Although the writings of the New Testament are in the hands of every one, nothing is more uncommon than to find the professors of Christianity acquainted with the history or the founder of their religion; and even among those who have perused that history, it is still more rare to find any who have ventured seriously to examine it. It must, indeed, he acknowledged, that the ignorance of the one, and the want of reflection in the other, on a subject which they, nevertheless, regard as of infinite importance, may arise from the dislike naturally occasioned by the perusal of the New Testament. In that work there is a confusion, an obscurity and a barbarity of stile, well adapted to confound the ignorant, and to disgust enlightened minds. Scarcely is there a history, ancient or modern, which does not possess more method and clearness than that of Jesus; neither do we perceive that the Holy Spirit, its reputed author, has surpassed, or even equalled many profane historians, whose writings are not so important to mankind. The clergy confess, that the apostles were illiterate men, and of rough manners; and it does not appear that the Spirit which inspired them, troubled itself with correcting their defects. On the contrary, it seems to have adopted them; to have accommodated itself to the weak understandings of its instruments; and to have inspired them with works in which we do not find the judgment, order, or precision, that prevail in many human compositions. Hence, the gospels exhibit a[Pg 4] confused assemblage of prodigies, anachronisms, and contradictions, in which criticism loses itself, and which would make any other book be rejected with contempt.
It is by mysteries the mind is prepared to respect religion and its teachers. We are therefore warranted to suspect, that an obscurity was designedly given to these writings. In matters of religion it is prudent never to speak very distinctly. Truths simple and easily understood, do not strike the imagination in so lively a manner as ambiguous oracles, and impenetrable mysteries. Jesus, although come on purpose to enlighten the world, was to be a stumbling block to many nations. The small number of the elect, the difficulty of salvation, and the danger of exercising reason, are repeatedly announced in the gospels. Every thing seems indeed to demonstrate, that God sent his Son to the nations, on purpose to ensnare them, and that they should not comprehend any part of the religion which he meant to promulgate. In this the Eternal appears to have intended to throw mortals into darkness, perplexity, a diffidence of themselves, and a continual embarrassment, obliging them to have recourse to those infallible luminaries, their priests, and to remain forever under the tutelage of the church. Her ministers, we know, claim the exclusive privilege of understanding and explaining the scriptures; and no mortal can expect to obtain future felicity if he does not pay due submission to their decisions.
Thus, it belongs not to the laity to examine religion. On mere inspection of the gospels, every person must be convinced that the book is divine; that every word contained in it is inspired by the Holy Spirit; and that the explanations given by the church of that celestial work, in like manner emanate from the Most High. In the first ages of Christianity, those who embraced the religion of Jesus were only the dregs of the people; consequently very simple, unacquainted with letters, and disposed to believe all the wonders any one chose to announce. Jesus, in his sermons,[Pg 5] addressed himself to the vulgar only; he would have intercourse with none but persons of that description; he constantly refused to work miracles in presence of the most clear-sighted of the nation; he declaimed unceasingly against the learned, the doctors, and the rich; against all in whom he could not find the pliability necessary for adopting his maxims. We see him continually extolling poorness of spirit, simplicity, and faith.
His disciples, and after them the ministers of the church, have faithfully followed his footsteps; they have always represented faith, or blind submission, as the first of virtues; as the disposition most agreeable to God, and most necessary to salvation. This principle serves for a basis to the Christian religion, and, above all, to the usurpations of the clergy. The preachers, therefore, who succeeded the apostles, employed the greatest care in secreting the gospels from the inspection of all who were not initiated in the mysteries of religion. They exhibited these books to those only whose faith they had tried, and whom they found already disposed to regard them as divine. This mysterious spirit has been transmitted down to our days. In several countries, the laity are interdicted from perusing the scriptures, especially in the Romish communion, whose clergy are best acquainted with governing mankind. The council of Trent has decreed, that "it belongs to the church alone to decide on the true meaning of the scriptures, and give their interpretation."
It is true, the reading of the sacred books is permitted, and even recommended to protestants, who are also enjoined to examine their religion. But faith must always precede that reading, and follow that examination; so that before reading, a protestant is bound to believe the gospel to be divine: and the examination of it is permitted only, while he finds there what the ministers of his sect have resolved that he shall find. Beyond this, he is regarded as an ungodly man, and often punished for the weakness of his intellect.[Pg 6]
The salvation of Christians thus depends neither on the reading nor on the understanding of the sacred books, but on the belief that these books are divine. If, unfortunately, the reading or examination of any one, does not coincide with the decisions, interpretations, and commentaries of the church, he is in danger of being ruined, and of incurring eternal damnation. To read the gospel, he must commence with being disposed blindly to believe all which that book contains; to examine the gospel, he must be previously resolved to find nothing there but the holy and the adorable; in fine, to understand the gospel, he must entertain a fixed persuasion, that the priests can never be themselves deceived, or wish to deceive others in the manner they explain it. "Believe, (say they,) believe on our words that this book is the work of God himself; if you dare to doubt it, you shall be damned. Are you unable to comprehend any thing which God reveals to you there? Believe evermore: God has revealed himself that he may not be understood.—"The glory of God is to conceal his word;"—(Prov. xxv. 2.) or rather, by speaking, in a mysterious manner, does not God intimate that he wishes every one to refer it to us, to whom he has confided his important secrets? A truth, of which you must not doubt, seeing that we persecute in this world, and damn in the other, whoever dares to question the testimony which we bear to ourselves."
However erroneous this reasoning may appear to those accustomed to think, it is sufficient for the greater part of believers. Where, therefore, they do not read the gospel, or where they do read it, they do not examine it; where they do examine it, it is with prejudiced eyes, and with a determination to find there only what can be conformable to these prejudices, and to the interests of their guides.—In consistency with his fears and prepossessions, a Christian conceives himself lost, should he find in the sacred books reason to doubt the veracity of his priests.
With such dispositions, it is no way surprising to see men[Pg 7] persisting in their ignorance, and making a merit of rejecting the lights which reason offers them. It is thus, that error is perpetuated, and that nations, in concert with those who deceive them, confer on interested cheats an unbounded confidence in what they regard as of the greatest importance to their own felicity. But the darkness which for so many ages has enveloped the human mind, begins to dissipate. In spite of the tyrannic cares of their jealous guides, mankind seem desirous to burst from the pupilage, wherein so many causes combine to retain them. The ignorance in which the priesthood fostered the credulous, has vanished from among many nations; the despotism of priests is enfeebled in several flourishing states; science has rendered the mind more liberal; and mankind begin to blush at the ignominious fetters, under which the clergy have so long made both kings and people groan. The human mind is struggling in every country to break in pieces its chains.
Having premised this, we proceed to examine, without any prejudice, the life of Jesus. We shall deduce our facts from the gospels only—memorials reverenced and acknowledged by the doctors of the Christian religion. To illustrate these facts, we shall employ the aid of criticism. We shall exhibit, in the plainest manner, the conduct, maxims, and policy of an obscure legislator, who, after his death, acquired a celebrity to which he had no pretensions while alive. We shall contemplate in its cradle a religion which, at first, intended for the vilest populace of a nation, the most abject, the most credulous, and the most stupid on earth, became, by little and little, mistress of the Romans, the firebrand of nations, the absolute sovereign of European monarchs; arbiter of the destiny of kingdoms; the cause of their friendship, and of their hate; the cement which serves to strengthen their alliance or their discord; and the leaven always ready to put minds in fermentation. In fine, we shall behold an artizan, a melancholy enthusiast and unskilful juggler, abandoning his profession of a carpenter to preach[Pg 8] to men of his own cast; miscarrying in all his projects; himself punished as a public incendiary; dying on a cross; and yet after his death becoming the legislator and the god of many nations, and an object of adoration to beings who pretend to common sense!
If the Holy Spirit had anticipated the transcendant fortune which the religion of Jesus was one day to attain; if he had foreseen that this religion would be received by kings, civilized nations, scholars, and persons in the higher circles of life; if he had suspected that it would be examined, analyzed, discussed and criticised by logicians; there is reason to believe that he would have left us memoirs less shapeless, facts more circumstantial, proofs more authentic, and materials better digested than those we possess on the life and doctrine of its founder. He would have chosen writers better qualified than those he has inspired, to transmit to nations the speeches and actions of the saviour of the world; he would have made him act and speak on the most trifling point, in a manner more worthy of a god; he would have put in his mouth a language more noble, more perspicuous, and more persuasive; and he would have employed means more certain to convince rebellious reason, and abash incredulity.
Nothing of all this has occurred: the gospel is merely an eastern romance, disgusting to men of common sense, and obviously addressed to the ignorant, the stupid, and the vulgar; the only persons whom it can mislead. Criticism finds there no connection of facts, no agreement of circumstances, no illustration of principles, and no uniformity of relation. Four men, unpolished and unlettered, pass for the faithful authors of memoirs containing the life of Jesus; and it is on their testimony that Christians believe themselves bound to receive the religion they profess; and adopt, without examination, the most contradictory facts, the most incredible actions, the most amazing prodigies, the most unconnected system, the most unintelligible doctrines, and the most revolting mysteries![Pg 9]
Victor of Tunis informs us, that, in the sixth century, the Emperor Anastasius "caused the gospels to be corrected, as works composed by fools." The Elements of Euclid are intelligible to all who endeavor to understand them; they excite no dispute among geometricians. Is it so with the Bible? and do its revealed truths occasion no disputes among divines? By what fatality have writings revealed by God himself still need of commentaries? and why do they demand additional lights from on high, before they can be believed or understood? Is it not astonishing, that what was intended as a guide to mankind, should be wholly above their comprehension? Is it not cruel, that what is of most importance to them, should be least known? All is mystery, darkness, uncertainty, and matter of dispute, in a religion intended by the Most High to enlighten the human race. In fact, God is every where represented in the bible as a seducer. He permitted Eve to be seduced by a serpent. He hardened the heart of Pharaoh; and the prophet Jeremiah distinctly accuses him of being a deceiver.
Supposing, however, that the gospels were in reality written by apostles or disciples of apostles, should it not follow from this alone, that their testimony ought to be suspected? Could not men who are described as illiterate, and destitute of talents, be themselves deceived? Could not enthusiasts and credulous fanatics imagine, that they had seen many things which never existed, and thus become the dupes of deception? Whoever has perused the ancient historians, particularly Herodotus, Plutarch, Livy, and Josephus, must admit the force of this reasoning. These writers, with a pious credulity similar to that of Christians, relate prodigies pregnant with absurdities, which they themselves pretended to have witnessed, or were witnessed by others. Among the wonders that appeared at Rome, some time before the triumvirate, many statues of the Gods sweat blood and water; and there was an Ox which spoke. Under the empire of Caligula, the statue of Jupiter Olympus burst forth into[Pg 10] such loud fits of laughter, that those who were taking it down to carry to Rome, abandoned their work and fled in terror. A crow prognosticated misfortune to Domitian, and an Owl paid the same compliment to Herod.
Moreover, could not impostors, strongly attached to a sect by which they subsisted, and which, therefore, they had an interest to support, attest miracles, and publish statements with the falsehood of which they were well acquainted? and could not the first christians, by a pious fraud, afterwards add or retrench things essential to the works ascribed to the apostles? We know that Origen, so early as the third century, complained loudly of the corruption of manuscripts. "What shall we say (exclaims he) of the errors of transcribers, and of the impious temerity with which they have corrupted the text? What shall we say of the licence of those, who promiscuously interpolate or erase at their pleasure?" These questions form warrantable prejudices against the persons to whom the gospels have been ascribed, and against the purity of their text.
It is also extremely difficult to ascertain whether those books belong to the authors whose names they bear. In the first ages of Christianity there was a great number of gospels, different from one another, and composed for the use of different churches and different sects of Christians. The truth of this has been confessed by ecclesiastical historians of the greatest credit. (Tillemont, tom. ii. 47, etc. Epiphan. Homil. 84. Dodwell's Disser. on Irenaeus, p. 66. Freret's Examin. Critique. Codex Apocryphus, &c.) There is, therefore, reason to suspect, that the persons who composed the acknowledged gospels might, with the view of giving them more weight, have attributed them to apostles, or disciples, who actually had no share in them. That idea, once adopted by ignorant and credulous christians, might be transmitted from age to age, and pass at last for certainty, in times when it was no longer possible to ascertain the authors or the facts related.[Pg 11]
Among some fifty gospels, with which Christianity in its commencement was inundated, the church, assembled in council at Nice, chose four of them, and rejected the rest as apocryphal, although the latter had nothing more ridiculous in them than those which were admitted. Thus, at the end of three centuries, (i.e. in the three hundred and twenty-fifth year of the Christian era,) some bishops decided, that these four gospels were the only ones which ought to be adopted, or which had been inspired by the Holy Spirit. A miracle enabled them to discover this important truth, so difficult to be discerned at a time even then not very remote from that of the apostles. They placed, it is said, promiscuously, books apocryphal and authentic under an altar:—the Fathers of the Council betook themselves to prayer, in order to induce the Lord to permit the false or doubtful books to remain under the altar, whilst those which were truly inspired should place themselves above it—a circumstance which did not fail to occur. It is then on this miracle that the faith of Christians depends! It is to it that they owe the assurance of possessing the true gospels, or faithful memoirs of the life of Jesus! It is from these only they are, permitted to deduce the principles of their belief, and the rule of conduct which they ought to observe in order to obtain eternal salvation!
Thus, the authenticity of the books which are the basis of the Christian religion, is founded solely on the authority of a council composed of priests and bishops. But these bishops and priests, judges and parties in an affair wherein they were obviously interested, could they not be themselves deceived? Independently of the pretended miracle which enabled them to distinguish the true gospels from the false, had they any sign by which they could clearly distinguish the writings they ought to receive from those which they ought to reject? Some will tell us, that the church assembled in a general council is infallible; that then the Holy Spirit inspires it, and that its decisions ought to be regarded [Pg 12]as those of God himself. If we demand, where is the proof of this infallibility? it will be answered, that the gospel assures it, and that Jesus has promised to assist and enlighten his church until the consummation of ages. Here the incredulous reply, that the church, or its ministers, create rights to themselves; for it is their own authority which establishes the authenticity of books whereby that authority is established. This is obviously a circle of errors. In short, an assembly of bishops and priests has decided, that the books which attribute to themselves an infallible authority, have been divinely inspired!
Notwithstanding this decision, there still remain some difficulties on the authenticity of the gospels. In the first place, it may be asked whether the decision of the Council of Nice, composed of three hundred and eighteen bishops, ought to be regarded as that of the universal church? Were all who formed that assembly entirely of the same opinion? Were, there no disputes among these men inspired by the Holy Spirit? Was their decision unanimously accepted? Had not the authority of Constantine a chief share in the adoption of the decrees of that celebrated council? In this case, was it not the imperial power, rather than the spiritual authority, which decided the authenticity of the gospels?
In the second place, many theologists agree, that the universal church, although infallible in doctrine, may err in facts. Now it is evident, that in the case alluded to, the doctrine depends on fact. Indeed, before deciding whether the doctrines contained in the gospels were divine, it was necessary to know, whether the gospels themselves were written by the inspired authors to whom they are ascribed. This is obviously a fact. It was further necessary to know, whether the gospels had never been altered, mutilated, augmented, interpolated, or falsified, by the different hands through which they had passed in the course of three centuries. This is likewise a fact. Can the fathers of the church guarantee the probity of all the depositaries of those [Pg 13]writings, and the exactness of all the transcribers? Can they decide definitively, that, during so long a period, none could insert in these memoirs, marvelous relations or dogmas, unknown to those who are their supposed authors? Does not ecclesiastical history inform us, that, in the origin of Christianity, there were schisms, disputes, heresies, and sects without number; and that each of the disputants founded his opinion on the gospels? Even in the time of the Council of Nice, do we not find that the whole church was divided on the fundamental article of the Christian religion—the divinity of Jesus?
Thus it is seen that the council of Nice was the true founder of Christianity, which, till then, wandered at random; did not acknowledge Jesus to be God; had no authentic gospels; was without a fixed law; and had no code of doctrine whereon to rely. A number of bishops and priests, very few in comparison of those who composed the whole Christian church, and these bishops no way unanimous, decided on the points most essential to the salvation of nations. They decided on the divinity of Jesus; on the authenticity of the gospels; that, according to these, their own authority ought to be deemed infallible. In a word, they decided on the sum total of faith! Nevertheless their decisions might have remained without force, if they had not been supported by the authority of Constantine. This prince gave prevalence to the opinion of the fathers of the council, who knew how to draw him, for a time, to their own side; and who, amidst this multitude of gospels and writings, did not fail to declare those divine which they judged most comformable to their own opinions, or to the ruling faction. In religion as in other things, the reasoning of the strongest party is always the best.
Behold, then, the authority of an emperor, who determines the chief points of the Christian religion! This emperor, unsettled in his own faith, decides that Jesus is consubtantial with the Father, and compels his subjects to re[Pg 14]ceive, as inspired, the four gospels we have in our hands.—It is in these memoirs, adopted by a few bishops in the council of Nice; by them attributed to apostles, or unexceptionable persons inspired by the Holy Spirit; by them proposed to serve as an indispensable rule to Christians; that we are to seek for the materials of our history. We shall state them with fidelity; we shall compare and connect their discordant relations; we shall see if the facts which they detail are worthy of God, and calculated to procure to mankind the advantages which they expect. This inquiry will enable us to judge rightly of the Christian religion; of the degree of confidence we ought to place in it; of the esteem we ought to entertain for its lessons and doctrines; and of the idea we should form of Jesus its founder.
Though, in composing this history, we have laid it down as a rule to employ the gospels only, we presume not to flatter ourselves that it will please every body, or that the clergy will adopt our labors. The connections we shall form; the interpretations we shall give; the animadversions we shall present to our readers, will not always be entirely agreeable to the views of our spiritual guides, the greater part of whom are enemies to all inquiry. To such men we would state, that criticism gives a lustre to truth; that to reject all examination is to acknowledge the weakness of their cause; and that not to wish for discussion is to avow it to be incapable of sustaining a trial.
If they tell us, that our ideas are repugnant to the decisions of councils, of the fathers, and of the universal church; to this we shall answer, that, according to their own books, opposition is not always a crime; we shall plead the example of an apostle, to whom the Christian religion is under the greatest obligations—what do we say!—to whom alone, perhaps, it owes its existence. Now this apostle boasts of having withstood the great St. Peter to his face, that visible head of the church, appointed by Jesus himself to feed his flock; and whose infallibility is at least as probable as that of his successors.[Pg 15]
If they charge us with innovation, we shall plead the example of Jesus himself, who was regarded as an innovator by the Jews, and who was a martyr for the reform he intended to introduce. If the opinions be unacceptable, the author, as he has no pretensions to divine inspiration, leaves to every one the liberty of rejecting or receiving his interpretations, and method of investigation. He does not threaten with eternal torments those who resist his arguments; he has not credit enough to promise heaven to such as yield to them; he pretends neither to constrain, nor to seduce those who do not think as he does. He is desirous only to calm the mind; allay animosity; and sooth the passions of those zealots, who are ever ready to harass and destroy their fellow creatures on account of opinions which may not appear equally convincing to all the world. He promises to point out the ridiculous cruelty of those men of blood, who persecute for dogmas which they themselves do not understand. He ventures to flatter himself, that such as peruse this inquiry with coolness, will acknowledge, that it is very possible to doubt of the inspiration of the gospels, and of the divine mission of Jesus, without ceasing to be a rational and honest man.
Such as are exasperated against this work are entreated to remember, that faith is a gift of heaven; that the want of it is not a vice; that if the Jews, who were eye witnesses of the wonders of Jesus, did not believe them, it is very pardonable to doubt them at the beginning of the nineteenth century, especially on finding that the accounts of these marvels, though said to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit, are not uniform nor in harmony with each other. In fine, fiery devotees are earnestly entreated to moderate their holy rage, and suffer the meekness, so often recommended by their "divine Saviour" to occupy the place of that bitter zeal, and persecuting spirit which creates so many enemies to the Christian religion. Let them remember, that if it was to patience and forbearance Jesus promised the possession of the earth, it is much to be feared that pride, intolerance and in[Pg 16]humanity, will render the ministers of the church detestable, and make them lose that empire over minds, which to them is so agreeable. If they wish to reign over rational men, they must display reason, knowledge, and, above all, virtues more useful than those wherewith the teachers of the gospel have so long infested society. Jesus has said, "Happy are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth;" unless indeed interpreters should pretend, that this only signifies the necessity of persecuting, exterminating, and cutting the throats of those whose affections they wish to gain.
If it were permitted to cite the maxims of a profane person by that of the Son of God, we would quote here the apophthegm of the profound Machiavel, that "empires are preserved by the same means whereby they are established." It was by meekness, patience, and precaution, that the disciples of Jesus are said to have at first established Christianity. Their successors employed violence; but not until they found themselves supported by devout tyrants. Since then, the gospel of peace has been the signal of war; the pacific disciples of Jesus have become implacable warriors; have treated each other as ferocious beasts; and the church has been perpetually torn by dissentions, schisms, and factions. If the primitive spirit of patience and meekness does not quickly return to the aid of religion, it will soon become the object of the hatred of nations, who begin to feel that morality is preferable to obscure dogmas, and that peace is of greater value than the holy frenzy of the ministers of the gospel.
We cannot, therefore, with too much earnestness exhort them, for their own sakes, to moderation. Let them imitate their divine Master, who never employed his Father's power to exterminate the Jews, of whom he had so much to complain. He did not make the armies of heaven descend, in order to establish his doctrine. He chose rather to surrender to the secular power than give up the infidels, whom his prodigies and transcendent reasoning could not convince. [Pg 17]Though he is represented as being the depositary of the power of the Most High; though he was inspired by the Holy Spirit; though he had at his command all the angels of paradise, we do not find that he performed any miracles on the understandings of his auditory. He suffered them to remain in their blindness, though he had come on purpose to enlighten them. We cannot doubt, that a conduct, so wise, was intended to make the pastors of his church (who are not possessed of more persuasive powers than their master) sensible that it is not by violence they can reconcile the mind to incredible things; and that it would be unjust to force others to comprehend what, without favor from above; it would be impossible for themselves to comprehend; or what, even with such favor, they but very imperfectly understand.
But it is time to conclude an introduction, perhaps, already too long to a work which, even without preamble, may be tiresome to the clergy, and irritate the temper of the devout. The author does himself the justice to believe, that he has written enough to be attacked by a host of writers, obliged, by situation to repel his blows, and to defend, right or wrong, a cause wherein they are so deeply interested. He calculates that, on his death, his book will be calumniated, as well as his reputation, and his arguments misrepresented, or mutilated. He expects to be treated as impious—a blasphemer—an atheist, and to be loaded with all the epithets which the pious are in use to lavish on those who disquiet them. He will not, however, sleep the less tranquil for that; but as his sleep may prevent him from replying, he thinks it his duty to inform his antagonists before hand, that injuries are not reasons. He does more—he bequeaths them charitable advice, to which the defenders of religion do not usually pay sufficient attention. They are then apprised, that if, in their learned refutations, they do not resolve completely all the objections brought against them, they will have done nothing for their cause. The defenders of a religion, in which it is [Pg 18]affirmed that every thing is divinely inspired, are bound not to leave a single argument behind, and ought to be convinced that answering to an argument is not always refuting it. They should please also to keep in remembrance, that a single falsehood, a single absurdity, a single contradiction, or a single blunder, fairly pointed out in the gospels, is sufficient to render suspected, and even to overturn the authority of a book which ought to be perfect in all its parts, if it be true that it is the work of an infinitely perfect Being. An incredulous person, being but a man, may reason wrong; but it is never permitted to a God, or his instruments, either to contradict themselves, or to talk nonsense.[Pg 19]