Freethought Archives > Walter R. Cassels > A Reply to Dr Lightfoot's Essays



THROUGHOUT the whole of these essays, Dr. Lightfoot has shown the most complete misapprehension of the purpose for which the examination of the evidence regarding the Gospels in early writings was undertaken in Supernatural Religion, and consequently he naturally misunderstands and misrepresents its argument from first to last. This becomes increasingly evident when we come to writers, whom he fancifully denominates: "the later school of St. John." He evidently considers that he is producing a very destructive effect, when he demonstrates from the writings, genuine or spurious, of such men as Melito of Sardis, Claudius Apollinaris and Polycrates of Ephesus, or from much more than suspected documents like the Martyrdom of Polycarp, that towards the last quarter of the second century they were acquainted with the doctrines of Christianity and, as he infers, derived them from our four Gospels. He really seems incapable of discriminating between a denial that there is clear and palpable evidence of the existence and authorship of these particular Gospels, and denial that they actually existed at all. I do not suppose that there is any critic, past or present, who doubts that our four Gospels had been composed and were in wide circulation during this period of the second century. It is a very different matter to examine what absolute testimony there is regarding the origin, authenticity, and trustworthiness of these documents, as records of miracles and witnesses for the reality of Divine Revelation.

I cannot accuse myself of having misled Dr. Lightfoot on this point by any obscurity in the statement of my object, but, as he and other apologists have carefully ignored it, and systematically warped my argument, either by accident or design, I venture to quote a few sentences from Supernatural Religion, both to justify myself and to restore the discussion to its proper lines.

In winding up the first part of the work, which was principally concerned with the antecedent credibility of miracles, I said:--

"Now it is apparent that the evidence for miracles requires to embrace two distinct points: the reality of the alleged facts, and the accuracy of the inference that the phenomena were produced by supernatural agency … In order, however, to render our conclusion complete, it remains for us to see whether, as affirmed, there be any special evidence regarding the alleged facts entitling the Gospel miracles to exceptional attention. If, instead of being clear, direct, the undoubted testimony of known eye-witnesses free from superstition and capable, through adequate knowledge, rightly to estimate the alleged phenomena, we find that the actual accounts have none of these qualifications, the final decision with regard to miracles and the reality of Divine Revelation will be easy and conclusive." [130:1]

Before commencing the examination of the evidence for the Gospels, I was careful to state the principles upon which I considered it right to proceed. I said:

"Before commencing our examination of the evidence as to the date, authorship, and character of the Gospels, it may be well to make a few preliminary remarks, and clearly state certain canons of criticism. We shall make no attempt to establish any theory as to the date at which any of the Gospels was actually written, but simply examine all the testimony which is extant, with the view of ascertaining what is known of these works and their authors, certainly and distinctly, as distinguished from what is merely conjectured or inferred ... We propose, therefore, as exhaustively as possible, to search all the writings of the early Church for information regarding the Gospels, and to examine even the alleged indications of their use ... It is still more important that we should constantly bear in mind that a great number of Gospels existed in the early Church which are no longer extant, and of most of which even the names are lost. We need not here do more than refer, in corroboration of this fact, to the preliminary statement of the author of the third Gospel: 'Forasmuch as many (polloi) took in hand to set forth in order a declaration of the things which have been accomplish among us,' &c. It is, therefore, evident that before our third synoptic was written many similar works were already in circulation. Looking at the close similarity of large portions of the three synoptics, it is almost certain that many of the writings here mentioned bore a close analogy to each other and to our Gospels, and this is known to have been the case, for instance, amongst the various forms of the 'Gospel according to the Hebrews.' When, therefore, in early writings, we meet with quotations closely resembling, or, we may add, even identical, with passages which are found in our Gospels, the source of which, however, is not mentioned, nor is any author's name indicated, the similarity or even identity cannot by any means be admitted as proof that the quotation is necessarily from our Gospels, and not from some other similar work now no longer extant, and more especially not when, in the same writings, there are other quotations from sources different from our Gospels. ... But whilst similarity to our Gospels in passages quoted by early writers from unnamed sources cannot prove the use of our Gospels, variation from them would suggest or prove a different origin, and at least it is obvious that anonymous quotations which do not agree with our Gospels cannot in any case necessarily indicate their existence ... It is unnecessary to add that, in proportion as we remove from Apostolic times without positive evidence of the existence and authenticity of our Gospels, so does the value of their testimony dwindle away. Indeed, requiring, as we do, clear, direct and irrefragable evidence of the integrity, authenticity, and historical character of these Gospels, doubt or obscurity on these points must inevitably be fatal to them as sufficient testimony--if they could, under any circumstances, be considered sufficient testimony--for miracles and a direct Divine Revelation like ecclesiastical Christianity." [132:1]
Dr. Lightfoot must have been aware of these statements, since he has made the paragraph on the silence of ancient writers the basis of his essay on the silence of Eusebius, and has been so particular in calling attention to any alteration I have made in my text; and it might have been better if, instead of cheap sneers on every occasion in which these canons have been applied, he had once for all stated any reasons which he can bring forward against the canons themselves. The course he has adopted, I can well understand, is more convenient for him and, after all, with many it is quite as effective.

It may be well that I should here again illustrate the necessity for such canons of criticism as I have indicated above, and which can be done very simply from our own Gospels:

"Not only the language but the order of a quotation must have its due weight, and we have no right to dismember a passage and, discovering fragmentary parallels in various parts of the Gospels, to assert that it is compiled from them and not derived, as it stands, from another source. As an illustration, let us for a moment suppose the 'Gospel according to Luke' to have been lost, like the 'Gospel according to the Hebrews' and so many others. In the works of one of the Fathers we discover the following quotation from an unnamed evangelical work: 'And he said unto them (elegen de pros autous): 'The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few; pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest that he would send forth labourers into his harvest. Go your ways (hupagete): behold, I send you forth as lambs (arnas) in the midst of wolves.' Following the system adopted in regard to Justin and others, apologetic critics would of course maintain that this was a compilation from memory of passages quoted from our first Gospel--that is to say, Matt ix, 37: 'Then saith he unto his disciples (tote legei tois mathêtais autou), The harvest,' &c.; and Matt. x. 16: 'Behold, I (egô) send you forth as sheep' (probata) in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore,' &c., which, with the differences which we have indicated, agree. It would probably be in vain to argue that the quotation indicated a continuous order, and the variations combined to confirm the probability of a different source, and still more so to point out that, although parts of the quotation, separated from their context, might, to a certain extent, correspond with scattered verses in the first Gospel, such a circumstance was no proof that the quotation was taken from that and from no other Gospel. The passage, however, is a literal quotation from Luke x. 2-3, which, as we have assumed, had been lost.

"Again, still supposing the third Gospel no longer extant, we might find the following quotation in a work of the Fathers: 'Take heed to yourselves (eautois) of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy (hêtis estin hupocrisis). For there is nothing covered up (sunkekalummenon) which shall not be revealed, and hid, which shall not be known.' It would, of course, be affirmed that this was evidently a combination of two verses of our first Gospel quoted almost literally, with merely a few very immaterial slips of memory in the parts we note, and the explanatory words, 'which is hypocrisy,' introduced by the Father, and not a part of the quotation at all. The two verses are Matt. xvi. 6, 'Beware and take heed (hopate kai) of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (kai Saddoukaiôn), and Matt. x. 26, '… for (gar) there is nothing covered (kekalummenon) that shall not be revealed, and hid, that shall not be known.' The sentence would, in fact, be divided as in the case of Justin, and each part would have its parallel pointed out in separate portions of the Gospel. How wrong such a system is--and it is precisely that which is adopted with regard to Justin--is clearly established by the fact that the quotation, instead of being such a combination, is simply taken as it stands from the 'Gospel according to Luke,' xii. 1-2." [133:1]

"If we examine further, however, in the same way, quotations which differ merely in language, we arrive at the very same conclusion. Supposing the third Gospel to be lost, what would be the source assigned to the following quotation from an unnamed Gospel in the work of one of the Fathers? 'No servant (oudeis oiketês) can serve two lords, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.' Of course the passage would be claimed as a quotation from memory of Matt. vi. 24, with which it perfectly corresponds, with the exception of the addition of the second word, oiketês, which, it would no doubt be argued, is an evident and very natural amplification of the simple oudeis of the first Gospel. Yet this passage, only differing by the single word from Matthew, is a literal quotation from the Gospel according to Luke xvi. 13. Or, to take another instance, supposing the third Gospel to be lost, and the following passage quoted, from an unnamed source, by one of the Fathers: 'Beware (prosechete) of the Scribes, which desire to walk in long robes, and love (philountôn) greetings in the markets, and chief seats in the synagogues, and chief places at feasts; which devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation.' This would, without hesitation, be declared a quotation from memory of Mark xii. 38-40, from which it only differs in a couple of words. It is, however, a literal quotation of Luke xx. 46-47, yet probably it would be in vain to submit to apologetic critics that possibly, not to say probably, the passage was not derived from Mark, but from a lost Gospel. To quote one more instance, let us suppose the 'Gospel according to Mark' no longer extant, and that in some early work there existed the following passage: 'It is easier for a camel to go through the eye (trumalias) of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.' This of course would be claimed as a quotation from memory of Matt. xix. 24, with which it agrees with the exception of the substitution of trupêmatos for trumalias. It would not the less have been an exact quotation from Mark x. 25." [134:1]

Illustrations of this kind could be indefinitely multiplied, and to anyone who has studied the three synoptics, with their similarities and variations, and considered the probable mode of their compilation, it must be apparent that, with the knowledge that very many other Gospels existed (Luke i. 1), which can only very slowly have disappeared from circulation, it is impossible for anyone with a due appreciation of the laws of evidence to assert that the use of short passages similar to others in our Gospels actually proves that they must have been derived from these alone, and cannot have emanated from any other source. It is not necessary to deny that they may equally have come from the Gospels, but the inevitable decision of a judicial mind, seriously measuring evidence, must be that they do not absolutely prove anything.

Coming now more directly to the essay on "The later school of St. John," it is curious to find Dr. Lightfoot setting in the very foreground the account of Polycarp's martyrdom, without a single word regarding the more than suspicious character of the document, except the remark in a note that "the objections which have been urged against this narrative are not serious." [135:1] They have been considered so by men like Keim, Schürer, Lipsius, and Holtzmann. The account has too much need to be propped up itself to be of much use as a prop for the Gospels. Dr. Lightfoot points out that an "idea of literal conformity to the life and Passion of Christ runs through the document," [135:2] and it is chiefly on the fact that "most of the incidents have their counterparts in the circumstances of the Passion, as recorded by the synoptic evangelists alone or in common with St. John," that he relies, in referring to the martyrdom. I need scarcely reply that not only, on account of the very doubtful character of the document, is it useless to us as evidence, but because it does not name a single Gospel, much less add anything to our knowledge of their authorship and trustworthiness. I shall have more to say regarding Dr. Lightfoot in connection with this document further on.

The same remark applies to Melito of Sardis. I have fully discussed [135:3] the evidence which he is supposed to contribute, and it is unnecessary for me to enter into it at any length here, more especially as Dr. Lightfoot does not advance any new argument. He has said nothing which materially alters the doubtful position of many of the fragments attributed to this Father. In any case the use which Dr. Lightfoot chiefly makes of him as a witness is to show that Melito exhibits full knowledge of the details of evangelical history as contained in the four canonical Gospels. Waiving all discussion of the authenticity of the fragments, and accepting, for the sake of argument, the asserted acquaintance with evangelical history which they display, I simply enquire what this proves? Does anyone doubt that Melito of Sardis, in the last third of the second century, must have been thoroughly versed in Gospel history, or deny that he might have possessed our four Gospels? The only thing which is lacking is actual proof of the fact. Melito does not refer to a single Gospel by name. He does not add one word or one fact to our knowledge of the Gospels or their composers. He does not, indeed, mention any writing of the New Testament. If his words regarding the "Books of the Old Testament" imply "a corresponding Christian literature which he regarded as the books of the New Testament," [136:1] which I deny, what is gained? Even in that case "we cannot,'' as Dr. Lardner frankly states, "infer the names or the exact number of those books." As for adding anything to the credibility of miracles, such an idea is not even broached by Dr. Lightfoot, and yet if he cannot do this the only purpose for which his testimony is examined is gone. The elaborate display of vehemence in discussing the authenticity of fragments of his writings merely distracts the attention of the reader from the true issue if, when to his own satisfaction, Dr. Lightfoot cannot turn the evidence of Melito to greater account. [136:2]

Nor is he much more fortunate in the case of Claudius Apollinaris, [137:1] whose "Apology" may be dated about A.D. 177-180. In an extract preserved in the Paschal Chronicle, regarding the genuineness of which all discussion may, for the sake of argument, be waived here, the writer in connection with the Paschal Festival says that "they affirm that Matthew represents" one thing "and, on their showing, the Gospels seem to be at variance with one another." [137:2] If, therefore, the passage be genuine, the writer seems to refer to the first synoptic, and by inference to the fourth Gospel. He says nothing of the composition of these works, and he does nothing more than merely show that they were accepted in his time. This may seem a good deal when we consider how very few of his contemporaries do as much, but it really contributes nothing to our knowledge of the authors, and does not add a jot to their credibility as witnesses for miracles and the reality of Divine Revelation.

With regard to Polycrates of Ephesus I need say very little. Eusebius preserves a passage from a letter which he wrote "in the closing years of the second century," [137:3] when Victor of Rome attempted to force the Western usage with respect to Easter on the Asiatic Christians. In this he uses the expression "he that leaned on the bosom of the Lord," which occurs in the fourth Gospel. Nothing could more forcibly show the meagreness of our information regarding the Gospels than that such a phrase is considered of value as evidence for one of them. In fact the slightness of our knowledge of these works is perfectly astounding when the importance which is attached to them is taken into account.


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