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Chapter 5

A CONSIDERATION OF CERTAIN ILL-JUDGED METHODS OF DEFENCE


The reader has now heard the utmost that can be said against the historic character of the Resurrection by the ablest of its impugners. I know of nothing in any of Strauss's works which can be considered as doing better justice to his opinions than the passages which I have quoted and, I trust, refuted. I have quoted fully, and have kept nothing in the background. If I had known of anything stronger against the Resurrection from any other source, I should certainly have produced it. I have answered in outline only, but I do not believe that I have passed any difficulty on one side.

What then does the reader think? Was the attack so dangerous, or the defence so far to seek? I believe he will agree with me that the combat was one of no great danger when it was once fairly entered upon. But the wonder, and, let me add, the disgrace, to English divines, is that the battle should have been shirked so long. What is it that has made the name of Strauss so terrible to the ears of English Churchmen? Surely nothing but the ominous silence which has been maintained concerning him in almost all quarters of our Church. For what can he say or do against the other miracles if he be powerless against the Resurrection? He can make sentences which sound plausible, but that is no great feat. Can he show that there is any a priori improbability whatever, in the fact of miracles having been wrought by one who died and rose from the dead? If a man did this it is a small thing that he should also walk upon the waves and command the winds. But if there is no a priori difficulty with regard to these miracles, there is certainly none other.

Let this, however, for the present pass, only let me beg of the reader to have patience while I follow out the plan which I have pursued up to the present point, and proceed to examine certain difficulties of another character. I propose to do so with the same unflinching examination as heretofore, concealing nothing that has been said, or that can be said; going out of my way to find arguments for opponents, if I do not think that they have put forward all that from their own point of view they might have done, and careless how many difficulties I may bring before the reader which may never yet have occurred to him, provided I feel that I can also shew him how little occasion there is to fear them.

I must, however, maintain two propositions, which may perhaps be unfamiliar to some of those who have not as yet given more than a conventional and superficial attention to the Scriptural records, but which will meet with ready assent from all whose studies have been deeper. Fain would I avoid paining even a single reader, but I am convinced that the arresting of infidelity depends mainly upon the general recognition of two broad facts. The first is this--that the Apostles, even after they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit were still fallible though holy men; the second--that there are certain passages in each of the Gospels as we now have them, which were not originally to be found therein, and others which, though genuine, are still not historic. This much of concession we must be prepared to make, and we shall find (as in the case of the conversion of St. Paul) that our position is indefinitely strengthened by doing so.

When shall we Christians learn that the truest ground is also the strongest? We may be sure that until we have done so we shall find a host of enemies who will say that truth is not ours. It is we who have created infidelity, and who are responsible for it. WE are the true infidels, for we have not sufficient faith in our own creed to believe that it will bear the removal of the incrustations of time and superstition. When men see our cowardice, what can they think but that we must know that we have cause to be afraid? We drive men into unbelief in spite of themselves, by our tenacious adherence to opinions which every unprejudiced person must see at a glance that we cannot rightfully defend, and then we pride ourselves upon our love for Christ and our hatred of His enemies. If Christ accepts this kind of love He is not such as He has declared Himself.

We mistake our love of our own immediate ease for the love of Christ, and our hatred of every opinion which is strange to us, for zeal against His enemies. If those to whom the unfamiliarity of an opinion or its inconvenience to themselves is a test of its hatefulness to Christ, had been born Jews, they would have crucified Him whom they imagine that they are now serving: if Turks, they would have massacred both Jew and Christian; if Papists at the time of the Reformation they would have persecuted Protestants: if Protestants, under Elizabeth, Papists. Truth is to them an accident of birth and training, and the Christian faith is in their eyes true because these accidents, as far as they are concerned, have decided in its favour. But such persons are not Christians. It is they who crucify Christ, who drive men from coming to Him whose every instinct would lead them to love and worship Him, but who are warned off by observing the crowd of sycophants and time-servers who presume to call Him Lord.

But to look at the matter from another point of view; when there is a long sustained contest between two bodies of capable and seriously disposed people, (and none can deny that many of our adversaries have been both one and the other), and when this contest shews no sign of healing, but rather widens from generation to generation, and each party accuses the other of disingenuousness, obstinacy and other like serious defects of mind--it may be certainly assumed that the truth lies wholly with neither side, but that each should make some concessions to the other. A third party sees this at a glance, and is amazed because neither of the disputants can perceive that his opponent must be possessed of some truths, in spite of his trying to defend other positions which are indefensible. Strange! that a thing which it seems so easy to avoid, should so seldom be avoided! Homer said well:


"Perish strife, both from among gods and men,
And wrath which maketh even him that is considerate, cruel,
Which getteth up in the heart of a man like smoke,
And the taste thereof is sweeter than drops of honey."


But strife can never cease without concessions upon both sides. We agree to this readily in the abstract, but we seldom do so when any given concession is in question. We are all for concession in the general, but for none in the particular, as people who say that they will retrench when they are living beyond their income, but will not consent to any proposed retrenchment. Thus many shake their heads and say that it is impossible to live in the present age and not be aware of many difficulties in connection with the Christian religion; they have studied the question more deeply than perhaps the unbeliever imagines; and having said this much they give themselves credit for being wide-minded, liberal and above vulgar prejudices: but when pressed as to this or that particular difficulty, and asked to own that such and such an objection of the infidel's needs explanation, they will have none of it, and will in nine cases out of ten betray by their answers that they neither know nor want to know what the infidel means, but on the contrary that they are resolute to remain in ignorance. I know this kind of liberality exceedingly well, and have ever found it to harbour more selfishness, idleness, cowardice and stupidity than does open bigotry. The bigot is generally better than his expressed opinions, these people are invariably worse than theirs.

The above principle has been largely applied in the writings of so- called orthodox commentators, not unfrequently even by men who might have been assumed to be above condescending to such trickery. A great preface concerning candour, with a flourish of trumpets in the praise of truth, seems to have exhausted every atom of truth and candour from the work that follows it.

It will be said that I ought not to make use of language such as this without bringing forward examples. I shall therefore adduce them.

One of the most serious difficulties to the unbeliever is the inextricable confusion in which the accounts of the Resurrection have reached us: no one can reconcile these accounts with one another, not only in minute particulars, but in matters on which it is of the highest importance to come to a clear understanding. Thus, to omit all notice of many other discrepancies, the accounts of Mark, Luke, and John concur in stating that when the women came to the tomb of Jesus very early on the Sunday morning, they found it ALREADY EMPTY: the stone was gone when they came there, and, according to John, there was not even an angelic vision for some time afterwards. There is nothing in any of these three accounts to preclude the possibility of the stone's having been removed within an hour or two of the body's having been laid in the tomb.

But when we turn to Matthew we find all changed: we are told that the stone was gone NOT when the women came, but that on their arrival there was a great earthquake, and that an angel came down from Heaven, and rolled away the stone, AND SAT UPON IT, and that the guard who had been set over the tomb (of whom we hear nothing from any of the other evangelists) became as dead men while the angel addressed the women.

Now this is not one of those cases in which the supposition can be tolerated that all would be clear if the whole facts of the case were known to us. No additional facts can make it come about that the tomb should have been sealed and guarded, and yet NOT sealed and guarded; that the same women, at the same time and place, should have witnessed an earthquake, and yet NOT witnessed one; have found a stone already gone from a tomb, and yet NOT found it gone; have seen it rolled away, and NOT seen it, and so on; those who say that we should find no difficulty if we knew ALL the facts are still careful to abstain from any example (so far as I know) of the sort of additional facts which would serve their purpose. They cannot give one; any mind which is truly candid--white--not scrawled and scribbled over till no character is decipherable--will feel at once that the only question to be raised is, which is the more correct account of the Resurrection--Matthew's or those given by the other three Evangelists? How far is Matthew's account true, and how far is it exaggerated? For there must be either exaggeration or invention somewhere. It is inconceivable that the other writers should have known the story told by Matthew, and yet not only made no allusion to it, but introduced matter which flatly contradicts it, and it is also inconceivable that the story should be true, and yet that the other writers should not have known it.

This is how the difficulty stands--a difficulty which vanishes in a moment if it be rightly dealt with, but which, when treated after our unskilful English method, becomes capable of doing inconceivable mischief to the Christian religion. Let us see then what Dean Alford--a writer whose professions of candour and talk about the duty of unflinching examination leave nothing to be desired--has to say upon this point. I will first quote the passage in full from Matthew, and then give the Dean's note. I have drawn the greater part of the comments that will follow it from an anonymous pamphlet {2} upon the Resurrection, dated 1865, but without a publisher's name, so that I presume it must have been printed for private circulation only.

St. Matthew's account runs:-

"Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate, saying, 'Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, "After three days I will rise again." Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night and steal him away and say unto the people, "He is risen from the dead:" so the last error shall be worse than the first.' Pilate said unto them, 'Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can.' So they went and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone and setting a watch. In the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. And the angel answered and said unto the women, 'Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you.' And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word. And as they went to tell his disciples, Jesus met them, saying, 'All hail.' And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him (cf. John xx., 16, 17). Then said Jesus unto them, 'Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me.' Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done. And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, saying, 'Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. And if this come to the governor's ears, we will persuade him and secure you.' So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day."

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Let us turn now to the Dean's note on Matt. xxvii., 62-66.

With regard to the setting of the watch and sealing of the stone, he tells us that the narrative following (i.e., the account of the guard and the earthquake) "has been much impugned and its historical accuracy very generally given up even by the best of the German commentators (Olshausen, Meyer; also De Wette, Hase, and others). The chief difficulties found in it seem to be: (1) How should the chief priests, &c., KNOW OF HIS HAVING SAID 'in three days I will rise again,' when the saying was hid even from His own disciples? The answer to this is easy. The MEANING of the saying may have been, and was hid from the disciples; BUT THE FACT OF ITS HAVING BEEN SAID could be no secret. Not to lay any stress on John ii., 19 (Jesus answered and said unto them, 'Destroy this temple and in three days I will build it up'), we have the direct prophecy of Matt. xii., 40 ('For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth): besides this there would be a rumour current, through the intercourse of the Apostles with others, that He had been in the habit of so saying. (From what source can Dean Alford know that our Lord WAS in the habit of so saying? What particle of authority is there for this alleged habit of our Lord?) As to the UNDERSTANDING of the words we must remember that HATRED IS KEENER SIGHTED THAN LOVE: that the RAISING OF LAZARUS would shew WHAT SORT OF A THING RISING FROM THE DEAD WAS TO BE; and the fulfilment of the Lord's announcement of his CRUCIFIXION would naturally lead them to look further to WHAT MORE he had announced. (2) How should the women who were solicitous about the REMOVAL of the stone not have been still more so about its being sealed and a guard set? The answer to this last has been given above--THEY WERE NOT AWARE OF THE CIRCUMSTANCE BECAUSE THE GUARD WAS NOT SET TILL THE EVENING BEFORE. There would be no need of the application before the APPROACH OF THE THIRD DAY-- it is only made for a watch, [Greek text] (ver. 64), and it is not probable that the circumstance would transpire that night--certainly it seems not to have done so. (3) That Gamaliel was of the council, and if such a thing as this and its sequel (chap. xxviii., 11-15) had really happened, he need not have expressed himself doubtfully (Acts v., 39), but would have been certain that this was from God. But, first, it does not necessarily follow that EVERY MEMBER of the Sanhedrim was present, and applied to Pilate, or even had they done so, that all bore a part in the act of xxviii., 12" (the bribing of the guard to silence). "One who like Joseph had not consented to the deed before--and we may safely say that there were others such--would naturally withdraw himself from further proceedings against the person of Jesus. (4) Had this been so the three other Evangelists would not have passed over so important a testimony to the Resurrection. But surely we cannot argue in this way--for thus every important fact narrated by ONE EVANGELIST ALONE must be rejected, e.g. (which stands in much the same relation), THE SATISFACTION OF THOMAS--ANOTHER SUCH NARRATIONS. TILL WE KNOW MORE ABOUT THE CIRCUMSTANCES UNDER WHICH, AND THE SCOPE WITH WHICH, EACH GOSPEL WAS COMPILED, ALL A PRIORI ARGUMENTS OF THIS KIND ARE GOOD FOR NOTHING."

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I will now proceed to consider this defence of Matthew's accuracy against the objections of the German commentators.

I. The German commentators maintain that the chief priests are not likely to have known of any prophecy of Christ's Resurrection when His own disciples had evidently heard of nothing to this effect. Dean Alford's answer amounts to this:-

1. They had heard the words but did not understand their meaning; hatred enabled the chief priests to see clearly what love did not reveal to the understanding of the Apostles. True, according to Matthew, Christ had said that as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so the Son of Man should be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth; but it would be only hatred which would suggest the interpretation of so obscure a prophecy: love would not be sufficiently keen-sighted to understand it.

But in the first place I would urge that if the Apostles had ever heard any words capable of suggesting the idea that Christ should rise, after they had already seen the raising of Lazarus, on whom corruption had begun its work, they MUST have expected the Resurrection. After having seen so stupendous a miracle, any one would expect anything which was even suggested by the One who had performed it. And, secondly, hatred is not keener sighted than love.

2. Dean Alford says that the raising of Lazarus would shew the chief priests what sort of a thing the Resurrection from the dead was to be, and that the fulfilment of Christ's prophecy concerning his Crucifixion would naturally lead them to look further to what else he had announced.

But, if the raising of Lazarus would shew the chief priests what sort of thing the Resurrection was to be, it would shew the Apostles also; and again if the fulfilment of the prophecy of the Crucifixion would lead the chief priests to look further to the fulfilment of the prophecy of the Resurrection, so would it lead the Apostles; this supposition of one set of men who can see everything, and of another with precisely the same opportunities and no less interest, who can see nothing, is vastly convenient upon the stage, but it is not supported by a reference to Nature; self-interest would have opened the eyes of the Apostles.

II. The German commentators ask how was it possible that the women who were solicitous about the removal of the stone, should not be still more so about "its being sealed and a guard set?" If the German commentators have asked their question in this shape, they have asked it badly, and Dean Alford's answer is sufficient: they might have asked, how the other three writers could all tell us that the stone was already gone when the women got there, and yet Matthew's story be true? and how Matthew's story could be true without the other writers having known it? and how the other writers could have introduced matter contradictory to it, if they had known it to be true?

III. The German commentators say that in the Acts of the Apostles we find Gamaliel expressing himself as doubtful whether or no Christianity was of God, whereas had he known the facts related by Matthew he could have had no doubt at all. He must have KNOWN that Christianity was of God.

Dean Alford answers that perhaps Gamaliel was not there. To which I would rejoin that though Gamaliel might have had no hand in the bribery, supposing it to have taken place, it is inconceivable that such a story should have not reached him; the matter could never have been kept so quiet but that it must have leaked out. Men are not so utterly bad or so utterly foolish as Dean Alford seems to imply; and whether Gamaliel was or was not present when the guard were bribed, he must have been equally aware of the fact before making the speech which is assigned to him in the Acts.

IV. The German commentators argue from the silence of the other Evangelists: Dean Alford replies by denying that this silence is any argument: but I would answer, that on a matter which the other three writers must have known to have been of such intense interest, their silence is a conclusive proof either of their ignorance or their indolence as historians. Dean Alford has well substantiated the independence of the four narratives, he has well proved that the writer of the fourth Gospel could never have seen the other Gospels, and yet he supposes that that writer either did not know the facts related by Matthew, or thought it unnecessary to allude to them. Neither of these suppositions is tenable: but there would nevertheless be a shadow of ground for Dean Alford to stand upon if the other Evangelists were simply silent: but why does he omit all notice of their introducing matter which is absolutely incompatible with Matthew's accuracy?

There is one other consideration which must suggest itself to the reader in connection with this story of the guard. It refers to the conduct of the chief priests and the soldiers themselves. The conduct assigned to the chief priests in bribing the guard to lie against one whom they must by this time have known to be under supernatural protection, is contrary to human nature. The chief priests (according to Matthew) knew that Christ had said he should rise: in spite of their being well aware that Christ had raised Lazarus from the dead but very recently they did not believe that he WOULD rise, but feared (so Matthew says) that the Apostles would steal the body and pretend a resurrection: up to this point we admit that the story, though very improbable, is still possible: but when we read of their bribing the guards to tell a lie under such circumstances as those which we are told had just occurred, we say that such conduct is impossible: men are too great cowards to be capable of it. The same applies to the soldiers: they would never dare to run counter to an agency which had nearly killed them with fright on that very selfsame morning. Let any man put himself in their position: let him remember that these soldiers were previously no enemies to Christ, nor, as far as we can judge, is it likely that they were a gang of double-dyed villains: but even if they were, they would not have dared to act as Matthew says they acted.

And now let us turn to another note of Dean Alford's.

Speaking of the independence of the four narratives (in his note on Matt. xxviii., 1-10) and referring to their "minor discrepancies," the Dean says SUPPOSING US TO BE ACQUAINTED WITH EVERY THING SAID AND DONE IN ITS ORDER AND EXACTNESS, WE SHOULD DOUBTLESS BE ABLE TO RECONCILE, OR ACCOUNT FOR, THE PRESENT FORMS OF THE NARRATIVES; but not having this key to the harmonising of them, all attempts to do so in minute particulars must be full of arbitrary assumptions, and carry no certainty with them: and I may remark that OF ALL HARMONIES those of the INCIDENTS OF THESE CHAPTERS are to me the MOST UNSATISFACTORY. Giving their compilers all credit for the best intentions, I confess they seem to me to WEAKEN instead of strengthening the evidence, which now rests (speaking merely OBJECTIVELY) on the unexceptionable testimony of three independent narrators, and one who besides was an eye witness of much that happened. If we are to compare the four and ask which is to be taken as most nearly reporting the EXACT words and incidents, on this there can, I think, be no doubt. On internal as well as external ground THAT OF JOHN takes the HIGHEST PLACE, but not of course to the exclusion of those parts of the narrative which he DOES NOT TOUCH."

Surely the above is a very extraordinary note. The difficulty of the irreconcilable differences between the four narratives is not met nor attempted to be met: the Dean seems to consider the attempt as hopeless: no one, according to him, has been as yet successful, neither can he see any prospect of succeeding better himself: the expedient therefore which he proposes is that the whole should be taken on trust; that it should be assumed that no discrepancy which could not be accounted for would be found, if the facts were known in the exact order in which they occurred. In other words, he leaves the difficulty where it was. Yet surely it is a very grave one. The same events are recorded by three writers (one being professedly an eye-witness, and the others independent writers), in a way which is virtually the same, in spite of some unimportant variations in the manner of telling it, while a fourth gives a totally different and irreconcilable account; the matter stands in such confusion at present that even Dean Alford admits that any attempt to reconcile the differences leaves them in worse confusion than ever; the ablest and most spiritually minded of the German commentators suggest a way of escape; nevertheless, according to the Dean we are not to profit by it, but shall avoid the difficulty better by a simpler process-- the process of passing it over.

A man does well to be angry when he sees so solemn and momentous a subject treated thus. What is trifling if this is not trifling? What is disingenuousness if not this? It involves some trouble and apparent danger to admit that the same thing has happened to the Christian records which has happened to all others--i.e., that they have suffered--miraculously little, but still something--at the hands of time; people would have to familiarise themselves with new ideas, and this can seldom be done without a certain amount of wrangling, disturbance, and unsettling of comfortable ease: it is therefore by all means and at all risks to be avoided. Who can doubt that some such feeling as this was in Dean Alford's mind when the notes above criticised were written? Yet what are the means taken to avoid the recognition of obvious truth? They are disingenuous in the very highest degree. Can this prosper? Not if Christ is true.

What is the practical result? The loss of many souls who would gladly come to the Saviour, but who are frightened off by seeing the manner in which his case is defended. And what after all is the danger that would follow upon candour? None. Not one particle. Nevertheless, danger or no danger, we are bound to speak the truth. We have nothing to do with consequences and moral tendencies and risk to this or that fundamental principle of our belief, nor yet with the possibility of lurid lights being thrown here or there. What are these things to us? They are not our business or concern, but rest with the Being who has required of US that we should reverently, patiently, unostentatiously, yet resolutely, strive to find out what things are true and what false, and that we should give up all, rather than forsake our own convictions concerning the truth.

This is our plain and immediate duty, in pursuance of which we proceed to set aside the account of the Resurrection given in St. Matthew's Gospel. That account must be looked upon as the invention of some copyist, or possibly of the translator of the original work, at a time when men who had been eye-witnesses to the actual facts of the Resurrection were becoming scarce, and when it was felt that some more unmistakably miraculous account than that given in the other three Gospels would be a comfort and encouragement to succeeding generations. We, however, must now follow the example of "even the best" of the German commentators, and discard it as soon as possible. On having done this the whole difficulty of the confusion of the four accounts of the Resurrection vanishes like smoke, and we find ourselves with three independent writers whose differences are exactly those which we might expect, considering the time and circumstances in which they wrote, but which are still so trifling as to disturb no man's faith.


Samuel Butler

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