I. The tradition of the apostles secured by other excellent instructions;
II. But chiefly by the writings of the evangelists.
III. The diligence of the disciples and first Christian converts to send abroad these writings.
IV. That the written account of our Saviour was the same with that delivered by tradition;
V. Proved from the reception of the gospel by those churches which were established before it was written.
VI. From the uniformity of what was believed in the several churches.
VII. From a remarkable passage in Irenæus.
VIII. Records which are now lost of use to the three first centuries, for confirming the history of our Saviour.
IX. Instances of such records.
I. THUS far we see how the learned Pagans might apprize themselves, from oral information, oral information, of the particulars of our Saviour's history. They could hear, in every church planted in every distant part of the earth, the account which was there received and preserved among them, of the history of our Saviour. They could learn the names, and characters of those first missionaries that brought to them these accounts and the miracles by which God Almighty attested their reports. But the apostles and disciples of Christ, to preserve the history of his life, and to secure their accounts of him from error and oblivion, did not only set aside certain persons for that purpose, as has been already shewn, but appropriated certain days to the commemoration of those facts which they had related, concerning him. The first day of the week was in all its returns a perpetual memorial of his resurrection as the devotional exercises adapted to Friday and Saturday were to denote to all ages that he was crucified on the one of those days and that he rested in the grave on the other. You may apply the same remark to several of the annual festivals instituted by the apostles themselves, or at furtherest by their immediate successors, in memory of the most important particulars in our Saviour's history to which we must add the sacraments instituted by our Lord himself, and many of those rites and ceremonies which obtained in the most early times of the church. These are to be regarded as standing marks of such facts as were delivered by those who were eye-witnesses to them, and which were contrived with great wisdom to last till time should be no more. These, without any other means, might have, in some measure, conveyed to posterity the memory of several transactions in the history of our Saviour, as they were related by his disciples. At least, the reason of these institutions, though they might be forgotten, and obscured by a long course of years, could not but be very well known by those who lived in the three first centuries; and a means of informing the inquisitive Pagans in the truth of our Saviour's history, that being the view in which I am to consider them.
II. But lest such a tradition, though guarded by so many expedients, should wear out by the length of time, the four evangelists, within above fifty, or, as Theodoret affirms, thirty years after our Saviour's death, while the memory of his actions was fresh among them, consigned to writing that history, which for some years had been published only by the mouths of the apostles and disciples. The further consideration of these holy penmen will fall under another part of this discourse.
III. It will be sufficient to observe here, that in the age which succeeded the apostles, many of their immediate disciples sent or carried in person the books of the four evangelists, which had been written by the apostles, or at least approved by them, to most of the churches which they had planted in the different parts of the world. This was done with so much diligence, that when Pantænus, a man of great learning and piety, had travelled into India for the propagation of Christianity, about the year of our Lord 200, he found among that remote people the gospel of St. Matthew, which, upon his return from that country, he brought with him to Alexandria. This gospel is generally supposed to have been left in those parts by St. Bartholomew, the apostle of the Indies, who probably carried it with him, before the writings of the three other evangelists were published.
IV. That the history of our Saviour as recorded by the evangelists, was the same with that which had been before delivered by the apostles and disciples, will further appear in the prosecution of this discourse, and may be gathered from the following considerations.
V. Had these writings differed from the sermons of the first planters of Christianity, either in history or doctrine, there is no question but they would have been rejected by those churches which they had already formed. But so consistent and uniform was the relation of the apostles, that those histories .appeared to be nothing else but their tradition and oral attestations made fixed and permanent. Thus was the fame of our Saviour, which in so few years had gone through the whole earth, confirmed and perpetuated by such records as would preserve the traditionary account of him to after ages, and rectify it, if at any time, by passing through several generations, it might drop any part that was material, or contract any thing that was false or fictitious.
VI. Accordingly we find the same Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin, who had wrought many miracles in Palestine, who was crucified, rose again, and ascended intoheaven: I say, the same Jesus Christ had been preached, and was worshipped, in Germany, France, Spain, and Great Britain; in Parthia, Media, Mesopotamia, Armenia, Phrygia, Asia, and Pamphylia; in Italy, Egypt, Afric, and beyond Cyrene, India, and Persia; and, in short, in all the islands and provinces that are visited by the rising or the setting sun. The same account of our Saviour's life and doctrine was delivered by thousands of preachers, and believed in thousands of places, who all, as fast as it could be conveyed to them, received the same account in writing from the four evangelists.
VII. Irenæus to this purpose very aptly remarks, that those barbarous nations, who in his time were not possessed of the written gospels, and had only learned the history of our Saviour from those who had converted them to Christianity before the gospels were written, had among them the same accounts of our Saviour which are to be met with in the four evangelists: an incontestible proof of the harmony and concurrence between the holy scripture and the tradition of the churches in those early times of Christianity.
VIII. Thus we see what opportunities the learned and inquisitive Heathens had of informing themselves of the truth of our Saviour's history during the three first centuries, especially as they lay nearer one than another to the fountain-head: beside which, there were many uncontroverted traditions, records of Christianity, and particular histories, that then thew light into those matters, but are now entirely lost, by which, at that time, any appearance of contradiction, of seeming difficulties, in the history of the evangelists, were fully cleared up and explained; though we meet with fewer appearances of this nature in the history of our Saviour, as related by the four evangelists, than in the accounts of any other person, published by such a number of different historians, who lived at so great a distance from the present age.
IX. Among those records which are lost, and were of great use to the primitive Christians, is the letter to Tiberius, which I have already mentioned; that of Marcus Aurelius, which I shall take notice of hereafter; the writings of Hegesippus, who had drawn down the history of Christianity to his own time, which was not beyond the middle of the second century; the genuine Sybilline oracles, which, in the first age of the church, were easily distinguished from the spurious: the records preserved in particular churches, with many others of the same nature.