Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

214 PROPORTION OF CHRISTIANS AND PAGANS. CuAr. XV.

and the Euphrates.180 Beyond the last-mentioned river, Edessa was distinguished by a firm and early adherence to the faith.181 From Edessa the principles of Christianity were easily introduced into the Greek and Syrian cities which obeyed the successors of Artaxerxes; but they do not appear to have made any deep impression on the minds of the Persians, whose religious system, by the labours of a well-disciplined order of priests, had been constructed with much more art and solidity than the uncertain mythology of Greece and Rome.182

From this impartial though imperfect survey of the progress of General Christianity, it may perhaps seem probable that the number S chrtauan. °f its proselytes has been excessively magnified by fear on mid pagans. tne one gjd^ and Uy devotion on the other. According to the irreproachable testimony of Origen,183 the proportion of the faithful was very inconsiderable, when compared with the multitude of an unbelieving world; but, as we are left without any distinct information, it is impossible to determiue, and it is difficult even to conjecture, the real numbers of the primitive Christians. The most favourable calculation, however, that can be deduced from the examples of Antioch and of Rome will not permit us to imagine that more than a twentieth part of the subjects of the empire had enlisted themselves under the banner of the Cross before the important conversion of Constantine. But their habits of faith, of zeal, and of union, seemed to multiply their numbers; and the same causes which contributed to their future increase served to render their actual strength more apparent and more formidable.

Such is the constitution of civil society, that, whilst a few persons whether are distinguished by riches, by honours, and by knowledge, christians the body of the people is condemned to obscurity, ignorance,

\vi:Te mean , TM. ^TM .. i • • i • 1 i , * in

and ignorant, and poverty. 1 he Christian religion, which addressed itself to the whole human race, must consequently collect a far greater

Fingal, is suhl to have disputed, in his extreme old age, with one of the foreign missionaries, and the dispute is still extant in verse, and in the Erse language. See Mr. Macpherson's Dissertation on the Antiquity of Ossian's Poems, p. 10.

"° The Goths, who ravaged Asia in the reign of Gallienus, carried away great numbers of captives; some of whom were Christians, and became missionaries. See Tillemont, Mdmoires Ecclesiast. torn. iv. p. 44.

181 The legend of Abgarus, fabulous as it is, affords a decisive proof that many years before Eusebius wrote his history the greatest part of the inhabitants of Edessa had embraced Christianity. Their rivals, the citizens of Carrhte, adhered, on the contrary, to the cause of Paganism, as late as the sixth century.

182 According to Bardesanes (ap. Euseb. Pracpar. Evangel.\ there were some Christians in Persia before the end of the second century. In the time of Constantine (see his epistle to Sapor [Euseb.], Vit. 1. iv. c. 13) they composed a flourishing church. Consult Beausobre, Hist. Critique du Manichdisme, torn. i. p. 180, and the Bibliothecu Orientalis of Assemani.

"> Origen contra Celsum, 1. viii. p. 4'24 [c. 69, torn. i. p. 794, cd. Beucd.].

Chap. XV. CONDITION OF THE EARLY CHRISTIANS. 215

number of proselytes from the lower than from the superior ranks of life. This innocent and natural circumstance has been improved into a very odious imputation, which seems to be less strenuously denied by the apologists than it is urged by the adversaries of the faith; that the new sect of Christians was almost entirely composed of the dregs of the populace, of peasants and mechanics, of boys and women, of beggars and slaves, the last of whom might sometimes introduce the missionaries into the rich and noble families to which they belonged. These obscure teachers (such was the charge of malice and infidelity) are as mute in public as they are loquacious and dogmatical in private. Whilst they cautiously avoid the dangerous encounter of philosophers, they mingle with the rude and illiterate crowd, and insinuate themselves into those minds whom their age, their sex, or their education has the best disposed to receive the impression of superstitious terrors.184

This unfavourable picture, though not devoid of a faint resemblance, betrays, by its dark colouring and distorted features, some the pencil of an enemy. As the humble faith of Christ "j^^d diffused itself through the world, it was embraced by several t01Cttrnu'B; persons who derived some consequence from the advantages of nature or fortune. Aristides, who presented an eloquent apology to the emperor Hadrian, was an Athenian philosopher.185 Justin Martyr had sought divine knowledge in the schools of Zeno, of Aristotle, of Pythagoras, and of Plato, before he fortunately was accosted by the old man, or rather the angel, who turned his attention to the study of the Jewish prophets.186 Clemens of Alexandria had acquired much various reading in the Greek, and Tertullian in the Latin, language. Julius Africanus and Origen possessed a very considerable share of the learning of their times; and although the style of Cyprian is very different from that of Lactantius, we might almost discover that both those writers had been public teachers of rhetoric. Even the study of philosophy was at length introduced among the Christians, but it was not always productive of the most salutary effects; knowledge was as often the parent of heresy as of devotion, and the description which was desigued for the followers of Artemon may, with equal propriety, be applied to the various sects that resisted the successors of the apostles. "They presume to alter the holy Scrip

184 Minucius Felix, p. 8 [ed. Lugd. B. 1652], with WoweiWs notes. Celsus ap. Origen, 1. iii. p. 138, 142 [c. 49, tom. i. p. 479, ed. Bened.]. Julian ap. Cyril. 1. Yl p. 206, edit. Spanheiru.

'" Euseb. Hist. Eccles. iv. 3. Hieronym. EpUt. 83. [Ep. 70, tom. l. p. 424, ed. Vallare.]

'" The story is prettily told in JuBtin's Dialogues. Tillemont (Mem. Ecclesiast. tom. ii. p. Mi), who relates it after him, is sure that the old niau was a disguised angel.

21G CONDITION OF THE EARLY CHRISTIANS. CllAP. XV.

"tures, to abandon the ancient rule of faith, and to form their "opinions according to the subtile precepts of logic. The science of "the church is neglected for the study of geometry, and they lose "sight of heaven while they are employed in measuring the earth. "Euclid is perpetually in their hands. Aristotle and Theophrastus "are the objects of their admiration; and they express an uncommon "reverence for the works of Galen. Their errors are derived from "the abuse of the arts and sciences of the infidels, and they corrupt "the simplicity of the Gospel by the refinements of human reason."187

Nor can it be affirmed with truth that the advantages of birth , and fortune were always separated from the profession of 'to rank and Christianity. Several Roman citizens were brought before the tribunal of Pliny, and he soon discovered that a great number of persons of every order of men in Bithynia had deserted the religion of their ancestors.188 His unsuspected testimony may, in this instance, obtain more credit than the bold challenge of Tertullian, when he addresses himself to the fears as well as to the humanity of the proconsul of Africa, by assuring him that if he persists in his cruel intentions he must decimate Carthage, and that he will find among the guilty many persons of his own rank, senators and matrons of noblest extraction, and the friends or relations of his most intimate friends.189 It appears, however, that about forty years afterwards the emperor Valerian was persuaded of the truth of this assertion, since in one of his rescripts he evidently supposes that senators, Roman knights, and ladies of quality, were engaged in the Christian sect.190 The church still continued to increase its outward splendour as it lost its internal purity; and, in the reign of Diocletian, the palace, the courts of justice, and even the army, concealed a multitude of Christians, who endeavoured to reconcile the interests of the present with those of a future life.

And yet these exceptions are either too few in number, or too recent in time, entirely to remove the imputation of ignorance and obscurity which has been so arrogantly cast on the first proselytes of Christianity.b Instead of employing in our defence the fictions of

in Eusebius, v. 28. It may be hoped that none, except the heretics, gave occasion to the complaint of Celsua (ap. Origen, 1. ii. p. 77 [c. 27, tom.i. p. 411, ed. Boned.]), that the Christians were perpetually correcting and altering their Gospels."

188 Pliu. Epist. s. 97. Fuerunt alii similis amentia!, cives Romani .... Multi enim omnis cetatis, omnis ordinia, utriusque sexus, et jam voeantur in periculum et vocabuntur.

'■ Tertullian ad Scapulam. Yet even his rhetoric rises no higher than to claim a tenth part of Carthage. >*> Cyprian. Epist. 79 [8u].

n Origen states in reply that he knows b This incomplete enumeration ought of none who hud altered the Gospels except to be increased by the names of several the Marcionites, the Valentinians, and per- Pagans converted at the dawn of Chrishaps some followers of Lucanus.— M. tiamty, and whose conversion weakens the

Ciiap. XV. RECEPTION AND REJECTION OF CHRISTIANITY. 217

later ages, it will be more prudent to convert the occasion of scandal into a subject of edification. Our serious thoughts will

J . 111 11 Christianity

suggest to us that the apostles themselves were chosen by most favour

ftblv received

Providence among the fishermen of Galilee, and that, the by the poor lower we depress the temporal condition of the first Chris- m pe' tians, the more reason we shall find to admire their merit and success. It is incumbent on us diligently to remember that the kingdom of heaven was promised to the poor in spirit, and that minds afflicted by calamity and the contempt of mankind cheerfully listen to the divine promise of future happiness; while, on the contrary, the fortunate are satisfied with the possession of this world; and the wise abuse in doubt and dispute their vain superiority of reason and knowledge.

We stand in need of such reflections to comfort us for the loss of some illustrious characters, which in our eyes might have seemed the most worthy of the heavenly present. The names of Seneca, of the elder and the younger Pliny, of Tacitus, of Plutarch, of Galen, of the slave Epictetus, and of the emperor Marcus Antoninus, adorn the age in which they flourished, and exalt the dignity of human nature. They filled with glory their respective stations, rejected either in active or contemplative life; their excellent 'J,,TM men understandings were improved by study; philosophy had ^^nj purified their minds from the prejudices of the popular super- centurle8stition; and their days were spent in the pursuit of truth and the practice of virtue. Yet all these sages (it is no less an object of surprise than of concern) overlooked or rejected the perfection of the Christian system. Their language or their silence equally discover their contempt for the growing sect which in their time had diffused itself over the Roman empire. Those among them who condescend to mention the Christians consider them only as obstinate and perverse enthusiasts, who exacted an implicit submission to their mysterious doctrines, without being able to produce a single argument that could engage the attention of men of sense and learning.191

191 Dr. Lardner, in his first and second volumes of Jewish and Christian testimonies, collects and illustrates those of Pliny the younger, of Tacitus, of Galen, of Marcus Antoninus, and perhaps of Epictetus (for it is doubtful whether that philosopher means to speak of the Christians). The new sect is totally unnoticed by Seneca, the elder Pliny, and Plutarch.

reproach which the historian appears to Erastus, receiver at Corinth (Rom. zvi.

support. Such are, the Proconsul Sergius 23); some Asiarchs (Acts xix. 31). As

I'aulus, converted at Paphos (Acts xiii. to the philosophers, we may add Tatian,

7-12); Dionysius, member of the Areo- Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, He

pagus, converted, with several others, at gesippus, Melito, Miltiades, Pantcenus,

Athens (Acts xvii. 34); several persons Ammonius, &c., all distinguished for their

at the court of Nero (Philip, iv. 22); genius and learning.—Q.

218 NEGLECT OF rROriTECY AXU MIRACLES Chap. XV.

It is at least doubtful whether any of these philosophers perused Their neglect the apologies which the primitive Christians repeatedly of prophecy j pUbli3hed in behalf of themselves and of their religion; but it is much to be lamented that such a cause was not defended by abler advocates. They expose with superfluous wit and eloquence the extravagance of Polytheism. They interest our compassion by displaying the innocence and sufferings of their injured brethren. But when they would demonstrate the divine origin of Christianity, they insist much more strongly on the predictions which announced, than on the miracles which accompanied, the appearance of the Messiah. Their favourite argument might serve to edify a Christian or to convert a Jew, since both the one and the other acknowledge the authority of those prophecies, and both are obliged, with devout reverence, to search for their sense and their accomplishment. But this mode of persuasion loses much of it3 weight and influence when it is addressed to those who neither understand nor respect the Mosaic dispensation and the prophetic style.192 In the unskdful hands of Justin and of the succeeding apologists, the sublime meaning of the Hebrew oracles evaporates in distant types, affected conceits, and cold allegories; and even their authenticity was rendered suspicious to an unenlightened Gentile, by the mixture of pious forgeries which, under the names of Orpheus, Hermes, and the Sibyls,193 were obtruded on him as of equal value with the genuine inspirations of Heaven. The adoption of fraud and sophistry in the defence of revelation too often reminds us of the injudicious conduct of those poets who load their invulnerable heroes with a useless weight of cumbersome and brittle armour.

But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and ^of philosophic world to those evidences which were presented

miracles. by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, daemons were expelled, and the

'" If the famouB prophecy of the Seventy Weeks had been alleged to a Roman philosopher, would he not have replied in the words of Cicero, "Quie tandem ista "auguratio est, annorum potius quam aut mensium aut dierum?" De Divinatione, ii. 30. Observe with what irreverence Lucian (in Alexandro, c. 13), and his friend Celsus, ap. Origen (1. vii. [c. 14] p. 327), express themselves concerning the Hebrew prophets.

'* The philosophers, who derided the more ancient predictions of the Sibyls, would easily have detected the Jewish and Christian forgeries, which have been so triumphantly quoted by the fathers, from Justin Martyr to Lactantius. When the Sibylline verses had performed their appointed task, they, like the system of the millennium, were quietly laid aside. The Christian Sibyl had unluckily fixed the ruin of Rome for the year 19,1, A. U. C. 948.

« ForrigeFortsett »