelieving Jews, who had actually seen them, were driven to account for them after the same manner: for, to work by magic, in the Heathen way of speaking, was, in the language of the Jews, to cast out devils by Beelzebub the prince of the devils. Our Saviour, who knew that unbelievers, in all ages, would put this perverse interpretation on his miracles, has branded the malignity of those men, who, contrary to the dictates of their own hearts, started such an unreasonable objection as a blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, and declared not only the guilt, but the punishment of so black a crime. At the same time he condescended to shew the vanity and emptiness of this objection against his miracles, by representing, that they evidently tended to the destruction of those powers, to whose assistance the enemies of his doctrine then ascribed them: an argument, which, if duly weighed, renders the objection so very frivolous and groundless, that we may venture to call it even blasphemy against common sense. Would magic endeavour to draw off the minds of men from the worship which was paid to stocks and stones; to give them an abhorrence of those evil spirits, who rejoiced in the most cruel sacrifices, and in offerings of the greatest impurity; and, in short, to call upon mankind to exert their whole strength in the love and adoration of that one Being, from whom they derived existence, and on whom only they were taught to depend every moment for the happiness and continuance of it? Was it the business of magic to humanize our natures with compassion, forgiveness, and all the instances of the most extensive charity?, Would evil spirits contribute to make men sober, chaste, and temperate; and, in a word, to produce that reformation which was wrought in the moral world by those doctrines of our Saviour that received their sanction from his miracles? Nor is it possible to imagine, that evil spirits would enter into a combination with our Saviour to cut off all their correspondence and intercourse with mankind, and to prevent any for the future from addicting themselves to those rites and ceremonies which had done them so much honour. We see the early effect which Christianity had on the minds of men in this particular, by that number of books which were filled with the secrets of magic, and made a sacrifice to Christianity by the converts mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. We have likewise an eminent instance of the inconsistency of our religion with magic in the history of the famous Aquila. This person, who was a kinsman of the emperor Trajan, and likewise a man of great learning, notwithstanding he had embraced Christianity; could not be brought off from the studies of magic by the repeated admonitions of his fellow Christians; so that at length they expelled him their society, as rather chusing to loose the reputation of so considerable a proselyte, than communicate with one who dealt in such dark and infernal practices. Besides, we may observe, that all the favourers of magic were the most professed and bitter enemies to the Christian religion. Not to mention Simon Magus, and many others, I shall only take notice of those two great persecutors of Christianity, the emperors Adrian and Julian the apostate, both of them initiated in the mysteries of divination, and skilled in all the depths of magic, I only add, that evil spirits cannot be supposed to have concurred in the establishment of a religion which triumphed over them, drove them out of the places they possessed, and divested them of their influence on mankind: nor would I mention this particular, though it be unanimiously reported by all the ancient Christian authors, did it not appear, from the authorities above cited, that this was a fact confessed by Heathens themselves.
V. We now see what a multitude of Pagan testimonies may be produced for all of those remarkable passages which might have been expected from them; and indeed of several, that, I believe, do more than answer your expectations, as they were not subjects, in their own nature, so exposed to public notoriety. It cannot be expected they should mention particulars, which were transacted amongst the disciples only, or among some few even of the disciples themselves, such as the transfiguration, the agony in the garden, the appearance of Christ after his resurrection, and others of the like nature. It was impossible for a Heathen author to relate these things; because, if he had believed them, he would no longer have been a Heathen, and by that means his testimony would not have been thought of so much validity. Besides, his very report of facts, so favourable to Christianity, would have prompted men to say that he was probably tainted with their doctrine. We have a parallel case in Hecatæus, a famous Greek historian, who had several passages in his book conformable to the history of the Jewish writers, which, when quoted by Josephus, as a confirmation of the Jewish history, when his Heathen adversaries could give no other answer to it, they would need suppose that Hecatæus was a Jew in his heart, though they had no other reason for it, but because his history gave greater authority to the Jewish than the Egyptian records.