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



A SEVERE persecution broke out in the year A.D. 177, under Marcus Aurelius, in the cities of Vienne and Lyons, on the Rhone, and an account of the martyrdoms which then took place was given in a letter from the persecuted communities, addressed "to the brethren that are in Asia and Phrygia." This epistle is in great part preserved to us by Eusebius (H. E. v. 1), and it is to a consideration of its contents that Dr. Lightfoot devotes his essay on the Churches of Gaul. But for the sake of ascertaining clearly what evidence actually exists of the Gospels, it would have been of little utility to extend the enquiry in Supernatural Religion to this document, written nearly a century and a half after the death of Jesus, but it is instructive to show how exceedingly slight is the information we possess regarding those documents. I may at once say that no writing of the New Testament is directly referred to by name in this epistle, and consequently any supposed quotations are merely inferred to be such by their similarity to passages found in these writings. With the complete unconsciousness which I have pointed out that Dr. Lightfoot affects regarding the object and requirements of my argument, Dr. Lightfoot is, of course, indignant that I will not accept as conclusive evidence the imperfect coincidences which alone he is able to bring forward. I have elsewhere fully discussed these, [140:1] and I need only refer to some portions of his essay here.

"Of Vettius Epagathus, one of the sufferers, we are told that, though young; he 'rivalled the testimony borne to the elder Zacharias (sunexisousthai tê tou presbuterou Zacharious marturia), for verily (goun) he had walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.' Here we have the same words, and in the same order, which are used of Zacharias and Elizabeth in St. Luke (i. 6): 'and Zacharias, his father, was filled with the Holy Ghost.'" [140:2]

Dr. Lightfoot very properly dwells on the meaning of the expression "the testimony of Zacharias" (tê Zachariou marturia), which he points out "might signify either 'the testimony borne to Zacharias,' i.e. his recorded character, or 'the testimony borne by Zacharias,' i.e. his martyrdom." By a vexatious mistake in reprinting, "to" was accidentally substituted for "by" in my translation of this passage in a very few of the earlier copies of my sixth edition, but the error was almost immediately observed and corrected in the rest of the edition. Dr. Lightfoot seizes upon the "to" in the early copy which I had sent to him, and argues upon it as a deliberate adoption of the interpretation, whilst he takes me to task for actually arguing upon the rendering "by" in my text. Very naturally a printer's error could not extend to my argument. The following is what I say regarding the passage in my complete edition:

"The epistle is an account of the persecution of the Christian community of Vienne and Lyons, and Vettius Epagathus is the first of the martyrs who is named in it: marturia was at that time the term used to express the supreme testimony of Christians--martyrdom-- and the epistle seems here simply to refer to the martyrdom, the honour of which he shared with Zacharias. It is, we think, highly improbable that, under such circumstances, the word marturia would have been used to express a mere description of the character of Zacharias given by some other writer."

This is the interpretation which is adopted by Tischendorf, Hilgenfeld, and many eminent critics.

It will be observed that the saying that he had "walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless," which is supposed to be taken from Luke i. 6, is there applied to Zacharias and Elizabeth, the father and mother of John the Baptist, but the Gospel does not say anything of this Zacharias having suffered martyrdom. The allusion in Luke xi. 51 (Matt. xxiii. 35) is almost universally admitted to be to another Zacharias, whose martyrdom is related in 2 Chron. xxiv. 21.

"Since the epistle, therefore, refers to the martyrdom of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, when using the expressions which are supposed to be taken from our third synoptic, is it not reasonable to suppose that those expressions were derived from some work which likewise contained an account of his death, which is not found in the synoptic? When we examine the matter more closely we find that, although none of the canonical gospels except the third gives any narrative of the birth of John the Baptist, that portion of the Gospel in which are the words we are discussing cannot be considered an original production by the third Synoptist, but, like the rest of his work, is merely a composition based upon earlier written narratives. Ewald, for instance, assigns the whole of the first chapters of Luke (i. 5-ii. 40) to what he terms 'the eighth recognisable book.'" [141:1]

No apologetic critic pretends that the author of the third Gospel can have written this account from his own knowledge or observation. Where, then, did he get his information? Surely not from oral tradition limited to himself. The whole character of the narrative, even apart from the prologue to the Gospel, and the composition of the rest of the work, would lead us to infer a written source.

"The fact that other works existed at an earlier period in which the history of Zacharias, the father of the Baptist, was given, and in which not only the words used in the epistle were found, but also the martyrdom, is in the highest degree probable, and, so far as the history is concerned, this is placed almost beyond doubt by the 'Protevangelium Jacobi,' which contains it. Tischendorf, who does not make use of this epistle at all as evidence for the Scriptures of the New Testament, does refer to it, and to this very allusion in it to the martyrdom of Zacharias, as testimony to the existence and use of the 'Protevangelium Jacobi,' a work whose origin he dates so far back as the first three decades of the second century, and which he considers was also used by Justin, as Hilgenfeld had already observed. Tischendorf and Hilgenfeld, therefore, agree in affirming that the reference to Zacharias which we have quoted indicates acquaintance with a Gospel different from our third synoptic." [142:1]

Such being the state of the case, I would ask any impartial reader whether there is any evidence here that these few words, introduced without the slightest indication of the source from which they were derived, must have been quoted from our third Gospel, and cannot have been taken from some one of the numerous evangelical works in circulation before that Gospel was written. The reply of everyone accustomed to weigh evidence must be that the words cannot even prove the existence of our synoptic at the time the letter was written.

"But, if our author disposes of the coincidences with the third Gospel in this way " (proceeds Dr. Lightfoot), "what will he say to those with the Acts? In this same letter of the Gallican Churches we are told that the sufferers prayed for their persecutors 'like Stephen, the perfect martyr, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.'" Will he boldly maintain that the writers had before them another Acts, containing words identical with our Acts, just as he supposes them to have had another Gospel, containing words identical with our Third Gospel? Or, will he allow this account to have been taken from Acts vii. 60, with which it coincides? But in this latter case, if they had the second treatise, which bears the name of St. Luke, in their hands, why should they not have had the first also?" [143:1]
My reply to this is:
"There is no mention of the Acts of the Apostles in the epistle, and the source from which the writers obtained their information about Stephen, is, of course, not stated. If there really was a martyr of the name of Stephen, and if these words were actually spoken by him, the tradition of the fact, and the memory of his noble saying, may well have remained in the Church, or have been recorded in writings then current, from one of which, indeed, eminent critics (as Bleek, Ewald, Meyer, Neander, De Wette) conjecture that the author of Acts derived his materials, and in this case the passage obviously does not prove the use of the Acts. If, on the other hand, there never was such a martyr by whom the words were spoken, and the whole story must be considered an original invention by the author of Acts, then, in that case, and in that case only, the passage does show the use of the Acts. Supposing that the use of Acts be held to be thus indicated, what does this prove? Merely that the 'Acts of the Apostles' were in existence in the year 177-178, when the epistle of Vienne and Lyons was written. No light whatever would thus be thrown upon the question of its authorship; and neither its credibility nor its sufficiency to prove the reality of a cycle of miracles would be in the slightest degree established." [143:2]

Apart from the question of the sufficiency of evidence actually under examination, however, I have never suggested, much less asserted, that the "Acts of the Apostles" was not in existence at this date. The only interest attachable to the question is, as I have before said, the paucity of the testimony regarding the book, to demonstrate which it has been necessary to discuss all such supposed allusions. But the apologetic argument characteristically ignores the fact that "many took in hand" at an early date to set forth the Christian story, and that the books of our New Testament did not constitute the whole of Christian literature in circulation in the early days of the Church.

I need not go with any minuteness into the alleged quotation from the fourth Gospel. "There shall come a time in which whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service." The Gospel has: "There cometh an hour when," &c., and, as no source is named, it is useless to maintain that the use of this Gospel, and the impossibility of the use of any other, is proved. If even this were conceded, the passage does not add one iota to our knowledge of the authorship and credibility of the Gospel. Dr. Lightfoot says "The author of Supernatural Religion maintains, on the other hand, that only twelve years before, at the outside, the very Church to which Irenaeus belonged, in a public document with which he was acquainted, betrays no knowledge of our canonical Gospels, but quotes from one or more apocryphal Gospels instead. He maintains this though the quotations in question are actually found in our canonical Gospels." [144:1] Really, Dr. Lightfoot betrays that he has not understood the argument, which merely turns upon the insufficiency of the evidence to prove the use of particular documents, whilst others existed which possibly, or probably, did contain similar passages to those in debate.


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