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NO RELIGION ORIGINALLY MYTHIC.
If discrepancies in the circumstances between narratives of the same events, or differences of arrangement in point of time, particularly among rude and inartificial writers, are to be admitted as proofs of this kind of fiction, all history is mythic; even the accounts of every transaction in the daily papers, which are never found to agree precisely in the minute details, are likewise mythic.
To these which appear to me conclusive arguments against the hypothesis of Dr. Strauss, I would add some observations, which to my mind are general maxims, which must be applied to all such discussions.
No religion is in its origin mythic. Mythologists embellish, adapt, modify, idealise, clothe in allegory or symbol, received and acknowledged truths. This is a later process, and addressed to the imagination, already excited and prepared to receive established doctrines or opinions in this new form. But in Christianity (according to Dr. Strauss's hypothesis) what was the first impulse, the germ of all this high-wrought and successful idealisation ?—Nothing more than the existence of a man named Jesus, who obtained a few followers, and was put to death as a malefactor, without any pretensions on his part to a superior character, either as a divine or a divinely commissioned being, or as the expected Messiah of the Jews. Whatever, extorted by the necessity of the case, is added to this primary conception of the character of Jesus, in order sufficiently to awaken the human mind to a new religion connected with his name, belief of his miraculous powers, of his resurrection, of his Messiahship, even of his more than human virtue and wisdom, tends to verify the delineation of his character in his Gospels, as the original object of admiration and belief to his followers; and to anticipate and preclude, as it were, its being a subsequent mythic invention.
Can the period in which Jesus appeared be justly considered a mythic age? If by mythic age (and I do not think Dr. Strauss very rigid and philosophical in the use of the term) be meant an age in which there was a general and even superstitious belief, in wonders and prodigies, mingled up with much cool incredulity, this cannot be denied. The prodigies which are related by grave historians, as taking place at the death of Cæsar; those which Josephus, who is disposed to rationalise many of the miracles of the early history of his people, describes during the capture of Jerusalem, are enough, out of the countless instances which could be VOL. I.
THE SPURIOUS GOSPELS.
adduced, to determine the question. But if the term mythic be more properly applied to that idealisation, that investing religious doctrines in allegory or symbol; above all, that elevating into a deity a man only distinguished for moral excellence (the deification of the Roman emperors was a political act), this appears to me to be repugnant to the genius of the time and of the country. Among the Jewish traditions in the Talmud, there is much fable, much parable, much apologue; as far as I can discern, nothing strictly speaking mythic. Philo's is a kind of poetico-philosophic rationalism. The later legends, of Simon Magus, Alexander in Lucian, and Apollonius of Tyana, are subsequent inventions, after the imaginative impulse given by Christianity, possibly imitative of the Gospels.
I would be understood, however, as laying least stress upon this argument, as this tendency to imaginative excitement and creation does not depend so much on the age as on the state of civilisation, which perhaps in the East has never become completely exempt from this tendency.
But I cannot admit the spurious Gospels, which seem to me the manifest offspring of Gnostic and heretical sects, and to have been composed at periods which historical criticism might designate from internal evidence, though clearly mythical, to involve the genuine Gospels in the same proscription. To a discriminating and unprejudiced mind, I would rest the distinction between mythical and non-mythical on the comparison between the apocryphal and canonical Gospels.
Neander, in my opinion, has exercised a very sound judgement in declining direct controversy with Dr. Strauss; for controversy, even conducted in the calm and Christian spirit of Neander, rarely works conviction, except in those who are already convinced. He has chosen the better course of giving a fair and candid view of the opposite side of the question, and of exhibiting the accordance of the ordinary view of the origin and authority of the Gospels with sound reason and advanced philosophy. He has dissembled no difficulties, and appealed to no passions. It affords me much satisfaction to find that, although my plan did not require or admit of such minute investigation, I have anticipated many of the conclu
CRITICAL SYSTEM OF WEISSE.
sions of Neander. In many respects the point of view, from which I have looked at the subject, is altogether different; and, as I have preferred to leave my own work in its original form, though some of the difficulties and discrepancies on which Dr. Strauss dwells may, I trust, be reasonably accounted for in the following chapters of my work, this will be only incidentally; the full counter-statement, prepared with constant reference to Dr. Strauss's book, must be sought in the work of Neander.
It accords even less with the design of my work, which is rather to trace the influence and effect of Christian opinions, than rigidly to investigate their origin or to establish their truth, to notice the various particular animadversions on Dr. Strauss which might suggest themselves; yet I have added some few observations on certain points, when they have crossed the course of my narrative.
The best answer to Strauss is to show that a clear, consistent, and probable narrative can be formed out of that of the four Gospels, without more violence, I will venture to say, than any historian ever found necessary to harmonise four contemporary chronicles of the same events; and maintaining a general accordance with the history, customs, habits, and opinions of the times, altogether irreconcileable with the poetic character of mythic history.
The inexhaustible fertility of German speculation has now displayed itself in another original and elaborate work, Die Evangelische Geschichte, Kritisch und Philosophisch bearbeitet, Von Ch. Hermann Weisse. 2 Bände. Leipsic, 1838. Dr. Weisse repudiates the theory of Strauss. If he does not bring us to the cold and dreary conclusion of Strauss, or land us on the Nova Zembla of that writer, he leaves us enveloped in a vague and indistinct mist, in which we discern nothing clear, distinct, or satisfactory.
The critical system of Weisse rests on two leading points :—The assumption of the Gospel of St. Mark as the primitive Gospel,-a theory which has been advanced before, but which no writer has wrought out with so much elaborate diligence as Weisse ;--and a hostility which leads to the virtual rejection of the Gospel of St. John as almost entirely spurious. With regard to St. Mark's Gospel he receives the tradition of Papias, that it was written from the dictation, or at least from information obtained from St. Peter. St. Matthew's was formed from the incorporation of the Gospel of the Hebrews with the Xoyia, a collection of speeches attributed to our Lord. As to St. John's, he submits it to the test of his own
WEISSE AND STRAUSS.
arbitrary, and it appears to me, however they may be called critical, very narrow and unphilosophical laws of probability.
The theory by which Weisse would reconcile and harmonise what he retains of the evangelic history with what he considers the highest philosophy, I must confess my inability to comprehend, and must plead as my excuse, that he admits it to be unintelligible to those who are not acquainted with some of his former philosophical works, which I have not at my command. What I do comprehend it would be impossible to explain, as the philosophical language of Germany would, if retained, be entirely without meaning to most readers, and is untranslatable into a foreign tongue.
Weisse retains a much larger and more solid substratum of historic fact than Strauss; and though he may be called a mythic interpreter, his mythic system seems to me entirely different from that of Strauss. With the latter the historic facts are, in general, pure fictions, wrought out of preconceived Jewish notions; with Weisse they are symbolic rather than mythic. In some cases they arise from the mistake of symbolic action for real fact; as, for instance, the notion of the feeding the multitudes in the desert arose out of the mystic language of the Saviour, relating to spiritual nourishment by the bread of life. In other parts he adopts the language of Vico, which has found so much favour in Germany, but which I confess, when gravely applied to history, and followed out to an extent, I conceive, scarcely anticipated by its author, appears to me to be one of the most monstrous improbabilities which has ever passed current under the garb of philosophy. Individual historical characters are merely symbols of the age in which they live,―ideal personifications, as it were, of the imagination, without any actual or personal existence. Thus the elder Herod (Weisse is speaking of the massacre of the Innocents) is the symbol, the representation of worldly power. And so the tyrant of the Jews is sublimated into an allegory.
Weisse, however, in his own sense, distinctly asserts the divinity of the religion and of our Lord himself.
I mention this book for several reasons:-First, because, although it is written in a tone of bold, and, with us it would seem, presumptuous speculation, and ends, in my opinion, in a kind of unsatisfactory mysticism, it contains much profound and extremely beautiful thought.
Secondly, because in its system of interpretation it seems to me
ORIGIN OF THE GOSPELS.
to bear a remarkable resemblance to that of Philo and the better part of the Alexandrian school,-it is to the New Testament, what they were to the Old.
Lastly, to show that the German mind itself has been startled by the conclusions to which. the stern and remorseless logic of Strauss has pushed on the historical criticism of rationalism; and that, even where there is no tendency to return to the old system of religious interpretation, there is not merely strong discontent with the new, but a manifest yearning for a loftier and more consistent harmony between the religion of the Gospels and true philosophy, than has yet been effected by any of the remarkable writers who have attempted this reconciliation.
(It is hardly worth the space to notice such writers as Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer, who reproach Strauss with his timid orthodoxy. As far as I can judge, they have been repudiated with contemptuous silence even in Germany. The work of Strauss has been translated into French and into English. In England, I suspect, its number of readers has been extremely limited; but it is impossible to trace its indirect effect.-1863.)
ORIGIN OF THE GOSPELS.
THE question concerning the origin of the three first Gospels, both before and subsequent to the publication of Bishop Marsh's Michaelis, has assumed every possible form; and it may be safely asserted, that no one victorious theory has gained anything like a general assent among the learned. Every conceivable hypothesis has found its advocates; the priority of each of the Evangelists has been maintained with erudition and ingenuity; each has been considered the primary authority, which has been copied by the others. The hypothesis of one or more common sources, from which all three derived their materials (the view supported with so much learning and ability by the Bishop of Peterborough), has in its turn shared the common fate.
This inexhaustible question, though less actively agitated, still continues to occupy the attention of Biblical critics in Germany.